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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.


In no other area of the Arabophone world has there been such a marked separation in time between the two stages of arabicisation. During the Arab conquests in the second half of the seventh century, the sedentary areas of North Africa were overrun by a relatively small group of invaders who settled mostly in existing urban centres, or in some cases in newly-established military camps, whence the new, urban varieties of Arabic were spread over the surrounding area. Some of the Jewish varieties of Arabic in North Africa go back to this early period, such as the Jewish Arabic of Tunis and Algiers. The greater part of the countryside remained entirely Berber-speaking. The second stage of arabicisation took place centuries later in the course of the invasion by the Banu Hilal (tenth and eleventh centuries; cf. above, p. 96). During this stage, the Arabic language reached the countryside and the nomadic areas of North Africa, although it never managed to oust the Berber language completely (cf. above, p. 96, and see Map 10.3).

The group of the Maghreb dialects includes the dialects of Mauritania (Hassaniyya), Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya. In the literature, the dialects belonging to the two stages are often referred to as pre-Hilali and Hilali dialects, respectively. All pre-Hilali dialects are sedentary dialects, spoken in cities and in those areas outside the cities that were arabicised early on, such as the Tunisian Sahel, and the regions north of some of the large urban centres, Constantine, Tlemcen and Fes. Usually two groups are distinguished:

  • the Eastern pre-Hilali dialects, spoken in Libya, Tunisia and eastern Algeria; these dialects are characterised by the preservation of the three short vowels.
  • the Western dialects of the pre-Hilali group, spoken in western Algeria and Morocco; these have only two short vowels and have developed an indefinite article from the Classical Arabic numeral wahid, e.g. in Moroccan Arabic wahd el-mra 'a woman', always used in combination with the definite article, possibly in analogy to the construction of the demonstrative with the article.

The Bedouin dialects of North Africa represent the Hilali dialects; they are divided into the Sulaym in the East (Libya and southern Tunisia), the Eastern Hilal (central Tunisia and eastern Algeria), the Central Hilal (south and central Algeria, especially in the border areas of the Sahara) and the Maqil (western Algeria and Morocco). One group from the Maqil confederation, the Banu Hassan, settled in Mauritania, where the local dialect is still known under the name of Hassaniyya (see below, p. 167). Bedouin dialects are spoken not only in the rural areas, but also in some of the cities that were bedouinised at a later stage, for instance Tripoli.

Libya is largely Bedouin-speaking; even the sedentary dialects of the urban centres such as Tripoli have been influenced by Bedouin speech. Tunisia is a transitional zone; its Bedouin dialects are related to those in Libya. Algeria is heterogeneous: in the Constantinois, both Bedouin and sedentary dialects are spoken, and this area is linked with Tunisia and with the Algerois; the Algerois is predominantly Bedouin; the Oranais has one important sedentary centre in Tlemcen, while the rest is Bedouin-speaking. In Morocco, Bedouin dialects are spoken in the plains and in recently-founded cities such as Casablanca; for the sedentary dialects, Rabat and Fes are the most important centres. In Mauritania, as we have seen, a Bedouin dialect is spoken. The dialect that was spoken in Spain (al-'Andalus) during the period of Islamic domination belonged to the Maghreb dialects, and so does the language of the linguistic enclave of Malta, which was conquered from Tunisia (cf. below, Chapter 13, p. 209).

The long coexistence between Arabic and Berber that is continued in the present countries of North Africa has marked these dialects (cf. p. 104). There has been a lot of discussion about the degree of interference in the Maghreb dialects, but the presence of loanwords from Berber is unmistakable, sometimes even in the use of certain nominal patterns. Of the latter, the pattern tafə'' alət is the most frequent; it serves to indicate professional activities, e.g. tahəbbazət 'the profession of a baker'. The Hassaniyya dialect in particular has taken over a large number of Berber words, some of them together with their original plurals, e.g. aragaz/arwagiz 'man', adrar/idrarən 'mountain', tamurt/timuratən 'acacia forest, with the typically Berber prefixes ä-/?- (masculine) and ta-/ti (feminine).

