On Syllabication, Stress and Intonation in an Urban Arabic Dialect Noureddine Guella

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On Syllabication, Stress and Intonation in an Urban Arabic Dialect

Noureddine Guella

Associate Professor, Department of European Languages and Translation,

College of Languages and Translation (C.O.L.T.),

King Saud University, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

Abstract. This paper sets out to describe some of the most salient features that characterize an urban Arabic dialect in the related areas of syllabication, stress and intonation. In syllabication, it shows that the dialect has retained most of the classical syllable structures. In contrast, it shows at least one important alternation of syllable constitution unknown in the classical prototype. In the section devoted to stress, the major stress patterns and rules governing the dialect are briefly exhibited and exemplified. Finally, the section on intonation offers a comparative approach of the intonation contours of various utterances and shows the function of these intonation patterns.

This study is based largely on a linguistic investigation of the Algerian Arabic dialect of Nédroma, a pre-colonial urban town situated in the northwestern part of Algeria, not very far from Tlemcen, with whose dialect it shares most of the described features. The study is meant to provide a good deal of genuine data for comparative studies in the field of Arabic dialectology, and will certainly contribute to the making of the long-awaited linguistic atlas for the Arab world.

The symbols used here are largely those provided by the International Phonetic Alphabet, although for typological reasons other symbols are resorted to. For example, the emphatic consonants will be represented by capital letters. The short, central vowel often referred to as 'schwa', and much in use in many dialectal descriptions, is here replaced by [^] to render a more accurate phonetic description deemed useful for this kind of study.

1. The syllable

In his historically richly documented article "la syllabe, sa nature, son origine et ses transformations", B. Hála (1961, 69-143) thinks that the syllable constitutes "l'unité fondamentale du point de vue phonétique" and its structure may also have "des propriétés dites 'phonologiques'"(96). It is formed by a succession of stricture and aperture (and eventually another stricture). Stricture is formed by consonants (C) and aperture by vowels (V). The so-called syllabic consonants functioning as centres do not apply in the dialect under study. Vowels are the primary elements and their characteristic aperture is the centre of the syllable and carries its prominence, as least as far as the isolated syllable is concerned. The initial and final strictures may be formed by two consonants. The syllable then represents "une entité linguistique complexe, formée de phonèmes" (113). One of its functions is to describe and explain the constraints on sequences of these phonemes, i.e. the sequence of C's and V's. One way of doing this is by setting up a syllable structure, thus making the problem of syllable-boundaries division less difficult.

  1. Closed vs. Open syllables

Syllables that end in one or more consonants are termed "closed syllables", and those that end in a vowel "open syllables". Moreover, for the sake of convenience, a closed syllable containing a short vowel will be termed a "short closed syllable", and an open syllable with a short vowel a "short open syllable". Conversely, a closed syllable containing a long vowel will be referred to as a "long closed syllable", whereas an open syllable with a long vowel will be termed a "long open syllable".
3. C - V combination structures.

In the dialect under study, and in terms of the consonant (C) and vowel (V) combination, the following structures are exhibited by the four above-quoted types of syllable:

  1. Short Closed VC; VCC; CVC; CVCC; CCVC; CCVCC.

  2. Short Open : V; CV; CCV.

  3. Long Closed : CV:C; CCV:C; CV:CC.

  4. Long Open : CV:; CCV:.

The combinations of structures that are not applicable, especially the long open syllables in final position in a word, are discarded. The following structures may thus be exhibited.

    1. Short Closed + Short Closed

- - VCC ^l-^sm

-CVC ^x-læς ; ^ b-læς

(1) VC - + -CVCC ^l-f^rd

-CCVC ^z-zl^q ; ^l-ςž^l

-CCVCC ^l-mh^dd;
The only restriction is the combination of structures VC- + -VC.

