This article is part of our crash course series on Arabic dialects.
If you know some Standard Arabic and want to understand how the dialects differ, our Guide to Arabic Dialects will help you get started. We’ve also published in-depth guides on Levantine and Moroccan Arabic.
In this article, we look at the most popular Arabic dialect of them all: Egyptian Colloquial Arabic (ECA).
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Why Learn Egyptian Arabic?
The dialect of the largest Arabic country, Egyptian Arabic is often the first choice among Arabic language learners when they decide to tackle a dialect. The influence of Egyptian media, film and culture across the Arab world means that Egyptian Arabic is widely understood by speakers of other dialects, so if you’re looking for the dialect that will get you the most mileage across the Middle East, Egyptian Arabic is a good bet. Egypt’s popularity as a destination to study Arabic has also led to the creation of extensive resources for learning the dialect, far beyond anything available for other Arabic dialects.
- What is Egyptian Arabic called in Arabic? The word for Egypt in Arabic is quite different from the English word "Egypt," which actually comes from Greek. In Arabic Egypt is known as "misr" (or in local Egyptian pronunciation, "masr"). This word gives the two names that Egyptians tend to use for their dialect: اللهجة المصرية (al-lahga al-masriyya), literally “Egyptian dialect,” and العامية المصرية (al-’ammiyya al-masriyya), “Egyptian colloquial.”
- Are Arabic and Egyptian the same language? Yes, they are varieties of the same language, and a person who knows one can understand significant chunks of the other, although some differences exist that will pose obstacles to 100% understanding. The purpose of this article is to introduce Egyptian Arabic for those who have studied some Modern Standard Arabic.
- Who speaks Egyptian Arabic? Egyptian Arabic is the mother tongue of the vast majority of Egypt’s 92 million people.
- Where do they speak Egyptian Arabic? Egyptian Arabic is spoken throughout Egypt, and is spoken abroad by the large diaspora of Egyptians living in the Gulf, the US and Europe. Egyptian Arabic is also understood by many Arabic-speakers throughout the Middle East, although they are not always able to speak it themselves.
History of Egyptian Arabic
The oldest influence on Egyptian Arabic comes from Coptic, the language spoken in Egypt before the Islamic conquests of the 7th century. Coptic doesn’t provide many words that the beginning learner of Egyptian Arabic would come across, but some scholars see Coptic influence behind peculiar grammatical features that separate Egyptian Arabic not only from the Modern Standard Arabic language (MSA), but also from other dialects as well. The first is placing demonstrative adjectives after the noun rather than before (so the MSA phrase هذا الرجل becomes الراجل دا, for example), with the other being the tendency to place interrogatives at the end of the sentence rather than at the beginning -- so a taxi driver is more likely to ask you انت رايح فين؟ than إلى أين تذهب.
A larger number of words in daily use come from Turkish. As the language of Egypt’s ruling class from the beginning of the Mamluke Sultanate in 1250 down to the Free Officers Revolution in 1952, Turkish contributed many everyday words that you’ll hear starting on your first day in Cairo. A “room” is not a ghurfa (غرفة) but an “oda” (أوضة -- Turkish oda) and a bridge” is not a jisr (جسر) but rather a “kobari” (كوبري -- Turkish köprü). You don’t wear hidha’ (حذاء) but gazma (جزمة) on your feet, and you don’t wait in a saff (صف) but in a “taboor” (طابور - Turkish tabur).
The legacy of Turkish as the language of Egypt’s aristocratic class has also contributed a wealth of titles of respect. You might hear a taxi driver or a waiter call you باشا or أفندم (basha, efendim) and you yourself can address the taxi driver in turn as أسطى (Turkish usta). Then the suffix -gi (from Turkish -ci) is an ongoing source of new words in Egyptian Arabic. In its strict sense, it’s used to form nouns referring to a person’s occupation. So a sofragi is a waiter, buyagi a shoe-shiner, makwagi a dry-cleaner, and baltagi a professional thug. But this suffix can also be used to create new words describing a person’s character in an amusing or depreciating way. So a maslahgi is an opportunist and ikhwangi is a derogatory term for a member of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Meanwhile, Egypt’s connections with the broader Mediterranean world are reflected in the number of Greek and Italian words that have entered into the language. The Greek word “trapezi” has given Egypt its word for “table”: طرابيزة / tarabayza, while Italian has contributed words such as جمبري gamberi (shrimp), جوانتي guanti (gloves), and comodino كومودينو (bedside table). And if in the streets of Cairo you see a junk dealer wheeling around a cart full of scrap metal and yelling “bekya” -- well that word is Italian too, from roba vecchia, meaning “old stuff.”
