Bedouin Arabic (Badawi) Dialect And Cultural Differences

Marwa Al Kaiem

Author

Marwa Al Kaiem

There are many Arabic dialects and sub-dialects in the world.

Some are quite similar and some are vastly different.

Today, I want to look at one of the most interesting of these, and one that exists in many Arabic speaking countries: The Bedouin.

Who are the Bedouin?

The word Bedouin is derived from the Arabic word “Badw” (بدو).

If you’ve ever tried to look up for its definition in a dictionary, you will find out that it refers to groups of people who inhabit the desert, and are - of course - nomadic animal herders.

Well, you can take me as an example, and I can - from my position here on my laptop - assure you that this is not true! 😊

We do live in areas which are geographically categorized as “desert” but that does not mean we do not live in cities or near the sea.

Since I have dedicated myself to the science, you can again take me as an example:

I live in Sinai, Egypt.

And for those who do not know what Sinai is: It is a peninsula (so yes, I do go to the beach most often, and the weather is a bit like Hawaii 😊). It’s a city with essential facilities - I do have an Internet connection, and the only animal I have is a cat (she’s a house cat with a very strong character if you know what I mean).

Bedouin communities exist mainly in open areas in many countries in the Arabic speaking world: Egypt, Syria, Palestine, Israel, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Yemen, Morocco, Sudan, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya.

Yet, the Bedouin population is not huge.

Bedouin decline

It could be estimated at around 4 million people only, and the number is going down.

Bedouin life used to be easy and simple in all possible means. In the old days, they would keep their own animals, grow their own food, make their own fire, get married from the same community.

However, with the developing world around us, it was for the best to merge with other communities, and take positive part in society. For example, instead of cooking on raw fire, gas seemed like a better and a cleaner idea; and in order to avoid genetic diseases - over time - it was no longer odd to get married to people from distant communities.

Hence, it is predicted that Bedouin culture might come to an end in a matter of a few decades.

Until it does, we can say that Bedouins represent the origin of the Arabs. There are many reasons for that.

Most importantly, because of their dialect, lifestyle, and “word”.

Bedouin honor

In Bedouin cultures, the “word” has more power than a thousand written contract.

If I give you a word, you should know that I “must” keep it. It is something like honor and dignity. A person who does not keep his word is a person without honor.

Honor is something Bedouins live for, and by.

Hence, Bedouins’ words are highly respected amongst other Arabic speakers.

To one’s surprise, there is a good number of Egyptians who refer to Bedouins as ‘Arab’ due to their dialect which represents Arabic in its most original state.

They might even mistake people from Sinai, Matrouh, or Al Wahat (where Bedouins mainly exist in Egypt) for being Palestinian, Syrian, or Jordan. (Yes, I have to take all my official papers with me if I ever wanted to step out of Sinai).

Bedouin dress/clothing

Although Bedouins have different features in every country, there is a common pattern they share in between when it comes to their dress code: it must be comfortable, non-transparent- and “Mohtashim” which is an Arabic word that means very decent.

Back in time, men used to wear long “gallabeya” which is a white tall loose garment that could be similar to a cloak (Perhaps!)

But it is closed and one piece.

As for women, they used to wear black “Abbaya” which differs from the “gallabeya” only in terms of color and gender (I spent my childhood trying to figure out the difference and why I can’t call them both Abbaya, and that was the best I could do).

The Abbaya looks like a classic gown; it is only not waist-centered. Home Abbayas are colorful and embroidered whereas outside-home Abbayas are totally black.

In addition, women cover their hair and faces with veils in front of stranger men.

Anyhow, this description now applies to the older Bedouin population only.

As for the modern generations, they wear modern usual clothes, such as: shirts and jeans for men; and colorful dresses, jeans, and blouses for ladies AS LONG AS they are “Mohtashim”. Ladies, nowadays, still cover their hair in front of stranger men, but they do not have to cover their faces; it’s optional.

Islamic origins

Islam has first appeared in Bedouin tribes in Saudi Arabia.

And from that point, many Bedouins have emerged and immigrated to other countries to form the Bedouin culture we know now.

