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Levantine Arabic phonology

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Levantine Arabic phonology

This article is about the phonology of Levantine Arabic also known as Shāmi Arabic, and its sub-dialects.


  • Varieties 1
    • Urban Levantine Arabic 1.1
    • Rural subdialects 1.2
  • Linguistic description 2
    • Phonetics 2.1
      • Consonants 2.1.1
      • Vowels and diphthongs 2.1.2
  • References 3


As in most Arabic-speaking areas, the spoken language differs significantly between urban, rural and nomad populations.

  • In the Levant, nomads trace to various tribes of the Arabian Peninsula, and their dialect is consequently close to Peninsular Arabic (Najdi). Note that although claiming a Bedouin ancestry sounds prestigious in the Levant, the Bedouin influence on this old sedentary area should not be overestimated. These dialects are not covered in detail here, as they are not specific to the area.
  • The rural language is the one that changes most, and as in every old sedentary area, the changes are gradual, with more marked forms in extremal or isolated areas (e.g. general shift of /k/ to [] in rural Palestinian, or conservation of the diphthongs /aj/ and /aw/ in the Lebanese mountains).
  • The urban language spoken in the major cities is remarkably homogeneous, with a few shibboleths (markers) only to distinguish the various cities (see below). It should be noted that Levantine Arabic is commonly understood to be this urban sub-variety. Teaching manuals for foreigners provide a systematic introduction to this sub-variety, as it would sound very strange for a foreigner to speak a marked rural dialect, immediately raising questions on unexpected family links, for instance.[1]

Urban Levantine Arabic

As mentioned above, the urban varieties are remarkably homogeneous throughout the whole area, compared to the changes the language undergo in rural populations. This homogeneity is probably inherited from the trading network among cities in the Ottoman Empire. It may also represent an older state of affairs. As a matter of facts, there is a current trend to diverge from this unity, the language of the cities taking on some of the features of their neighboring villages (e.g. Jerusalem used to say as Damascus [ˈnɪħna] ('we') and [ˈhʊnne] ('they') at the beginning of the 20th century, and this has moved to the more rural [ˈɪħna] and [ˈhʊmme] nowadays.).[2] The table below shows the main variants which have shibboleth role, most of the rest of the language remaining the same.

City q ǧ we (subj.) you (pl, compl.) they (subj) they (compl.) I say he says I write he writes write! now it is not …
Aleppo[3] [ʔ] [] [ˈnəħne] [-kʊn] [ˈhənnen] [-hʊn] [baˈʔuːl] [bɪˈʔuːl] [ˈbaktʊb] [ˈbɪktʊb] [ktoːb] [ˈhallaʔ] [mʊ]
Damascus[4] [ʔ] [ʒ] [ˈnəħna] [-kʊn] [ˈhənnen] [-hʊn] [bʔuːl] [bəˈʔuːl] [ˈbəkteb] [ˈbjəkteb] [ktoːb] [ˈhallaʔ] [mʊ]
Beirut [ʔ] [ʒ] [ˈnɪħna] [-kʊn] [ˈhɪnne] [-ʊn] [bʔuːl] [bɪˈʔuːl] [ˈbɪktob] [ˈbjɪktob] [ktoːb] [ˈhallaʔ] [mɪʃ]
Haifa[5] [ʔ] [ʒ] [ˈɪħna] [-kʊ] [ˈhɪnne] [-hen] [baˈʔuːl] [bɪˈʔuːl] [ˈbaktɪb] [ˈbɪktɪb] [ˈɪktɪb] [ˈɪssa] [mɪʃ]
Jerusalem[6] [ʔ] [ʒ] [ˈɪħna] [-kʊm] [ˈhʊmme] [-hʊm] [baˈʔuːl] [bɪˈʔuːl] [ˈbaktʊb] [ˈbɪktʊb] [ˈʊktʊb] [ha-l-ˈʔe:t] [mʊʃ]
Hebron[7] [ʔ] [] [ˈɪħna] [-kʊ] [ˈhʊmme] [-hom] [baˈʔuːl] [bɪˈʔuːl] [ˈbaktob] [ˈbɪktob] [ˈʊktob] [haʔˈʔe:tɪ] [mʊʃ]
Gaza [ʔ] [ʒ] [ˈɪħna] [-kʊ] [ˈhʊmma] [-hʊm] [baˈʔuːl] [bɪˈʔuːl] [ˈbaktʊb] [ˈbɪktʊb] [ˈʊktʊb] [ˈhallaʔ] [mɪʃ]
Amman[8] [ɡ] [] [ˈɪħna] [-kʊm] [ˈhʊmme] [-hʊm] [baˈguːl] [bɪˈguːl] [ˈbaktʊb] [ˈbɪktʊb] [ˈʊktʊb] [hasˈsa:ʕ] [mʊʃ]
al-Karak[9] [ɡ] [] [ˈɪħna] [-kʊm] [ˈhʊmmʊ] [-hʊm] [baˈguːl] [bɪˈguːl] [ˈbaktʊb] [ˈbɪktʊb] [ˈʊktʊb] [hasˈsa:ʕ] [mʊ(ʃ)]

