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Baghdad Jewish Arabic

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Baghdad Jewish Arabic

Baghdad Jewish Arabic
Jewish Baghdadi Arabic
Native to Israel, Iraq
Native speakers
(no estimate available)
Hebrew alphabet
Language codes
ISO 639-3

Baghdad Jewish Arabic is the Arabic dialect spoken by the Jews of Baghdad and other towns of Southern Iraq. This dialect differs from the dialect spoken by the Jews in Northern Iraq, such as Mosul and 'Ana. The Baghdadi and Northern dialects may be regarded as subvarieties of Judeo-Iraqi Arabic. As with most Judeo-Arab communities, there are likely to be few, if any, speakers of the Judeo-Iraqi Arabic dialects who still reside within Iraq. Rather these dialects have been maintained or are facing critical endangerment within respective Judeo-Iraqi diasporas, namely those of Israel and the United States.


Baghdad Jewish Arabic (and Baghdadi Christian Arabic) resemble the dialect of Northern Iraq, and more distantly that of Syria, rather than the Baghdad Arabic spoken by the Muslims. The Muslim dialect is classified as a gilit dialect (from their pronunciation of the Arabic word for "I said") while the others are qeltu dialects. Another resemblance between Baghdad Jewish Arabic and North Mesopotamian Arabic is the pronunciation of ra as a uvular. This peculiarity goes back centuries: in medieval Iraqi Judaeo-Arabic manuscripts the letters ra and ghayn are frequently interchanged.[1] It is thought that the qeltu dialects represent the older Arabic dialect of Mesopotamia while the gilit dialect is of Bedouin origin. Another factor may be the northern origins of the Jewish community of Baghdad after 1258 (see below under History). Like Northern Mesopotamian and Syrian Arabic, Jewish Baghdadi Arabic shows some signs of an Aramaic substrate. Violette Shamosh[2] records that, at the Passover Seder, she could understand some of the passages in Aramaic but none of the passages in Hebrew.


The earliest Jewish community of Baghdad was virtually wiped out after the Mongol invasion in 1258. A second wave of Baghdad Jews, after Mongol rule, were largely descendants of immigrants from Mosul and Aleppo who by the Middle Ages had weaved into being a long established community.

As with other respective religious and ethnic communities coexisting in Baghdad, the Jewish community had almost exclusively spoken as well as written in their distinctive dialect, largely drawing their linguistic influences from Hebrew and Judeo-Aramaic. Simultaneous fluency and literacy in the Arabic used by the dominant Muslim communities had also been commonplace.

With waves of persecution and thus emigration, the dialect has been carried to and until recently used within respective Judeo-Iraqi diaspora communities, spanning Bombay, Calcutta, Singapore, Hong Kong, Manchester and numerous other international urban hubs. More notably, after the mass emigration of Jews from Iraq to Israel between the 1940s and 1960s, Israel came to hold the single largest linguistic community of Judeo-Iraqi Arabic speakers. With successive generations being born and raised in Israel, it is mainly the older people who still actively or passively speak Judeo-Baghdadi and other forms of Judeo-Iraqi Arabic. Israelis of Iraqi descent in turn are largely unilingual Israeli Hebrew speakers, with small numbers having also acquired the more local Palestinian Arabic.


The Jews of Baghdad also have a written Judeo-Arabic that differs from the spoken language and uses Hebrew characters.[3] There is a sizeable published religious literature in the language, including several Bible translations and the Qanūn an-nisā' (قانون النساء of the hakham Yosef Hayyim.

