Tunisian Arabic

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This article is about a general description of the language. For the grammatical cases and conjugation, see Tunisian Arabic morphology.
Tunisian Arabic
تونسي Tounsi   
Pronunciation [tu:nsi]
Native to Tunisia, North-eastern Algeria
Ethnicity Maghrebis
Native speakers
11.2 million native (2014 census)[1]
Arabic script, Latin script
Tunisian Sign Language
Official status
Recognised minority
language in
As a variety of Maghrebi Arabic on 7 May 1999 (Not ratified due to several Constitutional Matters):[2][3]  France
Language codes
ISO 639-3 aeb
Glottolog tuni1259[4]
This article contains IPA phonetic symbols. Without proper rendering support, you may see question marks, boxes, or other symbols instead of Unicode characters.

Tunisian Arabic, or Tunisian, is a set of dialects of Maghrebi Arabic spoken in Tunisia.[5] It is known by its 11 million speakers as Tounsi [ˈtuːnsi],[6] "Tunisian",[7][8] or as Derja,[9] "colloquial dialect" to distinguish it from standard Arabic, the official language of Tunisia.

As part of a dialect continuum, Tunisian merges into Algerian Arabic and Libyan Arabic at the borders of the country. Tunisian Arabic's morphology, syntax, pronunciation and vocabulary are quite different from standard or classical Arabic.[6] Like other Maghrebi dialects, it has a vocabulary that is mostly Arabic with a significant Berber and possibly a Punic[10] substratum. However, Tunisian has also a significant Latin component,[11][12] as well as many loanwords from French,[13] Turkish,[13] Italian[13] and Spanish.[13]

Tunisian Arabic is mostly intelligible to speakers of other Maghrebi dialects but is hard to understand or is unintelligible for speakers of Middle Eastern Arabic.[11] Multilingualism within Tunisia and in the Tunisian diaspora makes it common for Tunisians to code-switch, mixing Tunisian with French, English, Standard Arabic or other languages in daily speech.[14] Within some circles, Tunisian Arabic has thereby integrated new French and English words, notably in technical fields, or replaced old French and Spanish loans with standard Arabic words.[14][15]

However, code-switching between Tunisian Arabic and modern standard Arabic is mainly done by more educated and upper-class people and has not negatively affected the use of more recent French and Spanish loanwords in Tunisian.[14]

Moreover, Tunisian Arabic is closely related to Maltese,[16] which is not considered to be a dialect of Arabic for sociolinguistic reasons.[17]


Tunisian Arabic is part of the Arabic languages family and is comprised by that in the Afroasiatic family.[1] It belongs, particularly, to the Semitic languages branch.[1] Furthermore, it is part of the Maghrebi Arabic dialects which are mostly unintelligible to standard or middle eastern Arabic, just like Moroccan Arabic and Algerian Arabic.[8] It is also considered to be a mostly hilalian set of dialects, because it was affected by the immigration of Banu Hilal in the 11th century, as were other Maghrebi dialects.[18][19]

As a part of the Arabic dialect continuum, it is reported that Tunisian Arabic is partly mutually intelligible with Algerian Arabic,[8] Libyan Arabic[8] and Maltese.[17] However, it is little to not intelligible with Moroccan Arabic,[8] Egyptian Arabic,[20] Levantine Arabic,[20] Iraqi Arabic,[20] and Gulf Arabic.[20]



Linguistic situation of Ancient Tunisia[edit]

During the Antiquity, Tunisia's population spoke old forms of Tamazight languages, close to Numidian.[21][22] However, the languages progressively lost their function as main languages of Tunisia since the 12th century BC, and their usage became restricted mainly to the western regions of the country until their disappearance or evolution into other languages.[21][22]

Indeed, migrants from Phoenicia settled Tunisia during the 12th to the 2nd century BC, founded Carthage and progressively mixed with the local population.[23] The migrants brought, with them, their culture and language that progressively spread from Tunisia's coastal areas to the rest of the coastal areas of North Africa, Hispania and Mediterranean islands along the Carthaginian Empire.[24] From the 8th century BC, most of Tunisia's inhabitants spoke the Punic language, a variant of the Phoenician language, influenced by the local Numidian language.[25] Also, already at that time, in the regions near to Punic settlements, the Berber that was used evolved considerably. In the urban centers such as Dougga, Bulla Regia, Thuburnica or Chemtou, Berber lost its Maghrebi phonology but kept the essential of its vocabulary. The word « Africa », which gave its name to the continent, is possibly from the name of the Berber tribe of the Afri that was one of the first to enter in contact with Carthage.[26] Also, during this period and up to the 3rd century BC, the Berber Tifinagh alphabet developed from the Phoenician alphabet.[27][28]

After the arrival of Romans, following the fall of Carthage in 146 BC,[29][30] the coastal population spoke mainly Punic, but that influence decreased away from the coast.[25] From Roman period until the Arab conquest, Latin, Greek and Numidian further influenced the language, called Neo-Punic to differentiate it from its older version.[31] This also progressively gave birth to African Romance, a Latin dialect, influenced by Tunisia's other languages and used along with them.[32] Also, as it was the case for the other dialects,[32][33] Punic probably survived the Arabic conquest of the Maghreb: the geographer al-Bakrī described, in the 11th century, people speaking a language that was not Berber, Latin or Coptic in rural Ifriqiya, a region where spoken Punic survived well past its written use.[34] However, it may be that the existence of Punic facilitated the spread of Arabic in the region,[35] as Punic and Arabic are both Semitic languages and share many common roots.[36][37]

Middle Ages[edit]

Classical Arabic began to be installed as a governmental and administrative language in Tunisia that was called then Ifriqiya from its older name Africa when it became an Umayyad territory in 673.[38][39] The people of several urban cities were progressively influenced by Arabic.[39] By the 11th century, by contact of local dialects such as African Romance or Berber with Classical Arabic, some urban dialects appeared in the main coastal cities of Tunisia.[33][40][41] The dialects were slightly and characteristically influenced by several common Berber structures and vocabulary like negation because Tamazight was the language of contact for citizens of that period.[42][43] The new dialects were also significantly influenced by other historical languages.[18][43][44]

In fact, many Tunisian and Maghrebi words, like qarnīṭ, have a Latin etymology.[12][45] The dialects were later called Pre-Hilalian Arabic dialects and were used along Classical Arabic for communication in Tunisia.[46][47] Also, Sicilian, an Italian-Arabic dialect, was spoken in several islands near Tunisia like Sicily, Malta or Sardinia and entered in contact with the Tunisian pre-hilalian dialects.[46][48] Consequently, it ameliorated the divergence in grammar and structures of all the concerned dialects from Classical Arabic.[41][49] By the mid-11th century, Banu Hilal immigrated to northern and central Tunisia and Banu Sulaym immigrated to southern Tunisia.[19][44][49] The immigrants played a major role in spreading the use of Tunisian Arabic in an important part of the country.[44][49][50] However, they brought some of the characteristics of their local Arabic dialects.[19][44] In fact, central Tunisian Arabic speakers became using the voiced velar plosive [ɡ] instead of the voiceless uvular plosive [q] in words such as qāl "he said".[19][50] Veronika Ritt-Benmimoum and Martine Vanhove supposed that even the replacement of the diphthongs /aw/ and /aj/ respectively by /uː/ and /iː/ vowels was a Hilalian influence.[18][19][50] Furthermore, the phonologies brought to the new towns speaking Tunisian Arabic are those of the immigrants and not Tunisian phonology.[19] The Sulaym even spread a new dialect in southern Tunisia that was Libyan Arabic.[19][50][51]

However, some dialects avoided the Hilalian influence: Judeo-Tunisian Arabic, a vernacular spoken by Tunisian Jews and known for the conservation of foreign phonemes in loanwords and slightly influenced by Hebrew phonology,[52][53][54] Sfax dialect[55] and Tunisian urban woman dialect.[56]