The French influence on Egyptian Arabic reflects France’s status as a model for emulation during the Nahda period. Technology from the early 20th century is referred to by its French language name, so, for example, أسانسير for elevator and بريزة for light socket (French ascenseur and prise, respectively). This also extends to most terminology pertaining to cars - where everything from the hood (كبوت - French capote) to the clutch (دبرياج - French débrayage) has a French name.
Finally, the English influence on Egyptian Arabic is immense and covers the whole range of modern technology and culture that is sweeping the entire globe. Terms used in a range of fields are freely borrowed from the English language, and used in Egyptian Arabic with varying degrees of adaptation. Computer is, well, كمبيوتر (kombyuter), a USB drive / flash drive is a فلاشة (flasha), and a mobile phone is a موبايل (mobayel).
Egyptian Arabic sees many of the same shifts in pronunciation of letters as in other urban Arabic dialects.
The letter ث becomes ت in most of the core vocabulary of the language (ثلاثة > تلاتة , ثاني < تاني), whereas in “intellectual” words imported from MSA, it shifts instead to س, for example thaqafa becomes saqafa.
Similarly, ق is pronounced as hamza in most everyday words باقولك (ba’ulak), قبل كده (‘abl-i kidda), ما قدرش (ma ‘adarsh), while “intellectual” words such as قصة, مقاومة, ثقافة, and the name Cairo itself (القاهرة) still preserve the pronunciation of qaf found in MSA.
In general, Egyptian Arabic observes the MSA distinction between ض and ظ, but there are a few prominent instances where MSA ض becomes ظ in Egyptian Arabic, and conversely, a few instances where ظ in MSA becomes ض in Egyptian.
The main ones are the following:
MSA ضابط (“officer) > Egyptian ظابط
MSA بالضبط (exactly) > Egyptian بالظبط
MSA بعد الظهر (afternoon) > Egyptian بعد الضهر
MSA ظلام (darkness) > Egyptian ضلمة
The most characteristic sound change of Egyptian Arabic, however, is the pronunciation of ج as in the “g” of girl. You don’t go to the al-jaam’ia al-amreekeyya ( الجامعة الأمريكية) but to the “al-gam’a al-amreekeyya,” you don’t eat jibna but “gibna” (جبنة) and something is not jadeed, but “gadeed” (جديد).
(Note that this sound change only applies to Cairene Arabic and the dialect spoken in the northern half of Egypt. In the Sa’idi dialect of Upper Egypt, ج still has the “j” pronunciation characteristic of Modern Standard Arabic, while it is the letter ق that takes on the “g” sound).
Another sound change applies only to a small set of words that occur rather frequently. This is the use of the Arabic diminutive pattern فُعيِل (fu’ayyel) for certain adjectives describing size, distance and amount. This means that instead of the standard MSA form, the diminutive form is used instead. Accordingly, qarib (قريب) becomes ‘orayeb, saghir (صغير) becomes sughayyer, qalil (قليل) becomes ‘olayel, and qasir (قصير) becomes ‘usayyer).
Rhythm and Accent
In terms of other sound changes, there are three characteristics of syllable structure and accentuation that give the Egyptian Arabic language its particular sound.
- Putting stress on the second-to-last syllable where Modern Standard Arabic places the stress on the third-to-last syllable. For example, mádrasa shifts to madrása, máktaba becomes maktába, and múshkila becomes mushkíla.
