Egyptian Arabic is spoken by around 76 million people and thus the most widely-spoken Arabic dialect. Given the fact that Egyptian TV and cinema are ubiquitous in the Middle East, it is also the most widely-understood dialect. Taken together, these two considerations add a lot of weight in favor of learning how to talk Arabic like an Egyptian.
If you know how to speak the Arabic dialect of another region (e.g. Levantine or Gulf Arabic) or speak Modern Standard Arabic (MSA), then it will be easy for you to pick up the Nile way of speaking. In this article I’ll give you some general pointers to head you in the right direction.
The most audible idiosyncrasy of Egyptian Arabic is that the letter ج is pronounced as a <g> sound as opposed to the <dj> or <j> sound in MSA and in other dialects. So, the name “Jamal” becomes “Gamal” and the word for “crazy” – مجنون – is not “madjnoon”, but “magnoon”. This peculiarity is easy to get used to and shouldn’t pose any problems.
The second noticeable aspect concerning pronunciation is that the sounds of two emphatic consonants (the “dark” sounds) are replaced with their “lighter” counterparts: the letters ض <Daad> and ظ <Zaa’> are usually rendered as <z>.
The third sound pattern is that the letter ق is (usually) not pronounced as <q> but instead omitted or replaced with a glottal stop <’> (hamza ء). So for instance, “qasr” (castle) becomes “’asr”.
Finally, the letter ث <th> is pronounced mostly as <s> and sometimes as <t>. For instance, مثلاً“mathalan” (for example) becomes “masalan” and اثينا “atheena” (Athens) becomes “ateena”.
Basic question words
Like the other dialects too, Egyptian Arabic uses a number of special question words that deviate from Modern Standard Arabic. In the table below I’ve listed the most frequent ones:
- the regular masculine plural <oon> is always rendered as <een>. E.g. مدرسون“mudarrisoon” (teachers) becomes “mudarriseen”.
- a regular action or state of affairs requires a <b> sound to be put in front of the verb. E.g. انا احب السنيما“ana u7ibbu as-sineema” (I like the cinema) becomes “ana be7ibb is-sineema”.
- in a question, the question word is often put last, whereas in MSA it is usually put first. E.g. MSA اين تسكن؟“Ayna taskunu?” (where do you life?) becomes “saakin fayn?”.
- negation: in Egyptian Arabic verbs are negated by adding a “ma” and appending a “sh”. E.g. لا اشرب“la ashrabu” (I don’t drink) becomes “ma ashrabsh”. Adjectives or nouns are negated by adding a “mish” or “mush” in front of the word. E.g. غير عادي “gheir ‘adi” (not normal) becomes “mish ‘adi”.
Whether you decide to learn Egyptian Arabic or not, bear in mind that the Arabic dialects approach MSA the more the conversation is not about “basic” topics (such as food, directions, family) but about more “advanced” topics (such as politics, religion, society, economy etc.). The more you progress in your study of the dialect, the more you need to acquire vocabulary and grammatical constructions from MSA.
Finally, and connected to my last point, it might be prudent to not rely wholly on audio materials or transliteration. At some stage or other you need to learn to read and write Arabic to progress further.
Hopefully, this post has given you some idea of the particularities of Egyptian Arabic and helped you decide whether you should learn it or not.
Click here for Part II of this introduction to Egyptian Arabic.