By the 15th century, after the decline of Arabic-speaking Andalusia, many Andalusian people immigrated to the Tunisian main coastal cities. These migrants brought some of the characteristics of Andalusian Arabic to the sedentary urban dialects spoken in Tunisia. Among others, it led to the reuse of the voiceless uvular plosive [q] instead of the nomadic hilalian voiced velar plosive [ɡ] and to speech simplification in Tunisian,[51][57][58] which further differentiated the language from Classical Arabic.[51] Furthermore, the changes were recognized by the Hafsid scholar Ibn Khaldun in his Muqaddimah in 1377. He said that language contact between classical Arabic and local languages caused the creation of many Arabic varieties very distinct from formal Arabic[59][60][61]

Ottoman period[edit]

See also: Ottoman Tunisia

During the 17th to the 19th centuries, Tunisia came under Spanish then Ottoman rule and hosted Morisco then Italian immigrants from 1609.[44][60] That made Tunisian, Spanish, Italian and Turkish languages connect.[60] Tunisian acquired several new loanwords from Spanish and Turkish[44][60] and even some structures like the Turkish -jī suffix added to several nouns to mean professions like kawwāṛjī, qahwājī...[57][60] During the mid-19th century, Tunisian Arabic was studied by several European scientists.[62] In 1893, a first linguistic study was completed by the German linguist Hans Stumme. That began a still ongoing research trend on Tunisian Arabic.[6][63]

Modern history[edit]

During the French protectorate of Tunisia, the country entered in contact with the Standard French language.[43][57][64] That affected Tunisian considerably, as new loanwords, meanings and structures were drawn from French.[65] The unintelligibility of Tunisian to Middle Eastern Arabic speakers was worsened [20][43][64]

Geographic distribution of Tunisian Arabic as of 1960 (in blue). The fields in dark blue and light blue were respectively the geographic dispositions of Algerian and Libyan Arabic[66][67][68]
Tunisian leader Habib Bourguiba usually delivered his speeches in Tunisian even for religious celebrations[69][70]

However, the same period was characterized by the rise of interest toward Tunisian Arabic. Indeed, this period was the beginning of a spread formal use of Tunisian Arabic as by Taht Essour.[71] Also, more researches about Tunisian were produced, mainly by French and German linguists.[52] Tunisian Arabic became even taught in French high schools, as an optional language.[72]

By the Tunisian independence in 1956, Tunisian Arabic was spoken only in coastal Tunisia while the other regions spoke Algerian Arabic, Libyan Arabic or several Berber dialects.[73][74] the profusion is from many factors including the length of time the country was inhabited,[75] its long history as a migration land and the profusion of cultures that have inhabited it.[76] While the second, geographical, was the length and diversification of the country, divided between mountain, forest, plain, coastal, island and desert areas.[77]

That is why Tunisian leader Habib Bourguiba began a trial of Arabization and Tunisification of Tunisia and spread free basic education for all Tunisians.[43][78][79] That contributed to the progressive and partial minimisation of code-switching from European languages in Tunisian and the use of code-switching from Standard Arabic.[43][61] Furthermore, the establishment of ERTT in 1966 and the nationwide spread of television with the contact of dialects led to a dialect leveling by the 1980s.[80][81]

By then, Tunisian Arabic reached nationwide usage and became composed of six slightly different but fully mutually intelligible dialects: Tunis dialect, considered the reference Tunisian dialect; Sahil dialect; Sfax dialect; southwestern dialect; southeastern dialect and northwestern dialect.[82] Older dialects became less commonly used and began disappearing.[80][83] Consequently, Tunisian became the main prestigious language of communication and interaction within the Tunisian community[82][84] and Tunisia became the most linguistically homogeneous state of the Maghreb.[85] However, Berber dialects, Libyan and Algerian Arabic as well as several Tunisian dialects like the traditional urban woman dialect, Judeo-Tunisian Arabic or even several Tunisian structures like noun, also practically disappeared from Tunisia.[80][83][86]

The period after Tunisian independence was also marked by the spread of Tunisian Arabic usage in literature and education. In fact, Tunisian Arabic was taught by the Peace Corps from 1966 until 1993[87][88] and more researches on it were made. Some which used new methods like computing operations and the creation of several automatic Corpus.[89][90][91] Others, more traditional, were also made about the phonology, the morphology, the pragmatic and the semantics of Tunisian.[6][57] The language was also used to write several novels since the 1990s[71] and even a Swadesh list in 2012.[92] Now, it is taught by many institutions like the INALCO (in Paris with Tunisian Arabic courses since 1916)[93] and the IBLV (in Tunis with Tunisian Arabic courses since 1990).[3][94][95] or in French high schools as an optional language.[96] In fact, 1878 students sat for the Tunisian Arabic examination in the 1999 French Baccalaureate.[96] Nowadays, the tendency in France is to implement Maghrebi Arabic dialects and mainly Tunisian Arabic more in basic education.[3]

But, those were not the only trials of Tunisian Arabic in education. A project to teach basic education for the elderly people using Tunisian Arabic was proposed in 1977 by Tunisian linguist Mohamed Maamouri. It aimed to ameliorate the quality and intelligibility of basic courses for elderly people who could not understand Standard Arabic as they did not learn it. However, the project was not implemented.[97][98]

Nowadays, the linguistic classification of Tunisian Arabic causes controversies between interested people.[71][99] The problem is caused because of the Arabic dialect continuum.[100][101] Some linguists, such as Michel Quitout and Keith Walters, consider it an independent language,[44][71][82] and some others, such as Enam El-Wer, consider it a divergent dialect of Arabic that is still dependent of Arabic morphology and structures.[50]

Moreover, its political recognition is still limited as it is only recognized in France as a minority language part of Maghrebi Arabic according to the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages of May 1999. However, even the charter was not agreed on by the Constitutional Council of France because its conflicts with the Article 2 of the French Constitution of 1958.[2][3] Also, no official recognition or standardization in Tunisia was provided for Tunisian Arabic until 2015.[82]

Distinctive features[edit]

Tunisian Arabic is a variety of Arabic, and as such shares many features with other modern varieties, especially the Maghrebi varieties of Arabic. Some of its distinctive (compared to other Arabic dialects) are listed here.

  • A conservative consonantal phonology (due to Berber substrates[11]), with the pre-hilalian /q/ and interdental fricatives maintained.
  • The use of إنتِي [ˈʔɪnti] in urban varieties meaning "you" when addressing both men and women, and a concomitant loss of this gender distinction in the verbal morphology. This distinction is still maintained in rural varieties by using إنتَا /ʔinta/ for male and إنتِي /ʔinti/ for female.[102]
  • The lack of an indicative prefix in the verbal system, resulting in no distinction between indicative and subjunctive moods.[102]
  • The innovation of a progressive aspect by means of the participle قاعد [ˈqɑːʕɪd], originally meaning "sitting"; and the preposition في ['fi] "in" in transitive clauses.[102]
  • The distinctive usage of future tense by using the prefixes ماش [ˈmɛːʃ] or باش [ˈbɛːʃ] or ْبِش [ˈbəʃ] + verb that is nearly equivalent to "will" + verb.[102]
  • Some vocabulary such as فيسع [ˈfiːsɑʕ] "fast", باهي [ˈbɛːhi] "good" and برشة [ˈbɛrʃæ] "very much". (e.g.: [ˈbɛːhi ˈbɛrʃæ]="very good")[102]
  • Unlike most of the other Muslim countries, the greeting as-salamu alaykum is not used as the common greeting expression in Tunisia. Tunisians use the expression عالسلامة [ʕæsːˈlɛːmæ] (formal) or أهلا [ˈʔɛhlæ] (informal) for greeting. Also, بالسلامة [bɪsːˈlɛːmæ] (formal) or the Italian ciao (informal) or more rarely the Italian arrivederci are used as the Tunisian "goodbye" expression.[6] يعيشك [jʕɛjːʃɪk] is used as "thank you", in lieu of شكرا [ˈʃʊkræn].[102] However, Tunisian people do use some expressions from standard Arabic such as بارك الله فيك [ˈbɑːræk ɑlˤˈlˤɑːhu ˈfiːk] and أحسنت [ʔæħˈsɛnt] for thank you. But, these expressions are used only as loan structures from standard Arabic and are not used as they are used in standard Arabic.[6][78][102]
  • The passive derivation of verbs is influenced by Berber and is different from the one of classical Arabic.[11][103] It is obtained by prefixing the verb with /t-/, /tt-/, /tn-/ or /n-/ and the choice of one of the four prefixes depends on the used verb (ex: شرب /ʃrab/ "to drink" → تّشرب /ttaʃrab/ "to be drunk").[6][102][103]
  • Nearly all educated Tunisians can communicate in French that is widely used in business and as the main language of communication with foreigners. That is why code switching into French expressions and vocabulary is common in Tunisian.[104][105]
  • Tunisian Arabic is an SVO language and it is most of the time a Null-subject language.[102][106] In fact, the subject is only written in order to avoid meaning ambiguity.[102]


