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What is bedouin-type Arabic? The linguistic and socio-historical realities behind the millennia-old dichotomous concept of nomadic and sedentary people in the Middle East and North Africa

Project description

Tracing the history of the Arabic language

From Iran to Mauretania, countless spoken varieties of Arabic are in use, and more than 350 million people speak Arabic in settings characterised by a high degree of diglossia. In this context, the ERC-funded WIBARAB project will focus on the language of the Bedouins that spread with the Arab expansion in the Middle East and North Africa since the 7th century. The aim is to better understand the nature of the linguistic dichotomy between sedentary and nomadic varieties. The project will establish the first set of linguistic phenomena that characterise the Bedouin-sedentary split. In addition to phonological and morphological features, the project will also study a range of other aspects, from syntax to the influence of intra-dialect contacts and historical migrations.


This project will investigate the linguistic differences between originally nomadic and sedentary people, i.e. one of the key concepts in the history of the Arabic language and the grouping of its contemporary spoken varieties. While the dichotomy between Bedouins and sedentary communities is of crucial importance for the (social) history, economy, and linguistic identity of the Arabic speaking Middle East and North Africa, it is still insufficiently understood. WIBARAB aims to establish for the first time a robust set of linguistic phenomena that characterize the bedouin-sedentary split. To this end, it not only considers (1) phonological and morphological features as hitherto has been done, but also (2) typology, grammaticalization pathways, syntax, phraseology, and lexicon, and (3) the influence of intra-dialect contacts and historical migrations. WIBARAB will provide new data from three under-researched Arabic varieties and investigate linguistic attitudes towards bedouin-type dialects on the basis of five case-studies with different social and geographical settings. Its holistic approach challenges well-established views and methodically shows how diachronic linguistic data can provide proxy data for history and vice versa. WIBARAB also studies the impact of social settings, particularly tribal and patriarchal structures, as possible factors for the linguistic conservatism of contemporary bedouin-type Arabic. It includes recent findings in human genome analysis where appropriate and ethically acceptable, and makes ample use of the possibilities provided by digital humanities.
WIBARAB adopts methods grounded in general linguistics, sociolinguistics, and historical interpretation to shed light on a phenomenon of fundamental importance in the history and the present of one of the world’s largest languages.

Host institution

Net EU contribution
€ 2 200 751,00
1010 Wien

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Ostösterreich Wien Wien
Activity type
Higher or Secondary Education Establishments
Total cost
€ 2 200 751,00

Beneficiaries (2)