While many languages have numerous dialects that differ in phonology, the contemporary spoken Arabic language is more properly described as a continuum of varieties. 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.
Modern Standard Arabic has 28 consonant phonemes and 6 vowel phonemes or 8 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.
Modern Standard Arabic has six vowel phonemes forming three pairs of corresponding short and long vowels (/a, a:, i, i:, u, u:/). Many spoken varieties also include /o:/ and /e:/. 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 /a:/ 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. Often, even highly proficient speakers will import the vowel-retraction rules from their native dialects. 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. Certain speakers (most notably Levantine speakers) exhibit a degree of asymmetry in leftward vs. rightward spread of vowel-retraction.
The short vowels [u, ?, o, o?, ?] are all possible allophones of /u/ across different dialects, e.g. /'qult/ ('I said') is pronounced ['q?lt] or ['qolt] or ['qo?lt] since the difference between the short mid vowels [o, o?, ?] and [u, ?] 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, ?, e, e?, ?] are all possible allophones of /i/ across different dialects, e.g. /'min/ ('from') is pronounced ['m?n] or ['men] or ['m?n] since the difference between the short mid vowels [e, e?, ?] and [i, ?] 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 /o:/ and /e:/ appear to be phonemic in most varieties of Arabic except in general Maghrebi Arabic where they merge with /u:/ and /i:/. For example ('color') is generally pronounced /lo:n/ in Mashriqi dialects but /lu:n/ 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. as in ? /'ro:ma/ ('Rome') and /'?e:k/ ('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. The long mid vowels /e:/ and /o:/ are always rendered with the letters ? and ?, 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. 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 (/s?/, /d?/, /t?/, and /ð?/) cause assimilation of emphasis to adjacent non-emphatic coronal consonants. The phonemes /p/ ??? and /v/ ??? (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/ ??? and /f/ ??? respectively depending on the speaker. The standard pronunciation of ??? /d/ varies regionally, most prominently 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, in most of Northwest Africa and the Levant, and 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 not individual dialects; Algerian, Egyptian, Syrian, etc.
|Fricative||voiceless||f||?[i]||s||s?||?||x ~ ?[j]||?[k]||h|
|voiced||(v)[c]||ð[i]||z||ð? ~ z?[l]||? ~ ?[j]||?[k]|
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 [?] occurs, but this is only common across regions in West Asia.
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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 or two consonants; 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:
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.
A more precise description is J. C. E. Watson's. Here the stressed syllable follows the marker ' and variant rules are in brackets:
- Stress a pre-pausal superheavy (CVVC, CVVGG, or CVCC) syllable: [ki'ta:b] 'book', ['ma:dd] 'stretching (MASC SG)', [?a:'ribt] 'I/you (MASC SG) drank'.
- Otherwise, stress the rightmost (ending) non-final heavy (CVV, CVC, or CVVG) syllable (up to the antepenult): [da'rasna:] 'we learnt', [?a:'bu:nun] 'soap (NOM)', ['maktabah] 'library', ['ma:ddun] 'stretching (NOM)', ['maktabatun] 'library' (non-pause) (or [mak'tabatun]).
- Otherwise, stress the leftmost (beginning) CV syllable (or antepenult): ['kataba] 'he wrote', ['katabatuhu] 'library' (or [kata'batuhu]).
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): ['katab] 'he wrote', ['zalama] 'man'', whereas the basic rules of Cairene (to which there are exceptions) are:
- Stress a superheavy ultima.
- Otherwise, stress a heavy penult.
- Otherwise, stress the penult or antepenult, whichever is separated by an even number of syllables from the rightmost non-final heavy syllable, or, if there is no non-final heavy syllable, from the left boundary of the word.
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 varieties, largely urban 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.
Some examples of variation:
|[a]||? / ?|
|[a]||? / ? / ?||? / ?|
|?|| (? + ?)||? / ?|
|? / ?||? / / ?||?||?[b]||? / ?[c]||? / ?[d]||? / ?||? / ?|
In Modern Standard Arabic (not in Egypt's use), /?/ 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 ? /q/ (as in Arabian Peninsula and Northwest African dialects) or as a variant of /d/ ? (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 ? is /?/ and ? is /d~?/.
