The merger of ḍād and ẓā’ in Arabic

As noted in a previous post, Arabic, being a Semitic language, has a series of “emphatic” consonants, which are realized with a simultaneous secondary constriction in the back of the mouth or in the throat. The Arabic pronunciation of the emphatics contrasts with their pronunciation in its hypothesized ancestor Proto-Semitic (PS), where they were likely ejective consonants.


Diagram of the places of articulation of the Arabic consonants. Notice that ظ is pronounced at the tip of the tongue, while ض is pronounced at the sides of the mouth. Source.

Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) has two voiced emphatic consonants ض/ḍād and ظ/ẓā’ḍād is pronounced similar to d as in “dog.” Its typical IPA notation is /dˤ/. ẓā’ is pronounced somewhat like the th in ‘this,’ and is most often transcribed in IPA as /ðˤ/. The UCLA Phonetics Lab has recordings of Arabic, which illustrate the difference between the plain and emphatic consonants.

ḍād and ẓā’ are derived from two PS consonants that are transcribed as *ṣ́ and *ṯ̣, respectively. Because PS is a hypothetical language, we can only speculate as to its actual features (if it was indeed ever a unified language). But based on a variety of information from Semitic languages, both dead and living, scholars have postulated that *ṣ́ was a lateral fricative consonant, something like /ɬ’/ or /tɬ’/. Only the Modern South Arabian languages, spoken primarily in Yemen and Oman, preserve this pronunciation in the present day.

There is a great deal of evidence that at one point, Arabic too preserved a lateral pronunciation of *ṣ́, or more specifically in its Arabic descendant ḍād. For instance, Sībawayh, a Persian scholar who lived in the 8th century CE and who was the first person to write down a grammar of Arabic Al-Kitāb, says the sound was pronounced min bayni ’awwali ḥāffati l-lisāni wa-mā yalīhi mina l-’aḍrāṣ “between the beginning of the tongue’s edge and the adjacent molars.” The probable pronunciation was probably /ɮˤ/. This description is very different from Sībawayh’s characterization of modern ḍād‘s voiceless counterpart ṭā’: mimmā bayni ṭarafi l-lisāni wa-’uṣūli ṯ-ṯanāyā “between the tip of the tongue and the base of the incisors.”

Beyond these descriptions, there is evidence from Arabic dialects and languages that have borrowed from Arabic that ḍād had a lateral pronunciation. For instance, in the Arabic of Dathina, spoken in southern Yemen, ḍād is reportedly pronounced as (not unlike the l in “ball”): e.g. ’abyaḷ for ’abyaḍ “white.” In Malay and Indonesian borrowings from Arabic, ḍad sometimes corresponds to l or dllaif or dlaif < ḍa‘īf “weak.” Similarly, in Spanish borrowings from Arabic, ḍād usually has a lateral element: alcalde “mayor” < l-qāḍī “judge.” Eventually, in a process that will be explained below, ḍād lost its lateral quality and is now pronounced as /dˤ/ in Modern Standard Arabic and many colloquial varieties.

*ṯ̣, the ancestor of ẓā’, was likely an ejective dental fricative or affricate, /θ’/ or /tθ’/. By the time of Sībawayh, it had probably developed into its modern pronunciation of /ðˤ/, as he describes its place of articulation as mimmā bayni ṭarafi l-lisāni wa-’aṭrāfi ṯ-ṯanāyā “between the tip of the tongue and the tip of the incisors.”

While Modern Standard Arabic maintains a regular distinction between ḍād and ẓā’, practically every modern colloquial Arabic variety has merged the two, either into ḍād or ẓā’. The general rule is that if the particular dialect maintained the two interdental fricatives ṯā’/ث and ḏāl/ذ (pronounced like the th in “thin” and “this,” respectively), then the form that survived is ẓā’. If the interdental fricatives became tā’/ت and dāl/د, then ẓā’ merged with ḍād. In other words, it appears that these sound changes took place as a result of analogous interpretation by Arabic speakers. But there exists a problem with this theory. If the loss of ḍād is connected to the preservation of the plain interdental fricatives, how can we explain the continued existence of plain stops tā’ and dāl? If the process were indeed analogous, then they, too, should have merged with their fricative counterparts and became ṯā’/ث and ḏāl/ذ. But that doesn’t happen in any dialect of Arabic.

