Palestinian Arabic

Palestinian Arabic
Native to Palestine
No standard, Arabic alphabet and Roman transcriptions both used
Language codes
ISO 639-3
Glottolog None

Palestinian Arabic is a name of several dialects of the subgroup of Levantine Arabic spoken by the Palestinians in Palestine, by Arab citizens of Israel and in most Palestinian populations around the world.

Differences compared to other Levantine Arabic dialects

Manual of Palestinean Arabic, for self-instruction (1909)

The dialects spoken by the Arabs of the Levant – the Eastern shore of the Mediterranean – or Levantine Arabic, form a group of dialects of Arabic. Arabic manuals for the "Syrian dialect" were produced in the early 20th century,[1] and in 1909 a specific "Palestinean [sic] Arabic" manual was published.

The Palestinian Arabic dialects are varieties of Levantine Arabic because they display the following characteristic Levantine features.

The noticeable differences between southern and northern forms of Levantine Arabic, such as North Syrian Arabic and Lebanese Arabic, are stronger in non-urban dialects. The main differences between Palestinian and northern Levantine Arabic are as follows:

There are also typical Palestinian words that are shibboleths in the Levant.

Social and geographic dialect structuration

As is very common in Arabic-speaking countries, the dialect spoken by a person depends on both the region he/she comes from, and the social group he/she belongs to.

The Palestinian urban dialects ('madani') resemble closely northern Levantine Arabic dialects, that is, the colloquial variants of western Syria and Lebanon.[2] This fact, that makes the urban dialects of the Levant remarkably homogeneous, is probably due to the trading network among cities in the Ottoman Levant, or to an older Arabic dialect layer closer to the qeltu dialects still spoken in northern Iraq/Syria and Southern Turkey. Nablus takes a special place. The Nablus dialect distributed accents on the various syllables of the word. Almost each syllable has a stressed accent, which gives the dialect a slow and sluggish tone. The ancient dialect of Nablus even articulates every single syllable in the same word separately. Moreover, word endings blatantly slant according to a regulated system. For example, you may say sharqa with an [a:] sound at the end of the word to refer to the eastern part of the city and gharbeh with the [e] sound at the end of the word to refer to the western side of the city. You may also want to describe the colour of your bag and say safra (yellow) with an [a:] sound at the end of the word or sode (black) with an [e] sound at the end of the word. The nun and ha (n and h) are always slanted and end with the [e] sound; and they are the bases for the distinctive Nablusi accent. The two letters appear frequently at the end of words in the form of inescapable objective pronouns. In the ancient dialect of Nablus, the letters tha’, thal, thaa’, and qaf do not exist. The dialect of old Nablus is now to be found among the Samaritans, who have managed to preserve the old dialect in its purest form.

Urban dialects are characterised by the [ʔ] (hamza) pronunciation of ق qaf, the simplification of interdentals as dentals plosives, i.e. ث as [t], ذ as [d] and both ض and ظ as [dˤ]. Note however that in borrowings from Modern Standard Arabic, these interdental consonants are realised as dental sibilants, i.e. ث as [s], ذ as [z] and both ض and ظ as [zˤ]. The Druzes have a dialect that may be classified with the Urban ones, with the difference that they keep the uvular pronunciation of ق qaf as [q]. The urban dialects also ignore the difference between masculine and feminine in the plural pronouns انتو ['ɪntu] is both 'you' (masc. plur.) and 'you' (fem. plur.), and ['hʊmme] is both 'they' (masc.) and 'they' (fem.)

The rural varieties of this Palestinian ('fallahi') are of three different types. All three retain the interdental consonants. They keep the distinction between masculine and feminine plural pronouns, e.g. انتو ['ɪntu] is 'you' (masc.) while انتن ['ɪntɪn] is 'you' (fem.), and همه ['hʊmme] is 'they' (masc.) while هنه ['hɪnne] is 'they' (fem.). The three rural groups are the following.

The Palestinian Beduins use two different dialects ('badawi') in Galilee and the Negev. The Negev desert Beduins use a dialect closely related to those spoken in the Hijaz, and in the Sinai. The Beduins of Galilee speak a dialect related to those of the Syrian Desert and Najd, which indicates their arrival could have been relatively recent. The Negev Beduin have a specific vocabulary, they maintain the interdental consonants, they do not use the ش-[-ʃ] negative suffix, they always realise ك /k/ as [k] and ق /q/ as [g], and distinguish plural masculine from plural feminine pronouns, but with different forms as the rural speakers.

Current evolutions On the urban dialects side, the current trend is to have urban dialects getting closer to their rural neighbours, thus introducing some variability among cities in the Levant. For instance, Jerusalem used to say as Damascus ['nɪħna] ("we") and ['hʊnne] ("they") at the beginning of the 20th century, and this has moved to the more rural ['ɪħna] and ['hʊmme] nowadays.[3] This trend was probably initiated by the partition of the Levant of several states in the course of the 20th century.

The Rural description given above is moving nowadays with two opposite trends. On the one hand, urbanisation gives a strong influence power to urban dialects. As a result, villagers may adopt them at least in part, and Beduin maintain a two-dialect practice. On the other hand, the individualisation that comes with urbanisation make people feel more free to choose the way they speak than before, and in the same way as some will use typical Egyptian features as [le:] for [le:ʃ], others may use typical rural features such as the rural realisation [kˤ] of ق as a pride reaction against the stigmatisation of this pronunciation.

