Friday, 2 May 2008


In the early days of this silly little blog, I put up a post that was essentially a crib from an experiment in Wiki creation that I was playing around with. ‘Ten Word Arabic’ was picked up by GN and a couple of big American blogs and has consequently turned out to be one of the most popular things I’ve written here in the past year. I’ve long meant to get around to doing a ‘proper’ singular version that doesn’t link out to the Wiki, which can be awfully annoying, and so here it is.

Some people think I’ve wasted 20 years in the Arab World, but I can prove ‘em all wrong. The following is the synthesis of everything insightful and useful I have learned about the Arabic language. Well, almost everything.

Arabic is not an easy language for speakers of the Romance languages. It’s not impossible, but it’s not easy. Worse, pretty much everyone speaks English and people are often more keen to use their English than listen to you mangling their language.

The following ten words will allow you to get by, have meaningful sounding conversations and serve you well in any number of situations and scrapes. The investment required to get from this to speaking proper Arabic is so great, and the commensurate rewards so small, that you’ll probably never progress beyond Ten Word Arabic.

1) UGH
Ugh is the most important word in the Arab World. It's also pretty useful further east as well, although I have only personally tried it in Sri Lanka and not the subcontinent.

Ugh is used in Arabic to denote agreement, denial, affirmation, condescension, surprise, pain, acrimony, patrimony and, for advanced users, pleasure at a serendipitous encounter (Eu'gh!).
Note also its close cousin, the Lebanese expression of disgust, surprise, resignation, irritation and wonderment: 'Euft'.

TE Lawrence (Thomas Edward 'Ned' Chapman, AKA TE Lawrence, AKA TE Shaw. He's always fascinated me, has 'little Lawrence'.) once entered the town of Deraa disguised as a Circassian and using only the word 'Ugh' to get by. He was captured and comprehensively buggered, so this just shows the importance of properly practicing 'Ugh'. It is also argued that it shows how daft it is to use an Arabic 'Ugh' when talking to Turks.

Lebanese/Palestinian (or Lebistinian if you prefer) slang for 'shinoo' which translates as 'what?'. Jordanian slang version is 'Aish'. In Egyptian it's 'Eida'. You start to see why the Arab world is quite as much fun as it is, no?

Belongs with 'hada' which isn't a component of Ten Word Arabic, but which is useful nonetheless and means 'that'.

So shou hada means 'what's that?'

Shou also is used to denote general query, as in 'what's happening, guys?' ('Shou?') or 'What's the stock market looking like this morning?' ('Shou?').

Shou can also be used in place of any query, from 'Why are you in pain?' to 'Where are you going?'

Shou can also be used to comprehensively diss someone. It's a difficult technique that's tied in closely to body language, which is used a lot in the Arab world, but basically you say the 'shou' in a totally dismissive way, turning the head to the left and flicking it in a sideways and downwards direction. This means 'what a heap of shit'.

The only way to respond to this is by using the same gestures but saying 'shou shou'. That outshous the shou. Or, in Arabic, that'll shou 'em.

One of a number of highly important key phrases in Levantine, particularly Lebanese Arabic (So not a Greek chillout musician, that's Yanni).

Yani means 'kind of' and is used frequently, also serving as a replacement for 'somehow', 'umm' and a million other syntactical spacers... It helps to pronounce the 'a' from the back of the throat, because in Arabic it's an 'ain', so written ya3ni in 'MSN Arabic'.

For instance: 'So I say to him, yani, what kind of car is that heap of shit? And he's like, yani, really pissed at me.'
Also used as a response to any given question, meaning 'Oh, you know...' where the amount of aaa in the yani is used to denote a studied indifference.
'Are you still going out with Fadi's sister?'
'She that hot?'

For a two syllable word, Khalas is certainly a complex little critter.

Pronounded khalas, halas, kalas depending on the mood, nationality and context, it means 'enough' but also 'stop' and 'I've had enough of your bullshit, get down to brass tacks or I'll do yer.'

As a term of contempt ('forget it and stop being so utterly stupid'), it can be quite nicely deployed by rolling the 'kh', a sound made at the back of the throat by the bit of the tongue that would be just before the late market if your tongue was the technology adoption lifecycle, and then lengthening the aaaaaaaalaaaaaaaas.

Like much Arabic, the words alone are not enough: it helps to use the hand in a gesture of denial and avert the head. This is also performed in a certain order for maximal impact: hand signal like policeman standing in front of speeding car, say 'Khalas' and avert head. If female, it is best to toss the head.

Not to be mistaken for neem, which is a type of tree that grows in buddhist temple grounds, 'naam' is Arabic for yes. So is 'aiwa, which does tend to rather complicate things. One thing that is for certain is that 'no' is always 'la'.

Naam = yes
La = no

The importance of the word 'akid' (akeed) in Arabic can not be overstated: it's vital. It means 'for sure' and is the only way to test if someone's serious about a date or a promise or other undertaking.

'You will have the consignment by the 14th, ya habibi.'

This conversation obviously means that you're about to be royally shafted and that the consignment has, in fact, been stolen by Papuan pirates just south of Aceh and the shipping agent knows this but isn't telling you.

Arabic for 'wotcha', it actually means 'peace'. The more formal 'Salaam Aleykum' is used for a proper greeting, salaam is used to a familiar or generally mumbled to all present when getting into a lift or arriving within a gathering. The response is 'Aleykum al Salaam'.

It's important because by using it you can be polite. So few people bother with these little pleasantries, but a smile and a little politeness don't half go a long way in the Arab World.

'Tara' is 'ma'salaama'

8) FIE
Fie (pronounced 'fee') is another powerfully multipurpose word. It means 'enough' or 'sufficient' or 'plenty' or 'too much' depending on how it's used. The only certainty is its antonym, 'ma fie' which always means 'none'.

