If you didn’t have the faintest clue as to what language is spoken in Egypt and you had to guess off the top of your head, you might be inclined to say “Arabic,” and you would be mostly correct. However, as with every other nation-state in existence, Egypt is composed of a complex fabric of demographics and immigrant influences. Additionally, it serves as a living reminder that spoken languages can vary drastically from their written standard versions, with the spoken languages more accurately reflecting regional differences and the written standard serving as a sort of official lingua franca that unifies the whole.
What Language Is Spoken In Egypt?
Modern Standard Arabic
Egypt’s official language is Modern Standard Arabic, which is used in most written documents and schools.
However, Modern Standard Arabic mostly describes the literary form of Arabic, which is actually a macrolanguage composed of multiple distinct vernacular dialects. In other words, it’s the written standard for a group of similar dialects that are, for the most part, mutually intelligible.
Modern Standard Arabic came from Classical (medieval) Arabic, and it has a grammar and syntax that’s remained largely fixed since the 7th century. However, some elements of its style and phrasing have shifted over time, in some part thanks to English and French influence.
Many Shades Of Spoken Arabic
Despite the fact that it lacks official status, Egyptian Arabic (a spoken variant of the macrolanguage) is actually the most commonly spoken language in Egypt and is considered the de facto national language. Its current form is a mixture of Arabic, Coptic, Turkish, Ottoman, French and Italian influences. If you visit Egypt, you’ll likely encounter Egyptian Arabic in advertising, films and newspapers, as well as spoken colloquially on the streets.
Arabic first came to Egypt during the Arab occupation of the 7th century, and it blended with existing local Semitic languages like Syriac, Berber and Assyrian, creating the basis for some of the other types of Arabic spoken in Egypt today.
Other common spoken Arabic variants used throughout the country include Sa’idi Arabic (spoken mostly near the Sudanese border by rural populations), Sudanese Arabic (spoken mostly by Sudanese immigrants), North Levantine, Ta’izzi-Adeni, Algerian, Gulf and Moroccan, among others.
Some of these vernaculars can be quite different, depending on the historical and geographical factors that gave rise to them. The dialect spoken in Cairo, for instance, has been influenced by the city’s status as an international hub where foreigners mix with locals.
According to Ethnologue, there are 16 individual living languages spoken in Egypt. Among these: the Nobiin language of the Nubian people, the Bedawi language (spoken mainly by the Bedouin people), Mattokki and Siwi. Egypt also has its own sign language.
There are also a number of immigrant languages spoken in Egypt, including Adyghe, Amharic, Greek, Armenian and Italian.
Additionally, educated Egyptians tend to speak English and/or French as second languages. There are more than 3 million French speakers in Egypt.