Rural subdialects

Rural Levantine Arabic can be divided into two groups of mutually intelligible subdialects.[10] Again, these dialect considerations have to be understood to apply mainly to rural populations, as the urban forms change much less.

  • Northern Levantine Arabic, spoken in Lebanon, Northern Israel and Syria (except the Hauran area south of Damascus). It is characterized by:
  • a widespread pronunciation of /q/ as [ʔ] (the Druze, however, retain the uvular [q]).
  • A strong tendency to pronounce long /aː/ as [ɛː] (imala) in a front phonemic context or [] (tafkhim) in a back phonemic context. This tendency is stronger as one goes northward. For instance, Damascus and Beirut only have final /aː/ consistently pronounced as [e], e.g. /ʃitaː/ ('rain') is pronounced [ʃəte] . This feature may be used to distinguish Central from Northern Levantine.
  • A widespread realization of /dʒ/ as [ʒ], especially along the Mediterranean coast. This feature may be used to distinguish northwest (coastal, Nusayriyyah) from northeast (e.g. Aleppo, Idlib) Levantine Arabic where /dʒ/ is realized as [].
  • The second and third person plural pronominal suffixes end in /-n/ : /-kun/, /-hun/ (or /-hen/ in Galilee).
  • The characteristic vowel of the imperative is long: /ˈuktub/ > [ktoːb].
  • The first and third person singular imperfect are /bquːl/ ('I say') and /bəquːl/ ('he says') in Lebanon and Damascus instead of /baquːl/ and /biquːl/, respectively, everywhere else, which may be used to further distinguish Central from Northern and Southern Levantine Arabic.
  • Tafkhim is nonexistent there, and imala affects only the feminine ending /-ah/ > [e] after front consonants (and not even in Gaza where it remains /a/), while /ʃitaː/ is [ʃɪta].
  • In central Palestinian (Jaffa, West Bank, Nazareth, Tiberias) rural speech, /k/ changes to [], /q/ changes to [k], interdentals are conserved, and /dʒ/ is pronounced []. In southern Palestinian (Ashdod, Asqelon, Hebron countryside) as well as western Jordan and Syrian Hauran, /q/ changes to [ɡ] and /k/ changes to [] before front vowels. This latter feature resembles the North Arabian Bedouin dialects.

In Israel, apart from Galilee and the Negev, rural dialects are almost extinct, and this description gives is the pre-1948 state of affairs. Palestinian refugees in Jordan have brought with them their typical features, although they tend to adopt the emerging Jordanian urban speech.

To these typical, widespread subdialects, one could add marginal varieties such as:

  • Outer South Levantine, spoken in the Gaza–Beersheva area in Israel and the Palestinian territories, as well as in cities east of the Dead Sea in Jordan (Karak, Tafilah), which display different Bedouin influences as compared to south Levantine. For instance, there, /k/ never changes to []. This reflects Hijazi or Sinai Bedouin Arabic pronunciation rather than that of North Arabian Bedouin dialects.
  • Bedouin dialects proper, which on top of the above-mentioned features that influence the sedentary dialects, present typical stress patterns (e.g. gahawa syndrome) or lexical items.

Linguistic description



The table below shows the correspondence between Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) phonemes, and their counterpart realization in Levantine Arabic. The Urban speech is taken as reference, the variations are given relative to it.

