Iraqi Arabic: Jewish and Muslim Arabic in 20th c. Baghdad

Discussion in 'العربية (Arabic)' started by Nunty, May 20, 2007.

  1. Nunty

    Nunty Modified

    Hebrew-US English (bilingual)

    I am reading an autobiographical novel written in Hebrew by Eli Amir that takes place in Baghdad in the 1940s. He frequently refers to "Jewish Arabic" and "Muslim Arabic". I'm not clear if he is talking about accents or dialects. From the contexts it could be either:

    * A Muslim prison guard speaks to a cell full of Jewish Communist and Zionist prisoners in "typical Jewish Arabic" until a Muslim prisoner mocks him by asking if he is a Jew, when he hurriedly changes back to "Muslim Arabic".

    * A Jewish teenager absent-mindedly asks a group of Muslim men "in Jewish" to let him pass. They identify him as Jewish and assault him.

    There are many more examples in this and others of Amir's books. (He is an Iraqi Jew who immigrated to Israel as a teenager in 1950.)

    My question: Are you aware of "Jewish Arabic"? Is it an accent or a dialect? (The way Amir uses the term, it sounds more like a dialect.) Does it still exist?

    And one more question: Is there a distinctive "Christian Arabic" in Iraq or elsewhere?

  2. clevermizo Senior Member

    St. Louis, MO
    English (USA), Spanish
    To my understanding there are or were two basic dialects in Iraq. They are named by how the word "قلت" is pronounced: gilit or qeltu.

    Jewish and Christian Baghdadi were basically the same dialect and it was a qeltu-dialect, while the predominant Muslim dialect was a gilit-dialect. I believe these basic distinctions exist to this day, however there is not a sizable Jewish population extant in Baghdad. I do not think that qeltu Iraqi Arabic was ever exclusively Jewish or Christian, but it was/is also a shared dialect in the north (similar to the dialect of Mosul, used by Muslims there as well).

    In northern Iraq I believe the situation is a little more complex due to the presence of Aramaic-speaking Christian populations.

    There are not many Jews left who speak the Jewish Baghdadi dialect as the second and third generations of children in Israel or elsewhere speak languages other than Arabic.

    Interestingly I believe in the past that the Jews of Baghdad used to write a pseudo-standardized version of their Arabic dialect in Hebrew letters.
  3. Qcumber Senior Member

    UK English
    By the way, Marcel COHEN wrote "Le parler des Juifs d'Alger" (The language of the Jews of Algiers) at the turn of the 20th century, in which he describes Jewish-Arabic and underlines the differences with Muslim-Arabic. I had a look at this book a long time ago, and do not remember much. I suppose there is a copy in some Israeli library.
  4. CarlosPerezMartinez Senior Member

    Riyadh, Saudi Arabia
    Spain, Spanish
    Dear Sister Nun-Translator,

    I have no idea about Iraq but after leaving in Saudi Arabia for many years I went to Beirut, Lebanon and I was asked if I was muslim because of the use of many expressions that I learned in Saudi Arabia (it seems that Christians don't say Salaam Alaykum and other expressions). Later I asked some Christian Lebanese who told me that in Lebanon you can tell a Christian from a Muslim just by the dialect they use. So it seems that there are differences. (Watch out when you speak Arabic! ;))
  5. Shlama_98 Member

    Syriac Aramaic/Iraq
    From what I remember there's no actual Christian Arabic dialect in Iraq but there are some Arabic Muslim expressions that you won't hear Christians say.

    As far as the Iraqi dialects go, there's two major ones, the northern dialect (They use the Qeltu), in other words the letter Qaf is actually pronounced and their Arabic is kind of soft, while the Gilit dialect is spoken around the rest of the country, the letter Qaf is pronounced as G a lot in this dialect and it sounds harsh compare to the northern one, in the south the Arabic gets a little more harsher in sound.
  6. MarcB Senior Member

    US English
    This site will interest you.
  7. Nunty

    Nunty Modified

    Hebrew-US English (bilingual)
    Many thanks to everyone who offered these very interesting replies.
  8. smooha Member

    Hi everyone,

    This happens to be a subject of great interest to me. I had the privilege of having read several books on the subject, most notably Haim Blanc's Communal Dialects of Baghdad.

