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 in 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 substratum. However, Tunisian has also a significant Latin component,[10][11] as well as many loanwords from French,[12] Turkish,[12] Italian[12] and Spanish.[12] 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.[10] Due to multilingualism within Tunisia and in the Tunisian diaspora, it is not uncommon for Tunisians to code-switch, mixing Tunisian with French, English, standard Arabic or other languages into their daily speech.[13] 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.[13][14] However, code-switching between Tunisian Arabic and modern standard Arabic is mainly made by more educated and upper-class people and has not negatively affected the use of more new French and Spanish loanwords in Tunisian.[13]

Moreover, Tunisian Arabic is closely related to Maltese,[15] which is not considered to be a dialect of Arabic for sociolinguistic reasons.[16]


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.[17][18]

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.[16] However, it is little to not intelligible with Moroccan Arabic,[8] Egyptian Arabic,[19] Levantine Arabic,[19] Iraqi Arabic,[19] and Gulf Arabic.[19]


Beginnings of the Language[edit]

Linguistic Situation of Ancient Tunisia[edit]

During the Antiquity, Tunisia's population spoke old forms of Tamazight languages, close to Numidian.[20][21] However, these 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.[20][21]

Indeed, migrants from Phoenicia settled Tunisia during the 12th to the 2nd century BC, founded Carthage and progressively mixed with the local population.[22] These 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.[23] 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.[24] Also, already at that time, in the regions nearby to punic settlements, the Berber used evolved considerably. In the urban centers at the center of the country such as Dougga, Bulla Regia, Thuburnica or Chemtou, the Berber lost its Maghrebi phonology while kept the essential of its vocabulary. The word « Africa », that 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.[25] Also, during this period and up to the 3rd century BC, the Berber Tifinagh alphabet developed from the Phoenician alphabet.[26][27]

At the arrival of Romans, following the fall of Carthage in 146 BC,[28][29] the coastal population spoke mainly Punic, though this influence decreased away from the coast.[24] 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.[30] This also progressively gave birth to African Romance, a Latin dialect, influenced by Tunisia's other languages and used along with them.[31] Also, as it was the case for the other dialects,[31][32] 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 written use.[33] However, it may be that the existence of Punic facilitated the spread of Arabic in the region,[34] as Punic and Arabic are both Semitic languages and share many common roots.[35][36]

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.[37][38] The people of several urban cities were progressively influenced by Arabic.[38] 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.[32][39][40] These dialects were slightly and characteristically influenced by several common Berber structures and vocabulary like negation because Tamazight was the language of contact for the citizens of that period.[41][42] The new dialects were also significantly influenced by other historical languages.[17][42][43] In fact, many Tunisian and Maghrebi words like qarnīṭ have a Latin etymology.[11][44] These dialects were later called pre-hilalian dialects and were used along classical Arabic for communication in Tunisia.[45][46] As Sicilian was spoken in several islands near Tunisia like Sicily, Malta or Sardinia,‏[45][47] it ameliorated the divergence in grammar and structures of all the concerned dialects from classical Arabic.[40][48] By the mid 11th century, Banu Hilal immigrated to northern and central Tunisia and Banu Sulaym immigrated to southern Tunisia.[18][43][48] These immigrants played a major role in spreading the use of Tunisian Arabic in an important part of the country.[43][48][49] However, they brought some of the characteristics of their local Arabic dialects.[18][43] 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".[18][49] 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.[17][18][49] Furthermore, the phonologies brought to the new towns speaking Tunisian Arabic are those of the immigrants and not the Tunisian one.[18] The Sulaym even spread a new dialect in southern Tunisia that was Libyan Arabic.[18][49][50] However, some dialects avoided the hilalian influence, these dialects were: judeo-Tunisian Arabic that is a vernacular spoken by Tunisian Jews and that is known for the conservation of foreign phonemes in loanwords and that is slightly influenced by Hebrew phonology,[51][52][53] Sfax dialect[54] and Tunisian urban woman dialect.[55]

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, this led to the re-use of the voiceless uvular plosive [q] instead of the nomadic hilalian voiced velar plosive [ɡ] and also led to speech simplification in Tunisian,[50][56][57] which further differentiated the language from classical Arabic.[50] Furthermore, these 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 that were very distinct from formal Arabic[58][59][60]

Ottoman period[edit]

See also: Ottoman Tunisia

During the 17th to the 19th century, Tunisia came under Spanish then Ottoman rule and hosted Morisco then Italian immigrants from 1609.[43][59] This made Tunisian, Spanish, Italian and Turkish languages connect.[59] During this period, Tunisian acquired several new loanwords from Spanish and Turkish[43][59] and even some structures like the Turkish -jī suffix added to several nouns to mean professions like kawwāṛjī, qahwājī...[56][59] During the mid 19th century, Tunisian Arabic was studied by several European scientists.[61] In 1893, a first linguistic study was completed by the German linguist Hans Stumme. This began a still ongoing research trend on Tunisian Arabic.[6][62]

