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Egyptian Arabic phonology

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Egyptian Arabic phonology

This article is about the phonology of Egyptian Arabic, also known as Cairene Arabic, Masri or Egyptian Spoken Arabic.[1] It deals with the phonology and phonetics of Egyptian Arabic as well as the phonological development of child native speakers of the dialect. To varying degrees, it affects the pronunciation of Egyptians when pronouncing Literary Arabic, as is the case for speakers of all other varieties of Arabic.


  • Phonemes 1
    • Consonants 1.1
      • Allophones 1.1.1
      • Assimilation 1.1.2
    • Vowels 1.2
      • Emphasis spreading 1.2.1
      • Phonological processes 1.2.2
        • Vowel shortening
        • Vowel lengthening
        • Vowel deletion (syncope)
        • Vowel insertion (epenthesis)
        • Vowel elision and linking
        • Multiple processes
  • Phonotactics 2
    • Syllable Structure 2.1
  • Prosody 3
    • Stress 3.1
  • Phonological development 4
    • Phonemic developmental stages 4.1
    • Cross-linguistic comparison and phonological processes 4.2
      • Phonological processes 4.2.1
    • Acquisition of syllable structure 4.3
  • Notes 5
  • References 6



Egyptian Arabic consonant phonemes[2]
  Labial Alveolar Palato-
Palatal Velar Uvular Pharyn-
plain emphatic plain emphatic
Nasal m () n              
Stop voiceless (p)   t     k (q)   ʔ
voiced b () d ()   ɡ      
Fricative voiceless f   s ʃ   x   ħ h
voiced (v)   z (ʒ)   ɣ   ʕ  
Tap/trill     ɾ~r (ɾˤ~)            
Approximant     l     j w      
  • ^1 Not all Egyptians can pronounce [p, v, ʒ] which are mostly found in names or loanwords[3] (not from Literary Arabic).
    [ʒ] (which can be a reduction of /d͡ʒ/) of Egyptianized loanwords tends to merge with [ʃ]; example: "garage" جراش is mostly pronounced [ɡɑˈɾɑːʃ] even by educated speakers.
  • ^2 A few rural speakers away from Cairo pronounce [ʒ] instead of [ɡ], but doing so in Egyptianized words is not considered prestigious.
  • ^3 Some people lack some or all emphatic consonants.
  • ^4 Watson argues that emphatic [ɾˤ, bˤ, mˤ] are additional consonants in Egyptian Arabic with marginal status.
  • ^5 /dˤ, q/ are pronounced only in Literary Arabic loanwords.
    Non-Egyptianized loanwords with /q/ may be Egyptianized to [ʔ] or if approximated to [k] in a word having an open vowel, the front vowel /æ/ is backed to [ɑ].
    Literary Arabic words having /dˤ/, are normally substituted with [d], with the front vowel /æ/ in these words being backed to [ɑ].
    Non-Egyptianized loanwords having interdental consonants (/θ/, /ð/) are always approximated to sibilants ([s], [z]).

Traditionally, the interdental consonants /θ ð ðˤ/ correspond to the Egyptian Arabic alveolar consonants /t d dˤ/. This is a feature common to some North African Arabic varieties, and is attested in pre-modern words:

  • /θ/ > /t/: /taʕlab/, "fox", from */θaʕlab/ ثعلب (and never /saʕlab/). Likewise: /talɡ/, "ice", from */θalɟ/ ثلج; /taman/, "price", from */θaman/ ثمن; /talaːta/, "three", from */θalaːθa/ ثلاثة; /nitaːja/, "female", from ??; /miħraːt/, "plough", from */miħraːθ/ محراث; /ʕatarˤ/, "tripped/found", from /*ʕaθar/ عثر.
  • /ð/ > /d/: /deːl/, "tail", from */ðajl/ ذيل and never /zajl/. Likewise /dakarˤ/, "male", from */ðakar/ ذكر; /kidib/, "lied", from */kaðib/ كذب; /diːb/, "wolf", from */ðiʔb/ ذئب
  • /ðˤ/ > /d/: /dufr/, "nail", from */ðˤufr/ ظفر and never /zˤufr/. Likewise /ðˤ/ > /dˤ/: /dˤalma/, "darkness", from */ðˤulma/ ظلمة.

However, unlike other North African varieties, in Egyptian Arabic, the Literary Arabic interdental consonants /θ ð ðˤ/ may correspond to sibilant consonants /s z zˤ/.[4] This has been specially the result of modernisation and the increase of literacy, and the classicisation practice in official media, as well as a tendency to imperfectly imitate the pronunciation of the Levant and Arabia as it is commonly perceived more suitable for Islamic religious preaching, and as a trait of Egyptian diaspora. But also due to historical influence by Levantine dialects which constitute the eastern influx of the Arabic continuum.

