1. Arabic dialect maps

Here is a map showing the geographic spread of the Arabic dialects. It’s very clear and useful, and far more accurate than the typical mental image given by descriptions of Arabic dialects, i.e. that the borders between them correspond with national borders. But as well researched as it may be, it suffers from the fundamental flaw of having any borders at all.

There are no clearly defined borders between dialects, or even in some cases between different languages (e.g. between German and Dutch). No roadsigns welcome you to the land of such-and-such dialect. Instead, we usually find gradual shifts.

Here we have a closeup of the map around Egypt and the Levant. Light orange is Egyptian Arabic, light green is Levantine Arabic, and beige is Bedouin Arabic. But each of these groups is not a monolithic unit, and they influence and interact with each other in complex ways.

For example, the farther south one goes, the more one finds common features between Levantine Arabic and Egyptian Arabic. For example, southern Levantine uses the word زي zayy for the preposition “like”—as does Egyptian Arabic—while northern Levantine uses متل mitᵉl instead. Southern Levantine also shares with Egyptian the use of the ending -sh on negative verbs and some phrases, e.g. ما عندوش mā ‘andūsh “he doesn’t have.” Northern Levantine lacks this feature. Although to be clear, this is an optional feature in southern Levantine, while in Egyptian it’s required wherever possible.

And it’s not just in the directions of north, south, east, and west that we find gradual shifts. We also see shifts from urban to rural. Rural Levantine dialects have more in common with Bedouin dialects than do their urban counterparts, especially in the southern Levant. We’ve already seen a few examples of this in previous posts—the preservation of interdental fricatives, and the pronunciation of ق as /g/.

There are, however, certain prestige dialects that are spread far beyond their original geographic limitations due to the effects of media. These prestige dialects, typically emanating from one particular social class from an influential urban center, affect other dialects in concentric circles. For example Cairene Arabic has a strong influence on other regional Egyptian dialects, but a weaker effect that is felt by dialects all across the Arab world. Beiruti Arabic has regional influence in the Levant, Jerusalemite Arabic has regional influence in Palestine, etc.

For example, the pronunciation of ق as a glottal stop /ʔ/ was relatively rare in Amman, Jordan only a few decades ago. But as Amman has grown and become more cosmopolitan, and as its citizens have tuned into Syrian soap operas and started listening to Lebanese music and watching Egyptian movies, the glottal stop has edged its way into the local dialect. Younger people and women tend to be more likely to accept this shift, while older people and men are less likely.

Religious sect, gender, and social class are also very important factors that influence a speaker’s dialect. All these things need to be kept in mind, and one must understand that there are often nuances that must be left out when someone speaks about a dialect in general terms—i.e. whenever one reads this very blog.

2. Dialects as groupings of features

A dialect can be considered a collection of certain linguistic features, especially those features which distinguish it from others. So while there may be no clear borders between dialects, sometimes there are more-or-less clear borders between individual features. Here we have a map American English dialects according to whether they use “soda” (yellow), “coke” (red), or “pop” (blue) as a generic term for soft drinks.

Notice that the areas are fairly well defined for this one particular point of variation. However, dialects are almost never grouped according to one single feature, but rather by a collection of many features, whose borders don’t always overlap with each other. This is why dialects rarely have clear borders.

It would be interesting to see more research on the geography of particular features of Arabic dialects. For example a map of where the negative –sh (which exists in many dialects, although not all) is used. Or maps of where certain words are used instead of others. Or where certain negative particles (e.g. mish, mush, , , etc.) are spoken. And so on.