Most people who visit Egypt have little problems with communications because those working in the tourist sector are usually adept in at least several different languages. Typically, most of them speak some English, and many of them fluently. French is also a traditional language, but so too is German and Italian. Perhaps less common, are the Spanish, Russian, Japanese and Chinese languages, but of course there are specialized guides that are also fluent in most any language, who accompany various tours.
Nevertheless, if one escapes the confines of a tour group and ventures out into normal Egyptian neighborhoods, some command of the local language of Egypt is very helpful. Upscale shops, restaurants and other establishments will usually have multilingual personnel, but many common Egyptians one comes into contact with may only have such communication skills. Typically, one may find someone nearby that can translate, but not always. Furthermore, Egyptians are always impressed by foreigners who have made some effort to learn their language, and will go out of their way to accommodate them.
The official language of Egypt is Arabic, though with an Egyptian dialect. Today, Arabic ranks as the sixth most common language with an estimated 186 million native speakers. Furthermore, as the language of the Qur'an, the holy book of Islam, it is also widely understood throughout the Muslim world, even in countries where Arabic is not the native language. The Egyptian colloquial Arabic is spoken by some 50 million people, mostly in Egypt.
One need not learn an extensive amount of Arabic to function in Egypt outside of the confines of the tourist industry. Understanding some useful words and phrases will go a long way. However, some background information on the language is useful in this regard.
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 Qur'an 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.
Arabic is a Semitic language of the Arabo-Canaanite subgroup (Ruhlen 1987). It belongs to the Afro-Asiatic family of languages--the bulk of which are spoken in Africa--which has several major branches: Semitic (including languages such as Arabic); Berber; Chadic (including languages such as Hausa); Cushitic (including languages such as Somali); and Ancient Egyptian, whose modern descendent, Coptic, is preserved as a liturgical language.
Arabic and Canaanite, which includes Hebrew, Phoenician, and several extinct languages, are distantly related to Aramaic. Other even more distant relatives are the Semitic languages of Ethiopia and Akkadian, an extinct language once spoken in Mesopotamia.
Arabic itself is commonly sub-classified as Classical Arabic, Eastern Arabic, Western Arabic, and Maltese. A modernized form of Classical Arabic exists and is referred to as Modern Standard Arabic (MSA). Classical Arabic, which is the language of the Qur'an, was originally the dialect of Mecca in what is now Saudi Arabia. An adapted form of this, known as Modern Standard Arabic, is used in books, newspapers, on television and radio, and is also the common conversational language between educated Arabs from different countries.
Egyptian Arabic is part of the Eastern Arabic subclass, which includes the Arabic dialects spoken in a large region of North Africa (Egypt and Sudan), the Middle East (Syria, Iraq, and the Arabian Peninsula), and Arabic countries in Asia. Eastern Arabic, in addition to Egyptian Arabic, includes Levantine Arabic, spoken in Lebanon, Syria, Israel, and Palestine, and Gulf Arabic as well as dialects in adjacent regions.
Local dialects such as that spoken in Egypt may vary considerably so that someone from Morocco, for example, may have difficulty understanding someone from Iraq, even though they speak the same language. However, the dialect of Cairo, known as Cairene Arabic, is widely understood throughout much of the urbanized Arabic speaking world.
The main dialects that have been identified in Egypt and Eastern Libya include: Delta Arabic, Lower Egypt Arabic, Middle Egypt Arabic, Upper Egypt Arabic, Cairene Arabic, and others. Within these categories there are further regional sub-varieties. The differences among all the dialects are minor and, as a rule, do not impair understanding.
Actually, in Egypt, 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 in the Cairo region 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 still the rule, and Modern Standard Arabic competes with the vernacular in most formal situations, including television and radio, and is used in various religious contexts. The vernacular is more common in less formal, more intimate circumstances in the home and among friends. Most literature is written in MSA, but authors sometimes use the vernacular in writing dialogue.
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 MSA. 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 MSA (Parkinson 1994). Classical Arabic plays a role largely in the religious context; for example, it is used in the daily recitation of the Koran.
A language academy watches over MSA and tries to limit the influence of Western languages by proposing new vocabulary based on classical Arabic models, rather than on borrowings from foreign sources.
Arabic can be difficult for westerners to learn, but there are far fewer irregularities in the grammar than, for example, in the English language. The Arabic alphabet consists of 28 consonants and three vowels (a, i, u), which can be short or long. Colloquial Dialects of Arabic tend to use less consonants than MSA, but with more complexity in the vowel and syllable structure.
Europeans and Americans are usually unfamiliar with the concept of the Arabic root and pattern system, which constructs words using three-letter consonant "roots" (thought they can have four or five) that convey a basic idea. The root, which is unpronounceable as such, are associated with the general meaning. For example, k-t-b conveys the idea of writing, but the addition of other letters before, between and after the root letters produces many associated words such as book, office, library and author.