VCC - - VC

(2) CVCC - + - CVC


In (2) above, and after VCC-, CVCC-, and CCVCC- (which all end in a cluster of two consonants), the following syllable must not start with a consonant cluster. E.g.:

^sm-^k ; k^lb-^k ; sm^ςt-^k ;

^sm-kum ; k^lb-kum ; sm^ςt-kum

^sm-fiςl ; (mæ)-d^rt-l^kš ; (mæ)-sm^ςt-l^kš.
- CVC f^l-f^l

- CVCC mæ- s^m- ςætš

(3) CVC- + - CCVC m^r-md^t

- CCVCC mæ m^r-md^tš

The restriction in (3) above is that after CVC-, the following syllable must start with a short vowel.

- CVC kt^b -l^k

(4) CCVC - +

- CVCC mæ- kt^b -l^kš
After CCVC, the following syllable must start neither with a short vowel (cf. also CVC in (3) above) nor with a consonant cluster (cf. also the first syllables in combination with (2) above).
3.2. Short Closed + Short Open
VC - ^l-mæ

CVC - t^l-wæ ; b^Rma

(5) CCVC - + - CV xlæς -ni

CVCC - k^lb-hæ

CCVCC- mlæς b -næ
The first three structures in (5) above also occur as first syllables with the short open /-CCV/.
VC - ^l-hwæ ; ^d-dræ

(6) CVC- + -CCV q^r-qra ; b^l-γlæ

CCVC- mf^n-zræ; mt^r-bqæ; mgæς-mzæ

    1. Short Closed + Long Closed

VC- ^l-fæ:l ; ^l-mæ:l

CVC- q^r-dæ:š ; w^s-wæ:s ; b^r-qu:q

(7) CVCC- + -CV:C m^rz-qæ:n

CCVC- xlæς-næ:k
The first two structures in (7) above also occur before the long closed /-CCV:C/ :

VC- ^l-hwæ:s

(8) + -CCV:C

CVC- q^r-qra:t

    1. Short Open + Long Closed

-CV:C li-sæ:n ; mi-θæ:q ; kæ-nu:n

(9) CV- + -CV:CC mæ-kæ:nš ; mæ -fæ :qš - -CCV:C š^-bkæ:t ; f^ š fæ :š ;


-CV:C qfæ-læ:t ; brakæ:t ; bni-tæ:t

(10) CCV +

-CCV:C kwi-tra:t ; snislæ:t ; tfi fħæ:t

    1. Long Closed + Short Closed ; and Long Closed + Short Open

The combinations of the structures in (e) above may be summarized as follows: a closed syllable containing a long vowel may be followed by either a short closed or a short open syllable neither of which must start or end (or both) with a consonant cluster of any form. Thus (11) below:


(11) CV:CC + -CVC

Eg: fæ:t-^k; žæ:b-l^k ; fæ:t-ni ; ka:rh-^k; qæ:bl-^k; ktæ:b-^k; qri:b-l^k; ktæ:b-næ

Short Closed

3.6. Long Open +

Short Open

After a long open syllable, the following syllable may be either a short closed or a short open one, and must not be vowel- initial.





(12) -CCVCC


Examples: / qæ:b^l/; /sæ:m^ħt; /tsæ:m^ħt/; /tsæ:mħ^t/; /(mæ)-sæ:mħ^tš/; /(mæ)-tsæ:mħ^tš/; /ži:næ/; /kli:næ/; /mæ:klæ/; /sni:slæ/.
Finally, it should be noted that an important alternation of syllable constitution affects CCVC forms : these forms become of CVCC structure when they are followed by vowel-initial suffixes. The phenomenon, which is not automatic and not general, is known as "ressaut" in the French literature (cf. W. Marçais, 1902:51 ff.) and is schematized as follows:
CCVC → CVCC + Vowel-initial suffixes
Examples: Verbs: /br^d/ 'it cooled' → /b^rd-^t/ 'she became cold'

/lςæb/ 'he played' → /læςb-u/ 'they played'

Nouns: /tb^n/ 'straw' → /t^bn-i/ 'my straw'

/rž^l/ 'foot' → /r^žl-u/ 'his foot'

Others: /qb^l/ 'before' → /q^bl-i/ 'before me'

/zr^q/ 'blue (masc.sg.) → /z^rq-æ/ 'blue (fem.sg.)

