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Palestinian Arabic is a name of several dialects of the subgroup of Levantine Arabic spoken by the Palestinians in Palestine, by Arab citizens of Israel and in most Palestinian populations around the world.
Differences compared to other Levantine Arabic dialects
The dialects spoken by the Arabs of the Levant – the Eastern shore of the Mediterranean – or Levantine Arabic, form a group of dialects of Arabic. Arabic manuals for the "Syrian dialect" were produced in the early 20th century, and in 1909 a specific "Palestinean Arabic" manual was published.
The Palestinian Arabic dialects are varieties of Levantine Arabic because they display the following characteristic Levantine features.
- A conservative stress pattern, closer to Classical Arabic than anywhere else in the Arab world.
- The indicative imperfect with a b- prefix
- A very frequent [imala] of the feminine ending in front consonant context (names in -eh).
- A [ʔ] realisation of /q/ in the cities, and a [q] realisation of /q/ by the Druzes, and more variants in the countryside.
- A shared lexicon
The noticeable differences between southern and northern forms of Levantine Arabic, such as North Syrian Arabic and Lebanese Arabic, are stronger in non-urban dialects. The main differences between Palestinian and northern Levantine Arabic are as follows:
- Phonetically, Palestinian dialects differs from Lebanese regarding the classical diphthongs /aj/ and /aw/, which have simplified to [eː] and [o:] in Palestinian dialects as in Western Syrian, while in Lebanese they have retained a diphthongal pronunciation: [eɪ] and [oʊ].
- Palestinian dialects differs from Western Syrian as far as short stressed /i/ and /u/ are concerned: in Palestinian they keep a more or less open [ɪ] and [ʊ] pronunciation, and are not neutralised to [ə] as in Syrian.
- The Lebanese and Syrian dialects are more prone to imāla of /a:/ than the Palestinian is. For instance شتا 'winter' is ['ʃɪta] in Palestinian but ['ʃəte] in Lebanese and Western Syrian. Some Palestinian dialects ignore imala totally (e.g. Gaza).
- In morphology, the plural personal pronouns are إحنا['ɪħna] 'we', همه['hʊmme] 'they', كم-[-kʊm] 'you', هم- [-hʊm] 'them' in Palestinian, while they are in Syria/Lebanon نحنا['nɪħna] 'we', هنه['hʊnne] 'they', كن-[-kʊn] 'you', هن- [-hʊn] 'them'.
- The conjugation of the imperfect 1st and 3rd person masculine has different prefix vowels. Palestinians say باكتب['baktʊb] 'I write' باشوف[baʃuːf] 'I see' where Lebanese and Syrians say بكتب['bəktʊb] and بشوف[bʃuːf]. In the 3rd person masculine, Palestinians say بكتب['bɪktʊb] 'He writes' where Lebanese and Western Syrians say بيكتب['bjəktʊb].
- Hamza-initial verbs commonly have an [o:] prefix sound in the imperfect in Palestinian. For example, Classical Arabic has اكل /akala/ 'to eat' in the perfect tense, and آكل /aːkulu/ with [a:] sound in the first person singular imperfect. The common equivalent in Palestinian Arabic is اكل /akal/ in the perfect, with imperfect 1st person singular بوكل /boːkel/ (with the indicative b- prefix.) Thus, in the Galilee and Northern West Bank, the colloquial for the verbal expression, "I am eating" or "I eat" is commonly ['bo:kel] / ['bo:tʃel], rather than ['ba:kʊl] used in the Western Syrian dialect. Note however that ['ba:kel] or even ['ba:kʊl] are used in the South of Palestine.
- The conjugation of the imperative is different too. 'Write!' is اكتب ['ʊktʊb] in Palestinian, but كتوب [ktoːb], with different stress and vowel and length, in Lebanese and Western Syrian.
- For the negation of verbs and prepositional pseudo-verbs, Palestinian like Egyptian, typically suffixes ش [ʃ] on top of using the preverb negation /ma/, e.g. 'I don't write' is ماباكتبش [ma bak'tʊbʃ] in Palestinian, but مابكتب [ma 'bəktʊb] in Northern Levantine.
