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Studies on Arabic Dialectology and Sociolinguistics

Catherine Miller
Alexandrine Barontini
Marie-Aimée Germanos
et al.

Arabic Dialectology - Linguistic Descriptions

Vowel Harmony in Old and Central Asian Arabic Dialects

Zviadi Tskhvediani


Vowel harmony in the word-forms of old Arabic dialects is discussed in the works of medieval Arab grammarians. Valuable information regarding vowel harmony is provided by Sibawayhi, Ibn Jinni and others. In the medieval Arabic grammatical tradition the vowel harmony is denoted by the term al-ʼitbāʻ and is viewed as assimilation both at isolated and syntagmatic levels of the word-forms. For example, in the basic C1VC2VːC3, C1VC2C3>C1VC2VC3 and C1VC2VC3 structures: faʻi/īl>fiʻi/īl as well as in the derived forms with -C1C2VC3, -C1VːC3: mu-fՙi/īl>mifՙi/īl and C1VC2Y3 stems: for instance, ʻaṣīy>ʻiṣīy formant vowel change (a>i) in isolated and syntagmatic position. In addition to the above-mentioned cases vowel harmony is analyzed in: the stem words and affixes, prosthetic ʼalif of the imperative mood, doublets of one-syllable roots and pausal forms, -āt plural of fu/iʻl-at type names in which anaptyctic vowels are combined with root vowels, for instance, rukb-at (sing.) and rukub-āt (pl.), sidr-at (sing.) and sidir-āt, etc. In the Arabic dialects of central Asia the vocal structure of derived roots is relatively inconsistent. For example, C1VC2VC3 structure in the isolated position is subject to changes on the syntagmatic level due to vowel harmony (šuġul and šuġl-ak). C1VC2VC3 structure can be identified in verb stems + through vowel harmony (cf. tu-ktub in the imperfect). Some stem structures are characterized by synharmonism peculiar to old Arabic dialects; for instance, kivīr, gilīl. Anaptyctic vowels are combined with stem vowels in one-syllable forms: gidir<qidr, gutun<qutn etc. Vowel harmony in a number of word-forms reflects the general situation in old Arabic dialects of central Asia and conforms to the common Arabic dialectical forms.

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Texte intégral


1In the works of medieval Arab grammarians vowel harmony, interpreted as a sequence of identical vowels in successive syllables, is denoted by the term al-’itbā‘ and viewed as a result of assimilation. The term al-ʼitbā‘ occurs in the works by al-Farrāʼ. Ibn Ğinnī uses it to describe vowel harmony. In Ibn Ğinni’s treatise vowel harmony is associated with al-’idġām al-’aṣġar, the latter being explained as follows: “وأما الإدغام الأصغر، فهو تقريب الحرف من الحرف ; wa’ammā l-’idġāmu l-’aṣġaru, fahūa taqrību l-ḥarfi mina l-ḥarfi" (Ibn Ğinnī undated: 2/141).

2Cases of vowel harmony are attested in a limited number of words and therefore medieval Arabic grammatical treatises do not pay much attention to them. Nevertheless, a number of sources contain valuable information regarding this phenomenon both at isolated and syntagmatic levels of the word-forms and most of the cases discussed are confirmed by evidence in classical Arabic; for instance, in some cases prosthetic ʼalif of the imperative mood (az-Zamaḫšarīy argues that pronouncing hamzat al-waṣl (syntagmatic position) is not a specifically Arabic phenomenon and it can be qualified as laḥn (solecism) (az-Zamaḫšarīy 1323 AH: 137)), in the imperative mood of the geminated verb stem and pronoun suffix are vocalized identically: ruddu-hu, ruddi-hi, rudda-hā - ‘Return it’; in the name stems, doublets of one-syllable roots and pausal forms as well as in -āt plural anaptyctic vowels are harmonized with stem vowels (Lekiashvili 1977: 55; Rabin 1951: 97). Thus, in classical Arabic we have stem parallelism and doublets that, according to the medieval Arabic grammatical treatises, can be identified in the tribal dialects and explained by the areal distribution.

3The significant sources of al-ʼitbāʽ are: 1) al-Kitāb by Sībawayhi, 2) Kitābu š-šiʽr by ʽAbū ʽAliyy al-Fārisīy, 3) al-aṣāʽi by Ibn Ğinnī, 4) Maʽānī l-qurʽān by al-Farrāʼ, 5) al-Mufaṣṣal fī ʽilmi l-ʽArabiyya by az-Zamaḫšarīy, 6) Tāğ al-ʽarūs by az-Zabīdīy, 7) aṣ-Ṣāḥibīy by Ibn Fāris, etc.