The auditory dimensions of a stressed syllable are perceived loudness and a higher pitch than its adjacent syllables. These dimensions are correlated by a greater muscular activity of the organs of articulation, especially the tongue and the lips.
The stress patterns in the dialect under study are governed by the following general rules.

  1. For all verbal forms in the imperative, the stress is always on the first syllable, whatever the structure of the following syllable. E.g.:

' ^s-suktu Be quiet! (pl.)

' ^n-xælςu Be frightened! (pl.)

'^s-tæςžeb Be surprised! (sg.)

  1. (a) In all other forms, verbal, nominal and other, the stress is taken by the long syllable (closed or open) whatever its position in the word. E.g.:

m^š 'du:d tied (up) (masc. Sg.)

'šæ: f^k he saw you (sg.)

'žæ:b-lek he brought to you (sg.)

m'li:ħæ good, nice (fem. sg.)

m^t 'fæ:r^q separated (masc. sg.)

m^t 'fæ:h^m understanding, agreed (masc. sg.)

m^št^r'ki:n sharing, partners (masc. pl.)

mk^m 'li:n (having) finished (masc. pl.)

(b) In the event of there being two long syllables in the same word, the first long syllable sequentially (i.e. from the left) takes primary stress (the other takes secondary stress, not represented here). E.g.:
m^š'du:di:n tied up (masc. pl.)

m^x'lu:ςi:n surprised, stunned (masc. pl.)

m'sæ:mħæ:t forgiving, forgiven (fem. pl.)

  1. When a word consists of two (or more) short syllables, the stress falls on the penultimate syllable. E.g.:

'f^lf^l pepper

^l-'f^lf^l the pepper

s^m'ςætnæ she heard us

t^q'lebkum she will overturn you (pl.)

^l-'k^lwæ the kidney

'ql^bkum he overturned you (pl.)
The two main exceptions to rule (3.) above are:

    1. the imperative forms of all verbs, where the stress ia always on the first syllable (cf. Rule (1.) above);

3.2. the two-syllable forms in the perfective paradigms of the derived forms containing geminated consonants in their patterns (generally C1VC2C2V(C3)), and those containing a prefix [en] or an infix [t]. these derived forms, especially II, VII and VIII, generally express the causative, the passive or the reflexive of the simple forms. In fact, as with the forms affected by the phenomenon of "ressaut", these derived forms keep the stress on the originally (i.e. simple form) stressed syllable. The following exemplify the three derived forms (F) mentioned above of the regular (R), the geminated (G), the assimilated (A), the hollow (H) and the defective (D) verbs.
(Note: the notational abbreviations which precede the actual examples should be read as follows:

- F II R : means that the word is an example of Form II of the Regular verb;

- F VII D: means that the word is an example of Form VII of the Defective verb; etc.)
F II R : x^s's^r ; k^d'd^b

F II G : x^m'm^m ; ħ^f'f^f

F II A : w^l'l^f ; w^q'q^f

F II H : f^w'w^t ; š^w'w^f ; t^j'j^r

F II D : n^s'sæ ; ς^r'ræ ; γ^t'ta

F VII R : ^nx't^f ; ^nx'l^q

F VII G : ^n'š^qq ; ^n'd^ll

F VII A : ^nw'z^n ; ^nw'r^d

F VII D : ^n'ςmæ ; ^n'qlæ

F VIII R: ^ft'r^q ; ^nt'fæx

F VIII G: ^m't^dd

F VIII D: ^rt'xæ


Intonation may be broadly defined as the patterns of fluctuation of pitches that characterize a particular language, thus forming a "special phonological system" (Daneš, 1960:34).

