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Durham University

School of Modern Languages & Cultures: Arabic Studies

Staff in the Department of Arabic

Go to the MLAC staff pages.

Dr Alex Bellem, BA (Man), MA, PhD (London)

Personal web page

Assistant Professor in the School of Modern Languages and Cultures
Telephone: +44 (0) 191 33 43438
Room number: A45, Elvet Riverside I

Contact Dr Alex Bellem (email at


I am a linguist specialising in comparative and theoretical phonology and phonetics, and Middle Eastern languages, mainly Arabic dialects. After graduating from the University of Manchester with a BA in Middle Eastern Studies (Arabic and Turkish), I returned to live in Damascus before then moving to London to complete an MA in Linguistics at UCL. I subsequently spent several years parenting, working as an academic editor and then teaching English language, then moving on to PhD research and teaching in the Department of Linguistics at SOAS in London. I also spent a sabbatical year as a Pronunciation Linguist at the BBC; I continue to work with the Pronunciation Research Unit on an ad hoc basis to provide pronunciation guidance on Arabic (and related languages). In 2008 I took up a Post-Doctoral Fellowship with the CBRL British Institute in Amman, based in Jordan and then Syria as the first CBRL Research Director (Syria). I later held a 1-year Lectureship in Linguistics at the University of Salford before joining the University of Durham in 2012. I currently serve on the CBRL's Committee of Management.

My research interests centre mostly on Semitic phonology and phonetics, with a particular focus on Iraqi and Syrian dialects of Arabic, and on phonological theory; my major interests are in pharyngealisation (/emphatics) and phonation and in phonological representations, working in the framework of Government Phonology and Element Theory. My PhD thesis was on the ‘emphatic’ consonants of the Semitic languages, and especially across the dialects of Arabic. I have interests in Arabic linguistics more broadly and on the question of what 'Arabic' is. I have also worked on phonological systems of North-East Caucasian (Nakh-Daghestanian) languages. I collaborate with Janet C.E. Watson on the phonetics and phonology of Mehri, a Modern South Arabian language of Oman and Yemen. I have additional research interests in areal phonological features, particularly related to Kurdish and Neo-Aramaic.

I am currently collaborating on several projects. I am co-investigator on a Leverhulme-funded project documenting the Modern South Arabian languages, led by Prof Janet Watson:

I am involved in a collaborative research project with Prof G. Rex Smith on Literary Mixed Arabic, in particular a linguistic analysis of some Arabic texts of mixed register of the 12th, 13th and 14th–15th centuries:

In 2016 I spent 3 months as a Senior Visiting Fellow at the British Institute, Amman, funded by a CBRL award, to set up a collaborative project on rural dialects, working with Dr Carol Palmer

I would be happy to receive PhD applications in any of these areas.

Research Groups

  • Translation/Linguistics/Pedagogy

Research Interests

  • Arabic dialect studies and linguistics (comparative phonology)
  • Phonological typology and theory (in particular, segmental representations)
  • Phonetics
  • Middle Eastern languages
  • Comparative Semitic linguistics
  • Folk literature and oral narrative

Indicators of Esteem

  • Trustee & Honorary Secretary, CBRL:

    The Council for British Research in the Levant (CBRL) is a research organisation and grant-awarding body that conducts, supports and promotes research in the history, culture, society and archaeology of the Levant, and which is affiliated to the British Academy as one of the British International Research Institutes. CBRL is based in London and now has two research institutes, the Kenyon Institute in Jerusalem and the British Institute in Amman; CBRL previously had a research base in Damascus and hopes to return to Syria as soon as possible. CBRL supports research through a range of fellowships, grants and awards. CBRL publications include the annual CBRL Bulletin, two academic journals - Levant and Contemporary Levant - and occasional monographs.

Selected Publications

Chapter in book

Conference Paper

  • 2017 (co-authored with Smith, G. Rex) 'A Linguistic Analysis of Two Literary Mixed Arabic Texts from Late 19th/Early 20th-Century Yemen'.
  • 2017 (co-authored with Watson, Janet C.E.) 'Ssshhh! A New Analysis of the Śḥerɛ̄ t s̃ ~ š Contrast'.
  • 2017 (co-authored with Smith, G. Rex) 'What is Literary Mixed Arabic? A Linguistic Analysis of Negatives and Relatives in Two Yemeni Texts'.
  • 2016 'Areal Features, Arabic and Emphatics in Greater Kurdistan'.
  • 2016 'Disappearing Lifestyles, Disappearing Dialects? A Fieldwork Exploration of Some Rural Jordanian Arabics. Lecture hosted by the Friends of the Oriental Museum, University of Durham, UK'.
  • 2016 'In Search of Endangered Dialects: A Fieldwork Exploration of Some Arabics of Jordan. Public lecture jointly hosted by the Institut Francais du Proche-Orient & Council for British Research in the Levant, Amman, Jordan []'.
  • 2016 'Linguistic Fieldwork on Southern Iraqi Arabic. Paper invited for the conference and workshop hosted by BISI and Friends of Basrah Museum to mark the opening of the Basrah Museum'.
  • 2016 'Whose Language? Disappearing Dialects, Disappearing Cultures. Paper presented at the CBRL-LMEI showcase conference 'The Past in the Present of the Middle East', SOAS, University of London, UK'.
  • 2015 'Phonological Representations: Melody, manner and the elements that wear two hats. Paper presented at the North-East Research Away Day in Linguistics in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, UK'.
  • 2015 'Resonance Pattern Typologies and Two-Hat Elements: Evidence from outside Europe. Paper presented at Elements Fest III, 2015 at UCL-SOAS in London, UK'.
  • 2014 'Resonance Pattern Typologies in Arabic and North-East Caucasian. Paper presented at the North-East Research Away Day in Linguistics in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, UK'.
  • 2013 (co-authored with Smith, G. Rex) '"Middle Arabic"? Morpho-syntactic features of clashing grammars in a 13th-century Arabian text. Seminar for Arabian Studies, special panel on Languages of South Arabia in Antiquity and Modern Times. British Museum, London, UK'.
  • 2012 'Triads, Emphatics and Interdentals in Arabic Sound System Typology. Paper presented at conference on 'Backing: Glottal and Guttural Patterns in Onsets and Nuclei' at CNRS, Paris, France []'.
  • 2011 'Arabic Emphatic Typology: Phonation and Resonance. Invited lecture at Newcastle University, UK'.
  • 2011 'Consonant Identity in Arabic (Dialect) Phonology: Elemental! GLOW 34 (34th Annual Generative Linguistics in the Old World Colloquium) at Vienna University, Austria'.
  • 2011 (co-authored with Watson, Janet C. E.) 'Issues in the Phonology of Emphatics. OCP8 (8th Old-World Conference in Phonology) hosted by the University of Hassan II, Ain Chock, Casablanca in Marrakech, Morocco'.
  • 2011 'Setting up a Typology of Arabic Emphatics: Relevant Issues. Invited plenary speech, Postgraduate Conference on Arabic Phonetics and Phonology at York'.
  • 2011 'Triads, Emphatics and Interdentals in Arabic Sound System Typology. 14th Italian Meeting of Afroasiatic Linguistics at Turin, Italy'.

Edited Journal

  • 2004 (co-authored with Rowan, K.) SOAS Working Papers in Linguistics 13. 13

Journal Article

Show all publications

Selected Grants

  • 2016: Disappearing Dialects? Arabic and Traditional Lifestyles of the Rural North, Cnetre and South of Jordan (£4350.00 from CBRL)
  • 2015: Documentation and ethnolinguistic analysis of the Modern South Arabian Languages