A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Monday, February 14, 2011

Linguistic Notes on the Revolution

We had a discussion in the comments a few posts back (see comments to the linked post) about the chant al-sha‘b yurid isqat al-nizam (The people want the fall of the regime) which is literary Arabic as opposed to the Egyptian colloquial al-sha‘b ‘ayiz isqat al-nizam, which would be more natural. We've also spoken recently about Arabic diglossia in the Tunisian revolution, and the etymology of the word baltagi, so it seems appropriate to link to Ben Zimmer's post on Language Log on "How Mubarak was told to go, in many languages" which includes references to diglossia (irhal ya‘ni imshi ya illi ma btifhamshi), (Irhal ("go away" in formal Arabic) means imshi ("go away" in colloquial), you who doesn't understand me"), shown above, which also alludes to Ben Ali's last, "I have understood you" speech in Tunisia, and even a sign in hieroglyphics (so the pharaoh could understand it, naturally). Also see a related column by Zimmer here. He's a linguist rather than an Arabic specialist, but there's some interesting stuff there.


Jonathan said...

Inexplicably, someone screwed up the transliteration of the long word at the end of the slogan, and slightly mistranslated it. It should be mabtifhamshi (not mabitfahimshi, meaning 'you do not understand', made up of five separate elements, compressed according to Egyptian colloquial's rules for vowel omission:
ma - negative prefix
bi - mood marker
ti - you (sing) prefix
fham - understand (present)
shi - negative suffix (originally from shay', thing)

Jacob said...

At Tahrir Square, I saw signs in French, German, Russian, an East Asian language, hieroglyphics, and even an attempt at Hebrew. I say attempt, because the verb conjugation was both incorrect and they awkwardly used exceedingly formal language (to the extent that modern Hebrew has formality) to translate "ir7al".

Real shame too, there are lots of great allusions one could make to the Exodus in protesting against Mubarak in Hebrew - and Mubarak is the same number of syllables as "Mitzrayim", which would make the possibilities numerous.

Michael Collins Dunn said...


When I first lived in Egypt in the Sadat era, despite a certain recognition that one must understand one's enemy, most available texts for learning Hebrew dealt with Biblical Hebrew, not modern Israeli. (I hope they weren't what military intelligence was studying, but that might explain a lot.) I knew an Egyptian journalist (forget his name: Rifaat something) who had his 15 minutes of fame during Menahem Begin's first visit to Egypt (reciprocating Sadat's to Jerusalem), when he asked a question in Hebrew. At the time I knew no Hebrew and today it's still pretty rudimentary, but I know Hebrew speakers thought it was awfully formal. With so many Israeli tourists in the Sinai I sort of assumed it had improved, but could thst explain the formality of the Tahrir signs?

Michael Collins Dunn said...

Jonathan; you're right. I scewed it up, as my wife and daughter were telling me to get ready to go to a Valentine's day dinner. I don't recall what Zimmer wrote but he's not the Arabic speaker. I've now corrected it.

Michael Collins Dunn said...


one last point: while I agree with you otherwise, I still think it's "you don't understand ME" since the dots under the last character seem to add a first person object to the negative suffix.