Essential Arabic Grammar – Comparing Egyptian Arabic and Eastern Arabic

The linguistic reality for Arabic is more complicated than for most of the world’s languages.  Arabic exhibits what linguists call diglossia, which means that two varieties of the same language exist side-by-side in a speech community with each one having a specialized function.

In simplified terms, these two varieties of Arabic are known as Modern Standard Arabic and colloquial Arabic.  It is important to note that there is not just one colloquial language but many, and that each one has its own grammar and linguistic features.  Often these differences are so pronounced that one can tell where a speaker is from just by listening to him or her speak.

Modern Standard Arabic is used in formal situations, such as a news broadcast and parliamentary speech; a colloquial variety is used in informal contexts, such as talking to one’s family and friends.  The following sections provide a comparison of Egyptian and Eastern Arabic (represented by Syrian Arabic).

Present Tense in the Dialects

Unlike English, and Modern Standard Arabic for that matter, the present tense is indicated in the dialects by a prefix attached to an appropriately conjugated verb:

English Modern Standard Arabic Egyptian Arabic Eastern Arabic
What are you saying? (to a woman) Maadha ta’quuleena? Bi-takli eh? Shu bi-tu’uli?
I am studying Economics. ’Adrusu al-iktisaada. B-adris el-iktisaad. Badrus al-iktisaad.

Notice that there is no /a/ after “Economics” in both Egyptian and Eastern Arabic.  Also, there is no /u/ as part of the conjugation for “I study.”  One of the main features of all Arabic dialects is to abandon the traditional inflectional and declensional system in the present, past and future tenses.

Past Tense in the Dialects

The past tense is expressed by adding an appropriate ending to the verb stem.  Unlike the present tense, this does not involve adding a prefix to the verb:

English Modern Standard Arabic Egyptian Arabic Eastern Arabic
Did you drink tea? (to a man) Hal sharibta shayan? Sheribt shay? Sharibt shay?
I bought a book. ’Eshtaraytu kitaaban. Eshtarait kitaab. Ashtarayt kitaab.

Expressing the Future

The future is expressed in the Arabic dialects by using a variation of the prefix /ha/.  Egyptian and Eastern Arabic tend to use the same prefix, i.e. /ha/:

English Modern Standard Arabic Egyptian Arabic Eastern Arabic
What are you going to eat? (to a woman) Maadha sawfa ta’kuleena? Ha-takli eh? Shu ha-ta’kli?
What are you going to buy? (to a man) Maadha sawfa tashtari? Ha-teshteri eh? Shu ha-tashtiri?

Lexical Variation within the Dialects

One of the areas that shows the most variation in the dialects is the question words. (The question words are bolded in the following colloquial expressions.):

English Egyptian Arabic Eastern Arabic
How are you? (to a woman) Izzayik? Keefik?
What is your name? (to a man) ’Ismak eh? Shu ’ismak?
Where are you? (to a man) Fainak? Waynak?
Why are you speaking English? (to a woman) Leh bi-tekkallemi inglizi? Laysh bi-tahki ’inglizi?

Other types of words tend to have different variations in the dialects as well.  These include the adverbs to express “fine” and “here.”  The relevant colloquial adverbs appear in boldface:

English Egyptian Arabic Eastern Arabic
I am fine, thank you. Ana kwayyis shukran. ’Ana mneeh shukran.
I am from here. ’Ana min hina. ’Ana min hon.

However, not only question words and adverbs tend to vary across the dialects.  Even verbs, nouns and negation prefixes can vary:

English Egyptian Arabic Eastern Arabic
Do you speak German? (to a woman) Bi-tekkallemialmaani? Bi-tahki ’almaani?
I am not going to drink tea today. Mish ha-shrab shay ’innaharda. Ma ha-shrab shay ’alyom.
Car Arabeyya Sayyarah

In addition, the expression of wanting something varies.  Note that the dialects tend not to use a verb to express this concept as Modern Standard Arabic and English do:

English Egyptian Arabic Eastern Arabic
Do you want to drink tea? (to a man) Ayez teshrab shay? Bidaktashrab shay?

Phonological Variation within the Dialects

All dialects show some phonological variation from Modern Standard Arabic.  This is especially true with /j/ as in /zawja/ “wife.”  Egyptian Arabic pronounces it as /g/ as in “good” while Syrian Arabic pronounces it as /zh/ due to possible influence from French.  In addition, both dialects pronounce the Arabic letter ق as /’/ (or a glottal stop as in the English “uh-oh”).  Here are some examples:

English Modern Standard Arabic Egyptian Arabic Eastern Arabic
Camel Jamal Gamal Zhamal
Coffee Qahwa Ahwa ’Ahwe (see below)
He said Qaala Aal Aal

In colloquial Arabic, one can omit the pronouns as it is often clear from context who is being referred to.  However, the pronoun can be, and often is, added for emphasis or to make it very clear who is being addressed.  This is true for both formal and informal speech styles.

A Special Feature of Eastern (Syrian) Arabic

Eastern Arabic, especially the Syrian variety of colloquial Arabic, has a special phonological feature that linguists call imaalah.  This involves the /a/ (usually at the end of feminine nouns and adjectives) being pronounced as /e/ as in the /a/ in “way.”  Egyptian Arabic does not have this feature.  The following are some examples:

English Egyptian Arabic Eastern Arabic
I am going to drink coffee. Ha-shrab ahwa. Ha-shrab ahwe.
A big city Madeena kebeera Madeene kabeere