Modern history[edit]

During the French protectorate of Tunisia, the country entered in contact with standard French language.[42][56][63] This contact affected Tunisian considerably as new loanwords, meanings and structures were drawn from French.[64] These changes worsened the unintelligibility of Tunisian to middle eastern Arabic speakers .[19][42][63]

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[65][66][67]
Tunisian leader Habib Bourguiba usually delivered his speeches in Tunisian even for religious celebrations[68][69]

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.[70] Also, more researches about Tunisian were produced, mainly by French and German linguists.[51] Tunisian Arabic became even taught in French high schools as an optional language.[71] Tunisian Arabic became even taught in French high schools as an optional language.[71]

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.[72][73] Also, this dialect was heterogenous as it is composed of dozens of dialects belonging to either pre-Hilalian[74] or Hilalian[75] dialectal families.[39][76] The profusion is due to many factors, including the length of time the country was inhabited,[77] its long history as a migration land, the profusion of cultures that have inhabited it[78] as well as the geographical length and diversification of the country, divided between mountain, forest, plain, coastal, island and desert areas.[79]

This is why Tunisian leader Habib Bourguiba began a trial of Arabization and Tunisification of Tunisia and spread free basic education for all Tunisians.[42][80][81] This contributed to the progressive and partial minimization of code-switching from European languages in Tunisian and the use of code-switching from modern standard Arabic.[42][60] 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.[82][83] By then, Tunisian Arabic reached nationwide usage and became composed of six slightly different but fully mutually intelligible dialects: Tunis dialect which is considered the reference Tunisian dialect, Sahil dialect, Sfax dialect, southwestern dialect, southeastern dialect and northwestern dialect.[84] Older dialects became less commonly used and began disappearing.[82][85] Consequently, Tunisian became the main prestigious language of communication and interaction within the Tunisian community[84][86] and Tunisia became the most linguistically homogeneous state of the Maghreb.[87] 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.[82][85][88]

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 Peace Corps from 1966 until 1993[89][90] and more researches on it were made. Some which used new methods like computing operations and the creation of several automatic Corpus.[91][92][93] Others, more traditional, were also made about the phonology, morphology, pragmatic and semantics of Tunisian.[6][56] The language was also used to write several novels since the 1990s[70] and even a Swadesh list in 2012.[94] Nowadays it is taught by many institutions like the INALCO (located in Paris with Tunisian Arabic courses since 1916)[95] and the IBLV (located in Tunis with Tunisian Arabic courses since 1990).[3][96][97] or in French high schools as an optional language.[98] In fact, 1878 students sat for the Tunisian Arabic examination in the 1999 French Baccalaureate.[98] Nowadays, the tendency in France is to implement Maghrebi Arabic dialects and mainly Tunisian Arabic more in basic education.[3]

But, these 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. This project 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.[99][100]

Nowadays, the linguistic classification of Tunisian Arabic causes controversies between interested people.[70][101] This problem is caused because it exists in the Arabic dialect continuum.[102][103] Some linguists such as Michel Quitout and Keith Walters consider it an independent language[43][70][84] and some others such as Enam El-Wer consider it a divergent dialect of Arabic that is still dependent of Arabic morphology and structures.[49]

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. But even this charter was not agreed on by the Constitutional Council of France due to its conflict with the Article 2 of French Constitution of 1958.[2][3] Also, no official recognition or standardization in Tunisia was provided for Tunisian Arabic until 2015.[84]

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[10]), 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.[104]
  • The lack of an indicative prefix in the verbal system, resulting in no distinction between indicative and subjunctive moods.[104]
  • 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.[104]
  • 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.[104]
  • Some vocabulary such as فيسع [ˈfiːsɑʕ] "fast", باهي [ˈbɛːhi] "good" and برشه [ˈbɛrʃæ] "very much". (e.g.: [ˈbɛːhi ˈbɛrʃæ]="very good")[104]
  • 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 عـ السلامه [ʕæsːˈlɛːmæ] (formal) or أهلا [ˈʔɛhlæ] (informal) for greeting. Also, بـ السلامه [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].[104] 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][80][104]
  • The passive derivation of verbs is influenced by Berber and is different from the one of classical Arabic.[10][105] 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: /ʃrab/ "to drink" → /ttaʃrab/ "to be drunk").[6][104][105]
  • 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.[106][107]
  • Tunisian Arabic is an SVO language and it is most of the time a Null-subject language.[104][108] In fact, the subject is only written in order to avoid meaning ambiguity.[104]


Geographic disposition of the Tunisian Arabic dialects as of 2015.[82][85] The fields in blue, light blue, dark gray, light gray, green and yellow are respectively the geographic dispositions of southwestern Tunisian,[109][110] southeastern Tunisian,[5][111] northwestern Tunisian,[112] Sahil dialect,[113][114] Sfax dialect[54] and Tunis dialect[6][56][115]