In order to explain the modern pronunciation of ḍād, we must refer back to its original lateral form. Like all of the emphatics, *ṣ́ had a plain counterpart  in PS, probably pronounced as /ɬ/ or /tɬ/. This sound continued to be distinguished in Arabic, but it its pronunciation had changed by the time of Sībawayh, who described it as being pronounced min wasaṭi l-lisāni baynihi wa-bayna wasaṭi l-ḥanaki l-’a‘lā “from the middle of the tongue and the middle of the soft palate.” Some scholars have suggested that this is a description of /ç/, which is different from the modern pronunciation of /ʃ/. In any case, it’s pretty much clear that the lateral quality had been lost by the 8th century, which made ḍād fairly isolated in the system as a lateral fricative. Over time, ḍād became more and more like ẓā’, eventually merging with it completely. This means that every dialect of Arabic that survives to this day at one point had only the consonant /ðˤ/ to represent both ḍād and ẓā’.  Thereafter, those dialects that merged their interdental fricatives ṯā’ and ḏāl with tā’ and dal also changed the emphatic interdental fricative /ðˤ/ into a new sound /dˤ/, which then became the modern pronunciation of ḍād.

The preceding is a fairly straightforward explanation, but it’s also highly theoretical. In real life, language is very rarely this precise: there are always complications and exceptions. Arabic, after all, is a living language, spoken by hundreds of millions of people in a variety of social contexts. Therefore, it isn’t enough to just present the history of sound changes as if that’s the whole story. We must also look at the how people use the language because that absolutely affects the trajectory of the language as a whole.

For example, in Jordan, there are two types of dialects: Palestinian-origin and native Jordanian-origin. The dialect of the capital Amman is strongly influenced by Palestinian urban dialects, which were brought over by Palestinian refugees after 1948. Like other urban dialects within the Levant, the historic interdental fricatives have been lost for many speakers of Ammani Arabic. The native Jordanian dialects, on the other hand, are mostly rural and have maintained the fricatives. So where someone from Amman might say tnēn [tne:n] “two” or ’axad [ʔaxad] “take,” a person from Karak would say ṯnēn [θne:n] or ’axaḏ [ʔaxað]. Native Jordanian dialects have also historically had an interdental pronunciation for both ḍād and ẓā’: ḍarab “hit” and ẓaher “back” are both pronounced with ẓā’. Yet, as Al-Wer (2004) reports, the ẓa’ pronunciation has developed a stigma in Jordanian society as a mark of uneducated or uncultured speech, which has resulted in Jordanian Arabic speakers using it less and less. It is now a highly marked form that is restricted to a minority of speakers in the country. Yet the plain interdentals ṯā’ and ḏāl are not similarly stigmatized and continue to be pronounced unchanged as fricatives. Thus in Jordan, there are now speakers who preserve the plain interdentals but not their emphatic counterpart, which contradicts the expected outcome of the above historical account.

This situation underscores the importance of social factors as an element in linguistic analysis. In Jordan and in the Levant more generally, urban dialects are considered more prestigious, and there has been a trend in the region as a whole towards the dominance of urban dialects over rural dialects (of course, there are complicating factors, but urban prestige is certainly one of the important factors). If scholars were writing about these sounds 100 years in the future with no information about the social context of the Jordan, they would likely have a hard time explaining why Jordanian dialects maintained the plain interdental fricatives but not the emphatic one. At the same time, if scholars did not have any information about the history of these sounds, they would also not be able to accurately explain why the emphatic ḍād and ẓā’ are treated differently from plain counterparts ṯā’ and ḏāl in modern Arabic dialects. Al-Wer’s study of the ḍād and ẓā’ is a perfect example of how synthesizing a field as theoretical as historical phonology together with a field as practical as sociolinguistics can provide a more complete understanding of the features of a given language.


Al-Wer, E. (2004). Variability reproduced: A variationist view of the [ḏ]̣/[ḍ] opposition in modern Arabic dialects. In M. Haak, R. de Jong, & K. Versteegh (eds.), Approaches to Arabic dialects : A collection of articles presented to Manfred Woidich on the occasion of his sixtieth birthday: 21-32. Leiden: Brill.

Carter, M. G. (2004). Sībawayhi. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Kogan, L. (2011). Proto-Semitic Phonetics and Phonology. In S. Weninger, G. Khan, M. P. Streck, & J. C. Watson (Eds.), The Semitic Languages: An International Handbook: 54-151. Berlin: De Gruyter Mouton.

Lipinski, E. (1997). Semitic Languages: Outline of a Comparative Grammar. Leuven: Peeters.

Versteegh, K. (1997). The Arabic Language. New York: Columbia University Press.

Watson, J. C. E. (2002). The Phonology and Morphology of Arabic. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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