Tag Archives: linguistics

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.

Research Roundup Summer 2021

Here is my occasional roundup of published research on Libya in the humanities and social sciences which I find interesting or useful. I’ll also slowly be gathering some of the older individual posts on this blog into collective roundup posts.

Ali Ahmida, Genocide in Libya: Shar, a Hidden Colonial History (Routledge, 2020)

This original research on the forgotten Libyan genocide specifically recovers the hidden history of the fascist Italian concentration camps (1929–1934) through the oral testimonies of Libyan survivors. This book links the Libyan genocide through cross-cultural and comparative readings to the colonial roots of the Holocaust and genocide studies.
     Between 1929 and 1934, thousands of Libyans lost their lives, directly murdered and victim to Italian deportations and internments. They were forcibly removed from their homes, marched across vast tracks of deserts and mountains, and confined behind barbed wire in 16 concentration camps. It is a story that Libyans have recorded in their Arabic oral history and narratives while remaining hidden and unexplored in a systematic fashion, and never in the manner that has allowed us to comprehend and begin to understand the extent of their existence.
     Based on the survivors’ testimonies, which took over ten years of fieldwork and research to document, this new and original history of the genocide is a key resource for readers interested in genocide and Holocaust studies, colonial and postcolonial studies, and African and Middle Eastern studies.

There is an illuminating interview with the author on Jadaliyya, in addition to one on the New Books Network. Continue reading

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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“Non-site” Fieldwork on Libyan Languages

For the past several decades, linguistic fieldwork in Libya has been extremely difficult, even at times downright impossible. This has certainly been the case for foreign researchers: not only was it nearly impossible to get research permits for Libya from the 1980s to 2000s, and fieldwork that did occur was heavily monitored and restricted, but there has been so little work on Libya in general, and scholars of Libya in Western institutions, that interested students usually have no place to start or advisors with whom to work. But this also to a great extent true for Libyans as well: Libyans with linguistic training have typically returned to work in universities teaching translation studies or foreign languages and only a few have published research in Libya on Libyan languages. Up until 2011 it was illegal to openly research anything other than Arabic—the regime’s official position was that Amazigh is a dialect of Arabic, and numerous researchers (not to mention activists) were thrown in jail for trying to write, teach, or research Amazigh in Libya. And now, although the activism and dedication of numerous Libyans has led to the increased visibility of the Amazigh and Tebu languages in Libya, actual fieldwork and research remains difficult for everyone due to the current political and military struggles.

I’ve always assumed that fieldwork during the colonial era and during the kingdom was, in contrast, much easier. Foreign researchers could simply have taken advantage of colonial power structures to go where they wanted, and indeed many did. Or after independence they were given permits to do so. And this is largely the case for research on Libya up until the early 1970s in a variety of fields—anthropology, linguistics, history, urban studies and so on. But, on examining a bunch of older linguistic works more closely, I was surprised to find that many of them were not actually done in the place the language was actually spoken at all—some of them not even in Libya.  Of course, these studies were still carried out within colonial power structures. But, it’s likely that French scholars, for example, weren’t as easily able to travel to then-Ottoman Libya as they were able to travel within French colonial domains, and therefore took advantage of what opportunities they had to produce knowledge on the region. I’ve gathered some of these sources together under the rubric “non-site fieldwork”, the opposite of “on-site fieldwork”. Continue reading

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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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.

Article: “Sokna re-examined”

A new article discussing some old materials about the Berber (Amazigh) language of Sokna, an oasis in central Libya:

Souag, Lameen, “Sokna re-examined: Two unedited Sokna Berber vocabularies from 1850”. Quaderni di Studi Berberi e Libico-Berberi 4 : La lingua nella vita e la vita della lingua. Itinerari e percorsi degli studi berberi. Naples: UNIOR, pp. 179-206, 2015 [actually appeared 2016].

Abstract: “The Berber variety of Sokna, in west-central Libya, is rather unusual and not very well described. In 1915 it already had only five fluent speakers, and today only the old still remember a few words. The two vocabularies gathered by the English traveller James Richardson in 1850, previously unpublished, are thus important for the study of this variety, and by extension for the study of Libyan Berber more broadly. This article presents them for the first time, with transcription, commentary, and comparisons with the few previously published materials.”

(Anyone interested in a copy of the article, please contact the author)

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!).

Article: Attrition and revival in Awjila Berber

Marijn van Putten & Lameen Souag, “Attrition and revival in Awjila Berber”, Corpus 14 (2015), pp. 23-58.

Abstract: Awjila Berber is a highly endangered Berber variety spoken in the East of Libya. Only minimal material is available on the language. This is unfortunate, as that material reveals that the language is in some respects very archaic and in others grammatically unique, and as such is of particular comparative and historical interest. Fieldwork has been impossible for decades due to the political situation, leading to uncertainty about whether the language was even still spoken. With the rising popularity of Facebook, however, more and more Berber speakers are taking to Facebook to converse in their own language. Several inhabitants of Awjila have accordingly set up a Facebook page Ašal=ənnax “our village” where they communicate with one another in the Awjila language. The authors have collected a corpus of the conversations on this Facebook page, which have been transcribed and translated. Analysis of this corpus adds substantially to our knowledge of Awjili and its situation. The posters’ discussion of their motivations for using the language cast light on the language’s prospects for survival, while the posts themselves yield many previously unattested words. At the same time, the corpus provides a case study in language contact. Examination of the grammatical and lexical features of this “Facebook-Awjili” language reveals that these speakers’ usage is heavily influenced by Arabic, showing extensive language attrition absent from earlier data. The resulting constructions show parallels with other contact-heavy varieties, notably Siwi. In both respects, this study casts light upon the uses and limits of social media as a source of linguistic material.

The article is not yet available online, only in the print version, but we will link to a PDF as soon as one is available.

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.