- Addition of helping vowel to avoid three consonants in a row. Because of the loss of case endings found in MSA, it’s more common for three consonants to fall in a row in Egyptian Arabic. In order to help make this consonant cluster more pronounceable, Egyptian Arabic adds a helping vowel (pronounced like an English schwa) between the second and third consonants. This phenomenon is usually found in the following cases:
- When negating past tense verbs in the 1st and 2nd person singular. Examples: ma ‘ultish / ما قلتش (I didn’t say), ma fahimtish / ما فهمتش (I didn’t understand), ma ruhtish / ما رحتش (I didn’t go).
- A verb followed by a suffix: gibt-é-ha / جبتها (I brought it,
- Between two words where the first word end in two consonants and the second begins with a consonant. Examples: il bint-i-di / البنت دي (this girl), ‘abl-i kida قبل كده (before this), ba’d-i kida (بعد كده).
- In words with the syllable structure of one long syllable followed by two short syllables, the second syllable (i.e. the first of the two short syllables) is dropped so that what was a three-syllable word becomes a two-syllable word. This is most common with the feminine form of the اسم فاعل. For example, in the phrase أنا مش فاهمة (I (fem.) don’t understand), the فاهمة is pronounced as “fahma” and not “fahima” based on what you would expect from its MSA pronunciation. Similarly, if you ask a girl انتي عاملة ايه (what’s up?), the عاملة is pronounced ‘amla and not ‘amila.
Verbs in Egyptian Arabic display the main simplifications that were described in our overview article on Arabic dialects.
- Dual forms are replaced by corresponding plural forms
- Feminine plural is replaced by masculine plural form
- As in the Levantine dialect, the present tense is marked by adding a “b” to what would be the beginning of the MSA present tense.
- In the present tense, the 2nd person feminine form and the 2nd and 3rd person masculine plural forms lose their final nun (ن), e.g. بتكتبو ,بتكتبي and بيكتبو rather than تكتبين, and تكتبون and يكتبون.
- Both the 1st person singular and the 2nd person masculine singular lose their final vowel. So عملت ‘amalt could mean either “I did” or “you (m.) did” depending on the context.
By way of example, here is the full present tense conjugation of the verb عمل, which is used in Egyptian Arabic instead of MSA فعل, meaning “to do.”
|بنعمل bina'mil||بأعمل ba'mil|
|بتعملو bita'milu||بتعمل \ بتعملي bita'mil \ bita'mili|
|بيعملو biya'milu||بيعمل \ بتعمل biya'mil \ bita'mil|
And here it is in past tense:
|عملتو||عملت \ عملتي|
|عملو||عمل \ عملت|
As in Modern Standard Arabic, Egyptian Arabic indicates possession (my, his, her, their, etc.) and pronouns used as direct objects (I saw him) by attaching a suffix pronoun to the end of the noun or verb. In most cases, these suffix pronouns are identical (compare كتابه “his book” and رأيته “I saw him” where the -hu at the end indicates “his” or “him”). The only suffix pronoun where there is a difference is between my/me (كتابي “my book” vs. رآني “he saw me”), where -ni marks the direct object “me” and -i is used for “my.”
For the most part, Egyptian Arabic uses the exact same suffix pronouns as MSA. So for example, كتابي (kitabi) is “my book” in both MSA and Egyptian, and in شافونا / رأونا (“they saw us” in MSA and Egyptian, respectively) the نا indicating “us” is the same, despite the difference in the word used for “saw.” The main differences in the use of suffix pronouns between MSA and Egyptian Arabic are the following simplifications:
- As with the verb forms in Egyptian Arabic, all dual and feminine plural forms are lost and merged into the corresponding masculine plural forms. So هنّ for “their” (f.) becomes simply هم.
- For the singular “you” forms (-ka and -ki) and the masculine singular form (-hu), the final vowel is placed back before the consonant and the vowel that was in between the noun and the suffix is lost. For example, MSA bayt-u-ka “your (m.) house” becomes bet-ak; MSA bayt-u-ki “your (f.) house” becomes bet-ik and bayt-u-hu “his house” becomes bet-uh.
