Neha Patil (Editor)

Libyan Arabic

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Pronunciation  [ˈliːbi]
ISO 639-3  ayl
Writing system  Arabic alphabet
Libyan Arabic
Native to  Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, Egypt, Niger, Chad
Native speakers  4 million in Libya (2006) 320,000 in Egypt (2002), 5,000 in Niger (1998)
Language family  Afro-Asiatic Semitic Central Semitic Arabic Maghrebi Arabic Libyan Arabic

Libyan Arabic (Arabic: ليبي‎‎ Lībi; also known as Sulaimitian Arabic) is a variety of Arabic spoken in Libya and neighboring countries. It can be divided into two major dialect areas; the eastern centred in Benghazi and Bayda, and the western centred in Tripoli and Misrata. The eastern variety extends beyond the borders to the east into western Egypt. A distinctive southern variety, centered on Sabha, also exists and is more akin to the western variety.


Note on transcription notation

The transcription of Libyan Arabic into Latin script poses a few problems. First, there is not one standard transcription in use even for Standard Arabic. The use of IPA alone is not sufficient as it obscures some points that can be better understood if several different allophones in Libyan Arabic are transcribed using the same symbol. On the other hand, Standard Arabic transcription schemes, while providing good support for representing Arabic sounds that are not normally represented by the Latin script, do not list symbols for other sounds found in Libyan Arabic. Therefore, to make this article more legible, DIN 31635 is used with a few additions to render phonemes particular to Libyan Arabic. These additions are as follow:


Two major historical events have shaped the Libyan dialect: the Hilalian-Sulaimi migration, and the migration of Arabs from Muslim Spain to North Africa following the reconquista. Libyan Arabic has also been influenced by Italian, and to a lesser extent by Turkish. A Berber substratum also exists.

Domains of use

The Libyan dialect is used predominantly in spoken communication in Libya. It is also used in Libyan folk poetry, TV dramas and comedies, songs, as well as in cartoons. Libyan Arabic is also used as a lingua franca by non-Arab Libyans whose mother tongue is not Arabic. Libyan Arabic is not normally written, as the written register is normally Modern Standard Arabic, but Libyan Arabic is the main language for cartoonists, and the only suitable language for writing Libyan folk poetry. It is also written in internet forums, emails and in instant messaging applications.


As is the case with all Bedouin dialects, the /q/ sound of literary Arabic is realized as a [ɡ], except in words recently borrowed from literary Arabic.

The following table shows the consonants used in Libyan Arabic. Note: some sounds occur in certain regional varieties while being completely absent in others.

In western dialects, the interdental fricatives /θ ð ðˤ/ have merged with the corresponding dental stops /t d dˤ/. Eastern dialects generally still distinguish the two sets, but there is a tendency to replace /dˤ/ with /ðˤ/.

The e and o vowels exist only in long form. This can be explained by the fact that these vowels were originally diphthongs in Classical Arabic with /eː/ replacing /ai/ and /oː/ replacing /au/. In some eastern varieties, however, the classical /ai/ has changed to /ei/ and /au/ to /ou/.

Libyan Arabic has at least three clicks, which are used interjectionally, a trait shared with the Bedouin dialects of central Arabia. The first is used for affirmative responses and is generally considered very casual and sometimes associated with low social status. The second is a dental click and used for negative responses and is similar to the English 'tut'. The third is a palatal click used exclusively by women having a meaning close to that of the English word 'alas'.

Syllable structure

Although Western Libyan Arabic allows for the following syllable structure to occur.

syllable: C1(C2)V1(V2)(C3)(C4) (C = consonant, V = vowel, optional components are in parentheses.)

An anaptyctic [ə] is inserted between C3 and C4 to ease pronunciation, changing the structure above into the following.


On the other hand, Eastern Libyan always has an anaptyctic ə between C1 and C2 in the following manner.



Most of the vocabulary in Libyan Arabic is of Classical Arabic origin, usually with a modified interconsonantal vowel structure. Many Italian loanwords also exist, in addition to Turkish, Berber, Spanish, and English words.

Relation to Classical Arabic vocabulary

The bulk of vocabulary in Libyan Arabic has the same meaning as in Classical Arabic. However, many words have different but related meanings to those of Classical Arabic. The following table serves to illustrate this relation. The past tense is used in the case of verbs as it is more distinctive and has been traditionally used in Arabic lexicons. Canonically, these verbs are pronounced with the final 'a' (marker of the past tense in Classical Arabic). This notation is preserved the table below. However, the relation between Libyan and Classical Arabic verbs can be better understood if the final 'a' is dropped, in accordance with the elision rule of pre-pause vowels of Classical Arabic.

1. Western Libyan pronunciation is used in the above table.

Italian loanwords

Italian loanwords exist mainly, but not exclusively, as a technical jargon. For example, machinery parts, workshop tools, electrical supplies, names of fish species, etc.

Turkish loanwords

Turkish words were borrowed during the Ottoman era of Libya. Words of Turkish origin are not as common as Italian ones.

Berber loanwords

Before the mass Arabization of what corresponds to modern-day Libya, Berber was the native language for most people. This led to the borrowing of a number of Berber words in Libyan Arabic. Many Berber-speaking people continue to live in Libya today but it is not clear to what extent Berber language continues to influence Libyan Arabic.


