Linking North Africa with the Middle East, Egypt is an historically rich country dating back to the time of the pharaohs, and you’ll find millennia-old monuments dotted along the Nile. The Great Pyramid of Giza is the only surviving wonder of the ancient world, so it’s unsurprising that Egypt is a bucket list travel destination for many. But you might want to know some phrases before visiting.
Egypt is the largest Arab country and has played a central role in modern Middle Eastern politics. Learning Arabic is no easy feat and it is widely considered one of the most difficult tongues to pick up, especially for English speakers. Still, our guide is here to help.
With an introductory lesson in the basics of Arabic and these useful phrases, you’ll be able to get by on your trip to Egypt. Luckily, many Egyptians speak English, but it is always a good idea to have some sayings under your belt to show respect for the local culture. Let’s get into it.
What language is spoken in Egypt?
The official language of Egypt is Modern Standard Arabic, with most Egyptians speaking one or more of the several dialects of Arabic that can be found across the country. Arabic is used in most written documents and schools and has been spoken in parts of the country such as the Eastern Desert and Sinai, where Cairo and Giza are located, since well before the seventh century. However, Nile Valley Egyptians officially adopted Arabic following the Muslim conquest of Egypt in 641 AD.
Arabic is widespread across North Africa and the Middle East and it is the primary language of over 20 countries including Morocco, the UAE, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Algeria, Bahrain, and Iraq. Egyptian Arabic differs from other Middle Eastern vernaculars in grammar, vocabulary, and pronunciation and is best characterized by the use of the “g” sound whereas most Arabian dialects use a “j”.
Arabic is notoriously difficult to learn and you don’t need knowledge of the language to be a tourist in Egypt. Most educated Egyptians are fluent in English or French, or sometimes both, in addition to Arabic. Still, it is respectful to try and learn some phrases, they could also help you out when you’re least expecting it.
The basics of pronouncing Arabic words
Arabic Sanskrit can take years to learn, but luckily enough, you’ll find translations using the English alphabetic underneath most signs and on menus in Egypt. To first start learning the basics of Arabic, you’ll need to recognize some distinct sounds that differ from English or don’t exist in English at all. That said, the sound systems between these two languages aren’t as different as you might think.
The Arabic alphabet comprises 28 letters, some of which are pronounced the same as their English counterparts. These include b, d, f, h, j, k, m, n, s, t, w, y, and z. There are also some Arabic sounds that exist in English but are separated as letters in the Arabic alphabet like sh, th, dh, and ll.
Arabic vowels can be long and short and but you hold a long vowel twice as long as a short one. The vowels also sound different depending on the consonants around them.
- a: “ah”
- aa: “aar”
- i: “ih”
- ii: “ee”
- u: “u”
- uu: “oo”
- ay: “ay”
- aw: “ow”
Many Arabic consonants also have harder versions that are pronounced deeper in the throat. Sometimes they use vowels to make them harder and some are unique sounds to Arabic.
- d: “d”
- h: “h” (exhaling a deep breath)
- s: “s”
- t: “t”
- dh: “dh”
- q: “k”
- kh: “ch”
- r: rolled “r”
- gh: gargling “g” and “r”
- ‘ : no English equivalent, the sound is produced by contracting throat muscles, sometimes compared to choking.
Greeting phrases in Arabic
Greetings and pleasantries are some of the best phrases to know. They might not get you anything but being polite shows respect for the culture and local people in Egypt and these phrases can help you fit in.
- Salaam ‘aleikum – “Hello” (basic greeting)
You’ll hear this one all over the world and not only from Arabic speakers. It is a popular way of greeting friends and peers in the Islamic faith and literally translates to “peace be upon you”. It can help show respect as the greeting is a sign that you’re friendly and accepting of Muslims. That said, non-muslim Egyptians tend to not be offended by these greetings and they’re safe to use, it just won’t build instant trust in the same way.