    As clevermizo noted, the Mesopotamian (Iraq and eastern Syria) varieties of Arabic can be divided into qeltu and gilit types. The gilit type is overwhelmingly of Bedouin origin, from the tribes to the south and west of the rivers. If my memory serves me correctly, virtually all Baghdadis (Muslims, Christians, and Jews) spoke in a qeltu variety, from the Abassid era until the late 19th c (?), which saw an unprecedented process of urbanization, with a vast number of Bedouin tribesmen (previously nomadic) became the majority. The original urban Baghdadi Muslims assimilated with the new majority, while the Christian and Jewish communities maintained their respective dialects (which, though to a significant extent mutually intellegible, contained numerous differences in lexicon).

    The dialects were maintained as the language of the home/family, while the Muslim variety was used as a sort of lingua franca in the public sphere. As far as I know, Christian Baghdadis still speak their dialect in their homes, though it seems to me that Christians have tended to assimilate a bit more, because of political and social considerations (anti-Christian sentiment as well as inter-marriage between Christians of different regions). If anyone knows more details, let me know by all means.

    An interesting note: the Jewish dialect was 100% mutually intelligible and virtually identical in every non-Kurdish town in Iraq (i.e. a Jew from the northern city of Mosul could communicate fluently with a Jew from Basra, Baghdad, etc.).

    It is quite easy to find samples of Muslim Baghdadi speech. If you're interested in hearing the difference, go to this site:

    It's a comprehensive resource for samples of the (mostly minority) dialects of Arabic, if you can decypher the German (google translator might work if you're stuck). Also, be aware that since most of the Jewish speakers now live in Israel, there are some Hebrew words here and there that are not a part of the original Jewish Baghdadi dialect.

    A favorite clip of mine is of a Jewish Maslawi woman describing how to make kubba burghul (semolina patties stuffed with meat, raisins, and pinenuts):
    She reminds me of my grandma, الله يرحمها, who hailed from al-Kut.

    P.S. Add "www" to the links--I can't post links in their entirety yet. Sorry for the long-winded response; hope you enjoy the clips.
  9. smooha Member

    P.P.S. Looks like there's a new wikipedia article on the subject, with a (better articulated) overview of what I covered:
  10. clevermizo Senior Member

    St. Louis, MO
    English (USA), Spanish
    Wow really neat clips from that site! Thanks!
  11. smooha Member

    Any time, clevermizo ;)
  12. Wadi Hanifa

    Wadi Hanifa Senior Member

    Well it certainly has an Iraqi "feel" to it, but it's quite different from the Iraqi that I'm used to hearing.

    Aside from the preponderance of the "qaf" pronunciation, the most interesting part for me was that she uses the word "الذي", which I thought had become completely extinct centuries ago.

    I also noticed that many "r"'s are pronounced as "غ". Where do you suppose that came from? Is it an Israeli influence, or did it exist in Iraq as well?

    Some words like "هاكد" sound more Palestinian than Iraqi.
  13. smooha Member

    I didn't catch the "alladhi" that you noticed--what clip was that in? The r/gh phenomenon (as well as the qaf) is common to both the Jewish and Christian dialects. I forget the reason for the morph, but there are a handful of words that would be written the same in MSA, but pronounced differently with different meanings with their respective r/gh pronunciations (generally speaking, those meanings with the gh phoneme are older, more common words).

    "Hakidh" is definitely the Jewish dialectal for hakadha--no Palestinian influence there. But I also noticed some similarities to the Palestinian dialects, in terms of the melody of the speech (correct me if I'm wrong), but also more specifically words like bid- (Levantine for "want"). Perhaps the Moslawi woman who cooks all this awesome food has good relations with Palestinian neighbors, who influenced her speech a bit. I'd never heard an Iraqi use the expression before...
  14. Josh_ Senior Member

    the phrontistery
    U.S., English
    I didn't think that the 'r' sounded like a غ but it definitely was a Hebrew 'r' sound (ר) (which is similar to a French 'r') which is is articulated way back in the throat, and in that respect is related to the غ which is also articulated way back in the throat, but further back than the ר and with the vocal chords more clenched. So the sounds can sound similar, but not exact.