- In vocabulary, Palestinian is closer to Lebanese than to Western Syrian, e.g. 'is not' is مش [məʃ] in both Lebanese and Palestinian while it is مو [mu] in Syrian; 'How?' is كيف [kiːf] in Lebanese and Palestinian while it is شلون [ʃloːn] in Syrian as in Iraqi. However, Palestinian also shares items with Egyptian Arabic, e.g. 'like' (prep.) is زي [zejj] in Palestinian instead of مثل [mɪtl], as found in Syrian and Lebanese Arabic.
There are also typical Palestinian words that are shibboleths in the Levant.
- A frequent Palestinian إشي ['ɪʃi] 'thing, something', as opposed to شي [ʃi] in Lebanon and Syria.
- Besides common Levantine هلق ['hallaʔ] 'now', Jerusalemites use هالقيت [halke:t] (both from هالوقت /halwaqt/ ) and northern Palestinians use إسا['ɪssɑ] (from الساعة/ɪs:ɑ:ʕɑ/).
Social and geographic dialect structuration
As is very common in Arabic-speaking countries, the dialect spoken by a person depends on both the region he/she comes from, and the social group he/she belongs to.
The Palestinian urban dialects ('madani') resemble closely northern Levantine Arabic dialects, that is, the colloquial variants of western Syria and Lebanon. This fact, that makes the urban dialects of the Levant remarkably homogeneous, is probably due to the trading network among cities in the Ottoman Levant, or to an older Arabic dialect layer closer to the qeltu dialects still spoken in northern Iraq/Syria and Southern Turkey. Nablus takes a special place. The Nablus dialect distributed accents on the various syllables of the word. Almost each syllable has a stressed accent, which gives the dialect a slow and sluggish tone. The ancient dialect of Nablus even articulates every single syllable in the same word separately. Moreover, word endings blatantly slant according to a regulated system. For example, you may say sharqa with an [a:] sound at the end of the word to refer to the eastern part of the city and gharbeh with the [e] sound at the end of the word to refer to the western side of the city. You may also want to describe the colour of your bag and say safra (yellow) with an [a:] sound at the end of the word or sode (black) with an [e] sound at the end of the word. The nun and ha (n and h) are always slanted and end with the [e] sound; and they are the bases for the distinctive Nablusi accent. The two letters appear frequently at the end of words in the form of inescapable objective pronouns. In the ancient dialect of Nablus, the letters tha’, thal, thaa’, and qaf do not exist. The dialect of old Nablus is now to be found among the Samaritans, who have managed to preserve the old dialect in its purest form.
Urban dialects are characterised by the [ʔ] (hamza) pronunciation of ق qaf, the simplification of interdentals as dentals plosives, i.e. ث as [t], ذ as [d] and both ض and ظ as [dˤ]. Note however that in borrowings from Modern Standard Arabic, these interdental consonants are realised as dental sibilants, i.e. ث as [s], ذ as [z] and both ض and ظ as [zˤ]. The Druzes have a dialect that may be classified with the Urban ones, with the difference that they keep the uvular pronunciation of ق qaf as [q]. The urban dialects also ignore the difference between masculine and feminine in the plural pronouns انتو ['ɪntu] is both 'you' (masc. plur.) and 'you' (fem. plur.), and ['hʊmme] is both 'they' (masc.) and 'they' (fem.)
The rural varieties of this Palestinian ('fallahi') are of three different types. All three retain the interdental consonants. They keep the distinction between masculine and feminine plural pronouns, e.g. انتو ['ɪntu] is 'you' (masc.) while انتن ['ɪntɪn] is 'you' (fem.), and همه ['hʊmme] is 'they' (masc.) while هنه ['hɪnne] is 'they' (fem.). The three rural groups are the following.
