by Richard Lenanne

It would take a long, thick book to describe all the differences between these two quite distinct dialects.

There are significant differences of vocabulary (especially words for everyday objects and actions), pronunciation and grammar.

As the authors discovered firsthand, arriving in Syria armed with a good knowledge of Egyptian leads to a lot of confusion and bewilderment!

Consider the simple sentence "what are you doing?"

In Egyptian, this would be "bitiﻉmel eh?", while in Syrian it is "shu ﻉam-t'saawi?" Note that almost everything is different: the verb "to do" (yiﻉmel vs. yisaawi), the word for "what" (eh vs. shu), the construction for "are ...-ing" (bi- vs. ﻉam-), and the position in the sentence of the question word "what" (at the end vs. at the beginning). In fact, the only common element is the "t" in the verb, indicating the second-person conjugation ("you").

Another good illustration is this direction to a taxi driver: "go straight ahead, and turn left at the square".

In Egyptian: "imshi ﻉala tuul w khush shimal ﻉand el-midan"

In Syrian: "ruuh doghri w liff yasaar ﻉand as-saaha"

Here the syntax is identical, but almost all the words are different. A native Arabic speaker, whether Egyptian or Syrian, would understand both, but it's very confusing for the foreign student.

Following are some of the major grammatical differences between Egyptian and Syrian:

Word order: in Egyptian, words such as "what" and "that" tend to be placed at the end of the phrase, while in Syrian they generally go at the beginning.

What do you want?     ﻉayiz eh? (Eg)    shu biddak? (Sy)

This book                    el-kitaab (Eg)     da hal-kitaab (Sy)

Verb negation: in Egyptian, verbs are negated with the prefix ma- and the suffix -sh, while in Syrian only the prefix maa- is used. For imperative verbs, in Syrian the prefix is la-

I wasn't home      makuntsh fi-l-beet          maa kint bi-l beet

Don't forget         matinsaash                     la tinsaa

No problem!        mafiish mushkila            maa fii mishkile

Continuous tense: in Egyptian, the prefix bi- is used to indicate continuing action (is ...-ing), while in Syrian the prefix ﻉam- is generally used (sometimes in combination with bi-).

I'm writing a letter    baktib risaala           ﻉam-akitb risaale

Future tense: in Egyptian, the prefix ha- is used to indicate a future action, while in Syrian the prefix bi- is used (and easily confused with the Egyptian continuous tense).

I will go                     haruuh                    bruuh

Active participle: this is used much more in Egyptian than in Syrian, which tends to use imperfect verbs instead.

I understand              ana faahim           ana bafham

Object pronouns: indirect objects (i.e. those preceded by a preposition) are used much more widely in Syrian than in Egyptian, which tends to use a direct object pronoun attached to the verb. If the verb to which the pronoun is attached is negative, the -sh suffix will be attached after the pronoun. This can create quite a mouthful, and gives Egyptian a distinctive sound.

As for pronunciation, apart from the -sh suffix sprinkled throughout Egyptian speech the most obvious differences are the hard "g" in Egyptian instead of the soft "j" in Syrian, and the Syrian pronunciation of the end of feminine nouns as "e" instead of "a" when preceded by certain letters.

There is also a tendency in Syrian to drop vowels and cluster consonants together, whereas Egyptian tends to follow the more classical consonant-vowel alternation.

Egyptians and Syrians will argue long and passionately about which dialect is closer to fusha or MSA.

The truth is that some aspects of Egyptian are closer, and some aspects of Syrian are.

Syrian vocabulary is often close to the MSA equivalent, while the Egyptian word is quite different. But then there are more words of Turkish origin in Syrian. Egyptian pronunciation is generally closer to MSA, with the glaring exception of the negative verb endings. Verb negation in Syrian is similar to MSA, with the Egyptian negation system radically different, but then the Egyptian tense system is much closer to MSA than the Syrian one is.
Teaching English is BIG business in around the world, especially in Asia where I live now. A lot of people make a lot of money. Good for them. Nothing wrong with business making money.

And the more money you spend on education the better, right? Maybe.....

Koreans are arguably the most well known for their 'zeal for English proficiency' (translation: spending huge amounts of time and money). But their average TOEFL scores have dropped to 80th place out of 163 countries. Still comparatively better than China (105th) and Japan (135th).

What's up with this?

Could it be that the generally accepted point of view about English is that you need to spend excessive amounts of blood, sweat, tears, time and money to learn it? And even then you probably won't be any good.

Are you studying Arabic now and is this your point of view too?

Great starting point, right? No? So if this starting point doesn't work for you, read on to see...