    Based on this similarity I even have an Arabic-English dictionary that transliterates the غ as capital 'R' ( ر is a lowercase 'r'), so غلط would be RalaT. I attribute this to the influence of the French 'r', which as already noted is similar to the غ . Anyway, I'm getting off topic.
  15. Shlama_98 Member

    Syriac Aramaic/Iraq
    That mp3 file that was posted of the Jewish lady talking about making food is indeed a qeltu dialect from Mousel, and it sounds no different than a Christian or a Muslim from Mousel speaking, it is not a Jewish Arabic dialect or anything because I have many Christian relatives from Mousel who speak exactly like that when they talk in Arabic, the only reason why people make differences between Muslim, Christian, or Jewish Arabic dialects is because there are some religious expressions used in one where the other would'nt use, or sometimes in Christian Arabic there are some Syriac words being thrown in here or there and I'm pretty sure the same thing happens with the Jewish Arabic, but it still does't make them different dialects because the bottom line is you either speak the northern dialect, central, or southern, the northern is a qeltu dialect and the other two are a gilit dialect.

    The other thing is most Christians in Iraq don't speak Arabic at home, some do but the majority speak Syriac Aramaic at home or Armenian since there's a small Armenian population there as well, there are however Christians from Mousel (We call them Maslawi) that do indeed speak Arabic of Mousel which is qeltu and they do not know Syriac, these people however are not Arabs, they are from our very own Syriac culture but because of the environment they lived in they were forced to speak Arabic and eventually their descendents no longer speak Syriac, the same thing was happening to the younger generations that was growing up in Baghdad, Basra, and other Arab speaking cities where Assyrians lived in, but Assyrians have not been living in these cities for too long because it was during our grandparents time that they left their home villages and went down to these bigger Arab speaking cities so the Syriac Aramaic sound still exists in these homes.
  16. Wadi Hanifa

    Wadi Hanifa Senior Member

    The clips of Baghdadi Jews speaking don't sound very different from what Muslim Baghdadis would sound like, so I think Shlama is right.

    Also, the Levantine influence is due to the Mosul dialect in general being close to the dialect of Syria, so that's not unique to Jews.
  17. clevermizo Senior Member

    St. Louis, MO
    English (USA), Spanish
    From what I've read on the subject, the dialect is definitely shared by Jews, Christians and Muslims, however the difference is that in Baghdad for at least a long time, Jews and Christians spoke a dialect much more similar to the Mosul dialect of the north, while Muslims spoke a dialect of Badawi/Gulf origin. The Muslim dialect eventually rose to prominence in Baghdad, and all three groups used it normally in public for ease of communication. So it's not that Jews and Christians had their own dialect in Baghdad that was different from anything anywhere else in the region, but that they were speaking something slightly different (more Northern Iraqi) than what was becoming more and more common among Muslim speakers in Baghdad.
  18. Wadi Hanifa

    Wadi Hanifa Senior Member

    Sounds about right.
  19. clevermizo Senior Member

    St. Louis, MO
    English (USA), Spanish
    The interesting thing of course is that the qeltu dialect(s) are said to preserve a lot of features from Medieval Iraqi. The other thing is that unlike a lot of Arabic dialects which have not been written down or not consistently so for hundreds of years, the evolution of qeltu dialect in Iraq can be observed because for whatever reason, Jews had no problem writing it down as a normal written language for their own purposes. They did so in Hebrew characters, but added dots to represent letters that had no Hebrew equivalents (ض, ظ , غ, ث, ذ).

    Anyway, if I find any links or excerpts of Medieval Iraqi dialect written in Hebrew characters I will post them - and hey, maybe if I have time, I'll transcribe it back into Arabic characters for everyone's inspection. :) I can't imagine that this was a dialect so specific to Jews back then either.

