vowels
Get to know the vowel inventory of Palestinian Arabic & all its varieties.

Inventory

The vowel inventory of Palestinian Arabic — that is, the set of all possible vowels in the language — differs somewhat from that of Standard Arabic, adding a few more vowels. Let's start by discussing the vowel inventory of Standard Arabic and build that of Palestinian Arabic from there.

Standard Arabic

Standard Arabic has a relatively small vowel inventory. Phonemically, there are just three types of vowels, which may be either short or long. Although these have a one-to-one relationship to characters of the Arabic script, the diacritics used to represent short vowels are not usually written.

vowels

ــَـ
(short open-front) /a/
ــِـ
(short closed-front) /i/
ــُـ
(short closed-back) /u/
ا
(long open-front) /aː/
ي
(long closed-front) /iː/
و
(long closed-back) /uː/

Note that /a/ may actually be represented in a variety of ways, most notably including ى & ة.

Phonetically, the realization of these vowels is relatively stable, with one primary exception: When in the vicinity of a pharyngealized consonant, /a/ & /aː/ are realized as [ɑ] & [ɑː], respectively. In fact, much of what makes native speakers perceive a pharyngealized consonant is the realization of surrounding vowels, rather than the articulation of the consonant itself. Keep in mind that this effect on the realization of /a/ is irrespective of its orthographic representation, whether it be as ى or ة.

We will return to this issue presently.

Palestinian Arabic

Palestinian Arabic expands this vowel inventory, but it also differs in its realization of the foregoing phonemes. Let's begin with the latter point.

In Palestinian Arabic, /aː/ ranges between [aː ~ æː]. While [æː] is widespread among urban dialects in Palestine, [a:] is especially common in Jordan. In Northern Palestine & especially in Lebanon, this phoneme may range between [ɛː ~ eː]. Note that this shift, called imāla, only affects /aː/ — not /a/.

open-front

بردان
(feeling) cold
حمّام
bathroom, washroom, toilet

Pharyngealization continues to affect the realization of /a/ & /aː/ in Palestinian Arabic. Since pharyngealization may spread more freely throughout a word in Spoken Arabic, the pharyngealized consonant doesn't have to be immediately before or after the vowel to have an effect.

open-front

عطشان
thirsty
طيّارة
airplane

Some exceptional terms have arbitrary pharyngealization, producing an unexpected [ɑ]. However, these extremely rare; they include — but are not limited to — terms with الله (ʔallah) in them.

open-front

آه
yes, yeah
يا الله
oh my God

Mid-Front & Mid-Back

In addition to the Standard Arabic vowels, we have short & long mid-front (/e/), as well as short and long mid-back (/o/).

mid-front

مدرسة
school
زيت
oil

mid-back

برضو
also, additionally
فوق
up, over, above, on top

Since there's no unique way to write the short and long /e/ and /o/ vowels, short and long /e/ is written as short and long /i/, while short and long /o/ is written as short and long /u/.

However, short and long /e/ & /o/ arise in very specific circumstances. While short /e/ only exists as the pronunciation of ta marbūṭa (ة), short /o/ only exists as the 3M personal suffix. In fact, speakers who pronounce ta marbūṭa as /a/ have no short /e/ vowel phoneme at all. Meanwhile, long /e/ and /o/ specifically appear as a way of "flattening" the Standard Arabic dipthongs /ai/ & /au/. Similarly, /e:/ can sometimes arise in place of a ya hamza (ئ), as in حيط (ħēṭ) & عيلة (3ēle) (see Lesson X).

STANDARD
بَيْت
bayt
DIALECT
بيت
bēt
STANDARD
يَوْم
yawm
DIALECT
يوم
yōm

In reality, /e:/ & /o:/ are not that common; they seem more common than they really are simply because they appear in these types of high frequency nouns:

ليل
lēl
night
بين
bēn
between
زيت
zēt
oil
يوم
yōm
day
فوق
fō2
above
جوز
jōz
husband

As for ta marbūṭa, it's generally pronounced as /e/.

