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Egyptian Arabic Citations Egyptian Arabic Links Select a New Language
Number of Speakers: 48 to 53 million
Key Dialects: Lower Egypt Arabi, Delta Arabic, Middle Egypt Arabic, Upper Egypt Arabic, Cairene Arabic (Standard Egyptian Colloquial Arabic)
Geographical Center: Egypt
Egyptian Arabic is spoken by virtually all of Egypt's 76 million
inhabitants, as well as by significant numbers of Egyptians
living in countries of the Arabian Gulf for employment purposes. The
dialect of Cairo, Cairene Arabic, is widely understood throughout much
of the urbanized Arabic-speaking world.
This profile deals only with those aspects of Egyptian Arabic which
differentiate it from other varieties of Arabic. For more general
information on Arabic, please refer to our Arabic Overview.
Arabic is a Semitic language, as described in our Arabic Overview. The modern spoken Arabic dialects are generally divided into Western Arabic and Eastern Arabic. Egyptian Arabic, or Egyptian Colloquial Arabic, as it is often called, is a member of the Western Arabic group of dialects. As such, it is linguistically closer to the dialects spoken in the Levant and the Arabian Gulf than to those of Algeria and Morocco.
Although several different regional dialects have been identified in
Egypt, many of the differences between them is quite minor and do not
usually impair understanding. That said, it is useful to divide the
dialects of Egypt into Lower Egyptian (northern) and Upper Egyptian
(southern, also called Sa`idi). Cairene Arabic, which is a prestige
dialect, is one of the Lower Egyptian dialects. Two salient
characteristics which differentiate these two groups of dialects are
the pronunciation of the letters jiim and qaaf. Jiim
is pronounced as a voiced velar stop (that is, a hard g) in
Lower Egyptian, but as a voiced
alveolar affricate (like English j) in Upper Egyptian.
Similarly, qaaf is
pronounced as a glottal stop in Lower Egyptian, but as a voiced velar
stop in Upper Egyptian. This divide is most evident among rural
speakers, whereas many urban speakers in Upper Egypt speak varieties
closer Lower Egyptian. Upper Egyptian Arabic has a lower social status
than Lower Egyptian, due to the lack of education and economic
development associated with Upper Egypt.
Overlaying the colloquial regional vernaculars is Modern Standard
Arabic (and Classical Arabic), which bears influence on the spoken
language of educated speakers of all dialects.
Like all other forms of Arabic (except Maltese), Egyptian Arabic is written in Arabic script, described in more detail in the Arabic Overview. Egyptian Arabic is written only in a limited number of contexts, such as in political cartoons, in advertising, in song lyrics and plays, and occasionally in informal correspondence and dialog in fiction. The writing of Egyptian Arabic is not taught in schools and no official orthography exists. Generally, words are spelled as they would be in Standard Arabic, regardless of differences between the languages in terms of vowel length, but there is variation among speakers concerning how to write certain sounds which differ in a systematic way between Egyptian and Standard Arabic. For example, words which in Standard Arabic have an unvoiced uvular stop are pronounced with a glottal stop in Lower Egyptian Arabic, such as the word for "heart" which is qalb in Standard Arabic, but 'alb in Lower Egyptian. In texts in Egyptian Arabic, this word will sometimes be spelled with the letter qaaf, reflecting the fact that it is "the same word as" the Standard Arabic word, and sometimes with a hamza (glottal stop), reflecting the fact that it is pronounced differently than in Standard Arabic. Variation also exists in whether to write certain non-Standard particles and clitics as separate words or as part of the word to which they attach.
Egyptian Arabic is distinguished by a larger vowel inventory than Classical Arabic, with four short vowels (plus epenthetic schwa) and six long vowels, compared to three short vowels and six long vowels in Classical Arabic. Consonantal changes have included the loss of interdental fricatives. Egyptian Arabic is also characterized by two regular phonological processes lacking in Standard Arabic. First, all long vowels become shortened in unstressed positions and before consonant clusters. And second, many instances of short i and u are dropped by a process known as high vowel deletion. For example, when the feminine suffix -a is added to the participle kaatib "having written (masc.)", the i is deleted, resulting in katba.
Like other varieties of Arabic, Egyptian Arabic derives the bulk of its vocabulary by applying a number of patterns or templates to a stock of consonantal roots. For example, from the triliteral root (three-consonant root) g-w-z with the basic meaning of "pair" is derived gooz "pair; husband", yiggawwiz "to get married", gawaaz "marriage", and migwiz "double". As an example of a template, the template maCCaC is used to derive many nouns referring to a place where an activity is done by substituting the C's in the template with the consonants of a triliteral root, such as: maktab "office" (a place where one writes) and maTbax "kitchen" (a place where one cooks).
