Monday, June 21, 2004


I was browsing through, a fabulous world languages website and I came across the following entries under Languages of Bahrain:

ARABIC, BAHARNA, SPOKEN: a language of Bahrain

Population: 300,000 (1995)
Region: Also spoken in Oman
Classification: Afro-Asiatic, Semitic, Central, South, Arabic.
Comments: Bilingualism in Gulf Spoken Arabic. Their dialect is stigmatized. Shi'a Muslim.


Population: 100,000 (1995)
Region: In and around Zubair and on the Fau Peninsula. Also spoken in Bahrain, Iran, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Yemen.
Alternate names: Khaligi, Gulf Arabic
Classification: Afro-Asiatic, Semitic, Central, South, Arabic.
Comments: Sunni Muslim.

At first, I was surprised to find those dialects listed on the website, but after skimming through the list of thousands and thousands of languages and their colloquial forms, I thought it was only normal to have the Bahraini variations included.

Now, if the population of Bahrain is 500,000 and we are to base our allocation on ethnologue’s statistics, we’ll have the Bahraini population divided as following: 300,000 speaking “Baharna”, 100,000 speaking Gulf Arabic (Khaligi), and the remaining 100,000 divided between those who speak Farsi, Urdu, Hindi, etc. This might not be a completely accurate allocation, but a fairly sufficient one perhaps.

Anyway, what really caught my attention though was this statement: “Their dialect is stigmatized,” which is a true, but an unfair statement at the same time, because technically, all local dialects across the Arab world are considered stigmatized in relation to the classical language and they become more so when spoken in a certain manner or by a particular group of people. But perhaps the reason for the inferiority of the Bahraani dialect is either because it has been associated with the poor uneducated class of villagers for so long or because it is spoken by the Shiite Arabs who are a minority in the Sunni Arab world. No matter what the reason is, what’s interesting is that while the Khaligi dialect is used in local soap operas, songs, and traditional/nabati poetry, the Bahraani dialect is not used in anything other than informal communication and perhaps in Azza and some religious songs. It is very unlikely to hear a song or watch a television series based entirely on the Bahraani dialect. I really find that fascinating... how different dialects, which are equally flawed and distant from the original classical language, end up having a varying level of significance due to past (and even present) societal hierarchies.

You may want to read about what I think of the Arabic language and local dialects in a previous post I wrote here.

Fortunately, I should say, the widespread use of dialects did not significantly (not yet, at least) affect the original classical form of the language and I don't think it will as long as the Quran is held in high esteem. At one point, I was convinced that dialectal Arabic could no way influence any other language linked to or influenced by Arabic in one way or another, and when I say influence I mean have an influence on the official/formal language of a particular country, not its dialectal lexicon. But anyway, I was wrong. The Maltese language is almost entirely derived from informal dialectal Arabic (particularly North African), which makes me wonder why Malta is a special case? Is it because it’s Roman Catholic and perfecting the language of the Quran is not of prime importance? Or is it because the “Arab invaders” were Berber and not Arabs? Interesting topic to research.

For now, let me teach you some Maltese ;-)

English: Maltese: Arabic

Book: ktieb: kitab
Dog: kelb: kalb
Sugar: zokkor: sukkar
Cat: qattus: qutta
Door: bieb: baab
Death: mewt: mawt
Money: flus: flus/floos (informal)
Lemon: lumija (pronounced as loo-mee-ya) Not very different from how it is pronounced in the aforementioned Bahraani dialect ;-)

The following Maltese proverbs are other strong indications of how Maltese is derived from dialectal Arabic:

Il-mara bhall-lumija taghsarha u tarmiha.
A woman is like a lemon; you squeeze her and throw her away.

Gebel ma gebel ma jiltaqa', izda wicc ma wicc jiltaqa'.
Mountain does not meet mountain, but a face meets another face.

Il-flus ghandhom il-gwienah.
Money has wings.

Bil-flus taghmel triq il-bahar.
With money you can make a road in the sea.

Mara ghandha sebat erwieh.
A woman has got seven souls.

