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The Phonological System in Egyptian Arabic: The Consonant Sounds

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    The Phonological System in Egyptian Arabic: The Consonant Sounds


    Through an overwhelming exposure perpetuated through large scale use in mass media, literature, advertisement and other aspects of popular culture, the Egyptian variant of Arabic, commonly referred to as Misra, is presently one of the most widely recognized variants of what is understood as Standard Arabic, a derivation of Classical Arabic. Although it is still not considered to be an official language par say (despite strong nationalist movements to accord it such a status), its wide spread usage has rendered it as an important subject of socio-linguistic study. Although the political and ethnological questions are never far from a discussion of Egyptian Arabic, this paper will use them only at a topical level, and will primarily focus on the phonological developments of this particular form of the Arabic language. The other aspects will be used and evoked only in order to define this phenomenon of phonological deviations from Standard Arabic as and when required. The spread of Islam over large areas of Asia and Africa, particularly between the 7th and 8th century AD to the onset of Renaissance in the European nations, has carried Arabic to lands far and wide, thus initiating processes of unique hybridizations and adaptations, through the process of contacts, acceptance of loan words and regional phonetic variations. As a result, Arabic presently is often considered by many critics not to be a coherent language as such, but rather a combination of a number of dialects and sub-dialects.

    However, such a view of Arabic immediately dissociates it from the political and religious motives that operated behind its dissemination, and would directly be in contrast towards the polemics of Empire building with a common religious affiliation. As a result, the prioritization of a Classical Arabic was very much a part of the administrative strategy of the early rulers of Islam. Standard Arabic continues to serve as the official language of most Islamic African and Asian nations, even in a nation like Egypt where the lingua franca is different from the Standard version of the Arabic language. One cannot deny that the recognition of Egyptian Arabic as a different tongue has been realized by Egyptian scholars from the 19th century itself, and was directly subsumed to an overriding nationalist issue. The nationalization and comparative secularization were both within the agendas of these early literati. What resulted was conscious use of Egyptian Arabic in literature, proclamations, plays and other cultural modes that foregrounded nationalism. This vigorous nationalist slant was effectively halted in the face of the vigorous Arabization of educational institutes and languages initiated by Nasser. However, following Nasser’s death, the recognition of Egyptian Arabic has gained new life, and is becoming increasingly a source of much study and attention. (Ricard, p. 49)

    A caution needs to be exercised while discussing Egyptian Arabic. There is a danger of treating the term in a monolithic manner, which is far from the truth, because Arabic itself has many different usages, characterized by syntactic and phonetic quirks that are evident and observed at different parts of the country. The language of the South, commonly understood as Sa’id, is different from the language as spoken in the upper regions. In fact, the dialects of the South and the Central were often clear cultural markers in Egypt, and even continue to be so to at least some extent. The language spoken in the West again has strong Maghrib influence and belongs more to the Judeo-Christian tradition than the Arabic tradition. The most important dialect is, however, the dialect of Cairo. In common language, the local name for the country – Misr, is unanimous with Cairo, and the Arabic as spoken in Cairo – Misra, sets the benchmark for the rest of the Arabic dialects in the country, much like Parisian French. Despite differences, there are clear commonalities between the dialects of Southern Egypt and the Misra dialect, and even the few differences are being routinely obliterated in the face of a kind of linguistic hegemony and ubiquity of Cairo’s Arabic. It is after all, the dialect that we find in all advertisements, television channels, movies and other cultural projections to come out of Egypt. When we speak of Egyptian Arabic in this paper, we will particularly mean this Cairo dialect, as it has become the most representative Arabic form in Egypt. The differences between this dialect and others, when they are marked and extremely pronounced to warrant mention, will be duly mentioned.

    History of the Dissemination of Arabic in Egypt

    Coptic or Coptic Egyptian refers to the matured phase of native Egyptian language. The Coptic language has been in practice in Egypt from the 1st century AD till date. However, Coptic is no longer used as an official language in Egypt. Currently it is practiced only as a liturgical language of the Coptic Catholic and Coptic Orthodox churches. More than just the language, it is actually the Coptic script which is referred to by the term.