Verbs occur in two aspects: the perfective and the imperfective. The perfective is usually translated as a past tense or present perfect. Its conjugational morphology consists entirely of suffixes, for example: katab "he wrote", katabit "she wrote", katabt "I wrote", katabna "we wrote". The plain imperfective form is used much like an infinitive or subjunctive, as yiktib "he writes" in biyHibb yiktib"he likes to write". The imperfective also serves as the basis for the present and future tenses with particles bi and Ha, as in biyiktib "he writes" and Hayiktib "he will write". The conjugational morphology of the imperfective employs both prefixes and suffixes.
For example, from the imperfective stem ktib we get yiktib "he writes", tiktib "she writes", and yiktibu "they write". The imperative is formed by leaving off the prefix of the imperfective. Verbs, and certain other elements, are usually negated by simultaneous use of the particles ma- and -š. Sometimes these particles are affixed to either side of the verb, as in the past tense makatabš "he didn't write", while in other cases, the particles combine to form the separate word miš "not" which occurs before the verb, as in the future miš Hayiktib "he won't write".
In addition to the direct object clitics found in Standard Arabic, Egyptian Arabic also has indirect object clitics which follow any direct object clitic but precede negative -š. For example, "he wrote" is katab, "he wrote it (fem.)" is katabha, "he wrote it to you" is katabhaalak, and finally "he didn't write it to you" is makatabhalakš.
As in Standard Arabic, nouns are either masculine or feminine, and either singular, dual, or plural, and plurals are either sound (regular) or broken (irregular) employing a suffix or broken (irregular) employing a different template, as described in the Arabic Overview. Broken plurals are not restricted to a small subset of the vocabulary and are frequently used even with loanwords having three or four consonants, such as the English loanword sikšin "section" > sakaašin"sections". Many adjectives also have broken plural forms.
Egyptian Arabic is much less averse to borrowing than Standard Arabic, and the sources from which it has borrowed reflects the influence that different peoples have had in Egypt over its history. Many borrowings remain from Coptic, a language which has been dead for several centuries but which was the dominant language in Egypt when the Arabs first arrived. Borrowings from Coptic are concentrated in fields of activity that were foreign to Peninsular Arabic culture, such as agriculture. Later borrowings came primarily from Greek, Italian, French, and English. Most new borrowings are from English.
Like other modern dialects, though unlike Standard Arabic, the predominant word order in Egyptian Arabic is Subject Verb Object (SVO).
ROLE IN SOCIETY
The Cairene dialect is today used in television, radio, and
political speeches. Through the 1950s and 1960s, it gained prominence
because it was seen as a way of promoting democratic populism. Cairene
is widely understood throughout Egypt and beyond because it is used in
Egyptian films, plays, popular music, and television dramas, which are
popular nationally and in other Arabic-speaking countries. Diglossia—a
situation in which variants of the same language exist side by side in
the same community, although they are used for different purposes—is
prevalent in Egypt, where Egyptian Arabic and Modern Standard Arabic
both used, depending on the situation. The vernacular is used in all
most formal of spoken contexts. Virtually all printed material is in
Standard Arabic, although authors sometimes use the
vernacular in writing dialog.
Daily usage encompasses a range of linguistic forms that passes from
the colloquial speech of the uneducated and illiterate, to a variety of
more sophisticated colloquial forms used by the educated, and on to the
highly classical and formalized Standard Arabic. Most educated
Egyptians commonly use language that falls somewhere in the middle,
employing a form that fits the occasion, being neither pure colloquial
nor pure Standard Arabic (Parkinson 1994, Badawi and Hinds 1986).
English is widely known and taught, and it is frequently used in
university lectures. Although Standard Arabic is the standard in most
educational contexts, many private English and other foreign language
medium schools cater to the affluent. In government schools, where the
use of Standard Arabic is the ideal, diglossia is the norm and the
vernacular is commonly used.
Literacy in Egypt is estimated at about 50 percent, although the rate
is higher in urban areas and lower in rural areas. Most educated
Egyptians are receptively competent in Standard Arabic in reading and
listening with varying success in proficiently using it in writing and speaking.
Arabic is originally the language of the nomadic tribes of the northern and central regions of the Arabian Peninsula. It was only during the Muslim conquest and expansion of the seventh and eighth centuries that Arabic spread into the areas where it is now spoken. In the process, it largely supplanted, the indigenous languages of the conquered regions, including Aramaic in the Levantine, Coptic in Egypt, Berber in North Africa, and Greek in the former Byzantine Empire.
In written form, some early inscriptions exist. Arabic of the pre-Classical period is found in inscriptions of central and northwestern Arabia, with Classical Arabic itself appearing in inscriptions dating from at least the fourth century. Pre-Islamic poetry, the Koran from the first half of the seventh century, and the language of contemporary Bedouin provided the basis for the codification of the language during the eighth and ninth centuries. MSA, the official language of all Arab countries, is modeled on Classical Arabic, which exer
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