  • /θ/ > /s/: /sawrˤa/, "revolution", as opposed to /θawra/ ثورة
  • /ð/ > /z/: /ʔizaːʕa/, "broadcasting", as opposed to /ʔiðaːʕa/ إذاعة
  • /ðˤ/ > /zˤ/: /bazˤr/, "clitoris", as opposed to /baðˤr/ بظر

Classical Arabic reflex ǧīm ج */ɡʲ~ɟ/ is realized velar in most of Egypt in the same way as it is in some southern Arabic dialects since antiquity and still present in Yemen and Oman. So that ǧabal جبل, "mountain", is pronounced, even in Literary Arabic as [ˈɡæbæl] rather than /d͡ʒabal/~/ʒabal/.

Other consonants are more marginal. In addition to appearing in native words, /rˤ/ also appears in loanwords from European languages, such as [bɑɾɑˈʃot], "parachute", and native words with guttural vowels, such as [ˈbɑʔɑɾ(ˤ)i], "my cows",[5] vs [ˈbæʔæɾi], "cowlike"/"from cows". Labial emphatics /bˤ/ and /mˤ/ also come from loanwords; minimal pairs include /bˤaːbˤa/, "pope/pontiff/patriarch", vs /baːba/, "Paopi".[6] Classical Arabic /q/ became [ʔ] in Cairo and the Nile Delta (a feature shared with Lebanese and other forms of Levantine Arabic), but /q/ is retained natively in some dialects to the west of the Nile Delta, outside of Alexandria,[7] and has been reintroduced as a marginal phoneme from Standard Arabic in other dialects, particularly relating to certain words (e.g. words deriving from the root -Q-F, relating to culture) and in mildly careful speech to distinguish between words that would otherwise be identical (e.g. قانون: either [qɑˈnuːn], "law", or [ʔæˈnuːn], "kanun"; or قوى: either [ˈqɑwi], "powerful, strong, mighty", or [ˈʔæwi] "very",[4] although [ˈʔæwi] could be used for both meanings). /v/, /p/, and /ʒ/ also appear in loanwords, such as [ʒæˈkettæ, ˈʒæ(ː)ket], "jacket".


  • Pharyngeal consonants before /h/:
    • The sequence h/ is more commonly pronounced ħ]. In careful speech can be pronounced h].
      Example: 'opened+it(feminine)'   /fæˈtæħhæ/[fæˈtæħħæ]
    • The sequence /ʕh/ is more commonly pronounced [ʕ̞ħ] (or sometimes [ħħ]). In careful speech can be pronounced [ʕh].
      Example: "hers"   /beˈtæʕhæ/[beˈtæʕ̞ħæ] or [beˈtæħħæ].
    • The sequence /ʒʃ/ is more commonly pronounced [ʃʃ]. In careful speech can be pronounced [ʒʃ].
      "didn't+montage(verb)" /mæmænˈteʒʃ/[mæmænˈteʃ(ʃ)].


  • /n/ before /b/:
    • Often, the sequence of /nb/ assimilates to [mb].
      Examples: "guilt" /zænb/[zæmb]; Allenby[elˈlembi].
  • Sibilant consonants before /ʃ/:
    • The sequences /sʃ/ and /sˤʃ/ are more commonly pronounced [ss]. In careful speech can be pronounced [sʃ] and [sˤʃ], respectively.
      "didn't+kiss"   /mæˈbæsʃ/[mæˈbæs(s)]
    • The sequences /zʃ/ and /zˤʃ/ are more commonly pronounced [ss]. In careful speech can be pronounced [zʃ] and [zˤʃ], respectively.
      "didn't(+be)+corrupt" /mɑˈbɑzˤʃ/[mɑˈbɑs(s)].
Voicing and devoicing

For some speakers, but not all speakers, there is a voicing and devoicing assimilation for the following consonants:

  • Voiced: /t/[d]; /s/[z]; //[]; /k/[ɡ]; /x/[ɣ]; /ʃ/[ʒ]; /f/[v]; //[d].
  • Devoiced: /d/[t]; /z/[s]; //[]; /ɡ/[k]; /ɣ/[x]; /ʒ/[ʃ]; /v/[f].
    • Examples on voicing assimilation: "confuse"  /ˈlɑxbɑtˤ/[ˈlɑɣbɑtˤ]; "outrun"  /ˈjesbæʔ/[ˈjezbæʔ]; "suspected"  /mæʃˈbuːh/[mæʒˈbuːh]; "utter"(noun)  /lɑfzˤ/[lɑvzˤ].
    • Examples of devoicing assimilation: "society"  /moɡˈtæmæʕ/[mokˈtæmæʕ]; "ask forgiveness [of god]"  /jesˈtɑɣfɑɾ/[jesˈtɑxfɑɾ].