Nowadays, the main dialect varieties of Tunisian Arabic are: Northwestern Tunisian, southwestern Tunisian, Tunis dialect, Sahil dialect, Sfax dialect and southeastern Tunisian.[6][82][85][113]

Tunis,[6][56] Sousse[113] and Sfax[54] dialects (considered sedentary dialects) use the voiceless uvular plosive [q] in words such as /qaːl/ "he said", while southeastern,[109] northwestern[112] 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 the Tunisian phonology.[54][56] Indeed, northwestern[112] and southwestern[109] Tunisian speak Tunisian with the Algerian Arabic phonology which tends to simplify short vowels as short schwas while southeastern Tunisian speak Tunisian with the Libyan Arabic phonology.[5][82][116]

Additionally, Tunis,[6][56] Sfax[54] and Sahil[113] dialects are known for not marking the second person gender. Hence, the otherwise feminine /ʔinti/ is used to address both men and women and no feminine marking is used in verbs (inti mšīt). And that while, northwestern,[112] southeastern[111] and southwestern[109] varieties maintain the gender distinction found in classical Arabic (inta mšīt, inti mšītī).


The Tunis dialect is considered by some linguists as the standard form of Tunisian Arabic.[6][56] However, it has a characteristic which it does not share with some of the Tunisian Arabic dialects.[6][56] Indeed, Tunis dialect distinguishes between the three short vowels,[89][104] and tends to pronounce [æ] as [ɛ],[56] and pronounces 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 āna.‏[113][114] 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][113][114] For example, jwāb is pronounced as [ʒwɑːb] and lūn is pronounced as [lɔːn].[5][113][114] Furthermore, when ā is at the end of the indefinite or "il-" definite word, this final ā is pronounced as [iː].[5][113][114] For example, smā is pronounced as [smiː]. Moreover, If a word begins with /θ/ or /ð/, these letters are pronounced respectively as [t] and [d].[113][117] For example, /θlaːθa/ is pronounced as [tlɛːθæ].[5][113] As well, Sahil dialect is known for using miš instead of mūš to mean the negation of future predicted action.[113] Similarly, the conjugation of miš as a modal verb uses mišnī instead of mānīš, mišk instead of mākš, miššū instead of mūš and mēhūš, mišhā instead of māhīš, mišnā instead of mānāš, miškum instead of mākumš and mišhum instead of māhumš.[113]


The Sfax dialect is mostly known for its conservation of the Arabic diphthongs /aj/ and /aw/ and of the short /a/ between two consonants[54] and its use of wḥīd instead of wḥūd to mean the plural of someone.[118] Other dialects have substituted them respectively by /iː/ and /uː/ and dropped the short /a/ between the first and second consonant of the word.[56][117][119] 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.[54] For example, /χubz/ is pronounced as [χibz].[54] It is also known for the use of specific words like baṛmaqnī meaning Window.[54] 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.[54][112] For example, /ʒazzaːrˤ/ is pronounced as [zæzzɑːrˤ] and /ʒarʒiːs/ is pronounced as [zærzi:s].[54] Unlike other Tunisian dialects, Sfax dialect does not simplify the last long vowel at the end of a word.[54][56] It is also known, for some specific verbs like aṛā (to see) and the use of the demonstrative articles hākūma for those and hāka (m.) and hākī (f.) for that respectively instead of hāđūkum and hāđāka (m.) and hāđākī (f.) determinants.[54] Finally, the conjugation of mūš as a modal verb uses māhūwāš instead of māhūš, māhīyāš instead of māhīš, māḥnāš instead of mānāš and māhūmāš instead of māhumš.[12][120]


The northwestern dialect is known by pronouncing r as [rˤ] when it is written before an ā or ū.[112] 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.[112] Also, it is known for the pronounciation of ū and ī respectively as [o:] and [e:] when they are in an emphatic or uvular environment.[112] As well, northwestern dialect is known for using miš that is pronounced as [məʃ] instead of mānīš to mean the negation of future predicted action.[112] Similarly, the conjugation of miš as a modal verb uses mišnī instead of mānīš, mišk instead of mākš, miššū instead of mūš and māhūš, mišhā instead of māhīš, mišnā instead of mānāš, miškum instead of mākumš and mišhum instead of māhumš.[112] Moreover, northwestern dialect is known for the use of naḥnā instead of aḥnā as a plural second person personal pronoun.[112]


The southeastern 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 they used to drop the ā and then add the ū.[111] For example, mšā is conjugated as mšū instead of mšāw with the third person of plural.[111] 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.[5][65][111] 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][65] Furthermore, this dialect is also known for the use of anā instead of ānā (meaning I), the use of intumm (masc.) and intinn (fem.) instead of intūma (meaning you in plural) and the use of humm (masc.) and hinn (fem.) instead of hūma (meaning they).[121][122]


