Arabic phonology

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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. All phonemes contrast between "emphatic" (uvularized) 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][does the source use the term 'uvularized'?]


Vowel chart representing the pronunciation of 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 only has six vowel phonemes, or three pairs of corresponding short and long vowels. It has two diphthongs (formed by a combination of short /a/ with the semivowels /j/ and /w/) in classic Arabic with no allophones. 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:

  • /a, aː/
    • retracted to [ɑ] in the environment of a neighboring /r/, /q/ or an emphatic consonant (one that is uvularized, though customarily transcribed as if pharyngealized): /sˤ/, /dˤ/, /tˤ/, /ðˤ/, /ɫ/ and in a few regional standard pronunciations also /x/ and /ɣ/;[4]
    • only in Iraq and the Persian Gulf: [ɐ] before a word boundary;[4]
    • advanced to [æ] in the environment of most consonants:
    • Across North Africa and West Asia, the allophones [æ] and [ɑ] may be realized differently, either as [a ~ ɑ ~ ɛ], or both as [a ~ ä]
    • In northwestern Africa, the open front vowel /æ/ is raised to [ɛ] or [e].
  • /i, iː, u, uː/
    • Across North Africa and West Asia, /i/ may be realized as [ɪ ~ e ~ ɨ] before emphatic consonants and [q], [r], [ħ], [ʕ]. /u/ can also have different realizations, i.e. [ʊ ~ o ~ ʉ]. Sometimes with one value for each vowel in both short and long lengths or two different values for each short and long lengths. They are distinct phonemes in loan words.
    • In Egypt, close vowels have different values; short initial or medial: [e][o] ← instead of /i, u/. /i~ɪ/ and /u~ʊ/ completely become /e/ and /o/ respectively in some other particular dialects. Unstressed final long /aː, iː, uː/ are most often shortened or reduced: /aː/ → [æ ~ ɑ], /iː/ → /i/, /uː/ → [o~u].

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.[6] Often, even highly proficient speakers will import the vowel-retraction rules from their native dialects.[7] 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.[8] Certain speakers (most notably Levantine speakers) exhibit a degree of asymmetry in leftward vs. rightward spread of vowel-retraction.[8][9]

Example words[10]
short long
i عِدّ/ʕid/ "promise" عِيد/ʕiːd/ "holiday"
u عُدّ/ʕud/ "come back!" عُود/ʕuːd/ "lute"
a َعَدّ/ʕadd/ "counted" عَاد/ʕaːd/ "came back"
aj عَيْن/ʕajn/ "eye"
aw عَوْد/ʕawd/ "return"

The final heavy syllable of a root is stressed.[10]

However, the pronunciation of loanwords is highly dependent on the speaker's native variety.

The long mid vowels /oː/ and /eː/ appear in to be phonemic in most varieties of Arabic, and they can be used in Modern Standard Arabic in some stable loanwords or foreign names,[11] e.g. كوكاكولا /ko(ː)kaˈkoːla/ ('Coca-Cola'), شوكولاتة /ʃo(ː)ko(ː)ˈlaːta/ ('chocolate'), دكتور /dukˈtoːr/ or /dokˈtoːr/ ('doctor'), جون /(d)ʒoːn/ ('John'), توم /to(ː)m/ ('Tom'), بلجيكا /belˈ(d)ʒiːka/ ('Belgium'), سكرتير /sekreˈteːr/ or /sekerˈteːr/ ('secretary'), etc. 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] When in need the letters ي or و are always used to render the long vowels /eː/ and /oː/.