However, for some words, such as "annoyed" /metˈdæːjeʔ/ and "took" /xædt/, they are more commonly pronounced with assimilation, [medˈdæːjeʔ] and [xæt(t)], respectively.


The Egyptian Arabic vocalic system has changed from the Classical system. The system of vowels is as follows:

Native vowels
Front Back
long short
long short
Close i o~ʊ~u
Near-close e~ɪ o~ʊ
Near-open æː æ
Open ɑː ɑ
Short vowels
/a/: [æ], [ɑ]
/i/: [e]~[ɪ]; [i] at the end of a word
/u/: [o]~[ʊ]; [o]~[ʊ]~[u] at the end of a word
/I/ (epenthetic, possibly non-phonemic): [e]
                Long vowels (always stressed)
/aː/: [æː], [ɑː]
/iː/: []
/uː/: []
/eː/: []
/oː/: []
For some speakers, the higher vowels tend to be more centralized in emphatic environment:
[e]~[ɪ]   →   [ɘ]~[ɪ̈]
[i]   →   [ɨ]
[o]~[ʊ]   →   [ɵ]~[ʊ̈]
[o]~[ʊ]~[u]   →   [ɵ]~[ʊ̈]~[ʉ]
[]   →   [ɨː]
[]   →   [ʉː]
[]   →   [ɘː]
[]   →   [ɵː]

The Classical Arabic phonemes /a/ and /aː/ are in the process of splitting into two phonemes each, resulting in the four Egyptian Arabic phonemes /æ æː ɑ ɑː/. The front and back variants alternate in verbal and nominal paradigms in ways that are largely predictable, but the back variants /ɑ ɑː/ occur unpredictably in some lexical stems, especially those of European-language origin. This is discussed more below.

[] and [] are derived from the Classical Arabic diphthongs /aj/ and /aw/, respectively, when occurring in closed syllables (i.e. not followed by a vowel). Note that the diphthongs /aj/ and /aw/ also occur in the same environment, due to later deletion of unstressed vowels and resulting contraction, e.g. /mudawla/ [moˈdæwlæ] "consultation" < Classical */mudaːwala/.[8] Minimal pairs such as /ʃajla/ [ˈʃæjlæ] "carrying (fem. sg.)" and /ʃeːla/ [ˈʃeːlæ] "burden" also occur. Both of these words are derived from */ʃaːjila/; /ʃeːla/ is the phonologically regular outcome, while /ʃajla/ is an analogical reformation based on the corresponding participial form /CaCCa/ of other verbs of the same class.

Egyptian Arabic maintains in all positions the early post-Classical distinctions between short /i/ and /u/. Contrast, for example, Levantine Arabic Dialects, which merge /i/ and /u/ into /ə/ in most positions, and Moroccan Arabic, which merges /i/ and /a/ into /ǝ/ in all positions. In particular, note the different shapes and vowel distinctions between /kitaːb/ [keˈtæːb] "book", /ɡumaːl/ [ɡoˈmæːl] "beautiful (pl.)" vs. /ɡimaːl/ [ɡeˈmæːl] "camels", /ixtaːrˤ/ [exˈtɑːɾ] "he chose"; in most other Levantine dialects, all the short vowels in these words are elided, leading to the identical shapes /ktaːb/, /ʒmaːl/, /xtaːr/.

The epenthetic vowel /I/ is automatically inserted after the second of three or more consonants in a cluster, to break up such clusters, because they are completely disallowed in Egyptian Arabic. The pronunciation of /I/ is [e], as for /i/, but it remains [e] even when /i/ surfaces as [i], leading to minimal pairs:

  • /bint-I-ɡamiːla/ [ˈbent-e-ɡæˈmiːlæ] "a beautiful girl"
  • /bint-i ɡamiːla/ [ˈbent-i ɡæˈmiːlæ] "my girl is beautiful"

We prefer to denote the epenthetic vowel as /I/ for clarity, to clarify the fact that it is epenthetic rather than an inherent part of any of the underlying words.

Emphasis spreading

Many spoken Arabic varieties have developed two allophones of the Classical Arabic vowels /a/ and /aː/, with fronted allophones [æ æː] occurring in most circumstances, but backed allophones [ɑ ɑː] occurring in the vicinity of emphatic consonants. This process is known as emphasis spreading. The definition of both "vicinity" and "emphatic consonant" varies depending on the individual speech variety. In Egyptian Arabic, the occurrence of [ɑ ɑː] is no longer completely predictable, suggesting that these sounds have become phonemicized; but see below for more discussion.