Geographic disposition of the Tunisian Arabic dialects as of 2015.[80][83] The fields in blue, light blue, dark grey, light gray, green and yellow are respectively the geographic dispositions of southwestern Tunisian,[107][108] southeastern Tunisian,[5][109] northwestern Tunisian,[110] Sahil dialect,[111][112] Sfax dialect[55] and Tunis dialect[6][57][113]

Nowadays, the main dialect varieties of Tunisian Arabic are Northwestern Tunisian, southwestern Tunisian, Tunis dialect, Sahil dialect, Sfax dialect and southeastern Tunisian.[6][80][83][111]

The Arabic dialects of Tunisia belong to either pre-Hilalian or Hilalian dialectal families. The pre-Hilalian group includes old (Baldī) Urban dialects of Tunis, Kairouan, Sfax, Sousse, Nabeul and Bizerte, old Village dialects (Sahil dialects), and the Judeo-Tunisian. The Hilalian set includes the Sulaym dialects in the south and the Eastern Hilal dialects in central Tunisia. The latter are also spoken in the Constantinois (eastern Algeria).[40][114]

Tunis,[6][57] Sousse[111] and Sfax[55] dialects (considered sedentary dialects) use the voiceless uvular plosive [q] in words such as قال /qaːl/ "he said" while southeastern,[107] northwestern[110] and southwestern[5] varieties (considered nomadic dialects) substitute it by the voiced velar plosive [ɡ] as in /ɡaːl/. Moreover, only Tunis, Sfax and Sousse dialects use Tunisian phonology.[55][57]

Indeed, northwestern[110] and southwestern[107] Tunisians speak Tunisian with Algerian Arabic phonology, which tends to simplify short vowels as short schwas while southeastern Tunisian speak Tunisian with the Libyan Arabic phonology.[5][80][115]

Additionally, Tunis,[6][57] Sfax[55] and Sahil[111] dialects are known for not marking the second person gender. Hence, the otherwise feminine إنتِي /ʔinti/ is used to address both men and women, and no feminine marking is used in verbs (inti mšīt). Northwestern,[110] southeastern[109] and southwestern[107] varieties maintain the gender distinction found in Classical Arabic (إنتَا مشيت inta mšīt, إنتِي مشيتي inti mšītī).


The Tunis dialect is considered by some linguists as the standard form of Tunisian Arabic.[6][57] However, it has a characteristic not shared with some of the other Tunisian Arabic dialects.[6][57] It distinguishes the three short vowels[87][102] and tends to pronounce [æ] as [ɛ][57] and the āš suffix, used in the end of question words, as an [ɛ:h].[6]


The Sahil dialect is known for the use of the singular first person ānī instead of ānā.[111][112] It is also known for the pronunciation of as [wɑː] and the pronunciation ū and ī as respectively [oː] and [eː] when it is a substitution of the common Classical Arabic diphthongs /aw/ and /aj/.[5][111][112] For example, جواب jwāb is pronounced as [ʒwɑːb] and لون lūn is pronounced as [lɔːn].[5][111][112] Furthermore, when ā is at the end of the indefinite or "il-" definite word, this final ā is pronounced as [iː].[5][111][112] For example, سماء smā is pronounced as [smiː]. Moreover, If a word begins with /θ/ or /ð/, these letters are pronounced respectively as [t] and [d].[111][116] For example, ثلاثة /θlaːθa/ is pronounced as [tlɛːθæ].[5][111] As well, the Sahil dialect is known for using مش miš instead of موش mūš to mean the negation of future predicted action.[111] Similarly, the conjugation of miš as a modal verb uses مشني mišnī instead of مانيش mānīš, مشك mišk instead of ماكش mākš, مشّو miššū instead of موش mūš and ماهوش mēhūš, مشها mišhā instead of ماهيش māhīš, مشنا mišnā instead of ماناش mānāš, مشكم miškum instead of ماكمش mākumš and مشهم mišhum instead of ماهمش māhumš.[111]


The Sfax dialect is known mostly for its conservation of the Arabic diphthongs /aj/ and /aw/ and of the short /a/ between two consonants[55] and its use of وحيد wḥīd instead of وحود wḥūd to mean the plural of someone.[117]

Other dialects have substituted them respectively by /iː/ and /uː/ and dropped the short /a/ between the first and second consonant of the word.[57][116][118] It is also known by the substitution of short /u/ by short /i/, when it comes in the beginning of the word or just after the first consonant.[55] For example, خبز /χubz/ is pronounced as [χibz].[55]

It is also known for the use of specific words, like baṛmaqnī meaning window.[55] Furthermore, it is known for the substitution of [ʒ] by [z] when it comes in the beginning of a word and when that word contains [s] or [z] in its middle or end.[55][110] For example, جزّار /ʒazzaːrˤ/ is pronounced as [zæzzɑːrˤ] and جرجيس /ʒarʒiːs/ is pronounced as [zærzi:s].[55]

Unlike other Tunisian dialects, Sfax dialect does not simplify the last long vowel at the end of a word.[55][57] It is also known for some specific verbs like أرى aṛā (to see) and the use of the demonstrative articles هاكومة hākūma for those and هاكة hāka (m.) and هٰاكي hākī (f.) for that respectively instead of هاذوكم hāđūkum and هاذاكة hāđāka (m.) and هاذاكي hāđākī (f.) determinants.[55] Finally, the conjugation of mūš as a modal verb uses ماهواش māhūwāš instead of ماهوش māhūš, ماهياش māhīyāš instead of ماهيش māhīš, ماحناش māḥnāš instead of ماناش mānāš and ماهوماش māhūmāš instead of ماهمش māhumš.[13][119]


The northwestern dialect is known by pronouncing r as [rˤ] when it is written before an ā or ū.[110] Furthermore, it is known for the substitution of [ʒ] by [z] when it comes at the beginning of a word and when that word contains [s] or [z] in its middle or end.[110] Also, it is known for the pronunciation of ū and ī respectively as [o:] and [e:] when they are in an emphatic or uvular environment.[110] As well, northwestern dialect is known for using مش miš that is pronounced as [məʃ] instead of مانيش mānīš to mean the negation of future predicted action.[110] Similarly, the conjugation of مش miš as a modal verb uses مشني mišnī instead of مانيش mānīš, مشك mišk instead of ماكش mākš, مشّو miššū instead of موش mūš and ماهوش māhūš, مشها mišhā instead of ماهيش māhīš, مشنا mišnā instead of ماناش mānāš, مشكم miškum instead of ماكمش mākumš and مشهم mišhum instead of ماهمش māhumš.[110] Moreover, northwestern dialect is known for the use of نحنا naḥnā instead of أحنا aḥnā as a plural second person personal pronoun.[110]


The southeastern dialect is known for a different conjugation of verbs ending with ā in the third person of plural. In fact, people speaking this variety of Tunisian Arabic do not add the regular ū suffix after the vowel ā but used to drop the ā and then add the ū.[109] For example, مشى mšā is conjugated as مشوا mšū instead of مشاوا mšāw with the third person of plural.[109] Furthermore, it is known for the substitution of [ʒ] by [z] at the beginning of a word and when that word contains [s] or [z] in its middle or end.[5][66][109] Moreover, it is known like the Sahil dialect for the pronunciation /uː/ and /iː/ as respectively [oː] and [eː] when it is a substitution of the common classical Arabic diphthongs /aw/ and /aj/.[5][6][66] Furthermore, this dialect is also known for the use of أنا anā instead of آنا ānā (meaning I), the use of إنتم intumm (masc.) and إنتن intinn (fem.) instead of انتوما intūma (meaning you in plural) and the use of هم humm (masc.) and هن hinn (fem.) instead of هوما hūma (meaning they).[120][121]