                It has been noticed time and again that the spread or inception of any language has a lot to do with the diffusion of culture. When Alexander, the Great invaded Egypt in the beginning of the 4th century BC, the educated class of Egypt became interested in learning Greek and thereby, gained notable social as well as economic advantages. The cultural intermingling between the Greeks and the Egyptians was based primarily on trade and commerce. The regular travellers of the ancient world, commonly known as the Phoenicians, played an instrumental role in importing the Demotic, the extant Egyptian script, and transforming it into a system of scripting with all pronounceable consonants. Unlike the Demotic, this new script did not have too many characters. In a way the Phoenicians acted as the mediators and spread the new script to far and wide corners of the Mediterranean, especially to the inmates of the Greek isles. Coptic, the new Egyptian system of language came into existence when the Greeks added a number of vowels to the script. (Daly, p. 184)

                  With the advent of Christianity in Egypt during the period of St. Mark, the Evangelist, Coptic underwent certain changes. But these changes preceded a significant amount of prosperity in the literary as well as ecclesiastical realms of the nation. As the Christian preachers were not familiar with the native Egyptian tongue, they had to rewrite the Holy Scriptures using Greek characters. It necessitated borrowing of more characters from the Demotic system of language. Therefore two parallel dialectical scripts survived in the forms of Sahidic and Bohairic. Along with these two Coptic variations, many other were prevalent along the length of the Nile – each marked by the use of altered vowel sounds as well as some distinguishable variation in vocabulary. However, barring Bohairic, most of these dialects gradually became obsolete due to their geographically-dependent nature.

                When Egypt came under the dominance of the Arabs in the middle of the 7th century, Coptic was forced to take a backseat as the government tried to promote the Arabic as the lingua franca of the nation. Coptic was adopted for ecclesiastical purposes while Greek continued to be used as the second language. The Coptic-Arabic duet experienced a smooth ride until the 11th century. But after that the relation between the church and the Egyptian rulers worsened drastically, resulting in gradual decline of Coptic use. But one can never overlook the overwhelming impact of Coptic on a number of dialects of Egyptian Arabic. Besides, many Coptic words and phrases have been borrowed to Classical Arabic and Biblical Hebrew. Egyptian Arabic itself has been enriched generously by Coptic morphology, phonology and syntax. (Scribd, 2008)

    Vowel changes in Egyptian Arabic

                It is worthy to be noted that the Egyptian Arabic phonology has not undergone dramatic changes from the Classical system of language. There are 4 short vowels in Egyptian Arabic – /a/ [æ], /e/ or /i/, /o/ and /ɑ/. The pronunciation pattern of these short vowels is quite interesting. For example, /u/ is pronounced as /o/~/ɵ/ and /i/ as /ɪ/~/e/. For longer vowels such as /u:/ and /i:/, the shortened pronunciation become /o/~/ɵ/ and /ɪ/~/e/ respectively. However, these rules of pronunciation are only applicable when the concerned vowels are placed in the middle or beginning of words. (James, p. 294)

                When it comes to long vowels, there are 6 in Egyptian Arabic. There is a slight deviation from the Classical school of thoughts in the sense that Classical Arabic dipthongs such as /aj/ and /aw/ were represented as /e:/ and /o:/ respectively. Notice that when changed, these Classical Arabic dipthongs became monophthongs which are acoustically contracted to closed syllables. (Abdel-Massih, p. 21)

                The Egyptian Arabic vocabulary is handsomely enriched with loanwords from Standard Arabic with dipthongs. One of the striking features of these loanwords is how the unstressed long vowels became shortened among the enlightened section of the society, e. g., |mu+da:wal+a| →/mudawla/~/modawla/. (Phillott, p. 82)

                The difference between short and long vowels in Egyptian Arabic is primarily based on speech sound, but only accented vowels can remain long. Long vowels which are unstressed are contracted. For example, /a:/, /ɑ:/, /u:/ and /i:/ are shortened to /ı~e/, /o~ɵ/, /ɑ/ and /a/ respectively. Likewise, the accented short vowels are generally lengthened too. (Versteegh, p. 162)

    Consonant Changes

                Standard Arabic is the common language in which we come across the use of Leventine phonetics. The pronunciation of the language varies a lot from one dialect to the other. For example d͡ʒim is taken as velar in Cairene dialect. The same is applicable for Yemeni dialect as well. Generally, it has been noticed that Egyptian Arabic is devoid of the actual pronunciation of d͡ʒim. The exceptions are found only in case of loanwords. For example, if an Egyptian utters the word ‘zebra’, it becomes impossible for him to avoid the use of d͡ʒim. Variations in the existence of different types of letters are also seen in the various dialects of Egyptian Arabic. Standard Arabic does not have any existence of interdental consonants, whereas Egyptian Arabic does have these consonants in use. However, there are many cases in which the Standard Arabic letters are replaced by different letters in Egyptian version of the language. For example, θ ð ðˤ are replaced by s and z in the Egyptian Arabic.

