Levantine Arabic

Levantine Arabic
اللَّهْجَةُ الشَّامِيَّة
Native toLevant
Native speakers
36.2 million (2016)[1]
Arabic alphabet
Language codes
ISO 639-3Either:
apc – North Levantine
ajp – South Levantine
Levantine Arabic Map.jpg
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Levantine Arabic (autonym: il-lahje š-šāmiyye, šāmi, Arabic: اللَّهْجَةُ الشَّامِيَّة‎, ʾal-lahǧatu š-šāmiyyah) is a sprachbund[2] of modern spoken Arabic in the Levant.

With numerous dialects and over 30 million native speakers worldwide,[1] it is considered one of the five major varieties of Arabic.[3][4] In the frame of the general diglossia status of the Arab world, Levantine Arabic is used for daily spoken use, while most of the written and official documents and media use Modern Standard Arabic.


Levantine Arabic is most closely related to North Mesopotamian Arabic, Anatolian Arabic and Cypriot Arabic.[5][6][7]

North Levantine Arabic

Dialects of North Levantine Arabic include:[8]

  • Syria: The dialect of Damascus and the dialect of Aleppo are well-known.
  • Lebanon: North Lebanese, South Lebanese (Metuali, Shii), North-Central Lebanese (Mount Lebanon Arabic), South-Central Lebanese (Druze Arabic), Standard Lebanese, Beqaa, Sunni Beiruti, Saida Sunni, Iqlim-Al-Kharrub Sunni, Jdaideh
  • Galilean Druze Arabic: A form of Druze Arabic spoken in Northern Israel
  • Çukurova, Turkey: Cilician/Çukurovan

South Levantine Arabic

Dialects of South Levantine Arabic include:[9]

Geographical distribution

Levantine Arabic is spoken in the fertile strip on the eastern shores of the Mediterranean, and is traditionally divided into two groups:


In pre-Islamic antiquity, the predominant language spoken in the Levant was Western Aramaic, followed by Greek and, to a lesser extent, Latin. Arab communities existence stretched from the southern extremities of the Syrian desert to central Syria and Anti-Lebanon mountains, and the Beqaa valley in Lebanon. This large swath of desert was inhabited by various Arabic-speaking tribes including the Nabataeans, the Tanukhids, Salihids, Banu al-Samayda, Banu Amilah and the Ghassanids. According to some linguists, Arabic was part of the linguistic milieu of the Levant and Mesopotamia as early as the Iron Age.[17]

The language shift from Aramaic to Arabic, both Semitic languages, that began in the 7th century after the conquests, was not a sudden switch from one language to another, but a long process over several generations, likely with an extended period of bilingualism. Some communities, such as the Samaritans, retained Aramaic well into the Muslim period, and a few small Aramaic-speaking villages had remained until the recent Syrian Civil War.[18]

Northern Old Arabic

In antiquity ancient Arabia was home to a continuum of Central Semitic languages which stretched from the southern Levant to Yemen. The isoglosses associated with Arabic are clustered at the northern end of this continuum, in the northern Hijaz and the southern Levant. This may be in part due to a lack of documentation, but it is clear that Central Arabia was home to languages quite distinct from Arabic. Thus, Arabic can be said to have emerged in the second millennium BC and spread into the peninsula, replacing its sister languages on the Central Semitic continuum.[19]

The primary division between Arabic dialects in ancient times was between Northern Old Arabic, spoken in the southern Levant, and Old Hijazi, spoken in the northern, and later central Hijaz. The main representatives of Northern Old Arabic were Safaitic, Hismaic, and Nabataean Arabic.[19] Tens of thousands of graffiti in the Safaitic and Hismaic scripts cover the deserts of southern Syria and present-day Jordan. The Safaitic inscriptions sometimes exhibit the article ʾ(l), a shared areal isogloss with the Arabic substrate of the Nabataean inscriptions. Many Safaitic inscriptions exhibit all of the features typical of Arabic. The Hismaic script was used to compose two long texts in an archaic stage of Arabic before the language acquired the definite article.[20]

Spread of Old Hijazi

Before the mid-sixth century, the coda of the definite article almost never exhibits assimilation to the following coronals and its onset is consistently given with an /a/ vowel. By the mid-sixth century CE in the dialect of Petra, the onset of the article and its vowel seem to have become weakened. There, the article is sometimes written as /el-/ or simply /l-/. A similar, but not identical, situation is found in the texts from the Islamic period. Unlike the pre-Islamic attestations, the coda of the article in the conquest Arabic assimilates to a following coronal consonant. The Arabic transcribed in the 1st century AH papyri clearly represents a different strand of the Arabic language, likely related to Old Hijazi and the QCT.[21]