The southwestern dialect is known for a different conjugation of verbs ending with ā in the third person of plural. In fact, people who are speaking this variety of Tunisian Arabic do not add the regular ū suffix after the vowel ā but used to drop the ā and then add the ū.[107][108] For example, مشى mšā is conjugated as مشوا mšū with the third person of plural.[107][108] Furthermore, this dialect is also known for the use of نا instead of آنا ānā (meaning I), the use of حني ḥnī instead of أحنا aḥnā (meaning we), the use of إنتم intumm (masc.) and إنتن intinn (fem.) instead of انتوما intūma (meaning you in plural) and the use of هم humm (masc.) and هن hinn (fem.) instead of هوما hūma (meaning they).[107][108] Moreover, it is known for the pronunciation of ū and ī respectively as [o:] and [e:] in an emphatic or uvular environment.[107][108]

Use and geographical distribution[edit]

Tunisian Arabic is the mother tongue of the Arabic-speaking population in Tunisia.[60] It is also the second language of the Berber minority living in the country, particularly in Djerba.[1]

However, Tunisian Arabic has the role of the low variety in an example of classic diglossia, and Standard Arabic is the high variety.[15] As such, the use of Tunisian Arabic is mainly restricted to spoken domains.[1][71] as its written and cultural use began in the 17th century[122] and regularly developed since the 20th century only.[123] Now, it is used for a wide range of purposes, including communication, politics, literature, theatre and music.[71][124]


From the 1990s, Tunisians began to write in Tunisian Arabic when communicating on the Internet, especially on social networking sites, and in text messages.[125] This trend accelerated during the 2011 street protests that brought down the regime of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, in which text messaging and social networking played a major role.[124]

In religion, the use of Tunisian Arabic in promoting Islam is limited although there are some trial efforts.[126] In Christianity, the use of Tunisian Arabic is significant beginning with a 1903 New Testament translation.[1] Now, a full version of the New Testament is available online.[127]


Before Tunisian independence, there was a large body of folk tales and folk poems in Tunisian Arabic.[128] It was mainly an oral tradition, told by wandering storytellers and bards at marketplaces and festivals.[8][129] The most important of these folktales are الجازية الهلالية "il-jāzya il-hlālīya" and حكاية أمّي سيسي والذيب "ḥkāyat ummī sīsī w il-đīb".[130] A few years after independence, the most famous of them was recorded for ERTT broadcast, in Tunisian Arabic by Abdelaziz El Aroui,[131] or translated mainly to French and standard Arabic by other authors.[130] The recorded Tunisian folktales were transcribed in Tunisian Arabic using Arabic script only in the 2010s, thanks to the work of the Kelemti Association of the promotion of Tunisian Arabic in 2013[132] and the work of Karen McNeil of 2014.[133]

As for novels and short stories, most authors who fluently know Tunisian Arabic prefer to write in Standard Arabic or in French. In some cases and since the initiative by the Taht Essour and particularly Ali Douagi[134] in the period between 1929 and 1959 to use Tunisian Arabic in various purposes like transcribing dialogues in novels and writing some newspapers, the dialogue in a novel or roman can be written in Tunisian Arabic using the Arabic script, with the main narrative in Standard Arabic.[123][135][136]

However, since the early 1990s, Hedi Balegh initiated a new trend in Tunisian literature.[71] He was the first to translate a novel to Tunisian Arabic in 1997[99][137] and to make some collections of Tunisian idioms and proverbs in 1994 using Arabic script.[138] Some authors and more particularly Tahar Fazaa (mainly in تشنشينات تونسية Tšanšīnāt Tūnsīya)[139][140] and Taoufik Ben Brik (mainly when writing كلب بن كلب Kalb Bin Kalb[141][142] and كوازاكي Kawāzākī[143][144]) followed him and used Tunisian Arabic in order to write novels, plays and books in Tunisian Arabic.

As for plays in Tunisian Arabic, the first ones were made by the Tunisian-Egyptian Company just after World War I.[145] They faced several objections.[145] However, it acquired general recognition in Tunisia by the end of World War II.[145] After Tunisian independence, the government encouraged the development of theater in Tunisian Arabic through the creation of supporting institutions.[145][146] That resulted in the creation of notable plays in Tunisian Arabic following the trends of world literature between 1965 and 2005.[145][146] The main authors of these plays were Jalila Baccar, Fadhel Jaibi and some members of the National Theature Troops of the Medina of Tunis, El Kef and Gafsa.[145][146]

Now, plays are almost always written in Tunisian Arabic except when they are placed in a historical setting.[145] Plays written in Tunisian Arabic are widely considered as meaningful and valuable ones.[145]


The oldest lyrics found written in Tunisian, dates back to the 17th century,[122] by Sheykh Abu el-Hassan el-Karray, who died in 1693 in the medina quarter of Sfax and wrote a poem in Tunisian Arabic during his youth:[147]

عَدِّيت في الصُّغر عَدِّيت
يَا حَسرتِي على زمَانِي
بـالطَّار و الدُّفّ غَنِّيت
و زهِيت بـحُسن المَعَانِي
لـلرَّبّ مُولَايَا وَلِّيت
تَوبَة نَصُوحَة عطَانِي

ɛaddīt fī il-ṣuġr ɛaddīt,
yā ḥasrtī ɛlā zmānī,
b- il-ṭār w il-duff ġannīt,
w zhīt b-ḥusn il-maɛānī,
l- il-ṛabb mūlāyā wallīt,
tawba naṣūḥa ɛṭānī.

Moreover, another Tunisian Arabic poem was written later in the 17th century to cite the qualities of Karray:[122]

خموسي يا كراي قاصد ليك بـنية
جيتك يا مولى الراي تبري سقمان بيا
شيلة مولى البرهان و البركة وصايا
يا شيخ يا سلطان بالله كون معايا
يكفي من ذا الهجران وصلك يبري دايا
لأني فاني عاشق، حبك زاد عليا
خموسي يا كراي قاصد ليك بـنية

xmūsī yā karrāy qāṣid līk b- niyya
jītik yā mūlā il-ṛāy tubrī suqmān biyyā
šīlatt mūlā il-burhān w il-baṛka waṣṣāyā
yā šīx yā sulṭān b- il-lah kūn mɛāyā
yikfī min đā il-hijṛān waṣlik yubrī dāyā
l- annī fānī ɛāšiq, ḥubbik zād ɛlayyā
xmūsī yā karrāy qāṣid līk b- niyya

The effective beginning of Tunisian Arabic written songs came in the early 19th century, when Tunisian Jews in the Beylik of Tunis began writing songs in Tunisian Arabic about love, betrayal and other libertine subjects.[122][148] The current strengthened at the beginning of the 20th century and affected the Tunisian ma'luf and folklore.[122] Judeo-Tunisian song flowered in the 1930s, with such Jewish artists as Cheikh El Afrit and Habiba Msika.[148][149]

yā lāymī ɛlā il-zīn يا لايمي على الزين of Saliha

This tendency was promoted by the creation of Radio Tunis in 1938,[149] which allowed many musicians to better disseminate their works and helped spread the use of Tunisian Arabic in songs.[149] The pioneers of Tunisian Arabic song between 1930 and 1950 drew most of their inspiration from traditional Tunisian music, oriental or to occidental colors were Kaddour Srarfi, Hedi Jouini, Saliha, Salah El Mahdi, Hassiba Rochdi, Fethia Khaïri, Hassiba Rochdi, Mohamed Triki, Mohamed Jamoussi, Sadok Thraya and Ali Riahi.[149]

Following the creation of the ERTT broadcasting organization in 1966,[150] a generation of composers and interpreters, mostly working in the ERTT orchestra, emerged.[150] In this wave, the range occupies a prominent place. Kalaï Ridha, Salah El Mahdi (regarded as a disciple of Tarnane), Kaddour Srarfi, Ali Shalgham, Chedly Anwar, Abdelhamid Sassi and others helped to train several singers, including Naâma, Oulaya, Zouheïra Salem, Soulef, Safia Chamia, Youssef Temimi, Mustapha Charfi, Hana Rached, Choubeila Rached, Ezzeddine Idir and many others.[150]