In what follows, and technically speaking, the procedure is auditory. Methodologically speaking, the approach will be of a comparison of the intonation contours of various utterances and of an exhibition of the functions of these intonation patterns.
The function of intonation is not syntactic, i.e. the intonation patterns are not used to distinguish between grammatical structures. Intonation, however, has various functions some of which are basic or primary and others facultative or secondary. Its most important primary functions are:

  1. delimitation of the parts of speech (which may correspond to syntactic types or units): the points of delimitation, however, are determined by the speaker's desire or ability to lump stretches of speech together as 'wholes' in the complete utterance; this further depends on the "relation of the listener to the utterance" (Daneš, 1960:42) ;

  2. the theme-rheme organization or integration, the principle of which suggests that the element introducing new information (the rheme) is more likely to bear a tonic or nuclear accent than what is already known from the situation or from the previous utterance (i.e., the theme). Among the secondary functions of intonation, the most important one is that of characterizing the utterance "according to its intention" (op.cit.p.48).

  1. Theme-Rheme Organization

To illustrate the theme-rheme organization of utterances, the following examples may be cited. (Underscoring represents tonic accent).
(i) æ:næ qut'lek mæ txab'ru:š (I told you not to inform him)

The utterance has a neutral, normal shape; the centre of intonation is in its automatic position.

(ii) æ:næ qut'lek mæ txab'ru:š (mæ:ši mæ txam'ru:š )

(I told you not to inform him) (and not not to get him drunk)

The centre of intonation with the final contour is located on the rheme which is here a rheme emphasized for contrast. Emphasis for contrast is "intended to show that a word is contrasted with another (…) or that a word introduces a new and unexpected idea" (D. Jones, 1960:227). Here word-order may be used in the theme-rheme organization. E.g.:

mæ txab'ru:š qutlek (Don't inform him, I told you)
(iii) æ:næ qutlek mæ txab'ru:š ( I told you not to inform him )

Here the centre of intonation is in a de-automatized position; it is carried by [æ:næ] 'I' which is emphasized for contrast.

(iv) (æ:næ) qutlek li:k mæ txabru:š (mæ:ši li:ha)

( I told you [not her] not to inform him)

Here again, the situation is similar to (iii) above, except that here the centre of intonation is carried by [li:k] ; the latter is in fact brought in to emphasize the pronoun [-ek] which is unstressed in that position.

  1. Utterance Intention

As stated earlier, characterizing an utterance according to its intention is one of the most important secondary functions of intonation. The intention of the utterance will be mainly embodied in statements or in questions and commands. The utterances will be given intonation contours which may be defined as "abstracted characteristic sentence melodies" (cf. K.L. Pike, 1945:20). The contours will be specified by their features (e.g., rising, falling) and according to the functions performed by intonation in the urban dialect under study.

    1. Statements

Statements may be said to be "communication proper" (Daneš, 1960:49). They are characterized in the dialect under study by a falling intonation pattern which extends over the various syllables of the tone group. E.g.:

(a) žamæ:l ra:h ^j'ςæ:wen j^m'mæ:h (Jamal is helping his mother)

The last stressed syllable in the tone group (i.e. the long syllable in [j^m'mæ:h]) is the tonic syllable. However, in (b) below,

(b) žamæ:l ra:h ^j'ςæ:wen j^m'mæ:h

the tonic syllable is the penultimate stressed one; the pitch changes that start on it are slowly carried over the following syllables. The same utterance as in (a) and (b) above may exceptionally be split into four separate tone groups , especially if it was spoken slowly and emphatically, so that it may represented in (c) below. The beginning of a new tone group is marked by // ).

(c ) žamæ:l // ra:h // ^j'ςæ:wen // j^m'mæ:h

    1. Commands and Questions

Both commands and questions may be said to be "communication with an appeal"(Daneš, op.cit).