معنى
maʕna
حكى
ħaka
وجبة
wajbe
جملة
jumle

It's not a coincidence that these words look very similar. In Arabic three-letter words, the middle letter usually has sukun, as in حرْب (ḥarb "war") or قلْب (ʔalb "heart"). If the middle letter of the root is ي or و then the result is automatically a diphthong — /ay/ or /aw/, respectively — that is therefore "flattened" in the dialect. Hence, if you see a word that already has three regular consonants, it's pretty much guaranteed that any ي or و vowel will be pronounced normally, as /i:/ or /u:/.

For instance, notice that the ي or و in certain common word patterns like فعيل (fʕīl) & مفعول (mafʕūl) are always pronounced /i:/ or /u:/ because they are "true" long vowels rather than flattened dipthongs (KBIR, Z8IR, MNI7 // MAKTUB, MAFHUM, MABRUK).

However, occasionally three-letter words do originally have long vowel sounds in Standard Arabic. In these cases, the original quality of the vowel is retained (DIN, RI7 // SU2, NUR).

Outside of these specific cases, the only situation where /e:/ may be encountered is in the Irregular Past Stem of verbs with B-Type & C-Type Roots (see Lesson 17), where it is attached to the end of the stem. In all other cases, though, ي always represents /i/.

مشى
maša
he walked
مشيت
mašēt
I walked
بتمشي
btimši
you.F walked
حبّ
ħabb
he loved
حبّيت
ħabbēt
I loved
بتحبّي
bitħibbi
you.F loved

As for /o:/, some speakers pronounce the 1S & 3M forms of the Present Tense of hamze-initial terms (namely, أكل & أخد) with /o:/ — but even this isn't universal. Otherwise, و always represents /u/.

بوكل
bōkil
he eats
بوخد
bōxid
he gets
بشوف
bišūf
he sees
كتبو
katabu
they wrote

Realization

How do we know when and how to pronounce every vowel? After all, in writing there are still just three vowel letters & three short vowel marks. As we’re about to see, some of these vowels only occur in specific settings and their pronunciation is affected by other things going on in the word.

Be aware that the vowel inventory we have created is a list of the vowel phonemes of Palestinian Arabic; this is not necessarily how they are pronounced in reality. For instance, the original /i/ & /u/ short vowels are generally not as tense in the dialect; they sound like [ɪ] & [ʊ], but may be more tense in stressed syllables and less tense is unstressed syllables.

وِجِه
/wiʒih/
[wɪʒɪh]
شُغُل
uɣul/
ʊɣʊl]

Additionally, long vowels are frequently shortened as an outcome of alternations caused by word stress (see Lesson 8). When this happens, the original quality of the vowel remains intact. This can create instances of short [e] and [o], although they are “officially” /e:/ and /o:/; long /i:/ & /u:/ shortened by this process will sound more tense than their short counterparts would otherwise be as well.

حكيتلها
/ħake:tilha/
[ħaketɪlha]
ميزان
/mi:zæ:n/
[mizæ:n]

Additionally, ta marbūṭa is pronounced as [a] around the following consonants that are pronounced at the back of the mouth and throat:

نسخة
[nusxa]
/nusxe/
لغة
[lʊɣa]
/luɣe/
جامعة
[jæ:mʕa]
/ja:mʕe/
صراحة
[sˤɑrɑ:ħa]
/sˤara:ħe/
جهة
[ʒɪha]
/ʒihe/
شقّة
[šaʔʔa]
/šaʔʔe/

The Epenthetic Vowel

Remember as well that in the dialect the article AL & the pronouns ANTA / ANTI / ANTUM are raised to /i/ — as in IL-3ARABY, INTA / INTI / INTU.

And that’s everything you need to know about Vowels in Palestinian Arabic. The purpose of this lesson is not to strictly memorize these rules, but to keep these ideas in mind as you continue to learn the dialect; these are all very subtle differences that you're not going to consciously & consistently pull off just by memorizing the rules for them. It's also so that you can get a better idea of how a word in writing should be pronounced, even if you don’t already know the word. Understanding patterns in Arabic is crucial to building an instinct for the language. I encourage you to practice listening and carefully imitating the speech of native speakers and it will probably start to come naturally with time.