Arabic phonology

While many languages have numerous dialects that differ in phonology, the contemporary spoken Arabic language is more properly described as a continuum of varieties.[1] This article deals primarily with Modern Standard Arabic (MSA), which is the standard variety shared by educated speakers throughout Arabic-speaking regions. MSA is used in writing in formal print media and orally in newscasts, speeches and formal declarations of numerous types.[2]

Modern Standard Arabic has 28 consonant phonemes and 6 vowel phonemes or 8 or 10 vowels in most modern dialects. All phonemes contrast between "emphatic" (pharyngealized) consonants and non-emphatic ones. Some of these phonemes have coalesced in the various modern dialects, while new phonemes have been introduced through borrowing or phonemic splits. A "phonemic quality of length" applies to consonants as well as vowels.[3]

Vowel chart representing the pronunciation of long vowels by a Palestinian speaker educated in Beirut. From Thelwall (1990:38) (Notice that these values vary between regions across North Africa and West Asia)
Vowel chart representing the pronunciation of diphthongs by a Palestinian speaker educated in Beirut. From Thelwall (1990:38)

Modern Standard Arabic has six vowel phonemes forming three pairs of corresponding short and long vowels (/a, aː, i, iː, u, uː/). Many spoken varieties also include /oː/ and /eː/. Modern Standard Arabic has two diphthongs (formed by a combination of short /a/ with the semivowels /j/ and /w/). Allophony in different dialects of Arabic can occur, and is partially conditioned by neighboring consonants within the same word. As a general rule, for example, /a/ and /aː/ are:

However, the actual rules governing vowel-retraction are a good deal more complex, and have relatively little in the way of an agreed-upon standard, as there are often competing notions of what constitutes a "prestige" form.[7] Often, even highly proficient speakers will import the vowel-retraction rules from their native dialects.[8] Thus, for example, in the Arabic of someone from Cairo emphatic consonants will affect every vowel between word boundaries, whereas certain Saudi speakers exhibit emphasis only on the vowels adjacent to an emphatic consonant.[9] Certain speakers (most notably Levantine speakers) exhibit a degree of asymmetry in leftward vs. rightward spread of vowel-retraction.[9][10]

The short vowels [u, ʊ, o, o̞, ɔ] are all possible allophones of /u/ across different dialects, e.g. قُلْت /ˈqult/ ('I said') is pronounced [ˈqʊlt] or [ˈqolt] or [ˈqɔlt] since the difference between the short mid vowels [o, o̞, ɔ] and [u, ʊ] is never phonemic and they're mostly found in complementary distribution, except for a number of speakers where they can be phonemic but only in foreign words.

The short vowels [i, ɪ, e, e̞, ɛ] are all possible allophones of /i/ across different dialects, e.g. مِن /ˈmin/ ('from') is pronounced [ˈmɪn] or [ˈmen] or [ˈmɛn] since the difference between the short mid vowels [e, e̞, ɛ] and [i, ɪ] is never phonemic and they're mostly found in complementary distribution, except for a number of speakers where they can be phonemic but only in foreign words.

The long mid vowels /oː/ and /eː/ appear to be phonemic in most varieties of Arabic except in general Maghrebi Arabic where they merge with /uː/ and /iː/. For example, لون ('color') is generally pronounced /loːn/ in Mashriqi dialects but /luːn/ in most Maghrebi Arabic. The long mid vowels can be used in Modern Standard Arabic in dialectal words or in some stable loanwords or foreign names,[11] as in روما /ˈroːma/ ('Rome') and شيك /ˈʃeːk/ ('cheque').

Foreign words often have a liberal sprinkling of long vowels, as their word shapes do not conform to standardized prescriptive pronunciations written by letters for short vowels.[12] The long mid vowels /eː/ and /oː/ are always rendered with the letters ي and و, respectively. In general, the pronunciation of loanwords is highly dependent on the speaker's native variety.

