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Studies on Arabic Dialectology and Sociolinguistics

Catherine Miller
Alexandrine Barontini
Marie-Aimée Germanos
et al.

Arabic Dialectology - Linguistic Descriptions

Gulf Arabic: Recent Data about the Variety Spoken in the Emirate of Dubai

Najla Kalach


The aim of this paper is to present some recent examples of the variety spoken in the well-known Emirate of Dubai, the second largest of the seven Emirates that constitute the federation, located in the South Eastern shore of the Arabian Peninsula.
The study is based on data gathered by the author between 2015 and 2016 during her recent fieldwork in the UAE1: the informants were young Emirati women aged between 20 and 30 years old. The purpose of the study is to contribute to the previous ones about Gulf Arabic, by presenting more recent examples and some morphological and syntactic features of the local variety in Dubai.

Texte intégral

1. The Emirate of Dubai: Geographical and Historical Hints

  • 2 The lines refer to the treaty in 1820 for the cessation of piracy in the area; lately known as the (...)

1The eastern coastal region, including the port of Dubai, became a fundamental route to the Indies especially for Britons: since the very beginning of the 19th century a series of treaties have been signed between Britain and local sheikhs2 (Sato 2016: 9).

2The city of Dubai was founded in 1833 by less than half of the members of the Bani Yas tribe, led by the Al-Maktoum Family, who settled near the creek and established the Maktoum rule in this Emirate. This placement provided the opportunity to increase sea trading, fishing and pearling.

3After more than a century from the foundation of Dubai, oil was discovered in UAE in 1966: Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al-Maktoum used the incomes to develop the area of Dubai by building roads, schools, Universities, hospitals. The Emirate quickly became an important business center for many expatriates to work and live.

4In 1971, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al-Nahyan – ruler of Abu Dhabi – and Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al-Maktoum founded a federation made of Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Sharjah, Ajman, Umm al-Quwain, Fujairah and, in 1972, Ras al-Khaimah, gaining the independence from Britain and becoming the United Arab Emirates (Séllier 2004: 76-82).

2. Previous Studies on Gulf Eastern Arabic Varieties and Aim of the Study

5The development of the Gulf region sparked the interest of the scholars who started studying the languages of Gulf countries, in fact local varieties have been the subject of important piece of research in the field of Arabic Dialectology.

6This paper is based on a corpus of recent transcriptions and on literature mostly published on Eastern Gulf Arabic. To name but a few, the work of Thomas M. Johnstone Eastern Arabian Dialects Studies (1967) is noteworthy, as it describes the main characteristics of Eastern Gulf Arabic. Another fundamental study is A Short Reference Grammar of Gulf Arabic by Hamdi A. Qafisheh (1977) mostly based on the variety of Abu Dhabi, besides Bahraini and Qatari varieties, as well as North East Arabian Dialects by Bruce Ingham published in 1982 regarding the varieties of Kuwait, the northern areas of Saudi Arabia, southern Iraq and Khuzistan. The essential studies conducted by Clive Holes are also worth mentioning, among them Gulf Arabic (1990) a descriptive grammar mainly based on the spoken varieties of southern Iraq, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, besides Dialect, Culture, and Society in Eastern Arabia (2000, 2005, 2016), a three-volume study based on the transcribed conversations of the varieties spoken in Bahrain in the mid-1970s.

7All of these mentioned studies have already shown the main linguistic features of Gulf Arabic rather well, including Emirati variety.

  • 3 For this paper two selected works have been taken into consideration for a data comparison: A Short (...)

8The purposes that come with this paper are firstly to provide updated examples of the current spoken variety in the Emirate of Dubai, since there has been very little research about Emirati varieties over the recent decades by Western scholars. Secondly it also attempts to verify if the collected modern data match morphologically and syntactically with those of the previous studies conducted on Gulf varieties3.

3. Methodology and Informants

  • 4 A special thank goes to the Al Ramsa Institute in Dubai, represented by Mr Abdulla Al-Kaabi and Ms (...)

