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5 Understatement,
7 euphemism, and
8 circumlocution in
10 Egyptian Arabic
12 Cooperation in conversational dissembling
15 David Wilmsen
19 1 Introduction
20 It appears to be a universal feature of language that speakers will attempt to
21 spare themselves or others the direct mention of distasteful, frightening, or taboo
22 subjects by speaking in understatement, euphemism, and circumlocution. In this
23 regard, speakers of Egyptian Arabic (EA) are no different from the speakers of
24 other languages. Indeed, EA speakers appear to be especially predisposed to pal-
25 liating certain realities, either out of a sense of politeness or for other reasons. It
26 has been noted that politeness and a few other speech functions or acts, such as
27 irony, joking, and lying, encompass their own peculiar qualities relating to truth-
28 fulness (or rather lack thereof) that set them apart from other language functions.
29 Much of this discussion was prompted by the proposition put forward by the
30 philosopher H. Paul Grice (1975) that in order to remain engaged in conversa-
31 tion, interlocutors must cooperate in requesting and giving information.
32 While recognizing that speakers may not wish to cooperate or indeed to engage
33 in conversation at all, Grice nevertheless proposes as a general principle of conver-
34 sation that interlocutors are bound by certain strictures on their behavior (which he
35 calls maxims) respecting their handling of the truth. Those strictures or maxims
36 involve the quantity of what is said: it should be informative but not overly so (its
37 quality); it should not be false or unsupported by evidence (its relevance); it should
38 be related to the topic of conversation and the manner in which it is spoken; it
39 should be brief, orderly, and not obscure or ambiguous. Specifically, the conversa-
40 tional maxims suppose cooperation in the direct transmittal of truthful statements
41 between interlocutors. Any violation or flouting of these maxims licences lis-
42 teners to deduce that the speaker means something other than what has been said,
43 that is, the speaker is engaging in what Grice called implicature.
44 Under these assumptions, it may be supposed that understatement, euphe-
45 mism, and circumlocution must involve implicature, inasmuch as such devices

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involve avoiding a direct mention of the truth. This, however, is not as straight- 1
forward as it may initially appear. Grices concept of cooperation in conversa- 2
tion is modeled within an English-language cultural milieu; it is by now 3
generally accepted that other languages embody behavioral imperatives different 4
from those of English in many of their aspects. Those differences have led some 5
to question the universality of Gricean implicature. 6
Observations of Arabic tend to confirm such doubts. Speakers of EA employ 7
understatement, euphemism, and circumlocution without intending to licence 8
any implicature. Quite to the contrary, they often seek to conceal information 9
from their interlocutors even while remaining engaged in conversation. This 10
does not arise out of a deliberate intent to deceive, and as such cannot be con- 11
sidered to be lying. Rather, it bespeaks a deep-rooted reluctance to confront or to 12
reveal certain truths directly, and might more accurately be called dissembling, 13
that is, concealing the truth. 14
2 An instance of understatement
Arabic is not known for understatement; quite to the contrary, in both speech 18
and writing the tendency is toward hyperbole.1 Nevertheless, there is at least one 19
instance of understatement that occurs often in speech, as it is used with refer- 20
ence to a common condition: illness of any degree of severity. The Arabic word 21
often used in reference to illness, tabaan(a) (lit. tired), is, in this context, also 22
a euphemism as it is employed to avoid the mention of a fearsome or unpleasant 23
subject, but it differs from euphemism in an important feature: it is ambiguous in 24
ways that euphemisms generally are not. Its duality of reference either to fatigue 25
or to illness can sometimes lead to misunderstanding. When it is used in the 26
course of conversation, an interlocutor may fail to grasp immediately that the 27
reference is to one and not the other condition. This is a typical exchange:2 28
(1) A: maa-l-ak 30
what-with-2.M.SG 31
Whats the matter? 32
B: abadan tabaan wayya 33
never tired a-little 34
Nothing, (I am) a bit tired. 35
A: la salamt-ak 36
NEG health-2.M.SG 37
Get better soon. 38
The ambiguity arises because speaker B could mean either that he is feeling 40
somewhat ill or that he is simply a little tired (as was the case in the interaction 41
recorded here). Speaker A has understood the utterance to mean the former, 42
hence her reply. Context may ordinarily be relied upon to clear up that ambigu- 43
ity, but here the context was a routine greeting in an office, where one might 44
indeed have reported for work while feeling either ill or fatigued. 45


