Posted by: xeper | September 23, 2008

Towards a Standardized Modern Egyptian Alphabet

Modern Egyptian has no standard alphabet or writing system. It is commonly written in one of two alphabet sets; the Arabic Script*, and the Roman Alphabet. While some people nearly exclusively use one of the two systems, some use them interchangeably. The differences in personal preference largely represent the two main cultural pull factors seen everywhere in modern Egyptian society. However, most adopting the Roman alphabet are generally more receptive to the Arabic alphabet than vice versa.

This, in addition to the larger numbers of those who prefer the Arabic letters, may be why most advertising campaigns use the Arabic alphabet. Electronic chat services and mobile SMSes see both scripts, with “El 7oruuf L Engiliizi”, or English Letters*, as Egyptians call the standard set of Western letters, more popular on SMSes due to techno-economic reasons (significantly more English letters than Arabic can be crammed into 1 short message).

Putting personal preferences aside, I would like to examine briefly the advantages and disadvantages of studying Modern Egyptian using each of the two scripts:

Arabic script:

  • Arabic letters are more accessible to more average Egyptians
  • Arabic letters represent Modern Egyptian consonants more faithfully than do English letters
  • Arabic letters only include the standard set, in addition to the three letters we can borrow from Farsi: V (faa2 with three dots), P (baa2 with three dots underneath), and J (djiim with three letters underneath). It will be more difficult to find non-standard symbols on the Arabic keyboard than the English/International one
  • Arabic letters cover all consonants of Modern Egyptian Language
  • The form of Arabic letters and the abgdhwz order comes from Phoenician alphabet, which was derived from Ancient Egyptian symbols (another source here)
  • The current Arabic script commonly includes Indian numerals; an elegant but ambiguous font (is this a zero or a full stop? oh, it’s just a dot from the paper! Is that a classic 2 or a short-hand 3? look in the rest of the document to compare with other numerals!)

Roman alphabet:

  • English letters** are more accessible to more (Egyptian and other) linguists and scholars of Modern Egyptian Language, as well as to computer users in general
  • English letters are more capable of faithfully representing Modern Egyptian vowels than do Arabic letters; not only because of usual lack of action/formation marks “tashkiil” when writing Arabic letters, or the usual misplacement of such marks, but also due to subtle differences between vowels such as E (as the French “É“) vs I (like “ee” in free); differences which, to my humble knowledge, are difficult to represent using Arabic letters
  • In addition to the standard set of English letters, we can find in nowadays’ software a whole set of non standard letters from French, German, Spanish, and East European languages. It will be easier to denote more sounds using already-available variations of English letters than Arabic letters
  • While English lacks letters for many Modern Egyptian consonants such as the “Sh” sound, “English” letters have been used by so many cultures and languages that some variation has been made to support almost all needed sounds. The range of international experience using English letters can serve as a pool of solutions to help solve any problems we get using them. Moreover, we’re much more willing to accept two letters standing for one sound using English letters than using Arabic letters
  • The form of English letters, just like Arabic letters, comes from Phoenician alphabet, which was derived from Ancient Egyptian symbols
  • English letters are commonly used with Arabic numerals. Along with Phoenician roots, wide usage around the world (East European languages as well as smaller languages that didn’t have a writing system, even formally by China now in some usages), along with its international usage as is or with slight changes to indicate phonetics, all this makes it more of the International Script today

Bearing the above points in mind, and after a few years of experimenting and trying to choose and fit a script to standardize the writing of a dictionary of spoken Modern Egyptian. Here’s the current version of how I will be writing the dictionary (feel free to share your insight):

A – alef: corresponds to “a” in “fan”, and may also be used for “a” in “car” (though à was suggested to represent “a” in “car”, what do you think?). In reality, the Phoenician “alef” is the Arabic hamza. I will call it alef though for the time being

2 – hamza: the glottal stop (yes this is what the Phoenicians called “alef”)

B – beh: standard “B”

C – caad: this is a thick version of “S”. For those who speak Arabic, this is Caad, the letter that comes in the alphabet before Dhaad. I should explain this later to those who didn’t hear it. Contestant forms are available but are not easily accessible on a standard keyboard. Suggested other forms include the French Ç or the same with an S instead of the C. English speakers use S intead.