Tahar Gharsa (another disciple of Tarnane) worked to promote the characteristically modal and rhythmic traditional music written with Tunisian Arabic lyrics.[150] The director Raoul Journo, in the same line,[150] is a judeo-Tunisian singer, distinguished by his interpretation of taâlila (traditional songs associated with birth, circumcision, marriage and other rites).[150] This kind of music developed under the National Troupe of Music, created in the early 1980s.[151]

Band of popular music of the period 1900–1950
Mizwad player in Tozeur

At the same time, popular music developed in the early 19th century, using Tunisian Arabic poems accompanied by Tunisian musical instruments like the mizwad.[148][152] This kind of music was promoted by the National Troupe of the Popular Arts, created in 1962.[153] Later adaptation and promotion of popular songs, especially by Ahmed Hamza and later Kacem Kefi, further developed Tunisian music.[150] Natives of Sfax, they were both influenced by Mohamed Ennouri and Mohamed Boudaya, leading masters of popular music in that city.[122][150] Nowadays, this kind of music is very popular.[154]

In 1993, underground music entered Tunisia.[155] This consisted of rap in the 1990s and was not successful because of the lack of media coverage.[155] Tunisian Underground music became successful in the 2000s, thanks to its spread over the Internet, and came to involve other alternative genres like reggae and rock.[155][156] Underground music reached a height of popularity during and just after the Tunisian Revolution of 2011, as it spoke to the dire social matters faced by people in Tunisia.[155][157]

Now, Tunisian Arabic is the main variety used in writing lyrics of songs in Tunisia and even the main technical words in music have their synonyms in Tunisian Arabic.[122]

Cinema and mass media[edit]

Of the few domestic movies produced since 1966, many tried to reflect new social dynamics, development, identity research and modernity shock,[158][159] and were done in Tunisian Arabic.[160][161] Some of them achieved relative success outside Tunisia, such as La Goulette (حلق الواد ḥalq il-wād, 1996), Halfaouine: Child of the Terraces (عصفور السطح ɛaṣfūr il-sṭaḥ, 1990), and The Ambassadors (السفراء il-sufaṛā, 1975).[161]

Television and radio programs in Tunisian Arabic began officially in 1966 with the establishment of the Établissement de la Radiodiffusion-Télévision Tunisienne.[162][163] Tunisian Arabic is now widely used for all television and radio programs, with the exception of news, religious programs and historical dramas.[69] There is even several translations of cartoon series in Tunisian Arabic, like during the 1980s قرينط الشلواش Qrīnaṭ il-šalwāš and مفتّش كعبورة Mufattiš kaɛbūṛa.[164] As well, foreign Television series begun to be translated to Tunisian Arabic in 2016.[165] The first translation of foreign television series was entitled قلوب الرمان qlūb il-rummān and was developed by Nessma TV from the Turkish television series Kaderimin Yazıldığı Gün.[165][166]

Some Tunisian Arabic works acquired some honors in the broader Arab world like the ASBU Festival First Prize in 2015.[167] and the Festival of Arab Media Creation Prize in 2008.[168]

Moreover, since the 1990s, mass media advertisements increasingly use Tunisian Arabic, and many advertising boards have their slogans and the original or alternative company name written in Tunisian.[14]

However, the main newspapers in Tunisia are not written in Tunisian Arabic[14][15] although there was a newspaper in Tunisian Arabic entitled كل شيء بالمكشوف kull šay b- il-makšūf directed by Hedi Saidi and Hechmi Bouaziz and led by Ali Douagi and that was issued quite regularly from 23 April 1937 to 22 October 1959.[135] The leading newspapers are still written either in Modern Standard Arabic or in Standard French, even if cartoons in most of them can be written in Tunisian.[14][78]


Arabic script[edit]

See also: Arabic script

The Arabic script used for Tunisian is largely the same as for Arabic. However, it includes additional letters to support /g/ (ڨ), /v/ (ڥ) and /p/ (پ).[13][169]

The first known use of Arabic script for Tunisian was recorded in the 17th century, when Sheykh Karray wrote several poems in Tunisian Arabic for mystic purposes.[122] However, transcription of Tunisian Arabic was not common until 1903, when the Gospel of John was transcribed in Tunisian Arabic using Arabic script.[1][127] After the World War I, the use of Arabic script to Tunisian Arabic became very common with the works of Taht Essour.[123][135] Nowadays, it became the main script used for Tunisian Arabic, even in published books,[137][143] but writing conventions for Tunisian are not standardized and can change from a book to another.[13][137][143]

In 2014, Ines Zribi et al. proposed a Conventional Orthography for Tunisian Arabic based on the principles of CODA as proposed in 2012. The orthography is based on eliminating phonological simplifications by comparing the words and structures of Tunisian Arabic by their correspondent etymological equivalent in Modern Standard Arabic.[13] Although the convention is quite important, the orthography does not differentiate between [q] and [g] and does not involve several important phonemes that are mainly used in loanwords.[13]

Latin script[edit]

Phonemic transcription method of Tunisian Arabic and Algerian Arabic into Latin script used by William Marçais in 1908[170]

Deutsche Morgenländische Gesellschaft Umschrift[edit]

In 1845, in Leipzig appeared the Deutsche Morgenländische Gesellschaft, a German scientific association dedicated to the studies and the languages of the orient.[171] Soon, the organization developed a transcription system for Arabic in Latin script.[172] Its system was a phonemic transcription of Arabic written with an extended Latin alphabet and macrons for long vowels.[172] However, this Deutsche Morgenländische Gesellschaft transcription was first tried on Tunisian only after the establishment of the French Protectorate of Tunisia in 1881.[57]

Also, the first linguistic study about Tunisian to be completed was of German linguist Hans Stumme, who, from 1893 to 1896, transcribed Tunisian Arabic with the DMG transcription.[63][173] In addition, from 1897 to 1935, a series of linguistic works was conducted by several French members of the DMG, like William Marçais,[174][175] Philippe Marçais,[176][177] David Cohen[52] and Alfred Nicolas.[178] These works included corpuses,[174][175] grammar books,[176] dictionaries,[178] or studies.[52] By 1935, the DMG transcription included many unique letters and diacritics for Tunisian not used for Arabic,[179] such as, à, è, ù and ì, for short and accentuated vowels.[170] The reason was that the XIXth international congress of orientalists held in Rome, from 23 to 29 September 1935, adopted a modified version of the DMG transcription specifically for Arabic dialects.[179] Also, from 1935 to 1985, most of the linguists working on Tunisian Arabic such as Gilbert Boris,[67] Hans Rudolf Singer,[57][180] Lucienne Saada[181][182][183] and others,[6] adopted the modified DMG.

Now, the modified DMG is still used by institutions such as SIL International or the University of Vienna for Tunisian Arabic written corpuses and linguistic books.[107][184]

Additional scripts[edit]

Even if the Deutsche Morgenländische Gesellschaft transcription was abundantly used in early linguistic researches about Tunisian,[170][184] some trials were made in order to create alternative Latin scripts and writing methods.[125][185] The trials tried to solve the lack of inter convertibility between scripts as the transcription of Tunisian with the German DMG method was phonetic and not syntactic.[13][72][169]

Also, the first successful trial to create a specific Latin script and writing method for Tunisian was the Practical Orthography of Tunisian Arabic, created by Joseph Jourdan in 1913.[186][187] Its principle was to use French consonant and vowel digraphs and phonology to transcribe non-Latin sounds.[186] In fact, kh is used to transcribe /χ/, ch to transcribe /ʃ/, th to transcribe /θ/, gh to transcribe /ʁ/, dh to transcribe /ð/ or /ðˤ/ and ou to transcribe /u:/, a to transcribe /a:/ and /ɛː/, i to transcribe /i:/ and e to transcribe the short vowels.[188] The layout was successful because it did not involve additional Latin letters and could be transcribed efficiently. It was used in the later linguistic works of Joseph Jourdan about Tunisian Arabic until 1956.[72][189][190] Moreover, it is still presently used in French books to transcribe Tunisian Arabic.[188] The method was used in 1995 by the Tunisian Arabizi, an Arabic chat alphabet, converting the consonant digraphs into digits.[8][60][124] Indeed, it uses 2 to transcribe a glottal stop, 3 to transcribe /ʕ/, 5 to transcribe /χ/, 6 to transcribe /tˤ/, 7 to transcribe /ħ/, 8 to transcribe /ʁ/ and 9 to transcribe /q/.[124][125] The ch, dh, and th digraphs were kept in Tunisian Arabizi.[124] Like all other Arabic chat alphabets, its use spread considerably during the 1990s mainly with the Tunisian young people.[8][60][191] Nowadays, it is used principally on social networks and mobile phones.[124][125] Also, during the Tunisian Revolution of 2011, Tunisian Arabizi was the main script used for message transmission on internet.[192][193] After 2011, more interest was given to Tunisian Arabizi[194][195] and in 2013, a concise grammar book about Tunisian, written with Tunisian Arabizi, was issued.[196] However, this chat alphabet is not standardized and is seen as informal as the Arabic sounds are transcribed as numbers and letters in the same time.[194][197]

