The always interesting R Devraj of Dick & Garlick (“Notes on Indian English, Hinglish, slang & pop culture”) links to a great post at Chez Sinjab about Khaleeji Pidgin, the confusing “Indo-Anglo-Urdu-Arabic mix” spoken in the Gulf (khalij means ‘gulf’ in Arabic).

I didn’t know sida was Urdu. I think only half of the Arabic I know is actually Arabic. And the more Fusa [fusha, Classical Arabic—LH] I learn, the more I realize that I don’t really know any Arabic at all. It’s ila, not sir; it’s rajul, not riyal and don’t think for a minute that “inta bachem?” is an acceptable way to ask a woman if she has children.
But here it is. This is by no means the Emirati dialect, but in the shops and on the streets of Ras Al Khaimah this is a popular and effective way for people with no common language to communicate. And so somehow I can convey more with a handful of words, and a few good hand signals and guttural gruffs than I could if I had a degree in grammatically sound Arabic.
Of course, there are certain rules to Khaleeji pidgin.

First, certain words must be spoken in certain languages. Greetings, such as sala’am aleykum and sabah al kheir, are always in Arabic. How are you? is usually delievered in Arabic or Hindi. Iuwa, tamam, good, acha and, most importantly, ok are all acceptable ways of saying good. The phrase number one! must always be delivered in English, and with enthusiasm. My friend is perhaps the most popular English phrase, and is to be used liberally. No problem and mafi mushkala are both universally understood, but mafi mukh (no brain) must be spoken in Arabic. Throw in the occasional bas and khalas when ordering food or to show frustration. Then finished it all off with a masala’am for strangers or a yella, bye! for friends.
Additionally, many people who’ve grown up here are fluent in Emirati/Khaleeji, Lebanese, and Egyptian dialects, and maybe a few others. When my Syrian and Emirati friends go for shisha, they switch to Egyptian as a sign of respect. At school they wrote in Standard Modern Fusa, in the mosque they use Classical Fusa. And on the streets and in shops, they speak the Khaleeji pidgin. At home, they speak the dialect of their parents’ country. Which is why, perhaps, you can understand Y.’s frustration.
Y. isn’t the first to express her shock over this linguistic paradox. In Travels with a Tangerine, Arabic scholar Tim Mackintosh-Smith describes ‘Indo-Arabic’ in this manner,
“Vocabulary is stripped down to an anorxeric minimum, and the vigorous branches of Arabic verb pruned to a binary fi ( ‘in’ = ‘there is’ ) / ma fi ( ‘not in’ = ‘there is not’ ) + infinitive. (A neat example of that is of an Indian Muslim who passed a graveyard. His version of the traditional memento mori – ‘You [the dead] are those that precede; we are those that follow’ – came out as, ‘You there is go, I there is come.’ ) Omanis seem to be bilingual, I never quite got the hang of it.”

Wonderful stuff!
Utterly unrelated but also amusing is this article on bizarre English names given to African children (“In Harare, the Zimbabwean capital, another Godknows was a waiter at a popular outdoor café. So was a man named Enough, about whom more will be said later. Across southern Africa, in fact, one can find any number of Lovemores, Tellmores, Trymores and Learnmores, along with lots of people named Justice, Honour, Trust, Gift, Energy, Knowledge and even a Zambian athlete named Jupiter”). Enjoy, but take with a grain of salt because it’s by Michael Wines, whose clueless dispatches from Russia were mercilessly mocked by The Exile a decade ago. Thanks to Rethabile (of On Lesotho and Sotho) for the link!


  1. michael farris says

    “the vigorous branches of Arabic verb pruned to a binary fi ( ‘in’ = ‘there is’ ) / ma fi ( ‘not in’ = ‘there is not’ ) + infinitive”
    Arabic has an infinitive?

  2. michael farris says

    “the vigorous branches of Arabic verb pruned to a binary fi ( ‘in’ = ‘there is’ ) / ma fi ( ‘not in’ = ‘there is not’ ) + infinitive”
    Arabic has an infinitive?

  3. The reference to the “infinitive” is strange. I’m guessing he means the imperfect, which is used with modals.

  4. Speaking of bizarre foreign names: In parts of Micronesia, traditional names used to be tied to particular plots of land. After Catholicism arrived, people acquired baptismal names too. As in Vladimir Guerrero’s Dominican Republic, some priests went a little farther afield for baptismal names, so one can find an occasional Ivan and Olga among the Johns and Marias, or Japanese-era Masaakis and Sachikos. When the Germans took over, they introduced patronymics, so John’s kids would all be surnamed John. One such John, impressed by the strength of American goods in the Marshalls, was said to have named one of his sons Cement. (Most of the johns I remember from my time in Yap were made of wood and tin, not cement.)

  5. Who needs Arabic when a bunch of pictures accomplishes the same thing? 🙂

  6. Leo Caesius says

    I suspect that he means the masdar, a noun of action. In Persian, many compound verbs are formed with the Arabic masdar and a light verb, the end result being something that approximates the original meaning of the Arabic word (for example, Persian has tadriis kardan “to teach,” literally “to do teaching” in place of the Arabic D-stem verb darrasa ~ yudarrisu ~ at-tadriis which means the same thing). I could easily see fii tadriis / ma fii tadriis arising in a pidgin Arabic, especially in the Gulf.

  7. michael farris says

    I suspected the ‘infinitive’ would either be a verbal noun or the citation form of the verb (since this might be easier to find and is the more ‘basic’ form).
    ana fii darras(a) sounds more typically pidginish (to me) than ana fii tadriis, though I could understand that Arabic speakers who use the pidgin might be more comfortable with a non-personal form rather than a verb form marked for person and number in Arabic.
    If there had been a sample or two then this wouldn’t be a question…. Here’s for giving more data!

  8. A pun easy enough for us beginners in today’s news / commentary: أميركا: أنا… بوليس الشرق الأوسط amērikā: anā būlīs al-šarq al-ausaṭ.

  9. what does “yella, bye” mean?

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