Egyptian Arabic has no official spelling rules–no standardized orthography. Still, Egyptians do write in the colloquial language, perhaps increasingly in recent years with the advent of the internet and text messaging. So, how can we write in the Egyptian Arabic dialect if there’s no right or wrong–no rules to follow?
Well, the Egyptians seem to make it work. Most Egyptian Arabic words have cognates in MSA, so these spellings are applied to Egyptian Arabic whenever possible. For example, there’s no debate on how to spell the word for ‘book’. It’s كِتاب, just like in MSA. But when it comes to Egyptian Arabic words that are unique or significantly differ from MSA, there is less uniformity. Even then, there are usually only a couple of competing spellings. Individuals have their own preferences or use both interchangeably. كِده or كِدا (like that). هُمَّ or هُمّا (they).
The Lingualism Orthographic System
In Lingualism materials, we do our best to keep spelling consistent and in line with whichever spelling variant seems to be the most widely used. Our orthographic policies have evolved over time, so that you may see exceptions in older materials, but these will eventually be updated to match the current system.
Arabic script doesn’t explicitly show the exact pronunciation of Egyptian Arabic. When words take prefixes and suffixes, certain sound changes occur. Vowels are lengthened, shortened, or elided according to certain rules. The quality of vowels changes depending on adjacent consonants. Consonants can also become voiced or devoiced in certain positions. None of this is explicitly reflected in the Arabic script, but with the help of diacritics and knowledge of the rules of Egyptian Arabic phonology, you can determine nearly any given word’s pronunciation from the Arabic script.
For example, gāb جاب (he brought) contains a long vowel, which is shortened when it made negative: ma-gábš مجابْش (he didn’t bring). This happens when a syllable ends in two consonants (here: _bš). But even though the vowel has been shortened, Egyptians still write the word with alif (ا).
Most consonants in Egyptian Arabic are pronounced as they are in Modern Standard Arabic (MSA)*. But how do Egyptians spell words that have markedly different pronunciation from MSA? Basically, if a word has a cognate in MSA, the spelling will mirror that word.
However, there are a couple of exceptions and notable cases. Let’s take a look:
Egyptian Arabic does not have the ŧ ([θ] as in English thin) sound of MSA. This sound usually becomes s in Egyptian Arabic cognates, and sometimes t. When pronounced s, the original spelling with ث is kept. (It is not spelled with س.) But when it is pronounced t, it is written ت.
sánya ثانْيَه second (from MSA ثانية)
tāni تاني (another) (from MSA ثانٍ)
The same applies to ذ, which is pronounced đ ([ð] as in English that). The spelling is retained when it is pronounced z. (It is not written as ز.) But it is written د when pronounced d.
záki ذكي clever (from MSA ذكي)
xad خد he took (from MSA أخذ)
Qaaf (ق) is pronounced as a glottal stop, as if it were hamza (ʔ ء), in the majority of words, but it is still written as ق. In a few Egyptian Arabic words, ق is pronounced q as in MSA. But since the spelling won’t help you determine whether the pronunciation is q or ʔ, you should refer to phonemic transcription when in doubt.
This letter has a distinctive pronunciation in Egyptian Arabic: g ([g] as in English gas), instead of MSA’s j ([dʒ] as in English jam).
gamīl جميل beautiful (vs. MSA jamīl جميل )
* Some consonant sounds vary somewhat in quality from MSA, but these subtle differences are handled in Egyptian Arabic Pronunciation.
Some additional letters are optionally used to represent foreign sounds in words borrowed from other languages. These letters have three dots instead of one. Most people don’t bother with them, so you’ll just need to know when a ب is actually pronounced p. The most common usage of these foreign letters that I’ve seen in Egypt is garāž جراچ garage. Of course, you can also see it spelled جراج. Companies often use foreign letters in their brand names to encourage a pronunciation truer to the original.
ڤ (or ف) v ڤودافون Vodafone
پ (or ب) p سڤن أپ Seven-Up
چ (or ج) ž ([ʒ] as in English vision) إل چي LG
Dots on final ـي and ـة are, more often than not, not written by Egyptians. Lingualism mimics this habit. Exception: to aid learners, dots on taa marbuta are written when it is pronounced t as part of an idafa construction.
3arabíyyit irrāgil عربيةْ الرّاجِل the man’s car
The dotless taa marbuta (ـه) is pronounced a. But ه is also used as the 3rd-person singular masculine possessive suffix -u. So how can you distinguish them? In an Egyptian’s writing, you’d just have to know, but in Lingualism materials, -u is preceded by damma: ـُه
maktába مكْتبه library
maktábu مكْتبُه his desk
To distinguish the undotted final ـي from a true alif maqsura, pronounced -a, the latter is written preceded by fatha: ـَى
You may even notice that some Egyptians seem to use the ي and ى keys (and ة and ه keys) interchangeably so that you’ll see ي with dots when the original is ى and pronounced -a. For example, you might see على (on) written علي and عليه (on it) may be written علية. But these inconsistencies reflect people’s difficulties finding the right key on the keyboard rather than an intentional style.