The Damascus Psalm Fragment, dated to the mid- to late 9th century but possibly earlier, provides a glimpse of the vernacular of at least one segment of Damascene society during that period. Its linguistic features also shed light on a pre-grammarian standard of Arabic and the dialect from which it sprung, likely Old Hijazi.[22]

Early Modern Levantine Arabic

The Compendio of Lucas Caballero (1709) contains a description of spoken Damascene Arabic in the early 1700s. In some respects, the data given in this manuscript correspond to modern Damascene Arabic. For example, the allomorphic variation between -a/-e in the feminine suffix is essentially identical. In other respects, especially when it comes to insertion and deletion of vowels, it differs from the modern dialect. The presence of short vowels in /zibībih/ and /sifīnih/ point to an earlier stage of linguistic development, before elision led to the modern zbībe and sfīne, though the orthography of the manuscript is in this respect unclear.[23]

Contact with Northwest Semitic


The existence of Hismaic and Safaitic varieties without a definite article strongly suggests that their ancestor lacked a morphological means of definiteness. The definite article entered these varieties through contact with Northwest Semitic languages in the southern Levant. Evidence for such contact is given by a possibly bilingual North Arabian-Canaanite inscription containing a prayer to the gods Malkom, Kemōš, and Qaws.[19]


There is evidence that a peripheral variety of Aramaic with archaic phonology existed in the southern Levant and possibly northern Arabia during the late first millennium BCE. This variety retained a velar/uvular realization of *ṣ́, as evidenced by an inscription with a prayer to the deity Rqy.[24]

Nabataean Aramaic was extremely close to, but not identical with, Achaemenid Official Aramaic and may have been connected with the wider speech area. The use of the direct object marker yt /yāt/ seems to have been taken over from a Western form of Aramaic with which the inhabitants of the Nabataean kingdom may have been in contact.

The coexistence of Nabataean and Jewish Palestinian Aramaic in contracts from the Dead Sea show that Nabataeans were indeed exposed to other forms of Aramaic. The continuity of Jewish Palestinian Aramaic, the emergence of Samaritan as well as Christian Palestinian Aramaic as written languages, and the eventual development of vocalization traditions makes it possible to define Western Aramaic as a dialect group more clearly in the later Roman period than before.[25]

The degree to which Aramaic survived as a vernacular in Palestine after the 8th century CE is difficult to assess. One may suppose that the modern Western Aramaic dialects still spoken in the Christian mountain villages of Maʿlūla, Baḫʿa, and Ǧubb ʿAdīn in the Antilebanon once have evolved from the same linguistic matrix as the older, now extinct Western Aramaic varieties that appear in the inscriptions and manuscript traditions of late Roman Palestine.[25]

The existence of Aramaic substrate elements in Palestinian Arabic, the supplanting language of Palestinian Aramaic dialects, is widely accepted and is especially evident in the lexical component.[26]


Consonant phonemes of Urban Levantine Arabic (Beirut, Damascus, Jerusalem, Amman)
Labial Denti-alveolar Palatal Velar Pharyngeal Glottal
 plain  emphatic
Nasal mم nن
Occlusive voiceless tت ط kك ʔء ق
voiced bب dد ض
Fricative voiceless fف sس ث ص ʃش xخ ħح hه
voiced zز ذ ظ ʒج ɣغ ʕع
Trill / Tap rر
Approximant lل (ɫ) jي wو

Comparative studies

The US Defense Language Institute published two comparative texts for Levantine Arabic, one with Egyptian Arabic and another with Moroccan Arabic, to help learners of LA learn and distinguish between them.[27][28]


