Varieties of Arabic in eastern Libya

Though very little research has been done on the varieties of Arabic in eastern Libya, recent work which cites the existing studies continue to get some basic and important facts wrong. In particular, the two main and most frequently cited sources for Arabic in eastern Libya do not discuss one and the same variety.

T. F. Mitchell, carrying out fieldwork in eastern Libya in the late 1940s, worked primarily in Benghazi and Shahhat. His two published pieces on Arabic in eastern Libya, which have been frequently referenced in subsequent linguistic literature of various kinds, are “The active participle in an Arabic dialect of Cyrenaica” (1952) and “The language of buying and selling in Cyrenaica” (1957). Both of these are based on data from Shahhat, which Mitchell, following the colonial nomenclature of the time, calls Cyrene. A later work (Mitchell 1960) includes data from the same dialect in a comparative study. As he notes:

Material for the present article was obtained before and during a recent period of study-leave in Cyrenaica. My particular informant, who also accompanied me during the tour, was Mr. Idris ‘Abdallah, from Cyrene, a member of the Hasa tribe. The dialect illustrated may be termed the Bedouin dialect of the Jebel. (1952:11)

During a period of seven months spent in Cyrenaica in 1949 with the special purpose of investigating the Bedouin Arabic of the Jebel, I selected for particular attention the language of buying and selling. Accompanied by my research assistant [fn: in the Jebel village of Cyrene]… (1957:31)

Jonathan Owens, carrying out fieldwork in the late 1970s, worked in Benghazi. Although he published some later studies which re-analyzed the data Mitchell published in the above two articles (Owens 1980, 1993), his book-length grammar, somewhat broadly titled A Short Reference Grammar of Eastern Libyan Arabic (1984) is actually a description of (one type of) Benghazi Arabic. He notes:

Our analysis differs on some points of detail from Mitchell’s (some due to dialectical differences, cf. 1.2), though it does not necessarily supersede his (p. 1).

This study is based for the most part on the dialect of Mr. Salah Busafha, translator at Garyounis University in Benghazi, a 25-year resident of Benghazi who comes from Sulug, a small town about 50 kilometers south of Benghazi. It has been supplemented in places by work with various students (from Benghazi) in the English Department at Garyounis University, where I taught between September 1977-July, 1979. The title of the book is in fact broader than the data warrants for two reasons. First, it does not take into account dialect differences within Eastern Libyan Arabic. In comparing my data with Mitchell’s, which was collected mainly in the rural areas (I will call it rural/Bedouin) east of Benghazi (particularly, around El-Bedha) in the late 1940’s, three major differences are apparent. [My summary: 1) Diphthongs, 2) Imala, 3) raising of the ending -a(h) to -i(h)]. Secondly, the study tries to be representative of colloquial dialects and I have tended to ignore Modern Standard Arabic usage, the Arabic of journalism for instance. In doing this I ignore an important aspect of modern Libyan dialects, for the speech of many Libyans, particularly the literate, has incorporated aspects of Modern Standard Arabic. (p. 2-3)

Based only on these two groups of studies, there are a number of phonological differences between the two varieties—that of Benghazi and close environs, and that of rural eastern Libya—which one can note, if one reads the introductions and footnotes carefully. Owens, coming later, takes care to explain that his data is different than Mitchell’s. So in our studies now, we should obviously not mix the two under the same label, or else we will introduce problems, such as unexplainable phonological variation, where there aren’t any.

For more on rural eastern Libyan Arabic, see Laria 1993, 1996, which are also based on a variety from near Shahhat. For more on Benghazi Arabic proper, see Benkato 2014, 2017. Unpublished PhD theses with data from various places in eastern Libya include Abdunnabi 2000 (Jabal Akhdar region), Aurayieth 1982 (Derna), and Bobaker 2019 (Tobruk). For complete references, see the bibliography of Libyan languages.

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