9The data collected between 2015 and 2016 by the author during various fieldworks in the United Arab Emirates, consist of about a 6-hour recording. The sample of informants includes young women aged between 20 and 30 who were born and grew up in Dubai. Some of them are University students who are attending for Master Degree at American University of Sharjah and some others are teachers at Al Ramsa Institute4, the first language center dedicated to Emirati Arabic and culture in Dubai. They accepted to be recorded mentioning their name, age, city of origin, profession and level of instruction. The speakers personally chose to discuss some general topics, such as customs and traditions in UAE, travelling, food, daily life.

10Furthermore a number of expressions, sentences, single words, grammatical notes are also taken into consideration in order to provide additional examples through the support of a questionnaire submitted to Ms Hanan Al-Fardan, Co-founder and Managing Director of Al Ramsa Institute. Then, recordings have been transcribed and translated into English for the linguistic analysis.

4. Morphosyntactic Features

4.1. Independent Pronouns

11Basic forms of independent subject pronouns are the following:

  • 5 niḥin is more common in Bedouin varieties.



1 p.



1 p.

ʼiḥna, niḥna5


2 p.m.



2 p. m/f.


'you p.m./f.'

2 p.f.



3 p.m.


3 p.m./f.


'they p.m./f.'

3 p.f.


12According to the data, the majority of speakers, in Dubai variety, do not use gender differentiation, in fact only one form for the 2nd plural person masculine and feminine is used, which is ʼintū, as well as in the 3rd plural person masculine and feminine hum, unlike, for example, the Abu Dhabi variety that distinguishes for the 2nd plural person a masculine form ʼintum and a feminine one ʼintin, as well as for the 3rd person masculine hum and hin for feminine (Qafisheh 1977: 159). According to Holes (1990: 159) separate feminine forms occur in educated speech, but no example has been found in the gathered data for this study.


(1) taḥt iš-šēla nḥuṭṭ niḥna šabbāṣa

'we wear a clothes peg under the veil'

(2) il-lōn il-ʼabyaḏ̣ hū iš-šāʼiɛ ɛind iš-šabāb

'the white colour is the most popular among boys'

(3) il-mara ma lābsa hī ɛabāya

'the woman does not wear abaya'

(4) hum yabūn taġyīr baɛd

'they also want a change'

(5) il-yōm ḥatta tšūfīn ʼinti mumkin iš-šēḫ Muḥammad bin Rāšid yilbis ʼalwān

'today youf can see even Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid wearing colours'

(6) ʼana lēn il-ḥīn ma ruḥt ʼumm il-gēwīn

'I have never been in Umm al-Quwain until now'

4.2. Suffixed Pronouns

After Consonant

after Vowel



-ni and yi / ya

2 m.



2 f.



3 m.



3 f.






2 m./f.



3 p. pl. m./f.



13The data confirm the suffixed pronouns found by Qafisheh (1977: 164-170) and Holes (1990: 234-235).


(11) zamīl-i min abu ḏ̣abi

'my colleague from Abu Dhabi'

(12) bi-ʼimkān-i ma ʼilbis ɛabāya

'I have the possibility (I can) to do not wear abaya'

(13) yaɛni ma kint min ʼahal-hum bass hī ṣadīqt-i

'I mean I was not part of her family, but I was her friend'

(14) naɛrif iš-šaḫṣ min ṭarīqat libs-ah

'We recognise where the person is from, depending on his clothing'

(16) bi-ʼimkān-ah hū yzūr-ha fi-l-bēt bass bi-wuǧūd ʼahal-ha

'he can visit her but in the presence of her family'

(17) in-nās tisʼal: zōǧt-ah ḥāmil?

'people ask: is his wife pregnant?'

(19) kil dawla ḫalīǧiyya la-ha stāyl-ha il- ḫāṣṣ

'each Gulf country has its own style'

(20) hū ǧarīb min bēt-na taqrīban masāfat ɛašra dagāyig

'it is close, about 10 minutes away from our house'

(21) kān ʼiḥtikāk-hum ʼakṯar bēn-hum w bēn baɛḏ̣

'they mostly had contact with each other'

(22) lēš tḥuṭṭūn burǧ ḫalīfa­ fōg rās-kum?

'Why do you put Burj Khalifa over your head?'