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1 There is, then, a choice of meanings to the word tabaan,3 and it is not
2 always clear fromthe context which of the two options a listener is to choose.
3 To be sure, speakers possess alternative means for identifying disease or fatigue
4 in a person, although these are often utilized under specific circumstances. If,
5 for example, a person is very obviously ill, the word ayaan(a) may be used or
6 the alternate mariid(a). Both of these words mean ill, but mariid is used most
7 often to refer to the chronically ill or to patients (even well ones) in a physi-
8 cians clinic or in hospital. Amongst rural populations and the urban lower
9 classes, often comprising migrants from rural areas or their descendents, the
10 thoroughly euphemistic bi-aafiya in good health is used with reference to
11 the ill.
12 In order to disambiguate the meaning of tabaan, speakers might instead
13 choose a circumlocution like aayiz(a) a-naam I want to sleep to indicate that
14 they are merely fatigued but not ill. The word nasaan(a) sleepy is found in
15 other vernaculars (and in writing) and would be understood in Egyptian vernacu-
16 lar Arabic, although it is not often used. Other adjectives with more marked
17 meanings might occur, such as alkaan(a) or muraq(a), both meaning
18 exhausted. These obviously refer to specific conditions of fatigue and are thus
19 of limited utility in describing a general feeling of weariness. One can be tired
20 without feeling exhausted or sleepy.
21 In other situations, however, there can be no ambiguity whatsoever,4 as in this
22 remark offered by a taxi driver about one of his fares who was vomiting out of
23 the window of the cab, when he said
25 (2) howwa tabaan wayya
26 he tired a little
27 Hes a little ill.
29 Such indisputable and perhaps temporary signs of ill health notwithstanding, the
30 presence of an illness, especially a serious or chronic one, can be concealed by
31 the use of the word tabaan. This is especially brought to bear when the disease
32 is not yet manifest in the life of the person concerned, which is to say, it is not
33 known or acknowledged except by those within the most immediate circle of
34 friends or family. In instances such as these, the same phrase, tabaan(a)
35 wayya, may be used to cover or account for otherwise inexplicable manifesta-
36 tions of the illness in the life of the referent, for example, consistent tardiness at
37 work or a drop in performance, bad temper. In that case, the intent of speakers is
38 precisely to dissemble. What is more, their listeners may deduce or even know
39 positively that there is more to the state of tiredness than is being acknowledged.
40 Yet, they will cooperate in the deception out of a desire to shield the person from
41 the unpleasantness of further prying.
42 Where disease is only suspected, speakers will resort to calling those affected
43 tired rather than ill for fear of invoking illness upon them in the first place or
44 in the interest of protecting their privacy in the second. For example, in the same
45 work context as that above, the poor performance and erratic behavior of a


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c olleague was explained away by making the same claim that he was simply a 1
little tired: 2
(3) mali asl-uh tabaan wayya 4
never-mind origin-3. M.SG tired a-little 5
Dont worry, hes just a little tired. 6
In fact, the health of the person under question here was seriously compromised, 8
and he died of schistosomiasis soon after this excuse was offered on his behalf. 9
3 Euphemisim versus dissembling
Aside from this particular and somewhat uncharacteristic use of understatement 13
in Arabic, other instances of euphemism do not involve the deliberate stating of 14
ambiguities and cannot ordinarily be used to dissemble in the way that under- 15
statement may. Euphemisms carry conventionalized meaning, which are imme- 16
diately clear to listeners. Indeed, it can happen that the meanings become so 17
conventionalized that the euphemisms are understood to refer to nothing other 18
than the realities they were originally intended to mask. Grice himself recog- 19
nized this, if not explicitly about euphemism, when he remarked, [I]t may not 20
be impossible for what starts life ... as a conversational implicature to become 21
conventionalized (1975: 58). 22
Put more simply, instead of veiling a tabooed subject, [a] euphemism will 23
become indissolubly linked with it (Ullmann, 1966: 245). This is demonstrably 24
true in EA. If illness results in death, euphemisms, often in the form of circumlo- 25
cutions, are used especially at first to discuss the state of affairs. When informing 26
others of the death of an acquaintance or relative, such expressions as t-ii/i inta/i 27
may you live, allah yi-ram-uh/ha may God have mercy upon him/her, il- 28
baiyya fi ayaatak/-ik may the remainder (presumably of the life the deceased 29
might have lived) be added to your life, are employed.5 Even though the intent is 30
precisely to soften the impact of the sad news, such utterances are understood 31
immediately to mean that someone has died. Indeed, they can be understood in no 32
other way.6 Once, however, the shock of the death has passed, there is no need for 33
euphemism, and the unadorned lexeme maat/it he/she died is more often used. 34
4 Motivations for dissembling
If the use of euphemism does not involve ambiguity, the use of understatement 38
may, and this ambiguity may deliberately be exploited to conceal the truth. Even 39
when the truth bears some urgency, speakers of EA are often reluctant to name 40
it. We have noted that EA speakers will deliberately avoid acknowledging illness 41
for fear of bringing it about. Indeed, they are reluctant to mention any sort of 42
misfortune, whether as illness or any other of its many manifestations, for the 43
same reason. Contrariwise, speakers will also avoid the mention of good fortune 44
for fear that it may be lost thereby. 45


