Brega cannot be Arabic!

24 and 26 April 2011

City name

These days Libya is in the news a lot, and so are names of cities in that country. One of them is Brega.

Now I know that Arabic is the official language in Libya. So it is strange that a city there would have the name Brega, because Brega cannot be Arabic!


How can I be so sure? Well, every human language has a set of rules about what sequences of sounds, and so what combinations of letters in the written language, can occur. This is called phonotactics, sometimes also referred to as distribution rules, because these rules dictate how the building blocks of speech, the phonemes, of a language can be distributed, that is put together to build words and larger units.

What is common in many languages can be impossible in another. For example, in languages like English, German, Dutch, Spanish, it is quite commonplace to have some consonant at the start of a word and then an r, which is followed by a vowel. Many such languages can even have consonant clusters like ‘str’ at the beginning of a word.

So the name Brega is easy to pronounce in those languages.


But Arabic is different. The phonotactics of Arabic have two basic rules:

Because Brega starts with two consonants, it simply cannot be an Arabic name!

But it is!

Nevertheless, the fact remains that Brega exists and is often called Brega. How is that possible?

To find out, I took a look in Wikipedia. One of the nice things about Wikipedia is that place names are often also mentioned in the local language, and local script if necessary. It turns out that the full name of Brega is Marsa el-Brega. In Arabic transliteration this is marsā al-burayqa(h), or  مرسى البريقة  in real Arabic script.

Vernacular Arabic

So how can Burayqa have become Brega?

This is not as strange as it seems. The syllable with the ay in it is heavy and therefore bears the word stress. That makes the short [u] (as in English ‘put’) unstressed and weak, so in colloquial pronunciation, perhaps it can easily vanish, almost or completely.

Arabic is a language with diglossia. The written language (which is also spoken, on the radio and in television broadcasts) is essentially a dialect from 622 CE, with some modern expressions and meanings added to make it suitable for our era. This is called MSA or Modern Standard Arabic.

The local vernaculars in various Arabic-speaking countries differ a lot from MSA and from each other.

Local pronunciations

What is transcribed as ‘ay’, in 622 probably sounded like the diphthong of English sigh, die, my and aye. In (one of) the vernacular(s) of Egypt however, it is more like the vowel of the English words day, make, break. Perhaps this is also the case in parts of neighbouring Libya. Then the letter ‘e’ in the name Brega may be a way to transcribe this, perhaps based on Italian. Libya has been a colony of Italy for some time.

Then we have the letter q of Classical and Modern Standard Arabic. In those now artificial (but living!) languages, it sounds like some sort of k (as in English cool), but much deeper in the throat. In many vernaculars however (although not that of central Egypt) it is the ‘g’ of English great, French grand and German groß.

If that is also the case in Libya near Brega, it explains why the Arabic q is written as a g.


In summary, we see the following transformations to arrive at Brega departing from Burayqa:

Burayqa Loss of short unstressed vowel Brayqa
Brayqa Colloquial rendering of <q> as [g] Brayga
Brayga Colloquial rendering of <ay> as [e:] Brega

So if the local language were written (which it isn’t), and in the Latin alphabet, Brega wouldn’t be a bad spelling choice at all!

In Arabic script, the existing بريقة , applying local pronunciation conventions, wouldn’t be wrong either, because short vowels are unwritten anyway, so if that first short [u] is missing, it makes no difference.



There was never a need to write this article in the first place. It isn't about anything relevant, because things are OK the way they are!

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