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 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.
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. The following are some general rules:
|i||عِدْ /ʕid/||"promise!"||عِيد /ʕiːd/||"holiday"|
|u||عُدّ /ʕudd/||"count (command)"||عُود /ʕuːd/||"lute"|
|a||عَدّ /ʕadd/||"counted"||عَاد /ʕaːd/||"came back"|
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 final heavy syllable of a root is stressed.
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 are 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 are 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, 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. 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.
See also: Arabic letters and sun and moon letters
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 (/sˤ/, /dˤ/, /tˤ/, and /ðˤ/) cause assimilation of emphasis to adjacent non-emphatic coronal consonants. 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. The standard pronunciation of ⟨ج⟩ /d͡ʒ/ varies regionally, most prominently [d͡ʒ] in the Arabian Peninsula, parts of the Levant, Iraq, and northern Algeria, it is also considered as the predominant pronunciation of Literary Arabic outside the Arab world, [ʒ] in most of Northwest Africa and the Levant, [g] in Egypt, coastal Yemen, and south coastal Oman, as well as [ɟ] in Sudan.
Note: the table and notes below discusses the phonology of Modern Standard Arabic among Arabic speakers and not regional dialects.
|Fricative||voiceless||f||θ[i]||s||sˤ||ʃ||x ~ χ[j]||ħ[k]||h|
|voiced||(v)[c]||ð[i]||z||ðˤ ~ zˤ[l]||ɣ ~ ʁ[j]||ʕ[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). Between a long consonant and a pause, an epenthetic [ə] occurs, but this is only common across regions in West Asia.
Standard Arabic syllables come in only five forms:
Arabic syllable structure does not allow syllables to start with a vowel or with a consonant cluster. In cases where a word starts with a consonant cluster it is preceded by an epenthetic [ʔi] utterance initially or [i] when preceded by a word that ends with a consonant; there are however exceptions like من /min/ and ـهم /-hum/ that connect with a following word-initial consonant cluster with [a] and [u] respectively, if the preceding word ends with a long vowel that vowel is then shortened.
Super-heavy syllables are usually not allowed except word finally, with the exception of CVV- before geminates creating non-final CVVC- syllables, these can be found in the active participles of geminate Form I verbs, like in مادة /maːd.da/ ('substance, matter'), كافة /kaːf.fa/ ('entirely'), سام /saːm.m/ ('poisonous'), جاف /d͡ʒaːf.f/ ('dry'), عام /ʕaːm.m/ ('public, general'), خاص /xaːsˤ.sˤ/ ('private, special'), and حار /ħaːr.r/ ('hot, spicy').
In the pausal form, the final geminates behave as a single consonant, only when preceding another word or with vocalization, the geminates start appearing, belonging to two separate syllables.
Loanwords can break some phonotactic rules like allowing initial consonant clusters (with an initial epenthetic [i] being optional) like in /bluː.toː/ "Pluto" or allowing CVVC syllables non-finally without geminates like in /ruːs.jaː/ "Russia" which can be modified to /ruː.si.jaː/ to fit the phonotactics better.
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:: 2991
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:: 3003
- Stress a pre-pausal superheavy (CVVC, CVVCC, or CVCC) syllable: [kiˈtāb] 'book', [ˈmādd] 'stretching (MASC SG)', [ʃaˈribt] 'I/you (MASC SG) drank'.
- Otherwise, stress the rightmost non-final heavy (CVV, CVC, or CVVC) syllable (up to the antepenult): [daˈrasnā] 'we learnt', [ṣāˈbūnun] 'soap (NOM)', [ˈmaktabah] 'library', [ˈmāddun] 'stretching (NOM)', [ˈmaktabatun] 'library' (non-pause) (or [makˈtabatun]).
- Otherwise, stress the leftmost CV syllable (or antepenult): [ˈkataba] 'he wrote', [ˈkatabatuhu] 'library' (or [kataˈbatuhu]).
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:: 2993, 3004
- 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, 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.
Some examples of variation:
|/p/[a]||پ / ب|
|/v/[a]||ڥ / ڢ / ف||ڤ / ف|
|/t͡ʃ/||ڜ||تش (ت + ش)||چ / ك|
|/g/||ڭ / گ||ڨ / ڧـ ـڧـ ـٯ / ق||ج[b]||غ / ج[c]||چ / ج||ق||گ / ك||ق|
|/ʒ/ or /d͡ʒ/||ج||چ / ج||ج|
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. 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 ﭖ /p/ and ﭪ /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. 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. 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. Normally the combination تش (tā’-shīn) is used to transliterate the [tʃ], while in rural Levantine dialects /k/ is usually substituted with /t͡ʃ/ while speaking and would be written as ك. Otherwise Arabic usually substitutes other letters in the transliteration of names and loanwords like the Persian character چ which is used for writing [tʃ].
Other Variations include:
The main dialectal variations in Arabic consonants revolve around the six consonants; ⟨ج⟩, ⟨ق⟩, ⟨ث⟩, ⟨ذ⟩, ⟨ض⟩ and ⟨ظ⟩:
|Letter||Classical||Modern Standard||Dialectal Main Variations||Less Common Variations|
|ج||/gʲ/ or /ɟ/||/d͡ʒ/||[d͡ʒ]||[ʒ]||[ɡ]||[ɟ]||[j]||[d͡z]||[d]|
|ق||/q/ or /ɡ/||/q/||[q]||[ɡ]||[ʔ]||[ɢ]||[k]||[d͡ʒ]||[d͡z]||[ɣ ~ ʁ]|
Main article: Egyptian Arabic
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] and emphatic [rˤ] to Cairene Arabic with marginal phonemic status. Cairene has also merged the interdental consonants with the dental plosives (e.g. ثلاثة /θalaːθa/ → [tæˈlæːtæ], 'three') except in loanwords from Classical Arabic where they are nativized as sibilant fricatives (e.g. ثانوية /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 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 شايلة [ˈʃæjlæ] ('carrying' f.s.) vs شيلة [ˈʃeːlæ] ('burden'). جيب [ɡeːb] 'pocket' + نا [næ] 'our' → collapsing with [ˈɡebnæ] which means (جبنة 'cheese' or جيبنا 'our pocket'), because Cairene phonology cannot have long vowels before two consonants. Cairene also has [ʒ] as a marginal phoneme from loanwords from languages other than Classical Arabic.
See also: Yemeni Arabic § San'ani Arabic dialect
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). In unstressed syllables, Sanaani short vowels may be reduced to [ə]. /tˤ/ is voiced to [dˤ] in initial and intervocalic positions.
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 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.
/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 ˈʃæm.se 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 ˈʃæm.se 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 ˈʃæm.se 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 North Wind and the Sun were disputing which was the stronger, when a traveler came along wrapped in a warm cloak. They agreed that the one who first succeeded in making the traveler take his cloak off should be considered stronger than the other. Then the North Wind blew as hard as he could, but the more he blew the more closely did the traveler fold his cloak around him; and at last the North Wind gave up the attempt. Then the Sun shined out warmly, and immediately the traveler took off his cloak. And so the North Wind was obliged to confess that the Sun was the stronger of the two.