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Talk Like an Egyptian

Phonetic rules are powerful tools for speaking dialects and learning multiple dialects. A lot of words are shared across dialects, meaning pronunciation is at times the only thing baring the student of Arabic from expanding from one dialect to the next. Phonetic rules can help you predict what the speaker is going to say, so you are not getting lost in individual sounds, and can focus on the words and sentences. Understanding phonetics allows you to imitate speakers better and decode what is being said when you don’t know the words. Perhaps most importantly, basic phonetic rules aren’t that complicated, they just need practice to ingrain them.

The basic rules for the Egyptian (Cairene) dialect can be broken up into syllable rules and letter rules, but this article just focuses on the former. One can go deeper than this. Linguists spend years studying just how emphatic a ط is versus a ض , and when does a ر act as an emphatic character and when not, and so forth. There is a time and place for all that, but if your emphasis is on getting to a functional point in the language, then do this: take these rules, practice them until you can start to hear and use them without thinking, and before you know it you’ll be talking like an Egyptian.

Syllable Rules

The Egyptian dialect has a very strict set of syllables (as does Fusha, coincidentally). There are essentially five possible syllables:


Where C represents a consonant, V a vowel, and VV is a long vowel. This is a simple system that can be used to map out syllables in words. For instance, the word كبير can be mapped out as CV-CVVC. The first syllable is كِـ (with the kasra in Egyptian), and the second syllable is بِير. As some quick examples, here are some other words and how they would be mapped out:

أنا : CV-CV (the alif, when it is the last letter of a word, is generally not lengthened) رايِح : CVV-CVC كَمِّل : CVC-CVC طُزّ : CVCC أَخُو شَرْمُوطَة : CV-CV CVC-CVV-CV (like the alif, the ة at the end of a word is not lengthened)

Now with that tool in hand, here are four basic rules that will give you that true Masri sound.

Rule 1: The Egyptian cannot say three or more consonants together without a vowel somewhere between them (what is often called a “consonant cluster”). What that means is, when there is a consonant cluster, it has to be broken up by adding what is often called a “helping vowel.” Generally, the helping vowel is an /ɪ/, which is between the kasra /i/ and the fatha /a/. As the an example of this in action, consider the word عندنا. Without a helping vowel, the word is said 3and-na (CVCC-CV). Here, you have three syllables without a vowel between them, so an extra vowel needs to be added in. This makes the word 3an-dɪ-na (CVC-CV-CV). In a few rare cases, the helping vowel /ɪ/ will become an /u/ or /a/ instead. The main exceptions are when the helping vowel separates the suffix هُم or هَا. As in the following:

عندهم : Without the vowel, the word is said /3and-hum/ (CVCC-CVC). Once the vowel is added in, it becomes “3an-du-hum” (CVC-CV-CVC).

عندها : Without the vowel, the word is said /3and-ha/ (CVCC-CV). Once the vowel is added in, it becomes “3an-da-ha” (CVC-CV-CV).

This rule also applies when Egyptians speak English. A word like asked (said in English “askd” despite the /e/, i.e. CVCCC) needs an extra vowel. So an Egyptian would say “as-ked” or “as-kɪd” (CVC-CVC). (Note that there is initial consonant on the word asked, it is a glottal stop (a hamza). All English words that start with a vowel are said with a glottal stop when the word is said by itself (i.e. not in the middle of a sentence). Try saying words like and, ear, ask, and other words that start with a vowel and you’ll feel a slight catch in your throat each time.)

Rule 2: A word cannot start with two consonants without a vowel, or put differently, you cannot start a word with a سكون on the initial consonant. Basically, the first syllable cannot start with a CC. Hence, the word تَفَضَّلَ in Fusha is actually تْفَضَّل in ECA, but this makes the first syllable CCV, which needs a vowel added in. Interestingly enough, Egyptians have decided to put an ألف وصل at the beginning of the word, as in: اِتْفَضَّل . So now the first syllable is ’it-faD-Dal (CV-CVC-CVC). The reason for the ألف وصل is that when اتفضل is said with a word preceding it, like يَللا اتفَضَّل , the alif can be dropped. The phrase يللا اتفضل would be said yal-lat-faD-Dal (CVC-CVC-CVC-CVC). Again, this rule also applies when Egyptians speak English. Just ask an Egyptian with a heavy accent to say the word “front” or “street.”

Many other words in the Egyptian dialect, when said as part of a sentence, will have the first vowel swallowed like in the phrase يللا اتفضل. For instance, one might here دا بْتَاعِي (this is mine), where the word بِتَاع (Bitaa3) loses the initial kasra, so the phrase becomes “dab-taa-3i (CVC-CVV-CV). To a learner, this can make the words sound like they are being run together. But to a native speaker, the guiding rule is not how words are spelled, it is preserving a certain phonetic structure.

As an interesting side note, these first two syllabification rules also apply to Fusha. The first rule, though, is largely solved by the inclusion of the case endings (الاعراب). The second is already built into the أوزان . For instance, the verb form انفعل already has an ألف وصل included in it. But look at it this way, applying basic phonetic rules actually helps “solve” the أوزان without having to memorize everything.

Rule 3: There can only be one long vowel in a word or a “word unit” (I’ll explain what I mean by word unit below), and the long vowel will usually be in the last or second to last syllable (the ultimate or penultimate syllable respectively), . The basic example is from عايزة and عايزين . Here, if the full voweling were preserved, they would be said 3aa-yi-za (CVV-CV-CV) and 3aa-yi-ziin (CVV-CV-CVVC). However, in both cases, the long vowel in the first syllable is not allowed, so it has to be shortened. Hence, the words become 3a-yi-za and 3a-yi-ziin, and then 3ay-za and 3ay-ziin respectively (there is a step I’m skipping here that I explain below).

