Posted by: Caity | September 18, 2010


I smiled years ago when my host sister in Morocco said proudly that she spoke six languages: English, French, Arabic, Moroccan, Egyptian, and Lebanese. Surely the spoken dialects in the Arabic speaking world differ, but really? At that time I had only studied the standard Arabic, fuS-Ha or Modern Standard Arabic (MSA), for one year and was not about to dip very far into the dialect. So I sufficed myself with “How are you?” “I’m fine” and “How much is this?” in Moroccan, reverting elsewhere to a strained formal tongue.

Over the years my Arabic has only really been useful in Arabic class. Most conversations outside only went so far, one ending in “man, why you got to be so formal?” after only a sentence or two, and others just sounding preposterous, as if you walked in on a conversation over coffee in Shakespearean English.  I could listen to contemporary songs but not understand them, and watch contemporary films only with subtitles. Perhaps I could read and write poetry. I could understand the news or short stories, and write my thoughts about them. But to explain my spiritual life to my Moroccan host mother, or to tell her four-year-old daughter to stop running after me with the ruler?

It has been wonderful diving into the Egyptian dialect these past few weeks since moving to Cairo. We began our classes on our second day here, while we were still living in a hotel and looking at apartments after class. Having listened to lectures on linguistics over the summer, stepping into class and learning from those around us has been like fast-forwarding a language to after a thousand years of use, an experience in linguistic change. FuS-Ha, the “most eloquent” language, was standardized with the revelation of the Qur’án and then spread throughout the region along with the Islamic community. The Egyptian “aamiyyah” (“general” language), like the others is its child, reared by both this formal and eloquent tongue and the expediency of daily use. Softer sounds tend to harden over time, especially “th,” and prefixes and suffixes drop away. Thus the masculine and feminine words for “this,” hatha and hathihi, have become da and di in Egypt. The hard Q sound in fuS-Ha softens to the glottal stop ‘a (except for very important words such as the Qur’án and Cairo/al-Qahirah), and nearly all variations of “th” (such as those in “thank” and “the”) have disappeared into s’s, z’s or t’s. All of the kinks in phonetics and grammar have been smoothed over like on a river stone by years upon years of daily use.

Now I finally feel like I can speak with people: with Zainab, the sweet young woman who came to clean our apartment and who wouldn’t let me help move furniture because I “might be pregnant” (after all, I’ve been married for over a year now); with ‘Aadil, the owner of a kitchen wares shop near the local market who shared a scrapbook of all of his publications in newspapers and magazines and his nine year old son’s poetry; and of course Manar, our wonderfully deft twenty-three year old ‘aamiyyah teacher who laughs at our stories and dutifully corrects us when we slip back into fuS-Ha (it’s “min ghayr” not “bidoun”!).

I’m enjoying soaking up this spoken tongue, and finally learning all of the common and practical words that one should know in a language: stovetop, ripe, coriander, parsley, electrical plug, to pout, hiccup, light bulb, juicer, doorbell, cockroach (thank goodness not from seeing one at home…). In my course of studying Arabic I learned how to say “through the framework of bilateral relations” before I learned how to say “to shave.” Most of these common words do have their equivalents in fuS-Ha, but the arenas in which the language is used mean that you are more likely to learn how to say that something is controversial but well received than how to ask someone to pass you the dish towel.

FuS-Ha is a beautiful language. It is brilliantly logical, so crisp and ordered, and true to its name, amazingly eloquent. However, while some may lament the loss of the “j” to a “g” sound, or the absence of the incredible specificity that exists in fuS-Ha, the ‘aamiyyah is beautiful because people and the connections between them are.  It may not be the grammarian’s language as fuS-Ha is, but it is the language of connection and daily life.

Perhaps now if I were to visit my Moroccan host family again, I could share a bit more with my mother about our lives and perspectives, and ask the now ten year old if she remembers how she used to barge into my room when I was doing my homework, breaking the already flimsy lock on the door. It was clearly time to play.



  1. […] precise voweling of standard Arabic (for a better perspective on this, ready Caity’s blog post here). Now I can actually speak with people on the street, in shops and in taxis, hearing their thoughts […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: