Arabic 101

The phonemes below reflect the pronunciation of Standard Arabic. There are minor variations from country to country.

Vowels

Arabic has three vowels, with long and short forms of/a/,/i/, and/u/. There are also two diphthongs:/aj/ and/aw/.

Syllable structure

Arabic has two kinds of syllables: open syllables (CV) and (CVV) - and closed syllables (CVC). Every syllable begins with a consonant, except in the case where the phrase begins with the definite article, for example, "the director" would be pronounced[al mudiːr]. When a word ends in a vowel and the following word is the definite article, then the initial vowel of the article is elided and the consonant closes the final syllable of the preceding word, for example, baytu –l mudiir “house (of) the director”, which becomes[baytul mudi:r].

Stress

Although word stress is not phonemically contrastive in Standard Arabic, it does bear a strong relationship to vowel length. The basic rules are:

  • Only one of the last three syllables may be stressed.
  • Given this restriction, the last "superheavy" syllable (containing a long vowel or ending in a consonant) is stressed.
  • If there is no such syllable, the pre-final syllable is stressed if it is 'heavy.' Otherwise, the first allowable syllable is stressed.
  • In Standard Arabic, a final long vowel may not be stressed. (This restriction does not apply to the spoken dialects, where original final long vowels have been shortened and secondary final long vowels have arisen.)

For example: ki-TAA-bun "book", KAA-ti-bun "writer", MAK-ta-bun "desk", ma-KAA-ti-bu "desks", mak-TA-ba-tun "library", KA-ta-buu (MSA) "they wrote" = KA-ta-bu (dialect), ka-ta-BUU-hu (MSA) "they wrote it" = ka-ta-BUU (dialect), ka-TA-ba-taa (MSA) "they (dual, fem) wrote", ka-TAB-tu (MSA) "I wrote" = ka-TABT (dialect). Doubled consonants count as two consonants: ma-JAL-la "magazine", ma-HALL "place".

Some dialects have different stress rules. In the Cairo (Egyptian Arabic) dialect, for example, a heavy syllable may not carry stress more than two syllables from the end of a word, hence mad-RA-sa "school", qaa-HI-ra "Cairo". In the Arabic of Sana, stress is often retracted: BAY-tayn "two houses", MAA-sat-hum "their table", ma-KAA-tiib "desks", ZAA-rat-hiin "sometimes", mad-RA-sat-hum "their school". (In this dialect, only syllables with long vowels or diphthongs are considered heavy; in a two-syllable word, the final syllable can be stressed only if the preceding syllable is light; and in longer words, the final syllable cannot be stressed.)

Dialectal Variations

In some dialects, there may be more or fewer phonemes than those listed in the chart above. For example, non-Arabic[v] is used in the Maghrebi dialects as well in the written language mostly for foreign names. Semitic[p] became[f] extremely early on in Arabic before it was written down; a few modern Arabic dialects, such as Iraqi (influenced by Persian and Turkish) distinguish between[p] and[b].

Interdental fricatives ([θ] and[ð]) are rendered as stops[t] and[d] in some dialects (such as Levantine, Egyptian, and much of the Maghreb); some of these dialects render them as[s] and[z] in "learned" words from the Standard language. Early in the expansion of Arabic, the separate emphatic phonemes[dˁ] and[ðˁ] coallesced into a single phoneme, becoming one or the other. Predictably, dialects without interdental fricatives use[dˁ] exclusively, while those with such fricatives use[ðˁ]. Again, in "learned" words from the Standard language,[ðˁ] is rendered as[zˁ] (in the Middle East) or[dˁ] (in North Africa) in dialects without interdental fricatives.

Another key distinguishing mark of Arabic dialects is how they render the original velar and uvular stops/q/,/dʒ/ (Proto-Semitic/g/), and/k/:

  • /q/ retains its original pronunciation in widely scattered regions such as Yemen, Morocco, and urban areas of the Maghreb. But it is rendered as a voiced velar stop[g] in Gulf Arabic, Iraqi Arabic, Upper Egypt, much of the Maghreb, and less urban parts of the Levant (e.g. Jordan); as a voiced uvular constrictive[ʁ] in Sudanese Arabic; and as a glottal stop[ʔ] in several prestige dialects, such as those spoken in Cairo, Beirut and Damascus. Some traditionally Christian villages in rural areas of the Levant render the sound as[k], as do Shia Bahrainis. In some Gulf dialects, it is palatalized to[dʒ] or[ʒ]. Many dialects with a modified pronunciation for/q/ maintain the[q] pronunciation in certain words (often with religious or educational overtones) borrowed from the Classical language.
  • /dʒ/ retains its pronunciation in Iraq and much of the Arabian Peninsula, but is pronounced[g] in Cairo and parts of Yemen,[ʒ] in Morocco and the Levant, and[j] in some words in much of Gulf Arabic.
  • /k/ usually retains its original pronunciation, but is palatalized to[tʃ] in many words in Palestine, Iraq and much of the Arabian Peninsula. Often a distinction is made between the suffixes/-ak/ (you, masc.) and/-ik/ (you, fem.), which become[-ak] and[-itʃ], respectively. In Sana Arabic,/-ik/ is pronounced[-iʃ].

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