- Central rural Palestinian (From Nazareth to Bethlehem, including Jaffa countryside) exhibits a very distinctive feature with pronunciation of ك 'kaf' as [tʃ] 'tshaf' (e.g. كفية 'keffieh' as [tʃʊ'fijje]) and ق 'qaf' as pharyngealised /k/ i.e. [kˤ] 'kaf' (e.g. قمح 'wheat' as [kˤɑmᵊħ]). This k > tʃ sound change is not conditioned by the surrounding sounds in Central Palestinian. This combination is unique in the whole Arab world, but could be related to the 'qof' transition to 'kof' in the Aramaic dialect spoken in Ma'loula, north of Damascus.
- Southern rural Palestinian (to the south of an Isdud/Ashdod-Bethlehem line) has k > tʃ only in presence of front vowels (ديك 'rooster' is [di:tʃ] in the singular but the plural ديوك 'roosters' is [dju:k] because u prevents /k/ to change to [tʃ]). In this dialect ق is not pronounced as [k] but instead as [g]. This dialect is actually very similar to northern Jordanian (Ajloun, Irbid) and the dialects of Syrian Hauran. In Southern rural Palestinian, the feminine ending often remains [a].
- North Galilean rural dialects do not feature the k > tʃ palatalisation, and many of them have kept the [q] realisation of ق (e.g. Maghār, Tirat Carmel). In the very north, they announce the Northern Levantine Lebanese dialects with n-ending pronouns such as كن-[-kʊn] 'you', هن- [-hʊn] 'them' (Tarshiha, etc.).
The Palestinian Beduins use two different dialects ('badawi') in Galilee and the Negev. The Negev desert Beduins use a dialect closely related to those spoken in the Hijaz, and in the Sinai. The Beduins of Galilee speak a dialect related to those of the Syrian Desert and Najd, which indicates their arrival could have been relatively recent. The Negev Beduin have a specific vocabulary, they maintain the interdental consonants, they do not use the ش-[-ʃ] negative suffix, they always realise ك /k/ as [k] and ق /q/ as [g], and distinguish plural masculine from plural feminine pronouns, but with different forms as the rural speakers.
Current evolutions On the urban dialects side, the current trend is to have urban dialects getting closer to their rural neighbours, thus introducing some variability among cities in the Levant. For instance, Jerusalem used to say as Damascus ['nɪħna] ("we") and ['hʊnne] ("they") at the beginning of the 20th century, and this has moved to the more rural ['ɪħna] and ['hʊmme] nowadays. This trend was probably initiated by the partition of the Levant of several states in the course of the 20th century.
The Rural description given above is moving nowadays with two opposite trends. On the one hand, urbanisation gives a strong influence power to urban dialects. As a result, villagers may adopt them at least in part, and Beduin maintain a two-dialect practice. On the other hand, the individualisation that comes with urbanisation make people feel more free to choose the way they speak than before, and in the same way as some will use typical Egyptian features as [le:] for [le:ʃ], others may use typical rural features such as the rural realisation [kˤ] of ق as a pride reaction against the stigmatisation of this pronunciation.
Specific aspects of the vocabulary
As Palestinian Arabic is spoken in the heartland of the Semitic languages, it has kept many typical semitic words. For this reason, it is relatively easy to guess how Modern Standard Arabic words map onto Palestinian Arabic Words. The list (Swadesh list) of basic word of Palestinian Arabic available on the Wiktionary (see external links below) may be used for this. However, some words are not transparent mappings from MSA, and deserve a description. This is due either to meaning changes in Arabic along the centuries - while MSA keeps the Classical Arabic meanings - or to the adoption of non-Arabic words (see below). Note that this section focuses on Urban Palestinian unless otherwise specified.
Prepositional pseudo verbs
The words used in Palestinian to express the basic verbs 'to want', 'to have', 'there is/are' are called prepositional pseudo verbs because they share all the features of verbs but are constructed with a preposition and a suffix pronoun.
- there is, there are is فيه [fi] in the imperfect, and كان فيه [ka:n fi] in the perfect.