The phoneme represented by the Arabic letter m (?) has many standard pronunciations: in most of the Arabian Peninsula and as the predominant pronunciation of Literary Arabic outside the Arab world, 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. In Morocco and western Algeria, it is pronounced as in some words, especially colloquially. In most north Africa and most of the Levant, the standard is pronounced , and in certain regions of the Persian Gulf colloquially with . In some Sudanese and Yemeni dialects, it may be either  or 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 ? /b/ and ? /f/, e.g. both and /nu(:)fambar/, /novambar, -ber/ or /nofember/ "November", both and /ka(:)pri(:)s, ka(:)bri(:)s/ "caprice" can be used. The use of both sounds may be considered marginal and Arabs may pronounce the words interchangeably; besides, many loanwords have become Arabized, e.g. ? or ? /pa(:)kista:n, ba(:)kista:n/ "Pakistan", or /vi(:)ru(:)s, vajru(:)s/ "virus".
/t/ is another possible loanword phoneme, as in the word or ? (sandawit? or s?ndwit? 'sandwich'), though a number of varieties instead break up the [t] and [?] sounds with an epenthetic vowel. Egyptian Arabic treats /t/ as two consonants ([t?]) and inserts [e], as [te?C] or [Cet?], when it occurs before or after another consonant. /t/ is found as normal in Iraqi Arabic and Gulf Arabic. Normally the combination (t?'-sh?n) is used to transliterate the [t?]. Otherwise Arabic usually substitutes other letters in the transliteration of names and loanwords like the Persian character ? which is used for writing [t?]
Other Variations include:
|Letter||Classical||Modern Standard||Dialectal Main Variations||Less Common Variations|
|?||/?/ or /d/||/d/|
|?||/q/ or /?/||/q/||[? ~ ?]|
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 [m?] and [b?] and emphatic [r?] to Cairene Arabic with marginal phonemic status. Cairene has also merged the interdental consonants with the dental plosives (e.g. /?ala:?a/ -> [tæ'læ:tæ], 'three') except in loanwords from Classical Arabic where they are nativized as sibilant fricatives (e.g. /?a:nawijja/ -> [sænæ'wejja], 'secondary school'). Cairene speakers pronounce /d/ as [?] and debuccalized /q/ to [?] (again, loanwords from Classical Arabic have reintroduced the earlier sound or approximated to [k] with the front vowel around it changed to the back vowel ). Classical Arabic diphthongs /aj/ and /aw/ became realized as [e:] and [o:] respectively. Still, Egyptian Arabic sometimes has minimal pairs like ['?æjlæ] ('carrying' f.s.) vs ['?e:læ] ('burden'). [?e:b] 'pocket' + [næ] 'our' -> collapsing with ['?ebnæ] which means ('cheese' or 'our pocket'), because Cairene phonology can't have long vowels before two consonants. Cairene also has as a marginal phoneme from loanwords from languages other than Classical Arabic.
Varieties such as that of Sanaa, Yemen, are more conservative and retain most phonemic contrasts of Classical Arabic. Sanaani possesses as a reflex of Classical (which still functions as an emphatic consonant). In unstressed syllables, Sanaani short vowels may be reduced to ./t?/ is voiced to [d?] in initial and intervocalic positions.
The most frequent consonant phoneme is /r/, the rarest is /ð?/. The frequency distribution of the 28 consonant phonemes, based on the 2,967 triliteral roots listed by Wehr 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, d, , , , l and ?ayn.
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.
? ? ? ? ? . ? ? . ? ? . ? ? ? ? . ? ? ? ?. ? .
? ? ? ? ? ? . ? ? ? . ?. ? ? ? ? . ? ? ? . ? ? ? ? ? ? .
