If you don’t speak their language…

As-salamu `alaykum wa rahmatullah

I’ve learnt many things when it comes to speaking Arabic in Cairo (indeed, in many Middle-Eastern countries), but nothing stares at me so much in the face as the clear difference between Fus-ha (classical) and ‘Amiyyah (colloquial) Arabic.

My father once related a funny incident that happened when he was a student in Cairo (paraphrased by me):

I was a young soldier out with my group when we suddenly got lost. Now, because we were international students/soldiers under the wing of the Egyptian Army, we were not yet fully exposed to normal Egyptian life nor were we exposed to the intricate subtleties of the common man’s language! So anyway, the group got lost. We searched for a way back but it was hopeless. Then, alhamdulillah we saw an Egyptian and decided to ask him for directions. The group put forward their best student who spoke Arabic the best… but oh dear, he spoke only fus-ha (classical Arabic) and so he stepped forward to the unsuspecting Egyptian and said to him with a spur of confidence:

نَحنُ ضلَلَنا إلى الطريق
فهَلْ تُرشِدُنا إلي الصِرَاطِ المُسْتقِيمِ

We have gotten lost on our way
So will you thus guide us to the Straight Path?

Lol, when I first heard this, I almost died of laughter. In a land where the streets and general life is dominated by the colloquial Arabic (‘Amiyyah), a group of young soldiers coming out with such a statement can only be described as being ‘classical’ (pun totally intended). What was even funnier is that the students didn’t even give the name of the place they were intending – they could’ve said “direct us to the Kulliyat al-Harb (Military Faculty)” etc, but no, it had to be the Straight Path!

This incident is an interesting one because it shows something that many of us students encounter and struggle with when we first learn Arabic – the war between fus-ha and ‘amiyyah. You might find yourself spending months and months learning the classical tongue only to find that you can’t use it in daily life because the general public don’t speak that way in their general affairs. I must admit, in the beginning of my studies when I was just a teen, I was a staunch advocate for the fus-ha Arabic, almost militant in my stubbornness and outright refusal to speak ‘Amiyyah and let it taint my progress. I remember whenever I went shopping, or popped down to the grocers, I used to battle with the poor grocer. Often my conversations with him (or whoever I’d interact with in the market/various places) went something like this:

Grocer: $*%^%$&^%&*#&  [throws sentences at me in ‘amiyyah]
Me: Sorry, I can’t understand you. Can you speak Arabic, please?
Grocer: I am speaking Arabic!
Me (ever so zealous): No, you are not! Speak Arabic!
Grocer (in ‘amiyyah): Wallahil-‘Azim I am speaking it! %#&%%^$%£#^&*# [Repeats everything again in ‘amiyyah]
Me: **Frustration point**

In reality, it need not be a war (although yeah, it took me a while to soften up and retract from my hard-line fus-ha views!) As a student, you’ll probably only be staying a few months and understandably most of your effort will need to go towards your studies and learning the fus-ha tongue as much as time will allow you. In the beginning, you might find that people will advise you with different things; some will say to learn Fus-ha only, others will say that you should learn ‘amiyyah alongside the fus-ha and yet others will say something completely different. It can be quite confusing. Looking back now, I don’t really regret the way I did things, although I ignored the ‘amiyyah completely at first (except for some words that I eventually learnt out of mercy for that old grocer man lol) but once my fus-ha was stable, I actually turned my attention to the ‘amiyyah and began taking it in too.

So what to do?

Well, it’s really up to you to do what you think it’s best for your own personal circumstance. But I would perhaps advise anyone studying Arabic to put their main primary effort into the fusha and learn that really well because studying the ‘amiyyah beforehand (or alongside) the fus-ha can have detrimental affects on your learning and progress of the fusha. This is specially true if you only have a few months to learn Arabic. However, in the long run, it doesn’t hurt to pick up the dialect of the land you’re in because you will naturally need it if living amongst locals. For one thing, it’ll be easier to understand the people, talk to them in your general day to day life (neighbours, shopping, transport etc) and the bonus is that the Egyptian dialect is the most popular and widely understood across the Middle-East! Oh and hey, if you can argue like an Egyptian, you’ll also get that extra bit of r-e-s-p-e-c-t :)

I once had a long discussion with a teacher of mine about the intricacies of ‘amiyyah, where the words originated from and how the local language came to be. It was a very interesting discussion, best saved perhaps for another blog post. :) Let’s just say that after having this discussion, I realised just how much the ‘amiyyah is actually deeply embedded into the fus-ha and at times is just an extension of it… Hardline views you say? Meh, not me…!

