§A. The Arabic stress, like the English one, means pronouncing a certain syllable with greater loudness, higher pitch, and longer duration. The modern Arabic dialects have somewhat different stress patterns, and it is unknown how Classical Arabic was stressed. The old linguists did not say a word about this subject, because the concept of stress was unknown to them.
§B. Modern Arabic-speakers pronounce Standard Arabic words with stress patterns similar to those of their own vernacular dialects. For this reason the same Standard word may be accentuated differently in different locations, and sometimes even in the same location, because some speakers may fail to correctly apply the stress rules of their vernacular speech to a Standard word. For example, the Standard word ša.ˈǵa.ra.·tun شَجَرَةٌ “tree” is usually accented on the second syllable when pronounced by an educated Syrian speaker, and this is the correct accent based on the rules of Syrian Arabic. However, some Syrian speakers may accent the first syllable ˈša.ǵa.ra.·tun, and this accent would not sound strange to any Syrian speaker, because the cognate word in the Syrian vernacular is accented on the first syllable ˈša.ǵa.ra·t or ˈšaǵ.ra·t. What happens here is that some speakers choose to copy the vernacular location of the stress to a Standard word, whereas the usual thing is to apply the vernacular rules on a Standard word.
§C. Probably because of all those considerations the authors who have written on the stress of Classical Arabic have produced different results, some which are strange (e.g. the rule stated in §31 of William Wright’s A Grammar of the Arabic Language (1859)).
§D. Despite the variety of modern stress patterns, it is possible (in my opinion) to reduce all the modern stress patterns to two basic patterns that differ slightly. The first pattern is particularly common in the east (in Arabia, Mesopotamia, and Greater Syria). The second pattern seems to have existed formerly in most of the western dialects (perhaps it was spread by the Ħimyarites, who were Arabic-speakers but they may also have spoken a language of their own). Nowadays most of the western dialects seem to have mixed stress patterns composed (perhaps) of an older western pattern and a superimposed eastern pattern (perhaps because of Bedouinic migrations from the east).
What I mean by those stress patterns is how Standard Arabic words are usually pronounced by modern speakers.
§E. The eastern stress pattern is identical to the stress pattern of Latin. The rules are as follows:
- The ultimate (last) syllable is never stressed.
- If the penultimate (second-to-last) syllable is a heavy syllable (has the form CVV or CVC), it receives the stress. Otherwise the stress falls on the antepenultimate syllable (the one before the penultimate, if it exists).
Following are examples. The points (.) separate the syllables. The diacritic (ˈ) indicates which syllable is stressed.
“a child, boy”
“[he] heard her”
“[he] helped her”
Small words that are procliticized to other words are not accented. Following are some example.
“the morrow” = “tomorrow”
“Is it not?”
§F. In the western stress pattern the penultimate syllable seems to have been always stressed, regardless of whether it was heavy or light. A dialect that probably had this pattern is the dialect of Cairo (which is a dialect with great ties to Ħimyaritic Arabic). In the modern dialect of Cairo the stress falls in most cases on the penultimate syllable, even if it is light. For example, the words mad.ˈra.sa·t “school” and mu.dar.ˈri.sa·t “female teacher” are accented on the light penultimate (the eastern pronunciation is ˈmad.ra.sa·t and mu.ˈdar.ri.sa·t). The only exception to the rule in Cairene Arabic is the pronunciation of the sequence ˈCV.CV.CV (three consecutive light syllables). In Cairene Arabic (as in the eastern dialects) this sequence is accented on the antepenultimate. For example, the word ˈka.ta.ba كَتَبَ “[he] wrote” is accented on the first syllable, as in the eastern dialects.
§G. However, there is evidence in Cairene Arabic that points to a former pronunciation ka.ˈta.ba (with the stress on the second syllable). The Classical verb ʔa.xa.ða أَخَذَ “[he] took” is reduced in Cairene Arabic to xad. If the first syllable of this verb was stressed, one would not except it to fall off. It rather seems that this verb was pronounced with the stress on the second syllable (like the Ethiopic pronunciation ʔa.ˈxa.za አኀዘ). The same explanation applies to Cairene kal and ħad as opposed to Classical ʔa.ka.la أَكَلَ “[he] ate” and ʔa.ħa.duṋ أَحَدٌ “(some)one.”
