Thursday, June 27, 2013

How different are Egyptian and Algerian Arabic, really?

Recently, The Economist decided to introduce its readers to the extent of variation across Arabic, by comparing Algerian and Egyptian retellings of a Juha story from Reddit (via LL). Most Arab commenters felt that the post exaggerated the differences, since the stories were being retold in individuals' own words, not translated per se. So let’s try and figure out part of the question this raises here: To what extent can an Algerian understand the Egyptian version of this story, and to what extent does this ability stem from: a) his knowledge of his own dialect; b) his knowledge of Fusha (Standard Arabic); and c) his experience watching Egyptians on TV?

This is the Egyptian quote, in their own transcription (3 = ʕ, 7 = ħ, 2 = ’ [ʔ], 9 = ’ < q; listen):

fi youm min el ayem, kan go7a we'bno bey7addaro 7aget-hom 3ashan yeroo7o el balad elli gambohom. farekbo el etnein 7omarhom 3ashan yabtedo yesafro. we 3a'sekka marro 3ala balad soghayyara keddaho. ba7ala2o el nas feehom we 2alo:  ayoh! bo99o el nas el 2asya elli mabter7amshi rakbeen kollohom 3ala el 7omar.
The first obvious hurdle is pronunciation: an Algerian listener needs to convert Egyptian g back to j, Egyptian ’ back to q / g, and drop most of the short vowels. School won’t help with that – but most Algerians already know this much from watching Egyptians on TV, and even if they didn’t, it shouldn’t take too long to catch on.

What about vocabulary? Well, the good news is that only nine words in this passage are completely absent from Algerian Arabic. The bad news is that six of them won’t be familiar from Fusha either – and that that amounts to something like 15% of the passage.

  • b- in b-iħaḍḍaru “they prepare”, marking, loosely speaking, the present tense, has no Algerian equivalent, and no Fusha equivalent either. It is very common in the Middle East, though, so most Algerians will have encountered it on TV; we may not know exactly what it does, but we know to ignore it!
  • ʕašān “in order to” corresponds to Algerian bāš. Knowing Fusha won’t help much with this one; its Fusha root, ʕalā ša’n, means “on the affair of”. However, the form is so common in Middle Eastern broadcasts that most Algerians probably know it.
  • yibtadu “they start” corresponds to Algerian yəbdāw; both forms derive from the same root, but Algerian Arabic has lost the derived form with infixed -t-, which is also used in Fusha.
  • sikka “road” corresponds to Algerian ṭrīq. Both forms are used in Fusha, so a knowledge of Fusha will help here; even a lightly educated Algerian would probably recall as-sikka al-ħadīdiyya, the Fusha word for “railroad”.
  • marru “they passed” corresponds to Algerian jāzu. marra is preferred in Fusha in this sense, and would be familiar to any moderately educated Algerian.
  • kidahu: I couldn’t even guess what this meant, so I looked it up in my Egyptian Arabic dictionary... apparently it’s the same as kida “thus, like this”, which in Algerian would be hākđa, corresponding to Fusha (hā)kađā. The word itself is thus reasonably easy to identify. But I don’t understand why it’s being used here.
  • baħla’u: I assume from context that this means “stare” or something. Let me check... yes, it’s glossed as “to stare, be goggle-eyed”, so Algerian xuẓṛu. I can’t think of any Fusha form that would help you guess this.
  • ayyūh: I assumed from context that this was for expressing disgust, but my dictionary says it indicates “forceful intent” (and that it comes from Coptic). Either way, Algerians don’t say this; the best equivalent in context is probably the exclamation of disgust yəxxa. It’s not in Fusha either.
  • bu’’u buṣṣu “look” (I think) corresponds to Algerian Arabic šūfu. This word has no commonly used Fusha counterpart, so again a knowledge of Fusha won’t help.

So an Algerian can understand something like 85% of this passage just by figuring out sound changes, and probably more from context – so far, so good!