Even in the most formal of conventions, pronunciation depends upon a speaker's background.[13] Nevertheless, the number and phonetic character of most of the 28 consonants has a broad degree of regularity among Arabic-speaking regions. Note that Arabic is particularly rich in uvular, pharyngeal, and pharyngealized ("emphatic") sounds. The emphatic coronals (/sˤ/, /dˤ/, /tˤ/, and /ðˤ/) cause assimilation of emphasis to adjacent non-emphatic coronal consonants.[citation needed] The phonemes /p/پ⟩ and /v/ڤ⟩ (not used by all speakers) are not considered to be part of the phonemic inventory, as they exist only in foreign words and they can be pronounced as /b/ب⟩ and /f/ف⟩ respectively depending on the speaker.[12][14] The standard pronunciation of ⟨ج/d͡ʒ/ varies regionally, most prominently [d͡ʒ] in the Arabian Peninsula, parts of the Levant, Iraq, northern Algeria and Sudan, it is also considered as the predominant pronunciation of Literary Arabic outside the Arab world, [ʒ] in most of Northwest Africa and the Levant, and [g] in most of Egypt and a number of Yemeni and Omani dialects.

Note: the table and notes below discusses the phonology of Modern Standard Arabic among Arabic speakers and not regional dialects (Algerian, Egyptian, Syrian, etc.) as a whole.

Long (geminate or double) consonants are pronounced exactly like short consonants, but last longer. In Arabic, they are called mushaddadah ("strengthened", marked with a shaddah), but they are not actually pronounced any "stronger". Between a long consonant and a pause, an epenthetic [ə] occurs,[6] but this is only common across regions in West Asia.

Arabic syllable structure can be summarized as follows, in which parentheses enclose optional components:

Arabic syllable structure consists of an optional syllable onset, consisting of one consonant; an obligatory syllable nucleus, consisting of a vowel optionally preceded by and/or followed by a semivowel; and an optional syllable coda, consisting of one or two consonants. The following restrictions apply:

The placement of word stress in Arabic varies considerably from one dialect to another, and has been the focus of extensive research and debate.

In determining stress, Arabic distinguishes three types of syllables:[25]

The word stress of Classical Arabic has been the subject of debate. However, there is consensus as to the general rule, even though there are some exceptions. A simple rule of thumb is that word-stress falls on the penultimate syllable of a word if that syllable is closed, and otherwise on the antepenultimate.[26]

A more precise description is J. C. E. Watson's. Here the stressed syllable follows the marker ' and variant rules are in brackets:[27]

Modern Arabic dialects all maintain rules (1) and (2). But if there is neither a final superheavy syllable nor a heavy penultimate syllable, their behaviour varies. Thus in Palestinian, rule (3) is instead 'otherwise stress the first syllable (up to the antepenult): [ˈkatab] ‘he wrote’, [ˈzalama] ‘man’', whereas the basic rules of Cairene (to which there are exceptions) are:[28]

Spoken varieties differ from Classical Arabic and Modern Standard Arabic not only in grammar but also in pronunciation. Outside of the Arabian peninsula, a major linguistic division is between sedentary, largely urban, varieties and rural varieties. Inside the Arabian peninsula and in Iraq, the two types are less distinct; but the language of the urbanized Hejaz, at least, strongly looks like a conservative sedentary variety.[citation needed]

In Modern Standard Arabic (not in Egypt's use), /ɡ/ is used as a marginal phoneme to pronounce some dialectal and loan words. On the other hand, it is considered a native phoneme or allophone in most modern Arabic dialects, mostly as a variant of ق /q/ (as in Arabian Peninsula and Northwest African dialects) or as a variant of /d͡ʒ/ ج (as in Egyptian and a number of Yemeni and Omani dialects). It is also considered a separate foreign phoneme that appears only in loanwords, as in most urban Levantine dialects where ق is /ʔ/ and ج is /d͡ʒ~ʒ/.