In spite of the linguistic diversity of North Africa, it may be regarded as one dialect area because of the common features shared by these dialects, which set them apart from the rest of the Arabophone world. There is one morphological feature in the verbal system that has served to classify the Maghreb dialects as one group: the prefix n- for the first person singular in the imperfect verb (cf. above, Chapter 9, p. 134), for instance Moroccan Arabic nəktəb 'I write'/nkətbu 'we write'. The boundary between the n- dialects and the Eastern dialects lies somewhere in western Egypt (cf. above, p. 137).

All Maghreb dialects (except the Eastern sedentary dialects) have a very simple vowel system, with only two short vowels, /ə/ (< /a/ and /i/) and /u/, and three long vowels, /a/, /i/, /u/. In the dialect of Cherchell, this development has gone even further, with only one short vowel remaining.

Another striking feature in the phonology of all Maghreb dialects is the stress shift in words of the form fa'al, which among other things function as perfect verbs. Assuming that the original primary stress was on the penultimate, we may reconstruct the development as follows: kátab > katáb > ktəb, 'to write', and likewise zbəl < gabal 'mountain', rəb < 'arab 'Arabs', with elision of the short unstressed vowel. The only Maghreb dialect that has not undergone the stress shift is Maltese (cf. Maltese kiteb, gibel 'stone, hill [in place names]', both with stress on the penultimate).

With regard to syllable structure, many Maghreb dialects have undergone a restructuring in sequences of the type CvCC, which was changed to CCvC, for instance qabr > qbər 'grave'; saqf > sqəf 'roof'. Since in many dialects there is a constraint against short vowels in open syllables, when such a sequence is followed by a vocalic ending the vowel 'jumps', back one position, e.g. *ktəbət > kətbət 'she wrote'; *hməra > həmra 'red [feminine]. The constraint against short vowels in open syllables also operates in forms such as the second person plural of the imperfect verb, *təktəb-u 'you [plural] write'; in Moroccan Arabic this becomes tkətb-u. In other Maghreb dialects, the outcome of this rule is different. Some of them, such as the dialect of the Muslims of Tunis, elide the vowel (təktbu), or reduplicate the first radical, such as the dialect of the Muslims of Algiers (yəkkətbu); other dialects have chosen still other solutions (yəkkətbu, təkətbu, yəkətbu, yəkətbu; cf. Fischer and Jastrow 1980: 254-6). The verbal paradigm of Moroccan Arabic demonstrates the effects of the phenomena mentioned above, as shown in Table 10-5.


Table 10.5 The verbal paradigm of Moroccan Arabic.

The system of derived measures has achieved a greater symmetry in the Maghreb than in the Eastern Arabic dialects. In Moroccan Arabic, for instance, the most frequent derived measures are the second measure ('əlləm 'to teach'), the third measure (qatəl 'to fight') and the eighth measure (stgəl or stagəl 'to work'). From all measures, including the stem verb, a passive may be derived in t-, tt- or n-. Most Moroccan dialects have tt-, e.g. ttəktəb 'to be written', ttsaf 'to be seen', ttəqra 'to be recited', from the verbs ktəb, saf, qra. Passives with n- occur mostly in the north and in Jewish varieties of Arabic. In some dialects, a wide variety of combinations occurs, for instance in the dialect of Skura tt-, n-, ttən-, ttnə-, so that various forms have variants, e.g. ttnəktəb/ttəktəb 'to be written', ttəssəhsən/nəssəhsən/ttnəssəhsən 'to be approved' (Classical istahsana).

The origin of these new passive formations is disputed. Since they occur in the stem verb as well, they must be new dialectal formations, possibly on the analogy of the Classical Arabic fifth measure tafa' 'ala in the case of the t- forms, and from the Classical Arabic seventh measure infaala in the case of the n- forms. But it has also been proposed that these forms represent earlier Semitic categories, since a similar t- form occurs in Ethiopic and Aramaic. There may also be a connection with the Berber passive formation in t-, as Aguade (1995: 66) suggests.