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 they used to drop the ā and then add the ū.[109][110] For example, mšā is conjugated as mšū with the third person of plural.[109][110] Furthermore, this dialect is also known for the use of instead of ānā (meaning I), the use of ḥnī instead of aḥnā (meaning we), the use of intumm (masc.) and intinn (fem.) instead of intūma (meaning you in plural) and the use of humm (masc.) and hinn (fem.) instead of hūma (meaning they).[109][110] Moreover, it is known for the pronounciation of ū and ī respectively as [o:] and [e:] when they are in an emphatic or uvular environment.[109][110]

Use and Geographical Distribution[edit]

Tunisian Arabic is the mother tongue of the Arabic-speaking population in Tunisia.[59] It is also the second language of the Berber minority living in the country, particularly in Djerba.[1][123]

However, Tunisian Arabic has the role of the low variety in an example of classic diglossia, where standard Arabic is the high variety.[14] As such, the use of Tunisian Arabic is mainly restricted to spoken domains.[1][70] as its written and cultural use began in the 17th century[124] and regularly developed since the 20th century only.[125] Nowadays, it is used for a wide range of purposes including communication, politic, literature, theatre, music...[70][126]


From the 1990s, Tunisians began to write in Tunisian Arabic when communicating on the Internet, especially on social networking sites, and in text messages.[127] 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.[126]

In religion, the use of Tunisian Arabic in promoting Islam is limited, although there are some trial efforts.[128] In Christianity, the use of Tunisian Arabic is significant, beginning with a 1903 New Testament translation.[1] Nowadays, a full version of the new testament is available online.[129]


Before Tunisian independence, there was a large body of folk tales and folk poems in Tunisian Arabic.[130] This was mainly an oral tradition, told by wandering storytellers and bards at marketplaces and festivals.[8][131] The most important of these folktales are "il-jāzya il-hlālīya" and "ḥkāyat ummī sīsī w il-đīb".[132] A few years after independence, the most famous of them was recorded for ERTT broadcast, in Tunisian Arabic by Abdelaziz El Aroui,[133] or translated mainly to French and standard Arabic by other authors.[132] These 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[134] and the work of Karen McNeil of 2014.[135]

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[136] 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.[125][137][138]

However, since the early 1990s, Hedi Balegh initiated a new trend in Tunisian literature.[70] He was the first to translate a Novel in Tunisian Arabic in 1997[101][139] and to make some collections of Tunisian idioms and proverbs in 1994 using Arabic script.[140] Some authors and more particularly Tahar Fazaa (mainly in Tšanšīnāt Tūnsīya)[141][142] and Taoufik Ben Brik (mainly when writing Kalb Bin Kalb[143][144] and Kawāzākī[145][146]) 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.[147] At that period, they faced several objections.[147] However, it acquired general recognition in Tunisia by the end of World War II.[147] After the Tunisian independence, the government encouraged the development of theater in Tunisian Arabic through the creation of supporting institutions.[147][148] This resulted in the creation of notable plays in Tunisian Arabic that followed the trends of world literature during the period between 1965 and 2005.[147][148] The main authors of these plays were Jalila Baccar and Fadhel Jaibi and some members of the National Theature Troupes of the Medina of Tunis, El Kef and Gafsa.[147][148]

Nowadays, plays are almost always written in Tunisian Arabic, except when they are placed in a historical setting[147] and these plays written in Tunisian Arabic are widely considered as meaningful and valuable ones.[147]


The oldest lyrics found written in Tunisian, dates back to the 17th century,[124] 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:[149]

عَدِّيت في الصُّغر عَدِّيت
يَا حَسرتِي على زمَانِي
بـ الطَّار و الدُّفّ غَنِّيت
و زهِيت بـ حُسن المَعَانِي
لـ الرَّبّ 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:[124]

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

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

But 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.[124][150] This current strengthened at the beginning of the 20th century and affected the Tunisian ma'luf and folklore.[124] judeo-Tunisian song flowered in the 1930s, with such Jewish artists as Cheikh El Afrit and Habiba Msika.[150][151]

yā lāymī ɛlā il-zīn of Saliha

This tendency was promoted by the creation of Radio Tunis in 1938,[151] which allowed many musicians to better disseminate their works and helped spread the use of Tunisian Arabic in songs.[151] 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.[151]

Following the creation of the ERTT broadcasting organization in 1966,[152] there emerged a generation of composers and interpreters, mostly working in the ERTT orchestra.[152] 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.[152] Tahar Gharsa (another disciple of Tarnane) worked to promote the characteristically modal and rhythmic traditional music written with Tunisian Arabic lyrics.[152] The director Raoul Journo, in the same line,[152] is a judeo-Tunisian singer, distinguished by his interpretation of taâlila (traditional songs associated with birth, circumcision, marriage and other rites).[152] This kind of music developed under the National Troupe of Music, created in the early 1980s.[153]

