Following up on our earlier explanation of a bunch of MSA words that sound ridiculous when used in real life, here are a few more:

1. بدون

Albeit a nice sounding word, no one says this in real life. In some dialects of Shami you might order your coffee من دون سكر (without sugar) but in Egypt من غير is most common.

2. أحيانا

The Egyptian word used to express ‘sometimes’ is actually ساعات (sa3at) which literally means ‘hours.’ Which sort of makes sense.

3. ادرس

If you’re trying to say that you want to study a bit, this would fly in Jordan if I’m not mistaken, but in Egypt, it sounds off. Instead, you would say: عايزة اذاكر شوية (ayza azaker shwaya). However, the root of this word appears in questions like, دراستك ايه؟ which means ‘What do you study/What is your field of study?’ The word اذاكر refers more to the actual act of sitting in the library and studying for a test rather that the more general concept of going to college and taking classes, if that makes sense.

4. كيف حالك \ انا بخير

Unless you are the real-life incarnation of Maha or Khaled or committed some horrible crime and were sentenced to a life of expressing yourself only in Al-Kitaab sentences, please spare us. Pro tip: Before you visit whatever Arab country you’re headed to, TAKE THE TIME TO LEARN THE GODDAMN GREETINGS. It will literally take twenty minutes, and you won’t sound like a dick. (Ala fekra, ya gam3a, stay tuned for a post on ‘How Not To Be An Asshole In Egypt,’ which will cover similar topics.)


I was the only foreigner sitting in a classroom of Egyptian twenty-somethings, trying my best to sound just smart enough to let my classmates go on believing I was half Arab of some variety during a remedial Arabic grammar class. Suddenly, a distraction grabbed by attention:

فين المبتدا يا ماما؟ يا ماما!!؟

“Where’s the subject, mom? Mom!!?”

I looked around for some sort of reaction, like the giggles and pointing that always broke out in elementary school when one unfortunate student accidentally called the teacher ‘mom.’ No no, this situation was the reverse: it was our professor that had called the student ‘mom,’ and it was absolutely, 100% fine.

In Egypt, and other significant portions of the Arab world, I’ve been told, mothers and fathers often refer to their children in the second person as ‘mama’ (mom) and ‘baba’ (dad). When I asked a Lebanese friend about this, she couldn’t come up with a satisfactory answer for herself, and said, “I guess it’s so they know what to call you–mom, or dad.” This speech pattern also makes its way into many interactions between adults. It’s hard to pin down an exact context in which this happens, but if I said, for example, that I’m feeling a bit down to a friend, they might respond in a coo-ey type voice with ليه يا بابا؟ – literally “Why, dad?” It’s also interesting to note that use of ‘mama’ vs. ‘baba’ doesn’t depend on the gender of the person speaking or being addressed and seems to be quite random–a rare phenomenon in such a gendered language as Arabic.

Does anyone have insight into why ‘mom’ and ‘dad’ are used this way in Arabic? Does this speech pattern appear in other languages?

بلا قافية

bila gafiya


This is an extremely useful and wonderful little phrase brought to my attention by a friend in Jordan. The way he explained it, you use it when someone says something that could be misinterpreted, much like how English speakers use ‘That’s what she said.’ The example he gave was someone saying لانه صغير (‘li’anoo sa3’eer’ – because he/it is small) with the appropriate douchey response being بلا قافية.

[A note–in Jordanian Arabic, the ق often changes to a ‘g’ sound, and the gender politics of this letter change are really interesting–many Jordanian women change the ق to a hamza or an ‘ah’ sound instead of the ‘g’ because its perceived to be masculine. In rural areas, you’ll hear it used a lot more, and many Egyptians that grew up in Upper Egypt or the Sinai adopt this letter change, pronounce ج as a ‘j,’ unlike the typical Cairo/Alex accent.]

Use wisely.

As we all know, literally no one on the planet speaks Modern Standard Arabic as their native language, and as such, using MSA in normal, daily sounds unnatural and strange. Following is a list of words that FusHa learners often use in conversation while transitioning to colloquial Arabic that are quite abrasive on Egyptian ears.

What I’m really trying to say is: you literally sound like you are reciting Canterbury Tales right now. Stop. Please.

1. من فضلك

This means ‘please’ in MSA, but in Egypt, it is not often used. If you’re trying to get someone’s attention or order something, you can say لو سمحت. If you’re trying to say please in the “please come in,” sense, you can say تفضل to a man and تفضلي to a woman. (Anote: Arabic is a SUPER gendered language which can present d obvious ifficulties for trans* and gender non-conforming folks. Power to you for navigating this language.)

2. س or سوف to mark future tense

NOPE. Nope nope nope.

In Egyptian, you can talk about the future by adding a هح (I’ve seen it written out both ways) before a conjugated verb.

Example: هنسافر المانيا في ديسمبر = We’ll travel to Germany in December.

Levantine does almost the exact same thing to mark future tense, but using راح instead of هح. So: راح اروح = I’m going to go…

3. أعطيني

This word works just fine in Levantine Arabic, but in Egyptian, if you want you say ‘give me’ you should say اديني or هات (the latter also appears alongside أعطيني in Levantine). Anything else sounds off.

4. ولكن

I know, I know, it really does just roll off the tongue…but you hear this word only very rarely in Egyptian Arabic. بس is the widely accepted translation for ‘but,’ and also conveniently means ‘only.’

An example: sentence انا جعانة بس هاطلب واحد بس = “I’m hungry, but I’ll just order one.” The first بس here means ‘but’ while the second means ‘only/just.’

A note: This is an extremely versatile word that has been known to infiltrate Arabic learners’ English speech patterns (aka, I somehow produce this word ALL THE TIME no matter what language I’m speaking). Even when highly educated Egyptians–and other Arabs of different nationalities–speak English, their speech is often littered with ‘bs.’ It’s fantastic, I think.

5. هل

Albeit a very useful question word, هل is virtually non-existent in Egyptian colloquial Arabic. Most questions, in fact, don’t involve a question word at all–if you want to say “Are you going?” All you have to say is: هتروح؟

One exception, though, includes questions that start with “Weren’t you…”

Example: “Weren’t you going to read this book?” امش كنت هتقرا الكتاب دا؟ –In this case, امش marks ‘were you not.’ This is a very useful little tip it took me a while to internalize

6. الى for ‘to’

This sounds super weird when you say it in Egyptian. In MSA, to say that you’re going to go the university, for example, you would say سوف اذهب الى الجامعة. In Egyptian, the same thought is expressed as: “هاروح للجامعة”

ل is most often used to replace الى in the ‘going to’ sort of sense, although this is a bit flexible. In Levantine, على replaces الى for this specific context.



Stay tuned for more of these types of lists as I encounter more foreigners awkwardly speaking FusHa while ordering stuff.

Tell me what you would add to this list in the comments!

أنا بموت فيك

Ana bamoot fiik” (‘fiiky’ when said to a girl)

“I love you! / You are so great!”

If you’ve been searching for a phrase at just the right crossroads of creepy and disturbing to let your loved ones know that you appreciate them, this one’s for you!