I am almost certain that those dimwitted proverbs are not the most accurate representation of the Maltese language and so I decided to go into a more credible source, the government of Malta website, to see how much I can understand from the Maltese written over there! I randomly clicked on the Health section and voila:


Din il-ġabra toffri links għal sptarijiet u servizzi farmaċewtiċi u wkoll links għal servizzi provduti minn aġenziji oħra. Issib ukoll informazzjoni biex tgħinek tgħix ħajja b'saħħitha, u fatti nteressanti u statistika dwar is-saħħa. Hemm ukoll taqsima speċjali għall-Prattikanti tal-Mediċina.


This cluster offers links to hospitals and pharmaceutical services and also links to services provided by other agencies. Information to help you lead a healthy lifestyle and interesting health facts and statistics are also available here. There is also a special section for Medical Practitioners.

Obviously, this excerpt looks more sophisticated than the previous funny proverbs; it is also more difficult to understand for a native-Arabic speaker, however, there are certain phrases that can be easily understood by just relying on our Arabic knowledge and they are the following:

minn aġenziji oħra: by other agencies
ħajja b'saħħitha: healthy lifestyle
is-saħħa: the health
taqsima speċjali: special section

and then by relying on our knowledge of any Indo-European language we speak: English, French, Italian, etc. and some common sense, we should be able to understand another good chunk of it: farmaċewtiċi, servizzi, statistika, etc..

Apparently, the Maltese language is written using Latin alphabets, therefore, while an Arabic-speaking person would be able to understand some Maltese, the average Maltese speaker will not be able to read Arabic. It is also important to note here that both Maltese and English are the official languages of Malta. In fact, English is almost spoken by everyone that many people believe learning Maltese is virtually useless. If I remember correctly, one of the English teachers at my school back in Bahrain was Maltese! On the other hand, there are many people like this passionate guy, who believes that the Maltese language should be protected and cherished as a national heritage. He says:

It is true that English is also our official language. But we have only one national language that distinguishes us from all other people in the world, and that is Maltese.

If for no other reason we have to protect Maltese as part of our national heritage, of which every Maltese worth his name should be proud. English is an official working language for us, inherited through our colonial history. It could have been Italian, Spanish or French or any other used by colonisers. But what identifies us as Maltese is the Maltese language.

Hmmm. But wasn't the Muslim conquest of Malta a form of colonialism and the impact it had on the Maltese language, an unfavorable consequence of colonialism? *Ponders*


At 4:33 PM, Blogger Chanad said...

Interesting stuff. Just wondering, is anything similar to "Bahraani" spoken by Shia' Arabs any where else, like in Saudi, Kuwait or Iraq? I.e., is it just by coincidence that Bahraani is spoken only by Shia's here (since they inhabited the island before others), or do all Shia' Arabs have a dialect distinct from Sunni Arabs?

At 5:10 PM, Blogger global soul said...

Yes, I would say that the Bahraani dialect is more closely related to the Arabic dialect spoken by the Shias in Iraq and western Saudi Arabia than the Khaligi spoken in Bahrain and the rest of the gulf. There are significant differences between them, but the similarities are quite evident too. I am told that most of the shias in Bahrain originally came from either Iraq or Saudi Arabia, maybe that has something to do with how the dialects are spoken today. I don’t know if it is geography or religious sects that has determined this split in spoken languages. Maybe both.

Shias speaking Bahraani and Sunnis speaking Khaligi is not always the case though. The Shias in Muharraq speak Muharraqi-Khaligi.

As in Iraq, I am not sure if the Shias have a different accent from the Sunnis. I don’t think so. I think the Iraqi being spoken depends on where in Iraq you are. People in Bahgadad would definitely have a different accent from those who are in Karbala or Basra, I don't know to what extent the shia-sunni factor play a role there.

At 5:18 PM, Blogger global soul said...

I just want to mention here to anyone who might be reading this is that my analysis is totally based on a cultural and linguistic perspective. I am in no way using the dialectal differnces as a way to emphasize the schism between the different religious sects.

At 12:59 AM, Blogger Mahmood Al-Yousif said...

that's "Eastern Saudi" rather than "Western", that side they almost speak Egyptian/Hijazi mix.