4.3. Demonstratives

  • 6 Thanks to Dr. Yousuf B. AlBader from University of Kuwait for his suggestions on demonstratives.




Proximal demonstrative


hāḏi, hāy

hadēl, haḏēla

Distal demonstrative



haḏilāk, haḏōlāk6

Examples of demonstratives in a pronominal function:

(23) haḏilāk šabāb min il-ɛēn

'those are boys from Al-Ain'

(24) kān yisʼal: mnu hāḏi?

'he was asking: who is this?'

(25) fī-ha wāyid ʼimārātiyyīn w haḏēla yaɛni maɛrūfīn

'there are a lot of Emiratis and those are well-known'

(26) hāy maṯalan saɛūdiyya ʼaw hāy maṯalan gaṭriyya

'for example this one is Saudi or that one is Qatari'

14Examples of demonstratives in adjectival function according to Holes (1990: 175): “the demonstrative may be placed either directly before or after the complete noun phrase”, as follows:

(27) fi-hāḏa il-maṯal

'in this way of saying'

(28) hāḏa š-šay ʼashal

'this thing is easier'

(29) il-fatra hāḏi

'at this time (of the year)'

(30) l-qabīla hāy la-ha ṭarīqa muɛayyana fi ramsa-ha

'this tribe has its own way of speaking'

(31) ḫabbart-ič ɛan haḏīč is-sālfa?

'Have I told youf about that story?'

15According to the majority of Arabic varieties, the invariable stem ha- prefixed to a definite noun occurs in adjectival function:


(32) w ha-l-ʼašyāʼ maṯalan

'and these things for example'

(33) min ha-l-qabīla

'from this tribe'

(34) ɛigb ha-l-fatra

'after this period'

(35) fa-dāyman kān ir-rayyāl yilbis bi-ha-ṭ-ṭarīqa

'man always used to dress this way'

(36) ha-n-nās ykūn ɛādatan ʼahal il-ɛarūs

'these people are usually the bride’s relatives'

16It is worth noting that in the recordings more hāy than hāḏi occurs. It is likely that other demonstratives exist in Dubai and other regions of UAE depending on the origin of tribes and families, but they did not occur in the data collected for this study.

4.4. Interrogatives



(37) niḥna šū ngūl?

'how do we say?'

(38) š-fī-č?

'what’s wrongf?'



(39) lēš ir-rayyāl yilbis kandōra bēḏ̣a?

'why do men wear a white kandoora?'

(40) lēš il-abyaḏ̣ w lēš il-ʼaswad bi-ha-ṭ-ṭarīqa?

'why white and why black this way?'



(41) mita ɛind-ič klās-ič?

'when do youf have class?'

kam (čam),

'how much?’

(42) kam marra sirti ɛaǧmān?


'how many?'

'how many times have youf been in Ajman?'

(43) kam wāḥid tabīn?

'how many do youf want?'

(44) bi-kam hāḏi š-šanṭa?

'how much does this bag cost?'



(45) ʼagūl yā rabbī ma ɛaref il-muškila wēn?

'I say oh Lord! Where is the problem?'

(46) wēn nḥuṭṭ-ha il-ḥīn? wēn nwuddī-ha?

'where do we put them now?Where do we bring them?'

kēf (čēf),


(47) ʼintū s-sūriyyīn kēf tgūlūn?


'how do you say in Syria?'



(48) ʼay ktāb garēti?

'which book did you read?'



(49) mnu hāḏi?

'who is she?'

4.5. The Annexation

17Possessive and genitive relationships are expressed by a synthetic construct composed of two noun phrases. The first noun is indefinite while the second noun could be definite or indefinite according to the meaning of the phrase (Qafishesh 1977: 116-118).

18However, the analytic construct is also very common: it is expressed by the genitive exponent māl or ḥagg 'belonging to, of'. According to Holes (1990: 170-171) the particles māl or ḥagg “may only be predicated of or attributed to a definite noun”.