The phoneme represented by the Arabic letter ǧīm (ج) has many standard pronunciations: [d͡ʒ] in most of the Arabian Peninsula and as the predominant pronunciation of Literary Arabic outside the Arab world, [ɡ] in most of Egypt and some regions in southern Yemen and southwestern Oman. This is also a characteristic of colloquial Egyptian and southern Yemeni dialects.[17] In Morocco and western Algeria, it is pronounced as [ɡ] in some words, especially colloquially. In most north Africa and most of the Levant, the standard is pronounced [ʒ], and in certain regions of the Persian Gulf colloquially with [j]. In some Sudanese and Yemeni dialects, it may be either [ɡʲ] or [ɟ] as it used to be in Classical Arabic.

The foreign phonemes /p/ and /v/ are not necessarily pronounced by all Arabic speakers, but are often pronounced in names and loanwords. /p/ and /v/ are usually transcribed with their own letters /p/ and /v/ but as these letters are not present on standard keyboards, they are simply written with ب /b/ and ف /f/, e.g. both نوفمبر and نوڤمبر /nu(ː)fambar/, /novambar, -ber/ or /nofember/ "November", both كاپريس and كابريس /ka(ː)pri(ː)s, ka(ː)bri(ː)s/ "caprice" can be used.[12][14] The use of both sounds may be considered marginal and Arabs may pronounce the words interchangeably; besides, many loanwords have become Arabized, e.g. باكستان or پاکستان /pa(ː)kistaːn, ba(ː)kistaːn/ "Pakistan", فيروس or ڤيروس /vi(ː)ru(ː)s, vajru(ː)s/ "virus".

/t͡ʃ/ is another possible loanword phoneme, as in the word سندوتش‎ or ساندوتش‎ (sandawitš or sāndwitš 'sandwich'), though a number of varieties instead break up the [t] and [ʃ] sounds with an epenthetic vowel.[29] Egyptian Arabic treats /t͡ʃ/ as two consonants ([tʃ]) and inserts [e], as [teʃC] or [Cetʃ], when it occurs before or after another consonant. /t͡ʃ/ is found as normal in Iraqi Arabic and Gulf Arabic.[30] Normally the combination تش (tā’-shīn) is used to transliterate the [tʃ]. Otherwise Arabic usually substitutes other letters in the transliteration of names and loanwords like the Persian character چ which is used for writing [tʃ]

The main dialectal variations in Arabic consonants revolve around the six consonants; ⟨ج⟩, ⟨ق⟩, ⟨ث⟩, ⟨ذ⟩, ⟨ض⟩ and ⟨ظ⟩:

The Arabic of Cairo (often called "Egyptian Arabic" or more correctly "Cairene Arabic") is a typical sedentary variety and a de facto standard variety among certain segments of the Arabic-speaking population, due to the dominance of Egyptian media. Watson adds emphatic labials [mˤ] and [bˤ][32] and emphatic [rˤ][17] to Cairene Arabic with marginal phonemic status. Cairene has also merged the interdental consonants with the dental plosives (e.g. /θalaːθa/[tæˈlæːtæ], 'three') except in loanwords from Classical Arabic where they are nativized as sibilant fricatives (e.g. /θaːnawijja/[sænæˈwejja], 'secondary school'). Cairene speakers pronounce /d͡ʒ/ as [ɡ] and debuccalized /q/ to [ʔ] (again, loanwords from Classical Arabic have reintroduced the earlier sound[31] or approximated to [k] with the front vowel around it [æ] changed to the back vowel [ɑ]). Classical Arabic diphthongs /aj/ and /aw/ became realized as [eː] and [oː] respectively. Still, Egyptian Arabic sometimes has minimal pairs like [ˈʃæjlæ] ('carrying' f.s.) vs [ˈʃeːlæ] ('burden'). [ɡeːb] 'pocket' + [næ] 'our' → collapsing with [ˈɡebnæ] which means ('cheese' or 'our pocket'),[33] because Cairene phonology can't have long vowels before two consonants. Cairene also has [ʒ] as a marginal phoneme from loanwords from languages other than Classical Arabic.[34]