Libyan Arabic shares the feature of the first person singular initial n- with the rest of the Maghrebi Arabic dialect continuum to which it belongs. Like other colloquial Arabic dialects, Libyan does not mark grammatical cases by declension. However, it has a rich verbal conjugation structure.


Nouns in Libyan Arabic are marked for two genders (masculine and feminine) and three numbers (singular, dual and plural). Paucal number also exists for some nouns. The diminutive is also still widely used productively (especially by women) to add an endearing or an empathetic connotation to the original noun. As in Classical Arabic, rules for the diminutive formation are based on vowel apophony.

Indefiniteness is not marked. Definite nouns are marked using the same Classical Arabic definite article al but with somewhat different rules of pronunciation:

  • For nouns beginning with Qamari letters, the definite article is pronounced either [l], for words with an initial single consonant onset, or [lə], for words with a double consonant onset. Except for the letter j /ʒ/, Qamari letters in Libyan Arabic are the same as in Classical Arabic even for letters that have become different phonemes such as q changing to g. The letter j /ʒ/, which corresponds to the Classical Arabic phoneme /dʒ/ has changed from a Qamari letter to a Shamsi letter.
  • For nouns beginning with Shamsi letters, which, in Libyan Arabic, include the letter j /ʒ/, the definite article is pronounced [ə], with the first consonant geminated.
  • Dual

    While marking verbs for the dual number has been lost completely in Libyan Arabic (like other Arabic dialects), nouns have a specialized dual number form. However, in Eastern Libyan it tends to be more widespread.


    Various sets of demonstratives exist in Libyan Arabic. Following is a list of some of these. Note that the grouping in columns does not necessarily reflect grouping in reality:


    Similar to Classical Arabic stem formation is an important morphological aspect of Libyan Arabic. However, stems III and X are unproductive whereas stems IV and IX do not exist. The following table shows Classical Arabic stems and their Libyan Arabic counterparts.

    Tripoli dialect is used in the table above


    Like Classical Arabic and other Arabic dialects, Libyan Arabic distinguishes between two main categories of roots: strong roots (those that do not have vowels or hamza) and weak roots.

    Conjugation of strong roots

    Strong roots follow more predictable rules of conjugation, and they can be classified into three categories for Stem I in Western Libyan Arabic:

  • i-verbs (e.g. k-t-b to write) follow an interconsonantal vowel structure that is predominated by an i (normally pronounced [ə])
  • a-verbs (e.g. r-k-b to mount, to ascend) follow an interconsonantal vowel structure that is predominated by an a
  • u-verbs (e.g. r-g-ṣ to dance) follow an interconsonantal vowel structure that is predominated by an u
  • Note that this classification is not always strictly followed. For example, the thirrd person femunine past of the root r-g-d, which is a u-verb, is usually pronounced [rəɡdət], instead of [ruɡdət]. Also, a-verbs and u-verbs follow the same rules in the past conjugation.

    1. The i in an i-verb is usually pronounced [ə].
    2. In roots with initial uvular, pharyngeal and glottal phonemes (χ ħ h ʁ ʕ ʔ but not q), i in the present and imperative is pronounced [e]. For example, the root ʁ-l-b (to overcome) is conjugated as jeʁləb, teʁləb, etc.

    1.Realized variously as a and ɑ depending on the consonant structure of the word.

    1. In roots with initial uvular, pharyngeal or glottal phonemes (χ ħ h ʁ ʕ ʔ but not q), u, in the present and the imperative, is realised by o. For example, the root ʁ-r-f (to scoop up) is conjugated as joʁrəf, toʁrəf, etc.

    Conjugation in the Eastern Libyan Arabic is more fine grained, yielding a richer structure.

    Future tense

    Future in Libyan Arabic is formed by prefixing an initial bi, usually contracted to b, to the present tense conjugation. Thus, 'tiktəb' (she writes) becomes 'btiktəb' (she will write). It should not be confused with the indicative marker common in some Eastern Arabic varieties.

    Intelligibility with other varieties of Arabic

    Libyan Arabic is highly intelligible to Tunisians and to a good extent to eastern Algerians. However, for most eastern Arabic speakers, including Egyptians, it can be difficult to understand and requires some adaptation.

    Libyans usually have to substitute some Libyan Arabic words to make themselves understood to other Arabic speakers, especially Middle Easterners. Substitute words are usually borrowed from Modern Standard or Egyptian Arabic. The following table shows some of the commonly replaced words:

    Generally, all Italian and to some extent Turkish loanwords are substituted.

    It should be noted, however, that if a word is replaced, it does not mean that it is exclusively Libyan. The situation sometimes arises because the speaker mistakenly guesses that the word does not exist in the hearer's dialect. For example, the word zarda (feast, picnic) has close variants in other Maghrebi dialects but is usually substituted in Maghrebi contexts because most speakers do not know that such variants exist.

    Pidgin Libyan Arabic

    Pidgin Libyan exists in Libya as a contact language used by non-Arabs, mostly Saharan and sub-Saharan Africans living in Libya. Like other pidgins, it has a simplified structure and limited expressive power.


    Libyan Arabic Wikipedia