Examples of synthetic constructs:

(50) duwal il-ḫalīǧ

'the Gulf States'

(51) wayh il-marʼa

'the woman’s face'

(52) ʼistiḫdām il-ɛabāya

'the use of the abaya'

(53) rās il-ḫēma

'Rās Al-Khaimah'

(54) ʼumm il-gēwīn

'Umm al-Quwain'

(55) maṣārif il-ɛurs

'the wedding’s expenses'

(56) ḥafalāt il-ḥarīm

'the women’s parties'

(57) masāḥat ʼarāḏ̣i l-ʼimārāt

'the area of the United Arab Emirates'

(lit. the head of the tent')

  • 7 It is worth noting that the particle ḥagg occurs also to express purpose 'for', as in the following (...)

Examples of analytic constructs with ḥagg7 and māl:

(58) il-manṭiqa ḥagg il-ʼistiǧmām

'the region of rest'

(59) il-markaz ḥagg is-suwwāḥ

'the tourists’center'

(60) ḥaflat ʼistiqbāl ḥagg il-ʼahal

'the family’s welcome party'

(61) il-kandōra māl ir-rayyāl

'the kandoora of the man'

(62) hū ʼilli daqqaq ɛa-l-manhaǧ māl-na

'it is him who examined our programme'

4.6. Negation

19Like most Gulf varieties, the basic particles that occur for negation are ma, mub, (variant miš) and la 'not'. These stems are used to negate nouns, adverbs, perfect and imperfect tense, active and passive participles, prepositions, adjectives, pseudo-verbs and independent pronouns (Holes 1990: 71-76), such as the following examples:

Examples with ma:

(63) ma ḥad yadri

'nobody knows'

(64) ma lābsa hī ɛābaya

'she is not wearing an Abaya'

(65) ma kān yilbis lōn il-ʼabyaḏ̣

'he did not use to wear white'

(66) ʼana lēn l-ḥīn ma ruḥt ʼumm il-gēwīn

'I have never been in Umm al-Quwain until now'

(67) ʼana ma (a)bā sīr mōl dbayy

'I do not want to go to Dubai Mall'

(68) w bi-t-tāli ma ɛindǝ-na wagt nilaḥḥig

'besides we do not even have time'

(69) ma ɛind-ha šuġḷ

'she does not have a job'

Examples with mub:

(70) lahǧat dōlat il-ʼimārāt mub waḥda fi-kil il-ʼimārāt is-sabiɛ

'the dialect of UAE is not only one among the whole seven Emirates'

(71) yaɛni mub mawṣūla ɛan ḥafalāt li-ḥrīm

'I mean it is not connected to the women’s parties'

Examples with miš:

(72) hū miš ʼaqall ɛan in-nās

'he is not less than others'

(73) il-ḥīn miš mhimm wāyid

'now it is not very important'

(74) miš kil ʼimārāti yirmis bi-nafs iṭ-ṭarīqa

'not all Emiratis speak the same way'

(75) yaɛni miš ʼistiḫdām il-ɛabāya

'I mean not the use of the abaya'

It has been found only one example with the particle ġēr 'different from':

(76) iš-šay ʼilli ġēr mawǧūd fi-makān ṯāni

'the thing that there is not available somewhere else'

20Imperative is negated by the particle la: it either used for a negative command or for absolute negation (Qafisheh 1977: 240-241).

Examples with la:

(77) la tāklīn il-ḥīn!

'do not eat now!'

4.7. Agreement with inanimate plurals

21Inanimate plural nouns usually have feminine singular agreement in adjectives, verbs, and pronouns, according to the Bedouin typology features.


(79) la-ha kalimāt wāyid ṣaɛba

'it has many difficult words'

(80) liʼanna qabāʼil dōlat il-ʼimārāt ma kānat tiɛīš fi makān wāḥid

'because Emirati tribes did not use to live only in one place'

(81) fī qabāʼil badawiyya kānat tiɛīš fi-l-barr

'there are Bedouin tribes that used to live in the desert'

(82) l-ḥīn ysāwūn musalsalāṭ tāriḫiyya ʼaw l-ʼašyā l-qadīma

'now they make historical soap operas or this kind of old stuff'

(83) yilbisūn mōdēlāt ɛimāniyya

'they wear Omani models'

(84) ɛādāt-hum il-ḫāṣṣa w ḥatta lahǧat-hum il-ḫāṣṣa

'their own customs and even their own dialect'

