How to bluff in Lebanese

It’s always good to be able to talk the talk if you really want to get to know the lovely people of Lebanon. Here are a few pointers for people planning a trip here which may help you to bluff your way into longer more meaningful conversations.

Ps and Qs

First off a few niceties. To catch a waiter’s attention use ‘pleaze’, but if you need to interrupt someone or ask a favour use ‘sorrry’. Roll the ‘r’ again when expressing thanks – ‘merci’ – or enthusiastic thanks ‘merci kteer’. ‘No’ is ‘La2’, the 2 signifying a glottal stop, or in layman’s terms, that funny half-sound that replaces the ‘t’ when most English say ‘football’. A more expressive way to say ‘no’, is to lift your chin and clack your tongue in a loud tut.

Getting around

Taxis can be confusing as they often offer two types of service. If you want a door-to-door ride it’s actually called a ‘taxi’ and will cost you 10,000 LL within town (pink face tax included; 8,000 if you really talk the talk). But if you want to be squeezed in with up to five other passengers and dropped off somewhere near your destination for a mere ‘elfayn’ (or 2,000) you should specify you want ‘servees’, which means ‘don’t try and con me even if I look foreign’. On a busy night or for a longer trip, the driver may counter with ‘serveesayn’, which is double the fee, and acceptable depending on demand.

Lebanese is beautifully simple in many ways. When you’re waiting on the curb and a honking Mercedes, older than you are, pulls up to offer a ‘servees’ ride, no need for elaborate requests. Just ask ‘Hamra?’ or ‘Adlieh?’ or wherever you want to go. If it’s on his way, or he can reconcile it with his other passengers, he’ll pause just long enough for you to scramble in. If he roars off leaving you in a cloud of exhaust, well, that’s a ‘no’. He may or may not bother to tut, but you get the point.

‘Fo2’ doesn’t just mean the preposition ‘up’ it also means the place ‘up’, whatever it may be, so ‘up the hill’, ‘up in the mountain’, ‘our higher altitude home as opposed to our coastal residence’ or simply ‘upstairs’. The opposite (for all options) is ‘taHt’. When out and about you may be offered something you do not wish to accept (eg coffee, shoe polishing and so on), you can politely decline with ‘mara taani’, literally ‘second time’, that is ‘another time’ and also covering the possibility of ‘not now and probably not ever’.

Working ‘barra’, or ‘outside’ does not mean farmwork or roofing, it means working abroad. Bear in mind there are more Lebanese ‘outside’ than there are still living in the country so this is an ever present concept. It can also be a matter of status, as diplomas obtained ‘outside’, or products which have been imported have a perceived edge over their local equivalents.

Being a good guest

Dinner conversation is also useful, as eating is a delightful, frequent and lengthy pastime in Lebanon. ‘SaHtein’ means ‘bon appetit’ or literally ‘two healths’. You should reply ‘Aa-elbak’ (or ‘Aa-elbik to a girl) to wish good health back on their heart for thinking of your belly, but if you forget how, ‘merci’ will do. You will necessarily want to compliment the hostess and tell her that ‘kill shi tayyeb’, everything is delicious, because it always will be. You may wish to use ‘selim dayetik’ to bless her hands for their hard work.

By the time the starter is done, you may be asked various questions which translate literally as ‘Have you put on weight?’ ‘When will you start trying for a baby?’ and ‘Do you digest beans well?’ Don’t be scared. The meaning is, well, literal, but if you wish to take some liberty with the responses feel free. It does make first encounters more fun.

Bomb damage

Achrafieh Beirut bomb assassination

bomb damage


Shutters still hang from the buildings near the explosion and glazing firms are busy replacing shop windows in surrounding streets.

The flurry of phone calls right after the incident really got me thinking. Since it was the leading story for many European media, I expected the odd call from family abroad, but not so many from locals who know the area well and know we are at least a ten-minute walk from the site. We know several families living closer than us, and we didn’t think to call them. I mean what are the chances that they be affected. Most of all I’d feel embarrassed, as if I was searching for someone with a gory story, wanting to be part of the drama.