D – daal: standard “D”

Dh – dhaad: a think version of “D”

E – ee: like “a” in “fate”. This is the German E

3 – 3een: the “3” commonly used in chatting rooms, like the Egyptian word “3een” which means “eye”. English speakers use “e” instead or just ignore it.

F – feh: standard “F”

G – giim: standard “G”

Gh – gheen: as in the Egyptian/Arabic word for Gazel “Ghazaal”. As the French R in GARÇON. English speakers use “G” instead.

H – heh: as in the English word “host”

7 – 7ah: as in the name “a7mad”. English speakers use H as in “host”

I – ii: as the English EE in FEEL but shorter. Equivalent to the French and German letters “I” .

J – jiim: as the French “J”. The English “J” is different; the English word JAM would be written in Egyptian DJAAM or DJÁM.

K – kaaf: standard K

L – laam: standard L (I love those standard letters, not too much to explain 🙂 )

M – miim: standard M

N – nuun: standard N

O – oo: standard O

P – pi t2iila: standard P. While called “the heavy B” and most often interchanged with B, yet the P is recognized as a letter. It is used almost exclusively to mimick those speaking foreign languages. I am keeping it since it is a sound we use, even though not widely, and because it is present in the Ancient language.

Q – qaaf: a glorified K. English speakers use K.

R – reh: a rolling R. More like the Italian R

S – siin: standard S

Sh – shiin: like the English SH or the French CH

T – teh: standard T

6 – 6ah: a thick T

U – uu: like the English OO or French OU

V – vii: standard V. Unlike P, this has come into Egyptian use in words such as METNARVEZ (meaning Angry but etymologically comes from Nervous) and TELEVEZIOON (meaning a Television or the TV broadcasting authority)

W – waaw: standard W

X – xah: the Greek X. Like the French R in FRANÇAIS. Commonly seen as Kh, 5, or 7′

Y – yeh: Y as in YAK

Z – zeen: standard Z

Zh – zhah: a thick Z (tongue inside teeth)

There are three letters in Arabic not accounted for here:

  • TH (“z”aal) as in the English THIS. Egyptians transform it into Z (ZAMM i.e. talked/talking badly about) or D (“Z”AYL => DEEL)
  • TH (“th”eh) as in the English THESIS. Egyptians transform this into T (TA3LAB) or, rarely, as S (SAALUUS)
  • The Arabic ZHAH (where the tongue goes outside the teeth). Egyptians use Egyptian ZHah with tongue inside teeth

The dictionary aims to present the first etymological resource of Modern Egyptian Language, including the words and possibly idioms and other sentence structures coming from Ancient Egyptian, Arabic, European, or other languages. This first attempt focuses on, but is not limited to, Standard Egyptian, or everyday Cairo dialect; the standard language of Egyptian movies and songs, and the lingua franca of educated classes in Egypt.


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If you wish to contribute to this effort, or if you know someone who does, or if you have a word in Standard Egyptian that you wish to investigate, please do not hesitate to leave a word in the comments below.

* Even the Arabic script in Egypt has minor differences from other Arabic scripts. This post shows that the differences, though minor, are important enough to need some localization when used between different countries. The two differences mentioned in the post are the triple-dotted G to make it J in Egypt, and the lack of the two dots under the final Yaa2 in Egyptian Arabic script (in this Egyptians use the Ottoman script, in which most copies of the Quran are written)

** This shows the Egyptian reference. “English” for the average Egyptian meaning the language of the USA, or the world in general, rather than of England in particular.

*** When in Rome do as Romans do, When in Egypt say as Egyptians say, I guess even about Roman letters 🙂

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  1. G – giim: standard “G”: Why do Egyptians from Cairo use J as in Jam?

