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The official language of Egypt is Arabic, though many people, especially if they work in the tourist industry, speak enough English to get by. The social rewards of learning even just a few words, however, are enormous, and you'll find yourself embraced (literally quite a lot of the time) for your efforts.

Egyptian Arabic is a national dialect that is significantly different from the Arabic of Lebanon, Syria, Tunisia, or any of the other neighboring countries. Complicating matters is that there are a number of registers: the classical Arabic of the Koran, the transnational Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) of the educated upper classes and written work, and the amaya Arabic of everyday use. The three share grammar, but vocabulary is a matter as much of difference as it is overlap. Then, of course, there are differences stemming from area and socio-economic grouping. Bedouins on the Sinai, for example, will pronounce the letter "jeem" (as it is known in MSA) as a short j, while a resident of the Delta will pronounce it as a soft g. Meanwhile, a resident of Upper Egypt will pronounce the MSA letter "qaf" (a sort of heavy k) as g, while residents of Cairo will replace it with a glottal stop.

One of the oddest things you'll notice if you speak the slightest bit of Arabic in Egypt is that locals will often switch into whatever level of MSA they can muster. The result is instant confusion on all sides. A few notes on pronunciation:

  • "A" is pronounced like the a in art.

  • "Aa" is a longer sound and is pronounced like the a in ma'am.

  • "A'"-or "ain," is a short, hard but strangled "a."

  • "Kh" is pronounced like the ch in loch.

  • "Hh" is an unvoiced h and comes out as a puff of air.

  • ' is a glottal stop; imagine somebody poking a finger into your esophagus.

  • "S" is pronounced like the s in soft, not like in is.

What Goes Around . . .

European languages, particularly Spanish, and Arabic have a huge number of cognates. Many words that begin with "al" or "el," for example, come from Arabic (alcohol, alchemy, algebra, almanac, elixir), but there are some odder examples as well. The word hazard was picked up and brought back by crusaders who learned to say "haza!" for luck as they threw their die. Crusaders also brought back a variety of essential words for luxuries, including sugar (from sukr), sherbet (from shorba), and gauze (which came from Gaza). My own favorites include admiral, which comes from either emir al bahr (commander of the sea) or emir al rahl (commander of transport), and floozy, which came back with the British soldiers who frequently came across Egyptian women offering their favors in return for falous, or money.

. . . Comes Around

Though for centuries Europeans absorbed Arabic into their languages, the flow now goes the other way. Televizeon, otobus, and batatis (potato) are all fairly obvious. My favorites though are firen-geh (which you don't hear in Egyptian, mind you), a now archaic word referring to the Franks, which came to refer generically to foreigners. The word recently got recycled into popular culture as the womanizing traders of Star Trek: the Next Generation. Another good one is something you'll hear every day on the streets of Zamalek. It is the cry of the junk and used clothing dealer as he pushes his cart along, announcing his wares: "Roba vecchia! Roba vecchia!" (from Italian, meaning "old clothes").

Hieroglyphs: An Ancient Mystery

When Napoleon invaded Egypt in 1798, he arrived as well prepared to deal with a foreign culture as any invader has ever been. Apart from his soldiers and planners, he brought along 167 experts on just about everything that Europe had expertise in at that point: There were linguists, mathematicians, astronomers, surveyors, doctors, Arabists -- the list could go on. One thing they found, however, stumped them entirely: the strange picture-script known as hieroglyphs, found all over the tombs and ancient temples.

The French experts weren't the first to try to figure out the language. For at least 2 centuries, Europeans had been scratching their heads over the code, and though some progress had been made -- by the time of the invasion, a German named Carsten Niebhur was correctly postulating that the signs had alphabetic value and that the Coptic language might be the key to unlock their meaning -- the end was nowhere in sight. A major part of the problem was that nobody had used the signs for a long time. Hieroglyphs had gradually slipped out of use during the Roman era, and the last inscription that we know of that made use of them was made at the Temple of Isis near Aswan in A.D. 394, so there was nobody around to help.

In the end, the break came with the discovery of the Rosetta Stone, a large slab of black stone on which the same text was repeated in three different scripts, including hieroglyphs, by French soldiers refurbishing a fort in the coastal town of El Rashid. Its final decipherment is now generally credited to a French prodigy named Jean-Francois Champollion, who realized, by cross-referencing the Greek text and hieroglyphs of the Rosetta Stone, that each ancient symbol must have a dual meaning -- both a sound and thing. On September 14, 1822, he managed to decipher the name "Ramses" in a cartouche, whereupon he is supposed to have yelled, "I've got it!" and fainted.

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