While the official language is Arabic, the actual language of Egypt is a weird mix of colloquial Arabic, English, French, and words left over from Turkish rule. Due to a variety of factors; high number of language centers, relatively low cost of living, easy entry, Egypt can be a good place to study standard or classical Arabic. It is not however a good place to speak it. Even educated people will have a hard time conversing with you in fusha, or classical Arabic. Dh, who is fluent in Arabic, claims that the people understand English better than they understand fusha. He does have a point.
Once while ordering fish, I requested a little less than a kilo. Or aqal min kilo. A blank look from a man behind the counter. I tried a few more times. Finally someone translated it to Egyptian (ammeyah) for him. “A’al min kilo.” “Oh”, and he says to me exasperated, “Well speak Arabic!” Excuse me, but I was!
You do need to have some survival Arabic, as most people are far from fluent in English. I tried to order bottled water last night, something I do weekly, in Arabic, with no problem. For some reason, this time I was put on hold and given someone who supposedly spoke English. “What is your order?” I repeated to him, this time in English that I wanted 4 cartoons of Nestle. “What?” I tried again, 4 boxes of Nestle. Silence. Third try, I want 4 boxes of Nestle water. “Oh, Nestla?” Yeah, that.
A lot of times you can just use the English word and add a slight accent to it. I asked for Vaseline at a pharmacy and just got blank looks. I tried a few more times, before inspiration struck. I looked at how it was written in Arabic on the bottles behind the counter and pronounced it that way. “Oh, Vazleen!”, exclaimed the pharmacist in recognition. There are tons of English words used here in place of the proper Arabic words, delivery, baby, cash, and bye-bye just to name a few.
The irony is, Egypt can claim a big part in actually preserving the Arabic language thanks to the scholars of language they graduate from Al-Azhar University. Unfortunately that scholarship in no way extends to the streets and common language of the people.
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