Tag Archives: arabic dialects

A Poem about being photographed in 1890s Tripoli

The earliest work on a Libyan Arabic variety was written by Hans Stumme (1864-1936), a diligent German linguist who studied a number of language varieties in northern Africa. In his Märchen und Gedichte aus der Stadt Tripolis in Nordafrika (Folktales and Poems from the city of Tripoli in North Africa, 1898), he describes the speakers he interviewed for his research and relates an interesting detail.

Arriving in Tripoli in 1897, Stumme was put in touch with a certain Sidi Brahim bin Ali al-Tikbāli, who he describes as a 45-year old inhabitant of the old city and a skilled poet. Sidi Brahim became Stumme’s main interlocutor for his study of the Tripoli dialect and provided the majority of the texts Stumme transcribed in his book (10 khurrafas and 7 poems). A second speaker, whom Stumme praises as a “walking dictionary”, was a 15-year old black Libyan named Mhemmed bin Jum’a Breñgāli. Besides being Stumme’s guide around the city and general explainer-of-things, Mhemmed provided 3 additional poems which Stumme transcribed. A third person, a Tunisian named Hmed al-Susi who apparently lived in Tripoli, helped translate when Stumme’s knowledge of Tunisian Arabic didn’t suffice to be clearly understood by his Tripolitanian interlocutors.

Stumme’s transcription of Sidi Brahim’s poem

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Dissertations on Libyan Languages

When you do research in a particular field, over time you become acquainted, naturally, with the general trends of that field, what studies are considered the most important, what gaps there are, and with individual scholars and their works. But it often isn’t until you can sift through a large bibliography that you can really see what has or hasn’t been done, what’s completely lacking, and what works have been totally overlooked.

One of the major surprises to come out of my bibliographic work on Libyan languages (you can see the complete bibliography here) has been how many MA and PhD theses were written on Libyan Arabic or Berber (there are no theses, nor any academic publications at all, on the other languages of Libya), primarily by Libyan students in Western universities. Not only is the number higher than one would expect, but in most cases these theses were never published, their authors returned to Libya, and their theses were not circulated among linguists and hence rarely, if ever, cited. Although most of these theses have been almost totally overlooked, several of them are quite valuable and deserve wider attention. So, the purpose of this post is to first and foremost make them all more accessible. This isn’t a detailed review of any particular work, rather just an effort to simply show how they, and the scholars who wrote them, represent unused potential for broadening and deepening scholarly knowledge of Libyan languages. A complete listing is posted at the end, but first I want to briefly examine the bibliographic data.

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Article: Languages in Libya, building blocks of national identity…

Baldinetti, Anna. 2018. “Languages in Libya: building blocks of national identity and soft power tools,” The Journal of North African Studies 23/3 (Special issue: Soft Power in the Maghrib after the Arab Uprisings), pp. 418–439.

Abstract: Tracing the general lines of language policies in Libya since independence, this article discusses how Arabic has been instrumental in forging a national identity, and examines its role as a soft power tool used by Qadhafi’s regime through the World Islamic Call Society (WICS), established in 1972, which prioritised the teaching of the Arabic language. The article seeks to understand whether the 2011 revolution – at least until 2013, before the beginning of the ongoing internal conflict – has challenged the role of Arabic as the only constituent language of national identity.

Book: Tunisian and Libyan Arabic Dialects

A new volume containing linguistic studies of Arabic dialects in Libya and Tunisia has just been published:

Tunisian and Libyan Arabic Dialects: Common Trends – Recent Developments – Diachronic Aspects, edited by Veronika Ritt-Benmimoun. Zaragoza: Prensas de la Universidad de Zaragoza, 2017.
The publisher’s description reads: “This tripartite volume with 18 contributions in English and French is dedicated to Tunisian and Libyan Arabic dialects which form part of the so-called Maghrebi or Western group of dialects. There are ten contributions that investigate aspects of Tunisian dialects, five contributions on Libyan dialects, and three comparative articles that go beyond the geographical and linguistic borders of Tunisia and Libya. The focus of “Tunisian and Libyan Arabic Dialects” is on linguistic aspects but a wider range of topics is also addressed, in particular questions regarding digital corpora and digital humanities. These foci and other subjects investi­gated, such as the syntactic studies and the presentation of recently gathered linguistic data, bear reference to the subtitle “Common Trends – Recent Developments – Diachronic Aspects”.”
 Several essays in the book deal with aspects of Libyan Arabic dialects, in particular the following:
  • Adam Benkato, “Vowels in Benghazi Arabic: Maghrebi or Bedouin?”, pp. 291-300.
  • Najah Benmoftah & Christophe Pereira, “Preliminary Remarks on the Arabic spoken in Al-Khums (Libya)”, pp. 301-326.
  • Dominique Caubet, “A Tentative Description of Aspect and Modality in the Fezzan: W. and Ph. Marçais’ Texts Revisited”, pp. 327-350.
  • Luca D’Anna, “On the Development of Conditional Particles in the Arabic Dialects of the Fezzān”, pp. 351-370.
  • Maciej Klimiuk, “The Particle rā- in Libyan Arabic Dialects (with emphasis on the Arabic dialect of Msallāta)”, pp. 371-386.

