A passage from Chapter VI of Charles Doughty’s Travels in Arabia Deserta (pages 196-97 in my edition); Doughty is in the town of al-Ula (“el-Ally,” as he calls it), where his interlocutor pokes fun at the Arabic spoken by the nomadic Bedouins with whom Doughty has been staying, and describes a brutally effective shibboleth:

” These Franks labour, said he, in the Arabic utterance, for they have not a supple tongue : the Arabs’ tongue is running and returning like a wheel, and in the Arabs all parts alike of the mouth and gullet are organs of speech ; but your words are born crippling and fall half-dead out of your mouths. — What think you of this country talk ? have you not laughed at the words of the Beduw ? what is this gòtar (went) — A-ha-ha! — and for the time of day their gowwak (the Lord strengthen thee) and keyf’mûrak (how do thy affairs prosper ?) who ever heard the like ! ” He told this also of the Egyptian speech : a battalion of Ibrahîm Pasha‘s troops had been closed in and disarmed by the redoubtable Druses, in the Léja (which is a lava field of the Hauran). The Druses coming on to cut them in pieces, a certain Damascene soldier among them cried out ” Aha ! neighbours, dakhalakom, grant protection, at least to the Shwâm (Syrians), which are owlàd el-watn, children of the same soil with you ! ” It was answered, ‘They would spare them if they could discern them.’ ‘Let me alone for that, said the Damascene ; — and if they caused the soldiers to pass one by one he could discern them.’ It was granted, and he challenged them thus, ” Ragel (Egyptian for Rajil), O man, say Gamel ! ” every Syrian answered Jemel ; and in this manner he saved his countrymen and the Damascenes.

As lagniappe, here’s a completely useless new word I learned from Doughty (p. 497): “If the thing fall to them for which they vowed, they will go to the one [oak grove] on a certain day in the year to break a crock there ; or they lay up a new stean in a little cave which is under a rock at the other.” Stean, saith the OED, is “A vessel for liquids (or, in later use, for bread, meat, fish, etc.), usually made of clay, with two handles or ears; a jar, pitcher, pot, urn. Now only dial. and arch.” It’s related to stone, and the last two citations are:

1888 DOUGHTY Arabia Deserta I. xvi. 450 If the thing fall to them for which they vowed [at the wishing-place], they will.. lay up a new stean in a little cave.
1908 A. BENNETT Old Wives’ Tale I. iii. 34 In the corner nearest the kitchen was a great steen in which the bread was kept.


  1. Travel reports by westernes tend to provide a fascinating, though rather limited, insight into Arabic dialects from back when. Think Burckhardt or Wallin.
    I admit I am not familiar with Charles Doughty, so many many thanks for bringing him to my attention :o) Any more on language in his Travels?

  2. Yes, there’s quite a bit of Arabic mixed in with the archaic English, and the glossary at the back gives the original Arabic spelling of most of it.

  3. Thanks, hat :o)
    Oy gewalt, my next package from Amazon will be heavy…

  4. Lagniappe — what a delightful word.
    “Stean” is of that class of zombie English words that you come across when you’re the habit of looking up common German words in the DEW and cross-referencing to the OED; see also “gaffel” meaning “fork” (the Grimms say it could mean especially “dung fork” but the OED doesn’t mention that in particular), “to space” meaning “to pace” and others.

  5. you’re the
    Some day I hope to be more than just a pattern of behaviour!

  6. Thanks for this! I’ll have to recount it to my father-in-law – he is fond of using the same example (the Egyptian “g” sound) when he explains differences in regional Arabic…and I must say, I am looking over at our carved Druse chest with different eyes all of a sudden!

  7. Michael Dunn says

    Other Arabs have always loved to make fun of the Egyptian hard “g”, but of course the “gimel” is hard in most other Semitic languages, and some specialists seem to think it may have been in early Arabic as well. (If some of those specialists are Egyptians, well…)
    A very old, stale joke among American and doubtless other Arabists is to pronounce Egypt as “Ee-Gypt” with a hard G, to note the hard G of Egyptian Arabic. Strictly speaking, you do start to hear the “j” as you go up the Nile, and in Upper Egypt it was apparently common 50 years ago or so, the hard g being mostly Cairo, the Delta, and Alexandria. Today the hard g has spread up the Nile because of radio and TV, which always use Cairo hard-g pronunciation even for Classical Arabic. I heard the “j” in Luxor and Aswan as recently as the 1970s, and it may still be heard today for all I know, though I think the hard “g” has taken over.
    Michael Dunn

  8. My cab driver the other day talked of “Al-Gazeera” and then said he was from Egypt. “I know!” I said. “What? How?” “You said Al-Gazeera instead of Al-Jazeera”. “Ah, right.”

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