Patterns of vowel sequences, which can be thought of as templates, (sometimes as prefixes and suffixes, and sometimes with additional consonants) are then "added" to, or within, roots following general, well-defined models. These patterns then generate various nominal and verbal stems which have a variety of functions;
Some of the sounds are unique to Arabic and difficult for non-native speakers to pronounce correctly, though one should be able to make oneself understood.
Nouns are inflected and marked for case, gender (masculine and feminine), number (singular, plural, dual and collective) and determination (definite and indefinite). Plural in many nouns is marked by ablaut, that is, the vowel pattern within a root varies between singular and plural forms, akin to alternations in English as in the verb sing, sang, and sung, or the noun mouse and mice. Feminine nouns add the suffix "aat" to form the plural but masculine nouns generally have a "broken" plural which involves changing vowels in the middle of the word: kitaab ("book"); kutub ("books").
Arabic has very few irregular verbs and does not use "is" or "are" at all in the present tense: "The king good" means "the king is good". In verbs, which occur in two basic stems, the perfect and imperfective, person, number, mood, and aspect are marked by prefixes and suffixes. Templates for verbs fall into ten commonly, and four rarely, used shapes and meanings, though in practice only three or four exist for most verbs. Their meanings indicate, for example, verbs that relate intensity, repetition, causation, intention, and belief.
There is also another system of particles. Particles include such things as function words which express syntactic relationships, for example, conjunctions, prepositions, interrogatives, and pronouns. Compared to the root-pattern system of other word categories these are quite simple in their formation.
Arabic sentences are usually written from right to left. The normal structure of a sentence in classical Arabic is verb-subject-object (VSO), though stylistic variations are possible. However, colloquial dialects are usually subject-verb-object (SVO), similar to English.
Egypt is an excellent place to learn Arabic. There are many short courses available that can just about fit in with the length of a vacation, as well as full programs. Many of the universities teach Arabic courses, but there are also seemingly hundreds of Arabic language academies. Visiting Egypt is probably the most intense and proficient means of learning the language. However, there are many on-line and off-line courses in Arabic available for those who wish to learn the language. Though many more exist, below are a few resources for learning the Arabic language:
Arabic Instruction inside Egypt Universities
- Arabic in the Sinai
- Arabic Language Center (Cairo)
- Fajr Center (Cairo)
- International Language Institute
Arabic Instruction Outside of Egypt
Arabic Courses Online
Books and Audio
Adam Henein by Lara Iskander
Arabic Music by David Scott
Ahmed Askalany's Incredible Palms by Heba Fatteen Bizzari
A Bedouin Dinner in the Sinai by Julia Kaliniak
Cairo's Gold Mine of Used Books Still Offers Treasures by Dr. Maged El-Bialy
Children in Modern Egypt by Catherine C. Harris
Coptic Christians of Egypt, An Overview of the by Lara Iskander and Jimmy Dunn
Egypt's 1960s Remarkable Virgin Mary Sightings by Amargi
Egyptian Arabic by Jimmy Dunn writing as Ismail Abaza
Egyptian Food by Joyce Carta
Egyptian Hajj Paintingby Sonny Stengle
The Egyptian Middle Class by Jimmy Dunn
Egyptian Porcelain Center: A New Showcase for Egyptian and World Artists by The Egyptian Government
The Egyptian Wedding by Dr. Maged El-Bialy
Eid: Celebration for the Young and Old by Mohamed Osama
Islam in a Nutshell by Seemi AhmadIslam
Koshary by Heba Fatteen Bizzari
The Legends of the Cretan House by Dr. Maged El-Bialy
Marvelous Melokiyah by Mary Kay Radnich
El Misaharaty: The Ramadan Drummers by Heba Fatteen Bizzari
Modern Egyptian Houses by the Egyptian Government
Modern Egyptian Pottery by the Egyptian Government
Moulids! by Lara Iskander
The Mysteries of Qurna by Sonny Stengle
Naquib Mahfouz's Classic: Bedaya Wa Nihaya, A Review by Adel Murad Naquib Mahfouz (1911-August 30th, 2006)
Never Mind, Just Crossing the Moon By Arnvid Aakre
On Understanding Egypt by Ralph Ellis
Party for the God in Luxor by Jane Akshar
Egypt's Rafat Wagdy by Heba Fatteen Bizzari
Ramadan in Al Hussein Square by Seif Kame
lRamadan in Egypt by Sameh
Ramadan in Korba, Heliopolis by Seif Kamel
Ramadan Lanterns in Egypt by Heba Fatteen Bizzari
The 8th Annual Scupture Symposium for Stone in Aswan by The Government of Egypt with revisions by Jimmy Dunn
The Sebou Ceremony Welcoming a New Born Baby in Egypt by Heba Fatteen Bizzari
Sham el Nessim, Egypt Spring Festival by Heba Fatteen Bizzari
Sheikh Yusuf al-Haggag, His Mosque and Moulid In Luxor by Jane Akshar
Umm Kalthoum by Lara Iskander
You Don't Have to Go to the Khan El-Khaliliby Dr. Maged El-Bialy
The Zar Ceremony by Heba Fatteen Bizzari
Last Updated: June 13th, 2011