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The tricky word ma (ما) in Egyptian Arabic

The word ما is one of the most difficult words in Egyptian Arabic (and by the way, in Standard Arabic as well). Oftentimes, it is misunderstood.

Last updated: June 2, 2021

What are the functions of ma (ما)?

  • ما can work as a question word meaning what;
  • ما can also work as a negation;
  • ما can work as a relative pronoun (similar to الَّذِي or اِلِّي in dialects) meaning “that;which; who”.
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Furthermore, and this is our topic today, ما can work as an amplifier and lay emphasis on a word or overall meaning (أَدَواتُ التَّوْكِيدِ) or simply bind one thought to another.

This application of ما can be pretty difficult for non-native speakers and it happens quite often that such sentences are misunderstood.

Let’s see how it works.

The seven most important points that you should keep in mind when dealing with ما or ده as amplifiers

  1. This type of ما is often combined with another tricky word: ده (“da”)  – or دي (“di”) for feminine words.
  2. Both words in this application only convey emphasis.
  3. In many situations, a sentence would perfectly work also without them.
  4. Therefore, you often don’t even translate them.
  5. Unless ما precedes a verb, ما in Egyptian Arabic almost never conveys a negation. If you want to negate a nominal sentence in Egyptian Arabic, you use مِش (“mish”).
  6. We could say that they are only used for stylistic reasons, for intonation, to make a sentence sound right. You don’t really pause in speech between ما and the pronoun هو or هِي.
  7. What complicated the whole issue: Both words may occur with personal pronouns. Both they may also be used alone.

Let’s see some action.

Note that the vowels here are just there to help with the pronunciation. In dialects, it is often difficult to mark words with diacritical marks (i.e., vowels).

The word ما alone

It is still early!“Ma lissa badri!”ما لِسَّه بَدْرِي
So go home then! Note: The word طَبّ often goes along with ما. It denotes “okay, so then”.“Tabb ma-t-rawwah ba2a.”طَبّ ما تِرَوَّح بَقَى
She left (went out) quite a while ago.“Ma-hiyya kharaget min badri.”ما هي خَرَجِتْ مِن بَدْرِي
I have already told you (that) twice!“Ma 2ult-illak marreteen!”ما قُلْت لَك مَرَّتِين
Stay here some time.“Ma titfaddal shwayya!”ما تِتْفَضَّل شويّة
For sure, she is in the same airplane.“Ma hiyya fi-nafs ettayyara!”ما هي في نَفس الطَّيّارة

The words ده or دي alone

Usually these two devices precede a personal pronoun to emphasize it.

Do you like Umm Aly [a very sweet and tasty desert]? Ohhh, I love it!!“Bethibb 2mm 3aly?” – “Da-ana bamuut fih!”بِتْحِبّ أُمّ عَلِي؟ ده أنا بامُوت فِيه
We are delighted that you came.“Di-7na fi muntaha ssa3aada innak geet.”ده اِحْنا فِي مُنْتَهى السّاعَدة ِنَّك جِيت

Both words used together in a sentence

That is what I have been saying!“Ma-huwwa da-illi ana ba2uulu”.ما هو ده اللِّي أنا باقُولُه

Learn more about Egyptian Arabic:

Picture credit: Image by PIRO4D from Pixabay

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