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About Tunisian Arabic Language

Tunisian Arabic is a Maghrebi dialect of the Arabic language, spoken by some 11 million people. It is usually known by its own speakers as Darija, to distinguish it from Standard Arabic, or as Tunsi, which means Tunisian. It is spoken all over Tunisia, and merges, as part of a dialect continuum, into similar varieties in eastern Algeria and western Libya. Its morphology, syntax, pronunciation and vocabulary are quite different from Standard or Classical Arabic. Tunisian Arabic is readily understood by other Arabic-speaking North Africans such as Algerians, Libyans and Moroccans. Tunisian is also closely related to Maltese[1], which is not considered to be a dialect of Arabic for sociolinguistic reasons.

Almost all literate speakers of Tunisian also understand and can speak some Standard Arabic. Most Tunisians view Tunisian Arabic as a language in its own right, even though it's a corrupted form of Classical Arabic.


The major distinction within Tunisian Arabic is that between sedentary (mainly urban) and Bedouin-origin (rural) dialects (see Sedentary vs. Bedouin). Note that most speakers of these rural varieties are not actually nomadic. Sedentary varieties are spoken in large cities on or near the coast, such as Tunis, Bizerte, Nabeul, Hammamet, Sousse, Monastir, Mahdia, Kairouan, and Sfax, while the rest of the country to the west and south of this coastal strip uses rural varieties, including the towns of Gabès, Gafsa, Tozeur, El Kef and Béja. Rural dialects are also found in small villages not far from the centres of the urban dialects.

All the urban varieties use the voiceless uvular plosive the arabic /qa/ in words such as qal 'he said', while rural varieties have the voiced velar plosive /ɡa/ in such words ɡal 'he said'. Urban varieties also pronounce a final root vowel before another vowel, as in the word msha:u 'they went', while rural varieties delete this final vowel, giving mshu. Urban varieties also share with Maltese the distinction amongst Arabic dialects of not marking gender in the second person. The otherwise feminine inti is used to address men and women, much to the bemusement of other Arabic speakers, while in the verb no feminine marking is used. Rural dialects maintain the usual distinctions found in Arabic, whether standard or spoken.

There is further variation within both urban and rural dialects. For example, the dialect of Sfax maintains the diphthongs of Standard Arabic in words such as layl 'evening' (commonly pronounced as leel in other regions), a trait shared by Maltese and the traditional women's dialect of Tunis.

Domains of use

Tunisian Arabic has the role of the low variety in an example of classic diglossia, where Standard Arabic is the high variety. As such, the use of Tunisian is mainly restricted to spoken domains, though cartoons in newspapers may be written in it, and since the 1990s many advertising boards have their slogans (though not the name of the company) written in Tunisian.

The Berbers of the island of Jerba and the southern part of Tunisia speak Tunisian Arabic as a second language along with a Berber language called Shelha.

Literature in Tunisian Arabic

There are very few works of literature written in Tunisian Arabic. A large body of folk tales and folk poems existed in the past. This was mainly an oral tradition told by wandering storytellers and bards at marketplaces and festivals, but it has almost disappeared due to the widespread introduction of television and mass media in general. Notable examples of this folk literature are "El Jaziya El Hilaliya" and "Hkayet Ommi Sisi w'Dheeb". Most authors who write novels or short stories prefer to write in standard Arabic or in French. In some cases, the dialogue in a novel will be in Tunisian Arabic, but the main narrative will be in standard Arabic. An exception is Hedi Balegh, who has published collections of Tunisian proverbs and translated The Little Prince into Tunisian Arabic. Plays are almost always written in Tunisian Arabic, except when they are placed in a historical setting. The lyrics to folk and popular music are usually in Tunisian Arabic. Newspapers and magazines are printed either in standard French or standard Arabic. Television newscasts and documentaries are broadcast in standard Arabic, while locally-produced soap operas, sitcoms and movies are usually delivered in Tunisian.