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1 An essential motivator for this is the notion of asad, by which bad fortune
2 may be brought about, deliberately or not, by others feelings of envy. A related
3 notion in EA is found in the word arr, which may be glossed by the circumlo-
4 cution kutr il-kalam much talk. Quite simply, the notion of arr reflects the
5 belief that talking too much about people, or even talking about them at all, risks
6 affecting their affairs for the worse. The principle is illustrated in an example
7 adduced by Badawi and Hinds (1986: 693):
9 (4) min kutr ma arreet-i alee-hum
10 from much PART talk-2.F.SG on-3.PL.M
11 ma tgawwaz-uu-
12 NEG marry-3.PL-NEG
13 From all of your talking about them, they did not marry.7
15 Too much talk may inadvertently undo peoples fortunes, even when those doing
16 the talking are friends or close relatives, who may have no reason to feel ill-will
17 towards them or to wish misfortune upon them.8 For that reason, certain details
18 of life must be shielded against scrutiny by a variety of subterfuges.
19 In the first place, good fortune is simply not discussed until it cannot possibly
20 be avoided. The speech strategy employed then is not to speak at all.9 Neverthe-
21 less, discussion of some things clearly cannot be avoided indefinitely. Changes
22 in status such as career advancements, graduations, travel, marriages, and births,
23 are particularly perilous situations in which envy may be invited and good luck
24 spoiled by too much talk (Ghosh, 1983: 218). When one of these events comes
25 along, it is not discussed until immediately before its scheduled date or, even
26 more preferably, after it occurs.10 People planning to travel, for instance, may
27 avoid informing their friends and relatives until after their return for fear that too
28 much discussion of the details may bring about cancellation of the trip, inconve-
29 nience while traveling, or worse. When inconvenience or other forms of bad luck
30 do occur, one may ask miin illi arr aleena? whos been talking about us?
31 In the event, the proscription of all talk cannot, of course, be complete, as venues
32 must be reserved, catering arranged, invitations designed, tickets ordered, hotel res-
33 ervations made, places of work informed, and so on. All of these things are carried
34 out with discretion, the details only being discussed with those immediately con-
35 cerned. Weddings and births must be handled with tact. Guests must be invited to
36 weddings, but it is usual to wait to extend invitations until as close to the date of a
37 wedding as possible a week ahead of time is not uncommon by which time all
38 preparations will have been completed, and the risk of mishap is at a minimum.
39 This bespeaks a current running through all levels of Egyptian society
40 whereby, as Stewart (1997: 331) observes, Egyptians ... attest to ... an assump-
41 tion that the supernatural is a potential and even normal participant in everyday
42 social affairs. It is just such an assumption that lends to the belief in asad and
43 arr its powerful motivating force. The general state in Egyptian society is one
44 of belief, and, being predominantly Muslims, Egyptians are wont to justify their
45 behavior or belief by invoking the Quraan. Notably, they will acknowledge the


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potency of hasad by reference to the Quraanic verse stating auu bi rabbi 1

