Posted by: xeper | September 20, 2008

What Language Do Egyptians Speak Today?

Many years ago, an Egyptian cultural magazine called Macreyya “Masreyya” published an article about Modern Egyptian Language that confirmed a suspicion I had; it said that the language spoken by Modern Egyptians and generally considered a dialect of Arabic language in fact has less than 50% Arabic words. Needless to say, most current Egyptians are shocked to hear this, and conveniently discard it as an overstatement. It’s understandable, since Egyptians are conditioned that they speak “Arabic” and that the differences between the written language and spoken language are only in the limits found in any other language, but that is another debate we might revisit later.

Today’s post inaugurates a cultural project to study Modern Egyptian Language. Specifically, it will study the roots of the “Arabic” language as spoken in Egypt. And by roots I do not limit myself to etymology, but also to sentence structure and even idioms or other forms of verbal expression.

Limited by resources, I can only focus on Cairo dialect. Optimally, however, such a study should have covered the main languages spoken throughout the country: Arabic (including East Bedouin, West Bedouin, Delta, South/Upper-Egyptian, and Cairo), Nubian (both Kenzi/Dongolaawi and Fadjekka), and possibly Siwi. There are other languages spoken in Egypt as a first language (most notably Domari/”Gypsy”, Greek, Armenian, and another isolated language on the coast of the Red Sea**). However, my research so far suggests that Arabic, Nubian, and possibly Siwi (through Berber) are organically related to Ancient Egyptian language (including Coptic*).

I will work in parallel on all aspects of the language. My first impulse was to start an etymological dictionary, arranged by alphabetical order. This approach I have found inappropriate to my little-steps capacities because it can produce coherent results only after lots of work. I will change this into an etymological dictionary arranged by subject. This will have several advantages over the other approach:

  • It is more suitable to a blog since you will get word lists that show how we modern Egyptians view our world, per subject, which I think would make better sense in a post than an alphabetical word list
  • Subject posts are more engaging so you can share more words in the same subject. It will help you remember by association
  • I could have more entries for this dictionary that deal with other issues than word lists, such as usage, word structure, etc
  • When enough material has been collected, it would still be possible to reorder everything in a strictly alphabetical order if need arises

The type of posts I expect to add to the project will include:

  • Etymological word lists, mostly arranged by subject
  • Entries describing Modern Egyptian grammar and syntax, including history of grammatical and syntax rules
  • Idioms and standard expressions, with historical roots especially if borrowed from another language
  • Words, word lists, idioms, standard expressions, etc, submitted by others for inclusion in the project, usually as comments, but if someone wants, then possibly as special posts where I will give the original authors full credit of their contributions
  • Summaries of other studies on Modern Egyptian Language

I intend to use this post as the project’s home page, so it is expected to undergo changes as more work is done in the project. Particularly, I intend to add below links to the new posts as they become available.

Published Project Posts:

Project Posts in the Pipeline (fourth Wednesday of the month):

  • Clothes (Scheduled Oct 22)
  • Office and Comupting (Nov 26)
  • Holidays (Dec 24)
  • Food (Jan 28)
  • Jobs (Feb 25)
  • Car and Driving (Mar 25)
  • Technology, non-Computing ()
  • Arms and Military ()
  • Miscellaneous ()

~~~~

* I have reservations regarding wikipedia’s claim that Coptic is the last stage of the Egyptian language. And this project aims to prove that Modern Egyptian is that final stage, until replaced by something else as history takes its natural course.

** I heard about this one from Sahara Safaris’ Mohamed Mabrouk. According to Mabrouk, it is spoken by a tribe of fierce warriors that has a special square-formation fighting technique that was studied by the British occupation in Egypt. I have to find the name of that language from him.

How can I improve this project? What subjects would you like to see? Like this post? Share it with friends or the online community on any of the platforms below..

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Responses

  1. Great subject and I will be following these posts with interest. Egyptian Arabic was my first contact with the Arabic Language so I always took it for granted that from here, it wouldn’t be so difficult to learn Fus’Ha. I was wrong. I took some classes in Fus’Ha with a great teacher who refused to let me say one word of Egyptian Arabic in the class! This was tough. You can imagine that I took it for granted most of the words I know would be the same in Fus’Ha with slight differences in accent at most. So think of the number of dirty looks I received everytime I opened my mouth. We spoke (or I tried to speak 3 languages in that class!)

    When she would teach me certain words and I’d find out the meanings I think I asked at least once every week “So where did the Egyptians get their Arabic from?”.

    I can’t remember many of the questions I had at the time, but one springs to mind now. I’m not sure of the proper rule for it so will give an example:

    Ma’lish from Ma’a liyya shayt… these words which are frequently shortened from “with” “the verb” and “thing”. Why is this so common in Egyptian Arabic?

    What about furniture and colours? How did we get from a word like ma’da to tarabeeza (and where does tawla come in). I noticed there was a lack of words for colours in Fus’Ha.

    Would you be able to cover how Arabic has extended to influence other languages? I know a few words from Egypt have been adopted in some English Slang .. one word I can think of is Shufty… In London when we want to look at something we say “Let’s have a shufty”. Adopted by the British during their occupation in Egypt? Another one is Fella meaning Man… wee bint meaning girl and used by the Scottish. If I think of more I will also add.

    From Pharaoh’s Lips: Ancient Egyptian Language in the Arabic of Today. It should be easy to find in bookshops like Volume one, Diwan and AUC. I think it was published by the AUC. This is a great book. Type the title into Google and you’ll be able to read some of it in google booksearch.

  2. Just to clarify what I mean with colours…. if I asked my teacher for the word of certain colours she would usually have to tell me what is used in Egyptian Arabic because there was no word for it in Fus’Ha. Labany, betingani (sp.) etc


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