15 thoughts on “If you don’t speak their language…

  1. walekum salaam warahmatuallahi wabarakatuhu sis

    Interesting post.

    Inshaallah, i want to first start with Quran dictionary then i’ll go to Islam-qa arabic and try reading some fatwa’s in Arabic.

    Fusha is my first choice .Especially Quranic arabic is just 2000 words i think ….and with those words i can speak anything i want to express.I guess !

    I am scared of Amiyyah ,may be i’ll learn 2 ,3 words of it after fusha.

    If we muslims delete Amiyyah then it will be so nice.

    • I’m currently studying Arabic Fusha and up until recently I was very reluctant to speak any colloquial dialect! In class and amidst confusion and eagerness to speak, I often use dialect as my mother in law is Syrian and husband Kuwait! (Words that I picked up!) to the dismay of my Arabic teacher! Hence the reason for my reluctance. Some argue Fusha will reenforce Arabic unity as too many dialects (even differences between city and villages) put this unity in danger. However consider this: Koranic language hasn’t changed over hundreds of years because it is a written language! Language has a way of changing, that’s the natural way! New words added to diccionaries every year! If Fusha became a spoken language it would undoubtedly CHANGE! Would Koranic language be then considered “archaic”? I am Portuguese, I speak English, French, Spanish and I can say hand on my heart, I like the world as it is! Language and cultural identity! People will speak differently and I’ll have something new (hardwork sweat on my forehead) every day! I like a beautiful garden full of different types of flowers! :-) Maria

  2. Lol!! This is a very interesing post, i have struggled with the exact same problem lol! However, i have now learnt how to speak ameyya aswell, at it is most certainely benificial… the problem is that i now speak English with an arab accent… hahahaha!

    Sonia xx

  3. As-slaamu 3laykum :-)

    Sister Sonia lol i actually started to speak English with an Arabic accent too, I just automatically speak English to Arabs with an Arabic accent i dont know why lol

    Anyway my best advice is to use ANA 3YIZZ instead of ANA OREEDO :-) it makes the world of difference when speaking to locals .

    Also once you get a bit advanced you can throw in the Mish & the kidas lol No one is asking anyone to Study Ammiya as once you are fluent in Fusha picking up the Ammiya is not very difficult.

    Arabic dialects have always been there, its funny how some students of knowledge are enemies of the dialects.

    Waslaam 3laykum


  4. Assalaamu Alaykum,
    I am hoping someone can help me. Does anyone know if Al Azhar have a college in Alexandria? Shukran wa JazakAllah Khayran.

  5. Salam, I do not speak Arabic, but as a Muslim, I do know very well what Siraat Al-Mustaqeem means, and even I laughed when I read that quote
    (I took care to read it in Arabic before reading the English translation)

  6. JAV: ( Also once you get a bit advanced you can throw in the Mish & the kidas) HAHA hillarrious, they use those words alot, egyptian ppl are so cool, btw very very interessting post, i want to go there this september, but i dont know which markaz to start, any advice? fajr or markaz kalimah ?

  7. lol

    i remember going to a grocer store and saying

    “Ureedu an ashtariyya labanan, bi kam kilo wahidun?”
    (I want to buy milk, how much is a kilo?)

    Grocery-man replies with a smirk on his face, clears his throat, and announces infront of everyone..
    “bi arbaa’ti junaayhatin wa nisf!”
    (4 guineas and a half)

    and then he finishes by saying:

    “Hal honaaka shay’un aakhar?”
    (Is there anything else?)

    And i’d just storm outta the shop embarrased..

    after learning the hard way, i now confidently say

    “Yaa ‘Ammmmm!! Ba Ollak AY! ‘Ayz laban!”

  8. Haha, this reminds me of the poor situation we (the dutch-Moroccons) are in…
    80-90% of the Moroccans in Holland (The Netherlands) is Amazigh (Berber) origin.