In Egyptian Arabic, the consonants that trigger emphasis spreading include the pharyngealized consonants /tˤ dˤ sˤ zˤ/, the uvular stop /q/, and some instances of /r/ (see below). On the other hand, the pharyngeal consonants /ħ ʕ/ do not trigger emphasis spreading; in the standard Cairene dialect, the velar fricatives /x ɣ/ also do not, although this is different in many Saidi dialects in which they are uvular /χ ʁ/.

In general, when emphasis spreading is triggered, the back variants [ɑ ɑː] spread both forward and backward throughout the phonological word, including any morphological prefixes, suffixes and clitics. Note that this is different from many other Arabic varieties. For example, in Moroccan Arabic, emphasis spreading usually travels no farther than the first full vowel on either side of the triggering consonant, and in many varieties of Levantine Arabic, emphasis spreading is of indefinite extent but is blocked by the phonemes /j ʃ/. Nevertheless, emphasis spreading is not completely "reliable", and there is some free variation, especially in the pronunciation of prefixes and suffixes at some distance from the triggering consonant.

Some instances of /r/ trigger emphasis spreading, while others do not. Originally, an /r/ adjacent to /i/ was considered non-emphatic, while others were "emphatic" and triggered emphasis spreading. Currently, however, this is no more than a rough guideline, as many exceptions have since developed. This situation has led many linguists to postulate the existence of two phonemes /r rˤ/, which both surface as [r~ɾ] but where only /rˤ/ triggers emphasis spreading. This analysis is not completely ideal in that these two resulting "phonemes" /r rˤ/ alternate to a large extent (often unpredictably) in related forms derived from the same root.

Currently, to the extent that the emphatic or non-emphatic variant of /r/ can be predicted, it works as follows: If /r/ is adjacent to a vowel /i(ː)/, emphasis-spreading is inhibited; otherwise, it occurs. The /r/ is able to "see across" derivational but not inflectional morphemes. As an example, /tiɡaːrˤa/ [teˈɡɑːɾɑ] "commerce" and /tikbarˤ/ [ˈtekbɑɾ] "you (masc.) grow" both have emphasis spreading, since /r/ occurs adjacent to low /a(ː)/ but not adjacent to any non-low front vowel. On the other hand, of the derived forms /tiɡaːri/ [teˈɡæːɾi] "commercial" and /tikbarˤi/ [tekˈbɑɾi] "you (fem.) grow", only the latter has emphasis spreading. In this case, the derivational suffix /-i/ "related to" creates a new lexical item in the language's vocabulary, and hence the stem is reevaluated for emphasis, with the non-low front vowel /i/ triggering non-emphatic /r/; but the inflectional suffix /-i/ "feminine singular" does not create a new lexical item, and as a result the emphasis in the stem remains. (For these purposes, past and non-past forms of a verb are considered separate stems; hence alternations can occur like /istamarˤrˤ/ "he continued" vs. /jistamirr/ "he continues".)

An emphasis-spreading /r/ is usually adjacent to a low vowel /a(ː)/ (which in turn is backed to /ɑ(ː)/), but that is not necessary, and /u(ː)/ also triggers emphasis-spreading: Examples maʃhuuṛ [mɑʃˈhuːɾ] "famous", maʃṛuuʕ [mɑʃˈruːʕ] "project", ṛufayyaʕ [roˈfɑjjɑʕ] "thin".

The alternation between /æ(ː)/ and /ɑ(ː)/ is almost completely predictable in verbal and nominal paradigms, as well as in the large majority of words derived from Classical Arabic. It is also irrelevant for the operation of the numerous phonological adjustment rules (e.g. vowel lengthening, shortening and elision) in Egyptian Arabic. As a result, linguistic descriptions tend to subsume both under an archiphoneme /a(ː)/. On the other hand, there are a number of lexical items in which "autonomous" /ɑ ɑː/ tend to occur irrespective of the presence of emphatic consonants. A few are in Arabic-derived words, e.g. /mɑjjɑ/ "water", but the majority are in words of foreign origin — especially those derived from European languages — where /ɑ ɑː/ echo the vowel quality of /a/ in those languages.

Different authors have proposed differing phonemic analyses of this situation:

  • Some go ahead and treat all occurrences of [æ(ː) ɑ(ː)] as separate phonemes, despite the additional complexity of the resulting morphological descriptions;
  • Some treat only "autonomous" occurrences of [ɑ(ː)] as phonemes /ɑ(ː)/, with all the rest subsumed under /a(ː)/;
  • Some have created new emphatic consonants (e.g. analyzing [ˈmɑjjɑ] as /mˤajja/, where underlying /mˤ/ surfaces as [m] but triggers the back allophone [ɑ]);
  • Some have ignored the distinction entirely.