/ka:nat ri:?u:ama:li tatada:dalu wa:amsa fiaj:in minhuma: ka:nat ?aqwa: mina?l?uxra: | waið bimusa:firin jat?lu?u mutalaf:i?an bi?aba:?atin sami:kah || fat:afaqataalatiba:ri?s:a:biqi fiidba:ri?lmusa:firi ?ala: xal?i ?aba:?atihi?l?aqwa: || ?as?afat ri:?u:ama:li bi?aqs?a: ma?stat?a:?at min quw:ah || wa?la:kin kul:ama?zda:da?l?as?fu?zda:da?lmusa:firu tada?:uran bi?aba:?atih | ?ilaan ?usqit?a fi: jadi?r:i:?i fataxal:at ?an mu?a:walatiha: || ba?da?iðin sat?a?ati:amsu bidif?iha: | fa?ma: ka:na mina?lmusa:firi ?il:aan xala?a ?aba:?atahu ?ala?t:aw: || wa?ha:kaða?d?t?ur:at ri:?u:ama:li ?ila?l?i?tira:fi bi?an:a:amsa ka:nat hija?l?aqwa:/
/ka:nat ri:?u:ama:l tatada:dal wa:ams fiaj:in minhuma: ka:nat ?aqwa: mina?l?uxra: | waið bi musa:fir jat?lu? mutalaf:i?an bi?aba:?a sami:kah || fat:afaqataalatiba:ri?s:a:biq fiidba:ri?lmusa:fir ?ala: xal? ?aba:?atihi?l?aqwa: || ?as?afat ri:?u:ama:l bi?aqs?a: ma?stat?a:?at min quw:a || wa?la:kin kul:ama?zda:da?l?as?fu?zda:da?lmusa:fir tada?:uran bi?aba:?atih | ?ilaan ?usqit? fi: jadi?r:i:? fa taxal:at ?an mu?a:walatiha: || ba?da?ið sat?a?ati:ams bidif?iha: | fa?ma: ka:n mina?lmusa:firi ?il:aan xala?a ?aba:?atahu ?ala?t:aw: || wa?ha:kaða?d?t?ur:at ri:?u:ama:l ?ila?l?i?tira:f bi?an:a:ams ka:nat hija?l?aqwa:/
['kæ:næt ?i:? æ? ?æ'mæ:l tætæ'?æ:dæl wæ? '?æm.se fi: '?æj.jin men'homæ 'kæ:næt 'qw? m?n æl 'x | wæ ð bi m?'sæ:fe? 'j?t?l m?tæ'læf.fe? bi ?æ'bæ:?æ sæ'mi:kæ || fæt tæf?q?'tæ: '?ælæ ?.te'b?:? ?s 's?:beq fie?b?:? æl m?'sæ:fe? '?ælæ 'xæl?e ?æbæ:'?æt(i)hi l'qw?: || 'sf?t ?i:? æ? ?æ'mæ:l bi 'qs mæ stæ't:t m?n 'qow.w? || wæ 'læ:k?n k?l'læmæ z'dæ:d æl s?f ?z'dæ:d æl m?'sæ:fe? tædæ?'æn bi ?æbæ:'?ætih | '?ilæ ?æn '?osqet? fi: jæd æ?'?i:? fæ tæ'xæl.læt ?æn mæ:wæ'læt(i)hæ || bæ?dæ'?iðin 's?t?t æ? '?æm.se bi d?f'?ihæ | fæ mæ: kæ:n m?n æl m?'sæ:fe? '?il.læ ?æn 'xælæ? ?æbæ:'?ætæh ?ælæt'tæw || wæ hæ:'kæðæ t't?o?.t ?i:? æ? ?æ'mæ:l '?ilæ l?e?te':f bi'?ænn æ? '?æm.se 'kæ:næt 'h?.jæ l'qw?]
K?nat r al-sham?l tataj?dalu wa-al-shams f? ayyin minhum? k?nat aqwá min al-ukhrá, wa-idh bi-mus?fir ya?la?u mutalaffi? bi-?ab?'ah sam?kah. Fa-ittafaqat? ?alá i?tib?r al-s?biq f? ijb?r al-mus?fir ?alá khal? ?ab?'atihi al-aqwá. ?A?afat r al-sham?l bi-aq?á m? istaat min q?wah. Wa-l?kin kullam? izd?da al-?a?f izd?da al-mus?fir tadaththuran bi-?ab?'atih, ilá an usqi? f? yad al-r fa-takhallat ?an muwalatih?. Ba?da'idhin sa?a?at al-shams bi-dif'ih?, fa-m? k?na min al-mus?fir ill? an khala?a ?ab?'atahu ?alá al-taww. Wa-h?kadh? iurrat r al-sham?l ilá al-i?tir?f bi-an al-shams k?nat hiya al-aqwá.
k?nat ru ?-?am?li tataj?dalu wa-?-?amsa f? ?ayyin minhum? k?nat ?aqw? mina l-?u?r?, wa-?i? bi-mus?firin ya?lu?u mutalaffi?an bi-?abatin sam?katin. fa-t-tafaqat? ?al? ?tib?ri s-s?biqi f? ?ijb?ri l-mus?firi ?al? ?al?i ?abatihi l-?aqw?. ?a?afat ru ?-?am?li bi-?aq m? staat min quwwatin. wal?kin kullam? zd?da l-?a?fu zd?da l-mus?firu tadauran bi-?abatihi, ?il? ?an ?usqi?a f? yadi r-ri fata?allat ?an muwalatih?. ba?da?i?in sa?a?ati ?-?amsu bi-dif?ih?, fam? k?na mina l-mus?firi ?ill? ?an ?ala?a ?abatahu ?al? t-tawwi. wa-haka urrat ru ?-?am?li ?il? l-?i?tir?fi bi?anna ?-?amsa k?nat hiya l-?aqw?.