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.[150][154] This kind of music was promoted by the National Troupe of the Popular Arts, created in 1962.[155] Later adaptation and promotion of popular songs, especially by Ahmed Hamza and later Kacem Kefi, further developed Tunisian music.[152] Natives of Sfax, they were both influenced by Mohamed Ennouri and Mohamed Boudaya, leading masters of popular music in that city.[124][152] Nowadays, this kind of music is very popular.[156]

In 1993, underground music entered Tunisia.[157] This consisted of rap in the 1990s, and was not successful because of the lack of media coverage.[157] 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.[157][158] 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.[157][159]

Nowadays, 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.[124]

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,[160][161] and were done in Tunisian Arabic.[162][163] Some of them achieved relative success outside Tunisia, such as La Goulette (ḥalq il-wād, 1996), Halfaouine: Child of the Terraces (ɛaṣfūr il-sṭaḥ, 1990), and The Ambassadors (il-sufaṛā, 1975).[163]

Television and radio programs in Tunisian Arabic began officially in 1966 with the establishment of the Établissement de la Radiodiffusion-Télévision Tunisienne.[164][165] Tunisian Arabic is now widely used for all television and radio programs, with the exception of news, religious programs and historical dramas.[68] There is even several translations of cartoon series in Tunisian Arabic, like during the 1980s Qrīnaṭ il-šalwāš and Mufattiš kaɛbūṛa.[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 medias' advertisements increasingly use Tunisian Arabic and many advertising boards have their slogans and the original or alternative company name written in Tunisian.[13]

However, the main newspapers in Tunisia are not written in Tunisian Arabic.[13][14] Although, there was a newspaper in Tunisian Arabic entitled 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.[137] 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.[13][80]


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 in order to support /g/ (ڨ), /v/ (ڥ) and /p/ (پ).[12][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.[124] However, the transcription of Tunisian Arabic was not common until 1903 when the Gospel of John was transcribed in Tunisian Arabic using Arabic script.[1][129] After the World War I, the use of Arabic script to Tunisian Arabic became very common with the works of Taht Essour.[125][137] Nowadays, it became the main script used for Tunisian Arabic, even in published books.[139][145] Although its writing conventions for Tunisian are not standardized and can change from a book to another.[12][139][145]

In 2014, Ines Zribi et al. had 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.[12] Although this 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.[12]

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, Leipzig, appeared the Deutsche Morgenländische Gesellschaft, a German scientific association dedicated to the studies and the languages of the orient.[171] Soon, this 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, or rather DMG transcription, was only first tried on Tunisian after the establishment of the French Protectorate of Tunisia in 1881.[56]

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.[62][173] In addition, from 1897 to 1935, a series of linguistic works were conducted by several French members of the Deutsche Morgenländische Gesellschaft like William Marçais,[174][175] Philippe Marçais,[176][177] David Cohen[51] and Alfred Nicolas.[178] These works included corpuses,[174][175] grammar books,[176] dictionaries,[178] or studies.[51] By 1935, the DMG transcription included many unique letters and diacritics for Tunisian, that were 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,[180] Hans Rudolf Singer,[56][181] Lucienne Saada[182][183][184] and others,[6] adopted the modified DMG.

Nowadays 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.[185][186]

Additional Scripts[edit]

Even if, the Deutsche Morgenländische Gesellschaft transcription was abundantly used in early linguistic researches about Tunisian,[170][185] some trials were made in order to create alternative Latin scripts and writing methods.[127][187] These 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.[12][71][169]

Also, the first successful trial to create a specific Latin script and writing method for Tunisian, was Practical Orthography of Tunisian Arabic, created by Joseph Jourdan in 1913.[188][189] Its principle was to use French consonant and vowel digraphs and phonology to transcribe non-Latin sounds.[188] 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.[190] This 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.[71][191][192] Moreover, it is still presently used in French books to transcribe Tunisian Arabic.[190] Also, this method was used in 1995 by the Tunisian Arabizi, an Arabic chat alphabet, that converted the consonant digraphs into digits.[8][59][193] 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/.[127][193] The ch, dh, and th digraphs are kept in Tunisian Arabizi.[193] Like all other Arabic chat alphabets, its use spread considerably during the 1990s mainly with the Tunisian young people.[8][59][194] Nowadays, it is used principally on social networks and mobile phones.[127][193] Also, during the Tunisian Revolution of 2011, Tunisian Arabizi was the main script used for message transmission on internet.[195][196] After 2011, more interest was given to Tunisian Arabizi[197][198] and in 2013, a concise grammar book about Tunisian that was written with Tunisian Arabizi was issued.[199] 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.[197][200]

Furthermore, although popular, these methods have problems such as the possibility of ambiguity between digraphs,[201] 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[201] and the lack of disambiguation between /ð/ and /ðˤ/.[190] 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.[202]