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]

Modern Standard Arabic consonant phonemes
Labial Dental Denti-alveolar Palatal Velar Uvular Pharyngeal Glottal
plain emphatic1
Nasal m n
Stop voiceless t4 11 3 k11 q5 ʔ
voiced b d4 3 d͡ʒ6
Fricative voiceless f θ s ʃ x ~ χ7 ħ8 h
voiced ð z ðˤ ɣ ~ ʁ7 ʕ8
Trill r10
Approximant l (ɫ)9 j w
  1. ^ Emphatic consonants are pronounced with the back of the tongue approaching the pharynx (see pharyngealization). They are pronounced with velarization by the Iraqi and Arabic Gulf speakers.[citation needed] /q/, /ħ/, and /ʕ/ can be considered the emphatic counterparts to /k/, /h/, and /ʔ/ respectively.[15]
  2. ^ /p, v/ are not necessarily pronounced by all Arabic speakers, but are often pronounced in names and loanwords. Foreign sounds /p/, /v/ are usually transcribed as ب /b/ and ف /f/, respectively. In some words, they are pronounced as in the original language (/p/ and /v/), e.g. باكستان or پاکستان /pa(ː)kistaːn, ba(ː)kistaːn/ "Pakistan", فيروس or ڤيروس /vi(ː)ru(ː)s, vajru(ː)s/ "virus", etc. Sometimes the Persian letter (with 3 dots) /p/ and a modified /v/ letter are used for this purpose. 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.
  3. ^ ض /dˤ/ and ط /tˤ/ are pronounced as [d̪ˠ] and [t̪ˠ], respectively, in Iraq and only in the eastern part of the Arabian Peninsula.[citation needed]
  4. ^ Depending on the region, the plosives are either alveolar or dental.
  5. ^ The Sudanese usually pronounce /q/ (ق) as [ɢ] even in Literary Arabic.
  6. ^ 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 Yemen and Oman. This is also a characteristic of colloquial Egyptian and southern Yemeni dialects.[16] 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 with [j]. In some Sudanese and Yemeni dialects, it may be either [ɡʲ] or [ɟ] as it used to be in Classical Arabic. Foreign words containing /ɡ/ may be transcribed with ج‎, غ‎, ك‎, ق‎, گ‎, ݣ or ڨ‎, mainly depending on the regional spoken variety of Arabic or the commonly diacriticized Arabic letter. Also, /d͡ʒ~ʒ/ (چ only in Egypt) can be used in loanwords where it isn't the standard pronunciation for the letter ǧīm (ج).
  7. ^ In most regions, uvular fricatives of the classical period have become velar or post-velar.[17]
  8. ^ The so-called "voiced pharyngeal fricative" /ʕ/ (ع) is in fact neither pharyngeal nor fricative, but is more correctly described as a creaky-voiced epiglottal approximant.[18] Its unvoiced counterpart /ħ/ (ح) is likewise epiglottal, although it is a true fricative. Thelwall asserts that the sound of ع is actually a pharyngealized glottal stop [ʔˤ].[19] Similarly, McCarthy (1994) points to dialectal and idiolectal variation between stop and continuant variations of /ʕ/ in Iraq and Kuwait, noting that the distinction is superficial for Arabic speakers and carries "no phonological consequences."[20]
  9. ^ In most pronunciations, /ɫ/ as a phoneme occurs in a handful of loanwords. It also occurs in الله Allah /ʔaɫˈɫaːh/, the name of God;[16] except when it follows long or short /i/ when it is not emphatic: بسم الله bismi l-lāh /bis.milˈlaːh/ ("in the name of God").[21] However, /ɫ/ is absent in many places, such as Egypt, and is more widespread in certain dialects, such as Iraqi, where the uvulars have velarized surrounding instances of /l/ in certain environments. /ɫ/ also assumes phonemic status more commonly in pronunciations influenced by such dialects. Furthermore, /ɫ/ also occurs as an allophone of /l/ in the environment of emphatic consonants when the two are not separated by /i/.[22]
  10. ^ Emphatic /r/ exists all over North African pronunciations. The trill /r/ is sometimes reduced to a single vibration when single, but it remains potentially a trill, not a flap [ɾ], single trill is pronounced between trill [r] and flap [ɾ]. <r> is a free variation between trill /r/ and a flap [ɾ] in Egyptian and Levantine dialects.
  11. ^ /k/ and /t/ are usually aspirated, like English.

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,[10] but this is only common across regions in West Asia.