- To want is formed with bɪdd + suffix pronouns and to have is formed with ʕɪnd + suffix pronouns. In the imperfect they are
|Person||To want||To have|
|You (sing. masc.)||بدك['bɪdd-ak]||عندك ['ʕɪnd-ak]|
|You (sing. fem.)||بدك['bɪdd-ɪk]||عندك ['ʕɪnd-ɪk]|
|You (plur.)||بدكم['bɪdd-kʊm]||عندكم ['ʕɪnd-kʊm]|
In the perfect, they are preceded by كان [ka:n], e.g. we wanted is كان بدنا [ka:n 'bɪddna].
As in most forms of colloquial Arabic, the relative clause markers of Classical Arabic (الذي، التي، اللذان، اللتان، الذين and اللاتي) have been simplified to a single form إللي ['ʔɪlli].
The main Palestinian interrogative pronouns (with their Modern Standard Arabic counterparts) are the following ones.
|Why?||ليش [le:ʃ]||لماذا [lima:ða:]|
|What?||ايش [ʔe:ʃ] or شو [ʃu]||ماذا [ma:ða:]|
|How?||كيف [ki:f]||كيف [kaɪfa]|
|When?||إيمتى [ʔe:mta]||متى [mata:]|
|Where?||وين [we:n]||اين [ʔaɪna]|
|Who?||مين [mi:n]||من [man]|
Note that it is tempting to consider the long [i:] in مين [mi:n] 'who?' as an influence of ancient Hebrew מי [mi:] on Classical Arabic من [man], but it could be as well an analogy with the long vowels of the other interrogatives.
Marking Indirect Object
In Classical Arabic, the indirect object was marked with the particle /li-/ ('for', 'to'). For instance 'I said to him' was قلت له ['qultu 'lihi] and 'I wrote to her' was كتبت لها [ka'tabtu li'ha:]. In Palestinian Arabic, the Indirect Object marker is still based on the consonant /l/, but with more complex rules, and two different vocal patterns. The basic form before pronouns is a clitic [ɪll-], that always bears the stress, and to which person pronouns are suffixed. The basic form before nouns is [la]. For instance
- ... قلت لإمك ['ʔʊlət la-'ɪmmak ...] 'I told your mother ...'
- ...اعطيناالمكتوب لمدير البنك [ʔɑʕtˤeːna l maktuːb la mʊ'diːɾ ɪl baŋk] 'We gave the letter to the bank manager'
- ... قلت إله [ʔʊlt- 'ɪll-o ...] 'I told him ...'
- ... قلت إلها [ʔʊlt- 'ɪl(l)-ha ...] 'I told her ...'
- ... كتبت إلّي [katabt- 'ɪll-i ...] 'You wrote me ...'
Palestinians have borrowed words from the many languages they have been in contact with throughout history. For example,
- from Aramaic - especially in the place names, for instance there are several mountains called جبل الطور ['ʒabal ɪtˤ tˤuːɾ] where طور [tˤuːɾ] is just the Aramaic טור for 'mountain'.
- Latin left words in Levantine Arabic, not only those as قصر [ʔasˤɾ] < castrum 'castle' or قلم [ʔalam] < calamus which are also known in MSA, but also words such as طاولة [tˤa:wle] < tabula 'table', which are known in the Arab world.
- from Italian بندورة [ban'do:ra] < pomodoro 'tomato'
- from French كتو ['ketto] < gâteau 'cake'
- from English بنشر ['banʃar] < puncture, [trɪkk] < truck
- From Hebrew, especially the Arab citizens of Israel have adopted many Hebraisms, like yesh יֵשׁ ("we did it!" - used as sports cheer) which has no real equivalent in Arabic. According to social linguist Dr. David Mendelson from Givat Haviva's Jewish-Arab Center for Peace, there is an adoption of words from Hebrew in Arabic spoken in Israel where alternative native terms exist. According to linguist Mohammed Omara, of Bar-Ilan University some researchers call the Arabic spoken by Israeli Arabs Arabrew. The list of words adopted contain:
- رمزور [ram'zo:r] from רַמְזוֹר 'traffic light'
- شمنيت ['ʃamenet] from שַׁמֶּנֶת 'sour cream'
- بسدر [be'seder] from בְּסֵדֶר 'O.K, alright'
- كوخفيت [koxa'vi:t] from כּוֹכָבִית 'asterisk'
- بلفون [pele'fo:n] from פֶּלֶאפוֹן 'cellular phone'.
