The Problem of Dialect – Part Two

The strange thing about different language dialects is that the most basic words you use everyday differ from country to country.  I remember Jayson telling me this after his experience in Mauritania.  He would say, “The words for bread, water, and house are different in the Mauritanian dialect than in other dialects, but the deeper you go in the language, the more similarities you find.”

Here is a case in point.  In Jordan, we studied Arabic in a language school.  This was great in so many ways, one of them being that the teachers taught us all the basic greetings we needed to know.  So we probably learned within the first week how to say, “How are you,” which in that dialect was “Keef hallak?”

Fast forward to Tunisia, where we didn’t study in a language school, but tried to pick up their dialect on the street and in our everyday interactions.  It took quite awhile, and one of the most basic things troubled me for some time.  After someone greeted me, they would often ask me, “Faynik?” which literally means, “Where are you?”  At first I would answer them, probably with a confused look on my face, “I am here.”

Or if we were talking on the phone, I would say in my confused tone, “I’m at home,” or, “I’m out shopping,” or whatever.  It wasn’t always an inappropriate question.  I mean, if I was supposed to meet them, and they were calling me, they could ask me where I was so they knew when to expect me.  But when I went to visit my friend in her store and her first question was, “Where are you?” it was really weird.  It took a little while to realize that this was their way of saying, “How are you?”

Don’t ask me why they chose those words, people usually don’t choose the words of their greeting, they are simply taught from generation to generation, but somewhere it must make sense.  I wonder how many of my friends were confused, however, when I supplied them with my location.  Even after I realized what this really meant, it still took some forethought to not answer their question, but rather say, “Good, thank you.”

The experience changed again in Egypt.  Again, they don’t use the typical, “How are you?” that we learned in Jordan, and most of the time, they don’t even use the word we expected to hear here which is “Zayyik?”  Instead, they say, “Aamila aye?” which means “What are you doing?”  It took me right back to Tunisia.

Before I realized that this was their way of saying, “How are you?” I would answer them with what I was doing, which again, was usually an odd, confused answer, “Well, I am coming to visit you.”  Or, “I am coming here, to church.”  Of course, my thought was, “What do you mean, what am I doing?  Isn’t it obvious?”  Probably thanks to my experience in Tunisia, I caught on more quickly, and realized this was their way of greeting, and that it could probably be equated to our equally incongruous “What’s up?” in English.  Oh, the joys of learning the language on the street!

Another word that has been tripping me up some is the word for “Today.”  A most basic word, to be sure, and one that I should know well if I say I can speak the language.  Probably half the time, however, I use the word I learned in Jordan, “il-yawm.”  I was thinking through this word the other day and realized that in the three countries we’ve been in, Jordan is the only one that makes sense.  Here’s what I mean.

In Jordan, the word “il-yawm” is used for “Today.”  Following this the days of the week each have a name along with the word “yawm” in it.  One of the neat things about the days of the week in Arabic is that they are kind of forms of the numbers 1-7, so it is fairly easy to pick up, or at least logical.  So, for instance Sunday would be “yawm il-ahad,” which is kind of like “the first day”.

Well, moving onto Tunisia, they use the same word for today, which is probably one of the reasons I am having a hard time switching it now.  However, when they speak of the days of the week, they use a different word in place of “yawm,” and that is “nahhar,” which also means daytime or morning.  So, Sunday would be “nahhar il-ahad” or “the first morning”.  It was tricky to learn that at first, but we got used to it after awhile.

Now in Egypt, I realized that they do the opposite of Tunisia.  For the days of the week, we are back to the Jordanian word, “yawm il-ahad,” but the word “Today” is now “innahhar da” which literally means “this, the morning.”  Now my logical brain looks at Tunisia and Egypt and says that they should kind of switch things up a bit so at least their word for “Today” matches with the word they use in the days of the week, but who am I to criticize the language.  I’ll just keep using the wrong word for awhile until it finally sinks in and becomes habit.  Until then, I think people usually know what I’m saying, but I do think I’ve confused some of the kids at Emma’s preschool.

Since we’re on the topic of time, the last word that I will point out is the word for “Now.”  Again, it is a word I use all the time.  In Jordan it was “halla.”  In Tunisia it was “towwa.”  Now in Egypt it is “dillwaqti.”  Do you see any relationship between those three words?  Me neither, but at least I can see a familiar word in the Egyptian choice which makes it mean literally, “this, the time.”  Oh, the sweet sounds of Arabic … if only it wasn’t so confusing!


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One reply on “The Problem of Dialect – Part Two”

Hey there
great blog. I can relate to the dialect differences, I learned Arabic in Syria and then came to Egypt. While the differences aren’t as great as the maghrebi dialect, some words continue to throw me. In particular, the Egyptians say wahashtini (you caused me longing) instead of shtaqet ilak (I missed you) – this one gets me every time!


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