Logo of Peace Corps

Separately, another Latin script transcription method was created by the Robert J. Scholes and his team constituted of several linguists from Peace Corps Tunisia and Indiana University in 1966.[187] 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/.[187] Moreover, three Additional Latin Letters are used in this writing method that are 3 (/ʕ/), ø (/ð/) and ħ (/ħ/).[187] Four common English digraphs are used that are dh (/ðˤ/), gh (/ʁ/), th (/tˤ/) and sh (/ʃ/).[187] In order to distinguish the digraphs from the independent letters written like the digraphs, the digraphs are underlined.[187] 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:/).[187] This method was used in the Peace Corps books about Tunisian Arabic until 1993 when Peace Corps Tunisia became inactive.[90][203][204]

After years of works on a phonetic transliteration of Tunisian, linguists decided that the transliteration should be mainly syntactic.[205] In fact, Timothy Buckwalter created an orthography-based transcription of Arabic texts during his work for Xerox.[206] Buckwalter transcription was created in order to avoid the effect of phoneme simplification of spoken Arabic on the morphological analysis of the language.[205] In 2004, Tunisian linguist Mohamed Maamouri proposed to use the same transliteration for Arabic dialects and mainly Tunisian.[207] 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[208] A morphological analysis and a conventional orthography of Tunisian using this method were posted by 2014[12][209] 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.[210][211] However, this method is currently used for computer operations only[12] and it is unfortunately not used by people as it involves some ASCII non-alphanumeric graphs as letters and as S, D and T does not correspond respectively to the same phonemes as s, d and t.[212][213] Furthermore, p does not correspond to /p/ but to ﺓ.[214] This is why this method was not adapted for daily use in writing Tunisian and is only adopted for NLP Purposes.[213]

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]



The most immediately apparent difference between Tunisian and standard Arabic is the extensive use of words borrowed from Italian, Spanish, French, Berber and Turkish.[56] For example, Electricity is /kahrabaːʔ/ in standard Arabic. It is trīsītī in Tunisian Arabic (a word mainly used by older people), from the French électricité. Other loans from French include buṛtmān (flat), and byāsa (coin).[56] Furthermore, there are words and structures that came from Turkish, such as bālik (perhaps), gawrī (European) (Gavur); as well as the suffix of occupation /-ʒi/ as in būṣṭājī (Post Officer) and kawwāṛjī (Football Player).[56] A sample of words derived from Latin, French, Italian, Turkish, Berber, Greek or Spanish is below:[12]

Tunisian Arabic Standard Arabic English Etymology of Tunisian Arabic
بابور ḅaḅūr سفينة /safiːna/ ship Turkish:[215] vapur meaning "steamboat"
باكو bakū صندوق /sˤundu:q/ package Italian:[216] pacco
بانكه ḅanka بنك /bank/ bank Italian:[216] banca
بلاصه bḷaṣa مكان /makaːn/ place Spanish:[217]‏‏plaza
بوسطه būsṭa مكتب البريد /maktab albari:d/ post office French:[218] poste
داكردو dakūrdū حسنا /ħasanan/ okay Italian:[216] d'accordo
فيشته fišta عيد /ʕiːd/ holiday Italian:[216] festa
كرّوسه kaṛṛūsa عربة /ʕaraba/ carriage Italian:[216] carrozza
كوجينه kūjīna مطبخ /matˤbax/ kitchen Italian:[216] cucina
كسكسي kusksī كسكسي /kuskusi/ couscous Berber:[219]seksu
ماكينه mākīna آلة /ʔaːla/ machine Italian:[216] machina
صبّاط ṣabbaṭ حذاء /ħiðaːʔ/ shoes Spanish:[217] zapatos
قلسيطه qalsīta جورب /jawrab/ sock Spanish:[217] calcetín
قطّوس qaṭṭūs قط /qitˤː/ cat Latin:[220] cattus
سبيطار sbīṭaṛ مستشفى /mustaʃfa/ hospital Italian:[216] ospedale
سفناريه sfinārya جزر /jazar/ carrot Greek:[221] σταφυλῖνος ἄγριος

These 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] that is often replaced, especially by men, with [r].[222] For example, many Tunisians, when asking "How are you?" will use the French "ça va?" instead of, and in addition to the Tunisian šnīya aḥwālik. It is difficult in this case to establish whether this is an example of using French or borrowing.[222]

In general, the loanwords are adapted to Tunisian phonology for years until they become pronounced with Basic Tunisian Arabic Sounds only.[56][223] For example, The French Word apartement became buṛtmān and the Italian word ospedale became sbīṭāṛ.[56][224]

Shift in meanings[edit]

The greatest number of differences between Tunisian and standard Arabic are not due to borrowing from another language, but due to shift in meaning of an Arabic root.[85] 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. This means that the Social situation and thoughts of the speakers of the languages obliged them to change the meaning of some words so that their language could be adapted to their situation[225][226] and this is just what happened in Tunisia.[85] In fact, the borrowing of rhetoric and semantic structures from other languages of contact like French helped the meaning shift in Tunisian.[63][85]

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 their beginning or ending with the sound š or āš and are not to be confused with the negation mark, that is š which accords the verbs as in mā mšītš (I did not go).[6]