2.2.1 Commands

Commands are made to appeal to the listener to perform a certain action. Both commands using the imperative and exclamations of a neutral (normal) type are characterized by a falling intonation pattern, the commands taking a rather higher fall. E.g.:

(d) b^llæς fum'm^k (shut your mouth!)

(e) šħæ:l mli:ħ (how good; how nice!)

(f) ki smi:n (how fat he is!)
2.2.2. Questions

Questions may be divided broadly into questions requiring 'yes' or 'no' as an answer, and those using interrogative words to introduce them (information questions).

  1. 'Yes/no questions

In this type of questions, the tonic syllable is the start of an upward glide of pitch. These questions are thus characterized by a rising intonation. E.g.:

(g) šri:t ^l xubz ? (Did you (sg.) buy the bread?)

Here again, the rising pitch may start earlier in the sentence. E.g.:

(h) dæ:r^t ^l - li:m f-^l ħu:t ? (Did she put lemon on the fish?)

(g) and (h) above may be said to be polite questions. A slightly different case is when a falling-(high)rising intonation pattern occurs within the same tonic accent. In (i) below,

(i) mšæ mςæ:h ? (Did he go with him?)

strong doubt is conveyed, and the enquiry requires a more definite answer. A similar high rise is found in (j)

(j) twæ:li ; bæ:læ:k (Perhaps? ; maybe?)

with the meaning 'did you say perhaps?'. This is to be contrasted with a low-rising intonation which may convey a different meaning.

In (k) below, the low rise signifies the possibility of the previous utterance or situation.
(k) twæ:li ; bæ:læ:k ('it's possible')

  1. Information Questions

These are introduced by interrogative words such as [šku:n]? 'who?', [fæ:j^n]? 'where?, etc.; they correspond to the so-called wh-questions in English. They are characterized in the dialect under study by a falling intonation. E.g.:

(l) fæ:j^n mšæ ? (Where did he go?)

(m) šku:n žæ:t ? (Who came (sg. masc.)?)

Another type of question that takes a falling intonation is the one implying a question with a demand for a satisfactory answer (approaching a request). E.g.:

(n) i:wæ tqulli w^llæ ^l-læ (well, are you going to tell me or not?)

  1. Another type of questions may be termed demand questions. They convey the meaning of insistance and disapproval; they require that the listener admits the act being discussed. E.g.:

(o) Dr^btu ? (You (sg.) hit him ?)

which means "admit that you hit him, I know that you hit him". A variation of this pattern is found in the rising-falling intonation which conveys certainty and even menace. (p) below may be said as a menace and may even be uttered during

(p) ςlæ:š Dr^btu ? (why did you hit him?)

retaliation on the person having performed the act or action being questioned. Similarly,

(q) fæ:j^n mšæ:t (where did she go?)

implies strong disagreement about "her going there", and that "she did so without my permission", and even that "she may be punished for that".

As seen from all the above examples, some of the intonation contours are available for several functions, just as more than one contour is sometimes available for the same function.
This paper reviewed the syllable structures and combinations of structures that characterize the urban Arabic dialect of Nédroma, Algeria. It has identified the areas where these structures correspond to the classical prototype and others where it innovates. The paper also looks at the major stress patterns and rules that govern the dialect in question. The final section compares the intonation patterns of different utterances and attempts to show the functions of these intonation contours.


[1] Daneš, F. "Sentence Intonation from a Functional Point of View".

WORD 16, (1960), pp. 34-54.

[2] Guella, N. A Linguistic Investigation of the Arabic Dialect of Nédroma

(Algeria). Unpublished Ph.D. Thesis, University of Manchester, England,(1983).

[3] Hála, B. "La syllable, sa nature, son origine et ses transformations".

ORBIS 10, (1961), pp. 69-143.

[4] Jones, D. An Outline of English Phonetics. London, (1960).

[5] Marçais, W. Le dialecte arabe parlé à Tlemcen. Paris: Ernest Leroux. (1902).

[6] Pike, K.L. The Intonation of American English. University of Michigan

Press. (1945).

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