The approach followed here is to ignore the distinction in phonemic descriptions, subsuming [æ(ː) ɑ(ː)] under the archiphoneme /a(ː)/, but where necessary to also include a phonetic explication (i.e. detailed pronunciation) that indicates the exact quality of all vowels. Generally, these phonetic explications are given for the examples in the section on phonology, and elsewhere whenever autonomous /ɑ(ː)/ occurs.

Phonological processes

Examples of operations on vowels
Operation Original After operation (phonemic) Pronunciation (phonetic)
Vowel shortening /ʔaːl li/ ‘he.said –’ /ʔal-li/ [ˈʔælli] ‘he said to me’
Vowel lengthening /katabu/ ‘they wrote’ + /-ha/ ‘it (fem.)’ /kataˈbuː-ha/ [kætæˈbuːhæ] ‘they wrote it’
Vowel deletion (syncope) /fi/ ‘in’ + /kitaːb/ ‘a book’ /fi-ktaːb/ [fekˈtæːb] ‘in a book’
Vowel insertion (epenthesis) /il/ "the" + /bint/ "girl" + /di/ "this" /il bint-I-di/ [el ˈbenteˈdi] ‘this girl’
Vowel shortening

All long vowels are shortened when followed by two consonants (including geminated consonants), and also in unstressed syllables (but sometimes kept long in careful speech pronouncing loanwords, as in /qaːˈhira/ "Cairo" and a few other borrowings from Classical Arabic with similar shapes, e.g. /zˤaːˈhira/ "phenomenon").[9] Long vowel [iː, uː], when shortened collapse with [e, o] which are, as well, the shortened form of [eː, oː]; as a result, The following three words are only distinguished contextually:

  1. /ɡibna/ [ˈɡebnæ] "cheese"
  2. /ɡiːb/+/na/ (literally "brought+our") → /ɡibna/ [ˈɡebnæ] "we brought"
  3. /ɡeːb/+/na/ (literally "pocket+our") → /ɡebna/ [ˈɡebnæ] "our pocket"
Vowel lengthening

Final short vowels are lengthened when the stress is brought forward onto them as a result of the addition of a suffix.

Vowel deletion (syncope)

Unstressed /i/ and /u/ are deleted (i.e. syncope) when occurring in the context /VCVCV/, i.e. in an internal syllable with a single consonant on both sides. This also applies across word boundaries in cases of close syntactic connection.

Vowel insertion (epenthesis)

Three or more consonants are never allowed to appear together, including across a word boundary. When such a situation would occur, an epenthetic vowel /I/ (always pronounced [e]) is inserted between the second and third consonants.

Vowel elision and linking

Unlike in most Arabic dialects, Egyptian Arabic has many words that logically begin with a vowel (e.g. /ana/ "I"), in addition to words that logically begin with a glottal stop (e.g. /ʔawi/ "very", from Classical /qawij(j)/ "strong"). When pronounced in isolation, both types of words will be sounded with an initial glottal stop. However, when following another word, words beginning with a vowel will often follow smoothly after the previous word, while words beginning with a glottal stop will always have the glottal stop sounded, e.g.:

  • /il walad (ʔ)aħmarˤ/ (lit. "the – boy –") → [el ˈwælæˈdɑħmɑɾ] or [el ˈwælæd ˈʔɑħmɑɾ] "the boy is red"
  • /inta kibiːr ʔawi/ (lit. " – – very") → /inta-kbiːr ʔawi/ [entækˈbiːɾ ˈʔæwi] "you (masc. sg.) are very big"

The phonetic pronunciations indicated above also demonstrate the phenomenon of linking, a normal process in Egyptian Arabic where syllable boundaries are adjusted across word boundaries to ensure that every syllable begins with exactly one consonant.

Elision of vowels often occurs across word boundaries when a word ending with a vowel is followed by a word beginning with a vowel, especially when the two vowels are the same, or when one is /i/. More specifically, elision occurs in the following circumstances:

