The Problem of Dialect

We have lived in a few different Arabic-speaking countries now, and we aren’t sure if this has been good or bad for our Arabic skills.

We started off in Jordan for two years where we studied the Jordanian dialect as well as the Modern Standard Arabic which is what people read and write, but rarely speak.  Next we spent two years in Tunisia where the spoken dialect seemed to be about 100% different from what we learned. At first, we didn’t understand anything people were saying to us.  It seems some people understood some of what we were saying, as they compared it to Egyptian Arabic which is widely known throughout the Arab world due to Egypt’s high movie output.

Well, just about the time we were getting comfortable in the Tunisian dialect, we moved to Egypt.  Egyptian Arabic is much closer to Jordanian Arabic, so we were excited to be “coming back” to what we learned in a sense, but the problem is, Tunisian Arabic is what is on our tongues.  We have been adjusting over these last couple months, and some things came easier than others, but I wanted to try to give some examples of these dialect differences to either let you sympathize with us, or at least get a good laugh.

One of the major ways Egyptian Arabic differs from both Jordanian and Tunisian is in the pronunciation of one letter, the “jeem.”  We see/hear this letter and pronounce it as a “j” sound, but Egyptians change it to “geem” or the “g” sound.  This has provided some difficulties in adjusting.  For instance, we weren’t sure if our names would be Gulie and Gayson here, but it does seem they make allowances for western names as we’ve actually met many people with the letter “J” at the beginning of their name.

One word I use a lot is “zawgi” which means “my husband.”  This word has been tricky for me. You see, in Jordan, we learned this word for husband, but with the “j” sound – “zawji.”  Then, in Tunisia, they use a totally different word, “rajul,” which we translated “man” in Jordan.  So every time I said “rajuli” in Tunisia, I translated it in my head, “my man.”  It fits, but it’s not quite the same as my husband.

So, now we came to Egypt, and I have to remember that they don’t use “rajuli,” for husband, and if they did, it would be “raguli,” which to them would mean, “my man,” but they use “zawji” like I learned in Jordan but pronounce it “zawgi.”  This is still my thought process almost every time I use this word, and people wonder why it takes me so long to say “my husband.”  You would think I was a newlywed and am just learning to talk about having a husband, but we’ve been married for 7 years and I’ve been referring to him as my husband, in Arabic, for about 5; it just hasn’t been the same word all five years!

The original word we learned for house was “bait”.  Not too hard.  Well, in Tunisia, they use a different word for house, “daar”.  It wasn’t a new word to us; in Jordan we learned the word “daar” also means house, it’s just that’s not what the Jordanians used.  So, the Tunisians used “daar” for house and used the word “bait” for room.  It took us awhile to get that.

It’s an important word to learn quickly as you are house hunting because you are looking for a certain number of bedrooms and we kept saying “gurfitayn”, meaning two rooms in Jordanian, but they were looking for “baitayn” which to us meant “two houses.”  We certainly didn’t need two houses.  Well, that was Tunisia.

Now we are in Egypt, and they again use the word “bait” for house. Good.  The problem is they have a new word for room which I don’t know too well yet, “awda”, and since I don’t know it well, I automatically fall back on Tunisian, “bait.”  So the other day when a friend was visiting and looking at our apartment, I was telling her a little about our apartment search and that we saw many apartments with either “two houses” or “three houses” in them.  Whoops.  I kind of realized it as I was talking, but then couldn’t think of the Egyptian word for room.  I think she got the idea, though, but it made me feel kind of silly.  Gotta learn that word for room!

Here’s another word I messed up the other day.  We use the verb “to go” a lot.  In Jordan, we learned to say “aruuh” for “I go.”  It conjugates differently depending on who is speaking, but the root is the same.  So we got used to that using it there.  Then we went to Tunisia and they use the word “amshi” for “I go.”  Now, we learned this verb in Jordan, but it meant, “I walk.”  Subtle difference.

The words could be used interchangeably at times … especially since we do walk so much here, but it doesn’t always fit.  However, it seems they just used this one word for both meanings in Tunisia and you sometimes had to specify “walking” over “going” by saying, “with my legs.” Now we’re in Egypt and we’re back to “aruuh” for “to go” and “amshi” for “to walk.”  But since my Tunisian is on the tip of my tongue, I was talking to my landlord the other day about getting us a refrigerator … click here for this story … and told her that if she wanted me to, I would “walk” with her to the large store (which is located about a 30 minute drive away.)  She kind of looked surprised and said, “Carrefour is very far!”  It didn’t quite occur to me yet that I used the wrong word, I just said, oh I know it’s far, I don’t mean “walk, but walk.”  It wasn’t until after I left that I realized I was using the word for two meanings and she was only hearing one.

All of this is further complicated when I Skype with one of my Tunisian friends.  She kind of laughs at me as I’m trying to speak Tunisian, but keep throwing in Egyptian words here and there.  Fortunately she understands me well, but it’s a big mind game trying to learn the Egyptian and at the same time, not totally forget the Tunisian.  Welcome to the Arabic language … it’s beautiful, and at times, painful!


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