I suppose its most accurate translation would be 'a plentiful sufficiency'.

Mushkila means 'problem' and, given that you spend half your time here flagging up, dealing with or avoiding problems, then it gets used a lot. So you have 'fie mushkila' (a great big problem with grindy, gnarly teeth and warts and things' or the debased assurance 'mafie mushkila' (no problem. This is ALWAYS, and please don't get me wrong here, ALWAYS not the case).

You'll sometimes hear 'mish mushkila' or 'mu mushkila'. These are dialect and both mean 'mafie mushkila' and so should be ignored.

Broadcaster and lobbyist Isa Khalil Sabbagh tells the story of the American businessman who was closing a deal in the Middle East and was told the contract would be signed tomorrow, 'inshallah'.

'What's God got to do with this?' asked our man, angrily.

Lots, of course. Because, as a consequence of his comment, his deal never got signed.

Inshallah means 'God willing' and is a phrase fundamental in so many ways to Islamic thought. A thing will occur in the future only if it is the will of God. An expression born of piety, it is also used pragmatically as a universal get out clause and avoids an absolute undertaking.

Avoiding an absolute undertaking is seen as a good thing, at least in part because it cuts down the likelihood that you'll have to be offended by being told 'No'. This concept that the answer 'no' is offensive and should be avoided is quite a simple one, but has been known to drive callow Westerners insane.


You have now mastered Ten Word Arabic and can hold entire conversations without anyone realising that you are in fact not a native of deepest Arabia.

'Fie mushkila'
'Yanni, shou?'
'Shou? Shou? Yanni, shou fie.'
'Akid, akid. Mushkila fie.'

All shake heads and tut a lot. All depart.

Amaze your friends! Stun business contacts! Speak Ten Word Arabic!


Cairogal said...

Don't forget "shoo yani" which was a very popular response from my college students.

Keefieboy said...

Excellent. Any chance you could do Ten Word Spanish?

bb said...

What is sad is that is a perfect summary of all the Arabic words I have learned since I arrived in dxb two years back..

DXBluey said...

"It's funny 'cos it's true" Homer (Simpson)...

Someone in Al Ain said...

Thanks for this lovely post..we use these words more than we use oue

Anonymous said...

I Call BS on this, go check your Arabic, or your sources before "educating" ppl.

Cairogal said...

What exactly do you call BS on, anon? This isn't a dictionary. I have spent 6 years in the Gulf and Egypt. My husband is a native speaker. The words and definitions provided are used in this manner. If you want to argue that they're not, I'd like to hear the reasons on the contrary.

Anonymous said...

Wow 6 years and that's all u learnt and your acting all proud and teaching ppl as well, for God sake put me in freakin' China for half of that period and I'll sing in Chinese, u know ppl come to this side of the world and take everything for granted, and they expect everyone one else to speak their language and they don't even invest time to learn the local language .. Typical Western attitude. Where are you from? where's your husband from?
You want to argue, fine,for starters I've never heard of (UGH) my entire life, I'm a native Arabic speaker BTW.
Second (Eida) is not Shou\what, (Eida) is actually two words, (Ei) and (Da), first one means (What) ad the second means (This), so Eida is not Shou\What but (What is this?).
(Da) is Egyptian for (Hada) which you mentioned in your article.
Third Shou can never be a "dissing" no matter how you say it, even if you "turned the head to the left and flicked it in a sideways and downwards direction".
and the list goes on ...
Salam !!!

AUHgal said...

Mmmm...not sure why you bother w/ the "salam" at the end of that firey post. This isn't a dictionary. It's anecdotal.

Shopaholic-DXB said...

Love it, I'M arabic myself and found it funny and cute in away. Good Job

Bay Route said...

I liiiiiiiiiiiike
I use akid, ya3ni, khalas ALL the time lool

Wilma said...

To the anonymous commenter (...only a few years late)

Maybe part of the misunderstanding is the spelling "Ugh," which might be confusing. The "gh" is not really pronounced, it's not "Ugg" or "Uch," it's more like "Uh." I hear this used as "yes" all the time across regions.

And of course, the fact that you have never heard "shou" used as a dismissal doesn't mean that it cannot be. I'm a native English speaker and I'm not familiar with half the slang in this blog post. Widely spoken languages will differ across regions. Slang will arise in some places and not others. It's okay...No cause for concern.

Also I don't think it's fair to characterize this as a Western imperialist blah blah blah. There are always a few slang or filler words that pepper conversation in any language. It could be done for any language, including English, French or German, and it's all in good fun. English's list might include, "Oh my god," "What's up" (or "wotcha" as this person wrote... more foreign slang, heh heh...)

To the poster, question: I thought "fie" means something like, "is there..." "do you have..."

Also my understanding was that "ya3ni" actually means "it means," (from "ma3na," "meaning,") not "kind of." So it would be equivalent to "I mean..." in English. No objections to the usage, just wondering for the sake of clarity and insight.

Jay said...

To the comment "Third Shou can never be a "dissing" no matter how you say it, even if you "turned the head to the left and flicked it in a sideways and downwards direction".
and the list goes on ...
Salam !!! " Seriously what is your problem you really need to study your slang and languages abit better. I am also a native Arabic speaker and you are off the mark here.

Suhail Kazi said...

Wilma, you are right. 'Ya3ni' means "it means..". The same word is a proper Urdu and Hindi word as well used with same meanings. Here in arabland I've also seen it used similar to the American teenage-girly "like" usage.
("I'm like wow, that's an awesome nose-ring and then she's like tell me something new")

Replace the 'like' in above hypothetical sentence with 'yani' in it's hypothetical Arabic translation and there you have it.

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