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Are you interested in learning Arabic and its different dialects? Are you curious about the peculiarities of Arabic dialects? Here is a small interesting introduction to one of the most peculiar Arabic dialects: Tunisian Arabic!

What? Who? Where?

Tunisian Arabic is a Maghrebi Arabic dialect or variety that is spoken in the Republic of Tunisia, and it differs slightly from one region to another within the country. Tunisian Arabic, known as “Tounsi” /tu:nsi/ (which simply means Tunisian) or “Derja” (dialect) is spoken by more than 11 million people. It is remarkably different from Modern Standard Arabic, which is the official language of Tunisia. However, it is very close to Algerian Arabic and Libyan Arabic, maybe for geographical reasons as Tunisia is bordered by Algeria to the west and southwest and by Libya to the southeast. As a matter of fact, Tunisians living along the Algerian or Libyan borders tend to have a very close dialect and accent to Algerian Arabic or Libyan Arabic.

A Unique Vocabulary

The Tunisian dialect features Arabic vocabulary spiced with Berber and French words and phrases. It is also highly influenced by Latin languages such as Italian and Spanish, in addition to some Turkish loanwords. If you study Tunisian Arabic, you will definitely notice the heavy influence from foreign languages.

Here are some loanwords and their meanings:

Tunisian ArabicStandard ArabicOriginEnglish
بوسطاجي /bɒstæʒɪ/ساعي البريدTurkish “postacı”mail carrier
بانكا /bɑːnkæ/بنكItalian “banca”bank
راتصا /rɑːtsæ/عرق،نسلItalian “razza”race
برطمان /bɒrtmen/شقّةFrench “appartement”apartment
ترينو /tri:nu/قطارFrench “train”train
برنوس /bærnu:s/برنسBerber “abernus”burnous (cloak)
لاباس /lebes/جيّدBerber “labes“fine, good
بلاصة /blɑːsæ/مكانSpanish “plaza”place

Can Other Arabs Understand Tunisians?

The Tunisian dialect is easily understood by speakers of Maghrebi dialects but almost unintelligible to other Arabs, like those from the Middle East, for example. On the other hand, it is well-known that Tunisians understand almost all other Arabic dialects.

The Sounds of Tunisian Arabic

If we want to classify Arabic dialects by their resonance, we can describe the Tunisian dialect as being a rather harsh-sounding language—with a hard accent—in comparison to soft-sounding dialects like the Levantine ones. For instance, unlike other Arabs, Tunisians have retained all of the consonant sounds, including true emphatic (pharyngealized) consonants from Standard Arabic, for example:

ق /q/  

ذ /ð/     

ظ /Ẓā/ 

ث /θ/

which are not present in other dialects, such as Levantine Arabic. Here are some examples of pronunciation differences between the two dialects:

طريق / tˤriːq/طريأ /tæriːʔ/street
ثلج /θəlʒ/تلج /tælʒ/snow
أبيض /æbjædˤ/أبيد /æbjæd/white

Interestingly, Tunisian Arabic speakers not only use all the consonant sounds from Standard Arabic, but they also add other letters which do not exist in the Arabic Alphabet, such as the letter ڨ /g/ as in  ڨرط /gɒrt/, which means “hay”; and the letters ڥ  /v/ and پ /p/ for words borrowed from French, like “vitesse” (speed) and “portable” (mobile).

Evolution of a Dialect

It is important to note that Berbers were the first inhabitants of Tunisia, so their language is at the roots of the Tunisian dialect, which has been affected by local languages and dialects of all the other civilizations that have crossed this little country: Phoenician languages, Latin, which came with the Romans, Classical Arabic, brought by the Muslim conquest of the Maghreb during the 7th century, the Hilalian dialects that brought some noteworthy changes to the Tunisian dialect such as the replacement of the letter ق /q/ with the letter ڨ /g/ and is still used by many Tunisian people living in the northwest, the south, and in some rural areas. Then, there was Andalusian Arabic, which brought back the letter ق /q/ during the 15th century. And during the 17th and 19th centuries, Tunisian Arabic took many loanwords from the Spanish, Italian, and Turkish languages. But what has significantly influenced the Tunisian dialect, resulting in its heavy use of French loan words, is the French protectorate during the 19th and 20th centuries (1881-1956).

Dialects within the Dialect

Nowadays, we can subdivide Tunisian Arabic into:

  • Tunis dialect, considered the most “accurate” dialect
  • Sahel dialect, spoken by the inhabitants of the Sahel, in eastern Tunisia, and meaning by the “coast” or the “shore” of Tunisia like Sousse and Monastir cities
  • Northwestern dialect
  • Sfax dialect, based in the city of Sfax, Tunisia’s second biggest city after the capital Tunis
  • Southeastern dialect
  • Southwestern dialect.

Each of these dialects has its idiosyncratic features that distinguish it from other Tunisian dialects.

Here are the different pronunciations of the personal pronoun “I” أنا in various Tunisian dialects:

Standard ArabicTunis dialectSahel dialectSouthwestern dialect
أنا /anā/آنا /enæ/آني /enɪ/أنا /anā/

Some other words differ amusingly from one Tunisian dialect to another, like the word سبالة /sæbelæ/, which means a “faucet/tap” in the Tunis dialect, but becomes شيشمة /ʃiːʃmæ/ in the Sfax dialect.

Can Tunisians Understand Tunisians?

Tunisians do not always understand each other in some contexts, especially when a speak of the Tunis dialect meets someone from the south.

The Dialect and Attitudes

When texting each other, Tunisians tend to use a system of Latin letters more often than Arabic letters.

Tunisian Arabic is taught to foreigners and to other Arabs who are interested in this dialect and who find it completely different from other Arabic dialects such as Egyptian Arabic and Syrian Arabic.

Youth tend to make short films emphasizing the funny differences between Tunisian and other Arabic dialects. Nonetheless, Tunisians’ pride in their language’s origins is demonstrated by their willingness to preserve what remains of Berber culture, now only found in the south of the country, where Tunisians still speak in the Berber language and live in troglodytes (cave dwellings).

This significant diversification and multilingualism that Tunisia has undergone through ages has resulted in two contrasting consequences: On one hand, enrichment of Tunisian society and culture through valuing this diversity and attempting to enhance it; and on the other, regionalism based on the rejection of other Tunisian dialects and belittlement of their speakers, holding on to prejudices and disdain on the basis of slight linguistic differences.

This was only a brief introduction to the Tunisian dialect. I hope you have been inspired to learn Tunisian Arabic. There remain so many mysteries within its multilingual terms as well as more amusing cultural and social facts, which we will discover future blog posts. For now, I say to you “besslema”. Bye!

One Comment

  1. I always thought the Tunisian dialect was more soft than the other dialects due to the heavy amount of French used in the language. I love the variation of languages Incorporated in the Tunisian dialect but I love other dialects closer to the original MSA. Would love to know more about the Berber language. I’ve heard it referred to as barbarian multiple times by different speakers as well. Thanks for the read

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