Varieties such as that of Sanaa, Yemen, are more conservative and retain most phonemic contrasts of Classical Arabic. Sanaani possesses [ɡ] as a reflex of Classical /q/ (which still functions as an emphatic consonant).[33] In unstressed syllables, Sanaani short vowels may be reduced to [ə].[35] /tˤ/ is voiced to [dˤ] in initial and intervocalic positions.[32]

The most frequent consonant phoneme is /r/, the rarest is /ðˤ/. The frequency distribution of the 28 consonant phonemes, based on the 2,967 triliteral roots listed by Wehr[14] is (with the percentage of roots in which each phoneme occurs):

This distribution does not necessarily reflect the actual frequency of occurrence of the phonemes in speech, since pronouns, prepositions and suffixes are not taken into account, and the roots themselves will occur with varying frequency. In particular, /t/ occurs in several extremely common affixes (occurring in the marker for second-person or feminine third-person as a prefix, the marker for first-person or feminine third-person as a suffix, and as the second element of Forms VIII and X as an infix) despite being fifth from last on Wehr's list. The list does give, however, an idea of which phonemes are more marginal than others. Note that the five least frequent letters are among the six letters added to those inherited from the Phoenician alphabet, namely, ḍād, ṯāʾ, ḫāʾ, ẓāʾ, ḏāl and ġayn.

The Literary Arabic sample text is a reading of The North Wind and the Sun by a speaker who was born in Safed, lived and was educated in Beirut from age 8 to 15, subsequently studied and taught in Damascus, studied phonetics in Scotland and since then has resided in Scotland and Kuwait.[36]

كانت ريح الشمال تتجادل والشمس في أي منهما كانت أقوى من الأخرى، وإذ بمسافر يطلع متلفعا بعباءة سميكة. فاتفقتا على اعتبار السابق في إجبار المسافر على خلع عباءته الأقوى. عصفت ريح الشمال بأقصى ما استطاعت من قوة. ولكن كلما ازداد العصف ازداد المسافر تدثرا بعباءته، إلى أن أسقط في يد الريح فتخلت عن محاولتها. بعدئذ سطعت الشمس بدفئها، فما كان من المسافر إلا أن خلع عباءته على التو. وهكذا اضطرت ريح الشمال إلى الاعتراف بأن الشمس كانت هي الأقوى.

كَانَتْ رِيحُ الشَّمَالِ تَتَجَادَلُ وَالشَّمْسَ فِي أَيٍّ مِنْهُمَا كَانَتْ أَقْوَى مِنَ الأُخْرَى، وَإِذْ بِمُسَافِرٍ يَطْلُعُ مُتَلَفِّعًا بِعَبَاءَةٍ سَمِيكَةٍ. فَاتَّفَقَتَا عَلَى اعْتِبارِ السَّابِقِ فِي إِجْبارِ المُسَافِرِ عَلَى خَلْعِ عَباءَتِهِ الأَقْوى. عَصَفَتْ رِيحُ الشَّمالِ بِأَقْصَى مَا اسْتَطَاعَتْ مِن قُوَّةٍ. وَلٰكِنْ كُلَّمَا ازْدَادَ العَصْفُ ازْدَادَ المُسَافِرُ تَدَثُّرًا بِعَبَاءَتِهِ، إِلَى أَنْ أُسْقِطَ فِي يَدِ الرِّيحِ فَتَخَلَّتْ عَنْ مُحَاوَلَتِهَا. بَعْدَئِذٍ سَطَعَتِ الشَّمْسُ بِدِفْئِهَا، فَمَا كَانَ مِنَ المُسَافِرِ إِلَّا أَنْ خَلَعَ عَبَاءَتَهُ عَلَى التَّوِّ. وَهٰكَذَا اضْطُرَّتْ رِيحُ الشَّمَالِ إِلَى الاِعْتِرَافِ بِأَنَّ الشَّمْسَ كَانَتْ هِيَ الأَقْوَى.[37]