The following method of describing the letters of the Hebrew alphabet was used by teachers in Baghdad until quite recently:[4]
Letter Description
א 'ábu 'áġbaʿ ġūs 'alēf
It has four heads
ב ġazūna
It's a niche
ג 'ábu jənḥ gimāl
Has a wing
ד nájaġ dāl
It's a hatchet
ה ġə́jla məqṭūʿa
It has a severed leg
ו 'ə́bġi wāw
It's a needle
ז dəmbūs zān
A pin
ח 'əmm ġəjeltēn ṣāġ ḥēṯ
Both its legs are intact
ט ġə́jla b-báṭna ṭēṯ
Its leg is in its stomach
י 'ə́xtak lə-zġayyġi yōd
Your younger sister
כ ġazūna mdáwwġa kāf
A round niche
ל l-jámal lamād
A camel
מ ġāsa zbibāyi mīm
Its head is a raisin
נ čəngāl nūn
It's a hook
ס mdáwwaġ səmmāx
It's circular
ע 'ábu ġasēn ʿān
It has two heads
פ b-ṯə́mma zbibāyi
Has a raisin in its mouth
צ ġasēn w-mə́ḥni ṣād
Has two heads and is bent
ק ġə́jlu ṭwīli qōf
Has a long leg
ר məčrūx rōš
It's curved
ש 'ábu tláṯ-ġūs šīn
It has three heads
ת ġə́jla məʿġūja
Has a crooked leg
'alēf-lām Salaam Salaam
bye bye



Jewish Baghdadi consonants[5]
Bilabial Labio-dental Interdental Dental Palato-dental Palatal Velar Uvular Pharyngeal Glottal
Stop b p () d t ɡ k q ʔ
Fricative (v) f ð θ ðˠ ɣ x ʕ ħ h
Nasal m () n ()
Lateral l ()
Trill r
Semivowel w j

JB is relatively conservative in preserving Classical Arabic phonemes. Classical Arabic /q/ has remained as an uvular (or post-velar) stop,[6] like Christian Baghdad Arabic, but unlike in Muslim Baghdad Arabic where it is pronounced as [ɡ]. /k/ is retained as [k], like in Christian Baghdadi, but unlike the Muslim dialect where it is sometimes [tʃ]. Classical Arabic interdental /ð, θ, ðˠ/ are preserved, like in Muslim Baghdadi Arabic (Christian Baghdadi Arabic merges them into /d, t, dˤ/). /dˤ/ has merged into /ðˠ/.[7]

There are a few rare minimal pairs with /lˠ, bˠ/ (e.g. wáḷḷa 'by God! (an oath)' vs. wálla 'he went away', ḅāḅa 'father, dad' vs. bāba 'her door'). In other words there are velarized segments which cannot be demonstrated to be phonemic, but which cannot be substituted, e.g. ṃāṃa 'mother, mummy'.[8] There is a certain degree of velarization harmony.

/r/ is one of the primary distinguishing features of Jewish (as opposed to Muslim, Christian) Baghdadi Arabic. Older Arabic /r/ has shifted to /ɣ/ (as in Christian, but not Muslim, Baghdadi Arabic). However /r/ has been re-introduced in non-Arabic loans (e.g. brāxa 'blessing' < Heb. ברכה, qūri 'teapot' < Pers. qūrī). Modern loan words from other Arabic dialects also have this sound; this sometimes leads to cases where the same word may have two forms depending on context, e.g. ʿáskaġ 'army' vs. ḥākəm ʿáskari 'martial law'. There are many instances where this alternation leads to a subtle change in meaning, e.g. faġġ 'he poured, served foot' vs. farr 'he threw'.[9]

The consonants /p, ɡ, tʃ/ were originally of foreign origin, but have pervaded the language to the extent that native speakers do not perceive or even realize their non-native origin.[10]


Jewish Baghdadi vowels[11]
Front Back
iː i u uː
eː e o oː
a aː


Stress is usually on the ultimate or penultimate syllable, but sometimes on the antipenultimate (mostly in loans or compound words).[12]