5. Final Comments

22Far from giving an exhaustive description of the variety spoken in Dubai, this study aims to provide examples of recent data. According to Versteegh (2014: 192): “The Arabian peninsula, the homeland of the Arab tribes, remains the least-known dialect area of the Arabophone world”. In fact, further investigation concerning Gulf Arabic is still needed. Linguistically, the data show a mixed typology including Bedouin and sedentary features due to the strategic geographic position of Dubai on the Arabian Gulf, as well as the mixed distribution of Arab nationalities besides the huge presence of expats that have influenced the local language. In addition there are also many linguistic differences among tribes. These factors make the recognition of authentic specific features quite hard.

23On one hand, it is possible to find Bedouin’s typology features such as: the preservation of interdentals phonemes /ṯ/, /ḏ/, /ḏ̣/ and realization of /q/ as /g/ or /ǧ/; the use of feminine singular agreement for inanimate plurals; the pronominal suffix of the third-person singular masculine is –ah, example: bēt-ah 'his house' (Versteegh 2014: 193).

24On the other hand, according to the data, sedentary features are the following: loss of gender distinction in the second and third person plural of pronouns and verbs; loss of –in as a marker of indefinite words; the prefix vowel of the verb is –i, for example: yilbis 'he wears'; use of genitive exponent for possessive construction through the particles māl and ḥagg (Durand 2009: 165-166). These features, included in the recent data presented in this paper, match with the data collected many years ago, for example by Qafisheh (1977) and Holes (1990).

  • 8 Here 'Well-known' means that Arab native speakers or Arabic speakers can recognise and are familiar (...)

25The important geopolitical role of UAE on the world stage gives rise to a reflection concerning its linguistic situation: is it possible for Emirati variety to be bound to become one of the most well-known8 Gulf varieties in the upcoming years, despite the limited extension of the territory?

26It may be probable for many different reasons. Firstly, in very recent years, local people have matured a tendency of preserving their customs and language because globalisation caused contamination including, for example, a partial loss of their everyday use of local language, which is frequently substituted by English. The foundation of a language center dedicated to Emirati Arabic and culture like Al Ramsa Institute represents a first evidence of local Emiratis’ interest to enhance and promote their local language and traditions.

27Secondly, the soap opera business has changed: due to difficult circumstances in the Arab world, such as in Syria, the broadcasting market is now developing in the Gulf Region, especially in UAE. Therefore the presence of Gulf Arabic, especially the Emirati variety, is now frequently heard in soap operas because Emirati-speaker actors are involved, together with Syrian ones, in the production. To give an example about this point it occurs in Syrian soap operas such as Sabaya +971 Season 4 (2012) shot in Dubai and Fitnet zamanha (2015) shot in Abu Dhabi.

  • 9 Lastly also the current trend of talent shows has included Emiratis as part of the judge panel: for (...)

28Furthermore the broadcast of social media among the Gulf countries, is allowing anyone to express their opinions and forms of art9 (i.e. tutorials, reviews) in a home-based environment.

29That does not mean that Arab speakers will start speaking fluently Emirati, but rather that this it may contribute to make Emirati variety more accessible to other Arab speakers or foreigners such as scholars, students or employees: in fact, Gulf varieties are less studied and known if compared to other Arabic varieties such as Syrian, Egyptian, Tunisian, Moroccan etc. However UAE have good chances to promote the dissemination of Gulf Arabic in and outside the Gulf territory.

6. Sample Text

30Speaker: Hassa, 24 years old, graduated student at Sharjah University, born and raised in Dubai.