- The only instance where a completely different suffix pronoun is used in Egyptian Arabic is in the 2nd person plural, where كو- is used instead of MSA كم-. So “we saw you guys” is شفناكو shufnaaku (compared to MSA رآناكم) and your (pl.) teacher is أستاذكو ustazku (compared to MSA أستاذكم ustadhukum).
Egyptian Arabic forms the future tense by adding the sound “ha-” to the present tense verb conjugation. In writing, this sound can be represented by either حـ or هـ.
|ana haruh||أنا هأروح|
|inta hatruh / inti hatruhi||اأنت هتروح \ هتروحي|
|huwwa hayruh / hiyya hatruh||هو هيروح \ هي هتروح|
|ihna hanruhu||احنا هنروح|
|intu hatruhu||انتو هتروحو|
|humma hayruhu||هم هيروحو|
Negating Nominal Sentences
To negate nominal sentences (جمل اسمية), Egyptian Arabic uses the word مش (mish) for both masculine and feminine, singular and plural. This is in contrast to MSA ليس, which is conjugated to agree in gender and number with the subject. So “I’m not home right now” is أنا مش في البيت دلوقتي, “They’re not students” is هم مش طلاب, “You guys aren’t Egyptian?” is انتو مش مصريين؟, and “She’s not very tall” is هي مش طويلة جدًا.
Negating Verbal Sentences
With verbal sentences, Egyptian Arabic is both simpler and more complicated than Modern Standard Arabic. It’s simpler because instead of the three words you have in MSA depending on the context (لم / ما / لا), Egyptian just uses ما. But it’s more complicated because in Egyptian Arabic you also have to put a ش- at the end of the verb being negated, thus forming a sort of “negation sandwich” with ما and ش- on either end, and the verb itself in the middle. For example: ماقلتش (ma ‘ultish) “I didn’t say,” ما بقولش (ma ba’ulsh) “I’m not saying.” Compare this to MSA ما قلت and لا أقول, where the negating word differs depending on the tense, but there is no ش- at the end.
Note that in the first person singular and the second person masculine singular, a short i sound is added between the past tense form and the final ش. As in the regular past tense, these two forms are identical and only context can distinguish the two. Compare انا ما فهمتش (ana ma fihimtish) and ات ما فهمتش (inta ma fihimtish).
By contrast, in the third person feminine singular, there is no helping vowel, and the ش is added directly after the final ت sound, thus creating a cluster that sounds like an English ch sound. For example: She didn’t understand = هي مافهمتش (hiyya ma fihmitsh). When constructions involving كان are negated, note that it is كان that receives the negation sandwich and not the other elements in the sentence. For example:
|ما كانتش في مصر في وقت ده||She wasn’t in Egypt at that time.|
|ما كانوش عايزيين يزعجوك||They didn’t want to disturb you|
|ما كنتش أكلّمك||I wasn’t talking to you|
Suffix Pronouns and Prepositions in Negated Verbs
If the verb is followed by a suffix pronoun, then the ش- comes after the suffix pronoun. So “I didn’t see you” would be ما شفتكش (ma shuftaksh), Then in Egyptian Arabic, the preposition لي is closely linked to the verb that it refers to, so in verbs followed by لي, the ش- of negation follows لي as well, rather than coming between the verb and لي. This لي can also follow a suffix pronoun, thus leading to such unwieldy constructions as ماديتهالوش madaythaalush “I didn’t give it to him,” which can be broken down as follows:
ما + اديت + ها + له + ش
Notice how the sandwich of ما + ش bookends the entire construction of verb + direct object + indirect object. These constructions can be extremely trying for your listening skills at first, but with practice, you’ll be able to isolate the crucial information in the meat of the sandwich without getting distracted by the negation bread on either side.
By contrast, other prepositions are mercifully left on the outside of these negation sandwiches, so “I didn’t look for it” is مادوّرتش عليه (ma dawwartish ‘aleeh), and “You didn’t think of me?” is مافكّرتش فيا (ma fakkartish fiyya).