l-falaq ... min arr-i l-aasid-in ia asad (Q 113: 1 & 5) I seek refuge in the 2
Lord of the dawn ... from the evil of the envier when he envies. While these 3
verses themselves do not impute any supernatural efficacy to envy, Egyptians 4
take its mention in this numinous context to mean that it does indeed possess 5
such qualities, acknowledging this by saying such things as, We must believe 6
in envy because it is mentioned in the Quraan. Sometimes they will buttress 7
the argument by citing incidents from the traditions of the Prophet. 8
5 Techniques of dissembling
The belief in envy, then, is widespread, and Egyptians of all classes and indeed 12
all faiths engage in dissembling as a prophylactic measure against it. For similar 13
reasons, they also harbor a general reluctance to discuss personal affairs out of a 14
desire to shield household members from the potentially ruinous consequences 15
of too much talk. Such reluctance and protectiveness is so powerful that in some 16
segments of Egyptian society, it is considered highly risky to name sources of 17
good or bad fortune or to speak directly of potential targets of envy. Mughazy 18
(2000) enumerates various strategies by which speakers will deflect attention 19
from potential targets should their mention arise: complaining, complementing, 20
evasion, humor, confrontation, and the evoking of religious or secular formulae. 21
A striking manifestation of deflecting attention away from potential targets 22
appears in the use of reverse gender reference. In some situations, speakers of 23
EA will refer to interlocutors or third parties by the opposite of their true gender, 24
especially when speaking about them in public. This occurs even when those 25
overhearing are unknown to the speakers and are not likely ever to see them 26
again, or even to care too much about the topic of conversation, as well as when 27
the sex of the referent is undoubtedly known to all interlocutors:11 28
(5) A: miraat-ak ay-a 30
wife-2.M.SG living.AP-F 31
Is your wife alive? 32
B: aah da mawguud 33
yes DEM.M existing 34
Yes, hes here. 35
(6) uf-t waaid mumkin ti-tgawwiz-uh 37
see.2.M.SG one maybe 2.M-marry-3.M.SG 38
Have you (M) found someone (M) to marry? 39
The exchange in example (5) is unusual in that it occurred on a television 41
program in which the announcer hosts people in traditional vocations (the man 42
speaking is a baker). Nevertheless, it illustrates how men will employ masculine 43
pronouns in reference to household members of the opposite sex. Aside from the 44
extraordinary context (and that the announcer a woman actually identified 45


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1 the wife specifically and with appropriate gender), the mans diction is com-
2 pletely appropriate and normal. Generally, if a womans mention is unavoidable,
3 various circumlocutions are employed to avoid identifying her, speaking her
4 name, and even mentioning her sex:
6 (7) il-gamaaa bi-t-sallim alee-k
7 DEF-group IND-3.F-greet on-2.M.SG
8 The group [my wife] sends you [her] greetings.
10 (8) il-beet a-l-telefoon
11 DEF-house on-DEF-telephone
12 The house [your wife] is on the telephone.
14 Had the exchange in (5) occurred under normal circumstances (in a coffee house,
15 for instance the name of the program is akawi wa ahawi, roughly tales of
16 coffee houses), the announcer might have asked il-gamaaa mawguuda?
17 What is more, womens identities are so highly guarded that women them-
18 selves may often be heard to address each other in public by circumlocution.
19 Often the names of their children are used in place of their own. This is not the
20 usual agnomen with which Arabists are familiar, whereby a woman may be
21 addressed or referred to as umm fulaan mother of so-and-so. Instead, women
22 will simply address each other directly by the names of their children, especially
23 when there is a chance that they may be overheard by strangers. An example of
24 this may be seen in the recent film b-aibb is-sinima (I Love the Cinema),
25 wherein a mother delivering her young son to his grandmother for day care calls
26 from the ground floor of her mothers apartment building using her brothers
27 name (ya nabiil!), whereupon her mother appears on the landing in answer.
28 For their part, women will engage in reverse gender reference to avoid all
29 appearances of impropriety when discussing their men folk. It is not deemed
30 appropriate for women, and especially not young women, to have close dealings
31 with men outside of very clearly prescribed and defined situations. Women,
32 therefore, risk compromising themselves if they are overheard to be discussing
33 men, even when the relationship is legitimate. The following example was
34 spoken by a young woman over the telephone to her boyfriend:
36 (9) inti wa-aa-ni nti ya
37 you.SG.F long-for.AP-F-1.SG you.SG.F VOC
38 ils-a nti ya abiit-a
39 insensitive-F you.F VOC stupid-F
40 I missed you (F), silly.
42 It is worth noting in passing that such utterances may also have the effect of
43 expressing affection or intimacy, the implication being that if the relationship is
44 the kind that needs to be shielded against the scrutiny of others, it must be a
45 special relationship. The use of reverse gender between the sexes, then, acts to