Another habit of Egyptians is to omit the seated hamzas. In Lingualism materials, they are not written on alif at the beginning of a word.
ána انا I (not أنا)
ínta اِنْتَ you (not إنْتَ)
But they are written when pronounced as a glottal stop (hamza ʔ ء) in the middle or at the end of words:
suʔāl سؤال question
saʔal سأل he asked
bádaʔ بدأ he began
آ is normally written even at the beginning of a word in Lingualism materials (but not consistently by Egyptians):
āxir آخِر final
qurʔān قُرْآن Quran
Separate or attached?
It is worth noting that, in Lingualism materials, the following prepositions and conjunctions are written separately (that is, with a space) from the word following them:
wi و and
fa/fā فا so (In older Lingualism materials, it is sometimes written attached as فـ.)
mi مِ from (optional short form of مِن before definite article)
3a عَ on (short version of the word علَى) written separate except before a word beginning with a definite article: عالـ
The following prepositions and particles are attached (that is, written without a space) to the following word:
ma- مـ not: ma-katábš مكتبْش he didn’t write
ha- هـ will It is sometimes written حـ by Egyptians, but most people now use هـ, as this is how it’s more commonly pronounced these days in Cairo. (In Alexandria, this prefix is still commonly pronounced ح)
bi- بِـ in, at, with
It is common to see و written by Egyptians either separate or attached depending on individual preferences. Likewise, some مـ and هـ may be written separate as ما and ها (or حا), respectively.
Other spelling conventions
Shadda is used instead of writing double consonants, following the rule in MSA. Most Egyptians also do this, so:
ba3átt بعتّ I sent (and not بعتْت).
ʔúlli قولّى (not قولْلى) tell me
Exception: ílli اللى that, which, who is written with two lam (ل), as the first two letters were originally the definite article.
Follow MSA rules for shortening the vowel of certain past tense forms:
ruɧt رُحْت I went (although many Egyptians tend to write a waw: روحْت.)
Tanwiin sits on a final alif (In MSA, it should precede the following consonant, although some people disagree. In Egypt, the majority of people write it on the final alif, and so we’ve mimicked this habit in Lingualism materials.): aɧyānan احْياناً sometimes
Fatha: By far the most common vowel in Egyptian Arabic is the short vowel a, which is represented in Arabic script by fatha ( َ ). In Lingualism materials, the fatha is normally omitted. So if you see a consonant without tashkeel, you can assume it is an unwritten fatha. This is done to avoid redundancy and making the text look cluttered. Fatha is, however, written adjacent to waw (و) and yaa (ي) when they are pronounced as consonants (w and y, respectively) in order to distinguish them from long vowels:
wálad وَلد boy
yá3ni يَعْنى that is…
ɧawāli حَوالى about, around
ɧayāti حَياتى my life
In the rare cases where a word-final short a is not represented by ا or ـَى, the fatha is written:
3a عَ on
má3a معَ with
húwwa هُوَّ he
Sukuun: Egyptian Arabic does not have i3raab (grammatical declensions). Compare ECA kitāb كِتاب book with MSA kitābun كِتابٌ. This implies that the final consonant would be written with a sukuun (كِتابْ), but, again, this is omitted to avoid redundancy. You can assume that a final consonant has an unwritten sukuun.
Long vowels are not preceded by harakat (short vowel marks):
nām نام he slept (not نَام)
mīn مين who (not مِين)
rūɧ روح go (not رُوح)
The definite article الـ is written without tashkeel (instead of اِلْـ). This is done to avoid clutter: ilbēt البيْت the house (not اِلْبيْت); iššáms الشّمْس the sun (not اِلشّمْس).
This also applies to ílli اللى that, which, who.
(See Egyptian Arabic Pronunciation for details on the pronunciation rules for the definite article.)
ي and و can represent various sounds. As the long vowels ī and ū, they are not preceded by harakat. (See above.)
They can also represent two sounds not present in MSA: ē and ō. These are written with sukuun to distinguish them from the cardinal long vowels:
dēn ديْن debt (vs. dīn دين religion)
fōʔ فوْق above (vs. fūʔ فوق surpass)
As true diphthongs, fatha is written (ـَوْ and ـَيْ) to distinguish them from the above cases:
yáwmi يَوْمى daily (vs. yōmi يوْمي my day)
haykūn هَيْكون he will be
Shadda is written as in MSA, even at the end of a word where we don’t actually hear the consonant pronounced twice. Why? It is perceived to be a double consonant and the shadda helps in word recognition. If, for example, a suffix is added, you would hear the consonant pronounced twice. Also, two consonants at the end of a syllable affect word stress.
baɧíbb بحِبّ I love Without the double consonant, the stress would incorrectly fall on the first syllable (báɧib بحِب). Although you can’t hear the consonant pronounced twice when the word is in isolation, you can when it precedes another word in context:
baɧíbbə mámti بحِبّ مامْتي I love my mom.