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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An Arabic Pregnancy

Being pregnant in an Arabic-speaking country has allowed me to learn a whole set of vocabulary related to pregnancy and child-bearing.  We probably learned the words for “pregnant” and “to give birth” while in language school, but it wasn’t until I was pregnant that the words really started to sink in and stay with me.  Being pregnant in three different Arabic-speaking countries has also allowed me to learn many different words surrounding pregnancy, and giving birth in two of those countries has and will teach me even more vocabulary.

The word for “pregnant” in Tunisia is different than in Jordan and Egypt.  I’m not sure of its origin or root meaning, but the word is “hibla.”  Now, that word, for whatever reason, also means “fool.”  I never asked a lot about it, and it may not be the exact same word, but to my ears, it sounds the same, and from the tongue of a non-native speaker, it sure can sound the same.  You see, in Arabic, they have two different “h” sounds; one is a heavier sound and the other is more like our English “h.”  I still cannot differentiate the two when I hear them from a native speaker, and I know I don’t do a good job of speaking them differently, so, it is possible that this word, “hibla” is slightly different in pronunciation so that “I’m pregnant” sounds different than “I’m a fool.”  However, I am sure I say the two words exactly alike.  Thankfully, my friends could tell the difference according to context!

In Jordan and Egypt, they use the word “haamil.”  Now, this word makes sense on one hand because it is from the verb, “to carry.”  It literally means one who carries.  Makes sense, right?  The only thing I can’t understand is that it is in the masculine form.  You see, most feminine words in Arabic end with an “a” sound, so that a man who carries something is “haamil” and a woman is “haamla.”  However, the word for a pregnant one is “haamil.”  I did ask about this somewhat in Jordan, I’ll have to do the same here in Egypt and see what explanation I get.

Another interesting word I found in Jordan was the way they would talk about giving birth.  When you asked someone when they were due, you would ask, “When are you going to BRING the baby?”  I always thought that was such an interesting word choice–to bring the baby.  I kind of chuckled every time I would say, “By God’s will, I will BRING the baby in September.”  It’s kind of like, bring it where?  However, when I think about it in English, we usually say we are going to HAVE a baby.  What does that mean exactly?  Sure, after I give birth, I will definitely HAVE a baby, but we usually refer to HAVING a baby as the act of childbirth.  Probably not the most logical word choice either.  I believe that in Egypt they use the more encompassing word of “to give birth.”  This makes sense.  “By God’s will, I will give birth to this baby the end of May.”

This brings up one more confusing point for me.  When I have been telling people I’m pregnant here in Egypt, they usually ask what month I am IN.  I think it is more common in the US to ask what month you are DUE.  So, even after I say which month I am in, I am kind of inclined to include which month I am also due.  However, this has been kind of odd for me, especially this month.  You see, in Egypt, they have two different ways to say what month it is.  They have names for the months, but since they have been different in all three countries, I haven’t quite learned them all yet.  I am kind of learning the names as we go.  It’s easy to remember what “August” is, because that is the month we arrived, and people are always asking us when we arrived.  It’s easy for me to remember “January” because that was the month of Coptic Christmas and I heard people say the date, “January 7th” a lot.  I have not yet learned the word for “May” although I think it resembles our English word a bit, just not exactly sure of its pronunciation.  So, the other way they say the months is by the number of the month.  So, January is “month one,” February is “month two,” and so on.  This means, that right now, I am in my “fifth month” of pregnancy and also due to deliver in “month five.”  In some ways it should be easy to say that, as it’s almost the same thing, but sometimes I think people think I am confused.  Oh well, I am almost to my sixth month, and then it may be easier!

I look forward to the words I will continue to learn here surrounding this happy event and I’m pretty sure I will be writing more about the whole experience of having a baby in Egypt along with all that follows.


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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