Furthermore, although they are popular, these methods have problems such as the possibility of ambiguity between digraphs,[198] the absolute certainty of having a rate of graphs per phoneme that is significantly superior to the conventional value of 1 and independent consonants having the same transliteration as the digraphs[198] and the lack of disambiguation between /ð/ and /ðˤ/.[188] Moroever, the use of digits as numerals and letters in the same time made transcribing Tunisian difficult to users and did not linguistically solve the matters that were faced by the Practical Transcription.[199]

Logo of Peace Corps

Separately, another Latin script transcription method was created by Robert J. Scholes and his team constituted of several linguists from Peace Corps Tunisia and Indiana University in 1966.[185] Letters in this method can be written in small letters only, and even T and S are not equivalent to t and s as T is used to transcribe /tˤ/ and S is used to transcribe /sˤ/.[185] Moreover, three additional Latin letters are used in this writing method that are 3 (/ʕ/), ø (/ð/) and ħ (/ħ/).[185] Four common English digraphs are used that are dh (/ðˤ/), gh (/ʁ/), th (/tˤ/) and sh (/ʃ/).[185] In order to distinguish the digraphs from the independent letters written like the digraphs, the digraphs are underlined.[185] As for the vowels, they are written as å (glottal stop or /ʔ/), ā (/æ/), ā: (/ɛ:/), a (Short an or /a/), a: (long an or /a:/), i (short i or /i/), i: (long i or /i:/), u (short u or /u/), u: (Long u or /u:/).[185] This method was used in the Peace Corps books about Tunisian Arabic until 1993, when Peace Corps Tunisia became inactive.[88][200][201]

After years of works on a phonetic transliteration of Tunisian, linguists decided that the transliteration should be mainly syntactic.[202] In fact, Timothy Buckwalter created an orthography-based transcription of Arabic texts during his work for Xerox.[203] Buckwalter transcription was created in order to avoid the effect of phoneme simplification of spoken Arabic on the morphological analysis of the language.[202] In 2004, Tunisian linguist Mohamed Maamouri proposed to use the same transliteration for Arabic dialects and mainly Tunisian.[204] In 2013, a complete work about the regulations of the use of the Buckwalter transliteration for Tunisian was issued by Ines Zribi and her team from the University of Sfax[205] A morphological analysis and a conventional orthography of Tunisian using this method were posted by 2014[13][206] as a development of the generalized work of Columbia University Professor Nizar Habash about the use of Buckwalter transcription for analyzing and standardizing the orthography of main Arabic dialects.[207][208] However, the method is currently used for computer operations only[13] and it is unfortunately not used by people, as it involves some ASCII non-alphanumeric graphs as letters, and S, D and T do not correspond respectively to the same phonemes as s, d and t.[209][210] Furthermore, p does not correspond to /p/ but to ﺓ.[211] That is why this method was not adapted for daily use in writing Tunisian and is adopted only for NLP purposes.[210]

Although the Latin script is widely used in Tunisia, it was not formalized as an official script for Tunisian because of the general lack of standardization of Tunisian orthography. Indeed, many different writing methods with Latin letters are currently in use for Tunisian.[1]

In 2015, Houcemeddine Turki et al. had created a modified version of DMG Transcription in which the principles of Buckwalter Transliteration are applied like the elimination of phonological simplification through the comparison of the words and structures of the dialects with Modern Standard Arabic root and patterns.[212] The transcription involved also some innovations in the transcription of Arabic dialects like the separation between prepositions and proclitics and the nouns next to them to improve the tokenization of the dialects, the differentiation between the word beginning with il and the il- determinant by adding a hyphen to the determinant, and the differentiation between the suffix of the conjugation of verbs in present in plural and the singular third person direct object pronouns by transcribing them differently.[212] In 2016, Emad Adel et al. adapted it into a user-oriented phonosyntactic transcription that does not consider some of the rarely used or confusing phonemes and guidelines that were considered in the modified DMG transcription.[213]



The most immediately apparent difference between Tunisian and Standard Arabic is the extensive use of words borrowed from Italian, Spanish, French, Berber and Turkish.[57] For example, electricity is كهرباء /kahrabaːʔ/ in standard Arabic. It is تريسيتي trīsītī in Tunisian Arabic (a word used mainly by older people), from the French électricité. Other loans from French include برتمان buṛtmān (flat), and بياسة byāsa (coin).[57] Furthermore, there are words and structures that came from Turkish, such as بالك bālik (perhaps), ڨاوري gāwrī (European) (Gavur) as well as the suffix of occupation /-ʒi/ as in بوصطاجي būṣṭājī (post officer) and كوّارجي kawwāṛjī (football player).[57] A sample of words derived from Latin, French, Italian, Turkish, Berber, Greek or Spanish is below:[13]

Tunisian Arabic Standard Arabic English Etymology of Tunisian Arabic
بابور ḅaḅūr سفينة /safiːna/ ship Turkish:[214] vapur meaning "steamboat"
باكو bakū صندوق /sˤundu:q/ package Italian:[215] pacco
بانكة ḅanka بنك /bank/ bank Italian:[215] banca
بلاصة bḷaṣa مكان /makaːn/ place Spanish:[216]plaza
بوسطة būsṭa مكتب البريد /maktab albari:d/ post office French:[217] poste
داكردو dakūrdū حسنا /ħasanan/ okay Italian:[215] d'accordo
فيشتة fišta عيد /ʕiːd/ holiday Italian:[215] festa
كرّوسة kaṛṛūsa عربة /ʕaraba/ carriage Italian:[215] carrozza
كوجينة kūjīna مطبخ /matˤbax/ kitchen Italian:[215] cucina
كسكسي kusksī كسكسي /kuskusi/ couscous Berber:[218] seksu
ماكينة mākīna آلة /ʔaːla/ machine Italian:[215] machina
صبّاط ṣabbaṭ حذاء /ħiðaːʔ/ shoes Spanish:[216] zapatos
قلسيطة qalsīta جورب /jawrab/ sock Spanish:[216] calceta
قطّوس qaṭṭūs قط /qitˤː/ cat Latin:[219] cattus
سبيطار sbīṭaṛ مستشفى /mustaʃfa/ hospital Italian:[215] ospedale
سفنارية sfinārya جزر /jazar/ carrot Greek:[220] σταφυλῖνος ἄγριος

The loans are not to be confused with the actual use of French words or sentences in everyday speech by Tunisians (codeswitching), which is common in everyday language and business environments. However, many French words are used within Tunisian Arabic discourse, without being adapted to Tunisian phonology, apart from the French r [ʁ], which is often replaced, especially by men, with [r].[221] For example, many Tunisians, when asking "How are you?" will use the French "ça va?" instead of, and in addition to the Tunisian شنية أحوالك šnīya aḥwālik. It is difficult in this case to establish whether it is an example of using French or borrowing.[221]

In general, loanwords are adapted to Tunisian phonology for years until they become pronounced with basic Tunisian Arabic sounds only.[57][222] For example, the French word apartement became برتمان buṛtmān and the Italian word ospedale became سبيطار sbīṭāṛ.[57][223]

Shift in meanings[edit]

The greatest number of differences between Tunisian and standard Arabic is from notborrowing from another language but a shift in meaning of an Arabic root.[83] For example, /x-d-m/ means "serve" in Standard Arabic but "work" in Tunisian Arabic, as opposed to /ʕ-m-l/ means "work" in Standard Arabic but was narrowed to "do" in Tunisian Arabic; and /m-ʃ-j/ meaning in Tunisian Arabic was broadened to "go" from "walk".[6]

