The Online Encyclopedia and Dictionary






Varieties of Arabic

Even in pre-Islamic times, Arabic had noticeable dialect distinctions - in particular between Qahtan, Adnan, and Himyar. In modern times, the spoken languages or dialects of people throughout the Arab world differ radically from the literary language. For some of these, the question of "language" versus "dialect" is highly politicized; to avoid that, the neutral term "variety" will be used here.

The main division is between the Maghreb varieties (characterized by a first person singular in n-) and those of the Middle East, followed by that between sedentary varieties and the much more conservative Bedouin varieties. "Peripheral" varieties located in countries where Arabic is not a dominant language (e.g., Turkey, Afghanistan, Cyprus, Chad, and Nigeria) are particularly divergent in some respects, especially vocabulary, being less influenced by classical Arabic; however, historically they fall within the same dialect classifications as better-known varieties. In some areas, different religious communities spoke slightly different varieties - thus in Baghdad the Christians and Jews spoke a qeltu-variety while the Muslims spoke a gilit-variety. (Both words mean "I said". For further discussion, see JudŠo-Arabic languages.)

Maltese, though descended from Arabic, is considered by its speakers to be a separate language and is in fact written with Latin letters. Probably the most divergent of non-creole Arabic varieties is Cypriot Maronite Arabic, a nearly extinct variety heavily influenced by Greek. Speakers of some of these varieties are unable to converse with speakers of another variety of Arabic; in particular, while Middle Easterners can generally understand one another, they often have trouble understanding North Africans (although the converse is not true, due to the popularity of Egyptian films and other media.)

One factor in the differentiation of the varieties is influence from the languages previously spoken in the areas, which have typically provided a significant number of new words, and have sometimes also influenced pronunciation or word order; however, a much more significant factor for most dialects is, as among Romance languages, retention (or change of meaning) of different classical forms. Thus Iraqi aku, Levantine and Egyptian fiih, and North African kayen all mean "there is", and all come from Arabic (yakuun, fiihi, kaa'in respectively), but now sound very different.

The spoken varieties of Arabic have occasionally been written, usually in the Arabic alphabet. Notably, many plays and poems, as well as a few other works (even translations of Plato) exist in Lebanese and Egyptian Arabic; books of poetry, at least, exist for most varieties. In Algeria, colloquial Maghrebi Arabic was taught as a separate subject under French colonization, and some textbooks exist. Mizrahi Jews throughout the Arab world translated parts of their liturgy into Arabic of varying levels of colloquialness, and wrote them, as well as letters and accounts and occasionally stories, in the Hebrew alphabet. The Latin alphabet was advocated for Lebanese Arabic by Said Aql , whose supporters published several books in his transcription. Earlier, in 1994, AbdElAziz Pasha Fahmi , member of the Academy of the Arabic Language in Egypt proposed the replacement of Arabic alphabet with Latin alphabet. His proposal was discussed in two sessions in the communion but was rejected, and was faced with strong opposition in the cultural circles.

Arabic-based pidgins, with a small largely Arabic vocabulary lacking most Arabic morphological features, are or have been widespread along the southern edge of the Sahara; the medieval geographer al-Bakri records a text in one (in a place probably corresponding to modern Mauritania) in the 11th century. In some areas, especially around the southern Sudan, these have creolized; see the list below. The resulting creoles are not mutually comprehensible with other Arabic varieties.

Classification of varieties

Classification of varieties, with some info from Versteegh[1]:


  • Himyaritic language
  • Southern Arabic (Qahtan)
  • Northern Arabic (Adnan)

Western varieties:

Eastern varieties:


Phonetic variation

  • qaaf changes widely from variety to variety. In Bedouin dialects from Mauritania to Saudi Arabia, it is pronounced g, as in most of Iraq. In the Levant and Egypt (except in Upper Egypt (the Sa'id) where it is influenced by that of Arabia), as well as Malta and some North African towns such as Tlemcen, it is pronounced as a glottal stop, apart from rural Palestine where it becomes emphatic k. In the Gulf, it becomes j in many words, and is g otherwise. Elsewhere, it is usually realized as uvular q.
  • jiim too varies widely. In some Arabian Bedouin dialects, and parts of the Sudan, it is still realized as the medieval Persian linguist Sibawayh described it, as a palatalized gy. In Egypt and Yemen, it is a plain g. In most of North Africa and the Levant, it is zh, apart from Algeria. In the Gulf and Iraq, it often becomes y. Elsewhere, it is usually like English j.
  • kaaf often becomes ch in the Gulf, Iraq and in some Bedouin dialects. In a very few Moroccan varieties, it affricates to ksh. Elsewhere, it remains k.
  • raa is pronounced like French R in a few areas: Mosul, for instance, and the Jewish variety in Algiers. In much of the Maghreb, a phonemic distinction has emerged between plain and emphatic r, thanks to the merging of short vowels.
  • The placement of the stress accent is extremely variable between varieties, since it is not recorded in writing.


Last updated: 09-12-2005 02:39:13