Common words in the spoken Arabic of Egypt, of Greek or Coptic origin
by Prof. Dr. Georgy Sobhy Bey


This is a collection of words that are being used in our day, and very commonly too, in the spoken Arabic of Egypt.

I have proved, as can be seen in the text, their origin, and in cases where possible, I have quoted their original in the ancient languages, Greek and Coptic words are naturally the commonest, and Upper Egypt is the place where one hears them often; hut scores of oilier words and names of places abound in the lower country—even in Cairo. 1 have forborne from discussing the sense of the names of (owns, except when

they occur often and in different localities.

I hope that the present modest work will stimulate the sons and daughters of the Coptic Community—the direct descendants of that great nation, the .ancient Egyptians—to study their own language and

to strive to (the utmost in their power to stop that dear idiom from disappearing altogether; and to tight with all the means in their possession, and to condemn whoever, amongst the clergy and the laity, attempts or promotes in .my way the cessation of the recital of the liturgy in any language but Coptic. The congregation must be made to understand that the service of Mass is meant to be recited for a certain purpose—the performance of the holy sacrament of the Church— and it is between the officiating priest and His God that the operation takes place. It was for the preservation of the personality of the Church, its racial characteristics, and the perpetuation of its glorious history, that the doctors of the Church insisted that the Liturgy should he recited in Coptic; for it is this part of the service that hardly reaches the congregation. It is a well-known fact that frequent translations of a certain text inevitably lead to the adulteration of the original sense. That was why the ancient Copts left whole versicles of the text in their original Greek, not translating them for fear of violating the sense and corrupting the text. That was why the great Catholic Church insisted on Latin being used, and the Greek Church, on Greek being used in Mass. Even the Uniat Catholic Churches use their ancient languages:

Syriac, Greek, Coptic and Chaldean for the Holy Service; for with the change of language, even the air and tune of the chants, which are hallowed by time and sanctioned by the Church. are inevitably changed.


The Coptic language, so-named by the Arabs on their conquest of Egypt, is the vernacular spoken language of Ancient Egypt. The language we read in the Hieroglyphic texts was that of books and of official

and sacred texts. Side by side with this language, the common people and the public used a freer and earlier idiom in their daily relations. This colloquial language was unfortunately never written down until the Saitic Period 600 B. C. A special script was devised for it, and was called by the contemporaneous Greeks "'The Demotic", or the language of the people", and by the Ancient Egyptians themselves the - Egyptian language to distinguish it from the language of the hieroglyphic and the hieratic texts, which was considered as the sacred language. With the lapse of time the Demotic language evolved; and by the Roman Period, when Egvpt became Christian, it had become the official colloquial language of the country, with the gradual disuse of the sacred, but inelastic and unevolving. language. The Greek civilisation pervaded all phases of life in Egvpt, and the thought came, to the First. Egyptian Christian converts, to write their language in Greek letters — much as the Turks have done in our days.

Special signs from the 'Demotic' were added to the Greek alphabet to represent characteristic sounds of Coptic that could not be represented by the Greek letters and the Coptic alphabet was constituted.

We do not know whether any part of the Scriptures was translated in Demotic but there are extensive parts of the Scriptures translated into the Akhmimic Dialect, the most archaic of all dialects, synchronous in all probability with the use of Demotic by the non-converted Egyptians. We must bear in mind that it was the Christian Egyptians who wrote their language in the Greek alphabet although certain trials had been made by the Pagans before them.