    Edit: I have to edit this and remove a paragraph because I feel that it was in error (i.e. the claim that Aramaic was better preserved among Christians than Jews) There were Jewish dialects of Aramaic kept alive in western Iran for a very long time. There are still speakers of Jewish Aramaic dialects today, but most are dying off. Furthermore, Jewish Aramaic was the common language of large amounts of literature up until the modern era.
  20. Wadi Hanifa

    Wadi Hanifa Senior Member

    Yes, please do. How medieval are we talking here exactly, by the way? Also, are the vowels spelled out? Are there diactritics?
  21. clevermizo Senior Member

    St. Louis, MO
    English (USA), Spanish
    I have to look this all up again before I respond, so I may not post on the thread for awhile (i.e. how long ago, etc. etc.). Only the long vowels are spelled out, using the Hebrew letters alif, waw, and yod, just as in Arabic. I believe diacritics may have existed, but they might have used the Hebrew basic vowel points for /a/, /i/ and /u/ - I'm not certain. In Hebrew vowel pointing, there are more vowels that are represented than what are phonemic and certainly more than are represented in Arabic vowel pointing.
  22. Shlama_98 Member

    Syriac Aramaic/Iraq
    In terms of Christians speaking a qeltu dialect before the gilit dialect taking over I'm not too sure about that, you see that qeltu dialect is known as a Maslawi dialect in Iraq, and before the first world war most of the Christian Assyrians lived in their home villages where Syriac is the street language, when they started migrating south to the bigger cities for work a lot of them started speaking Arabic for the first time in their lives, so it's not that they spoke a qeltu dialect before, it was more because their Arabic was kind of broken and it sounded like a qeltu.

    My grandparents were the biggest example, well my grandpa adopted well to the gilit and learned but when my grandma married him and moved down south she did'nt mingle much with Arab speakers because we had communities there where Syriac was spoken so she did't use Arabic much, of course her Arabic remained broken and weak where people could mistake it for the qeltu dialect where in fact she never knew any Arabic before leaving her home village.

    I'm not too sure if the same thing could be said about the Jews because the Baghdadi Jews from what I understand have been in those regions for a long time and Arabic was their daily language, but there was Jews who spoke Aramaic dialects in north Iraq as well and I'm pretty sure their Arabic was no different than my grandparents which is broken since Arabic was not their first language..
  23. kegs20 New Member

    UK (English)
    I thought I'd just throw in a few points being an Iraqi myself (although living in the UK most of my life). I'm afraid I just skimmed the discussion quickly, so sorry if I don't address all the points.

    The giltu dialect is, as was said Maslawi, spoken by the natives of Mosul. There is an extensive range of vocabulary that is specific to Maslawe, although most of it is not frequently used. This includes both completely new words and phrases, as well as variations on words ('like this' is heshikl in Maslawi, hiikii in Baghdadi (by ii I mean ي)

    Differences tend to be in the structure of words - the word for button for example in Mosul is digmii, in Baghdad is digma, 'how is he?' about a male would be shlono in Mosul, but shlona in Baghdad, they say ana in Mosul but anii in Baghdad etc. Also, there's a kind of slang spoken in Baghdad called shrogii.

    As for a Christian dialect, I'm heard some Iraqis speaking another dialect, which I think that they referred to as the language of the Christians, by which they mean Aramaic. Its spoken by only a small number of Iraqis, and is completely different to the Iraqi dialect.

    Again, sorry for the patchy answers, I didn't have the time to read the whole thread and probably lack the knowledge to answer some of your more detailed questions.
  24. Wadi Hanifa

    Wadi Hanifa Senior Member

    Are you saying there were never Christians who were native to cities like Baghdad, Tikrit, or Basrah before a few decades ago? You also said earlier there were Christians who had lived in Mosul proper for generations and knew only Arabic.
  25. clevermizo Senior Member

    St. Louis, MO
    English (USA), Spanish
    Ok, I have a few more things to add than I had before:).

    First off, I don't pretend to know much about Christian history, so I can't really say much about Christian presence in Baghdad.

