The making of a capital dialect: Language change in 19th century Cairo


This pioneer project in the field of Arabic studies combines historical linguistics, sociolinguistics and urban studies in studying a drastic change that the Arabic dialect of Cairo went through in the second half of the 19th century.
The language situation in the Arab world is known as diglossia, which means there is a high variety (Classical Arabic) used for official purposes, and a low variety (dialect) used for informal communication. Furthermore, in Ottoman Egypt the language of the government and elite was Turkish. In this complex setting, the Arabic dialect of Cairo changed in many respects: some features which the dialect until then shared with the surrounding rural dialects, disappeared, while other features were replaced by innovative ones.
Structural properties of the language alone cannot explain the change in the dialect, because the features that started to disappear then, had been part of the language for centuries. Therefore, the social context also has to be taken into account. In the 19th century, dramatic changes in the social structure of the city took place. Cairo in that period attracted many labourers from the rural regions of Egypt. The mixing of urban and rural dialects led to linguistic changes and the emergence of a different dialect known as modern Cairene. The change of the official language of the government from Turkish to Arabic also had its impact on the dialect, since the elite who spoke Turkish until then, switched to Arabic. The urban population and the Turkish elite wanted to dissociate themselves from the speech of peasants and, accordingly, avoided stigmatized ?rural? features.
This project aims at analyzing the characteristics of this dialect and the changes that took place, explaining these changes by studying the language in its social context, and producing a digitalized corpus that can be used in future studies.


Chapter in book

Scientific article

Publications for the general public


Project number


Main applicant

Dr. E.W.A. Zack

Affiliated with

Universiteit van Amsterdam, Faculteit der Geesteswetenschappen, Taal- en Letterkunde

Team members

Dr. E.W.A. Zack


01/01/2012 to 31/12/2015