                Many of the consonants in Egyptian Arabic are marginal. rˤ is a letter which is not at all seen in Egyptian version of the language, except for the foreign words. h is the letter which is always pronounced in this language. Still there are some exceptions where the letter is hardly uttered, pronunciations like kh, gh and sh are some of them. j is a common pronunciation and it is pronounced in the same way as it is done in common English, but on the other hand J is pronounced somewhat like z. The use of ch is very much like its use in the Scottish tradition. To exemplify, we can take the sound of the word ‘loch’. r is a common pronunciation and Egyptian Arabic speakers stress upon this letter to a great extent which strengthens the rolling effect of the word. The strongly rolled r is one of the most Oriental uses of the letter which is very commonly seen in different cases in this part of the world. s is another letter which has an excessive pronunciation of it. We can take the example of the word ‘miss’ in English to understand the actual use of this pronunciation in Egyptian Arabic.

                There are some uses of double consonants in the Egyptian Arabic style of pronouncing the words. bb and mm are the commonest pronunciations which are found in this language very often.

                The English letter Q is known as qaf is Egyptian Arabic. The pronunciation is, however, much more accentuated than what the letter actually has in English. Generally, the guide books in Egypt which are available for the tourists have the accentuated letters written in bold fonts so that everyone can understand them.

                Speaking generally, the consonant system in Egyptian Arabic is actually nothing different from that of what we understand as Modern Arabic, i.e., the standard Arabic which is the primary mode of language in the education system of Egypt. However, there are indeed some of the distinguishing factors which are present in the language. Among them the mentionable ones are:

    Opposition is found among the voiced, voiceless, fricatives and emphatic stops.
    The concept of emphatic consonants changes in Egyptian Arabic. Here the idea of pharyngealized consonants evolves. Pharyngealization is the process in which pharynx as a device of pronouncing the language becomes dysfunctional through its restriction while someone utters a word in Egyptian Arabic.
    Egyptian Arabic does not know the use of Interdental Fricatives like θ and ð. θ in this language is pronounced as th, like it is pronounced in the word ‘thin’, whereas, ð is pronounced like th in the word ‘those’ in English.
    There are many cases in which the back of mouth is used for the pronunciation of the glottal, uvular, velar and pharyngeal sounds.
    There is a tendency in Egyptian Arabic in which we come across the practice of germinating newer vowel sounds. On the other hand, some of them are doubled while the word is uttered.
    This should also be mentioned that clusters of consonant sounds are always allowed in the Egyptian version of the Arabic language, although their number is few.

    The emphatic consonants are always pronounced with a retraction which, is mainly done with the help of the middle part of the human tongue. This is why the Egyptian Arabic has some letters which cannot be pronounced by the people who are practised in English language. However, these sounds have a kind of similarity to the English pronunciation of ‘uh-oh’. Some of the sounds are also made with the help of the back of the human mouth and these sounds are also deprived of their similar letters in the English language. However, some of the words can be pronounced with the help of the sounds like sh and j. (Languages of the World, 2007) To understand how the consonants are pronounced in Egyptian Arabic, we can look into the following table:

















    Table 1 (Watson, p. 13)

    Sentence Constructions in Egyptian Arabic

                To elaborate on the syntax of Egyptian Arabic, first of all we need to take a look at the grammar of the language. It might be noted that many elements of grammar in Egyptian Arabic have been borrowed from Classical Arabic.

    1)      loss of case endings in adjectives and nouns

    2)      loss of mood distinctions in the verb

    3)      loss of dual numbers in nouns, pronouns and adjectives

    Modern Standard Arabic has three numbers: singular, dual and plural. The dual number is used for paired objects. But Egyptian Arabic is similar to English in the sense that it has only two numbers: singular and plural. The plural is generally formed by appending a suffix to the end of a word.

    The syntactical word order in Egyptian Arabic follows that of English: Subject-Verb-Object.

    The verb system of Egyptian Arabic is relatively complicated from the perspective of Indo-European languages. There is one basic stem along with nine extrapolated stems, each having its own set of active and passive participles and verbal nouns.

    To refer to present, pluperfect or future, the Egyptian Arabic verb system uses perfective suffixed conjugation. The imperfective is used for denoting present, past or future. Informal Egyptian Arabic has a written symbol to cite future tense: ħa-, e.g., ħayiktib, ‘he will write’.

    The imperfective can be applied as an infinitive: biyħibb, ‘he likes to write.’

    Negation is one of the important characteristics to be found in the syntax of Egyptian Arabic. The same feature is also noticeable in a few other North African languages and some Levantine dialect regions. The circumfix is used to negate verbs, e. g., bitgibuhum-laha, ‘you bring them to her’ is negated as ma-bitgibuhum-lahāš, ‘you don’t bring them to her’.