Perfect inflectional suffixes[13]
Unstressed Stressed
s. 1 -tu -tō (tū/u)1
2 m -t -t
f -ti -tē (tī/i)1
3 m - -
f -ət -ət
pl. 1 -na -nā
2 -təm -təm
3 -u -ō (ū/u)1
Paradigm of kátab 'to write' in perfect alone and with a 3ms indirect object[14]
s. 1 ktábtu ktəbtōlu
2 m ktabt ktábtlu
f ktábti ktəbtēlu
3 m kátab ktáblu
f kátbət kətbə́tlu
pl. 1 ktábna ktəbnālu
2 ktábtəm ktabtə́mlu
3 kátbu kətbōlu
  1. before 3f.s. direct pronominal suffix
Imperfect inflectional affixes[15]
s. 1 'a-
2 m tə-
f t-...ēn
3 m yə-1
f tə-
pl. 1 nə-
2 t-...ōn
3 y-...ōn1
Paradigm of kátab 'to write' in imperfect[16]
s. 1 'áktəb
2 m tə́ktəb
f tkətbēn2
3 m yə́ktəb
f tə́ktəb
pl. 1 nə́ktəb
2 tkətbōn2
3 ykətbōn2
  1. may be actualized as i before another consonant, e.g. yqūl > iqūl 'he'll say'
  2. n is elided when a direct or indirect object pronoun suffix is present, e.g. tkətbēla 'you (f.s.) will write to her'
when the 3f.s. direct object pronoun suffix is present, ē > ī/iy and ō > ū/uw, e.g. tkətbīha/tkətbíya 'you (f.s.) will write it (f.s.)'
Direct object pronominal suffixes[17]
s. 1 ni1, (y)(y)i2
2 m ak3, k4
f ək3, ki4
3 m nu3, u4
f ha5, a3,5
pl. 1 na
2 kəm
3 həm4, əm3
Indirect object pronominal suffixes[18]
s. 1 -li
2 m -lak
f -lək
3 m -lu
f -la
pl. 1 -lna
2 -lkəm
3 -ləm
Double object pronominal suffixes[19][20]
s. 1 -lyā (lyānu)
2 m -lyāk (lkyā, kəlyā)
f -lyāki
3 m -lyānu (lyā)
f -lyāha
pl. 1 -lnyā
2 -lyākəm
3 -lyāhəm
  1. after verbal forms (and rarely particles)
  2. after nouns and particles
  3. after a consonant
  4. after a vowel
  5. (ha and a may both occur after some vowels, and in some instances ha may become ya or wa)

See also


  1. ^ Avishur, Studies in Judaeo-Arabic Translations of the Bible.
  2. ^ Memories of Eden: A Journey through Baghdad
  3. ^ Mansour 1991, p. 15.
  4. ^ Mansour 1991, pp. 190-191.
  5. ^ Mansour 1991, p. 53.
  6. ^ Though in a few phrases it has become [dʒ], e.g. 'īd mən wára w-'īd mən jəddām 'one hand behind and one in front' (said when someone returns emptyhanded).
  7. ^ Mansour 1991, pp. 26-28.
  8. ^ Mansour 1991, p. 57.
  9. ^ Mansour 1991, pp. 29-31.
  10. ^ Mansour 1991, p. 33.
  11. ^ Mansour 1991, p. 70.
  12. ^ Mansour 1991, pp. 87-88.
  13. ^ Mansour 1991, p. 127.
  14. ^ Mansour 1991, p. 126.
  15. ^ Mansour 1991, pp. 128-129.
  16. ^ Mansour 1991, p. 128.
  17. ^ Mansour 1991, pp. 169-173.
  18. ^ Mansour 1991, p. 174.
  19. ^ Used to specify the indirect object while leaving the direct object unspecified, e.g. jabəlyāk 'he brought it/him/her/them to you (m.s.)'.
  20. ^ Mansour 1991, pp. 176-178.


  • Blanc, Haim, Communal Dialects in Baghdad: Harvard 1964
  • Kees Versteegh, et al. Encyclopedia of Arabic Language and Linguistics: Brill 2006
  • Mansour, Jacob, The Jewish Baghdadi Dialect: Studies and Texts in the Judaeo-Arabic Dialect of Baghdad: The Babylonian Jewry Heritage Centre 1991
  • Abū-Haidar, Farīda (1991). Christian Arabic of Baghdad. Otto Harrassowitz Verlag.  

External links

  • Jewish Baghdadi recordings
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