  1. ^ a b North Levantine at Ethnologue (19th ed., 2016)
    South Levantine at Ethnologue (19th ed., 2016)
  2. ^ Al-Jallad, Ahmad. 2012. Ancient Levantine Arabic A Reconstruction based on the Earliest Sources and the Modern Dialects. (Doctoral dissertation, Harvard University; 452pp.)
  3. ^ Versteegh, Kees, The Arabic language, Edinburgh University Press, 2001, p.170
  4. ^ Bassiouney, Reem, Arabic sociolinguistics, Edinburgh University Press, 2009, p.20
  5. ^ Versteegh, Kees (2001). The Arabic Language. Edinburgh University Press. p. 212. ISBN 0-7486-1436-2.
  6. ^ Jastrow, Otto O. (2011). "Anatolian Arabic". Encyclopedia of Arabic Language and Linguistics. ISBN 9789004177024.
  7. ^ Borg, Alexander (2004). Handbook of Oriental Studies. Section 1 The Near and Middle East. ISBN 978-90-04-13198-9.
  8. ^ a b c d "Arabic, North Levantine Spoken". Ethnologue. Archived from the original on 16 July 2018. Retrieved 16 July 2018.
  9. ^ a b "Arabic, South Levantine Spoken". Ethnologue. Archived from the original on 17 July 2018. Retrieved 16 July 2018.
  10. ^ "Turkey". Ethnologue. Retrieved 16 July 2018.
  11. ^ "Glottolog 3.2 – North Levantine Arabic". glottolog.org. Retrieved 16 July 2018.
  12. ^ "Jordan and Syria". Ethnologue. Retrieved 16 July 2018.
  13. ^ Peter Behnstedt, Sprachatlas von Syrien I, Kartenband & Beiheft, Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 1997, 1037 & 242 pages
  14. ^ "Jordan and Syria". Ethnologue. Retrieved 21 July 2018.
  15. ^ Rudolf de Jong, Characteristics of Bedouin dialects in southern Sinai: preliminary observations, in, Manfred Woidich, Martine Haak, Rudolf Erik de Jong, eds., Approaches to Arabic dialects: a collection of articles presented to Manfred Woidich on the occasion of his sixtieth birthday, BRILL, 2004, pp.151–176
  16. ^ Heikki Palva, Sedentary and Bedouin Dialects in Contact: Remarks on Karaki and Salti Dialects in Jordan, Journal of Arabic and Islamic Studies vol 9 (2008)
  17. ^ al-Jallad, Ahmad. "Ancient Levantine Arabic: A Reconstruction Based on the Earliest Sources and the Modern Dialects".
  18. ^ Neishtadt, Mila (25 September 2015). Butts, Aaron (ed.). Semitic Languages in Contact. Brill publishers. pp. 280–281. ISBN 978-9004300149.
  19. ^ a b c Al-Jallad, Ahmad. "What is Ancient North Arabian?". Re-Engaging Comparative Semitic and Arabic Studies Edited by Daniel Birnstiel and Na'Ama Pat-El; Harrassowitz Verlag . Wiesbaden.
  20. ^ Al-Jallad, Ahmad. "Al-Jallad. 2017. Graeco-Arabica I: the southern Levant". Arabic in Context.
  21. ^ Al-Jallad, Ahmad. "Al-Jallad. 2017. The Arabic of the Islamic Conquests: Notes on Phonology and Morphology based on the Greek Transcriptions from the First Islamic Century". BSOAS.
  22. ^ Al-Jallad, Ahmad. "Al-Jallad (preview) The Damascus Psalm Fragment: Middle Arabic and the Legacy of Old Ḥigāzī". Cite journal requires |journal=
  23. ^ Otto, Zwartjes; Manfred, Woidich. "Damascus Arabic According to the Compendio of Lucas Caballero (1709)". Middle Arabic and Mixed Arabic: 295–333.
  24. ^ Al-Jallad, Ahmad. "Al-Jallad. 2016. New evidence from a Safaitic inscription for a late velar/uvular realization of ṣ́ in Aramaic". Cite journal requires |journal=
  25. ^ a b Gzella, Holger (8 January 2015). A Cultural History of Aramaic: From the Beginnings to the Advent of Islam. BRILL. ISBN 9789004285101.
  26. ^ Neishtadt, Mila. "Neishtadt, Mila. "The Lexical Component in the Aramaic Substrate of Palestinian Arabic," in Aaron Michael Butts (ed.), Semitic Languages in Contact (Leiden: 2015), 280–310". Cite journal requires |journal=
  27. ^ Levantine and Egyptian Arabic. Defense language institute: Foreign Language Center. 1976.
  28. ^ From Eastern To Western Arabic. Defense language institute: Foreign Language Center. 1974.


  • Matthew Aldrich (8 July 2017). Levantine Arabic Verbs: Conjugation Tables and Grammar. Matthew Aldrich. GGKEY:BPKGXDZ7TA4.
  • A. Barthelemy, Dictionnaire Arabe-Français. Dialectes de Syrie: Alep, Damas, Liban, Jérusalem (Paris, 1935)
  • Annamaria Ventura, Olivier Durand, Grammatica di arabo mediorientale. Lingua šāmi, Milano, Ulrico Hoepli Editore, 2017, ISBN 978-8820377472

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