As a result, many Bedouins are rooted back to Saudi Arabia, and are - by nature - related to the Islamic traditions in language and habits. Even I as an Egyptian have been rooted back to Palestine, then Jordan, and finally to Saudi Arabia.

Thus, it should not be that strange that the Bedouin dialect is more like the Quran (The Holy Book for Muslims) than any other Arabic dialect.

The Bedouin (Badawi) dialect/s

Bedouin dialects are relatively similar.

The differences between Bedouin dialects from one country to another are too vague to be recognized unless by a native speaker of one of the targeted dialects itself.

As for the similarities, nearly all Bedouin dialects use the /g/, /dƷ/ and /ʃ/ sounds in most of their words. The Bedouin dialect is rather rough, and it is not soft on the mouth like other Arabic dialects.

Perhaps this is what distinguishes it from other dialects. We may say that it is the complete opposite of the soft Lebanese dialect.

The Bedouin dialect is also very concise and accurate.

It could refer to the literal meaning of what a speaker wants to deliver.

Take the word بَدِّي (Bad-di( as an instance. It is the Bedouin word for “I want.”

However, the opposite of verbs in the Bedouin dialect is normally followed by إِيش (eesh). So if you want to say “I do not want to”, you would only say بَدِّيش (Bad-desh). (That’s right, only one word gives the meaning of a sentence.)

However, if you would like to negate an adjective, you would only use مُو (mo) before an adjective. For example, to say “It is not important,” you can only say مُو مُهِم (mo mohim).

Perhaps the most distinctive thing about the Bedouin dialect is the way we call our first degree family members. We do not simply say ماما (mama) —or mom- and بابا (papa) or dad.

Please check out this list of titles for further explanation:

Arabic English Transliteration
يُما mom yuma
يُبا dad yuba
خَي brother khay-yi
خَيتي sister khay-ti
طَنا child Tana

A fun fact: the word طَنا literally means mud. Hence, a little kid who is created from mud —as we believe we are all created from mud- and yet to be shaped into a male or female is in general “mud”. Bedouins do not like to distinguish much between kids on basis of gender so they use the most concise word to describe the new creature they have been blessed to have: it’s origin —mud.

And we normally place يا (Ya) in front of any title except when calling mom and dad.

For example, we would say:

Yuma (يُما) directly when calling mom. The same goes for calling dad. However, when we call our sister, we would say: يا خيتي (Ya Khay-ti) to say Hey sis.

Greetings, thanking, and apologizing are not that different from other Arabic dialects.

Yet, there are some expressions and terms in everyday language that only exist in the Bedouin dialect.

For example, هامِل (Hamel) is a very concise word that Bedouins use to describe a person who is lazy, useless and a loser all in one.

Also the sentence, لِذ غاد (Lez Ghad): it means go there.

In fact, the sentence “go there” is quite similar to a one used by Bedouins who keep goats; they say: جُو تَر (go —ta’r) and it has the same meaning of “go there”.

Another word is امقَصِّر (megasser) or a person who is too lazy to do something which must be done. Literally, in Arabic, it means I’m too negligent to put my heart and effort in something, and I admit it.

There is also زاكي (Zaaki) which refers to a very delicious taste. However, its opposite is شين (Shein) and it is used to describe everything (not only food) which is super bad.

Although a non-Bedouin Arabic speaker might not be able to understand any or all of these words, all these words can be simply understood by rooting them back to their literal origin in the Arabic language, particularly the old standard Arabic (the language of the Arabic holy book, Quran).

So in case there is a word you do not understand its meaning, it is super easy to learn by tracking the origin of that word.

For example, the word مَزيون (Mazyoon) is rooted back to the word زيَّن (Zay-yan), and its noun is زينة (Zenah) which means ornament.

Hence, مَزيون (Mazyoon) is the adjective which means ornamented or —in order to describe people- literally an ornamented person is a handsome and a chic person.

Bedouin culture and their Arabic dialect are fascinating

See how rich the Bedouin dialect, history and culture are?

In fact, all spoken Arabic dialects are fascinating in their own ways.

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