    His mother (and father) speak only Tamazight (Berber), while his mother language is Dutch! So she addresses him with her pure Tamazight and he replies in broken Tamazight, which is actually a kind of poor Google Dutch-Tamazight translation, and all the missing gaps he gentle fills it up with his amazing Dutch vocabulary. And this daily in and out!

    With his Tamazight friends and brothers, he speaks Dutch.. why?

    Tamazight (the language Berbers speak), nobody can write or read this language (today still the case with the majority, even though recently they invented some ‘hieroglyphs’ for it, for which everybody is just too lazy to learn it). So it is a language that is given mouth to mouth (yeah, amazing memories memorizing a whole language just by hearing and speaking it!). So no books to learn it, nor can you write it.. (typing this, I now realize I am an Ummy in Tamazight! ). And because of this mouth to mouth, it changes every ten kilometers. So every district has his own dialect or at least his own unique ‘accent’. I’ll demonstrate how far it goes:

    My grandfather, when I stand on the roof of his house… I can see the house of my grandmother where she was born and raised, just a little further away… there is only an empty river between them… and yet they have different accents, even some words of them have different letters!!!… so she is saying to me lefqith and he is saying to me rafqih ( translation: both words mean: imam of the mosque)… And all of them blaming me that I have an ugly Tamazight if I use the other word : P!

    So we (dutch-Moroccans) – having been raised up to glorify your ‘Tamazight’ (actually the Tamazight of your father’s qabeelah) and ridicule and mock every Tamazight that might be different from what you are used to… it’s actually like the Arabs in the Djaahiliyyah.

    And we in Holland (Everyone from a different town in Morocco, some even from south Morocco and others from the North) can’t hold our laugh when we speak to each other Tamazight, while every one of us is from a different district. Moreover, sometimes we don’t understand each other at all! And the wost of all, we get proud of our own ‘Tamazight’ when we hear the other, because then we can hear how ‘perfect’ our own dialect is, and the ‘amazing indoctrination’ comes out…. and this translates into deeds and some words, because we are raised up to have a deep hatred of all the other tribes, and you never hear something good about them… (bear in mind we are ‘practicing brothers’). .. so to keep the peace (and to understand each other), we just speak Dutch. And recently some switched to fosha Arabic, alhamdolillaah.

    I think you can’t imagine a worse situation now.

    Well… guess what! Everything in Morocco is Daridja (Moroccan Arabic). And like most folks, we are raised to just hate Arabs (there is truly no physical difference between Arabs of Morocco and Berbers!!!)… result: ‘Nobody ever taught us Arabic (read: Daridja- the Moroccan dialect)’ and the Arabs in Holland… well, we colonized them. So they had to learn and speak Tamazight (don’t ask me which Tamazight! lol).

    So I… never having learnt the dialect, and after having learnt Arabic in Holland and also spend time in Cairo 2010-2011… with my fosha I come to Morocco and live one of it’s Major cities to study Islam and complete my memorization of the Quran in Warsch. I came to the conclusion that it’s really @^*$(Y@~ when you don’t speak THEIR language!!!! And they really are @$%#@ in Fosha, even more than ghamlghamla Ammiyyah which I encountered in Egypt! And they just feel superior over you if you can’t speak French! They just look down on fosha, while they can’t speak it…

    Because I speak the dialect broken, no French, they ask me: ‘Are you Moroccan?’ (I answer: Yeah! He: ‘Then why can’t you speak Arabic?’ Me: I do speak Arabic!? Maybe you mean Daridja? He: Daridja is Arabic.. Me: No it’s not! Come let’s speak Fosha, if you claim to be Arab! He: From where are you? Me: Rif mountains. He: ‘Oh I understand.. bye.’) …
    if I buy something, the immediately recognize my broken dialect, and the price is then 3x higher, because they have some odd belief that we get paid in gold in stead of money in Europa or so!.

    But now, alhamdolillaah, I’ts much better and I encounter less problems… but the first time was worse… they would maybe ask me in Daridja ‘How old are you?’ And I would be staring at them, while considering whether to say ‘Yes’ or ‘No’,,, haha

    But Morocco is fine, old-school sitting on the ground, writing on some wood, a wooden ‘Qalam’, with self-made ink, alhamdolillaah, I just love it!

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