However, even if we convert the sound system and substitute these eight words, the result will still not be acceptable Algerian Arabic – it violates the language's rules. Most Algerians will tell you that Algerian Arabic has no rules, but that won’t stop them from looking at you funny if you try saying something like:

*f-yūm məl-l-əyyām, kān jħa w-əbn-u yħəđ̣đ̣ṛu ħājəthum bāš yṛūħū l-əl-blād əlli jənbhum, fā rəkbu l-əθnīn ħmāṛhum bāš yəbdāw ysāfru. u ʕla ṭṭriq, jāzu ʕlā blād ṣɣiṛa hākđa, xǔẓṛu n-nās fīhum u qālu: yəxxa! šūfu ənnās əlgāsya əlli mātəṛħəmši rākbīn kullhum ʕla lħmār.
The reason this doesn’t work is because there are a lot of other less obvious differences between Algerian and Egyptian Arabic. The most clear-cut are:
  • yōm: Algerians only use yum in əlyum “today” and in counting (xəms-iyyam); for other purposes, “day” is nhāṛ (“days”: nhāṛāt). You can’t say “f-yūm məl-l-əyyām”; the best equivalent would probably be wāħəd ən-nhāṛ (one day).
  • ibn-u: (Most) Algerians don’t use bən as an independent word; they only use it in compounds with the meaning “son of...”. In a context like this, you would have to say u-wlīd-u.
  • balad: In Algerian Arabic, blād is either broader than “village” (“country, region”) or more specific (“hometown”). A village is dəšṛa or duwwāṛ (or, let’s face it, vīlāž.)
  • ħagit-hum: While ħāja means “thing” in Algerian, as in Egyptian, Algerians don’t normally use it to mean “baggage”. The Algerian equivalent would be dūzān-hum.
  • ganbu-hum: In Algeria, this would mean literally “their side”. “Next to them” would be ħdā-hum or quddām-hum, depending on the region.
  • l-itnēn: In Algeria, this would be interpreted as “Monday”. “Both of them” is fī-zūj; θnīn is used as a number only in compounds, like “thirty-two” (θnīn u θlāθīn).
  • ’āsiya: While gāsi does mean “hard” in Algerian Arabic, you wouldn’t use it in the metaphorical sense of “cruel” as here. The feminine singular agreement with “people” would also be odd in much of Algeria, but some do use it.

So even an uneducated Egyptian could more or less make himself understood in Algeria (depending on how sharp the person he's speaking to is and how many Egyptian films they've watched), but to actually speak Algerian, he'd need to do a lot of learning and relearning. It's up to you to decide whether that makes them two quite similar languages or two very different dialects...


MnarviDZ said...

Interesting exercise Lameen!
I think bnou is and can be used by Algerians and wlidou is not the only possible option. Same thing for haget'hum; duzan is not used everywhere in Algeria and I guess one can say hwayejhum as in their stuff.

You didn't suggest an alternative to qasia and I cannot think of one :/

Lameen Souag الأمين سواق said...

bnou: I guess so – it's a big country. I haven't been anywhere where they would say bnou, though. hwayejhum works fine, sure, but you couldn't just say hajethum in the singular.

I can't think of an alternative for qasia either! The nearest that comes to mind is wa3rin, but that doesn't work here.

Nadia G said...

Great post Lameen!

In order to assess the distance between each of these tongues, we would need the same analysis done from the point of view of an Egyptian trying to understand an Algerian, and then work on a synthesis.

Incidentally, would you know of any studies or of anyone who has worked on the origin of the Algerian language (or the first recorded/traceable appearance of Algerian)? Thank you.

Al Moxtar said...

Considering the point is examining "mutual" intelligibility, the reverse exercise is a must. May be a native Egyptian could illuminate us in a guest-post? The interesting thing would be that the familiarity of Maghrebians with Egyptian popular culture will certainly be reciprocated with a complete lack of familiarity with North Africa's. To what extent will it complicate the task for an Egyptian.

MnarviDZ said...

I guess that, besides the vocabulary, Egyptians will find it hard to insert the vowels we usually discard in Algerian Arabic.