Specific aspects of the vocabulary

As Palestinian Arabic is spoken in the heartland of the Semitic languages, it has kept many typical semitic words. For this reason, it is relatively easy to guess how Modern Standard Arabic words map onto Palestinian Arabic Words. The list (Swadesh list) of basic word of Palestinian Arabic available on the Wiktionary (see external links below) may be used for this. However, some words are not transparent mappings from MSA, and deserve a description. This is due either to meaning changes in Arabic along the centuries - while MSA keeps the Classical Arabic meanings - or to the adoption of non-Arabic words (see below). Note that this section focuses on Urban Palestinian unless otherwise specified.

Prepositional pseudo verbs

The words used in Palestinian to express the basic verbs 'to want', 'to have', 'there is/are' are called prepositional pseudo verbs because they share all the features of verbs but are constructed with a preposition and a suffix pronoun.

Person To want To have
I بدي['bɪdd-i] عندي ['ʕɪnd-i]
You (sing. masc.) بدك['bɪdd-ak] عندك ['ʕɪnd-ak]
You (sing. fem.) بدك['bɪdd-ɪk] عندك ['ʕɪnd-ɪk]
He بده['bɪdd-o] عنده ['ʕɪnd-o]
She بدها['bɪdd-ha] عندها ['ʕɪnd-ha]
We بدنا['bɪdd-na] عندنا ['ʕɪnd-na]
You (plur.) بدكم['bɪdd-kʊm] عندكم ['ʕɪnd-kʊm]
They بدهم['bɪdd-hʊm] عندهم ['ʕɪnd-hʊm]

In the perfect, they are preceded by كان [ka:n], e.g. we wanted is كان بدنا [ka:n 'bɪddna].

Relative clause

As in most forms of colloquial Arabic, the relative clause markers of Classical Arabic (الذي، التي، اللذان، اللتان، الذين and اللاتي) have been simplified to a single form إللي ['ʔɪlli].

Interrogatives pronouns

The main Palestinian interrogative pronouns (with their Modern Standard Arabic counterparts) are the following ones.

Meaning Palestinian Arabic MSA
Why? ليش [le:ʃ] لماذا [lima:ða:]
What? ايش [ʔe:ʃ] or شو [ʃu] ماذا [ma:ða:]
How? كيف [ki:f] كيف [kaɪfa]
When? إيمتى [ʔe:mta] متى [mata:]
Where? وين [we:n] اين [ʔaɪna]
Who? مين [mi:n] من [man]

Note that it is tempting to consider the long [i:] in مين [mi:n] 'who?' as an influence of ancient Hebrew מי [mi:] on Classical Arabic من [man], but it could be as well an analogy with the long vowels of the other interrogatives.

Marking Indirect Object

In Classical Arabic, the indirect object was marked with the particle /li-/ ('for', 'to'). For instance 'I said to him' was قلت له ['qultu 'lihi] and 'I wrote to her' was كتبت لها [ka'tabtu li'ha:]. In Palestinian Arabic, the Indirect Object marker is still based on the consonant /l/, but with more complex rules, and two different vocal patterns. The basic form before pronouns is a clitic [ɪll-], that always bears the stress, and to which person pronouns are suffixed. The basic form before nouns is [la]. For instance


Palestinians have borrowed words from the many languages they have been in contact with throughout history. For example,

Palestinians in the Palestinian territories sometimes refer to their brethren in Israel as "the b'seder Arabs" because of their adoption of the Hebrew word בְּסֵדֶר [beseder] for 'O.K.', (while Arabic is ماشي[ma:ʃi]). However words like ramzor רַמְזוֹר 'traffic light' and maḥsom מַחְסוֹם 'roadblock' have become a part of the general Palestinian vernacular.

The 2009 film Ajami is mostly spoken in Palestinian-Hebrew Arabic.

Hints at a history of Palestinian Arabic

The variations between dialects probably reflect the different historical steps of arabisation of Palestine.

Until the seventh century, inhabitants predominantly spoke Aramaic (as witnessed, for example, in Jewish and Christian literature), as well as Greek (probably in upper or trader social classes) and some remaining traces of Hebrew. At that time, Arabic-speaking people living in the Negev desert or in the Jordan desert beyond Zarqa, Amman or Karak had no significant influence - on the contrary they tended to adopt Aramaic as a written language as shown in the Nabataean language texts of Petra or the Palmyrene dialect documents of Tadmur.

The arabisation of the population occurred most probably in several waves. After the Arabs took control of the area, so as to maintain their regular activity, the upper classes had quickly to get fluency in the language of the new masters who most probably were only few. The prevalence of Northern Levantine features in the urban dialects until the early 20th century, as well as in the dialect of Samaritans in Nablus (with systematic imala of /a:/) tends to show that a first layer of arabisation of urban upper classes could have led to what is now urban levantine. Then, the main phenomenon could have been the slow countryside shift of Aramaic-speaking villages to Arabic under the influence of arabicised elites, leading to the emergence of the rural Palestinian dialects. This scenario is consistent with several facts.

See also


  1. Crow, F.E., Arabic manual: a colloquia handbook in the Syrian dialect, for the use of visitors to Syria and Palestine, containing a simplified grammar, a comprehensive English and Arabic vocabulary and dialogues, Luzac & co, London, 1901
  2. Ammon, Ulrich (2006). Sociolinguistics/Soziolinguistik 3: An International Handbook of the Science. p. 1922.
  3. U. Seeger, Mediterranean Language Review 10 (1998), pp. 89-145.

Further reading

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