If you’ve already learnt the basics of fuSHa – as most Arabic learners who start studying dialect have – then you already have a decent basis from which to approach colloquial Levantine (Shami). In many respects Levantine is closer to fuSHa than other dialects – the stress system is very similar, the sound systems are close to one another and there often isn’t that much difference between a Levantine word and its fuSHa equivalent.
That said, the common method of teaching colloquial – as a set of transformational rules to turn a fuSHa word/sentence into its spoken equivalent – is pretty ham-fisted, and ignores the fact that spoken Arabic, despite what native speakers might tell you, has its own internally coherent structure and set of rules. Here I’m going to try and present a series of lessons with the absolute basics for moving from fuSHa to Levantine, explaining the difference in sounds, basic words, and grammatical structure. Today we’ll start with sounds.
This series will be based on Damascene Arabic and we won’t worry too much about dialectal variation, except where southern Levantine (Jordanian/Palestinian) or Lebanese (Beiruti) differ significantly.
Most of the Arabic consonants are pronounced basically the same in Shami as in newsreader-style MSA, but just to showcase the transliteration (based on the arabizi sometimes used on phones) we’ll list them all here:
و w (when a consonant)
ي y (when a consonant)
You should be aware of the following sounds:
ث usually transliterated and pronounced as s in more common words.
In higher-register words like ثقافه saqaafe ‘culture’ or ثورة sawra ‘revolution’ some speakers may have th (as in English thin) as in fuSHa. This seems to be more common in southern Levantine than in northern Levantine – many Syrians cannot pronounce ث consistently as th and even when reading fuSHa will pronounce it as s.
Note that a lot of common words which have ث in fuSHa have a ت t instead in colloquial: تلاته tlaate ‘three’, تنين tneen ‘two’, بعت ba3at ‘he sent’ – but this is not a rule you can generalise to just any word (حديث 7adiis ‘conversation’).
ذ usually transliterated and pronounced as z in more common words.
In higher-register words like ذهب zahab ‘to go’ some speakers may have dh (as in English that) as in fuSHa. This seems to be more common in southern Levantine than in northern Levantine – many Syrians cannot pronounce ذ consistently as dh and even when reading fuSHa will pronounce it as z.
As with ث, a lot of common words which have ذ in fuSHa have a د d instead in colloquial: داق daa2 ‘he tasted’, داب daab ‘it melted’, بولاد buulaad ‘steel’. This is not a rule you can generalise to all words however (ذوق zoo2 ‘taste’, حبذ 7abbaz ‘he was in favour of’).
ح 7 – Generally pronounced as in fuSHa, but in Syrian is sometimes not pronounced word-finally in a few common words.
ج j – generally pronounced as in English pleasure in northern Levantine and as in English jam in southern Levantine.
ض D – in Levantine this is the emphatic equivalent of د, pronounced velarised (with the back of your tongue raised). This is probably the pronunciation you were taught in fuSHa, but if your teacher was Iraqi you may have learnt to pronounce it as an emphatic version of ذ dh instead.
Note that there are a few words which have ض in fuSHa which have an emphatic Z (ظ) in colloquial, at least for some speakers: ظابط ZaabeT ‘officer’, بالظبط biZZab@T ‘exactly’.
Especially in Lebanese but to some extent elsewhere, some words with ض may actually be pronounced د.
ص S and ط T: Pronounced as in fuSHa with the back of the tongue raised. As with D these sounds are a bit confused with س and ت and some words appear with both in different areas or by different people (سفّط سفّت saffaT/saffat ‘line up’, فقص فقس fa2aS/fa2as ‘hatch’). The most common word like this is صدّق sadda2 ‘believe’, which is usually spelt as in fuSHa but pronounced with a normal s.
Z – depending on who taught you, you may have learnt the Levantine pronunciation in fuSHa – that is, as an emphatic version of z. If, however, you learnt this sound as an emphatic version of ذ – a more prestigious fuSHa pronunciation – you should change it to Z in Levantine.
There are a number of words with ظ in fuSHa which instead have ض in Levantine: ضل Dall ‘he stayed’, الضهر éDDahr ‘noon’, ضفر Défr ‘fingernail’. But this is not a rule that can be generalised to all words: الظاهر éZZaaher ‘it seems’, ظريف Zariif ‘nice’.
ق q – Probably the most well-known ‘transformation’ from fuSHa to colloquial is the change of q to a glottal stop 2. Generally speaking, most more colloquial words undergo this change: بقي bé2i ‘it remained’, داق daa2 ‘he tasted’, قال 2aal ‘he said’.
However, many words – especially higher-register ones – retain their q sound: ثقافة saqaafe ‘culture’, مقالة maqaale ‘article’. There are some more common words that typically retain ق too: wéqe7 ‘rude’. (In Lebanese all q can become a glottal stop, however).
The glottal stop pronunciation is probably the most sensible for non-native speakers to adopt in any country. Although regional dialects exist which have q, g, or even k instead of a glottal stop, they are relatively marked. The one exception to this might be Jordan, where men studying Arabic might be expected to use g in at least some situations (here is an article discussing the sociolinguistic complexity of the situation in Jordan).
ل l – Generally pronounced as in fuSHa. In a few words, particularly الله and its derivations, l is pronounced emphatic/velarised (with the back of the tongue raised).
ء 2 – Pronounced as in fuSHa as a glottal stop. However, most fuSHa hamzas have no equivalent in colloquial, being dropped and replaced by vowel lengthening or just going missing entirely.
Where the hamza appears in conjugation patterns as a stand-in for vowels, they tend to be replaced by semivowels consistently, as in the active participle pattern faa2il (for hollow verbs), which in colloquial is replaced by faayil: دايق daaye2 ‘having tasted’, سايق saaye2 ‘driving’.
Initial consonant clusters
Shami allows lots of consonant clusters that fuSHa does not, especially word initially (where fuSHa has none):
كلاب klaab ‘dogs’
صحون SHuun ‘dishes’
صغار Sghaar ‘little kids’
ضروب Droob ‘hit (it)’
It is often the case in common words (and patterns) that where fusha has an a- prefix or an unstressed short i/u in the first syllable, this will be dropped if it results in a cluster of only two consonants (so أولاد becomes wlaad, حدود becomes 7duud etc). But this is again not a generalisable rule to all words and you should be careful not to over-Shamify higher register words!