§H. The Bedouins of the Negev say ki.ˈtab “[he] wrote,” fi.ˈhim “[he] understood,” and ǵi.ˈmal “camel.” A similar accentuation exists also in the Bedouin speech of the Cyrenaican Jebel in eastern Libya. This accentuation indicates earlier ka.ˈta.ba كَتَبَ , fa.ˈhi.ma فَهِمَ , and ǵa.ˈma.lun جَمَلٌ . Since those are Bedouin dialects, one wonders whether the western-type stress was merely Ħimyaritic.
§I. It is possible that the ancient Ħimyarites spoke with a slow drawl. In Greater Syria the mountainous regions usually preserve more Ħimyaritic traits than the lowlands (which are more easily accessible to Bedouins). I have heard people from Mount Lebanon and the mountains of northwestern Syria speak with a very slow drawl that is otherwise unusual in the Arab world. Jean Cantineau recorded a similar drawl in Ħawrȃn (in Les parlers arabes du Horan (1940)). A similar drawl was also said to exist in Aden. Chaim Rabin (in Ancient West-Arabian (1951), p. 102 §m) suggested that this drawl was characteristic of the speech of the Ħimyarites as well as of the ancient west Arabians (including Qurayš قُرَيْشُ , the inhabitants of Mecca). Rabin believed this drawl to be what is meant by terms such as ɣaɣama·tuṋ غَمْغَمَةٌ and ʕaǵʕaǵa·tuṋ عَجْعَجَةٌ , which were applied to the speech of Qurayš قُرَيْشُ and Quḍȃʕa·t قُضَاْعَةُ (a large tribe of northern Ħiǵȃz).
§J. If Rabin is correct, then it is possible that the western stress pattern was characteristic of western Arabia as well as Yemen. This may explain why this pattern is found today in the the Negev (which is part of the territory of Quḍȃʕa·t قُضَاْعَةُ ).
So it is possible that the two modern stress patterns coexisted already in early Islam.
§K. A strange note is found in §31 of William Wright’s Arabic grammar (which was published in 1859). It is said that words such as ka.ta.ba.tȃ كَتَبَتَاْ “they(fem. dual) wrote” and qa.ṣa.ba.tu.hu.mȃ قَصَبَتُهُمَاْ “their(dual) flute” are accented on the first syllable. I doubt that such accentuation exists in any modern Arabic dialect. It certainly does not exist in Greater Syria or northern Egypt where Wright is likely to have gained his information from. It would seem that Wright deduced his information from analyzing vernacular words. For example, he might have heard the Syrian word ˈqa.ta.lō, which corresponds to Classical qa.ta.la.hu قَتَلَهُ “[he] killed him,” and since the vernacular word is accented on the first syllable Wright could have reached the false conclusion that the Classical word was accented also on the first syllable. By making several such false comparisons he could have reached the (false) general conclusion he stated in §31. It is also possible that he relied on the half-vernacular pronunciation of Standard Arabic that was commonly used at that time by the religious preachers and storytellers. We cannot blame him much, because at the time he was studying this subject there were few Arabic-speakers who could read and write. Proficiency in Standard Arabic was very limited.
۞ SIDE NOTE
The dialects that had the western-type stress (the penultimate-always stress) tend towards shortening of the long vowels in all unstressed syllables, whether those syllables are terminal or not. Thus, the Classical word θamȃniya·tuṋ ثَمَاْنِيَةٌ “eight” is pronounced tamanya in Egypt and Palestine. In the dialect of Mount Lebanon the form tmena– appears in compound numbers, e.g. tmena-w-tmenīn (“eighty-eight,” cf. the form used in Aleppo tmēnā-w-tmēnīn). In the dialects of northern Egypt, Palestine, and Lebanon the feminine plural ending –āt is often pronounced –at. The negative word mȃ مَاْ “not” is also pronounced with a short vowel when procliticized to another word, e.g. Lebanese ma-baʕrif “I do not know” as opposed to Aleppo mā baʕref.