  • 1 See Levin 2007 and Levin 2012.

4Generally speaking, cases of vowel changes in the word-forms are discussed in terms of al-ʼimāla1 and al-ʼitbāʽ in medieval Arabic grammatical texts.

  • 2 Alfozan 1986.
  • 3 Tsereteli 1970; Ahvlediani 1985.
  • 4 Chikovani 2002; Chikovani 2007; Chikovani 2009.

5Some cases of vowel harmony in old dialects are still preserved in modern ones reflecting tribal rather than areal dialectic phenomena. In this respect the data of peripheral Arabic dialects, having been separated from the Arabic continuum for centuries and having evolved in an alien linguistic environment, are particularly interesting. For instance, Central Asian Arabic dialects (Qashqadarian and Bukharian Arabic dialects) provide ample material for the study of old form preservation and various changes caused by linguistic as well extra-linguistic factors. In this paper I will concentrate on the attested cases of vowel harmony in old and Central Asian peripheral Arabic dialects (regions of Qashqadaria and Bukhara, Republic of Uzbekistan) that are at the same time common in Arabic dialects. Vowel harmony in classical Arabic is investigated in A. I. Alfozan’s dissertation2. Vowel systems and vowel changes in the Central Asian Arabic dialects have been studied from different angles by Acad. G. Tsereteli, Prof. V. Akhvlediani3 and Prof. G. Chikovani. In the present paper the data of the Central Asian Arabic dialects are taken from the dialectological materials recorded by Prof. Chikovani in 1980, 1986, 2000 and published in 2002, 2007 and 20094.

Vowel harmony in C1aC2īC3 and C1aC2iC3 type word-forms

6Discussing regressive assimilation, Sībawayhi remarks that in C1aC2īC3 / faʽīl type names in which C2 is represented by a guttural consonant, we encounter two forms faʽīl and fiʽīl: “wafī faʽīl luġatāni: faʽīl wa fīʽīl ʼiḏā kāna ṯ-ṯānī mina l-ḥurūfi s-sitta”, for instance, liʽīm ‘ignoble, vile’, šihīd ‘martyr’, siʽīd ‘happy’, niḥīf ‘slender’, riġīf ‘loaf - portion of baked bread, usually of a standard size or shape’, biḫīl ‘miserly’, biʼīs ‘overwhelmed with sorrow or grief’ (Sībawayhi 1982: 107-108). Ibn Ğinnī also suggests examples of such forms in faʽīl type with C2 guttural consonant: šiʽīr ‘barley’, biʽīr ‘camel - long-necked animal’, ziʼīr ‘roaring, growl’, wiʽīd ‘menacing’, ‘threat’ (Ibn Ğinnī undated: 143).

7The same can be said of the perfective forms of verbs. Sībawayhi notes: “ʼiḏā kāna ṣifatan ʼaw fiʽlan ʼawisman” (Sībawayhi 1982: 107-108). Thus, C2 guttural always occurs in fiʽil type: liʽib ‘played’ (III. Masc. Sing.).

8The same holds true for C1VC2VC3 structure names, for instance: laʽib > liʽib ‘kidder, unserious’, waʽik > wiʽik ‘indisposed’, maḥik > miḥik ‘standard; norm’, waḫim > wiḫim ‘adverse, hostile, harmful’, etc. (Sībawayhi 1982: 108).

9Sībawayhi attributes Word-forms of C1iC2īC3 and C1iC2iC3 structure (with vowel harmony -i-ī/i) to the speech of Tamīm tribal confederation and Huḏayl tribe (Sībawayhi 1982: 440), Ibn Fāris to that of ʼAsad (Ibn Fāris 1997: 34) and az-Zabīdīy to the speech of Rabīʽa tribal confederation (az-Zabīdiyy 1965: 52).