/kaːnat riːħu‿ʃːamaːli tatad͡ʒaːdalu wa‿ʃːamsa fiː ʔajːin minhumaː kaːnat ʔaqwaː mina‿lʔuxraː | wa‿ʔið bimusaːfirin jatˤluʕu mutalafːiʕan biʕabaːʔatin samiːkah || fatːafaqataː ʕala‿ʕtibaːri‿sːaːbiqi fiː ʔid͡ʒbaːri‿lmusaːfiri ʕalaː xalʕi ʕabaːʔatihi‿lʔaqwaː || ʕasˤafat riːħu‿ʃːamaːli biʔaqsˤaː ma‿statˤaːʕat min quwːah || wa‿laːkin kulːama‿zdaːda‿lʕasˤfu‿zdaːda‿lmusaːfiru tadaθːuran biʕabaːʔatih | ʔilaː ʔan ʔusqitˤa fiː jadi‿rːiːħi fataxalːat ʕan muħaːwalatihaː || baʕdaʔiðin satˤaʕati‿ʃːamsu bidifʔihaː | fa‿maː kaːna mina‿lmusaːfiri ʔilːaː ʔan xalaʕa ʕabaːʔatahu ʕala‿tːawː || wa‿haːkaða‿dˤtˤurːat riːħu‿ʃːamaːli ʔila‿lʔiʕtiraːfi biʔanːa‿ʃːamsa kaːnat hija‿lʔaqwaː/

/kaːnat riːħu‿ʃːamaːl tatad͡ʒaːdal wa‿ʃːams fiː ʔajːin minhumaː kaːnat ʔaqwaː mina‿lʔuxraː | wa‿ʔið bi musaːfir jatˤluʕ mutalafːiʕan biʕabaːʔa samiːkah || fatːafaqataː ʕala‿ʕtibaːri‿sːaːbiq fiː ʔid͡ʒbaːri‿lmusaːfir ʕalaː xalʕ ʕabaːʔatihi‿lʔaqwaː || ʕasˤafat riːħu‿ʃːamaːl biʔaqsˤaː ma‿statˤaːʕat min quwːa || wa‿laːkin kulːama‿zdaːda‿lʕasˤfu‿zdaːda‿lmusaːfir tadaθːuran biʕabaːʔatih | ʔilaː ʔan ʔusqitˤ fiː jadi‿rːiːħ fa taxalːat ʕan muħaːwalatihaː || baʕdaʔið satˤaʕati‿ʃːams bidifʔihaː | fa‿maː kaːn mina‿lmusaːfiri ʔilːaː ʔan xalaʕa ʕabaːʔatahu ʕala‿tːawː || wa‿haːkaða‿dˤtˤurːat riːħu‿ʃːamaːl ʔila‿lʔiʕtiraːf biʔanːa‿ʃːams kaːnat hija‿lʔaqwaː/