- Ma’a saleemeh – “Goodbye”
Likewise, this means “with peace” and is a generic goodbye that you’ll hear back if you use it.
- ahlan – “Welcome”
- saba7 elkheer – “Good morning”
- saba7 el noor – “Good morning” (response)
- massa elkheer – “Good evening”
- massa el noor – “Good evening” (response)
- 3aamil eh?
- Izzayak? “How’s it going?”
- Eh akhbaar?
These three phrases have the same meaning and effectively translate to “how are you” or “how’s it going” in some way or other. The “3” here represents the Arabic letter ‘ع’. It is an important Arabic sound but hard to translate. It is used softly in this expression and can be imagined as “‘aamil eh?”
The appropriate responses to these are:
- Kwayyis, kullu tamaam. alHamdulillah – “Fine, everything’s great [Praised be God]”
- Ana Kwayyis / kwayISSuh – “I am good”
You can string these together or say them separately. The phrase “alHamdulillah” sounds very religious but it is used casually in conversation, even by non-religious Egyptians and it works on its own as a response to “how’s it going?”.
To continue the conversation, or alternatively, to end it, you can say:
- Forsa sa3eeda – “Nice to meet you”
- Ana As3ad – “Nice to meet you” (response)
Phrases to get someone’s attention
Whether you’re squeezing past someone, attracting the attention of a waiter or calling after a friend, doing it in these Arabic phrases is the most polite option in Egypt.
- ba3d iznak (or iznik to a female) – “Excuse me”
This makes the most sense when you’re moving past someone or excusing yourself to leave a table. It works similar to “with your permission.
- lil asif – “Sorry”
This is a good way to say sorry if you’re a man bumping into a woman which is considered very inconsiderate in Middle Eastern countries. If you’re bumping into a man you can just say “salaam ‘aleikum” to acknowledge them.
- law samaHt – “If you please”
- 3yiiz a’ool lak ba3d iznak – “Excuse me, I want to tell you something” (more colloquial)
Both these phrases are good ways to call over a waiter or get a cashier’s attention in Egyptian Arabic.
Best phrases to help you get around
Not only are some of these phrases specifically helpful for tourists trying to navigate busy cities like Cairo, but there are also different ways to address people in society in Arabic.
- ya usTa! – “Hey, driver!”
Hello can work just as well if you want to grab the attention of a microbus or tuk-tuk driving who’s driving past, but the above addresses the driver directly.
To a policeman:
- haaDritak: “Sir”
Security is heavy all over Egypt and police officers are the best people to turn to for directions or they might speak to you if you’ve taken a photo somewhere you aren’t allowed to. Address them correctly as “sir” to start the conversation off on the right foot.
Learning to give directions is actually complicated and redundant if you don’t know the city you’re in, but there’s a high chance you’ll need to ask for them. Even if someone replies in English or simply by pointing, asking in Arabic can be a good way to set the premise for friendly conversation.
- Fayn dah/il Hammaam, min fDlak? – “Where is this?”
- baruuH zayy kida? – “I go this way?”
- 3la Tuul? – “Straight ahead?
The words il Hammaam actually mean bathroom, but it is the place most people ask how to get to so you’ll need it most. Otherwise, dah accompanied with pointing (e.g. at your phone or at a map) is a good enough indication that you’re looking for directions.
Straight ahead is also a good one to know as you’ll probably be pointed in that direction before being told where to head next.
Of course, you’ll want to thank whomever you’ve asked.
- shukran – “Thanks” – This is a basic thank you for after general interactions.
- alf shukr – “A thousand thanks” – This one shows utmost appreciation after someone has been extra helpful.
General useful phrases
You don’t need to know what everything is or means in a new country, but being inquisitive is never a bad thing and you’ll also probably want to buy a souvenir or some food and drink from a market at some point.
These phrases are great for shopping:
- eh dah min faDlak? – What’s this, please?”