In general, meaning shift happens when there is a lexical implication of the society speaking the language so the social situation and thoughts of the speakers of the languages obliged them to change the meaning of some words so their language could be adapted to their situation[224][225] and that is just what happened in Tunisia.[83] In fact, the borrowing of rhetoric and semantic structures from other contact languages like French helped the meaning shift in Tunisian.[64][83]

Word fusion[edit]

In Tunisian, some new words and structures were created through the fusion of two words or more.[6] Almost all question words fall into the latter category.[6] The question words are noticeable by beginning or ending with the sound š or āš and are not to be confused with the negation mark, š, which agrees verbs, as in mā mšītš ما مشيتش (I did not go).[6]

The table below shows a comparison of various question words in Tunisian, Standard Arabic and English:[6][111]

Tunisian Arabic Construction Standard Arabic English
škūn شكون āš + kūn آش + كون من /man/ who
šnūwa شنو (masc.)
šnīya (fem.) شني
āš آش
āš + n + (h)ūwa آش + هو
āš + n + (h)īya آش + هي
āš آش
ماذا /maːða/ what
waqtāš وقتاش waqt + āš وقت + آش متى /mata/ when
lwāš لواش l- + āš ل + آش لماذا /limaːða/ for what reason
ɛlāš علاش ɛlā + āš على + آش لماذا /limaːða/ why
kīfāš كيفاش kīf + āš كيف + آش كيف /kajfa/ how
qaddāš قدّاش qadd + āš قدّ + آش كم /kam/ how much
mnāš مناش min + āš من + آش من أين /man ʔajna/ from what
fāš فاش fī + āš في + آش في من /fi man/ in what, what
wīn وين w + ayn و + اين أين /ʔajna/ where

Some of the question words can be merged with other structures such as the prepositions and object pronouns. For example, "who are you" becomes شكونك إنت škūnik intī or simply شكونك škūnik and "how much is this" becomes بقدّاش b-qaddāš.[6]

Another example of word fusion in Tunisian is the spelling of numerals between 11 and 19, which are pronounced as one word, composed of the name of the digit obtained by subtracting 10 to the number and the suffix طاش ṭāš derived from the standard Arabic word عَشَرَ /ʕaʃara/, those numbers are in order: احداش aḥdāš, اثناش ŧṇāš, ثلطّاش ŧlaṭṭāš, أربعطاش aṛbaɛṭāš, خمسطاش xmasṭāš, سطّاش sitṭāš, سبعطاش sbaɛṭāš, ثمنطاش ŧmanṭāš and تسعطاش tsaɛṭāš.[6]

Pattern and root-based creation of new words[edit]

In Tunisian Arabic, as in other Semitic languages, the creation of new words is based on a root and pattern system, also known as the Semitic root.[226] That means that new words can be created through the association of a root that is composed most of the time of three letters that have a meaning with a rhythm or pattern that informs about the position of the object in the fact.[226] For example, K-T-B is a root meaning to write and معفول maūl is a pattern meaning that the object submitted the fact. Thus, the combination of the root and the given pattern render maKTūB, which means something that was written.[226]


There are several differences in pronunciation between Standard and Tunisian Arabic. Nunation does not exist in Tunisian Arabic, and short vowels are frequently omitted, especially if they would occur as the final element of an open syllable, which was probably encouraged by the Berber substratum.[113][222][227]

However, there are some more specific characteristics related to Tunisian Arabic like the phenomenon of metathesis.[227]


Metathesis is the shift of position of the first vowel of the word.[227][228] It occurs when the unconjugated verb or unsuffixed noun begins with CCVC, where C is an unstressed consonant and V is a short vowel.[227][228][229] When a suffix is added to this kind of noun or when the verb is conjugated, the first vowel changes of position and the verb becomes beginning with CVCC.[227][228][229]

For example:

  • (he) wrote in Tunisian Arabic becomes كتب ktib and (she) wrote in Tunisian Arabic becomes كتبت kitbit.[102][227]
  • some stuff in Tunisian Arabic becomes دبش dbaš and my stuff in Tunisian Arabic becomes دبشي dabšī.[102][227]


Stress is not phonologically distinctive[228] and is determined by the word's syllable structure. Hence, it falls on the ultimate syllable if it is doubly closed: سروال sirwāl (trousers). Otherwise, if falls on the penultimate syllable,[6] if there is one: جريدة jada (newspaper). Stress falls on the syllable if there is only one: مرا mṛa (woman). Affixes are treated as part of the word:[228] نكتبولكم niktlkum (we write to you).

For example:

  • جابت bit (She brought).[6]
  • ما جابتش mā jābitš (She did not bring).[6]


Assimilation is a phonological process in Tunisian Arabic.[63][111][228] The possible assimilations are:

/ttˤ/ > /tˤː/ /tˤt/ > /tˤː/ /χh/ > /χː/ /χʁ/ > /χː/
/tɡ/ > /dɡ/ /fd/ > /vd/ /ħh/ > /ħː/ /nl/ > /lː/
/sd/ > /zd/ /td/ > /dː/ /dt/ > /tː/ /ln/ > /nː/
/hʕ/ > /ħː/ /tð/ > /dð/ /hħ/ > /ħː/ /nr/ > /rː/
/nf/ > /mf/ /qk/ > /qː/ /kq/ > /qː/ /lr/ > /rː/
/ndn/ > /nː/ /ħʕ/ > /ħː/ /ʁh/ > /χː/ /ʕh/ > /ħː/
/ʃd/ > /ʒd/ /fC/1 > /vC/1 /bC/2 > /pC/2 /nb/ > /mb/
/ʕħ/ > /ħː/ /tz/ > /d͡z/ /tʒ/ > /d͡ʒ/


Tunisian Arabic qāf has both [q] and [ɡ] as reflexes in both sedentary and nomadic varieties, with [q] predominating in sedentary varieties and [ɡ] in nomadics ones: he said is [qɑːl] instead of [ɡɑːl]). However, some words have the same form whatever the dialect: cow is always [baɡra] and I study [naqra].[230] Interdental fricatives are also maintained except in the Sahil dialect for several situations.[231] Furthermore, Tunisian Arabic merged // ض with /ðˤ/ ظ.[232]

Tunisian Arabic consonant phonemes
Labial Dental/Alveolar Palatal Velar Uvular Pharyngeal Glottal
 plain  emphatic  plain  emphatic
Nasal m m ()1 n n ()1
Plosive voiceless (p)2 p t t k k q q (ʔ)4 '
voiced b b ()1 d d ɡ g
Affricate voiceless (t͡ʃ)3
voiced (d͡z)3 dz
Fricative sibilant voiceless s s ʃ š
voiced z z ()1 ʒ j
non-sibilant voiceless f f θ ŧ χ x ħ h h
voiced (v)2 v ð đ ðˤ ʁ ġ ʕ ɛ
Approximant w w l l j y
Trill r r
  • ^1 These emphatic consonants rarely occur, and most of them are found in borrowed words.[57][87][111] Minimal pairs are not always easy to find for these contrasts, but there are nonetheless examples, which show that these marginal forms do not represent allophones of other phonemes.[6][222] For example:
/baːb/ [bɛːb] "door" and /bˤaːbˤa/ [ˈbˤɑːbˤɑ] "Father"[6][222]
/ɡaːz/ [ɡɛːz] "petrol" and /ɡaːzˤ/ [ɡɑːzˤ] "gas"[6][222]
These emphatic consonants occur before or after the vowels /a/ and /aː/.[6][111] A different analysis is that the posited allophones of /a/ and /aː/ are phonemically distinct, and it is the marginal emphatic consonants that are allophonic.[5][222][228]
  • ^2 /p/ and /v/ are found in borrowed words and are usually replaced by /b/, like in ḅāḅūr and ḅāla. However, they are preserved in some words, like pīsīn and talvza.[6][57][228]
  • ^3 Rarely used, for example tšīša, dzīṛa and dzāyir.[57][233]
  • ^4 Usually dropped but tends to occur in the learned register, in loans from Standard Arabic, often in maṣdar (verbal noun) forms at the onset of the word but also in other words like /biːʔa/ "environment" and /jisʔal/ "he asks", though many (mainly less educated) speakers substitute /ʔ/ for /h/ in the latter word.[6][57]