[ˈkæːnæt ɾiːħ æʃ ʃæˈmæːl tætæˈɡæːdæl wæʃ ˈʃæ fiː ˈʔæj.jin menˈhomæ ˈkæːnæt ˈʔɑqwɑ mɪn æl ˈʔʊxɾɑ | wæ ʔɪð bi mʊˈsæːfeɾ ˈjɑtˤlɑʕ mʊtæˈlæf.feʕ bi ʕæˈbæːʔæ sæˈmiːkæ || fæt tæfɑqɑˈtæː ˈʕælæ ʕ.teˈbɑːɾ ɪs ˈsɑːbeq fiː ʔeɡbɑːɾ æl mʊˈsæːfeɾ ˈʕælæ ˈxælʕe ʕæbæːˈʔæt(i)hi lˈʔɑqwɑː || ˈʕɑsˤɑfɑt ɾiːħ æʃ ʃæˈmæːl bi ˈʔɑqsˤɑ mæ stæˈtˤɑːʕɑt mɪn ˈqow.wɑ || wæ ˈlæːkɪn kʊlˈlæmæ zˈdæːd æl ʕɑsˤf ɪzˈdæːd æl mʊˈsæːfeɾ tædæθˈθʊɾæn bi ʕæbæːˈʔætih | ˈʔilæ ʔæn ˈʔosqetˤ fiː jæd æɾˈɾiːħ fæ tæˈxæl.læt ʕæn mʊħæːwæˈlæt(i)hæ || bæʕdæˈʔiðin ˈsɑtˤɑʕɑt æʃ ˈʃæ bi dɪfˈʔihæ | fæ mæː kæːn mɪn æl mʊˈsæːfeɾ ˈʔil.læ ʔæn ˈxælæʕ ʕæbæːˈʔætæh ʕælætˈtæw || wæ hæːˈkæðæ tˈtˤoɾ.ɾɑt ɾiːħ æʃ ʃæˈmæːl ˈʔilæ lʔeʕteˈɾɑːf biˈʔænn æʃ ˈʃæ ˈkæːnæt ˈhɪ.jæ lˈʔɑqwɑ]

Kānat rīḥ al-shamāl tatajādalu wa-al-shams fī ayyin minhumā kānat aqwá min al-ukhrá, wa-idh bi-musāfir yaṭlaʻu mutalaffiʻ bi-ʻabāʼah samīkah. Fa-ittafaqatā ʻalá iʻtibār al-sābiq fī ijbār al-musāfir ʻalá khalʻ ʻabāʼatihi al-aqwá. ʻAṣafat rīḥ al-shamāl bi-aqṣá mā istaṭāʻat min qūwah. Wa-lākin kullamā izdāda al-ʻaṣf izdāda al-musāfir tadaththuran bi-ʻabāʼatih, ilá an usqiṭ fī yad al-rīḥ fa-takhallat ʻan muḥāwalatihā. Baʻdaʼidhin saṭaʻat al-shams bi-difʼihā, fa-mā kāna min al-musāfir illā an khalaʻa ʻabāʼatahu ʻalá al-taww. Wa-hākadhā iḍṭurrat rīḥ al-shamāl ilá al-iʻtirāf bi-an al-shams kānat hiya al-aqwá.

kānat rīḥu š-šamāli tatajādalu wa-š-šamsa fī ʾayyin minhumā kānat ʾaqwā mina l-ʾuḵrā, wa-ʾiḏ bi-musāfirin yaṭluʿu mutalaffiʿan bi-ʿabāʾatin samīkatin. fa-t-tafaqatā ʿalā ʿtibāri s-sābiqi fī ʾijbāri l-musāfiri ʿalā ḵalʿi ʿabāʾatihi l-ʾaqwā. ʿaṣafat rīḥu š-šamāli bi-ʾaqṣā mā staṭāʿat min quwwatin. walākin kullamā zdāda l-ʿaṣfu zdāda l-musāfiru tadaṯṯuran bi-ʿabāʾatihi, ʾilā ʾan ʾusqiṭa fī yadi r-rīḥi fataḵallat ʿan muḥāwalatihā. baʿdaʾiḏin saṭaʿati š-šamsu bi-difʾihā, famā kāna mina l-musāfiri ʾillā ʾan ḵalaʿa ʿabāʾatahu ʿalā t-tawwi. wa-hakaḏā ḍṭurrat rīḥu š-šamāli ʾilā l-ʾiʿtirāfi biʾanna š-šamsa kānat hiya l-ʾaqwā.

The wind of the north was arguing, and the sun was stronger than the other in which of them was, and when a traveler looked at a different direction. So they agreed to take into account the precedent in forcing the traveler to take off his stronger cloak. The north wind blew as hard as it could. However, the more it was in the wind, the more the traveler became wrapped up in his burden, until he fell into the hand of the wind, so she gave up his efforts. Then the sun shone very warm, so the traveler would only take off his cloak. Thus the north wind was forced to admit that the sun was the strongest.