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signal the recognition of intimacy in a relationship. From there, it can be and is 1

extended to the expression of playful affection between friends either of the 2
same sex or of the opposite sex, as the following examples illustrate: 3
(10) woman to man 5
zanna-uu-ki ya gamiil-a 6
squeeze-3.PL-2.F VOC pretty-F 7
Did they give you a hard time, pretty girl? 8
(11) man to woman 10
A: inta lawee-t lamma 11
you.M.SG become pretty-2.M when 12
txin-t ya wad 13
become heavy-2.M.SG VOC boy 14
Youve gotten prettier since you put on weight, boy! 15
B: ukran ya beed-a 16
thanks VOC white-F 17
Thanks, sweetie! 18
(12) young woman to young woman 20
ya wad ya alyaa ixras ya 21
VOC boy VOC alyaa go dumb VOC 22
abiib-i 23
darling.M-1.SG 24
Shut up, Alia, my dear boy! 25
(13) young man to young man 27
allaah inti lissa gaay-a ya gamiil-a12 28
INTERJ you.SG.F just come.AP-F VOC pretty-F 29
ya xt-i alee-ki 30
VOC sister-1.SG on-2.F.SG 31
What! Have you only got here, pretty girl? Shame on you! 32
These last two utterances also carry a tone of affectionate reproach. This serves 34
to demonstrate that there is more meaning to be gleaned from the manner of 35
speech and the situation in which it occurs than can be captured by a strictly 36
semantic analysis of the truth of propositions. The use of reverse gender refer- 37
ence is employed in EA to convey much affective meaning quite aside from the 38
literal meaning of the message in which it occurs.13 39
6 Dissembling as a prophylactic against envy and bad
It is also worth noting that a reluctance to name names directly extends to people 44
whom speakers feel no desire to protect and may indeed feel active enmity. In 45


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1 such cases, the motivation is precisely to avoid the invoking of bad fortune upon
2 themselves. Circumlocutions such as the following are often used to avoid men-
3 tioning their ill-starred names:
5 (14) bi-sallamt-uh
6 May he be in peace/health.
7 il-bigiid14
8 the distant one
9 illi ma bi-yi-tsammaa-s15
10 that which is not named
12 Where the urge to protect is strong, the motivation to dissemble is even more
13 compelling. Reverse gender reference and circumlocution are also used to shield
14 children from misfortune brought on by the envy of others.16 This can extend
15 beyond birth into childhood and even into young adulthood. As we have noted,
16 changes in status are perilous situations, and perhaps the most perilous is child-
17 birth and the early years of childhood. The birth of a male child is especially
18 likely to attract envy, whereupon countermeasures become necessary. This was
19 captured in the film al-afiid (The Grandson) wherein, late in the film when the
20 grandson is actually born, his arrival is announced to the father by his mother-in-
21 law with a set phrase:
23 (15) ti-trabba fi izz-ak
24 3.F.SG-be raised in prosperity-2.M.SG
25 May she be raised in prosperity.
27 The deception is soon discovered when the father changes his babys nappy for
28 the first time and exclaims that this she is actually a he, whereupon his wife
29 replies, You know Mama; shes afraid of peoples envy. The boys grand-
30 mother had deliberately referred to him using reverse gender reference in order
31 to fend off the envy of others at the good fortune of the birth of a son. The deceit
32 could not be maintained for long in the rowdy household depicted in the film,
33 but some households will attempt to maintain ambiguity or outright deception
34 for an extended period as a prophylaxis against envy.17 Ghosh (1983: 219)
35 reports that village boys may be clothed as girls for several years to dissimulate
36 their sex. Less extremely, in both rural and urban settings, boys may be given
37 ambiguous names for the same reason (Reda, Entisar, Esmat), and some chil-
38 dren, boys and girls, may be awarded fictitious names by which all of their asso-
39 ciates know them but may be registered in the birth records under different
41 Table 11.1Circumlocutions
43 bi-sallamt-uh May he be in peace (or health)
il-biiid1The distant one
illi ma bi-yi-tsammaa-2 That which is not named