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

  • (C1) (S1) V (S2) (C2 (C3))

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:

  • Onset
    • First consonant (C1): Can be any consonant, including a liquid (/l, r/). (Onset is composed only of one consonant; consonant clusters are only found in loanwords, sometimes an epenthetic /a/ is inserted between consonants.)
  • Nucleus
    • Semivowel (S1)
    • Vowel (V)
    • Semivowel (S2)
  • Coda
    • First consonant (C2): Can be any consonant.
    • Second consonant (C3): Can also be any consonant.

Word stress[edit]

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:[23]

  • Light:
    • An open syllable containing a short vowel (i.e. CV), such as wa 'and'
  • Heavy:
    • An open syllable containing a long vowel (i.e. CVV), such as sā.fara 'he travelled'
    • A closed syllable containing a short vowel followed by one consonant (i.e. CVC), such as min 'from' or 'I wrote'
  • Super-heavy:
    • A closed syllable containing a long vowel followed by one consonant (i.e. CVVC), such as bāb# 'door' or mād.dun 'stretching (NOM)'
    • A closed syllable containing a vowel of any length followed by two consonants (i.e. CVCC, CVVCC), such as bint# 'girl' or mādd# 'stretching'

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.[24]

A more precise description is J. C. E. Watson's. Here the stressed syllable follows the marker ' and variant rules are in brackets:[25]

  1. Stress a pre-pausal superheavy (CVVC, CVVGG, or CVCC) syllable: [ki'tāb] ‘book’, ['mādd] ‘stretching (MASC SG)’, [ʃā'ribt] ‘I/you (MASC SG) drank’.
  2. Otherwise, stress the rightmost non-final heavy (CVV, CVC, or CVVG) syllable (up to the antepenult): [da'rasnā] ‘we learnt’, [ṣā'būnun] ‘soap (NOM)’, ['maktabah] ‘library’, ['māddun] ‘stretching (NOM)’, ['maktabatun] ‘library’ (non-pause) (or [mak'tabatun]).
  3. Otherwise, stress the leftmost 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:[26]

  1. Stress a superheavy ultima.
  2. Otherwise, stress a heavy penult.
  3. 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.

Local variations[edit]

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 Hijaz, at least, strongly looks like a conservative sedentary variety.[citation needed]

Some examples of variation:

  • The phoneme /ɡ/: the word "golf" may be spelled جولف (mainly in Egypt), غولف and كولف (mainly in the Levant and Iraq), قولف (mainly in the Arabian Peninsula), ݣولف‎ (in Morocco) or گولف (in West Asia).[12]

The Standard Arabic and dialects did not have the letters V and P but they are pronounced by using the Arabic F for V and Arabic B for P /v/ and /p/, largely from loanwords[27] as in ڤولڤو‎ (Volvo) and سڤن أپ‎ (seven-ap 'Seven-Up'). /t͡ʃ/ is another possible loanword phoneme, as in the word سندوتش‎ (sandawitsh 'sandwich'), though a number of varieties instead break up the [t] and [ʃ] sounds with an epenthetic vowel.[28] 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.[29] Persian character چ is used for writing []. Otherwise Arabic usually substitutes other letters in the transliteration of names and loanwords, normally the combination تش (tā’-shīn) is used to transliterate the [tʃ].