10In modern Arabic dialects fīʽīl form is not confined to C2 guttural type. Kibīr ‘big’, kirīm ‘noble’, ğilīl ‘grand, splendid, majestic, lordly’ forms could have developed at an early stage what is confirmed by Ibn Ğinnī’s comments on harmony that occurs in the derivative form mufʽi/īl due to regressive assimilation (u > i): mufʽi/īl > mifʽi/īl:

فأما مغيرة فليس إتباعه لأجل حرف الحلق، إنما هو من باب مِنْتِن ;

faʼammā miġīra-t-un falaysa ʼitbāʽuhu liʼağli ḥarfi l-ḥalqi, ʼinnamā hūa min bābi mintin” (Ibn Ğinnī undated: 143). Also, ʽuṣīy > ʽiṣīy ‘sticks’, ṯudīy > ṯidīy ‘breasts’, etc. (Sībawayhi 1982: 374-375). az-Zabīdīy confirms the same in “tāğ al-ʽarūs”: “waḥakā š-šayḫu (n-nawawiyy) fī taḥrīrihi ʽani l-layṯi ʼanna qawman mina l-ʽarabi yaqūlūna ḏālika waʼin lam takun ʽaynuhu ḥarfa ḥalqin ka(kibīr) wa(kirīm) wa(ğilīl)” (az-Zabīdiyy 1965: 391; ʼĀl Ġunaym 1985: 72).

11The same can be said of C1VC2VːC3 fiʽīl type word-forms in the Arabic dialects of Qashqadaria kisīr // kisir ‘a lot’, kivīr > // kbīr: kisīr ġania kisīr pūlqizil kēyin ʽinda ‘owned a great fortune’ (Chikovani 2007: 20); ğūdó kivīr // kivīr mínu (rarely) ‘larger, greater’ (Chikovani 2002: 87-88). Cf. kasīr and kabīr in Bukharian Arabic, for instance baʽda: kabīr beytin ahāni ḥarr ṣōr, ḥarr i‿wahad bēt – qāl. -aṭrofu kasīr, hatabāt miği bin. ‘then [next condition]: a big house is on fire, [flaming/blazing fire] in one house - said [Pasha]. - Extinguish [the fire as soon as possible so that] you escape (from the house) unharmed (Chikovani 2009: 60). Or, bintin kabīra usma barfei… ‘The elder daughter’s name was Barfey...’ And, diklōya mara i-zōğ šuġlun kasīr sawō ‘This wife did a lot of things for his husband [This wife proved useful to his husband]’ (Chikovani 2009: 62).

Vowel harmony in C1VC2C3 and C1VC2C3-at
type word-forms

12Vowel harmony in old Arabic dialects are attested in C1VC2VC3 structure word-forms and in some cases anaptyctic vowel form C1VC2VC3 structures in C1VC2VC3, C1VC2VC3-at type one-syllable words. The same is the case with -āt formant plural; for instance, ʽunq // ʽunuq ‘neck’, ḥusn // ḥusun ‘beauty’, yawm-u l-ğumʽa-ti (Tamīm speech) // ~ l-ğumaʽa-ti (ʽUqayl tribe speech) // ~ l-ğumuʽa-ti ‘friday’ (al-Farrāʼ 1983: 186). In Ch. Rabin’s opinion, “It cannot always be said that the Hijazi form is older and the Eastern is produced by elision.” (Rabin 1951: 97).

13Sībawayhi refers to ḥalaq ‘earring’ and ḥalq-at ‘circle’ as C1VC2C3 / C1VC2C3-at structure word-forms. Cf. ḥalaq-at used by ʼAbū ʽAmr (Sībawayhi 1982: 583-584; ʼĀl Ġunaym 1985: 85). ʼĀl Ġunaym points out that muwaffaq ad-Dīn al-Baġdādīy confirms the existence of ḥalaq-at variant in Bagdad speech and describes ʽUqayl speech in which under the influence of C2 guttural (/ḥ/) vowel a (al-fatḥa) appears: ḥalaq-at (ʼĀl Ġunaym 1985: 86).

14Concerning fuʽul-āt type, for instance, rukub-āt ‘knee’, ġuruf-āt ‘rooms’ ḫuṭuw-āt ‘steps’, etc., Sībawayhi notes: “wamina l-ʽarabi man yaftaḥu l-ʽayn ʼiḏā ğamaʽa bit-tāʼ, fayaqūlu rukabāt waġurafāt… wamina l-ʽarabi man yadaʽu l-ʽayn mina ḍ-ḍammati fī fuʽlatin, fayaqūlu: ʽurwāt waḫuṭwāt” (Sībawayhi 1982: 579-580). This case of vowel harmony is attributed to Hijaz dialects. (ʼĀl Ġunaym 1985: 84).

