There's something wonderful about local dialects: the way that New Yorkers wait "on" line rather than in line, or how people in Yorkshire watch "ut telly" rather than the TV. It's part hometown pride and part the pure delight of realising that where you're from is special – and that in speaking its words, maybe you are, too.
Arabic is famous for the sheer number of its dialects, and the one used in the UAE, considered Khaleeji, is one of the four major variations. Two recent books are prising open Emirati Arabic to show its unique character, from differences in pronunciation to words picked up from its history of trading routes.
Roudha Al Marri, the co-author of UAE 101: Stories and Cultural Learnings, says that each emirate has its own, easily identifiable accent. People from Dubai and the northern emirates, for example, say "ch" instead of the "k" sound, so that "kayf halek?" ("how are you?") is pronounced "chayf halech". Arabic speakers in Abu Dhabi tend to hew more closely to the pronunciations of Modern Standard Arabic. "Perhaps because of their political status they want to be closer to pure Arabic," suggests Al Marri.
The author was born in Dubai and now lives in Abu Dhabi. “Coming from Dubai, we are considered coastal tribes. We got in touch more with traders from India; from Iran; we were closer to the coast and travelled more,” she says. “Even different tribes have different accents. Tribes such as Al Mansouri or Al Ameri, which have stronger Bedouin roots, have thicker accents. They use ‘sh’ instead of ‘ch’ and have a real rhythm of speech.”
How to communicate like a native
Nasser Isleem, a senior lecturer in Arabic at New York University Abu Dhabi, has been working on a similar project. For the better part of the past five years, Isleem could be found at the Friday souq in Al Ain, talking to local traders and buyers, notebook in hand. He recently published an educational guide to Emirati dialect, using the colloquial word for "talk", or "narmis": Yalla Narmis: The Top 2,000+ Words and Expressions for Understanding Emirati Dialect.
Like Al Marri, Isleem emphasises that the differences in Emirati Arabic start with pronunciation and go upwards towards the way the Emirati dialect has been influenced by its environment. Emiratis, he explains, tend to say the “j” sound as a “y”, so that a word such as “dijaj”, meaning “chicken”, becomes “diyay”. And – because nothing is simple – the missing “j” sound is supplanted by what other Arab-speakers pronounce as “qaf”. This can be illustrated by a ubiquitous word that is written completely differently in Arabic and its English transliteration: Sharjah. “‘Sharjah’ written in Modern Standard Arabic is ‘Shariqa’,” Isleem says – which is how it appears on Arabic road signs and licence plates. “But in Emirati, you say, of course, ‘Sharjah’.’”
Isleem's book on Emirati sayings, Popular Proverbs: An Entrance to Emirati Culture, follows one he published on Palestinian proverbs a few years ago. Many Arab idioms are shared, he says, with minor changes – an olive in Levantine proverbs becomes a date in the Gulf. Sayings unique to the Emirates give glimpses into the country's Bedouin heritage. One, which means "keep your problems hidden", is "keep the quilt on the back of the she-camel". Another is the common greeting "houd", which men say when they are entering a house so that women can cover themselves. In response, women say "hada" – or "come on in".
The Emirati dialect also reflects the site’s history as a crossroads between various cultures. The Emirati word “seekh”, for a bar one sits on, comes from Farsi, Isleem explains. Not coincidentally, a number of engineering and oil industry words come from English, such as “’aayl” (oil), “il-bikabb” (pick-up truck), and “achayyik” (I check). Some words from the Emirati dialect are well known, such as “zein” (“cool”) and “ghawi (“beautiful”). But Al Marri highlights that you can’t speak Emirati Arabic unless you are fluent in hand gestures. “We’re not Italians for sure, we don’t have any trace of being Italians, but hand gestures play a big role,” she says. “If you want to show your respect for someone, you put your hand on your head and say ‘ala rasi’. The literal translation is ‘on my head’ – you might say it if someone asks you to do something.”
In UAE 101, which Al Marri wrote with Italian author Ilaria Caielli, she details how putting your hand over your eye or pointing to your nose while speaking means that the other person should consider a task done. "Even when we show affection," she continues. "For some reason we end up using parts of our body that you wouldn't imagine, saying you are my heart, you are my eyes, even you are my liver!"
Learning beyond the dictionary
Isleem's office sits along the glass-fronted row of professorial appointments in NYU Abu Dhabi's humanities department. But unlike most lecturers on this corridor, Isleem doesn't have a PhD nor comes from a traditional academic background. Rather than the calls for conference papers that line others' windows, his give a view onto cards and mementoes that former students have made for him – some touchingly dorky, like one that shows him as the father hen to a class of chicks – and all in studiously penned Arabic. Spotted among them are also certificates of appreciation from universities where he has taught and a number of distinctions he has won.
Isleem simply has a gift for languages, and for teaching them. He first became interested in the Khaleeji dialect in West Virginia in the United States, where he first settled after leaving his native Palestine. “I came from Gaza with little money, so I was thinking about a decent, cheap place to study,” he says. Surprisingly, he found that many Arabs in the Gulf were sending their children abroad to study there at the time. “I picked up a lot of from their dialect and when I started to come here, I started to learn more.”
He has become a polymath of Arabic dialects, easily rattling off the word for “watermelon” in local parlances from Emirati (“yehh”) to Tunisian (“shem-mam”). When he visited the Pyramids in Giza, he says, he tricked the guards into thinking he was Egyptian by his sure command of the dialect. “I would rather pay 5 pounds as an Egyptian than 50 pounds as a foreigner!” he laughs.
His books seek to change the way Arabic is taught, incorporating songs and proverbs into the study programme. “I wanted to move away from learning from a dictionary,” he says. “If you know the expressions well, that will also open the way towards understanding a culture.”
I ask Isleem for his favourite proverb, and he doesn’t hesitate for a second. “Emiratis are known for their helpfulness. That comes from their Bedouin nature – they will save people in times of need. So if someone is in trouble, you go up to them, and say, ‘you fell down standing.’ That means, even though you fell down, I am here, so it is like you are standing. I love that. Even me, as a Palestinian, I will say that in my home.”