A few years ago I had an Egyptian colleague. We spoke in English. Sometimes we tried to speak in Arabic; obviously I understood everything he said in Egyptian. On the other hand, he told me that he only managed to understand some of the French words I mixed with DZ. And he knew no French :)

benkato said...

very interesting exercise, lameen. just one comment: what you've transcribed bu''u ought to be buṣṣu, the egyptian arabic equivalent of šūf 'to look'.

David Marjanović said...

It's easy to find German dialects that are this far apart.

At the same time, Standard Czech, Standard Slovak and Standard Polish are better mutually intelligible than this. This might verge on the distance between Standard Polish and Standard Croatian (which, similarly, apparently works better in one direction than in the other).

Michael Collins Dunn said...

Fascinating. I know no Algerian, but even some of the Egyptian puzzled me. I think benkato above is right that bu''u ought to be buṣṣu,(though Egyptians use shufu as well."Keddaho" is strange as well unless it's something like kida aho, but that doesn't seem to work here. As a non-native speaker of Arabic I always found my Egyptian worked pretty well in Tunisia and I could understand a lot of the responses; in Morocco mine worked less well and I had no clue what was being said to me unless they switched to Fusha. I've never been in Algeria.

Lameen Souag الأمين سواق said...

buSSu - ah, well caught - I'll fix that.

If any Egyptians want to volunteer, I'd be happy to accept a guest post doing the opposite exercise...

As for the origin of Algerian, interesting question! I think that calls for a separate post - not that I consider Algerian to be a separate language exactly, given that we can all understand Moroccans just fine.

Nadia G said...

Great Lameen! Looking forward to your post on the origin or first traces of Algerian derja :)

Anonymous said...

Very interesting article, however I would just like to say that Ba7la2 = Ba7laq in modern classical arabic.

Anonymous said...

Very intresting
lameen i wanted to ask you why many of these arabic words are used in somali i can understand arabic and knowing somali madeit extremly easy for me to learn arabic
jabal al lughat can be understood in somali and
bas is totriq is used marru is used yom ibn u balad l itnean and many more words so can you please help me understand why

Anonymous said...

I am Tunisian and visited both Egypt, Algeria and Morocco and people there well understood my Tunisian dialect and oddly I did have more difficulties understanding Moroccan than Egyptian

I think that Tunisian Arabic is intermediary between Mashreq and Maghreb dialects

Anonymous said...

There are no clear-cut boundaries between the dialects, it's a gradual transition. E.g. the traditional (western egyptian) dialect of Alexandia already uses "nif3al" instead of "af3al" for the first person singular.

Daniel said...

This is a great exercise! May I ask what Egyptian dictionary you're using?

Lamia L said...

Interesting article. I would translate qasia in this context as qbah. And also I think kidahu is like "kida hua".

Anonymous said...

Just a comment on what you've written about Egyptian:

BuSSu is not a unique Egyptian word. It appears in Mashriqi dialects, and is pure MSA.

بصَّ بـ / بصَّ في / بصَّ لـ بَصَصْتُ ، يَبِصّ ، ابْصِصْ / بِصَّ ، بَصًّا وبصيصًا ، فهو باصّ ، والمفعول مبصوص به

The dictionary tells us that it means:

نَظَر بتَحْديق وتدقيق

So a knowledge of fus7a would most definitely help in this case too!

Lameen Souag الأمين سواق said...

Which dictionary are you getting that from? Lisan al-Arab gives several meanings for بص, none of which have much to do with looking (صَوَّتَ, بَرَقَ وتلأْلأَ ولَمَع, أَضاءَ); the closest is وبَصَّصَ الجِرْوُ تَبْصِيصاً: فتَحَ عَيْنَيه، وبَصْبَصَ لغةٌ. Maybe this is one of those post-classical forms introduced into modern Fusha dictionaries from regional dialects, like طماطم. But even if it does exist in Fusha, it remains true that it has, like I said, "no commonly used Fusha counterpart". The fact that it appears in other Mashriqi dialects isn't going to help a Maghribi listener either.