  • Highly varied realizations of the original velar stops (especially Classical /q/ < */kˤ/ and /d͡ʒ/ < */ɡʲ/; to a lesser extent, /k/). /q/ is frequently voiced to [ɡ], debuccalized to [ʔ] or fronted to [k];[citation needed] palatalized pronunciations are sometimes seen, as in the name of the city of Sharjah.[29] /d͡ʒ/ is frequently softened to [ʒ] or palatalized to [j], but appears as [ɡ] in most of Egypt. /k/ is frequently palatalized to [t͡ʃ] in Iraq and the Persian Gulf.[29]
  • Split of original /r/ into two phonemes, distinguished primarily by how they affect neighboring vowels. This has progressed the farthest in North Africa. See Moroccan Arabic, Algerian Arabic, Tunisian Arabic and Libyan Arabic
  • Loss of the glottal stop in places where it is historically attested, as in /samaːʔ//sama/.[citation needed]
  • Development of highly distinctive allophones of /a/ and /aː/, with highly fronted [a(ː)], [æ(ː)] or [ɛ(ː)] in non-emphatic contexts, and retracted [ɑ(ː)] in emphatic contexts.[citation needed] The more extreme distinctions are characteristic of sedentary varieties, while Bedouin and conservative Arabian-peninsula varieties have much closer allophones. In some of the sedentary varieties, the allophones are gradually splitting into new phonemes under the influence of loanwords, where the allophone closest in sound to the source-language vowel often appears regardless of the presence or absence of nearby emphatic consonants.[citation needed]
  • Spread of "emphasis", visible in the backing of phonemic /a(ː)/. In conservative varieties of the Arabic peninsula, only /a/ adjacent to emphatic consonants is affected, while in Cairo, an emphatic consonant anywhere in a word tends to trigger emphatic allophones throughout the entire word.[citation needed] Dialects of the Levant are somewhere in between. Moroccan Arabic is unusual in that /i/ and /u/ have clear emphatic allophones as well (typically lowered, e.g. to [e] and [o]).[citation needed]
  • Monophthongization of diphthongs such as /aj/ and /aw/ to /eː/ and /oː/, respectively (/iː/ and /uː/ in parts of the Maghrib, such as in Moroccan Arabic). Mid vowels may also be present in loanwords such as ملبورن (/milboːrn/ Melbourne), سكرتير (/sikriteːr/ '(male) secretary') and دكتور (/duktoːr/ 'doctor').[11]
  • Raising of word final /a/ to [e]. In some parts of Levant, also word-medial /aː/ to [eː]. See Lebanese Arabic.
  • Loss of final short vowels (with /i/ sometimes remaining), and shortening of final long vowels. This triggered the loss of most Classical Arabic case and mood distinctions.[citation needed]
  • Collapse and deletion of short vowels. In many varieties, such as North Mesopotamian, many Levantine dialects, many Bedouin dialects of the Maghrib, and Mauritanian, short /i/ and /u/ have collapsed to schwa and exhibit very little distinction so that such dialects have two short vowels, /a/ and /ə/.[citation needed] Many Levantine dialects show partial collapse of /i/ and /u/, which appear as such only in the next-to-last phoneme of a word (i.e. followed by a single word-final consonant), and merge to /ə/ elsewhere.[citation needed] A number of dialects that still allow three short vowels /a/ /i/ /u/ in all positions, such as Egyptian Arabic, nevertheless show little functional contrast between /i/ and /u/ as a result of past sound changes converting one sound into the other.[30] Arabic varieties everywhere have a tendency to delete short vowels (especially other than /a/) in many phonological contexts. When combined with the operation of inflectional morphology, disallowed consonant clusters often result, which are broken up by epenthetic short vowels, automatically inserted by phonological rules. In these respects (as in many others), Moroccan Arabic has the most extreme changes, with all three short vowels /a/, /i/, /u/ collapsing to a schwa /ə/, which is then deleted in nearly all contexts.[citation needed] This variety, in fact, has essentially lost the quantitative distinction between short and long vowels in favor of a new qualitative distinction between unstable "reduced" vowels (especially /ə/) and stable, half-long "full" vowels /a/, /i/, /u/ (the reflexes of original long vowels).[citation needed] Classical Arabic words borrowed into Moroccan Arabic are pronounced entirely with "full" vowels regardless of the length of the original vowel.[citation needed]


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 movies.[citation needed] Cairene Arabic has emphatic labials [mˤ] and [bˤ][27] and emphatic [rˤ][16] 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[30] 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'),[31] 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.[32]


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).[31] In unstressed syllables, Sanaani short vowels may be reduced to [ə].[33] /tˤ/ is voiced to [dˤ] in initial and intervocalic positions.[27]