Annotated recordings in the Tripoli dialect | تسجيلات مشروحة في لهجة طرابلس العربية

Several recorded texts in the Arabic dialect of Tripoli are available freely online as part of the database COCOON (“collection of digital oral corpora” in English), originally from CorpAfroAs (“Corpus of Afro-Asiatic Languages”), a France-based project for the description of languages of the Afro-Asiatic language family.


The recordings were made by Christophe Pereira, a specialist in Libyan Arabic, whose linguistic annotations and translations are also available.

These recordings are useful for linguists who want an idea of how Tripoli Arabic sounds or need a few transcriptions for comparative research, as well as for those teaching courses about Arabic dialects who could benefit from some material from Libya (of which there is not enough!).

Book: The Arabic dialect of Tripoli | لهجة طرابلس العربية

pereira-parler-arabePereira, Christophe. 2010. Le parler arabe de Tripoli (Libye) | لهجة طرابلس العربية. Estudios de Dialectología Árabe 4. Zaragoza.

This book is the most recent linguistic description of the Arabic dialect spoken in Libya’s capital, Tripoli. Based on fieldwork over the course of several years, it provides a detailed look at the dialect of Tripoli from the viewpoint of Arabic dialectology, but goes beyond the usual approaches in including a thorough description of syntax. Furthermore, it is the only book to be written on a variety of Arabic in Libya since the early 1980s. Christophe Pereira is a Maître de Conférences at INALCO in Paris.


Book: The Arabic dialect of the Jews of Tripoli | لهجة يهود طرابلس العربية

The city of Tripoli in western Libya was home to a thriving Jewish community until about the early 1970s, when various political and social factors pushed the remaining members of the community to emigrate, completing the process of Libya losing its Jewish communities begun several decades earlier. Now, Jewish Libyan communities are still thriving, but in the diaspora, principally in Italy and Israel.

Since many members of the community still speak their Arabic dialect at home, it is still possible to do linguistic fieldwork and describe Jewish Libyan dialects. However, so far no dialects except that of Tripoli have received attention.

The most important study of Jewish Libyan Arabic is The Arabic dialect of the Jews of Tripoli (Libya) by Sumikazu Yoda (Harrassowitz, 2005). Yoda’s work is the only detailed description of a Libyan Jewish dialect that exists. Although written for a linguistic audience, it also contains the transcription and translation of a fairy tale (“The Sultan and the three sisters”) as well as a glossary, both of which are useful for the non-linguist reader who might want to get an idea of what the Jewish dialect of Tripoli was like.

Fortunately, Yoda also made his recording of that fairy tale available online, which you can listen at this link. It was narrated by Mere Hajjaj Liluf (میري حجاج ليلوف), who was born in Tripoli in 1925, and recorded in Israel in the 1990s.

For those who speak Libyan Arabic, the main differences to note are that t ت becomes ch چ, h ه disappears, and q ق is pronounced q and not g. So for example انتا is pronounced انچا and تعالى sounds like چَعْلا che3la. Or instead of hada هدا you hear ada ادا. I’d be interested to know how much is understandable!

PhD thesis: Najah Benmoftah on Tripoli Arabic

Warmest congratulations to Najah Benmoftah, who has just completed her Ph.D. at the Université Sorbonne Nouvelle in Paris with the following thesis:

Benmoftah, Najah. Des ligateurs de cause: étude contrastive entre le français parlé à Paris et l’arabe parlé à Tripoli (Libye). Propriétés syntaxiques et fonctionnements pragmatico-discursifs. Université Sorbonne Nouvelle – Paris 3 (2016).

Abstract: This contrastive linguistic thesis describes and contrasts the syntactic properties and the pragmatic-discursive function of parce que in spoken French in the seventh district of Paris and some of its Arabic equivalents in spoken Arabic of Tripoli (Libya) : liʔǝnna, ʕlēxāṭǝṛ , māhu and biḥkum.

Regarding the spoken Arabic of Tripoli, these ligators may belong to two different grammatical classes : they may be conjunctional ligators and / or prepositional ligatorrs. It depends on their degree of grammaticalization. While liʔanna and māhu are conjunctional ligators that introduce causal clauses organized around verbal or non-verbal predicates, ʕlēxāṭǝṛ and biḥkum can be used as prepositional ligators and introduce circumstantial complements or be grammaticalized as conjunctional ligators and introduce causal clause.