But here it is clearly a habit that goes back decades now. Bad news followed by a systematic ring-round of all your acquaintances. Just a quick matter-of-fact call to check and compare stories. Not because the probability is high but just to rule it out…and show you care. I’m sure if I had lived through the conflicts of Lebanese recent history I would do it. It was touching to think that so many people thought of us at all.


My new-found paranoia

construction workers beirut

carefree construction

Each stage in life provides a very different window on the world. I am sure as a child I would have found Beirut to be a fantastic playground – all those empty properties to explore, the crumbling stairways to nowhere, the tightrope impressions to be had from the occasional remaining beam in a first floor. When I moved here, Beirut was for me the object of study, and I the student and observer, examining and dissecting the culture and language.

Recently, however, Lebanon became an altogether more scary place, a place of danger. No, I’m not taking about the wave of Arab revolutions which have rocked the world or the protests for a secular state. I’m not talking about the AK-47s on every corner or the nagging threat of conflict looking for an opportunity to burst out from the darker corners.

I’m talking about my new-found fear of oily slippy roads, the absence of pavements, the gaping construction craters which cleave the street under your feet overnight without warning or barriers.

Basically, being pregnant has made me suddenly aware of everyday risk -  and for someone who grew up with safety regulations there is a fair amount around if one chooses to see it.

I no longer laud the reactivity of Lebanese drivers as they dodge potholes – instead I curse them as they swerve towards my vehicle, all the while chatting on the phone and waving a cigarette. I no longer see ingenuity in their pavement parking, I frown disapprovingly as I skirt around them with my heavy shopping bags.

Those overflowing flower pots perched precariously on the rail of a fifth floor balcony are waiting to fall and the battle-scarred street cats that watch from all corners are trying to send me their toxoplasmosis parasites by telepathy.

In the service taxis I fume over the lack of safety belts and clutch my bag across my belly as the driver accelerates the wrong way up a one-way hill reckoning that if he goes fast enough, the chances of someone coming round that blind bend and smashing us all to pieces are really quite small.

Instead of camaraderie in the two bus drivers who drive tandem along the motorway to chat through their open windows with barely a glance at the road, I now see laziness and disregard for the human race. Then I think of the fact that most driving licences are bought not earned and I fulminate some more.

I worry that the builders scaling that huge new tower will pay as much attention to building regulations as they do to their own safety – no hard hats, no harnesses, they clamber like monkeys across the structure.

In the downpours I worry about the massive tangles of wires that festoon the buildings and the street lamp that leans drunkenly across the road, waiting for the angle of the wind to be just right to bring down a maximum of cables in one go.

You might say I’ve become just a tiny bit paranoid.

And then I remember the playground. My kids won’t live in the shadow of the faulty infrastructure. They’ll learn to skip around those construction craters and dodge those manic drivers on the way to school. They wont brandish the hand gel and a frown as arms against the outside world. They’ll welcome interaction with it and grow up talking to strangers in the street without a second thought. They’ll learn trust in others from the warm shopkeepers who never short-change you and chatty passers-by who go the extra mile to make sure you arrive exactly where you want to be.

taxis beirut

the more the merrier

They will learn to assess safety for themselves rather than being reined in by regulations, secure but bored. They won’t have their initiative stifled by a morass of restrictions. They’ll grow up fast when it comes to personal responsibility, but not too fast when it comes to some of the more perverse ways of the world.

They will learn to expect the unexpected and to show hospitality at short notice. There won’t be long years when they don’t know how to have a conversation with an adult. They will learn priceless values which have become scarce in the over-sanitised West, safe from armed conflict but entrenched in cynicism.

Driving home from Tyre this weekend I ended up behind a typical 1970s Mercedes taxi packed full with a large family. I counted eleven heads including the driver and a baby in a frilly hat. The exuberance of the many children was evident as they bobbed around the tight space inside and hung out of the windows.

