Arabic (Levantine)

Ahlan wa sahlan! – Welcome

Levantine Spoken Arabic is a general term that covers a continuum of spoken dialects along the Eastern Mediterranean Coast of Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine, and Israel. The worldwide population of speakers of Levantine Arabic is estimated at around 20 million people, many of whom are expatriates from countries where it is spoken.

Status

Levantine Arabic has no official status in the countries where it is spoken. It is, however, the de facto national working language in Lebanon. The official language in these countries is Modern Standard Arabic (MSA). MSA is used for official purposes, in education, in the media, and for written communication, while Levantine Spoken Arabic is used in all informal settings, such as in the home, at work, among friends, and in the community. Levantine Arabic is widely recognized throughout the Arabic-speaking world due to the large number of Lebanese and Palestinians living in their midst.

Dialects

The Spoken Levantine Arabic continuum is usually broken up into two major varieties which, in turn, consist of many geographical dialects.

Dialect
Number of speakers
Where spoken
Worldwide
South Levantine (Ethnologue) 3.5 million Israel and the Palestinian Territories between Nazareth and Bethlehem, in the Syrian Hauran mountains, in western Jordan 6.2 million
910,000 Israel
North Levantine (Ethnologue) 8.8 million Syria 14.2 million
3.9 million Lebanon*
1.6 million Palestinian West Bank and Gaza

*There may be as up to 15 million Lebanese expatriates living outside of Lebanon but there is no reliable estimate as to how many of them are first- or second-language speakers of Levantine Arabic.

In addition to geographical distinctions, there are differences between urban and rural varieties of Levantine Arabic. In general, the rural dialects are looked down upon, while urban pronunciations are considered to be more prestigious.

Structure

Levantine Arabic shares most phonological, structural, and lexical features with other varieties of Arabic. At the same time, there are differences among Levantine dialects based on geography and urban/rural division.

 

Sound system

 

Vowels

There are a few systematic differences between the two Levantine dialects. The table below shows how the three short and three long vowels of MSA are realized (actually pronounced) in the two dialects as compared to Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) (adapted from Wikipedia).

MSA phonemes & diphthongs Southern Levantine realization Northern Levantine realization
/a/ [ɑ] or [ʌ] [ɔ] or [ɛ]
/i/ [e] [e]
/u/ [o] or [ʊ] [o]
/a:/ [a:] [a:]
/i:/ [i:] [i:]
/u:/ [u:] [u:]
/ay/ [e:] [e:]
/aw/ [o:] [o:]
    • [ɑ] = a in father
    • [ʌ] = u in plus
    • [ɔ] = o in dog
    • [ʊ] = oo in hook

 

Consonants

There are some differences in the pronunciation of some consonants between MSA and Levantine Arabic. Among them are the following:

 

Stress

Levantine Arabic has retained many of the stress patterns of Classical Arabic.

   Grammar

Like all spoken Arabic dialects, Levantine Arabic has simplified some features of the grammar of Classical Arabic. These simplifications involve the following:

    • loss of case endings in nouns and adjectives
    • loss of the dual number in nouns, adjectives, and pronouns
    • loss of mood distinctions in the verb

 

Nouns, pronouns and adjectives

Below are some distinguishing features of Lebanese nouns, pronouns and adjectives.

  • There are two genders: masculine and feminine. Gender distinctions are made in both singular and plural forms.
  • Nouns, pronouns and adjectives are not marked for case.
  • Nouns are marked for definiteness, as in all varieties of Arabic, e.g., kteeb ‘book, a book”, el kteeb ‘the book’.
  • The dual number is only used for body parts or when it is necessary to indicate the number two, as when booking two seats on an airplane.
  • The plural is formed either by addition of a suffix or an internal change called “broken plural”, e.g., sene ‘year’ and sneen ‘years’ , kteeb ‘book’ and kotob ‘books’.
  • Possession is expressed by simple juxtaposition, e.g., in Lebanese Arabic, kteeb lbint means ‘the girl’s book’ (kteeb, ‘book’, l-, ‘the’, bint ‘girl’).
  • Demonstratives precede the definite article, e.g., hayda el ktéb, literally ‘this the book’, i.e., ‘this book’.
  • There is a gender distinction between enta ‘you’ (masculine) and ente ‘you’ (feminine). This distinction is not always observed in informal speech.

 

Verbs

The verb system of Levantine Arabic shares most basic features with other Arabic varieties. Some of its most salient features are listed below.

  • Person, number, tense, and aspect are marked by prefixes and suffixes.
  • Subject pronouns are optional since the verb form incorporates information about person and number. They are used only for emphasis.
  • There is one basic stem plus nine derived stems, each with a range of meanings, such as reflexivity, and causativity. Each form has its own set of active and passive participles and verbal nouns.
  • Arabic has a past, or perfect, suffixed conjugation and a non-past, or imperfect, prefixed conjugation. The perfect can refer to present, pluperfect, or future. The imperfect can refer to present, past, or future.
  • Levantine Arabic has lost mood distinctions.
  • Object pronouns are appended to the verb, e.g., sheefa ‘he saw her’ (sheef ‘he saw’ + -a ‘her’).

 

Word order

Subject nouns follow verbs, subject pronouns precede it.

Vocabulary

Like MSA, Levantine Arabic forms words by the application of vowels and affixes to consonant roots, e.g., the root K-T-B underlies kteb ‘book’. Levantine Arabic is strongly influenced by Aramaic which was spoken in the Levant (Eastern Mediterranean) before the arrival of Arabic. Unlike MSA that tends to resist borrowing from other language, Levantine Arabic is more open to borrowing words from other languages. It has borrowed words from French, Greek, Hebrew, and English. For instance, thank you in Lebanese Arabic is merci. Palestinian Arabic contains more Hebrew words than other Arabic varieties. Words such as dapres ‘to be or become depressed’, garrep ‘flu’ (from French grippe ‘flu’). Below are the Levantine Arabic numerals 1-10 in romanization. MSA numerals are also given for comparison.

Levantine MSA
1 waahad waahid
2 tneen ithnaan
3 tleete thalaatha
4 arba’a arba’a
5 khamse khamsa
6 sette sitta
7 saba saba’a
8 tmeene thamaanya
9 tesa tis’a
10 ashra ‘ashara

 

Writing

Levantine Arabic is rarely written, since Modern Standard Arabic is normally used for written communication. It is occasionally used for captions in cartoons, and transcriptions of spoken language, such as songs, plays, and dialogs. All varieties of Levantine Arabic are written in the Arabic script.

Basic Resources

Levantine Arabic (Wikipedia)
Levantine Arabic (Ethnologue)
OLAC Resources in and about Levantine Arabic

Difficulty

Language Difficulty
questionHow difficult is it to learn Arabic?
Arabic is considered to be a Category III language in terms of difficulty for speakers of English.