    Q – qaaf: a glorified K. English speakers use K: Why is this not pronounced?

    Why are extra letters added to English words… like erm… “flasha” for USB Memory stick … my mind has gone blank for more. I think it’s usually when two consonants (consonantis :D) are placed together in English, some Egyptians add a verb.

    What’s up “wiz zis”? What happened to the “th”? Zis is somsing I need to know… bleaze 😀 Sankis

  2. thanks for that article

  3. HI i would like to know how to write my name is Egyptian Arabic. My name is Ania

  4. •English letters are more capable of faithfully representing Modern Egyptian vowels than do Arabic letters; not only because of usual lack of action/formation marks “tashkiil” when writing Arabic letters, or the usual misplacement of such marks, but also due to subtle differences between vowels such as E (as the French “É“) vs I (like “ee” in free); differences which, to my humble knowledge, are difficult to represent using Arabic letters

    This is completly not true; if you meant classical arabic instead egyptian I might had agreed with you, by egyptian has vowels, no way even since the ancient past egyptian never used vowels in their writing kust like arabic, are u going to claim now that Egyptian has vowels, just no way!!!

  5. @Zakhak: Hilarious comment as usual 😀
    Moreover, it has important historic value since probably it was written during the week or so that I was lost to the blog.

    Anyway, Cairo and in general city Egyptians say G, rural Egyptians and from smaller cities (“villages” in Britain) say J.
    When Cairo people say J as in Jam it usually means they come from a rural background. The other reason would be trying to speak what came to be known as Classical Arabic, which is actually Qurayshi Arabic.

    The Q and the TH questions have one answer, the same as the P/B question: Egyptians prefer to use the letters with the least resistance 🙂 Even when a correct word has letter combinations that the average Egyptian finds sophisticated, the word might very well be flipped around. And this happens with the two consonants words as you noticed.

    As for the extra letters, as you know, we do not have “it” so it is either “he” or “she” and for the USB Flash Drive, “flash” is an unnatural word structure to the Egyptian ear because of the double consonants in the beginning as you say, so we make it female and add the “a” which makes it flaasha and is acceptable to the Egyptian ear..

    Miss talking..

  6. @Mega: Thanks for your reading..

  7. @Anna: For the Ancient Egyptian method, please use this page
    The A in Ania is an eagle. In some other sites they will render it as an arm. Not correct. Use this page for a possible rendition.

    As for Modern Egyptian: Please open|ar|Ania you will find your name written in Arabic / Modern Egyptian (in the case of names it is the same) on the right hand side of the page.

    You will notice in my version below (last word in this comment, if it renders correctly on your system) there is a tilde ~ on top of the right-most vertical line, which is the initial Aleph “A” in Ania. The tilde means that your name is a proper name of someone, and that it is said as if it is Aania (which I assume). If you only pronounce it as Ania (short initial “A”) then draw a “2” but facing right not left.

    I did not write it to you in Arabic here because I am not sure how it would render on your system, but if it does show it would look this way: آنيا

  8. @an egyptian: I am sorry, but your little comment, if you really mean it, would necessitate much more than a comment to reply to. I am really disappointed this comment comes from someone claiming to be Egyptian. Maybe you are an expatriate who never spoke the language or maybe you did not mean it the way I read it. Anyway, I will try to summarize the core of my response in three comments and four gifts, and no examples from my side.

    When you say Egyptian has no vowels, you mean you speak only in consonants???

    Egyptian, like any other spoken human language, has vowels, even if in some writing systems they are not written all the time, or ever.

    This is not to forget that Arabic writing has three long vowels Aleph, Waaw, and Yeh, in addition to three short ones (or vowel pointing signs) Fat7a, Kasra, Damma.

    Since you are a guest on my page, I will give you four little gifts to consider or reconsider to get on the same page as the rest of us before you claim that Egyptian has no vowels:
    3- re-reading my article
    4- your own speech if you are Egyptian. Please give it a thought.

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