Page update - Aug 30, 2023
What language do Egyptians speak in everyday life? What is the official language in Egypt? You may be surprised, but they are two different languages. Will it be comfortable on vacation in Egypt with knowledge of English? And will it be difficult for those tourists who do not know foreign languages at all (we consider you read this page with auto-translate)? Read the answers on this page.
The official language of the Arab Republic of Egypt is MSA (Modern Standard Arabic). It is the official language in almost all Arab countries. Like in all Arab countries it is not spoken in everyday life. Egyptians speak in their dialects.
Most of the media broadcast (write) in MSA. All the laws of the country are written in MSA. All official statements of the authorities are issued only in MSA. About 70% of Egyptians read and understand MSA fluently. However, many Egyptians speak and write it rather poorly, as they simply don't need this.
Learning MSA is a mandatory part of the school curriculum in Egypt. Local dialects are not studied in schools.
There are two main Arabic dialects in daily life of Egyptians. They are Egyptian Arabic and Upper Egyptian Arabic. They are so different from the MSA that they should have been recognized as separate languages. However, they have no official status.
Egyptian Arabic is the most widely spoken dialect of Arabic in the world, since the Egyptians are the largest Arab nation in the world. It is also called "Masri", which translates as "Egyptian". Egyptian Arabic is spoken by about 65 million people.
The Masri dialect is notable by the fact that it has not only a spoken form, but also has its own writing. Recall that most dialects of Arabic have only a spoken form and no writing. There is even a separate version of Wikipedia in Masri - arz.wikipedia.org
Most movies and some newspapers and magazines are published in Egyptian Arabic. One could say that all entertainment media in Egypt operate in Egyptian dialect.
Upper Egyptian Arabic, aka Saidi. This dialect is spoken in Upper Egypt (in the southern part of the country, along the Nile) by about 19 million people.
These two dialects have become very distant from each other over the centuries. Their speakers do not always understand each other. Usually they understand the phrases only in general terms. The words are different, and also some of the sounds and grammar are different.
They understand only in general. Different dialects of Arabic have slightly different grammar and word composition. That's why the MSA is widespread. For Arab nations to have a common language and understand each other.
They do. Recall that Egypt was under British control until 1952. Since then, one of the signs of an educated Egyptian has been the knowledge of English. Now it is mandatory to learn English at school.
Many English words have become part of the Egyptian Arabic dialect. All road signs are now in Arabic and English. Some media broadcasts (write) in Arabic and English simultaneously. The main inscriptions on the Egyptian currency bills are duplicated in English.
There are three universities in Egypt that teach only in English: the British University of Egypt, the American University of Egypt, and the University of the Future of Egypt.
The knowledge of English by Egyptians may vary between good and zero depending on the situation. If he wants something from you, then he speaks English well. If the situation is not in his favor then he may magically forget English. Be aware of this feature.
You can use the same tactics. If some trader annoys you or some man tries to sell you excursions or other services, you can pretend you don't understand neither English, nor Arabic. You just throw up your hands. He will leave you alone soon.
The level of English by hotels staff in Egypt is not high. Be ready for their lexicon to be 500 or 1000 words only. It is hard to explain some things in this case. We highly recommend having a translator app on your smartphone.
If your native language is English then it is convenient and useful. The translation English->Arabic (MSA) is usually good.
If your native language is NOT English. You can use it, but it's not very useful. No translator can translate directly between non-English and Egyptian Arabic. They usually do it by the scheme "non-English <-> English <-> Arabic" and often end up with complete rubbish.
The apps successfully translate only individual words and phrases and only the text (without the voiceover). For example, you need to explain to the cab driver you need to go to the airport. In this situation you can use the translator on your smartphone and show the cab driver the word "airport" (translated to Arabic) on the screen. The rule is, "simpler is better".
And don't forget that most translators only work when the Internet is on.
There is a Coptic language that is no longer used in everyday life. But it is the official language of the Coptic Orthodox Church. It is believed that Coptic is closest to the ancient Egyptian language. However, even it does not shed light on how the ancient Egyptians spoke.
Western Egypt speaks its own dialect of Arabic, which is closer to Maghreb dialects than to Egyptian.
In the south, in the area of Aswan, the Nubians are the native inhabitants, and they speak the Nubian language "Nobiin". In total, there are about 300,000 speakers of the Nubian language in Egypt.
The Bedouins of Sinai speak a northwestern dialect of Arabic. The number of these people is not accurately calculated, it is thought to be about 100,000.
- If you speak English, you won't have any problems at all. You can explain most any problem;
- If your native language is not English and you don't speak English well. You won't have serious problems in the resort areas. Do not despair. Prices are shown in digits, you can explain on the fingers, and you can bargain with the calculator on your smartphone;
- It is not necessary to learn any phrases in Arabic before the trip to Egypt. First of all, the pronunciation is likely to be terrible. Secondly, even if you say "hello" in Arabic, then what next? You won't be able to continue the conversation.
- To use translator apps in smartphones, you need to have the Internet. Read our detailed review "Cheap Internet in Egypt";
- Many people think the inhabitants of modern Egypt are Arabs. But in fact this is not entirely true. Read about it in our interesting review "Who are the Egyptians".
Have a good vacation and read our useful and interesting pages for tourists about Egypt and Egyptians (see the list of the pages below).
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