  1. When both vowels are the same, one will be elided.
  2. When final /i/ is followed by initial /a/, /i/ is elided.
  3. When any vowel is followed by initial /i/, /i/ is elided.
Examples of elision
Condition for elision Original After elision (phonemic) Pronunciation (phonetic)
1. Both vowels same /inta aħmar/ /int-aħmar/ [enˈtɑħmɑɾ] ‘you (masc. sg.) are red’
2. Final /i/ followed by initial /a/ /bi- aktib/ /b-aktib/ [ˈbækteb] ‘I write’
/naːwi aruːħ/ /naːw-aruːħ/ [ˈnæːw-ɑˈɾuːħ] ‘I intend to go’
/xalli-ni arawwaħ/ /xalliː-n-arawwaħ/ [xælˈliːn-ɑˈɾɑwwɑħ] ‘let me go home’
3.Vowel followed by initial /i/ /da illi ana ʕaːwiz+u/ /da-ll-ana ʕawz-u/ [ˈdælˈlænæ ˈʕæwzu] "that's what I want"
/huwwa inta kibiːr/ /huwwa-nta-kbiːr/ [howˈwæntækˈbiːɾ] ‘are you big (grown-up)?’
Multiple processes

Multiple processes often apply simultaneously.

Example of insertion and deletion together:
/il bint kibiːra//il bint-I-kbiːra/ [el ˈbentekˈbiːɾæ] "the girl is big (i.e. grown up)"
Operation Result
Original /il bint kibiːra/
Epenthesis in
CCC sequence
/il bint-I-kibiːra/
Deletion of short
high vowel in VCVCV
/il bint-I-kbiːra/

Compare /il walad kibiːr/ "the boy is big", where neither process applies.

Example of both deletion and long-vowel shortening:
/sˤaːħib+a/(lit. "friend+fem.") →/sˤaħba/[ˈsˤɑħbɑ]
Operation Result
Original /sˤaːħib+a/
Deletion of short high vowel in VCVCV /sˤaːħb+a/
Vowel shortening in VCC /sˤaħb+a/

Compare with Classical Arabic /sˤaːħiba/.

The operation of the various processes can often produce ambiguity:

  • /ana ʕaːwiz aːkul//ana ʕawz-aːkul/ "I (masc.) want to eat"
  • /ana ʕaːwiz+a aːkul//ana ʕawza aːkul//ana ʕawz-aːkul/ "I (fem.) want to eat"

Hence, /ana ʕawz-aːkul/ [ænæ ˈʕawˈzæːkol] is ambiguously masculine or feminine.


Syllable Structure

Egyptian Arabic has the following five syllable types: CV, CV:, CVC, CV:C,and CVCC.

CV:, CV:C, and CVCC are long, or heavy, syllables. Long syllables bear primary stress, and there is only one stressed syllable per word.[10] Egyptian Arabic has a strong preference for heavy syllables, and various phonetic adjustments conspire to modify the surface pronunciation of connected speech towards the ideal of consisting entirely of heavy syllables. Examples can be seen below:

  • Shortening of long vowels to avoid superheavy syllables (CV:C.CV → CVC.CV)
  • Lengthening of short vowels to avoid light stressed syllables (ˈCV.CV → ˈCV:.CV) or the increasingly rarer cases (ˈCV.CVC → ˈCV:.CVC) or avoiding heavy syllables and converting them into superheavy sullables (CVC → CVːC)
  • Elision of short vowels to avoid sequences of light syllables (CV.CV.CV → CVC.CV)
  • Insertion of short vowels to avoid three-consonant sequences, which would result in a superheavy syllable (CVCC.CV or CVC.CCV → CVC.CV.CV)
  • Movement of syllable boundaries across word boundaries to avoid vowel-initial syllables (CVC VC VC → CV.C-V.C-VC)
  • Insertion of a glottal stop when necessary to avoid vowel-initial syllables
An example of these various processes together:
/da illi ana ʕaːwiz-u//da-ll-ana ʕawz-u/ "that's what I want"
Operation Result
Original /da illi ana ʕaːwiz-u/ "That - RELATIVE - I - wanting(masc.)+it"
Elision of /i/
next to a vowel
/da-ll-ana ʕaːwiz-u/
Deletion of short
high vowel in VCVCV
/da-ll-ana ʕaːwz-u/
Shortening before
two consonants
/da-ll-ana ʕawz-u/
Continuous, resyllabified pronunciation (phonetic) [ˈdæl.ˈlæ.næ.ˈʕæw.zu]
Normal-form pronunciation [ˈdælˈlænæ ˈʕæwzu] "That is what I want."

In the following and similar analyses, the normal-form pronunciation is given as the phonetic equivalent of the given phonemic form, although the intermediate steps may be given if necessary for clarity.

