Bob Dylan and Letter-Sound Transformations in ECA

Bob Dylan at the corner of 26th July and Brazil St. in Zamalek, circa 1976.

Bob Dylan at the corner of 26th July and Brazil St. in Zamalek, circa 1976.

One thing that continues to fascinate TBE is the transformations of letter sounds in Egyptian Colloquial Arabic (ECA). The common ones are well known: ث (th) to ت (t) as in تاني (tani) or ث (th) to س as in سانوية عامة، مسلاً (sanuweyya ‘aama, masalan), for example. What is interesting about the above examples is that they sound intuitive, but really shouldn’t, since both “sanuweyya” and “tani” have a common root (ث ن ي).

This long introduction is essentially an excuse to unleash Bob Dylan’s ode to Middle Eastern revolution, Sara (ثورة or سورة as we say in Egypt). The song is ostensibly about a girl, but even a cursory reading between the lines (sphinx, dunes, etc.), along with the obvious titular reference, will reveal to the listener the song’s true subject, which is a Middle Eastern revolutionary’s long and ultimately fruitless attempts to foment revolution in the region.

Another Bob Dylan/ECA convergence plus bonus coverage after the jump.

The other interesting transformation is ج (soft, like jeem) to ج (hard, like geem). By and large the geem is used in ECA but there are a few exceptions, like the word for socks (جراب) which turns into شراب. There are also the weird cases where the jeem doubles back on itself, like the sign for the gym at the Grand Hyatt, which uses three dots under the jeem character (similar to how three dots are placed over the faa character to make a v sound, like in Vitrac), to make sure Egyptian guests differentiate and don’t call the gym the “geem,” even though the regular one-dot jeem is obviously pronounced with the appropriate jeem sound. Rest assured that if TBE ever opens a gym in Cairo it will be simply marked by one letter, ج, which contains the whole English word in itself, or will call it ج يس since those letters contain multitudes.

The other fascinating transformation of ج is its use in the word وجه and variants. In general the jeem here is pronounced as a sheen (وشه) but TBE has heard people say في وجهة نظري with the jeem pronounced as geem (fii wighat nazri) but never as sheen (fii wishhat nazri).

Thankfully, Bob Dylan comes to the rescue again, as he is the only person known to TBE other than Egyptian opinionators to use the word wighat, in his song “I Shall Be Free No. 10.” In that song, a TBE favorite, Dylan says, “I sat with my high-heeled sneakers on/ waitin to play tennis in the noonday sun/ I had my white shorts rolled up past my waist/ and my wighat was fallin in my face/ but they wouldn’t let me on the tennis court.”  The relevant part of the video begins around 2:20.

Bonus Bob Dylan coverage:

Here’s an excerpt from an interview Bob Dylan did in 1978 with Playboy, in which he expresses his admiration for Oum Kalsoum to interviewer Ron Rosenbaum, a journalist TBE admires. Notice how Dylan says Kalthoum and not Kalsoum, probably because Desire had only come out a couple years earlier and he didn’t want people to know he’d been singing about revolutions:

DYLAN: I still listen to the same old black and-blue blues. Tommy McClennan, Lightnin’ Hopkins, the Carter Family, the early Carlyles. I listen to Big Maceo, Robert Johnson. Once in a while, I listen to Woody Guthrie again. Among the more recent people, Fred McDowell, Gary Stewart. I like Memphis Minnie a whole lot. Blind Willie McTell. I like bluegrass music. I listen to foreign music, too. I like Middle Eastern music a whole lot.

PLAYBOY: Such as?

DYLAN: Om Kalthoum.

PLAYBOY: Who is that?

DYLAN: She was a great Egyptian singer. I first heard of her when I was in Jerusalem.

PLAYBOY: She was an Egyptian singer who was popular in Jerusalem?

DYLAN: I think she’s popular all over the Middle East. In Israel, too. She does mostly love and prayer-type songs, with violin and-drum accompaniment. Her father chanted those prayers and I guess she was so good when she tried singing behind his back that he allowed her to sing professionally, and she’s dead now but not forgotten. She’s great. She really is. Really great.



Filed under Linguistics, Music, Special Reports

2 responses to “Bob Dylan and Letter-Sound Transformations in ECA

  1. Sam

    As much as I love the theory, maybe it’s because his wife’s (later, his ex’s) name was Sara, rather (unfortunately) than anything to do with ECA letter transformations? Unless I’m missing some obvious strain of sarcasm in this post…

  2. Bob Dylan is an American singer-songwriter and musician who has been a major figure in music for five decades’

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