The table below shows a comparison of various question words in Tunisian, standard Arabic and English:[6][113]

Tunisian Arabic Construction Standard Arabic English
škūn āš + kūn من /man/ who
šnūwa (masc.)
šnīya (fem.)
āš + n + (h)ūwa
āš + n + (h)īya
ماذا /maːða/ what
waqtāš waqt + āš متى /mata/ when
lwāš l- + āš لماذا /limaːða/ for what reason
ɛlāš ɛlā + āš لماذا /limaːða/ why
kīfāš kīf + āš كيف /kajfa/ how
qaddāš qadd + āš كم /kam/ how much
mnāš min + āš من أين /man ʔajna/ from what
fāš fī + āš في من /fi man/ in what, what
wīn w + ayn أين /ʔajna/ where

Some of these question words, can be merged with other structures such as the prepositions and object pronouns. For example, "who are you" becomes škūnik intī or simply škūnik and "how much is this" becomes 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 ṭāš derived from the standard Arabic word عَشَرَ /ʕaʃara/, those numbers are in order: aḥdāš, ŧṇāš, ŧlaṭṭāš, aṛbaɛṭāš, xmasṭāš, sitṭāš, sbaɛṭāš, ŧmanṭāš and 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 Semitic root.[227] This 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.[227] For example, K-T-B is a root meaning to write and maūl is a pattern meaning that the object submitted the fact. So, the combination of the root and the given pattern render maKTūB that means something that was written.[227]


There are several differences in pronunciation between standard and Tunisian Arabic. In fact, nunation does not exist in Tunisian Arabic and short vowels are frequently omitted, especially where they would occur as the final element of an open syllable. This was probably encouraged by the Berber substratum.[115][223][228]

However, there are some more specific characteristics related to Tunisian Arabic like the phenomenon of metathesis.[228]


Metathesis is the phenomenon of shift of position of the first vowel of the word.[228][229] It occurs when the unconjugated verb or unsuffixed noun begins with CCVC where C is an unstressed consonant and V is a short vowel.[228][229][230] 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.[228][229][230]

For example:

  • (he) wrote in Tunisian Arabic becomes ktib and (she) wrote in Tunisian Arabic becomes kitbit.[104][228]
  • several stuffs in Tunisian Arabic becomes dbaš and my stuffs in Tunisian Arabic becomes dabšī.[104][228]


Stress is not phonologically distinctive[229] and it is determined by the word's syllable structure. Hence, it falls on the ultimate syllable if it is doubly closed, for example sirwāl (trousers). Otherwise, if falls on the penultimate syllable,[6] if there is one, for example ja (newspaper). Otherwise, the stress falls on the only syllable, for example mṛa (woman). Affixes are treated as part of the word,[229] for example niktlkum (we write to you).

For example:

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


Assimilation is a phonological process in Tunisian Arabic.[62][113][229] The possible assimilations are:

tṭ > ṭṭ ṭt > ṭṭ xh > xx > xx
tg > dg fd > vd ḥh > ḥḥ nl > ll
sd > zd td > dd dt > tt ln > nn
> ḥḥ > hḥ > ḥḥ nr > rr
nf > mf qk > qq kq > qq lr > rr
ndn > nn ḥɛ > ḥḥ ġh > xx ɛh > ḥḥ
šd > jd fC1 > vC1 bC2 > pC2 nb > mb
ɛḥ > ḥḥ tz > dz tj > dj


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 (e.g. He said is [qɑːl] vs. [ɡɑːl]). But some words have the same form whatever the dialect: cow is always [baɡra] and I study [naqra].[231] Interdental fricatives are also maintained, except in Sahil dialect for several situations.[232] Furthermore, Tunisian Arabic merged // ض with /ðˤ/ ظ.[233]

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.[56][89][113] Minimal pairs are not always easy to find for these contrasts, but there are nonetheless examples showing that these marginal forms do not represent allophones of other phonemes.[6][223] For example:
/baːb/ [bɛːb] "door" and /bˤaːbˤa/ [ˈbˤɑːbˤɑ] "Father"[6][223]
/ɡaːz/ [ɡɛːz] "petrol" and /ɡaːzˤ/ [ɡɑːzˤ] "gas"[6][223]
These emphatic consonants occur before or after the vowels /a/ and /aː/.[6][113] 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][223][229]
  • ^2 /p/ and /v/ are found in borrowed words and they are usually replaced by /b/, like in ḅāḅūr and ḅāla. However, they are preserved in some words, like pīsīn and talvza.[6][56][229]
  • ^3 Rarely used, for example tšīša, dzīṛa and dzāyir.[56][234]
  • ^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][56]


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][113]
  • 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][56][104]

Regardless of the analysis, hilalian influence 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/.[65][112][113]