Maybe I can have the best of both worlds. I’ll get a car seat for my little one but I’ll never teach it not to talk to strangers.

But how do YOU say it?

Le dialecte libanais et l'arabe littéral

One of the few colloquial vs classical comparitive resources (Published by Haddad/Fadel in French or English)

One of the challenges of learning Arabic is its diglossic nature. The fact that two languages or different varieties of a language coexist – with one form used for writing and another, quite different, for conversation – can make life hard for would-be students.

For those wanting to learn the spoken dialects, it is difficult to find written resources and they must rely largely on speakers of the language, which you just can’t buy and take home. For those wanting to learn the written language, it is hard to get the oral practice one is used to in other languages. Standard Arabic may be heard in radio or television monologues but it is often mixed with some colloquial terms and is never “pure” in dialogue.

Defining diglossia appears simple enough. However, the perspective of a native speaker on these two varieties is by no means as clearcut. A strange hierarchical nature exists between the two which can affect a speaker’s perception of what and how s/he speaks.

I have often noticed that when I ask an Arabic speaker how they say a certain word in colloquial Lebanese, they tell me the (often very different) Standard Arabic word. It sometimes takes some prodding to get them to tell me the word they use on a day to day basis, the one you would expect to trip off their tongue first. I was fascinated to discover recently that this tendency is actually documented.

The linguist Charles Ferguson writes:

In all the defining languages the speakers regard H [the "high," or superposed variety] as superior to L [the "low," or colloquial variety] in a number of respects. Sometimes the feeling is so strong that H alone is regarded as real and L is reported “not to exist.” Speakers of Arabic, for example, may say (in L) that so-and-so doesn’t know Arabic. This normally means he doesn’t know H, although he may be a fluent, effective speaker of L. If a non-speaker of Arabic asks an educated Arab for help in learning to speak Arabic the Arab will normally try to teach him H forms, insisting that these are the only ones to use. Very often, educated Arabs will maintain that they never use L at all, in spite of the fact that direct observation shows that they use it constantly in all ordinary conversation. Similarly, educated speakers of Haitian Creole frequently deny its existence, insisting that they always speak French.

Even where the feeling of the reality and superiority of H is not so strong, there is usually a belief that H is somehow more beautiful, more logical, better able to express important thoughts, and the like. And this belief is held also by speakers whose command of H is quite limited. To those Americans who would like to evaluate speech in terms of effectiveness of communication it comes as a shock to discover that many speakers of language involved in diglossia characteristically prefer to hear a political speech or an expository lecture or a recitation of poetry in H even though it may be less intelligible to them than it would be in L.


He gives the examples not only of Arabic and its dialects and Haitian Creole but also of modern Greek and Swiss German.

Lebanese dialect and Classical Arabic

French/English with Standard Arabic, Lebanese in script and transliterated Lebanese (click to enlarge)

The essay which quotes Ferguson makes a number of other valid points and is worth reading in full. The latter half highlights that both pure colloquial and pure standard Arabic rarely exist in spoken situations, existing as a continuum where one fades imperceptibly into the other and even the opposing poles are tainted.

It also discusses the effect of diglossia on native speakers’ perception and appreciation of literature. In addition, it points to the advantages of diglossia noting that when Latin effectively died Europe lost many cultural resources as well as the possibility of cross-border communication with communities in a much more extensive geographical area.

Which put me in mind of a what Amin Maalouf has to say on language and globalisation:

Qu’un Français et un Coréen puissent, en se retrouvant, s’exprimer l’un et l’autre en anglais [...] c’est sans doute un progrès par rapport au passé; mais qu’un Français et un Italien ne puissent plus se parler qu’en anglais est indiscutablement une régression, et un appauvrissement de leur relation.

All of which is an interesting way to pass time when I should be learning my Lebanese vocab…