When the Arabs first conquered Egypt, there were probably very few conversions to Islam amongst the Egyptians. Indeed the Copts thought that Islam was a new heresy akin to the Nestorian one, but they never thought for once, at the beginning, that conversion to it implicated, not only a change of Dogma, but a change of race — at least a dissolution of the characteristics of the Egyptian race into the new conglomeration of races that composed Islam, and that the knowledge of Arabic was a sine-qua-non for the real convert. When a Copt turned into a Muslim he was bound to learn Arabic. That, he could not do in a day or two. It was only natural then, that lie was obliged to speak and have relations of his new co-religionists in a mixture of Coptic and Arabic. Thousands did that — find thus a new Arabic dialect was evolved for the inhabitants of — a mixture of Coptic and Arabic. Naturally the names of articles and names of certain professions such as agriculture boatmanship and all the codes of different artisans and their guilds - all these and others which were not known to the semi-civilised invading Arabs, had to live in the new idiom. Words that had their equivalent in Arabic were translated—even names of towns and villages; but others have remained and these are the ones which we shall study in the following pages.

There are certain qualities of the spoken Arabic of Egypt which are characteristic to it and do not obtain in any other dialect of Arabic in other countries. Moreover there are phenomena including particular vocabularies in different provinces of Egypt, phenomena which are comparable to similar ones in the Coptic idiom of the same different provinces.

I have heard in Deshna little boys crying "mennau" for "there" and "mennai" for "here". These two words are nothing but Emmau and Emnai of the same meaning

Here are some examples

Survivals of Ancient Egyptian in modern Arabic dialects

A comparison between the spoken Arabic of Egypt and that of Syria, and other Arabic-speaking countries, shows that the difference between them does not exist only in the mode of pronunciation and accentuation of the words, but that it is more profound and goes as far as the actual use and choice of the words, the phonetic values of the different letters, and the grammatical expressions and the turn of the phrases. That the colloquial idiom of Syria is much purer Arabic, and much nearer to the classical language, is undisputed, and it would be interesting to know the causes of this difference, remembering that the influence of the original classical Arabic has been similar in all countries.

A Syrian in speaking Arabic drawls the end of the words, accentuating the last syllable. He often replaces the final nasal N by an M. The final T which is always dropped in the idiom of Egypt, or softened into an aspirated H, or replaced by a short A is often pronounced fully by the Syrian.

The final a (fatha) is often changed into an accentuated é before the final (t). Thus the word ketaba in Egypt is pronounced ketabet in Syria. The letter J is always softened in Syria, whereas in Egypt it is only so (and in quite a different manner) in Upper Egypt or among Arabs, but it is hard in Cairo and almost the whole of Lower Egypt. The phrase Ya Girgs Ta'ala hena of Egypt is uttered Ya Jirjis ta'al hon in Syria.

But it is the colloquial speech of Egypt that concerns us in this article. There is a distinct difference between the idiom of Upper and that of Lower Egypt. Again, there is a distinction between the Arabic of Alexandria and that of Damietta, and between that of the Dakahlia and that of the Sharkia Provinces. In Cairo the dialect stands unique, and its pronunciation has been officially adopted throughout Egypt by the Government in the matter of names of viand towns.

From Cairo the dialect gradually changes as one goes south. First in Beni-Suef, where the idiom is most marked in Bush, Ehnasiah, etc. second, in Minia, particularly round about Mellawy and Ashmunên. Between this last and that of Asiut the difference though characteristic lies in the intonation only. The Girgah one is most marked in the whole province, and is particularly so in Akhmim. Then comes that of Luxor and Keneh as far as Esneh. Lastly, the Asuan dialect merges into Berberin. The Fayum dialect has lost most of its characteristics lately, but in (lie outskirts of the province it resembles that of Beni-Suef.

We will now consider those dialects in detail. The Alexandria dialect is distinguished by the constant and almost Invariable use of the first personal pronoun plural for the singular, where a person speaking, calls himself nehna (not ihna as in Cairo) instead of Ana. It must be remembered that the population of Alexandria has been always of the most cosmopolitan and heterogeneous type possible. At thie present day tin' Italians and Greeks are predominant and the colloquial dialect has been enriched by many Greek and Italian words.

