Friday, July 9, 2010

On the topic of Arabic

I felt like I should, at some point, write something about Arabic, since that is ostensibly why I'm here and going to class for four hours every weekday. I do love Arabic. It's fun to write, and I could go on and on about the general linguistics of it, but everyone but Jesse (hi Jesse!) would be very bored, so I won't.

The first thing to know is that in Arabic class, it isn't uncommon to be taught more than one dialect. For example, in my classes at home (and my ones here) I've been taught Modern Standard or Classical Arabic (henceforth referred to as MSA because it's easier to type), and Egyptian Colloquial (henceforth referred to as Egyptian). MSA is fairly formal, and derives from the Arabic used in the Quran, which is considered MSA's ultimate stylistic model. Very few people actually speak MSA, as the spoken dialects in most countries have shifted away from the Arabic of the Quran (although in some countries, the Arabic has not shifted too much and you can get away with speaking MSA). While you could probably speak MSA to most educated native speakers of Arabic and get away with it, it's generally seen as strange and overly formal to speak MSA.

Unfortunately, Egypt's spoken dialect is really different from MSA. At home, we spent one day a week on Egyptian, and here we spend three hours out of the 20 we spend in class each week on it. The result of this is that while I can read a fairly complex story in MSA, I still get confused when an old lady tries to ask me how long I've been in Egypt. In an ideal world, we would be spending way more time on Egyptian so I could yell at cabdrivers more effectively and learn how to tell men on the street to stop hissing at me, gosh-darnit. The justification we are usually given for the small amount of time spent on Egyptian compared to MSA is that MSA is important for translation and diplomatic work, and that we have plenty of opportunity to practice Egyptian after class and in the streets. This is all great in theory, but as a woman, my opportunities to practice Egyptian with strangers are somewhat limited. The guys in my program gossip freely with cab drivers and shopkeepers, but it's considered untoward for me to chat with them beyond asking prices or giving directions. This means I am often limited to chatting with the girls who live in my dorm, though far be it from me to disparage them as they are all really, really nice and are frequently eager to help me with my homework.

Despite these limits, I have definitely picked up a lot of Egyptian Arabic while I've been here. This includes but is not limited to:
  • Giving a cab driver directions
  • Telling said cab driver that I will give him twenty pounds for that cab ride when pigs fly, and he is only getting 7 pounds from me
  • Asking the price of things
  • Ordering food
  • Haggling (I now have mad hot haggling skills, for your information)
  • Yelling at the TV during a soccer match
  • Describing a person
  • Buying tickets/ trying to convince the person I'm buying tickets from that they should honor my Alexandria University ID and give me the Egyptian student price, even though I am freaky pale and very blonde and the ID does technically say that I'm American


  1. You meant, everyone but Jesse and CATHERINE would find it dull!

    That was great to read! I'd forgotten about the whole don't-talk-to-unmarried-women thing that is prevalent in the culture there, and how that would affect your ability to practice the language! You'd think that after years of having this program they might tailor it a liiiiitle more towards learning the colloquial, especially for the women in the program who will have less of a chance to learn it on the streets! very interesting....

  2. you meant "everyone but Jesse and Catherine and AUNT JULI would find it dull." (wait, I'm sensing a genetic predisposition in 2 of the 3, and an uncanny magnetic draw from that other one that drew her to one of the 2 of the 3).

    I love that you are having this experience, Al! and that you have mad haggling skills. Granpa Jack would be proud. xxoo

  3. and strange men hissing at you sounds unsettling. ask them to please refrain. maybe in MSA, as it should be formal request. :)