lahǧat-na muqāranatan bi-bāgi duwal il-ḫalīǧ hiyya ʼaraqa lahǧa, la-ha kalimāt wāyid ṣaɛba, lahǧat dōlat il-ʼimārāt mub waḥda fi kil il-ʼimārāt is-sabiɛ: abū ḏ̣abi la-hum ṯalāṯ, ɛarbaɛ lahǧāt, fi-l-ɛēn la-hum lahǧatēn, ṯalāṯa, fi dbayy fī kaḏa lahǧa, tiḫtilif min ʼiḫtilāf il-qabāʼil, miš kil ʼimārāti yirmis bi-nafs iṭ-ṭarīqa laʼanna kil ʼimārāti l-ah qabīla muɛayyana w l-qabīla hāy la-ha ṭarīqa muɛayyana fi ramsa-ha, ha-š-šay rāǧiɛ laʼanna qabāʼil dōlat il-ʼimārāt ma kānat tiɛīš fi makān wāḥid, fī qabāʼil kānat ɛind il-baḥr fa-lahǧat-ha ʼabsaṭ li-ʼiḥtikāk-ha bi-t-tiǧāra w l-ʼaǧānib w fī qabāʼil badawiyya kānat tiɛīš fi-l-barr w kān ʼiḥtikāk-hum ʼakṯar bēn-hum w bēn baɛḏ̣, fa-muṣṭalaḥāt-hum ʼaṣɛab, w fī qabāʼil min kiṯrat it-tirḥāl ḫaḏat lahǧāt muḫtalifa fa-ɛašān čiḏi bēn il-ʼimārāt is-sabiɛ fī lahǧāt ǧiddan muḫtalifa.

6.1. Translation

'Our dialect, if compared to the other Gulf dialects, is the more elegant one. It has very difficult words and it is not only one dialect in the whole UAE: Abu Dhabi has three or four dialects; Al-Ain has two or three dialects, in Dubai there are many more dialects. It differs according to the tribe, not every Emirati person speaks in the same way because each Emirati belongs to a specific tribe and every specific tribe has its own dialect. This difference exists because the tribes of UAE did not use to live in the same place: some tribes used to live at the sea so their dialect is easier thanks to their commercial links and to the foreign members. On the other hand there were other tribes who used to live in the desert: so they used to be more in contact with each other, this is why their words are more difficult. Some other tribes used to move around a lot so they took over many different dialects. That’s why there are various dialects throughout the UAE'.


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Durand, Olivier. 2009. Dialettologia araba. Roma: Carocci.

Holes, Clive. 1990. Gulf Arabic. London: Routledge.

Holes, Clive. 2000. Dialect, Culture and Society in Eastern Arabia, Volume 1 Glossary. Leiden, Boston, Köln: Brill.

Holes, Clive. 2005. Dialect, Culture and Society in Eastern Arabia, Volume 2 Ethnographic Texts. Leiden, Boston, Köln: Brill.

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1 i.e. United Arab Emirates.

2 The lines refer to the treaty in 1820 for the cessation of piracy in the area; lately known as the Perpetual Treaty of Maritime Peace in 1853 which prohibited local parties to take military actions and obligated the British to maintain the order in the region.

3 For this paper two selected works have been taken into consideration for a data comparison: A Short Reference Grammar of Gulf Arabic by Hamdi A. Qafisheh (1977) and Gulf Arabic by Clive Holes (1990), as these studies thoroughly analysed Emirati varieties.

4 A special thank goes to the Al Ramsa Institute in Dubai, represented by Mr Abdulla Al-Kaabi and Ms Hanan Al-Fardan. The Al Ramsa Institute for Emirati Dialect and Culture is the first institute in UAE with the aim of teaching spoken Emirati dialect, besides doing other Emirati cultural activities.

5 niḥin is more common in Bedouin varieties.

6 Thanks to Dr. Yousuf B. AlBader from University of Kuwait for his suggestions on demonstratives.

7 It is worth noting that the particle ḥagg occurs also to express purpose 'for', as in the following example (found in the recordings): ʼana ʼasīr ḥagg il-ɛarūs ʼaw ḥagg il-maɛris 'I go for the bride or for the broom'. The examples containing ḥagg in paragraph 4.5. express possession, according to their context in the recordings.

8 Here 'Well-known' means that Arab native speakers or Arabic speakers can recognise and are familiar with Emirati variety more than in the past, when the contacts with the Emirates were less frequent. This does not mean that people will speak Emirati fluently or that they will substitute their native variety with Emirati.

9 Lastly also the current trend of talent shows has included Emiratis as part of the judge panel: for example the very popular singer Ahlam Al-Shamsi on Arab Idol.


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