A language of our own

10-06-2015 04:32 PM



In his book Al-Lugha al-Masriya al-Haditha, Diraassa Wasfiya (Modern Egyptian Language, A Qualitative Study) published by Rawafed publishing house, the author Antoun Milad presses his point that what some see as Egyptian colloquial Arabic is no adulteration of the Arabic language; rather it is a language in its own right. Milad takes the reader on a journey through the various aspects of the Egyptian language, its roots, fundamentals and phonetics.
The author dedicates his 200-page book to the souls of Bayoumi Qandil (1942 – 2009) and Mohsen Lutfy al-Sayed (1926 – 2009), both pioneers in calling for the revitalisation of Egyptian identity. Qandil was a linguistic expert whose life mission was the revival of Egyptian nationalism, culture and time honoured diversity. Sayed was an Egyptologist; during his lifetime he founded the Masr al-Umm (Egypt the Mother) Party, which called for rooting the Egyptian identity, the revival of Egyptian nationalism and the recognition of Egyptian language as the Egyptians’ mother tongue.

True worth
The book opens with an invitation by the author for readers to email him any comment on or addition to what the book offers regarding the modern Egyptian language. He promises to include these comments in upcoming reprints or in other sequels, since he believes this book forms only a preliminary study for a comprehensive science.
The author offers two interesting introductions to his book. The first is academic, written in classical Arabic and supported by references footnoted to every page. The second is in colloquial Arabic, which he terms ‘Egyptian’, and introduces the concept behind the book. Even though the content and ideas in both introductions are interesting and enlightening, and place the reader in the mood for the book, it is quite confusing to have two separate introductions. This is especially so since, in his colloquially-written introduction, Milad criticises the government and intellectuals for using ‘two languages’; Egyptian (colloquial) in their daily lives and dealings, and classical Arabic (the State official language) in written documents and business. He calls for relinquishing this practice, and believes the local Egyptian language should be venerated and accorded its true worth.



Reconciliation with the self
The author builds his academic introduction on a quote by Qandil: “We are living in a state of perpetual self-defeat.” He highlights how time and again throughout their history Egyptians surrendered to the will of the various invaders to their land, using the invader’s language and sidelining their own. This was true in case of the Greeks who conquered Egypt in 330BC, the Romans in 32BC, and the Arabs in 640AD. The author points out that it took Egyptians until the era of Muhammad Ali in the 1800s to recognise that their Egyptianness had been shattered, and to seek ‘self-reconciliation’.
Some, Milad writes, believe the Egyptian language is merely Arabic crammed with mistakes, others believe it is a local dialect or just another Arabic dialect, while some see it as a phase in the evolution of the Egyptian language. The author analyses all these interpretations and then specifically compares the Egyptian and Coptic languages as far as phonetics, grammar and meanings are concerned.
In the colloquial introduction, Milad reminds readers of the efforts by the scholars Bayoumi Qandil, Wassim al-Sisi, Sami Harak and Essam Setati in researching the Egyptian language. He explains that the Egyptian language, on the descriptive analysis of which the book focuses, belongs to the Afro-Asiatic group of languages. As such, it features specific characteristics. He lists the Egyptian language’s seven dialects spoken across Egypt depending on geographic location.

Phonetics and grammar
The book is divided into four chapters. The first, dedicated to phonetics in the modern Egyptian language, analyses how the letters of the alphabet are pronounced, and draws parallels between them and the ancient Egyptian and Coptic languages. The author also explores the sounds, tones and vocalisations of the letters with their different implications in a section that he titles ‘Phonologia’.
The second chapter is about vocabulary, describing it as the second most important corner of the language after phonetics. It offers many grammatical usages and points out how their rules differ from those of the Arabic language. Milad analyses the different cases of plural, gender, pronouns and conjugation at length, as well as other grammatical instances.
The third chapter, titled ‘Fundamentals of modern Egyptian language’, continues its journey with the Egyptian language’s grammatical usages, through verb tenses, the negative, and sentence types and structure. Conspicuously, Egyptian is revealed as much simpler in grammar and usage than the more complicated Arabic. Although the second and third chapters are quite interesting and informative, it is rather curious why the author chose to divide their content into two chapters.


Special meanings
The fourth and final chapter discusses the meanings of words and how the connotations of several words have developed and changed through the development phases of the Egyptian language. The author points out that the connotations of words differ depending on the sentences in which they are included. In this chapter the author touches on punctuation; he explains how punctuation helps give different meanings to a sentence, depending on how these are used. However, he explains that written Egyptian language dismisses punctuation, using only the full stop to separate sentences and ideas. One of the characteristics of the Egyptian language is repetition, and the author explains that this serves to confirm and assert the meaning. The author then offers some examples of words or expressions that have their roots in Egyptian culture. Mayetsamash for instance is literal for the ‘one who is not to be named’, used to talk about a rejected, hated or feared person. This expression is peculiar to the Egyptian culture in which names carry special significance; Egyptians identify everything and everyone by their name.


Why the classic?
The author ends his book with a list of appendices. These include a glossary of the Egyptian terms used through the book as well as a list of some of the Egyptian terms that are close to Arabic in their meanings, or which have a meaning totally different from the Arabic use. In the appendices there is also a glossary of the hieroglyphic symbols used throughout the book and their connotations, the Coptic alphabet and how each letter is pronounced, a list of some words common today in modern Egyptian but which have their roots in Coptic or ancient Egyptian, and a list of some words used in classical Arabic but which derive from the ancient Egyptian or Coptic languages.
In another appendix, the author suggests establishing an Egyptian alphabet solely for the purpose of writing the Egyptian language. He recalls that Bayoumi Qandil was the first to make this suggestion and that he had started working on it before his death in 2009. Milad then offers a list of some of the terms used in the science of linguistics and what they refer to in Arabic and in Egyptian. A phonetics table prepared by Egyptologist Ramy Samir Farag Mina follows, occupying a full page.
Four pages of the references used by the author complete the book.
Although the topic of the book is intriguing and the idea behind it daring, with the author suggesting the empowerment of the colloquial Egyptian language on the official level and in literary circles, the author contradicts himself when he resorts to classical Arabic instead of modern Egyptian in the writing of his book. He only uses modern Egyptian in part of the introduction.



What constitutes a language?

The Ethnologue [www.ethnologue.com] is a comprehensive reference work cataloguing since 1951 all the world’s known living languages, and widely regarded to be the most comprehensive source of information of its kind.
According to the Ethnologue, languages are the particular set of speech norms of a particular community, and are also a part of the larger culture of the community that speaks them. Languages do not differ only in pronunciation, vocabulary, or grammar, but also through having different “cultures of speaking”.
Sixty languages are included under the wider division of “macrolanguages”, which are defined as multiple, closely related individual languages that are deemed in some usage contexts to be a single language. Arabic is among them, on the basis that it offers a writing system and literature shared across many spoken varieties.
The Ethnologue, however, goes on to explain that where there is enough intelligibility between varieties to enable communication, the existence of well-established distinct ethnolinguistic identities can be a strong indicator that they should nevertheless be considered to be different languages. The identification of “a language” is thus not based on linguistic criteria alone. All of which offers strong support to the argument that Egyptian qualifies for being a language in its own right.

Watani International
10 June 2015






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