Well researched article though and very interesting. Not sure of your assumption that the Shia of Bahrain decended from Iraq/Iran, I would have thought they would have come from Mecca and Medina as that's where the movement started? Worth looking into!

One of the things I'm working on (and hopefully will finish while on holiday in your neck of the woods!) is Arabising Xaraya, and one of the dialects I want to put in is Bahrani, so you would get prompts for registration like: "Waish Ismuk Enta?"


At 7:48 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't purport to be a linguist, but is there a difference between dialect and accent? I mean in Bahrain, yes there is a Bahrani dialect, but there are 10s of different accents across the country. From village to village there are very distinct accents, Dar Kulaib, Duraz, Sitra, Manama. It is intriguing that so many unique accents exist in such a small country. In fact, Mahdi Altajir did a whole PhD thesis on this, which he later published in a book:

Language and linguistic origins in Bahrain = al-Lughah wa-al-usul al-lughawiyah fi al-Bahrayn : dirasah fi lahjat al-baharinah al-`arabiyah : the Baharnah dialect of Arabic
Author: Tajir, Mahdi Abdalla
Imprint London : Kegan Paul International, 1982

Another book on the topic:
Dialect, culture, and society in eastern Arabia / by Clive Holes.


At 12:24 PM, Blogger global soul said...

Thanks for spotting the mistake, mahmood. Eastern Saudi is what I meant to say, and particularly the cities of Al-Hasa and Al-Qateef.

As for the origins of shias in Bahrain, It’s Saudi or Iraq that I am told, not Saudi and Iran. I think it’s hard to have an accurate definite trace with all the intermarriages and migration patterns, to and from the arabian peninsula, that have been going on in the past few centuries. I am sure there are many books thoroughly studying this matter.

By the way, which cities in Canada are you going to visit? We’ll be more than happy to show the whole family around if you drop by my city :)

At 12:27 PM, Blogger global soul said...

Thanks Insurget for the book references. Is Al-Tajir’s book available in both Arabic and English?

Regarding dialects and accents…yep they are two different things. Thanks for brignging this up. In my post, I made sure to focus on Bahraini dialects… going into all the different accents in Bahrain is another interesting story :)

when I mentioned accents in Iraq…it was because I think the variations of the Arabic spoken in Iraq is generally less dialectal and more accent-oriented. I could be wrong.

At 9:47 PM, Blogger Rebecca said...

As a non-Arabic speaker (or reader), I am curious to know if the two dialects in Bahrain are mutually understandable. Can those who speak Baharna understand Khaligi and vice versa? Also, can people understand each other when they speak with different accents? (for an American example, I am from the northeast U.S. and can usually understand people from the South, although I am sometimes confused by the way certain words are pronounced).

At 12:55 AM, Blogger global soul said...

Hi Rebecca,

Definitely, both dialects and all accents are perfectly understanble by every Bahraini, afterall they are entirely based on the Arabic language. Moreover, Bahrain is so small and the people are so integrated that not being able to mutually understand each other is a far-fetched option. In a nutshell, the dialects in Bahrain and across the arab world are different enough to be, umm, different! But, they are similar enough to be understood with varying levels of diffcutly depending on many factors including geographic proximity, level of exposure in Arab media, etc.

By the way, thanks for mentioning my blog on your June 3rd post. :)