However, note that عند meaning to “have” is negated using a negation sandwich even though it’s not a verb:
|I don’t have||ماعنديش|
|You (m./f.) don’t have||ماعندكش \ ماعندكيش|
|He / she doesn’t have||ماعندوش \ ماعندهاش|
|We don’t have||ماعندناش|
|You (pl.) don’t have||ماعندكوش|
|They don’t have||ماعندهمش|
Negating the Future Tense
These negation sandwiches are primarily used for verbs in the present and the past tense. For the future tense and the present participle, مش is used to negate the verb, without any awkward ش at the end. So “I don’t understand” is أنا مش فاهم (ana mish fahem), “You guys aren’t coming with us?” is انتو مش جايين معانا (intu mish gayyeen ma’ana), “She won’t tell me” is هي مش هتقولي (hiyya mish hat’uli) and “We won’t go without you” is احنا مش هنروح من غيرك (ihna mish hanruh min ghayrak).
Key Function Words
Modal Words and Expressions
As explained in the Overview article, the form of the verb without the present tense marker (and thus a form which resembles the normal present tense verb in MSA) is used as the subjunctive form of the verb -- that is, the verb that follows expressions of wanting, wishing, ability and necessity. These expressions can either be fully conjugated verbs or adjectives used by themselves. The most useful modal verbs and expressions in Egyptian Arabic are the following:
- Must / have to = لازم (lazem)
|I have to tell you something||لازم أقولك حاجة|
|There has to be a solution||لازم يكون فيه حل|
|You don’t have to throw it in the trash||مش لازم ترميه في الزبالة|
- May, might, can = ممكن (mumkin)
|May I sit here?||ممكن أقعد هنا؟|
|Can you bring me the check?||ممكن تجبلي الحساب؟|
|She can help you if you want||هي ممكن تساعدك لو انت عايز|
- Want = عايز، عايزة، عايزيين (‘ayez, ‘ayza, ‘ayzeen)
Note that عايز functions as a present participle and agrees in gender and number with the subject.
|I didn’t want to go home early||أنا ما كنتش عايز أروّح بدري|
|We want to leave now||احنا عايزيين نمشي دلوقتي|
|She wants to tell you something||هي عايزة تقولك حاجة|
- To be able to, can = قدر، بيقدر (‘idir, biyi’dir)
Note that قدر is a verb and is fully conjugated.
|I can’t pronounce this word||أنا مش قادر أنطق الكلمة دي|
|He wasn’t able to come to the party||ما قدرش ييجي للحفلة|
|Pay as much as you can||ادفع على قد ما تقدر|
- To like (to do something) - حبّ، بيحبّ (habb, bihibb)
Note that حبّ is a verb and is fully conjugated.
|Do you like to dance?||بتحب ترقص؟|
|Do you like to watch movies?||بتحبي تتفرجي على الأفلام؟|
|I don’t like to stay up late like that||مابحبش أسهر كده|
|They like to take a walk after dinner||بيحبو يتمشو بعد العشا|
- To feel (like doing), be in the mood for = نفسي، نفسك، نفسه، نفسه (nifsi, nifsak, nifsuh, nafsaha)
This expression is derived from نفس and takes possessive suffix for the person it refers to.
|I feel like staying in bed all day||أنا نفسي أقعد في السرير طول اليوم|
|Do you feel like seeing something in particular?||نفسك تشوف حاجة معينة؟|
|I felt like eating beans but she was in the mood for grilled meat||كان نفسي آكل فول بس هي كان نفسها تآكل مشاوي|
- To be correct, appropriate = ينفع
The word ينفع is a verb but is only found in the 3rd person singular.
|You shouldn’t talk to your wife like that||ماينفعش تكلّم مراتك كده|
|Is it ok for me to wear socks with sandals?||ينفع ألبس شراب مع شبشب؟|
|Is that right or wrong? [a frequent rhetorical question]||ينفع ولا ماينفعش؟|
|It’s not right to cheat customers||ماينفعش تضحك على الزباين|
Demonstrative Adjectives As with other dialects, Egyptian Arabic derives its word for “this” from MSA هذا \ هذه, using the word دا for masculine singular, دي for feminine singular and دول for plural. But unlike in MSA and other dialects, in Egyptian Arabic the demonstrative adjectives are placed after the noun they refer to, rather than before. The table below illustrates how this works in practice:
|This man (m. sing.)||الراجل دا ar-raagel da|
|This girl (f. sing.)||البنت دي al-bint(i) dee|
|These people (pl.)||الناس دول an-naas dool|
Note that unlike other Arabic dialects, these demonstrative adjectives have the same form whether they are adjectives attached to a noun or whether they are being used as free-standing pronouns. For example: انت عايز دا ولا دا؟ (do you want this one or that one?)