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names than those by which they are known.18 All of these practices (some of 1
them dying out) are employed in an attempt to protect children from the con- 2
sequences that could accrue if their names were spoken or if others envied them 3
(or their parents) for their sex. 4
Of course, the sex of a child cannot be hidden for ever; even so, families will 5
dissemble about their sex at periods when the risk of envy is at its greatest: right 6
at birth as the status of the household is changing and up through the first 7
five years of life (if possible), which are in any case the most perilous years for 8
children, envy notwithstanding. Even where practices as deceptive as these are 9
no longer observed, in some classes of Egyptian society, urban and rural, it is 10
still considered perilous to mention the names of children, and circumlocutions 11
are used to avoid doing so. Instead of their names, they are referred to with such 12
epithets as il-maruus/a the protected one or with circumlocutions as ism in- 13
naby ars-uh/aris-ha may the name of the Prophet protect him/her.18 Such 14
devices are employed, as Stewart (1997: 351) observes,19 through a type of 15
homeopathic magic ... [as] a prophylactic measure, erecting a barrier between 16
the child ... and the ever-lurking threat of major disasters. 17
7 Conflictinig conversational goals
The reluctance to reveal too much information in conversation is balanced 21
against a countervailing imperative to offer congratulations and best wishes to 22
the recipients of good fortune and condolences and sympathy to those afflicted 23
with misfortune, especially illness or the death of a loved one. Egyptians, and 24
speakers of Arabic in general, feel obliged to inquire often after one another. 25
Indeed, such inquiries, condolences, and well-wishing are referred to by the 26
general term waagib obligation or duty. 27
When obligatory inquiries are routinely made, however, vague answers will 28
usually be offered in reply to direct questions, the praise of God or supplications 29
for His assistance being offered in the place of concrete information. Those 30
making the inquiries will often echo the praise and supplication even more effu- 31
sively than their interlocutors will, in order to guard against their being seen as 32
agents of catastrophe. A typical exchange under such circumstances, involving a 33
parent or some other primary relation and a well-wisher (or not as the case may 34
be), perhaps a friend or more distant relative, might proceed as follows: 35
(16) A: izzay il-wilaad 37
how DEF-children 38
How are the children? 39
B: bi-y-sallim-u alee-ki 40
IND-3-greet-PL on-2.F.SG 41
They send you their greetings. 42
A: amal-u eeh fi l-imtianaat 43
do-3.PL what in DEF-exams 44
How did they do in the exams? 45


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1 B: al-amd-u li-llah
2 DEF-praise-NOM to-God
3 Praise God.
4 A: in aa allah in-nagaa
5 if will.3.M.SG God DEF-success
6 God willing, they will succeed.
7 B: rabbi-na yi-sahhil
8 lord-1.PL 3.M-make easy
9 May God make it easy (for them).
11 The motivations operating, then, are on one hand, to inquire, or be seen to be
12 inquiring, and on the other to shield family members from inquiry. Interlocutors
13 recognize these imperatives, and they observe them while willingly remaining
14 engaged in conversation.
8 Discussion: cooperation in dissembling
18 Egyptian Arabic speakers regular cooperation in dissembling presents some dif-
19 ficulty to theories of pragmatics utilizing the cooperative principle as their
20 framework. In the various examples adduced above, one or more of the coopera-
21 tive principles maxims are violated without there being any intent of implica-
22 ture. In example (1), for instance, speaker B did not mean that he might be ill
23 and yet his interlocutor understood him to be saying just that. On the other hand,
24 in example (3), in which the same utterance is employed, the maxim of quality
25 was deliberately violated, the speaker exploiting the ambiguity of tabaan pre-
26 cisely to conceal the condition of the referent; so too is the maxim of manner
27 violated, as the speaker is being deliberately vague. Yet, here too no implicature
28 was intended. Indeed, the opposite is very evidently the case: the speaker is
29 stating outright, and intends that his listener understand, that the referents con-
30 dition is less severe than it really is.
31 Where speakers employ reverse gender reference or other circumlocutions
32 when referring to female members of the household, the situation is somewhat
33 more complex, in that those who are being addressed and who have reason to
34 know will immediately recognize that the reference is intended to refer to exactly
35 the opposite gender to the one specified. In that regard, reverse gender reference
36 functions in much the same manner as euphemism, as the meaning is immedi-
37 ately understood, and the reference may pass unnoticed. At the same time, those
38 employing the reverse reference intend that anyone else listening to the conver-
39 sation should suppose that the gender reference is exactly as stated. Even here,
40 with a patent violation of the maxim of quality (it is in fact untrue that the person
41 to whom reference is made is of the gender ascribed to her), no genuine implica-
42 ture is intended. For as Haugh (2002: 130) points out, what differentiates impli-
43 cature from other kinds of pragmatic phenomena is that it is meant in addition to
44 what is literally said. In the broader context of the utterances in which reverse
45 gender reference appears, nothing is meant in addition to what is said, even