    However the Jewish presence in Baghdad is very ancient. Jews have been living in southern Iraq for at least 2,000 years, even in the pre-Christian era. The Jewish community of Baghdad was for a long time the absolute authority on matters of religious concern, as well as literature and cutlure. Jews have been speaking qeltu Iraqi Arabic since at least the 14th century (At least the 10th?). This is what I read from reviews of apparently the seminal work on the subject, The Jewish Baghdadi Dialect Studies and Texts in Judeo-Arabic, by Prof. Jacob Mansour, who is Jewish Iraqi and immigrated when he was young to Israel, along with many other Jewish Iraqis.

    I have not read his work yet as I haven't been able to find it online. Hopefully the uni library has it. The reviews I have read come from The Bulletin of African and Oriental Studies and AJS Review, as well as a large amount of Googling.

    First, I would like to comment upon the written texts of Jewish Baghdadi. There are a few contexts under which Jewish Arabic speakers wrote down their dialect in Hebrew characters. One is folk tales/literature. Another is treatises on Jewish theology and matters of religion. A final one is the tradition of شَرح shar7 present throughout Arabic-speaking Jewish communities since the Middle Ages (ca 13th century and onward? - not sure See Edits below). This is the tradition of line-by-line translation of the Bible into Judeo-Arabic. The tradition has several "centers" - one in the Maghreb based upon the tradition of Algiers and Al-Andalus. The other is centered around Cairo. There is the Yemeni tradition, and finally, you guessed it, Baghdadi.

    The language in these شرح texts needs some clarification. First off, while Arabic-speaking Jewish scholars were probably well-versed in fus7a, there was a certain amount of Islamic feel attached to writing in fus7a, and therefore they often wrote in Judeo-Arabic, i.e. dialectal Arabic, in order to maintain solidarity with Jewish readers. The language often uses loan words from Hebrew and Aramaic, especially with relation to religious terminology. For example, the word مسيح for Messiah is replaced with the word مشيح Mashii7, a loanword from Hebrew. Also, even though the language was largely dialectal in nature, there were certain attempts to "correct" it in ways approaching fus7a, such as say using الذي even after such a form was no longer common in speech. Thus what developed was a quasi written standard - a pseudo-fus7a for Jews:) written in Hebrew letters. This written language then subsequently impacted the spoken language of Jews, resulting in what would become "Jewish" dialects of Arabic.

    Here is a paper on Judeo-Arabic literature. The other reviews I only had access to with my uni login - they are copyrighted and published. I can give full citation to them to anyone who requests it.

    Also, like in Iraq, "Jewish" dialects of Arabic, were often really quite like other dialects of Arabic, however they contrasted prevalent dialects in the spoken centers of Arabic Jewry. This in some ways is related to Jewish patterns of migration. So for example, the Jewish dialect of Cairo was very similar to Alexandria Arabic. Thus the dialect wasn't so much a "Jewish" dialect in Cairo, but rather an Alexandrian dialect in Cairo, mostly spoken amongst Jews while Cairene Arabic was becoming most popular among Muslims. Similarly, in the 14/15th centuries, the ancestor of what is now termed "Maslawi" or Mosul Arabic, was the prevalent dialect throughout all of Iraq. Thus after the Badawi/Gulf influenced dialect was affecting Muslim speech in Baghdad, Jews preferred to maintain the older Iraqi speech amongst themselves.

    Finally, as promised, I have transcribed an excerpt from the book of Genesis from Hebrew into Arabic characters. Since it is a Bible translation, it is in pseudo-Classical style. For example, the ending ـا is added to nouns which are indefinite and manSuub. I'm not always certain of my transcription. Here is the original. The first line in every sentence is Hebrew, then Aramaic, then Arabic. Only the Arabic line is written without vowel pointings - I assume because Arabic speakers would not need them.

