Monday, November 17, 2014

Country Profile: The Languages of Egypt

This week our country profile is going to focus on the languages of Egypt, a fascinating country that first became a nation state in the 10th millennium BC. Egypt is especially interesting from a linguistic standpoint because of its past and present linguistic history. Today we'll be taking a look at the many modern languages spoken in the country. 

The Official Language

As is true of many other Islamic countries, Modern Standard Arabic is the official language of Egypt. Modern Standard Arabic is the standardized variety of the Arabic language that is used throughout the Middle East and North Africa. It is also known as Literary Arabic since it is the most common written form of Arabic. 

The Pyramids of Giza, one of Egypt's most famous landmarks.
The National Language

The national language of Egypt is Egyptian Arabic, the spoken variety of Arabic used in Egypt. While Modern Standard Arabic is used in most forms of media such as television, Egyptian Arabic is occasionally found in written form in so-called "vernacular" literature such as novels and poems created for the average Egyptian, as well as in popular songs and some newspapers. Egyptian Arabic is spoken by 68% of the Egyptian population and is the native language of 54 million people, making it the most spoken variety of the Arabic language in the world. It is also thought to be the most widely understood variety of Arabic throughout Arabic-speaking countries, primarily due to the widespread popularity of Egyptian films. 

Other Varieties of Arabic

Egypt is also home to speakers of three other varieties of Arabic. Approximately 29% of Egyptians speak Sa'idi Arabic, primarily in the southernmost regions of the country. Despite this variety of Arabic having very low prestige in Egypt compared to Modern Standard Arabic and Egyptian Arabic, it is still spoken by a considerable proportion of the country.

The two other varieties of Arabic used in the country are Eastern Egyptian Bedawi Arabic and Sudanese Arabic. Eastern Egyptian Bedawi Arabic, which is understandably shortened to the name Bedawi, is spoken by around 1.6% of the population in eastern Egypt as well as Jordan, Israel, Syria, and the Palestinian territories. Sudanese Arabic, unsurprisingly, is the spoken variety of Arabic used in the neighboring country of Sudan. It is also spoken by about 0.6% of the Egyptian population.

Other Languages

A few other notable languages spoken by minority groups in Egypt are Domari, Nobiin, Beja, and Siwi. Domari is an Indo-Aryan language used by the Dom ethnic group that is widely dispersed throughout North Africa, the Middle East, Central Asia, and India. Nobiin, on the other hand, is a Nilo-Saharan language that is natively spoken by nearly 500,000 people in southern Egypt and northern Sudan belonging to the Nubian ethnic group.

Additionally, Beja and Siwi are two Afro-Asiatic languages spoken in Egypt. Beja is primarily spoken by members of the Beja ethnic group that lives between the Nile River and the Red Sea. Siwi is a Berber language spoken by thousands of people near Egypt's border with Libya.

Egypt was also home to the fascinating Egyptian language of Ancient Egypt which later evolved into the Demotic and Coptic languages, but we'll save that discussion for another day.