The dialect of Damietta, and that of the neighbouring towns down to Mansourah has the peculiarity of placing a final accent on the words almost amounting to an intonation, which it is very difficult to represent in writing. It is also distinguished by the distinct pronunciation of the letter T. It often replaces it with the harder letter D. It is often followed by a slight aspiration (siffle), which makes it more like the English ch in 'child' than the ordinary simple T

The Sharkia dialect much resembles the rest of those of Lower Egypt, with the exception that in some parts of the province (in the outskirts ofZagazig) the uneducated fellahin pronounce the hard letter Q, as it ought to be. Again, the letter K or G hard, are often softened into sh.

The dialect of Cairo is, so to speak, the most refined of the colloquial languages of Egypt. It has peculiar characteristic's which distinguish it from the rest of the idioms of Egypt, and is undoubtedly influenced in acquiring its present form by more factors than one. Its most salient characteristics are first, the total dropping of the letter Q wherever il exists and its replaced by the hiatus (hamza). The word Qala is uttered 'al, Qerd is pronounced `Erd. Second, the letter G is never softened into J but is always hard. There is no special accentuation or intonation of the word. In the choice of words there is, one might say, a special vocabulary for Cairo. Gutturals are as far as possibe eliminated and there are hundreds of words which, if not purely European in their Italian form, are yet not known in Upper Egypt.

As to the most important group, that of Upper Egypt, we can distinguish the following divisions.

  1. The Beni-Suef group;
  2. The Minia group, including that of Asiul and Ashmunen;
  3. The Cirga group;
  4. The Luxor to Asuan group.

The most important characteristic of the first group is the dropping of the terminal letter of the words, the drawling of the final vowel, and the vocalisation of the letter q wherever it exists giving its right, guttural pronunciation, and the hardening of the letter g These characteristics are found into and round about Ehnasiah, in Bush, and in Beni-Suef.

The best illustration of these peculiarities can lie shown in writing thus :

qad eish

whereas in Cairo the same phrase would lie pronounced `add eih or to take a longer phrase ya wad yahmad hat el qolla we hotaha gambi

would iic pronounced in Beni-Suef
ya wad yahmad hat el qolla we hotaha gambi

whereas in Cairo it would be uttered like this
ya wad yahmad hat el 'olla we hotaha gambi

Thus the letter Ji is entirely dropped in Cairo and replaced by the hiatus or Alef hamzatum. It is replaced by the hard G in Upper Egypt, whereas it retains its real value in the Beni-Suef dialect. The letter g is hardened in Cairo as g in English "good''. In Beni-Suef' it is also pronounced hard, but not invariably so. In Upper Egypt from Minia upwards it is always softened, but in unite a peculiar manner which makes it different to the sound of the J and yet it stands between the hard g and the soft J. One must hear it uttered before one can have an idea of its value.

In the Minia and Asiut group the letter Q is hardened to G whenever it exists, whereas the letter g is softened to J or something like it; but it is the letter D that takes the value of the English j when it is in the middle of the word. Thus Qalb is pronounced as Galb; Qott is pronounced Gott, but Iddalla' is pronounced as Ijjala'; the name Kostandy is uttered Gostanjy; the word Brostandy for Protestant is pronounced Brostanjy.

The Girgah group has the peculiarity of replacing the d by g and the letter g by d. Thus the word gabal, mountain, is pronounced dabal, and the word guwwa (inside) is vocalised duwwa. The name Girgis is uttered Dirdis, but the word iddalla' is always pronounced ijjala'. The g being always softened in the manner described above.

Foreign words introduced into the spoken idiom of Upper Egvpt receive different treatment in the different districts Egypt. Metathesis is very common in Upper Egypt, Isbitalia hospital is pronounced as Istibalia. This sometimes happens in purely Arabic words; daraga is uttered as garada. The letter d sometimes replaces the letter p; lampa is said as lamda. The letters u and b stand for the v. Babur or Wabour stand for "Vapeur". M might take the place of P. Mantaloun for Pantalon. For a Cairene or a Lower Egyptian it is sometimes possible to pronounce the European letter p, but never so far in Upper Egyptian.