A special position is taken up by the Hassaniyya dialect of Mauritania. It has all the characteristic features of a Bedouin dialect, but apart from that we find here a series of unique innovations. In the phonological system, the dialect has a voiced /v/ that continues the Classical Arabic /f/, e.g. vil < fil 'elephant', tovla 'girl'. The voiceless /f/ is restricted to certain environments: it occurs before a voiceless consonant, e.g. fsəd 'it was corrupted', in gemination, e.g. wäffä 'he terminated', and at the end of a word, e.g. raf 'he knew'. Both consonants have an emphatic allophone in certain environments, just like most of the other consonants. As in all Arabic dialects, the two Classical phonemes /d/ and /d/ have merged, and since the dialect is a Bedouin dialect the resulting phoneme is interdental, /d/. But in a number of words there is a phoneme /d/ as the reflex of Classical /d/, e.g. qadi 'judge', ramadan 'Ramadan'. These examples could be regarded as borrowings from the Classical language, but other words such as vadl < fadl 'favour', mrod < marida 'he became ill' seem to be original dialect words. In that case, Hassaniyya would be the only Western dialect to preserve traces of the original distinction. A third interesting feature is the presence of three palatalised phonemes, /t/, /d/, /n/ in a small number of words, most of them of Berber origin. Their phonemic status cannot be doubted, but their role in the language is minimal. Examples include kawktam 'to strike with the fist', kandya 'syphilis', Bannug '[proper name]'.

In the verbal system of Hassaniyya, apart from the usual derived measures there is a special measure with the prefix sa-, e.g. sagbäl 'he went south, sahmar 'he made red', säktäb 'he made someone his secretary'. The most probable explanation for this verbal form is a back-formation from tenth-measure verbs, e.g. from stäsläm 'to become a Muslim' a new form was created säsläm 'to make a Muslim'. This new measure then spread to all verbs. Another innovation is a new passive form that has developed for the second and third measure of the derived verb, and for the sa- forms (see Table 10.6). An unusual feature is the presence of a diminutive pattern for verbs, e.g. äkäytäb from ktäb 'to write', ämäysä from msä 'to leave'. Such forms are mostly used in combination with a diminutive noun subject.

'to perfume''to be perfumed'
'to confront''to be confronted'
'to go south''to be directed south'

Table 10.6 The formation of the passive in Hassaniyya.

Text 9: Moroccan Arabic (after Caubet 1993)

1. gal-l-ha: hakda? ewa gles hna! zbed el-flus u-'ta-ha: hna tgelsi! ma-temsiw-shetta ngul-l-kum aziw 'and-i1. He said to her: 'So? Then sit here!' He pulled out the money and gave it to her and said to her: 'You sit here! Don't go until I tell you: come to me!'
2. msa där wahed-el-bra 'and-el-ferran, gal-l-u: dir el-ferran yeshon, yeshon bezzäf, bezzäf!, gal-l-u: wahha!2. He went to send a letter to the (attendant of the) oven, and told him: 'Heat it up, heat it up, very much!' He said to him: 'Alright!'
3. ewa 'ayyet l-zuz-d-el-bulis, gal-l-hum: refdu had-es-senduq!, refdu had-es-senduq u-ddaw-eh l-el-ferran, ddaw-eh rmaw-eh f-bit-nar3. Then he called two policemen, and told them: 'Take this box!' they took this box and brought it to the oven, they brought itand threw it into the fire-place.
4. ewa, ya sidi, bqa ka-yttehreq hetta mat dak-el-'abd4. Yes sir, it kept on burning until that slave died.

Text 10: Hassaniyya (after Cohen 1963: 252)

1. ya qeyr rkabnahöm m'a ssbah men 'and lhyam, madkuranna hayya v zerr Aftut men tall sarg; hada nhar, nhar mtin

1. But we rode in the morning from the tents, a camp site had been mentioned to us near Aftut ('the large plain') in the north east; this is a day, a long day.

2. rkabna m'a ssbah u gelna 'anna la beddanna men ngayyelu dik lhayya vih arwagiz ga' ashab enna u vih zad sadiqat ashabat emmwalli2. We rode in the morning and we said to ourselves: 'We have to take a rest in that camp site'. In it were men that were friends of ours and there were moreover female friends, too.
3. rkabna men vamm u gemna mhar-rkin; hma ennhar' hada va'gab essayf, ennharat mahöm hamyin ya qeyr essams hayya3. We rode from there and we got moving; the day became hot: it was the end of summer, the days were not hot, but the sun was strong.
4. mneyn hma e'lina ennhar, brek awsayrit, mnayn brek tbarekna m'ah u gam4. When the day became at its hottest, our young animal broke down; when it broke down, we took care of it, and it stood up.
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