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though the reference is literally to the opposite sex than that of the referent. Con- 1
sider the truth value of statements (5), (6), and (9): Yes, shes alive, Have 2
you found anyone to marry? and I missed you, silly. In each of these, the 3
truth value is unaffected by the gender. The same may be said for other uses of 4
reverse gender reference when it is employed for reasons other than dissembling; 5
aside from the affective intent behind its use, which does indeed carry meaning 6
extraneous to the semantic meaning of the utterances in which it occurs, the truth 7
is unaffected and no implicature is intended. 8
Similarly, when it is employed as a prophylactic against misfortune with ref- 9
erence to children, those in the know will immediately recognize the intent of 10
the reverse reference. In this case, however, those with full knowledge of the 11
situation are intentionally kept very few. Consider the father who had to find out 12
for himself that his girl was really a boy. His mother-in-law intended even for 13
him to infer that the bundle being delivered into his arms was actually not a boy. 14
Or consider the plight of close friends and neighbors or even relatives who 15
suppose that the little urchin dressed as a girl and named Entisar is indeed a girl 16
when he is not, only discovering their error some years hence. Reference to him 17
(at least in public) always involves falsehood, whether deliberate or not, those 18
aware of the falsehood wishing to preserve it for as long as possible, preferably 19
many years. 20
It appears that in some situations speakers of EA tend to regard the truth of 21
propositions to be less important than other considerations.20 Among these, but 22
not limited to them, are situations carrying a risk of envy or simply of too much 23
talk (the two are in any case closely related). In a discussion of such situations, 24
Mughazy (2000) observes that prophylactic utterances against envy, often very 25
elaborate, are just as often not necessarily true, even when narrating apparently 26
real events. He cites the example of a woman who, when congratulated upon her 27
sons success in school, said 28
(17) Poor boy! He gets up at FIVE in the morning to [go to] school, 30
and after school, he goes for his tutoring sessions. He takes FIVE 31
sessions a week, and he does not come home before FIVE in the 32
evening. Then he prays; he prays FIVE times a day, and he 33
studies for FIVE hours before he goes to bed. 34
(Mughazy 2000: 153)21 35
Reflection should suggest that not all that the fearful mother is saying can be lit- 37
erally true but is intended, as Mughazy points out, to deflect attention, and hence 38
the possibility of reversal, from the boys achievements. What is more, her nar- 39
rative seems verbose, overly informative, and not terribly relevant to the con- 40
gratulations initially offered. 41
Similarly, in example (16) above, the reply They send you their greetings, 42
to the opening query is not necessarily true in any experiential sense. The chil- 43
dren may have at one time or another expressed a desire to send greetings but 44
not necessarily just in time for them to be offered here. Nor is it especially rele- 45


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1 vant. Instead, it looks to be a rearguard pre-emption of a potentially risky situ-

2 ation in which envy might be evoked and in which too much talk has possibly
3 already taken place. The childrens relative has pre-empted the inquiry into their
4 state of affairs by having them appear to have sent their greetings first. This too
5 is a characteristic of discourse mitigating the effects of talk and envy: it violates
6 the maxim of relevance. Yet, there is no implicature whatsoever that could con-
7 ceivably be deduced from either of these utterances.
8 Harris (1996) notes that in the Egyptian context, maxims can be violated
9 without licensing any implicature or signaling uncooperativeness, remarking,
10 there may be mutual knowledge that an assertion is false, while yet speakers
11 cooperate on treating it as if true, or at least valid for immediate conversational
12 purposes (1996: 41). Such situations include courtesies, promises which all
13 know wont be kept, some invitations and the excuses made in declining them,
14 bargaining, and many others (Harris 1999: 32). Among those many others are
15 the ones we have seen here in which ill-fortune can be invoked by too much talk.
16 A qualitative difference between the situations that Harris proposes and some of
17 those adduced here is that the prophylactic use of dissembling is often but not
18 always intended to mislead auditors (including supernatural ones) and not
19 necessarily interlocutors. Implicature, it would seem, can only be employed
20 between interlocutors. Nevertheless, as we have seen, prophylaxis can be more
21 effective if interlocutors are themselves deceived.
22 Neither Grice nor any of the many writers following his lead had anything to
23 say about situations in which speakers may wish to engage in conversation, or
24 indeed feel compelled to do so, while at the same time wishing to conceal truth.
25 Attardo (1997) proposes that depending upon their goals, access to pertinent
26 information, and symmetry or asymmetry of the exchange in which they are
27 engaged (which he labels overt or covert, the latter occurring when speakers do
28 not share goals or information), speakers may indeed be more motivated by
29 competition than cooperation in conversation, observing that to qualify as
30 covert, a situation need only involve one speaker who has an interest in keeping
31 parts of his/her knowledge hidden from his/her audience (1999: 30). By this
32 definition, the situations discussed here all involve covert communication. The
33 cooperative principle, on the other hand, assumes symmetry of goals and overt
34 communication.
35 It may be supposed that much conversation in any language involves speakers
36 with asymmetrical goals and information and is, therefore, competitive. Despite
37 this, as Attardo also notes, even competitive modes of conversation are founded
38 in the cooperative one (1999: 26). People must cooperate to some degree in
39 order to speak to each other at all. That being so, the cooperative principle is
40 severely weakened as a comprehensive analytical tool, as the statement it makes
41 is too broad: make your conversational contribution such as is required at the
42 state at which it occurs, by the accepted purpose or direction of the talk exchange
43 in which you are engaged (Grice, 1975: 45). Under these terms, all interlocutors
44 in the exchanges adduced here are observing the principle insofar as they are
45 engaging in thoroughly appropriate exchanges in the context in which they