- na 3ayiiz ashuuf bas – “I just want to look”
- la, ana mish mihtaag dah – “I don’t need this”
The last one is particularly useful in the touristy parts of town when vendors won’t stop hassling. You can also use “ana mish 3aarif/3aarfa” meaning “I don’t know” to get yourself out of almost anything.
- bikam dah? – “How much is this?”
- ana 3ayiiz… – “I want…”
- ghaali ‘awwi! – “It’s too expensive!”
- ktiir awwi! – “It’s so much!”
- ana badfa3… – “I will pay…”
- maashi – “Ok”
Remember not to barter too much. You don’t want to cause offense.
Like most dialects, nobody just says “yes” or “no” in Egypt, it’s a better idea to add a softening to be more friendly. If someone asks if everything’s okay, or if you’d like to order something more in a restaurant, these are better responses:
- aywa, tab3an/shukran – “Yes, of course/thank you”
- la, aasif/shukran – “No, sorry/thank you”
With so many customs to follow, especially in crazy Cairo, it is also good to know how to ask permission:
- mumken, min faDlak? – “May I, please?”
Although, mumken, meaning “may I” can be enough if you forget the rest of the phrase. These add ons can also help depending on the situation:
- mumken akhud Surah hina? – “May I take a photo here”
- mumken ashuuf min faDlak? – “May I look, please?”
- momken adkhul min hina? – “May I go in from here?”
It’s important to ask these questions, you never know if somewhere is a sensitive, secure, or private place with so many sites of religious and historical significance in Egypt.
You might hear this phrase in response, otherwise, it can be useful if someone is asking your permission for something:
- itfaDDal/itfaDDali – “Please go ahead/sit/take this”.
Arabic Language Resources
These basic phrases will have you on your way to learning Arabic, or simply help you get by on your trip to Egypt. The Egyptian Arabic dialect differs from other vernaculars, but most of these phrases can also be used across the Middle East. If you want to take your learning to the next level, there are plenty of online resources that can help.
For familiarising yourself with the Arabic alphabet and scripts, check out the Madina Arabic website as well as the Udemy’s Free Alphabet Course.
If you want to learn Arabic from your mobile phone, or any world language for that matter, Duolingo is another great resource. Access free learning plans, interactive games, and perfect your pronunciation in the app, with daily reminders and rewards to keep up your studies.
If you’re already in Egypt, or any other Arabic country, you might benefit from a translator app for on-the-go conversations and phrase learning. Check out Arabic Dictionary Dict. Box, iTranslate, and Arabic English Verb Conjugator.
How do you greet someone in Egypt?
The most common way of greeting someone in Egypt, which is the same in most other Arabic and Islamic countries, is to say “salaam ‘aleikum”. Regional and cultural variations apply but this is recognized by most Muslims across the world and even the Coptic Christian population in Egypt will receive this greeting well. You can say “ahlan” too if you’re unsure of the religious practices, to which the response is usually “ahlan bik”. These greetings are usually accompanied by a handshake between men if they’re not acquainted, or a hug and kiss if the individuals know each other.
Do they speak English in Egypt?
The official language of Egpyt is Modern Standard Arabic, although many Egyptians, especially the younger population, will speak and understand English as well as other European languages. You can expect English to be widely spoken in major tourist cities like Cairo and Alexandria, as well as resorts like Sharm El-Sheikh. However, it can be harder to get by with just English in more remote destinations like the Siwa Oasis where they even have their own language, called Siwi, which they speak alongside Egyptian and Libyan Arabic.
Is Arabic easy to learn?
Arabic is considered one of the hardest languages to learn, topped only by a few tongues like Japanese in difficulty. It’s made even more complex if you’re a native English speaker or a speaker of any romantic language like Italian and French. To learn Arabic properly, it takes an average of 2,200 hours or 18 months of consistent study, but you will struggle to ever be fluent without living in an Arabic country or coming from an Arabic background. What also makes spoken Arabic so difficult is that some sounds don’t even exist in the English language and can be near-impossible for westerners to try and imitate.