Another example:

  • Sentence, analyzed morphologically: /ana ʕaːwiz aːkul/
  • Literally:I – wanting(masc.) –
  • Meaning: "I want to eat."
  • Continuous pronunciation (phonemic): /ana ʕawz-aːkul/
  • Normal-form pronunciation: [ænæ ˈʕæwˈzæːkol]

Another example:

  • Sentence, analyzed morphologically: /ana ʕaːwiz aːkul-u/
  • Literally:I – wanting(masc.) –
  • Meaning: "I want to eat it."
  • Continuous pronunciation (phonemic): /ana ʕawz-akl-u/
  • Normal-form pronunciation: [ænæ ˈʕæwˈzæklu]

Another example:

  • Sentence, analyzed morphologically: /humma ʕaːwiz+iːn jaːkul+u-ː/
  • Literally:They – wanting(pl.) –
  • Meaning: "They want to eat it."
  • Continuous pronunciation (phonemic): /humma ʕawziːn jakluː/
  • Normal-form pronunciation: [hommæ ʕæwˈziːn jækˈluː]



The position of stress is essentially automatic. The basic rule is that, preceding from right to left in a word, the stress goes on the first encountered syllable of any of these types:

1. A heavy syllable: i.e. a syllable closed with (a) a long vowel (i.e. ...CV:...) or (b) with two consonants (including a geminate)(i.e. ...CVCC...)

2. A non-final light syllable that directly follows a heavy syllable

3. A non-final light syllable that directly follows two light syllables (i.e. ...CVCVC'VCV...)

4. The first syllable of the word

Examples of rules of stress placement
Rule Phonemic form (no stress) Phonetic form (stressed)
1a. Syllable closed with a long vowel /kaːtib/ [ˈkæːteb] "writing (v.)" or "writer"
/kitaːb/ [keˈtæːb] "book"
/tiktibiː/ [tekteˈbiː] "you (fem.) write it"
1b. Syllable closed with two consonants /katabt/ [kæˈtæbt] "I wrote"
/katba/ [ˈkætbæ] "female writer"
/maktab/ [ˈmæktæb] "desk"
/tiktib/ [ˈtekteb] "you (masc.) write"
2. Nonfinal light syllable following heavy syllable /maktaba/ [mækˈtæbæ] "library"
/tiktibi/ [tekˈtebi] "you (fem.) write"
3. Nonfinal light syllable following two lights /katabitu/ [kætæˈbetu] or [kætæˈbeto] "she wrote it"
4. First syllable /katab/ [ˈkætæb] "he wrote"
/katabit/ [ˈkætæbet] "she wrote"

Because the stress is almost completely predictable, it is not indicated in phonemic transcriptions (but is given in the corresponding phonetic explication).

Phonological development

Phonemic developmental stages

Omar (1973) identified three stages in the phonological acquisition of Egyptian Arabic, ending with completion of the consonant inventory (with the possible exception of /q/) at approximately age five.[11]

  • Babbling stage: (~6–10 months)

The sound inventory found in the babbling stage does not technically consist of phonemes, but rather vowel- and consonant-like sounds. Therefore, they are not true speech sounds.[12] Like children acquiring other world languages, Egyptian Arabic infants produce consonant-like sounds approximating /b/, /p/, /ʔ/, /h/, /ɣ/, /v/, /z/, /m/, /w/, /j/.[13]

  • Stage I (~1–2 years)

At this stage children have acquired the basic /i/, /a/, /u/ vowel triangle, and the consonants /b/, /m/, /w/, /j/, and /h/. At this stage /ʔ/ is only produced word-initially (possibly due to speakers’ tendency to insert a glottal stop on words which begin with a vowel). There is typically no voiced-voiceless contrast and no single-double consonant contrast.[14]

  • Stage II (~2–3 years)

Newly acquired phonemes are: /t/, /d/, /k/, /ɡ/, /n/, /f/, /s/, /z/, /l/, /x/, /ɣ/, /æ/, /e/, /o/. A voiced-voiceless contrast is now apparent in stops and fricatives. Consonant clusters appear but are unstable, often being omitted or simplified (consonant cluster reduction). The newly acquired lateral /l/ is frequently used in place of the tap[15]/trill [ɾ]~[r] (lateralization). Example: /mædˈɾæsæ/ "school" → [mædˈlæsæ]

  • Intermediate Stage II-III (~3–5 years)

Vowel length distinction, the emphatics //, //, //, //;   /ʕ/ (sometimes realized as /ʔ/) and /ʃ/ (often realized as [s]) are acquired. A geminated consonant distinction is developing, although children have difficulty with /xx/ and its voiced pair /ɣɣ/.[16]

  • Phonemic Stage III (Adult mastery ~5 years)

The tap/trill /ɾ/~/r/ and all diphthongs and clusters are acquired, and geminate consonant distinction is stable. The phoneme /q/ is rare in Egyptian Arabic and is typically only mastered with formal schooling at around age seven or eight, and is realized acceptably in the dialect as [k].[17]

