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Dialects of Arabic

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Kees Versteegh

From The Arabic Language
© 1997 kees Versteegh
Used by permission of the Edinburgh University Press.


The Arabian peninsula, the homeland of the Arab tribes, remains the least-known dialect area of the Arabophone world. In pre-Islamic times, there was probably a division into Eastern and Western dialects (cf. above, Chapter 3), but subsequent migrations have changed the geographical distribution of the dialects considerably. All Bedouin dialects in this area now belong to the new type of Arabic, although generally speaking they are more conservative than the dialects outside the peninsula. In the urban centres of the Higaz and the Gulf, sedentary dialects are spoken, the latter probably being the result of later migration.

Recent attempts at classification by Ingham (1982) and Palva (1991) distinguish four groups:

  1. North-east Arabian dialects: these are the dialects of the Nagd, in particular those of the large tribes 'Aniza and Sammar. This group is divided into three subgroups: the 'Anazi dialects (including the dialects of Kuwait, Bahrain (Sunni) and the Gulf states); the Sammar dialects (including some of the Bedouin dialects in Iraq); and the Syro-Mesopotamian Bedouin dialects (including the Bedouin dialects of North Israel and Jordan).
  2. South(-west) Arabian dialects (dialects of Yemen, Hadramaut and Aden, as well as the dialects of the Shi'ite Baharna in Bahrain).
  3. Higazi (West Arabian) dialects: to this group belong the Bedouin dialects of the Higaz and the Tihama, which are not very well known; it is not yet clear what the relationship is between these dialects and those of the urban centres in this area, chiefly Mecca and Medina.
  4. North-west Arabian dialects: the dialects of the Negev and the Sinai, as well as those of Southern Jordan, the eastern coast of the Gulf of Aqaba and some regions in north-western Saudi Arabia are sometimes thought to form a distinct group, which Palva (1991) calls the North-west Arabian dialects.

In Chapter 9 (p. 143) we have seen that outside the Arabian peninsula Bedouin dialects in general are characterised by a number of features that set them off clearly from the sedentary dialects in the same area (e.g. the voiced realisation of the /q/, the retention of the interdentals, and the gender distinction in the second and third person plural of the verbs and the pronouns). The Bedouin dialects in the Arabian peninsula are even more conservative than those outside it in the sense that they do not partake of many of the reducing and levelling innovations that are found outside the peninsula. The most conservative type is represented by Nagdi Arabic; those Bedouin dialects of South Iraq and the Gulf states that are related to them exhibit more innovations. In the peninsula, the nomadic/sedentary dichotomy does not function in the same way as outside, since many tribes also have settled members with whom there is frequent interaction both economically and socially. As a result, all dialects including the sedentary ones exhibit Bedouin features.

Among the conservative features of the Bedouin dialects in the Arabian peninsula, the following three may be mentioned. First, many Bedouin dialects have preserved the use of an indefinite marker -an, -in, -en, mostly as an optional feature, sometimes even as a mere metric device in oral poetry; this indefinite marker clearly derives from the Classical tanwin, which has lost its function as a case marker of indefinite words and has become a marker for indefinite words when these are specified. In the dialects of the Nagd, the marker is used regularly before modifiers to a noun, whether adjectives, or relative clauses, or prepositional clauses, e.g. bet-in kibir 'a big house'; kalmit-in galohali 'a word which they said to me', giz-in minh 'a part of it', as well as in adverbial expressions that in Classical Arabic would have the ending -an, for instance matal-in 'for example', mbaccir-in 'early'. Second, some Bedouin dialects preserve the causative as a productive form, for instance in the dialect of the Rwala ab'ad/yib'id 'to move away'; 'ahbar/yihbir 'to inform' (Prochazka 1988: 42, 47). Third, in some of the dialects, the internal passive is still productive, mainly in the Northeast Arabian dialects, for instance in the dialect of the Hayil kitab/ktib 'to write/to be written'; darab/drib 'to hit, to be hit' (Prochazka 1988: 28, 116). This is not a completely exclusive feature of the Arabian Bedouin dialects, since traces are also found in some of the Bedouin dialects of North Africa.

Apart from these conservative tendencies there are also innovations, especially in the North-east Arabian dialects. These have the so-called gaháwa syndrome, a process of resyllabification in the neighbourhood of gutturals. The Nagdi dialect has for instance from the verbs kitab 'to write' and hafar 'to dig' the imperfects yaktib and yhafir; the latter form has evolved from *yahfir > *yahafir. The gaháwa syndrome is also found in other regions, where Bedouin dialects were brought by migration, for instance, in the Egyptian dialects south of Asyut.

Most North-east Arabian dialects are characterised by affrication of /g/ < /q/, and of /k/; this affrication is conditioned by the phonetic environment since it only takes place near front vowels (for a similar feature in the gilit dialects of Mesopotamia, possibly under Bedouin influence, see below, p. 157). In Syria and Mesopotamia, the Bedouin dialects have g, c, whereas the Bedouin dialects of Arabia usually have more fronted variants: gy, dz (g) for g; ts (c) for k. As examples, we may quote from the dialect of the Rwala Bedouin tigil 'heavy', gilil 'few'; cam 'how much?', mican 'place' (Classical Arabic taqil, qalil; kam, makan).

