Arabic is a diglossic language, or really a multiglossic one, meaning it includes within it at least two dialects. Generally, Arabic speakers use one of four dialects:
- Maghrebian (includes Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya)
- Levantine (includes Palestine, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, an occasionally Iraq)
- Khaleegi (includes all Gulf and Arabian Peninsula states: Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar, UAE, Oman, Yemen)
One of the cheap and easy ways to tell where someone learned their Arabic is to ask them to pronounce my name: Jessica. If their Arabic is Egyptian, they might use a hard “g,” Maghrebian or Levantine they might use a French-sounding “j” and Khaleegi the same percussive “j” as in English. As an added bonus, a number of non-Arabic languages use the Arabic alphabet, or a variation on it, including most notably:
My favorite use of the Arabic alphabet by non-Arabic language speakers is by the peoples of Serbia, Croatia and Bosnia. Serbian, Croatian, and Bosnian are all mutually-intelligible variations on Serbo-Croatian, but the exciting part isn’t that everyone can understand each other, but that Serbs write in Cyrillic, Croats write in the Roman alphabet, and Bosnians wrote in an Arabic script historically, though now they use both the Cyrillic and the Roman alphabets.
Bonus fact: a friend from Carnegie Mellon Qatar told me that Bosnian Muslims drank beer freely because the Quran bans wine, but says nothing about hops. He may have been joking with me.
I’ve studied Arabic for three years, and in that time I’ve had a year an a half with the Maghrebian dialect, a semester with the Levantine, a two semesters with Egyptians though one of them I was in a Khaleegi country. Everyone of my teachers has taught in Modern Standard Arabic, which is both the language of the newspapers and television shows, but is mutually intelligible across all of the dialects.
This week I’m getting my first chance to try my MSA Arabic, called “fusha” and pronounced fohs-ha, on folks who speak the Egyptian dialect exclusively. So far I’ve been successful: I’ve taken cab rides, gotten directions, bought food, apologized for bumping into people, read signs, and listened in on conversations.
However, I have come to the understanding that the cab drivers in Cairo are less drivers and more wildly resourceful fixers. I am of the belief that, if I jumped into a taxi in downtown Cairo shouting in Japanese, any given driver would be able to call a friend who spoke Japanese on his phone to translate, find some mutually-understandable words, or navigate the entire journey through gestures.
I’m also getting the feeling that, to have even more fun in an Arabic-speaking country, I need to learn a dialect, called an “‘amia.” Though I’ve not yet had a language problem sufficient amounts of patience and perseverance could not fix, all of the above linguistic nerdary did not prepare me to say: “Where do we go for the Metro?” This is because the difference between fusha (media Arabic) and ‘amia (street Arabic) isn’t just in vocabulary, accent, or spelling as the differences between American and Indian English are. There are entire letters whose pronunciation is different, verbs are conjugated differently, even the second-person plural is a different word (etna rather than nahnu).
The phrase I mentioned above, “Where do we go for the Metro?” would look like this in transcribed fusha:
Iena nahnu nathhab ila al-metro?
and like this, I think, in ‘amia:
Ehwa etna nathhab ila al-metro?
Oddly, so far the hardest part of trying to learn Egyptian ‘amia on the fly isn’t substituting words or even trying to guess how the past tense is conjugated (my working theory is that Egyptian ‘amia slims down the 14 possible past tenses for a given verb to 3 or 4). The hardest part has been changing how I pronounce words I memorized 3 or more years ago. The word for university, jam3a or now gam3a, is particularly hard since it was one of the first 10 words I learned. But with constant practice, I am getting better.
One of the things I love about Arabic is the sounds. If I transcribed the word “Arab” in the same way I did the Arabic word for university above, it would be “3rab.” A friend told me that using numbers to symbolize sounds which are found in every language but not assigned letters in English started as a form of text-speak: in the early 00s, it was half as expensive to text in English as in Arabic and so multilingual folks would transcribe Arabic to Roman letters. This happens on Facebook and Twitter all the time as well.
The “3” sound, called “ain,” is common to all Arabic dialects; some linguists even call Arabic the “language of the ain” because it is such a common sound. I can guarantee every person reading this has made the “3” sound before: first, meow like a cat. The nasal “ah” sound you just made between the “e” and the “ow” is the “3” sound.
Just as all of the Arabic dialects include the “3” sound, their cores are similar. The words for “we” or “where” might be different, but with flexibility and resourcefulness all speakers can understand each other. And, hopefully one day, understand me.
“Too often travel, instead of broadening the mind, merely lengthens the conversation.”–Elizabeth Drew