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Arablish: A New Egyptian Language

Having recently returned from Egypt I was mesmerized by how much has changed in just the past few years. Clearly, Egypt is going through both a cultural and social revolution not just a new form of political discourse.

This was very apparent to me especially in my interactions with colleagues in Egypt’s civil service training college where I ran various executive development seminars as a volunteer. Not only were participants much more open on their views across a broad spectrum of issues, I discovered the emergence of a completely new language most of which was unknown to me.

I call this new language Arablish, a form of overlap between English and colloquial Arabic. As it turns out, Arablish is both well developed and spoken by all. My first reckoning with Arablish came when in my Finance for Non-financial managers clinic, I asked participants to complete an exercise on their own that involved analyzing a hypothetical balance sheet and income statement. A senior participant in the seminar approached me with his answer, put his analysis on the desk in front of me and said “Dr. Sherif chayek”. Unfamiliar with the word “chayek” in Arabic, I turned to the colleague with confusion and asked for clarification. He looked at me in awe and repeated the word “chayek” pointing to his paper. After a few seconds of bewilderment, I understood that “chayek” actually meant “check” and his usage of the words “chayek di” was him trying to tell me “check this”.

While his answer was wrong, I was intrigued with the word “chayek”. I gave the trainee a hint of his error, only to have him use another word I had not heard before. Effectively, he said in Arabic “I give up, why don’t you just “shayer” the answer with me”. “Shayer”, what is “shayer”? I had never heard that word before either. I asked him to explain the meaning of “shayer” and he looked at me puzzled and said it means “share”. Of course, “shayer” is not an Arabic word, it “share” in Arablish. But, like “chayek” it has evolved from its English meaning and been Arabized colloquially. Woof.

However, my reckoning with Arablish did not end there. As I explained the answer of the case to participants, most of them realized they had made the same mistake. In this hypothetical case, when the firm’s end of the month checks were cashed, they did not up-date their cash balance. One of the participants now understanding the error said with confidence in Arabic “I get it now, the problem was with the “cheak” that was “kayshed”. Please give us another case and I’m sure I can “ahandle” it now”. I knew the word “cheak” meant “check”, but what do “kayshed” and “ahandle” mean? Quickly, I deduced that “kayshed” meant “cashed” and “ahandle” meant I can “handle” this now.

Becoming more confident with Arablish, and seeing they were getting the first case, I asked the participants to run a second scenario. I explained the second case and asked everyone to try and “ahandle” this as a group. As it turned out “ahandle” can only be used in the context of only one person “ahandling” a particular issue. It has to be singular, and in plural it becomes “handelo”. Confused at my usage of the word “ahandle”, they laughed.

The next part of my training session involved helping participants to use Excel in undertaking financial ratio analysis. I explained to the participants that we would do a group exercise on the computer and I proceeded to ask trainees to create a new file on their PCs. While I was lecturing in Arabic, I used the word “create” in English which seemed to confuse participants. One of the more senior trainees stepped in to assist me and said in Arabic “Doctor Sherif wants you to “careate” a new file”. Puzzled again, I was getting it now. Of course, “careate” means “create” and I realized I was mastering more Arablish as the session went on. When it came to our computer exercise, I learned a whole bunch of new Arablish words. For example:

“Delete” in Arablish is “Dalit”; “Save” in Arablish is “Saif”; “Cancel” in Arablish is “Acancal”; “Browser” in Arablish is “ABrowzar” “Format” in Arablish is “Afarmat”

This went on and on all afternoon and while I was thoroughly amused, at points I was totally confused. Shortly afterwards, we broke for lunch and they were serving fish and chicken for the participants. A young lady from among the organizers offered to bring me a plate and asked me in Arabic “Do you want fish, or “kantaki”? OK, now what exactly is “kantaki”? That would be the Arablish word for chicken, derived from Kentucky Fried chicken, now simplified to be any form of chicken, and simply called “kantaki”. I went for “kantaki” in the end, even though the fish was highly recommended.

As the session for the day came to a close, one of the participants asked if we could start a little later to avoid the morning congestion which I was happy to accommodate. He responded and said in Arabic “Great can the “keylas” start at 10:00”? Common, “keylas”? Yes, “keylas” meant “class” and my understanding of Arablish was enhanced by yet one more word.

As participants began to exit the session, another trainee approached me and said that her daughter would really benefit by attending this seminar as she is studying finance in graduate school. She said in Arabic “Is it OK if I bring her in as a “fisitor”. Of course, I said she would be welcome as a “visitor”, but the word “visitor” seemed to confuse her so I just repeated “fisitor” as Arablish seemed to be better understood.

Being the innovator that I am, I decided to see if I could add to the Arablish dictionary a word of my own creation with the group of trainees that I was working with the next day. My invented Arablish word was “shankar” that I used repeatedly to mean “shrink”, or minimize. The Arabic word for “shrink”, or “minimize” is “saghar”. Unbelievably, by the time I was done “shankar” was a word that the group widely repeated to minimize an application on their PCs. If “shankar” catches on, I assume full responsibility for its creation.

Of course, Arablish has taken names like Mohamed and Shahin and turned them into Mo and Sean. Arablish names are nothing new, but this new language now has a working vocabulary. Where Arablish goes from here is anyone’s guess, but be prepared to run into it in your next visit to Egypt before it runs into you. And, do report back if you hear the word “shankar” repeated.

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