I’ve always wanted to learn Classical Arabic, to understand the Qur’an in its original form, and to read al-Battani, al-Ghazali, ibn Battuta, and countless others.
Hence I want to learn Modern Standard Arabic (MSA), the self-proclaimed lingua franca of the Middle East — used in newspapers, radio, and television. It is extremely close to Classical Arabic, and so will allow me to understand the morphology and syntax of the classical language, with a modern twist.
However, as the Arabic world is a classic example of enforced diglossia, and the history and culture of Egypt is so appealling, I also want to learn Egyptian Colloquial Arabic (ECA). You see, while most people in Egypt study MSA at school, and understand it well enough, no one actually speaks it. They all speak ECA, which can be quite different. The word for “yes,” for example, is “aiwa” in ECA and “na’am” in MSA.
This situation reminds me of the status of Irish in Ireland. Irish is the first official language of the Republic of Ireland, though the majority of people speak English. English is the second official language. In Egypt, MSA is the official language, and ECA has no status whatsoever. It is for political and cultural reasons that this is the case.
The first problem one faces when learning Arabic is that there’s an entirely new alphabet. This is daunting, but also exciting. And, actually, it’s pretty easy. (As an aside, in Colloquial Arabic, people tend to use the Roman Alphabet, which makes things easier!)
We split the letters into six groups, both for ease of memorisation, and also because of the way each group of letters combines in a word. The letters change form depending on where they are in a word: beginning, middle, or end.
The first group is as follows: “ba” (b), “ta” (t), “tha” (th), “nun” (n), and “ya” (y). These are represented as follows, read from right to left! (You may need to zoom in to appreciate them fully — use CTRL + to zoom in, CTRL – to zoom out):
ب ت ث ن ي
As you can see, these letters are quite similar: the first three are the same but for the number and place of the dots. The last one, “ya,” looks like a chicken, fitted with a head and two legs.
We can now form a word. Take these three letters, b + y + t:
ب ي ت
When you combine these letters, you form the word “byt”:
As you can see, the middle letter, y, has altered significantly, though the first and last letters are essentially the same. The only way you’d know that the middle letter is y is through noticing that there are two dots beneath. This is y’s trademark.
This word, byt, means “house” or “home.” See Google Translate.
When one begins learning Arabic, diacritical marks, called tashkil, are used to aid with pronunciation. In the example above, we would put a fatha [pronounced fat-ha] (essentially a fátha [pron. faw-tha], if you speak Gaeilge) on top of the b to indicate that a short “a” vowel comes immediately afterwards, which gives us: bayt.
Strictly there must also be a sukuun [pron. suk-oon] above the y, to indicate the absence of a vowel after the y. So the correct pronunciation is ba-ay-t, not ba-ay-at or ba-ay-ut etc.
In ECA, Arabic Chat Alphabet is often utilised, in which “ha” is written with the number 7, because it looks a little like a 7, and “ayn” with the number 3, because it looks like a backwards 3. The Lonely Planet phrasebook uses H to represent “ha” and ‘ for “ayn” but this is not used by Egyptians.
Here’s an example of some ECA:
Ismee Simon, ‘andi tamanya wi ‘ishreen sana, wa ana min Irelanda. Ana hina li shahr waaHid, wa ana badrus ‘arabi.
(My name is Simon, I’m 28, and I’m from Ireland. I’m here for one month, and I’m studying Arabic.)
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