Of all the mainstream varieties of Arabic, Moroccan Arabic is likely the one that has diverged the most from Classical Arabic, similarly to the position of French in the Romance languages and English among the Germanic languages. As described above, Moroccan has heavily innovated in its vowel phonology, under heavy Berber influence. Short vowels /a/ and /i/ merged into /ə/. More recently, most instances of short /u/ have also merged into /ə/; the few that remain are mostly in the vicinity of velars and uvulars, which suggests an alternative analysis with phonemically rounded consonants (e.g. labiovelars) and only one short vowel /ə/. This schwa, in turn, is phonemically deleted in all contexts except directly followed by a single word-final consonant or in some three-consonant words of the shape CəCC. This inevitably results in some very long, complex consonant clusters, which (unlike most other Arabic varieties) Moroccan Arabic is remarkably tolerant of, only tending to insert epenthetic schwas to break up the clusters at a slow rate of speech. Unlike in other varieties, doubled consonants are never reduced, but are pronounced clearly whether occurring at the beginning of a word, end of a word, between vowels or before or after a consonant. With the collapse of short vowels, speakers no longer perceive a long vs. short distinction in vowels, which has been replaced with a "full" vs. "reduced/unstable" distinction. "Full" vowels (actually pronounced half-long) substitute for both the long and short vowels of Classical Arabic in borrowings; as a result, these borrowings can be immediately identified by their phonology.

A number of other unique or unusual developments have taken place. Stress is, for the most part, not detectable at all; to the extent stressed syllables can be identified, there is often no consistent pattern governing which syllable is stressed. Original /q/ has split into two phonemes /q/ and /ɡ/, reflecting the origin of Moroccan Arabic as a mixture of a sedentary and Bedouin dialect. Original diphthongs /aj/, /aw/ have merged into full vowels /i/, /u/ rather than generating new vowel qualities; but "long diphthongs" /aj/, /aw/ also exist, best analyzed as a combination of full vowel /a/ and semivowel. Unlike most other varieties, emphasis not only triggers front/back allophones in /a/, but also high/low allophones in /i/ and /u/, and /ǝ/ varies between non-emphatic [ɪ̆], emphatic [ə̆], and pharyngeal-environment [ʌ̆]. On the other hand, emphasis spreads only as far as the first full vowel in either direction, unlike in most sedentary varieties where emphasis can spread much more widely, sometimes throughout the entire word. For the purposes of emphasis, /r/ splits completely into non-emphatic /r/ and emphatic /rˤ/, distinguishable mostly by their effects on adjacent vowels; with very few exceptions, the choice of one or another is consistent across all words derived from a given root. Most emphatic/nonemphatic pairs behave similarly, but /t/ is affricated [tˢ] while /tˤ/ is non-affricated [t], so it is always possible to distinguish the two without recourse to their effects on surrounding vowels.


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):

Phoneme Frequency Phoneme Frequency
/r/ 24% /w/ 18%
/l/ 17% /m/ 17%
/n/ 17% /b/ 16%
/f/ 14% /ʕ/ 13%
/q/ 13% /d/ 13%
/s/ 13% /ħ/ 12%
/j/ 12% /ʃ/ 11%
/dʒ/ 10% /k/ 9%
/h/ 8% /z/ 8%
/tˤ/ 8% /x/ 8%
/sˤ/ 7% /ʔ/ 7%
/t/ 6% /dˤ/ 5%
/ɣ/ 5% /θ/ 3%
/ð/ 3% /ðˤ/ 1%

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.[34]

Normal orthographic version[edit]

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.