Who = مين (meen)
What = ايه (ay)
Where = فين (fayn)
When = ايمتى (aymtaa)
Why = ليه (lay)
How = ازاي (izzay)
How much (of quantity or amount) = كم (kam)
How much (of price) = بكم (bi-kam)
Street Survival Words and Phrases
- Hello = السلام عليكم (assalaamu aleikum)
- Goodbye = مع السلامة (ma’assalaama)
- How are you? = ازيك؟ (izzayak / izzayik)
- Everything’s good, thank God = كله تمام الحمد لله (kullo tamaam, al-hamdu lillah)
- What’s up / what’s happening? = عامل ايه؟ ايه اخبار؟ (‘amel ay? ay akhbar?)
- What’s your name? = اسمك ايه؟ (ismak ay?)
- Yes = ايوه (aywah)
- No = لا (la)
- Ok (affirmative to a command or suggestion) = ماشي (mashi)
- There is = فيه (fee)
- There isn’t = مافيش (mafeesh)
- Also, too = كمان، برضه (kamaan, bardo)
- Please = لو سمحت \ لو سمحتي (law samaht / law samahti)
- Thank you = شكرًا (shukran)
- You’re welcome = عفوًا (‘afwan)
- Now = دلوقتي (dilwa’ti)
- Later = بعدين (ba’dayn)
- Still = لسه (lissa)
- Yesterday = امباح (imbarih)
- Today = النهارده (ennahardah)
- Tomorrow = بكرة (bukra)
- Soon, in a little bit = بعد شوية (ba’d shwayya)
- Until = لغاية (li-ghaya) [Replaces MSA حتى]
- Here = هنا (hina)
- To happen = حصل، بيحصل (hasal, biyahsal)
- To become = بقى، يبقى (ba’a, biyib’a)
- How long have you been in Egypt for? = بقالك قد ايه وانت في مصر؟ (ba’aa lak eddi ayh wa inta fee masr?)
- Very = أوي (awwi)
- Really? = بجد (bi-gad?)
- Excuse me (to get someone’s attention) = بعد إذنك (ba’d iznak)
- Excuse me (when someone is in the way) = عفوًا (‘afwan)
- What time is it now? = الساعة كم دلوقتي؟ (as-sa’a kam dilwa’ti?)
- Bon appetit = بالهناء والشفاء (bil-hana wa-shifa)
- Thing = حاجة (haga)
- To make / do = عمل، يعمل (‘amal, biy’amal) [Replaces MSA فعل]
- Without = من غير (min ghayr)
- To bring = جاب، بيجيب (gaab, bigeeb)
- To give = ادّى، بيدّي (idda, biyiddee)
- Keep going straight = خليك على طول (khaleek ‘ala tool)
- Turn left / right = لفّ شمال \ يمين (liff yameen / liff shamaal)
- If you already know some Modern Standard Arabic, the best book to get your Egyptian Arabic up to speed is the Kalaam Gamiil series. Following the same approach as this article, Kalaam Gamiil focuses on teaching what’s new and different in Egyptian Arabic without rehashing grammar and vocabulary that overlaps with MSA.
- If you want to learn Egyptian Arabic from scratch, the five-volume series Kallimni Arabi from AUC Press is the most extensive textbook series out there for any Arabic dialect.
- For the latest Egyptian slang and a wealth of idioms, expressions and proverbs, the three volumes of ‘Arabi Liblib will teach you words and tidbits of culture that only Egyptians know. Drop a few of these in conversation and people will have a hard time believing that you weren’t born in Cairo.