15In Qashqadaria Arabic Dialect C1iC2iC3 // C1iC2īC3 structure nouns are to be found, for instance: gidir // gidīr ‘saucepan’ (cf. ğǝdǝr // ğǝdrǝyya in Baghdad Arabic (Abu-Haidar 2006: 223)), dihin // dihīn ‘oil, fat’, tibin ‘hay’, ḥilim ‘dream’ (Tsereteli 1956: 79, 164; Vinnikov 1969: 164). C1VC2VːC3 model unites the following subclasses: C1aC2āC3 : baḥār ‘sea’; C1uC2u/ūC3: gutun ‘cotton’, ğufūr ‘well’ (cf. Arab. ğufra-t and Bukharian Arabic ğifra (sing.) and ğifr-āt (pl.), e.g.: snēna aqaīnin mui ğarrū min ğifrāt. ‘The two brothers took water from the well.’ (Chikovani 2009: 35, 56)). However, in Qashqadaria Arabic Dialect we find: ḫubz ‘bread’, kezb ‘lie’, and in Bukharian Arabic šuġl and šuġul ‘job, occupation’ (Chikovani 2002: 82-83, 166; Chikovani 2009: 62). Cf. in Bahraini Arabic as well: C3 is /l, n, r/: C1VC2VC3 is normal, with vowel harmony, e.g. šuġul, ḍuhur ‘noon’, dihin, kufur ‘amount’ (Holes 2006: 244).

16As for the verb forms, C1iC2iC3 type occurs: liḥig ‘caught up with, reached...’, liʕib, šibik (Chikovani 2002: 102). In Bukharian Arabic the dominant type in the perfective is C1aC2aC3, e. g.: lahag ‘reached’, while C1iC2iC3 occurs relatively rarely (Chikovani 2009:17, 35) In Qashqadaria Arabic Dialect C1uC2u/ūC3 type of C1VC2V:C3 structure has been identified: ugu/ūb // ogūb > Arab. ʽaqba // ʽaqiba ‘then’, e.g.: morā ḫubz, muya anṭat, ugūb min pōšō sayalt ‘The woman gave him some bread and water, then she asked Pasha...’(Chikovani 2007: 20; Chikovani 2002: 156, 160). Cf. Kuwaiti Arabic: ʽugub, ḍuhur (Holes 2007: 611).

17Basic stems of what is C1VC2VC3 structure in the isolated position form C1VC2C3 structure in the contextual position or in -V(C) type affixal derived forms, e. g.: ğisim ‘body’ and ğism-a ‘her body’, rağul ‘man, husband’ rağl-ič ‘your husband’ (Belova 2000: 115). Consequently, vowel harmony does not occur at C1VC2VC3 + -V(C) contextual/syntagmatic level.

Vowel harmony in verbal domain

18Vowel harmony occurs if we have a high-pitched /u/ vowel in the root of the imperfective verb in Central Asian Arabic dialects.

19In Qashqadaria Arabic Dialect: yu-ktub ‘he writes’(masc. sing.), tu-ktub (III, fem. sing; II, masc. sing.), tu-ktubīn (II, fem. sing.), yu-ktubūn (III, masc. pl.) (Chikovani 2002: 104). In Bukharian Arabic: mu-tḫul ‘he enters’ (masc. sing.), tu-tḫul (III, fem. sing; II, masc. sing.), tu-tḫulīn (II, fem. sing.), nu-tḫul (I, pl.) etc. (Chikovani 2009: 40). Cf. ya-C1C2aC3, yu-C1C2uC3 and yi- C1C2iC3 forms in modern dialects (Monaham 2009: 677).


20Being of limited usage in old Arabic dialects, vowel harmony occurs in a much wider range of word-forms in modern dialects. As a rule, the quality of anaptyctic vowel is determined by its harmonization with stem vowel (vowel harmony achieved through assimilation).

21Vowel harmony is one of the major distinctive elements between old western and eastern Arabic dialects (Veersteegh 2014: 47-48). The phonetic quality of /i/ is harmonized in the Eastern dialects but not the Western dialects (Monaham 2009: 676). Vowel harmony was typical to the speech of Bedouins and, therefore, when attributing it to Huḏayl speech, they supposedly had in mind the nomadic clan that had residing in Nağd of this tribe and the territories adjacent to its borders. The same also applies to other Bedouin clans in the Hijaz and Yemen (al-Sharkawi 2008: 697).


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1 See Levin 2007 and Levin 2012.

2 Alfozan 1986.

3 Tsereteli 1970; Ahvlediani 1985.

4 Chikovani 2002; Chikovani 2007; Chikovani 2009.


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