Why phonetic transcription?

Why have I transcribed the Arabic words into Latin letters, rather than using the Arabic alphabet?

– The practical response is that most people wanting to look up a word they have heard will not necessarily read Arabic easily, and will find it easier to identify the word as it appears in “English” transcription. I do, however, recommend learning to read and write the elegant Arabic script, which will provide you with a vital stepping stone to (eventually) learning Standard Arabic.

– There is another, more scientific reason for preferring transcription: Arabic script suits the Standard Arabic language, with its comparatively limited range of sounds. The sounds of colloquial spoken Arabic are more plentiful, and more complex: its vowels are more numerous and more variable than those of Standard Arabic. When Arabs write colloquial Arabic (as they often do in captions to newspaper cartoons and in the “balloons” which emerge from the characters’ mouths) they do so in rather a hit-and-miss style. There are no rules which must be strictly adhered to, and so the reader has to be familiar with the particular dialect used in order to read the words exactly as they were intended to be read. Colloquial Arabic as written in Arabic script is an accepted form of shorthand which can be properly understood only by someone who already knows the spoken language well. “English” transcription, on the other hand (with the addition of a few diacritical signs), allows us to give the vowels their due and to depict the sounds of spoken Arabic with great precision. All books on Arabic dialects make use of transcription.


The Arabic language

Throughout the Arab world, Standard Arabic is the language used for all written texts, such as books, newspapers and correspondence, as well as for radio and television news bulletins. This form of Arabic is the same everywhere, from Morocco to the Persian Gulf.

For everyday verbal communication, on the other hand – in conversations at home or at work, in business transactions, television interviews, etc. – colloquial Arabic is used, and this varies from place to place. These local dialects may be very similar to one another ­Lebanese, Syrians, Jordanians and Palestinians all understand one another without much difficulty – or they may differ from country to country to the extent of being almost mutually unintelligible: an inhabitant of the eastern part of the Arab world won’t understand much of a conversation conducted in a western dialect such as Moroccan.

It is important to bear in mind that spoken Arabic, and its eastern dialects in particular, is no crude back-street slang with a limited vocabulary; it is the national means of daily communication, and its vocabulary extends to all areas of life. Although different from the written language, it borrows from Standard Arabic (SA) all the new words which modern life demands, and thus enriches itself constantly. This enrichment process takes place on a daily basis, as Arabic speakers absorb the language they hear from TV and radio hosts and the experts and celebrities they interview. Chat-show conversation is conducted in a mixture of the local dialect and modern vocabulary borrowed from written Arabic. Viewers take in these expressions unconsciously and use them later in their own speech.

Even though it is, of course, advisable to learn to read written Arabic, it is impossible to live in an Arab country and communicate with the population without knowledge of the local dialect, and this is why we need dictionaries of the spoken language.

Palestinian Arabic

The Arabic spoken in Israel and Palestine, and by the Palestinian diaspora in Lebanon, Syria and elsewhere, is an eastern dialect of Arabic which is understood throughout the Middle East. This dialect, no doubt because of its central geographical location, has several advantages over neighbouring dialects such as Lebanese, Syrian and Egyptian: in Palestinian the stress falls almost exactly as it does in classical Arabic (this is not the case with Egyptian dialect, for example), while the vowels are close to those of Standard Arabic, being more varied and more distinct than those of Lebanese or Syrian. In addition, the Palestinian vocabulary contains both words used in Egypt and words common in Lebanon and Syria, thus providing access to these neighbouring dialects, e.g., lissa/  baced still; bαrdo / kamān = also; zayy / mitel = as, like. From this brief survey it may be concluded that the study of Palestinian dialect provides an excellent basis for communication in Arabic throughout the Middle East.

Variation and regional differences

In this dictionary I have chosen urban speech as my standard, for several reasons: it is relatively uniform, it is the dialect normally heard in television interviews, for example, and it is what non-Arabs are expected to speak. Rural dialects differ from region to region, and the dialect of a specific village sounds odd when used indiscriminately by a non-Arab – unless, of course, he or she has developed close ties with that particular village. An informant of mine from ‘Umm il-Fahem who settled in Jerusalem made a very clear distinction between urban and rural dialect in a question she once asked me: “Do you want me to talk the way they do in town or the way we do in our village?” There is a lot of research to be done on regional and village dialects, but this does not fall within the scope of a book designed to help non-Arabs acquire the language. My aim is to equip students of Arabic with a fairly standard form of speech which will enable them to understand most of what they hear and to express themselves in an accent which will excite neither surprise nor ridicule. Nevertheless, I have included in the dictionary a number of words commonly used in rural areas, such as hān; hal-hīn (here; now). In Palestinian urban speech, too, there are regional differences, and a word or expression widely used in Jerusalem may not be understood in Nazareth, or vice-versa. Such words have been marked with a (J) for Jerusalem or a (G) for Galilee, or may be followed by the rather non-committal expression “in some areas”; this enables the reader to understand a word he may have heard in Tarshiha, for example, while at the same time warning him that if he uses it elsewhere he may not be understood.