There are two primary analyses of Tunisian vowels:

  • Three vowel qualities, /a, i, u/ and a large number of emphatic consonants, namely /tˤ, sˤ, ðˤ, rˤ, lˤ, zˤ, nˤ, mˤ, bˤ/. /a/ has distinct allophones after guttural (emphatic, uvular and pharyngeal) consonants and after non-guttural consonants. Many of the emphatics only occur adjacent to /a/.[6][111]
  • Four vowel qualities, /æ, ɐ, i, u/, and only the three phonemic emphatic consonants /tˤ, sˤ, ðˤ/. The other emphatic consonants are allophones found in the environment of /ɑ/.[5][57][102]

It is more likely that the former analysis is the accurate one, as the same phenomenon happens for [u] and [i] in Algerian and Moroccan Arabic that are also Maghrebi Arabic dialects.[212]

Regardless of the analysis, Hilalian influence has provided the additional vowels /eː/ and /oː/ to the Sahil and southeastern dialects. These two long vowels are reflexes of the diphthongs /aj/ and /aw/.[66][110][111]

Tunisian Arabic vowels. It is unclear if the vowels written a are allophones or phonemic.
Front Back
unrounded rounded
short long long short long
Close ɪ i ī () ü u u ū
Open-mid oral ɛː ā (œː) ë (ɔː) o
nasal (ɛ̃) (ɔ̃)
Open (ɑ̃)
oral æ a ɐ a ɐː ā
  • By assuming that pharyngealisation is a property of consonants, most dialects have three vowel qualities /a, i, u/, all also distinguished for length, as in Standard Arabic.[57][113]
  • The length distinction is suspended at the end of the word. A final vowel is realised long in accent-bearing words of one syllable (For example, جاء [ʒɛː] he came), otherwise short.[6][57]
  • In non-pharyngealised environments, the open vowel /a/ is [ɛ] in stressed syllables and [æ] or [ɐː] in unstressed syllables. In pharyngealised environments, the open vowel is [ɑ].[6][57]
  • /ɔː/ and nasal vowels are rare in native words, for most of the varieties of Tunisian and mainly for the Tunis dialect, like منقوبة mqūba and لنڨار lgār and mainly occur in French loans.[111][222] /yː/ and /œː/ only exist in French loanwords.[6][57]

Syllables and pronunciation simplification[edit]

Tunisian Arabic has a very different syllable structure from Sstandard Arabic like all other North African varieties.[11] While Standard Arabic can have only one consonant at the beginning of a syllable, after which a vowel must follow, Tunisian Arabic commonly has two consonants in the onset.[222] For example, Standard Arabic book is كتاب /kitaːb/, while in Tunisian Arabic it is ktāb.[6][57]

The syllable nucleus may contain a short or long vowel, and at the end of the syllable, in the coda, it may have up to three consonants ما دخلتش (/ma dχaltʃ/ I did not enter). Standard Arabic can have no more than two consonants in this position.[6][57]

Word-internal syllables are generally heavy in that they either have a long vowel in the nucleus or consonant in the coda.[6][57]

Non-final syllables composed of just a consonant and a short vowel (light syllables) are very rare, generally in loans from Sstandard Arabic. Short vowels in this position have generally been lost, resulting in the many initial CC clusters. For example, جواب /ʒawaːb/ reply is a loan from Standard Arabic, but the same word has the natural development /ʒwaːb/, which is the usual word for letter.[6][57]

As well as those characteristics, Tunisian Arabic is also known for differently pronouncing words according to their orthography and position within a text.[234][235] This phenomenon is known as pronunciation simplification[236] and has four rules:

  • [iː] and [ɪ], at the end of a word, are pronounced [i] and [uː]. Also, [u] is pronounced [u] and [aː]. [ɛː], [a] and [æ] are pronounced [æ].[237] For example, yībdā is practically pronounced as [jiːbdæ][238][239]
  • If a word finishes with a vowel and the next word begins with a short vowel, the short vowel and the space between the two words are not pronounced.[222][227][240] The phenomenon is seen clearly when Arabic texts are compared to their Latin phonemic transliteration in several works.[102]
  • If a word begins with two successive consonants, an epenthetic [ɪ] is added at the beginning.[72][102][238]
  • A sequence of three consonants, not followed by a vowel, is broken up with an epenthetic [ɪ] before the third consonant.[87][185] For example: يكتب yiktib, يكتبوا yiktbū.[87][185]


Nouns and adjectives in Tunisian Arabic are classified into nouns having a regular plural and ones having an irregular plural.[6][111] Several nouns in Tunisian Arabic have even duals.[6][57][102] Irregular or broken plurals are quite the same as the ones of Standard Arabic.[6][111] gender shift is achieved for singular nouns and adjectives by adding an -a suffix.[6][57] However, that fact cannot occur for the most of the plural nouns.[6][111]

Tunisian Arabic has five types of pronouns: personal, possessive, demonstrative, indirect object and indefinite pronouns.[6][111] Unlike in Standard Arabic, there is a unique pronoun for the second person in singular and a unique pronoun for the second person in plural.[6][57] Furthermore, there are three types of articles: definite, demonstrative and possessive articles.[6][111] Most of them can be written before or after the noun.[6][57]

As for verbs, they are conjugated in five tenses: perfective, imperfective, future, imperative, conditional present and conditional past Tenses and in four forms: affirmative, exclamative, interrogative and negative forms.[6][57] They can be preceded by modal verbs to mean a particular intention, situation, belief or obligation when they are conjugated in perfective or imperfective tenses.[6][57] Tunisian Arabic questions could be āš (wh question) or īh/lā (yes/no question).[6][111]

The question words for āš questions can be either a pronoun or an adverb.[6][111] As for negation, it is usually done using the structure mā noun+š.[6][57]

There are three types of nouns that can be derived from verbs: present participle, past participle and verbal noun. There are even nouns derived from simple verbs having the root al or faɛlil.[6][57] The same is true in Standard Arabic. Tunisian Arabic also involves several prepositions and conjunctions.[6][111] These structures ultimately derive from the ones of Standard Arabic even if they are radically different in Tunisian today because of major Berber, Latin and other European components in it.[6][57]

Semantics and pragmatics[edit]

Discourses in Tunisian Arabic are likely to use some rhetorical styles like metaphors.[241] Furthermore, Tunisian Arabic styles and tenses hold several figurative meaning.[242] For example, the use of past tense can mean that the situation is uncontrollable.[243] As well, the use of the third person pronouns can be figurative to mean saints and/or supernatural beings[244] and the use of demonstrative can have figurative meanings like underestimation.[245] Moreover, the name of some parts of the body can be used in several expressions to get figurative meanings.[243][246][247] That is entitled the embodiment.[246]

Furthermore, some nouns and verbs have figurative meanings,[102] and the use of figurative meanings depends on the circumstances of the discourse like the political situation of the country and the ages of the people participating in the discussion.[248][249]

International influences[edit]

Several Tunisian words were used in the lyrics of some famous Arabic songs and poems like ɛa- il-slāma of Majda Al Roumi.[250] Furthermore, some famous Arabic singers were acknowledged for singing several old Tunisian Arabic songs like Hussain Al Jassmi[251] and Dina Hayek.[252] Tunisian Arabic influenced several Berber dialects by transferring to them several Arabic or Tunisian structures and words.[253] It was as well the origin of Maltese[17][254] and some of its words like بريك Brīk and فريكساي frīkasāy were inspired by French as loanwords.[255] The Il-Ţalyānī Tunisian Arabic word meaning "the Italian" (الطلياني) was used as a title of a roman in standard Arabic which received the Booker Prize for Arabic literature in 2015.[256] Also, several prestigious television series from other Arabic countries like the Lebanese Cello Series involved a character talking in Tunisian Arabic.[257]

See also[edit]

Notes and References[edit]

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  7. ^ Written in Arabic script as تونسي or in Latin script (Arabizi) as Tounsi
  8. ^ a b c d e f g h Sayahi, Lotfi (24 April 2014). Diglossia and Language Contact: Language Variation and Change in North Africa. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-1-139-86707-8. 
  9. ^ Like the other Maghrebi dialects that are called Derja by all their Native Speakers
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