Cross-linguistic comparison and phonological processes

Egyptian Arabic phoneme acquisition has been chiefly compared to that of English. The order of phoneme acquisition is similar for both languages: Exceptions are /s/, /z/, and /h/, which appear earlier in Arabic-speaking children's inventory than in English, perhaps due to the frequency of their occurrence in the children's input.[18] Egyptian Arabic differs most from English in terms of age of phoneme acquisition: Vowel distinctions appear at an earlier age in Egyptian Arabic than in English, which could reflect both the smaller inventory and the higher functional value of Arabic vowels: The consonantal system, on the other hand, is completed almost a year later than that of English.[19] However, the lateral /l/ is acquired by most Arabic-speaking children by age two, a year earlier than English-speaking children.[20] The most difficult phonemes for young Arabic children are emphatic stops, fricatives, and the tap[21]/trill /ɾ/~/r/.   /x/ and /ɣ/, which are relatively rare sounds in other languages, are the most difficult geminate consonants to acquire.[22]

Phonological processes

For children under two, syllable reduction and final consonant deletion are the most common phonological processes.[23] De-emphasis, involving the loss of the secondary articulation for emphatic consonants (e.g., realizing emphatic // as [s]), may reflect the motoric difficulty of emphatic consonants, which are rare in world languages,[24] as well as their relatively low frequency and functional load in Arabic.[25]

The back fricatives /ħ/ and /x/ are unusually accurate at an early age and less prone to fronting than in other languages.[26]

Acquisition of syllable structure

Most children have mastered all syllable types between the ages of two and three. A preference for three-syllable words is evident (CVːC syllables being the most frequently produced) and production rarely exceeds four syllables. Simplification processes like those detailed above may occur to reduce CVCC syllables to CVːC or CVC syllables; however, when children change the syllable structure, they preserve the prosodic weight of the altered syllable in order to maintain stress relations.[27]


  1. ^ Egyptian Arabic at Ethnologue (17th ed., 2013)
  2. ^ Watson (2002:21)
  3. ^ Watson (2002:22)
  4. ^ a b Watson (2002:22)
  5. ^ Watson (2002:16)
  6. ^ Watson (2002:14)
  7. ^ Behnstedt (1985)
  8. ^ Watson (2002:23)
  9. ^ Mitchell (1956:112)
  10. ^ Ammar (2002:154)
  11. ^ Omar (1973:52)
  12. ^ Omar (1973:35)
  13. ^ Omar (1973:38)
  14. ^ Omar (1973:45)
  15. ^ Omar (1973:48–49)
  16. ^ Saleh (2007:234–240)
  17. ^ Omar (1973:52)
  18. ^ Amayreh (1998)
  19. ^ Omar (1973:60)
  20. ^ Saleh (2007:154–160)
  21. ^ Amayreh (2000:84)
  22. ^ Abou-Elsaad (2009:275–282)
  23. ^ Saleh (2007:234–240)
  24. ^ Amayreh (2000:94)
  25. ^ Amayreh (2000:100)
  26. ^ Amayreh (2000:87)
  27. ^ Ammar (2002:154–158)


  • Abou-Elsaad, T.; Baz, H., & El-Banna, M (2009). "Developing an articulation test for Arabic-speaking school-age children". Folia Phoniatrica Et Logopaedica: Official Organ of the International Association of Logopedics and Phoniatrics (IALP) 61 (5): 275–282. 
  • Amayreh, Mousa M.; Dyson, Alice T. (1998). "The acquisition of Arabic consonants". Journal of Speech, Language & Hearing Research 41 (3): 642–653. 
  • Amayreh, Mousa M.; Dyson, Alice T. (2000). "Phonological errors and sound changes in Arabic-speaking children". Clinical Linguistics and Phonetics. 14 (2): 79–109. 
  • Ammar, W. (2002). "Acquisition of syllable structure in Egyptian Colloquial Arabic". In F. Windsor, M. Kelly, N. Hewlett. Investigations in Clinical Phonetics and Linguistics. Mahwah: NJ: Erlbaum. pp. 153–160. 
  • Behnstedt, Peter; Woidich, Manfred (1985). Die ägyptisch-arabischen Dialekte, vols. I, II. Wiesbaden: L. Reichert. 
  • Omar, Margaret K. (1973). The Acquisition of Egyptian Arabic as a Native Language. Paris: Mouton. 
  • Saleh, M.; Shoeib, R., Hegazi, M., & Ali, P. (2007). "Early phonological development in Arabic Egyptian children: 12–30 months". Folia Phoniatrica Et Logopaedica: Official Organ of the International Association of Logopedics and Phoniatrics (IALP) 59 (5): 234–240. 
  • Watson, Janet (2002). The Phonology and Morphology of Arabic. New York: Oxford University Press. 
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