    The negation circumfix surrounds all the interconnected parts of the verb including direct and indirect object pronouns: ma-katab-hum-li:-ʃ ‘he didn’t write them to me’.

    For interrogative sentences, the negative circumfix meʃ is added prior to the verb:

    Past: katab, ‘he wrote; meʃ-katab, ‘didn’t he write?’

    Present: jekteb, ‘he writes’; meʃ-be-jekteb, ‘doesn’t he write?’

    Future: ha-jekteb, ‘he will write’; meʃ-ha-jekteb, ‘won’t he write?’

                Coptic language, which was indigenous to Egypt ever since the 1st century A. D., has moulded Egyptian Arabic to a great extent, especially the lexicon, syntax and phonology. A few mentionable characteristics that Egyptian Arabic shares with Coptic include verbal conjugations aided by certain prefixes and suffixes, use of glottalized and emphatic consonants and a significantly large amount of biliteral and triliteral lexical correspondences.

                Two distinctive syntactical features that have passed on from Coptic to Egyptian Arabic include postponed demonstratives and in-situ wh words.

                Postponed demonstratives ‘this’ and ‘that’ are positioned after the noun: ʔer-rɑɑgel da, ‘this man’ (‘the man this; in Standard Arabic hāðā-r-rajul) and ʔel-bente di, ‘this girl’ (‘the girl this’; in Standard Arabic hāðihi-l-bint).

                Unlike English and Standard Arabic, Egyptian Arabic uses in-situ wh words such as ‘when’, ‘who’ and ‘why’ in their logical positions, i. e., they are not placed at the front of the sentence:

    ɑɑħ mɑṣre ʔemta ?, ‘when (ʔemta) did he go to Egypt/Cairo?’ (literally ‘he went to Egypt/Cairo when?’)

    rɑɑħ mɑṣre lēh ?, ‘why (lēh) did he go to Egypt/Cairo? (literally ‘he went to Egypt/Cairo why?’)

    mīn [ʔelli] rɑɑħ mɑṣr ?, ‘who (mīn) went to Egypt/Cairo?’ (literally – same order) (Khalafallah, p. 76)


    Egyptian Arabic can thus be treated both as a paradigmatic study to find out how historical dissociation from the core linguistic practice can bring about changes in the pronunciation patterns of a language. We can find out how extraneous factors like historical contact with other language groups as well as an inherent linguistic culture can shape and determine the way a particular language is spoken. At the same time, it can be a syntagmatic analysis of the differences between the Standard Arabic and the Egyptian Arabic by noting the various phonetic transition and changes and phonemically analyzing them. However, what can be clearly understood through this study that even a syntagmatic study of the ‘parole’ cannot be dissociated necessarily from the psycho-linguistic factors that shape its practice.

    Polemically, the observation of the phenomenon of Egyptian Arabic has a number of complexities that make any monolithic and one-dimensional conclusion drawing theoretically problematic. First, it challenges the linguistic hegemony of standard Arabic, even when widely accepted as a nationalistic ‘langue’ with clear ideological slants and implications. It throws open, and in a certain way, challenges the proposed intranslatability of the language, being the language of the Holy Book, through actual practice. This plurality and ethnic diversity within a linguistic structure is in fact, adds to the richness of a language. On the other side, it also clearly advocates the hegemonizing process with the dominance of the Carinese over other forms of Arabic, with only a particular form of Egyptian Arabic attaining almost authoritative status, thus endangering other forms of utterances and dialectical forays within the mother language.


    Abdel-Massih. An Introduction to Egyptian Arabic. Center for Near Eastern and North African Studies, University of Michigan. 1981.
    Daly, M. W, Carl F Petry. The Cambridge History of Egypt: 640-1517. Cambridge University Press. 1998.
    “Egyptian Arabic”. Languages of the World. 2007. Retrieved from: on January 7, 2009.
    “History of Coptic Language of Egypt”. Scribd. 2008. Retrieved from: on January 7, 2009
    James, Allan R, Jonathan Leather. Second-language Speech: Structure and Process. Walter de Gruyter. 1997.
    Khalafallah, Abdelghany A. A Descriptive Grammar of Saei:di, Egyptian Colloquial Arabic. Mouton. 1969.
    Phillott, Douglas Craven, Ashley Powell. Manual of Egyptian Arabic. The Authors. 1926.
    Ricard, Alain, Naomi Morgan. The Languages and Literature of Africa: The Sands of Babel. James Currey Publishers. 2004.
    Versteegh, Kees. The Arabic Language. Columbia University Press. 1997.
    Watson, Janet C.E. The Phonology and Morphology of Arabic. Oxford University Press. 2007.


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