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
  • 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.[56][115]
  • The length distinction is suspended word finally: A final vowel is realised long in accent-bearing words of one syllable (For example, [ʒɛː] he came), otherwise short.[6][56]
  • 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][56]
  • /ɔ:/ and nasal vowels are rare in native words, for most of the varieties of Tunisian and mainly for the Tunis dialect, like mqūba and lgār and mainly occur in French loans.[113][223] As for /y:/ and /œː/, they are only existing in French loanwords.[6][56]

Syllables and pronunciation simplification[edit]

Tunisian Arabic has a very different syllable structure from standard Arabic like all other North African varieties.[10] 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.[223] For example, standard Arabic book is /kitaːb/, while in Tunisian Arabic it is ktāb.[6][56]

The 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, e.g. /ma dxaltʃ/ I did not enter; standard Arabic can have no more than two consonants in this position.[6][56]

Word-internal syllables are generally heavy in that they either have a long vowel in the nucleus or consonant in the coda.[6][56]

Non-final syllables composed of just a consonant and a short vowel (i.e. light syllables) are very rare, and are generally loans from standard Arabic: short vowels in this position have generally been lost, resulting in the many initial CC clusters. For example, /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][56]

Further than these characteristics, Tunisian Arabic is also known for a different pronunciation of words according to their orthography and position within a text.[235][236] This phenomenon is known as pronunciation simplification[237] and has four rules:

  • [i:] and [ɪ], if they are at the end of a word, are pronounced [i] and [u:]. Also [u] is pronounced [u] and [a:], [ɛː], [a], [æ] are pronounced [æ].[238] For example, yībdā is practically pronounced as /yībdæ/.[239][240]
  • If a word finishes with a vowel and the next word begins with a short vowel, this short vowel and the space between the two words are not pronounced.[223][228][241] This phenomenon is seen clearly when comparing Arabic texts to their Latin phonemic transliteration in several works.[104]
  • If a word begins with two successive consonants, an [ɪ] is pronounced in its beginning.[71][104][239]
  • If there is a CCC which is not written before a vowel within a word, it is pronounced as a CCiC.[89][187] For example: yiktib, yiktbū.[89][187]


Nouns and adjectives in Tunisian Arabic are classified into nouns having a regular plural and ones having an irregular plural.[6][113] Several nouns in Tunisian Arabic have even duals.[6][56][104] These irregular or broken plurals are quite the same as the ones of standard Arabic.[6][113] gender shift is achieved for singular nouns and adjectives by adding an -a suffix.[6][56] However, this fact cannot occur for the most of the plural nouns.[6][113]

Tunisian Arabic has five types of pronouns: personal, possessive, demonstrative, indirect object and indefinite pronouns.[6][113] Unlike in standard Arabic, they is a unique pronoun for the second person in singular and a unique pronoun for the second person in Plural.[6][56] Furthermore, this variety has three types of articles: definite, demonstrative and possessive articles.[6][113] The most of them can be written before or after the noun.[6][56]

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][56] 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][56] Tunisian Arabic questions could be āš (wh question) or īh/lā (yes/no question).[6][113]

The question words for āš questions could be either a pronoun or an adverb.[6][113] As for the negation, it is usually done using the structure mā noun+š.[6][56]

Like in standard Arabic, There are three types of nouns that can be derived from verbs which are present participle, past participle and verbal noun and there are even nouns that are derived from the simple verbs having the root al or faɛlil.[6][56] Tunisian Arabic also involves several prepositions and conjunctions.[6][113] These structures ultimately derive from the ones of standard Arabic even if they are radically different in Tunisian today due to the major Berber, Latin and other European components in it.[6][56]

Semantics and Pragmatics[edit]

Discourses in Tunisian Arabic are likely to use some rhetorical styles like metaphors.[242] Furthermore, Tunisian Arabic styles and tenses hold several figurative meaning.[243] For example, the use of past tense can mean that the situation is uncontrollable.[244] As well, the use of the third person pronouns can be figurative to mean saints and/or supernatural beings[245] and the use of demonstrative can have figurative meanings like underestimation.[246] Moreover, the name of some parts of the body can be used in several expressions in order to get figurative meanings.[244][247][248] This phenomenon is entitled the embodiment.[247] Furthermore, some nouns and verbs have their figurative meanings[104] and the use of these figurative meanings depends on the circumstances of the dealt discourse like the political situation of the country and the ages of the people participating in the discussion.[249][250]

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.[251] Furthermore, some famous Arabic singers were acknowledged for singing several old Tunisian Arabic songs like Hussain Al Jassmi[252] and Dina Hayek.[253] Tunisian Arabic influenced several Berber dialects by transferring to them several Arabic or Tunisian structures and words.[254] It was as well the origin of Maltese[16][255] and some of its words like Brīk and frīkasāy were inspired by French as loanwords.[256] The Il-Ţalyānī Tunisian Arabic word meaning "the Italian" was used as a title of a roman in standard Arabic which received the Booker Prize for Arabic literature in 2015.[257] Also, several prestigious television series from other Arabic countries like the Lebanese Cello Series involved a character talking in Tunisian Arabic.[258]

See also[edit]


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