The rule also explains why the phrase عايزة + ها is said 3ay-zaa-ha (CVC-CVV-CV). If all the voweling were preserved, it would be said 3aa-yi-za-ha. So first of all, let’s eliminate the long vowel in the first syllable, that gives us 3ay-za-ha. Second, let’s put the long vowel into the penultimate syllable, giving 3ay-zaa-ha. Note what just happened here: a short vowel (the ة being pronounced as a fatha) became a long vowel. Shortening and lengthening vowels is very common, and is necessary to adhere to these phonetic rules.

The driving factor behind this rule is where Egyptians put the stress, which is the penultimate syllable or the ultimate syllable (but only if the ultimate syllable ends in a consonant can it take the stress). In contrast, in the Levantine dialects one can have a long vowel without putting the stress on it, making for a very different sound.

I mentioned above that this rule even applies to word units. Take a step back and remember that dialects are predominantly spoken languages, and so what is important is how the speaker conceives of the language, not what is written. Hence, the ة in عايزة+ها is treated like a fatha, because that is how it is said. Similarly, at times a group of words is treated as a single word or a compound word, even if they are written separately. A great example is the the phrase فَضِيْلة المُرْشِد, which is an إضافة so the ة is said ت. If all the voweling were preserved, it would be said fa-Dii-li-til-mur-shid (CV-CVV-CV-CVC-CVC-CVC). However, it is considered one word unit, so the ي in فضيلة has to be eliminated. This makes it fa-Di-li-til- mur-shid. One more transformation happens (explained below), which is that the vowel after the ل is eliminated, making the final pronunciation fa-Dil-til-mur-shid.

Rule 4: The rules mentioned up until now are pretty fixed, and below I’ll run through some examples applying them. However, there is a not-fixed rule, what I would call a preference. The first part of this rule is that you can’t have too many CV syllables clustered together (usually three next to each other is too many). For instance, in the word عايزة, after shortening the long vowel, it becomes 3a-yi-za (CV-CV- CV). This sounds flat, so to break it, the kasra is removed, making it 3ay-za (CVC-CV), giving it more of a rhythm. The same applies to the phrase فضيلة المرشد. After shortening the long vowel, it becomes fa-Di- li-til-mur-shid (CV-CV-CV-CVC-CVC-CVC). The Egyptian dialect would again prefer removing the cluster of CV syllables, so the kasra on the ل is removed, making it fa-Dil-til-mur-shid (CV-CVC-CVC- CVC-CVC).

The second part is that the syllable CVVC does not like to be followed by another consonant, and hence will usually be found as the last syllable only. (If anyone cares, the reason for this is that a syllable like رُوح, the و can actually be considered a consonant, so some would say the syllable is actually CVCC and not CVVC. I do have my reasons for keeping it as CVVC and not writing it as CVCC, but let’s not get into that).

The Rules in Action

Okay, let’s take some words and phrases through the steps to test them. Yes, we all hate verb tables, but this is just to illustrate. At the end, you need to be going out and practicing things, not doing endless verb tables, but you need to see how to apply the rules as well.

  1. ماجابوش (they did not bring).
    1. Original voweling: maa-gaa-buush (CVV-CVV-CVV)
    2. Rule 1 (no consonant clusters): N/A
    3. Rule 2 (no two initial consonants): N/A
    4. Rule 3: (long vowel in the ultimate or penultimate of word units): → ma-ga-buush (CV-CV-CVV)
    5. Rule 4: (get rid of CV clusters): N/A
    6. Final form: ma-ga-buush (CV-CV-CVV)
  2. بيتنا (our home).
    1. Original voweling: beet-na (CVVC-CV)
    2. Rule 1 (no consonant clusters): N/A
    3. Rule 2 (no two initial consonants): N/A
    4. Rule 3: (long vowel in the ultimate or penultimate of word units): N/A
    5. Rule 4: (get rid of CV clusters and check for CVVC): → bet-na (CVC-CV). (Here, the CVVC was not in the last syllable, and so it had to be eliminated).
    6. Final form: bet-na (CVC-CV)
  3. يا راجِل يا عجوز، مناخِيرك قَدّ كُوز (Hey old man, your nose is as big as a corn cob).
    1. Original voweling: ya-raa-gil-ya-3a-guuz, ma-naa-xii-rak-2add-kuuz (CV-CVV-CVC- CV-CV-CVVC, CV-CVV-CVV-CVC-CVCC-CVVC)
    2. Rule 1 (no consonant clusters): Because of the د in قدّ has a shadda, we need an extra vowel there
      1. قَدِّ كُوْز : said 2ad-dɪ-kuuz (CVC-CV-CVVC)
    3. Rule 2 (no two initial consonants): N/A
    4. Rule 3: (long vowel in the ultimate or penultimate of word units): The word مناخيرك is problematic, the alif needs to be shortened, so the word is said ma-na-xii-rak (CV-CV- CVV-CVC)
    5. Rule 4: (get rid of CV clusters and check for CVVC): N/A (note there are two CVVC syllables, but both at the end of words).
    6. Final form: ya-raa-gil-ya-3a-guuz, ma-na-xii-rak-2ad-dɪ-kuuz (CV-CVV-CVC-CV-CV- CVVC, CV-CV-CVV-CVC-CVC-CV-CVVC)

These rules are powerful enough that they can get you through almost any situation. They apply to adding suffixes to words, to negation, and even to whole sentences. They are so ingrained in Egyptians that even when speaking other languages many can’t avoid applying these rules. As crazy as it sounds, it is actually possible to build up that feel for the language, much the way you can imitate an accent. There is something natural about building a feel for a language’s phonetics, so that even if one is learning as an adult, the Egyptian rhythm can still be ingrained into you.