Diacriticized orthographic version[edit]

كَانَتْ رِيحُ ٱلشَّمَالِ تَتَجَادَلُ وَٱلشَّمْسَ فِي أَيٍّ مِنْهُمَا كَانَتْ أَقْوَى مِنَ ٱلأُخْرَى، وَإِذْ بِمُسَافِرٍ يَطْلُعُ مُتَلَفِّعًا بِعَبَاءَةٍ سَمِيكَةٍ. فَٱتَّفَقَتَا عَلَى ٱعْتِبارِ ٱلسَّابِقِ فِي إِجْبارِ ٱلمُسَافِرِ عَلَى خَلْعِ عَباءَتِهِ ٱلأَقْوىٰ. عَصَفَتْ رِيحُ ٱلشَّمالِ بِأَقْصَى مَا ٱسْتَطَاعَتْ مِن قُوَّةٍ. وَلٰكِنْ كُلَّمَا ٱزْدَادَ ٱلعَصْفُ ٱزْدَادَ ٱلمُسَافِرُ تَدَثُّرًا بِعَبَاءَتِهِ، إِلَى أَنْ أُسْقِطَ فِي يَدِ ٱلرِّيحِ فَتَخَلَّتْ عَنْ مُحَاوَلَتِهَا. بَعْدَئِذٍ سَطَعَتِ ٱلشَّمْسُ بِدِفْئِهَا، فَمَا كَانَ مِنَ ٱلمُسَافِرِ إلَّا أَنْ خَلَعَ عَبَاءَتَهُ عَلَى ٱلتَّوِّ. وَهٰكَذَا ٱضْطُرَّتْ رِيحُ ٱلشَّمَالِ إِلَى ٱلاِعْتِرَافِ بِأَنَّ ٱلشَّمْسَ كَانَتْ هِيَ ٱلأَقْوَى.[35]

Phonemic transcription (with i‘rāb)[edit]

/kaːnat rijħu ʃːamaːli tatad͡ʒaːdalu wa ʃːamsa fij ʔajːin minhumaː kaːnat ʔaqwaː min alʔuxraː | wa ʔið bi musaːfirin jatˤluʕu mutalafːiʕan bi ʕabaːʔatin samijka || fa tːafaqataː ʕalaː ʕtibaːri sːaːbiqi fij ʔid͡ʒbaːri lmusaːfiri ʕalaː xalʕi ʕabaːʔatihi lʔaqwaː || ʕasˤafat rijħu ʃːamaːli bi ʔaqsˤaː maː statˤaːʕat min quwːa || wa laːkin kulːamaː zdaːda lʕasˤf izdaːda lmusaːfiru tadaθːuran biʕabaːʔatih | ʔilaː ʔan ʔusqitˤa fij jadi rːijħ fa taxalːat ʕan muħaːwalatihaː || baʕdaʔiðin satˤaʕati ʃːamsu bidifʔihaː | fa maːkaːna mina lmusaːfiri ʔilːaː ʔan xalaʕa ʕabaːʔatahu ʕalaː tːawː || wa haːkaðaː dˤtˤurat rijħu ʃːamaːli ʔilaː lʔiʕtiraːfi biʔanːa ʃːamsa kaːnat hija lʔaqwaː/[35]

Phonemic transcription (without i‘rāb)[edit]

/kaːnat riːħ aʃ ʃamaːl tatadʒaːdal waʃ ʃamsI fiː ʔajjɪn minhumaː kaːnat ʔaqwaː min al ʔuxraː | wa ʔið bi musaːfir jatˤlaʕ mutalaffiʕan bi ʕabaːʔa samiːka || fat tafaqataː ʕala ʕtibaːr is saːbiq fiː ʔidʒbaːr al musaːfir ʕalaː xalʕI ʕabaːʔatih al ʔaqwaː || ʕasˤafat riːħ aʃ ʃamaːl bi ʔaqsˤaː ma statˤaːʕat min quwwa || wa laːkin kullama zdaːd al ʕasˤf izdaːd al musaːfir tadaθθuran bi ʕabaːʔatih | ʔilaː ʔan ʔusqitˤ fiː jad ar riːħ fa taxallat ʕan muħaːwalatihaː || baʕdaʔiðin satˤaʕat aʃ ʃamsI bi difʔihaː | fa maː kaːn min al musaːfir ʔillaː ʔan xalaʕa ʕabaːʔatah ʕala ttaww || wa haːkaða dˤtˤurrat riːħ aʃ ʃamaːl ʔila lʔiʕtiraːf biʔann aʃ ʃamsI kaːnat hija lʔaqwaː/