The most immediately apparent difference between Tunisian and standard Arabic is the extensive use of words borrowed from Italian, Spanish, French, Punic, Berber and Turkish. For example: Electricity is kahrabaːʔ in standard Arabic. It is trisiti in Tunisian (a word mainly used by older people), from the French électricité (though karahbaːʔ is used for "car"). Other loans from French include burtma:n 'apartment', and bjaːsa 'coin', from pièce. Kitchen is matbax in standard Arabic, but is kuʒiːna in Tunisian, from the Italian word cucina. Shoe is hiðaːʔ in standard Arabic and is sˤabbaːt in Tunisian, either from the Spanish word zapato or Turkish zabata. There are also various loans from Berber, such as ʃlaːɣim 'moustache' and fakruːn 'tortoise', and from Turkish, such as baːlik, 'perhaps', baɾʃa 'very, much', and ɡaːwri (Gavur) 'European', as well as the suffix of occupation ʒi as in bustaːʒi (postacı) 'postman' and kawwarʒi 'footballer'.

These loans are not to be confused with the actual use of French words or sentences in everyday speech by Tunisians (codeswitching), which is common in business environments. However, many French words are used within Tunisian Arabic discourse, without being adapted to Tunisian phonology, apart from the French 'r' [ʁ] which is often replaced, especially by men, with [r] (Jabeur 1987). For example, many Tunisians, when asking "How are you doing?" will use the French "ça va?" instead of, and in addition to the Tunisian ʃnija ħwaːlik. It is difficult in this case to establish whether this is an example of using French or borrowing.

However, the greatest number of differences between Tunisian and Standard Arabic are not due to borrowing from another language, but due to shift in meaning of an Arabic root, as well as some neologisms. Almost all question words fall into the latter category: compare Tunisian ʃnuwwa and aːʃ 'what' with Arabic maːða, waqtaːʃ 'when' with mataː, ʃkuːn 'who' with man and ʕalaːʃ 'why' with limaːða. Shifts in meaning are demonstrated by roots such as xdm which means 'work' in Tunisian and 'serve' in Arabic, ʕml which is narrowed to 'do', and cannot mean 'work' as in Arabic, and mʃj which has broadened to 'go' from 'walk'.


There are several differences in pronunciation between Standard Arabic and Tunisian. Short vowels are frequently omitted, especially where they would occur as the final element of an open syllable. This was probably encouraged by the Berber substratum. For example, /kataba/ he wrote in standard Arabic becomes /ktib/. /katabat/ she wrote in standard Arabic becomes /kitbit/. Regular verbs exhibit this shifting of the vowel in their conjugation, and it also occurs in nouns: /dbiʃ/ stuff /dibʃi/ my stuff.


Tunisian Arabic, like many other North African varieties, has a very different syllable structure from Standard Arabic. While Standard Arabic can have only one consonant at the beginning of a syllable, after which a vowel must follow, Tunisian commonly has two consonants in the onset. For example Standard Arabic book is /kitaːb/, while in Tunisian it is /ktaːb/. The nucleus may contain a short or long vowel, and at the end of the syllable, in the coda, it may have up to three consonants, e.g. /ma dxaltʃ/ I did not enter; Standard Arabic can have no more than two consonants in this position. Word-internal syllables are generally heavy in that they either have a long vowel in the nucleus or consonant in the coda. Non-final syllables composed of just a consonant and a short vowel (i.e. light syllables) are very rare, and are generally loans from Standard Arabic: short vowels in this position have generally been lost, resulting in the many initial CC clusters. For example /ʒawaːb/ reply is a loan from Standard Arabic, but the same word has the natural development /ʒwaːb/, which is the usual word for letter.

Verb conjugation

There are significant differences in morphology between Tunisian and Standard Arabic. Standard Arabic marks 13 person/number/gender distinctions in the verbal paradigm, whereas the dialect of Tunis marks only seven (the gender distinction is found only in the third person singular). Rural or Bedouin-origin dialects in the interior also mark gender in the second person singular, in common with most spoken varieties of Arabic elsewhere in the Arabic world.


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