In addition, these ligators can occupy a canonical position when the ligator follows a main clause and introduces a causal clause, or a non-canonical position for which there are two cases : either the utterance begins with the causal which is introduced by the ligator of cause and is followed by the main clause, or the utterance begins with the main clause which is followed by the causal not introduced by a ligator of cause ; the latter is found at the end of the causal and closing the utterance. From a pragmatic point of view, changing the order of the constituents when ligators and causal clauses are not in canonical position allows the focalization of the causal clause.

Unlike the spoken Arabic of Tripoli, the examination of the Corpus “Français Parlé Parisien des années 2000 (CFPP2000)” shows that parce que is conjunctional ligator. It introduces a causal clause organized around verbal predicate, rarely non-verbal. parce que can occupy a canonical position when the ligator follows a main clause and introduces a causal clause, and a non-canonical position when parce que follows “c’est” and introduces a causal clause. However, it can not be postponed and it does not accept either suffix. When parce que introduces several causal clauses, it may be taken but in reduced form “que”, giving a series of “que”. In addition, from a pragmatic point of view, when the utterance begins with “c’est parce que” this structure allows to focalisation of the causal clause.

Book: Arabic in the Fezzan

We continue our look at the Fezzan with the following work, a study of the Arabic spoken in different parts of the Fezzan by noted Arabist Philippe Marçais. Both he and his father, William Marçais, were participants in the French scientific missions to the Fezzan in the 1940s; they collected linguistic information in places in and around Sebha and Brak. In colonial French prisons in Algeria, he also met many people from the Fezzan and was able to interview them. Yet Philip Marçais’ work on these materials from the Fezzan was not completed in time to be published with other research from the French scientific mission, and ended up never being published. Only recently were his remaining papers edited and his work on Arabic in the Fezzan published posthumously.

Marçais, Philippe. 2001. Parlers arabes du Fezzân. Textes, traductions et éléments de morphologie, rassemblés et présentés par Dominique Caubet, Aubert Martin et Laurence Denooz. Geneva: Librairie Droz.

The texts gathered in the volume include i) prose recordings from everyday life, ii) poetry pertaining to special occasions, iii) epic poetry, and iv) songs. Much of this folk literature is no doubt hard to find these days. Then a second section gives a brief grammatical sketch of the dialects represented in the material and a lexicon. The material is exceedingly rich and full of interesting themes and words. Here is my dire attempt at translating an example of a camel-herders song (the ‘her’ refers to the camel):

طبّي المسارب و اشربي الرياحة     و ان شاء الله بعد الشقا ترتحي

انا اللي انورّدها و انا اللي ما علَي     انا اللي انورّدها في الفجّ اللي خالي

Follow the tracks and drink the winds, God-willing you’ll find rest after tribulations
I’m the one who waters her without worry, the one who waters her in the empty desert

Article: Mutual Intelligibility of Benghazi Arabic, Tunis Arabic, and Maltese

Last year, I participated in a research project led by my good friend and colleague Slavomír “bulbul” Čéplö which focused on testing how well speakers of Arabic from different places could understand each other’s dialects.

To do this, and get more than just impressionistic results, Slavomír first adapted a method that was previously used to test the mutual intelligibility (meaning how well speakers can understand each other) of Chinese varieties. The test had three parts: words, sentences, and stories. People taking the test listen to each part spoken in dialects other than their own, and attempt to answer questions about what they’ve heard. Based on their answers, we try to figure out 1) roughly how much of those other dialects they can understand, and 2) what are the specific problems that they encounter when they can’t understand something.

These three dialects were chosen for the pilot study because they are all North African, and therefore have a number of similarities. Plus, they were the easiest to field-test: I could do the testing in Benghazi, Slavomír in Malta, and Christophe Pereira in Tunis.

For those who simply want somewhat scientific, but uncomplicated, results to share with their friends, I can say this: 1) speakers of Benghazi Arabic can understand about 44% of Maltese and 73% of Tunis Arabic, 2) speakers of Tunis Arabic understand slightly more of both, about 80% of Benghazi Arabic and 45% of Maltese, and 3) speakers of Maltese understand about 38% of both Benghazi and Tunis Arabic.

If you want the real details, especially with regard to what particular factors affect how well those speaking one dialect can understand those speaking another (such as changes in sounds, the use of different words, and changes in grammar), then you should read our description of the whole thing. If you’re interested in the results, you can read a draft of our article (which has been accepted for publication in Folia Linguistica). Feel free to come back with questions!

The testing procedure was actually pretty simple. Particpants simply sat down with an iPad and a pair of headphones, and spent about 30 minutes listening and and responding via the touch screen. (Of course, making the software itself was much more complicated, and accomplished by Slavomír and his colleagues over at Sonic Studio). If you’re interested in the details, you can read a description of the application used for testing.

Here you can get a glimpse of how the actual app looks. The left-hand sideshows the word test, while the right-hand side shows the sentence test.


*Note: more pictures coming soon!