As regards the use of the words we find in certain cases that the round o in the idiom of Upper Egypt and Lower Egypt, whereas in Middle Egypt the open a is always used instead. To take a very common word used as an exclamation Iaboy. It is pronounced thus in Upper Egypt. In Lower Egypt it is Iaboy, whereas in the Fayum and Beni-Suef, it is always Iabay. There are many other examples, but time and space do not allow me to multiply them.

Now, having considered the particular characteristics of the different dialects in the whole of Egypt, it becomes interesting to speculate about the causes and factors of these differences. The facilities of communication of the present time, and the thorough intermixing of all the population of Egvpl, ought to help these differences to disappear entirely, whereas to all practical appearance they seem to be fixed and enduring. On the examination of the vocabulary used in the vulgar Arabic of Egypt one is struck by the great number of words which can be easily traced to an Ancient Egyptian or Coptic origin. These words are much commoner in the dialects of Upper Egypt than in those of Cairo and Lower Egypt. Again, the expression and the turn of the phrases used in Upper Egypt can sometimes be literally translated into Coptic without its being necessary to make in Coptic any grammatical changes in the relative position of the different members of the phrase. For instance, the curious correspondence of the pronunciation of the different phonemes in the modern vulgar Arabic of the Sa'id with their old values in Coptic, such as the pronunciation of the letter G, exactly like the Coptic janja., different to its pronunciation in all other Arabic-speaking countries. The value of a hard g given to the Arabic letter was the same phenomenon that happened when the ancient Egyptian language was written in Greek letters to form the Coptic language; the same play on, and the interchange of the vowels is seen in the different modern dialects of the vulgar Arabic as in the different dialects of Coptic, such as the prolongation of certain vowels in Upper Egypt when they are shortened in Cairo, or the dropping of certain terminal letters in both dialects, betraying the custom of doubling the vowels in Saliidic Coptic when they were only single in Bohairic (Ouab) Boh., and (Ouaab) Sahidic. All this, in fact, induces me to believe in the influence of Coptic on the spokeArabic rather than vice versa as most authors hold to be the case. Those authors believe that it was through the influence of Arabic, that the difference between b and p was was lost in Coptic, whereas we know from demotic, and even from the Graeco-Roman hieroglyphic that these changes had already been affected in the language.

A glance through some of the Christian Arabic MSS. shows them to be teeming with mistakes in their Arabic grammar and syntax. A careful analysis of these mistakes shows that most of them are really due to literal translation from Coptic by a scribe who was not a master of Arabic.

Masculine words are treated as feminine if they happen to be of a feminine gender in Coptic, e.g. the word (Al `Ard) is feminine in Arabic but masculine in Coptic, and so it is thus treated. There are two words for evening in Coptic (Biajorh) and (dirouhi) translated by one feminine word in Arabic (Allila) but we often find the Arabic word treated as masculine probably when the original Coptic word used was the masculine one. These examples can be multiplied, and a reference to their existence is enough to serve our purpose.

We can again remark quickly the differences between the different Coptic dialects from the point of view of similar differences in the modern vulgar dialects. The letter K was commonly changed to g in Sahidic. In the ancient language the letters s, dj, and t and their syllabics often interchanged as they do now in the Minia group and the Dakahlia dialect (see above).

Metathesis occurred more commonly in Sahidic Coptic than in Bohairic. The drawling of the vowels and their lengthened vocalisation is explained bv their doubling in Sahidic when compared with Bohairic, and the dropping of the terminal vowel is similarly located. Lastly the preference for the open vowel u to the closed one o is again shown in the dialects of Middle Egypt, when we had a F., o S., and all these phenomena exist in our own days in the modern vulgar dialects of Kgvpt.

The fact mentioned above of the occasional pronunciation of the hard K and the hard janja in Lower Egypt as sh, is proved to have existed when the Arabs transliterated the names of the towns in these localities in Arabic letters. Notice (jabacen) was transcribed in Arabic Shabbas and (jebjir) was transcribed Shebshir and (jebro) was transcribed Shoubra and others.