Phonetic transcription (Egypt)[edit]

[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]

ALA-LC transliteration[edit]

Kānat rīḥ ash-shamāl tatajādal wa-sh-shams-i fī ayy-in minhomā kānat aqwá min al-ukhrá, wa idh bi-musāfir yaṭlaʻ mutalaffiʻ bi-ʻabāʼah samīkah. Fa-t-tafaqatā ʻalá ʻtibār is-sābiq fī ijbār al-musāfir ʻalá khalʻ-i ʻabāʼatih-i l-aqwá. ʻaṣafat rīḥ ash-shamāl bi-aqṣá mā s-taṭāʻat min quwwah. Wa lākin kullamā z-dād al-ʻaṣf izdād al-musāfir tadaththuran bi-ʻabāʼatih, ilá an usqiṭ fī yad ar-rīḥ fa takhallat ʻan muḥāwalatihā. Baʻdaʼidhin saṭaʻat ash-shams-i bi difʼihā, fa-mā kān min al-musāfir illā an khalaʻ ʻabāʼatah ʻalá t-taww. Wa hākadhā ḍṭurrat arīḥ as-shamāl ilá l-iʻtirāf bi-an ash-shams-i kānat hiya l-aqwá.

English Wiktionary transliteration (based on Hans Wehr)[edit]

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.


  1. ^ Kirchhoff & Vergyri (2005:38)
  2. ^ Kirchhoff & Vergyri (2005:38–39)
  3. ^ Holes (2004:57)
  4. ^ a b Thelwall (1990:39)
  5. ^ Holes (2004:60)
  6. ^ Abd-El-Jawad (1987:359)
  7. ^ Abd-El-Jawad (1987:361)
  8. ^ a b Watson (1999:290)
  9. ^ Davis (1995:466)
  10. ^ a b c Thelwall (1990:38)
  11. ^ a b Elementary Modern Standard Arabic: Volume 1, by Peter F. Abboud (Editor), Ernest N. McCarus (Editor)
  12. ^ a b c d Teach Yourself Arabic, by Jack Smart (Author), Frances Altorfer (Author)
  13. ^ Holes (2004:58)
  14. ^ a b c Hans Wehr, Dictionary of Modern Written Arabic (transl. of Arabisches Wörterbuch für die Schriftsprache der Gegenwart, 1952)
  15. ^ Watson (2002:44)
  16. ^ a b c Watson (2002:16)
  17. ^ Watson (2002:18)
  18. ^ Ladefoged & Maddieson (1996:167–168)
  19. ^ Thelwall (1990), citing Gairdner (1925), Al Ani (1970), and Käster (1981).
  20. ^ McCarthy (1994:194–195)
  21. ^ Holes (2004:95)
  22. ^ Ferguson (1956:449)
  23. ^ Watson, JCE (2011) Word stress in Arabic. In: The Blackwell companion to phonology. Wiley-Blackwell, Oxford, 2990-3019 (p. 2991),
  24. ^ Kees Versteegh, The Arabic Language (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1997), p. 90.
  25. ^ Watson, JCE (2011) Word stress in Arabic. In: The Blackwell companion to phonology. Wiley-Blackwell, Oxford, 2990-3019 (p. 3003),
  26. ^ Watson, JCE (2011) Word stress in Arabic. In: The Blackwell companion to phonology. Wiley-Blackwell, Oxford, 2990-3019 (pp. 2993, 3004),
  27. ^ a b c Watson (2002:14)
  28. ^ Watson (2002:60–62), citing Ṣan‘ā’ni and Cairene as examples with and without this phoneme, respectively.
  29. ^ a b c Gulf Arabic Sounds
  30. ^ a b Watson (2002:22)
  31. ^ a b Watson (2002:23)
  32. ^ Watson (2002:21)
  33. ^ Watson (2002:40)
  34. ^ Thelwall (1990:37)
  35. ^ a b Thelwall (1990:40)


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