Palestinians in the Palestinian territories sometimes refer to their brethren in Israel as "the b'seder Arabs" because of their adoption of the Hebrew word בְּסֵדֶר [beseder] for 'O.K.', (while Arabic is ماشي[ma:ʃi]). However words like ramzor רַמְזוֹר 'traffic light' and maḥsom מַחְסוֹם 'roadblock' have become a part of the general Palestinian vernacular.
The 2009 film Ajami is mostly spoken in Palestinian-Hebrew Arabic.
The most often cited example of vowel harmony in Palestinian Arabic is in the present tense conjugations of verbs. If the root vowel is rounded, then the roundness spreads to other high vowels in the prefix. Vowel harmony in PA is also found in the nominal verbal domain. Suffixes are immune to rounding harmony, and vowels left of the stressed syllable do not have vowel harmony.
Palestinian Arabic has a regressive vowel harmony for these present tense conjugations: if the verb stem’s main vowel is /u/, then the vowel in the prefix is also /u/, else the vowel is /i/. This is compared with standard Arabic (which can be seen as representative of other Arabic dialects), where the vowel in the prefix is constantly /a/.
- ‘he understands’: PA ‘yifham’ (MSA, or standard Arabic, ‘yafhamu’)
- ‘he studies’: PA ‘yudrus’ (MSA, ‘yadrusu’)
- ‘she wears’: PA ‘tilbis’ (MSA, ‘talbasu’)
- ‘she writes’: PA ‘tuktub’ (MSA, ‘taktubu’)
- ‘oven’: PA ‘furun’ (MSA, ‘furin’)
- ‘wedding’: PA ‘Urus’ (MSA,‘'uris'’)
History of Palestinian Arabic
The variations between dialects probably reflect the different historical steps of Arabization of Palestine.
Until the seventh century, inhabitants predominantly spoke Palestinian Aramaic (as witnessed, for example, in Jewish and Christian literature), as well as Greek (probably in upper or trader social classes) and some remaining traces of Hebrew. At that time, Arabic-speaking people living in the Negev desert or in the Jordan desert beyond Zarqa, Amman or Karak had no significant influence - on the contrary they tended to adopt Aramaic as a written language as shown in the Nabataean language texts of Petra or the Palmyrene dialect documents of Tadmur.
The adoption of Arabic among the local population occurred most probably in several waves. After the Arabs took control of the area, so as to maintain their regular activity, the upper classes had quickly to get fluency in the language of the new masters who most probably were only few. The prevalence of Northern Levantine features in the urban dialects until the early 20th century, as well as in the dialect of Samaritans in Nablus (with systematic imala of /a:/) tends to show that a first layer of Arabization of urban upper classes could have led to what is now urban Levantine. Then, the main phenomenon could have been the slow countryside shift of Aramaic-speaking villages to Arabic under the influence of Arabized elites, leading to the emergence of the rural Palestinian dialects. This scenario is consistent with several facts.
- The rural forms can be correlated with features also observed in the few Syrian villages where use of Aramaic has been retained up to this day. Palatalisation of /k/ (but of /t/ too), pronunciation [kˤ] of /q/ for instance. Note that the first also exists in Najdi Arabic and Gulf Arabic, but limited to palatal contexts (/k/ followed by i or a). Moreover, those Eastern dialects have [g] or [dʒ] for /q/.
- The less-evolutive urban forms can be explained by a limitation owed to the contacts urban trader classes had to maintain with Arabic speakers of other towns in Syria or Egypt.
- The Negev Bedouins dialect shares a number of features with Hijazi dialects.
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