The West Arabian (Higazi) dialects are not very well known. They include the dialects of those sedentary centres that already existed before the coming of Islam, for instance Mecca and Medina. In Islamic times, many tribes from this area migrated to the west, so that the Bedouin dialects in the Syrian desert, the Negev and ultimately those in North Africa probably derive from dialects spoken in this area. The dialects of this group are distinguished from the East Arabian dialects by the absence of the affrication of /k/ and /q/. The dialect of Mecca, although related to the Bedouin dialects in the region, has some of the characteristics of sedentary dialects. It has lost the interdentals and the gender distinction in the plural of verbs and pronouns. Meccan Arabic has a genitive exponent (hagg), as well as verbal aspectual particles (bi- and 'ammal for the continuous aspect and rayih- for the future), which are not normally used in the Bedouin dialects. The realisation of /q/ in Mecca is /g/ as in the Bedouin dialects. In some respects, the dialect of Mecca seems to be close to the varieties of Arabic found in Upper Egypt and the Sudan.

The dialect map of Yemen is complicated because the geographical fragmentation of the area has produced a great deal of dialect variation. Behnstedt (1985: 30-2) distinguishes the following main areas: the Tihama dialects; the k- dialects; the South-east Yemenite dialects; the dialects of the central plateau (e.g. the dialect of San'a'); the dialects of the southern plateau; the dialects of the northern plateau; and the North-east Yemenite dialects. But even this subdivision is not a complete representation of the entire area: there are many mixed zones, and some of the areas will probably have to be subdivided when more data become known.

The area of the k- dialects in the western mountain range (see Map 10.1) is characterised by the use of verbal forms in the perfect with -k- instead of -t-, e.g. for Classical Arabic katabtu/katabta 'I/ you have written' katabku/katabka, katabk/katabk, katubk/katabk, or even katubk/katabk. There is reason to believe that this area has undergone extensive influence from South Arabian. Its settlement may even go back to the period before Islam, when Arab tribes invaded the South Arabian empires and settled there. After this region had come under Islamic sway, its dialect became known as Himyaritic. In al-Hamdani's description of the Himyaritic language (cf. above, p. 38) this k- ending is displayed prominently in examples such as kunku 'I was', bahalku 'I said'.

The dialects of the Shi'ites in Bahrain, which belong to a sedentary type, are related to dialects in South-eastern Arabia, Oman and Yemen. The linguistic situation in Bahrain is not unlike that in Baghdad. In both areas, the heterodox minorities (in Baghdad Christians and Jews, in Bahrain Shi'ites) speak a sedentary type of Arabic, whereas orthodox Sunnite speech exhibits secondary bedouinisation. The picture is confused, however, since there are considerable differences between the Baharna dialect of the villages and that of the urban centres. In the villages, for instance, Classical Arabic /q/ is realised as a voiceless post-velar stop /k/, whereas in the capital al-Manama Baharna speakers have /g/, just like the Sunnites. This may be due to borrowing from the prestigious dialect or an old trait.

The Baharna dialects have in common the realisation of the Classical Arabic interdentals as /f/, /d/, /d/, for instance in falafah (< talata) 'three'. They also share the absence of the gaháwa syndrome of the Bedouin dialects (e.g. Baharna 'ahdar as against Sunnite hadar 'green') and the formation of the feminine third person singular of the perfect verb (e.g. Baharna sarabat or sirbat as against Sunnite srubat 'she drank'). A characteristic trait of the Baharna dialects, linking them with the dialect of Oman and the Arabic of Uzbekistan (cf. below, p. 215), is the use of an infix -inn- in the participle with suffix, which is used for a perfective aspect, e.g. sar-inn-eh 'he has bought it', msawwit-inn-eh 'she has made it'.

Text 1: North-east Arabian, Sammar (after Ingham 1982: 130)
1. hadola is-silgan fa-dola gazwin ala hwetay u ba'ad ma hadaw al-bil nhajaw il-hwetat 'ala heil u hadoham ya'ni 'ugub ma'raktin tuwilih1. These are the Silgan and they were raiding the Huwaytat and when they had taken the camels, the Huwaytat took them on horses, I mean, they took them after a long fight.
2. u yom inn hum hadohum u fassu-haw hitta hdumaham, ma hallaw 'aleham hidum2. And when they had take them, they stripped them even of their clothes, they did not leave their clothes on them.
3. hada hawiyyam bin ahiham jid arrubu' iksumoh il-hwetay iksumoh mi'rijelu mi'fahedu u gal: ya hawali ruhu ana rajjalin abamut wintam ruhu lahalkam3. This was their companion, their cousin Gid ar-Rubu', the Huwawytat maimed him in his foot, in his thigh and he said: 'O my uncles, go! I am a man who will die; go you to your families!'

Text 2: Meccan Arabic (after Schreiber 1970: 109)
1. hada kan wahid riggal wu-hada r-riggal nassay marra1. There once was a man and this man was very forgetful.
2. wu-maratu tibga muss; galatlu hud hadi z-zubdiya w-hada l-fulus ruh gibli muss2. His wife wanted muss [cottage cheese]. She said to him: 'Take this bowl and this money and go buy me muss'.
3. gallaha 'iza nsit; galatlu la 'insalla ma tinsa 'inta tul ma timsi gul muss 'asan la tinsa3. He said to her: 'If I forget?' She said to him: 'No, by God, you won't forget; say all the way muss, so that you don't forget'.
4. gallaha tayyib; 'ahad az-zubdiya w-al-fulus wu-nadar yigul muss muss muss4. He said to her: 'Good!' He took the bowl and the money and kept saying muss muss muss.
5. laga 'itnen biyiddarabu; wigif yitfarrig 'alehum 'ilen gallagu l-midaraba; yifakkir 'es maratu galatlu yistari5. He came across two men who were fighting. he stood there looking at them until they ended their fight; then he thought: 'What did my wife tell me to buy?'
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