    I have tried to normalize it to Arabic spelling a little for ease: for example, alif maqsuura is written with alef in Hebrew, not with yod in the word على. However, the word إلى is written with yod, but with a mark over it. I'm not sure what that means exactly in terms of pronunciation, if anything. Note, the written form here is the standard form of Judeo-Arabic (the pseudo fus7a I mentioned before), and I'm not exactly certain if this text is Iraqi. After I get my hands on the Mansour book I may post more (it lists a bunch of texts in Iraqi in its appendix). The edition of text is from 1894 - however, the translation itself is undoubtedly a lot earlier, since I doubt it was re-done too many times.

    Edit: There is an interesting alef-lamed ligature in the original which is used everywhere for the definite article الـ.

    اوّل ما خلق الله السماوات والارض. والارض كانت غامرة مستبحرة وضلام على وجه الغمر، وريح الله تهب على وجه الما. فشا الله ان يكون نور فكان نور. فلمّا علم الله ان النور جيّد فصل بين النور والضلام. وسمى الله اوقات النور نهارا واوقات الضلام ليلا. لمّا مضى من الليل والنهار يوم واحد.
    فشا الله ان يكون جلد في وسط الما ويكون فاصلا بين المايين. فصنع الله وفصل بين الما الذي من دونه وبين الما الذي من فوقه. فكان كذاك. وسمى الله الجلد سماا. لمّا مضى من الليل والنهار يوم ثاني.
    فشا الله ان يجتمع من تحت السما الى موضع واحد ويضهر اليباس فكان كذاك. فسمى الله اليباس ارضا وملام الما بحارا لمّا علم الله ان ذالك جيّد. فشا الله ان تكلا (تخلا؟) الارض كلاا وعشبا ذو حب وشجرة ذو ثمر مخرج ثمر لاصنافه مه غرسه منه على الارض. فكان كذاك.

    ُEdit2: Reading over this, it may clearer if I point out that شا is the verb شاء. Hamza is not indicated by any mechanism as far as I can tell in the Hebrew character version of the text. I have also determined that this text is the Saadya Gaon translation, which he did whilst in Iraq. He himself was from Egypt. The language is still "standard" Judeo-Arabic. He lived during the 10th century, which sets back the clock even further than my approximations above (and may make this even more interesting for Arabic dialectology enthusiasts). Again, I'll post again to this thread after I retrieve the Mansour text.
  26. Wadi Hanifa

    Wadi Hanifa Senior Member

    Thanks for taking the time to transcribe this, it was very interesting. There's a great deal that can be said here, and I'll try to come back and comment some more, but for now, I'd like to ask, what made you think Iraqi Jews only began speaking Arabic in the 13th or 14th centuries?
  27. clevermizo Senior Member

    St. Louis, MO
    English (USA), Spanish
    I didn't mean that's when they started speaking Arabic, just where the body of literature starts accumulating. It was a guess since the references kept saying "Middle Ages" etc. etc. Also, perhaps, I thought, Jews in the the Levant and Mesopotamia continued to use Aramaic primarily. I knew that Jews must have been speaking Arabic since Qur'anic times because of the existence of Jewish tribes in the Gulf. I had to edit it a bit. The Saadya Gaon did his Arabic translations in the 10th century, which means Jews must have already been speaking Arabic as a vernacular by then, otherwise the existing Aramaic translations would have sufficed.
  28. Wadi Hanifa

    Wadi Hanifa Senior Member

    Don't forget the Jewish tribes of western Arabia that were sent into exile in Syria and Iraq in the beginning of the Islamic era.
  29. Shlama_98 Member

    Syriac Aramaic/Iraq
    There was but these Christians who were native to these cities died out and now they are modern Iraqi Muslims, the proof of this is simply the modern Christians in Iraq, all the Christians you see in Baghdad or Basra today have a background from places such as Ninwa, Arbil, Dehuk, or other areas from Turkey, Iran, or Syria, non of them are from these southern cities or anywhere near them.

    As for the Christians in Mousel yes there has been and there still is a big community there that speaks Arabic only because for so many generations the street language has been Arabic, so Aramaic eventually died out among this community while other Christians were living in villages where Aramaic was the street language, these Maslawi Christians still follow the Syriac Churches so in reality they are only Arabic speakers but not Arab.

Share This Page