RDS_181218 Arabic language Day Common Arabic phrases MAIN
Image Credit: GN Archives

Dubai: The UAE has a long history of interacting with other cultures, dating back to the early 16th century when the Portuguese Empire spread its wings across the Indian Ocean and the Arabian Gulf.

As the years went by, the Dutch and the British also played a significant part in the region as they each explored the Gulf and the Musandam peninsula, which were used as a major trade route between India and Europe.

With the UAE celebrating its 48th National Day in 2019, Gulf News takes a look into the history of the Emirati dialect and how a mix of cultures helped influence the language until this day.

“When speaking about Arab culture, I always remind people about the most famous two words that are used in all cultures that are originally Arabic: jahwa became qahwa and now it is known as coffee, while the word sukar became sugar,” said Nasif Kayed, CEO and founder of the Arab Culturist consultancy based in Dubai.

Strategic location of the UAE

The UAE is situated in the southeast of the Arabian Peninsula, bordering Oman and Saudi Arabia. It occupies the perfect strategic location along the southern approaches to the Strait of Hormuz, one of the world’s most important trade routes.

When tribes from the east, west and south of the Arabian Peninsula met and settled in the UAE for trading purposes, their dialects mixed, resulting in a number of abbreviations and variations of words.

This is when the Emirati dialect was greatly affected.

Emirati dialect

Colloquial Emirati is a branch of the regional Khaleeji, or Gulf, dialect of the Arabic language that stems from a combination of languages.

When it comes to the local dialect of the UAE, a great deal of words were introduced by Emiratis who travelled to countries like India, Pakistan, Egypt, Iraq and Turkey to do business, particularly in the 1960s. 

Many people continue to use such words up until today, without realising that they are not inherently Arabic but are actually from the English, Urdu or Persian languages.  

“Cultures borrow from one another, and what I find the most interesting is how languages were borrowed and how certain words were used. Those particular words continued to be used over time and eventually, became part of the borrowing culture,” explained Kayed.

Nasif Kayed, founder of the Arab Culturist

“Today, we are doing the reverse by mentioning a few words that became part of the Emirati culture yet are not considered as Arabic or part of the Gulf dialect,” he said.


Emirati words

  • Al mawtar: motor
  • Baas: passport
  • Al anbuloos: ambulance
  • Isfenj: sponge
  • Liasense: driver's license
  • Al hafeez: office
  • Yousef Effendi: mandarin

In the 1960s, residents in the northern emirates referred to potatoes as Ali wallam. The name came about because a fruit and vegetable trading company called Ali & William happened to be the first potato vendors in the area, and since their names were written on the truck, residents shortened the name to Ali wallam and that is what the potatoes were then called.

Urban myths have also given explanations as to how places got their names. For example, the village of Sambraid in Dibba Al Fujairah was named as such because years ago, people from far and wide used to hear the cries of Englishmen near the beach as they yelled, “Some bread, some bread” while trying to sell fresh loaves.

Sambraid Beach

Dakhtar and draiwal, for instance, are two widely-used words, especially among the older generations; they come from the English words doctor and driver, respectively. Baizat (money), jootay (shoes) and seedah (straight) are Urdu words that have also made their way into Emirati dialect. A bunch of grapes used to be called angoor, which was came from the Persian language.

“I know some words that I am sure are not originally Arabic. They do not sound Arabic. Kendaishen, for example, is a word that some Emiratis use. It comes from the English word 'air conditioner',” said 22-year-old college student Ahmad Mohammad.

“I can think of some other words that we use almost all the time, such as balakonah, which obviously comes from the English word ‘balcony’; laitaat, which comes from the English word ‘lights’; and staad, which comes from the English word ‘stadium’,” said Mohammad.

Not all words used in the Emirati dialect are derived from English, as they also originate from the French language, including shassi, from the word 'chassis', as well as dicor, which is derived from the word décor.

“We have always used words borrowed from other languages. There are borrowed words in almost every language, right? Emiratis who left their houses and travelled overseas in the old days to seek a living had definitely introduced new words to our dialect, and so had the Indian and Turkish merchants who came to the UAE in search of trade,” said 25-year-old university student Maryam Ebrahim.