MSA phoneme Common realisation Variants
/b/ [b]
/t/ [t]
/θ/ [t] [s] in some roots, [θ] in rural and outer Southern Levantine
/dʒ/ [ʒ] [] in Northern Levantine and rural Palestinian
/ħ/ [ħ]
/d/ [d]
/ð/ [d] [z] in some roots, [ð] in rural Southern Levantine
/r/ [ɾ]
/z/ [z]
/s/ [s]
/ʃ/ [ʃ]
/sˤ/ []
/dˤ/ []
/tˤ/ []
/zˤ/ [] [dˤ] in some words, [ðˤ] in rural Southern Levantine
/ʕ/ [ʕ]
/ɣ/ [ɣ]
/f/ [f]
/q/ [ʔ] [q] in the Druze and rural Lebanese speech, [k] in rural Palestinian(only in presence of front vowels in south Palestinian areas), [ɡ] in outer Southern Levantine
/k/ [k] [] in rural Palestinian (except central Palestinian areas and only in presence of front vowels in south Palestinian areas)
/l/ [l]
/m/ [m]
/n/ [n]
/h/ [h]
/w/ [w]
/j/ [j]

NB. Hamza has a special treatment: at the end of a closed syllable, it vanishes and lengthens the preceding vowel, e.g. /raʔs/ > [raːs] (see compensatory lengthening). If followed by /i/, it is realized as [j], /naːʔim/ > [naːjɪm]. These evolutions plead for a Hijazi origin of Levantine Arabic. Word initially, hamza is often realized as [h] in Southern Levantine.

Vowels and diphthongs

The table below shows the correspondence between Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) phonemes and their counterpart realization in Levantine Arabic.

Phoneme Southern Lebanese Central Northern
/a/ [ɑ] or [ʌ] [æ] [ɑ] or [ʌ] [ɔ] or [ɛ]
/i/ [e] [ɪ] [ə] (stressed), [ɪ] (unstressed) [e]
/u/ [o] or [ʊ] [ɪ] (stressed), [ʊ] (unstressed) [ə] (stressed), [o] (unstressed) [o]
-aʰ [ɑ] after back consonants, [e] after front consonants [ʌ] after back consonants, [e] after front consonants [ʌ] after back consonants, [e] after front consonants [ʌ] after back consonants, [e] after front consonants
/aː/ [aː], final [a] [ɛː] (front context), [ɔː] (back context), final [eː] [ɑː] (back context), [æː] (front context), final [e] [oː] (back context), [eː] (front context), final [e]
/iː/ [iː], final [i] [iː], final [i] [iː], final [i] [iː], final [i]
/uː/ [uː], final [u] [uː], final [u] [uː], final [u] [uː], final [u]
/aj/ [eː] [eɪ] [eː] [eː]
/aw/ [oː] [oʊ] [oː] [oː]

Levantine Arabic vowels can be represented in the Arabic script in many ways because of etymological and grammatical reasons, e.g. /əljoːm/ اليَوم ('today').


  1. ^ See e.g. Yohanan Elihai, The olive tree dictionary: a transliterated dictionary of conversational Eastern Arabic (Palestinian). Washington, DC: Kidron Pub. 2004 (ISBN 0-9759726-0-X)
  2. ^ U. Seeger, Mediterranean Language Review 10 (1998), pp. 89-145.
  3. ^ Handbuch der arabische Dialekte - Jastrow & Fischer - Harrassowitz verlag
  4. ^ Manuel Du Parler Arabe Moderne Au Moyen, Jean Kassab, Paul Geuthner ed., Paris (2006)
  5. ^ Die arabischen Stadtdialekte von Haifa in der ersten Hälfte des zwanzigsten Jahrhunderts. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz Verlag, 2004.
  6. ^ Yohanan Elihai, The olive tree dictionary: a transliterated dictionary of conversational Eastern Arabic (Palestinian). Washington, DC: Kidron Pub. 2004 (ISBN 0-9759726-0-X)
  7. ^ Der arabische Dialekt von il-Xalil (Hebron), Mediterranean Language Review Heft 10 (1998), S. 89-145
  8. ^ Enam Al-Wer Jordanian Arabic (Amman) Encyclopedia of Arabic Language and Linguistics. Managing Editors Online Edition: Lutz Edzard, Rudolf de Jong. Brill Online 2012
  9. ^ Heikki Palva, Sedentary and Bedouin Dialects in Contact: Remarks On Karaki and Salti Dialects in Jordan, Journal of Arabic and Islamic Studies vol 9 (2008)
  10. ^ Handbuch der arabische Dialekte - Jastrow & Fischer - Harrassowitz verlag
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