At 9:05 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am writing about your comments on the Maltese language. It is true that linguists lump Maltese with Arabic. The Semitic element of the language certainly derives from the language introduced into Sicily by North Africans, most of whom were recent converts to Islam, and Arabic was not their mother tongue. However to call it an Arabic dialect is not quite correct. The Maltese language was introduced by non native speakers to the inhabitants of Malta who themselves spoke a different language. That is different from anywhere in the Arabic speaking world where the Arabic speakers moved into various countries in large numbers and whose inhabitants already spoke Semitic languages like Aramaic. In the case of Malta it was foreign speakers of a faulty form of Semitic with Arabic affinities introducing their faulty language to the inhabitants of Malta. I am Maltese and I don't consider Maltese, Malti, any more indigenous than French, Italian or English. And yes it is a Colonial introduction. The reason many Maltese consider it their mother tongue is the fact that they don't understand Maltese history or do not know that Malta had a tiny population during the Muslim times and the introduced language completely swamped the local tongues.
By the way, your examples of Maltese words compared to standard Arabic, Quranic Arabic or the Arabic of the poetry or pre Islamic times looks O.K written in Maltese spelling and transliterated into Latin script but Kelb (dog) is pronouned Kelp, same with Bieb (door) is Biep. The last consonant changes pronunciation in the case of b, d and other letters. The letter Q in Maltese is a glottal stop, nothing like Arabic Q or English K. So Qattusa (cat, female) is pronounced 'attusa. The Latin word for cat is Cattus. The male cat is Qattus. Maltese deviates from Semitic quite strongly in many ways, not just by using foreign loan words and making them Maltese words in their usage, but by not following the regular Arabic way of making words from roots. Office is Ufficu in Maltese yet the word to write is based on the semitic stem of KTB. Maltese does not use Beit for house but the archaic Dar. Beit, spelt Bejt, in Maltese means roof or terrace. There are also some Berber words in Maltese like Fekruna, tortoise.
Personally most Maltese love their language but hate the association of it with Quranic Arabic or Arabic koine or Arab people. They are Westerners, Christians and Europeans. The Maltese themselves had a colonial presence in North Africa, in Morocco, Tunisia, Libya and Egypt, and they never assimilated with the locals but remained Europeans and associated with other Europeans solely. When the Brits, French etc were kicked out, the Maltese left with the other Europeans.

At 3:44 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

the person above me sounds extremely xenophobic, and not willing to realize that regardless of what maltese like to consider themselves, and regardless of their deformed pronounciations of some things, linguists consider maltese simply a lower-class form of colloqial uneducated spoken arabic, the Q is pronounced by many of the dialects of egypt and the levant the same way it is pronounced in Malta, as a glutteral stop "a", for instance saying "qadeysh behabbak ya qalbi" would be pronounced in many of the dialects of egypt and the levant as "adey(x,sh) behabbek ya albi" ...finally maltee is related to north african arabic and not levantine or egyptian arabic, or phoenician (punic) or aramaic, or hebrew, and this is why the Maltese say "dar" for house just like the north africans as opposed to "beit" as is said in Levantine Arabic, Egyptian, Aramaic, Canaanite "phoenician, punic" and hebrew. Your comments about the Maltese associating with Europeans and Westerners means nothing because guess what, Arab Christians have this tendency as well, and it has more to do with religion (being "christian" like the west, as oppsed to "muslim" like the "arab east" then it has to do with actual cultural, ethnic, and linguistic reality, so please stop being so ignorant and narrow minded and wake up!!! trust me arabs are not so eager to include a small number of renogade north african farmers and fisherman living on two main rocks, now speaking some bastard childish immature arabic who were most likely converted by force, by the sword, to catholicism by Norman knights. (by basis of your population numbers throughout history which you provided this seems to be the accurate history)

At 7:15 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Truth sometimes is difficult to accept and is unkind. The Maltese people are xenophobes when it comes to non Europeans like Arabs if such a thing exists. The Maltese language is hardly Maghrebi Arabic. Why? Tunisians only learnt their Arabic a hundred years or less than the Maltese learnt the version that was current in Southern Italy and Sicily. Maltese is the only European representation of Arabic in existence barring the language spoken in Cyprus by displaced Levantines now dying out. You all talk of Arabic. What Arabic? Quranic Arabic is a religious tongue, not spoken as a daily language in any country. MSA is the modernised version used in Arab countries in order to purify and return all those Arabic "dialects" to the pure form. So Arabic is like Latin, and those "dialects" are like French, Italian, Spanish, Romanian and Portuguese. All separate Semitic languages which are disregarded because of some idea that Arabic is divine. Arabic is just the dialect of one Arabian tribe of the 6th century frozen in time. All those "dialects" should be separate languages which Maltese has managed to do, but the speakers are Europeans and not Asians.


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