My interesting points of view

1. Be aware of your point of view. If your point of view is that learning a language (or anything for that matter) is hard, then that is what it will be. So start by asking yourself: What will it take for learning languages to be fun and easy?

2. Relax and enjoy yourself. Do little kids learn languages effortlessly? Sure. How? They simply play and have fun, absorbing the language on the way. So ask yourself: what will it take for me to allow my childlike language ability to return and for me to relax and enjoy myself?

If you really can't relax and find that you are increasingly stressed or depressed, then STOP IT and find something else that you do enjoy. Truth, will you ever be successful at something you don't enjoy? So you would keep banging your head against the wall for what reason?

The world needs an infinite number of talents and abilities. What if by persevering with language study you hate, instead of doing what you are really good at and love, you are actually depriving the world of your brilliance? Are you really willing to be that selfish?

3. Find the method that suits you. Everyone has their own style. Some have a visual memory and need to see words written down before they can remember them. Others need to hear words, or use them in conversation before they are lodged in their brain (that's me). Be aware of what works for you and choose that. There's no point in sitting in a course or using material that does not suit you.

4. Find tools that work for you. Keep asking questions and looking until you find a teacher, class, course book, dictionary, grammar book, phrase book, audio/video and authentic materials including newspapers, magazines, books and films that suit your style. My favourite was always TV and radio mystery dramas. You couldn't drag me away! So what's fun for you?

5. Mix with the right people. Ask yourself: who is fun for me to talk to and learn from? Make native speaking friends no matter where you are. Join a club or work part time (or volunteer) in places where you will need to use the language and can make friends. You will have a common, understood interest which will make conversations much easier.

6. Ask questions. A GREAT way to have a conversation is to ask questions and listen. How does it get any easier than that? To start, memorise ONE question and ask ten people...then sit back and listen.

7. Make it a habit. Do a little (or a lot!) every day. Take your notebook and dictionary with you everywhere and jot down, or look up words you don't understand. If you can get a small electronic dictionary, hang it around your neck and use it all the time. If what you're doing is fun, you'll want to do it a lot anyway.

8. Be totally immersed. Don't speak your own language or spend time on the internet reading your own language websites or watching TV. Find enjoyable alternatives in the language you're studying.

9. What if you made NO mistakes? What if everything you spoke, read, wrote or listened to was the perfect next step to getting you to the next level? Instead of giving yourself a hard time for not being perfect, ask: what's right about this I'm not getting and how could I do it differently next time? Just a different interesting point of view.

10. Be aware it’s a different way of thinking. Sometimes you may not comprehend something not because you don’t know the words, but because the point of view is simply different to the one you already have locked in your brain. So before you jump to a conclusion that you don't understand something ask yourself: what am I not getting that if I looked at it differently I would understand?

My secret trick

Here is my secret trick to language learning: be a 'bobble head'. You know, one of those dolls whose head wobbles endlessly? Just smile and nod, smile and nod, say 'ah ha', 'mmm?' 'I see' and occasionally repeat a word or two the other person is saying.

People love to talk. If they think you are listening, they will just keep talking. So show them you are a willing listener by being a bobble head.

People also love to repeat themselves, telling the same story many different ways. Eventually, after you listen long enough you will get what they are saying. At first, you may not get it verbally, but you will get the picture and expand your language abilities in the process.

Who am I and what do I know?

So what do I know anyway? After all, I'm a native English speaker and don't have to suffer what Korean, Japanese and Chinese kids do.

That's true. But over the course of my life I have reached a 'diplomatic professional' level in Japanese, Korean and Arabic. I have interpreted for Australian government Ministers and written this Arabic language text book.

How did I do all that? I have no idea. What I do know is that I didn't start with the point of view that I couldn't do it and that it would be hard. I started with a curiosity to find out how languages worked and with a keen interest in using them to find out about other people.

So what could Koreans, Japanese and Chinese really do with English if they didn't start with the point of view that English was 'hard' and instead had an intense personal curiosity to find out more? Oh yeah, and actually enjoyed it? Would that make a difference?

If this change did happen, would language businesses stop making money? Or would they expand – and make even more money – because more people were learning the language with real zeal?


If you're interested in reading the interesting points of view of an amazing language master, read what Stuart Jay Raj says here.
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    Hi there!

    I'm a former diplomat seeing what I can do to help make the world a more fun place.

    In 1995-98 I lived in Egypt and Syria, where I wrote Syrian Colloquial Arabic. 

    Now I live between Korea and Australia, with my Korean sculptor husband and our three children.

    For more information about what I'm up to now please visit


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