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Tricky things about the adjective in Egyptian Arabic

Do you know how to say “small”, “upper”, “Turkish coffee”, or “secondary” in Egyptian Arabic? This article will explain tricky things about the adjective.

Last updated: May 2, 2021

The adjective in Egyptian Arabic has some special features. In the upcoming weeks, I will gradually examine some peculiarities such as comparative, superlative, agreement, plural forms, etc. In this article, I will focus on the basics: the forming of the adjective.

An adjective (صِفةٌ) is a word that describes another word. Adjectives are masculine and feminine and take the singular and plural form – because they grammatically need to agree with the word they describe

Small, short, thin: diminutive in form – but not in meaning

In Modern Standard Arabic, the word for small is صَغِيرٌ. In Egyptian Arabic, however, you don’t say Sagheer. You say Sughayyar. Why on earth is that?

This has to do with one of the distinctive features of Egyptian Arabic! The pattern that is used for certain adjectives is actually a diminutive form, for example, the word Sughayyar. A diminutive is a word that has been modified to convey a slighter degree of its core meaning, to convey the smallness of the object. For example: a book (كِتاب) – a booklet (كُتَيِّب).

That is weird because Egyptian Arabic is famous for speeding up Arabic and getting rid of everything that would lengthen speech acoustically.

What is crucial here: These words are diminutive in FORM – but not in MEANING! In fact, you don’t have any other option but to use the diminutive form if you want to express words such as small, short, or thin.

Some examples.

nearقُرَيِّب‘urayyib minقُرَيِّبِين‘urayyibeen

Adjectives formed from prepositions

This blended form is typical for Arabic dialects. You use a preposition and add -aani: انِي

Some examples.


Irregular forms. When و comes into the game.

When you have a weak letter حَرْف الْعِلّةِ) in the root in the third (last) place, then usually the letter و pops up.

The same is true for words which have only two root letters, for example, the Arabic word for hand: يَد

Some examples.


Adjectives derived from places: اوِي

Usually Arabic students in Egypt are asked if they like soccer, in particular, if their favorite team is Ahli or Zamalek. In Arabic, the question is often: inta ahlaawi?

Grammatically speaking, we need to deal here with a Nisba adjective (نِسْبة): an adjective usually derived from place names.

In Modern Standard Arabic, you simply use the doubled letter ي resulting in مِصْرِيٌّ for Egyptian. In Egyptian Arabic, however, you oftentimes use the ending اوي instead.

Some examples.

from TantaطَنْطاوِيTanTaawi
people living in the desertصَحْراوِيSa7raawi
Ahli fanاَهْلاوِيahlaawi
Zamalek fanزَمالِكاوِيzamalkaawi

The feminine form is formed by adding ة resulting in maSraawiyya (مَصْراوِيّة). The plural by adding ين resulting in Masrawiyyeen (مَصْراوِيِين).

There are some exceptions. Also, sometimes the regular Nisba is used. For example, from Assiout: asyuuTi (اَسْيُوطِي) or Alexandrian: iskandaraani (اِسْكِنْدَرانِي)

Adjectives that never change:invariable adjectives

How do you say traditional dish?

Well, if we use the word أَكْلة for dish and بَلَدِي for traditional, do we need the feminine form of بَلَدِي then? No, we don’t!

This is because the word بَلَدِي is cemented and usually stays the same. In other words, you won’t have any agreement.

traditional dishأَكْلة بَلَدِيakla baladi
belly dancerرَقّاصة بَلَدِيra”aaSa baladi
title of a famous movieسَلَطَة بَلَدِيSalaTa baladi

The same is true for adjectives that were derived from place names. You often just use the masculine form although you would actually need the feminine form according to the rules.

A good example is Turkish coffee. The word coffee is feminine in Arabic; nevertheless, you use the masculine form of Turkish.

Turkish coffee‘ahwa turkiقَهْوة تُرْكِي
elementary schoolmadrasa ebtidaa’iمَدْرَسة اِبْتِدائِي
secondary schoolmadrasa sanawiمَدْرَسة ثانَوِي
Arabic filmsaflaam 3arabiأَفْلام عَرَبِي
A German car3arabiyya almaaniعَرَبِيّة أَلْمانِي

Adjectives ending in -aan: ان

You should definitely have a look at this pattern as it is very common in Egyptian Arabic. Many adjectives in Egyptian Arabic are formed by using the root (form I verb) and add the endingaan: ان. They usually form the plural by using the ending –een: ين

Some examples.


Other interesting articles about Egyptian Arabic and dialects

  1. That’s the first time I’m realizing that Egyptian Arabic makes use of many diminutive adjectives although I hear it around me all the time! Thank you for sharing this.

  2. You mixed up the latin transcript of front and back. Thanks for the interesting stuff.

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