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david wilmsen

occur. Yet, while they are indeed cooperating, they are not conforming to the 1
maxims upon which the cooperative principle is built, which for their part are 2
too narrowly focused. By itself, then, the cooperative principle does not cannot 3
reveal anything about the nature of conversation or indeed of the truth value of 4
utterances (with which Grice as a philosopher was ultimately concerned). 5
The utility of recognizing an overarching cooperative principle and the 6
maxims upon which it rests has been debated since soon after its first statement 7
by Grice. That debate remains unsettled (see, for example, the reply to Horn 8
2005 by Carston 2005). So too has the universality of implicature been con- 9
tested, sound objections being raised based on observations of languages other 10
than English. In marshaling many of those, Davis (1998: 3) remarks: 11
[E]xtant criticisms have little impact in part because they were pre- 13
sented piecemeal. Thus it has always seemed that we were faced with a 14
choice between a large, well-supported theory and a small piece of 15
recalcitrant data, making it rational to expect that the problem was 16
superficial and would in due course be explained away. 17
Calling the theory fundamentally defective, he argues that recognizing the role 19
of speakers intentions provides a better direction for research. Our observations 20
have been informed by exactly that approach, yielding a more satisfactory expla- 21
nation for the speech behavior observed than does the notion of implicature, 22
which, as another critic (Gauker, 2001: 170) has noted, is not a useful concept 23
in the theory of language. 24
While it may be hasty to adopt such an extreme view, it cannot be denied that 25
the notion of implicature alone is insufficient to account for the data from speak- 26
ers of EA. It cannot yet be said that there is no implicature in EA, but it can be 27
stated that there are other processes at work as well. For, if implicature supplies 28
meaning in addition to what is said, dissembling in EA provides meaning other 29
than what is said. In order for speakers to dissemble without actually lying, in 30
which case maxims are violated without an intentional licencing of implicature, 31
they must at least suspend the maxims for the specific purpose of dissembling 32
(see Mooney 2004, for a discussion of suspension of maxims). This remains 33
problematic, as suspension of maxims is regularly employed in EA. 34
Notes 37
1 Students of translation in the Arabic and Translation Studies department at the Ameri-
can University in Cairo encounter great difficulty in understanding understatement in 39
English and rendering it effectively into Arabic. 40
2 Speech data with tabaan are taken from an unpublished study by the author 41
(Wilmsen 1997) about euphemism, understatement, and truth avoidance in EA, with 42
implications for doctorpatient interactions.
3 As with other high-frequency terms in EA, the lexeme tabaan carries a range of
meanings including tired (its primary meaning); sick; poor, wretched, pitiable; and of 44
poor quality. Examples of the last two are naas tabaana zayy-i-na wretched people 45


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conversational dissembling in egyptian arabic

1 like us and arabiyya tabaana a worthless automobile. Definitions are drawn

2 from El-Said Badawi and Martin Hinds (1986).
4 Manfred Woidich (p.c. 2005) reports that when he asked about the health of an
acquaintance, the wife answered tabaan wayya, fii amal innuh aymuut he is a
4 little ill; it looks as if he will die. In this context, the phrase fii amal (lit. there is
5 hope) appears to indicate anticipation rather than genuine hope (unless, of course,
6 the wife meant that she was hoping that her husbands death would ease his suffer-
7 ing). This is corroborated by a statement offered to me when the final rounds the 2006
African Cup of Nations games were being held in Cairo: andi amal innuh misr mi
a-yiksab (lit. I have hope that the Egyptian team will not win); as everyone was
9 hoping for the Egyptian team to win (it did), it seems more likely that the use of amal
10 here is meant to express anticipation and not hope.
11 5 Farghal (1993a: 36970) adduces others, such as intaqala ila ramat illah he was
12 transported to the mercy of God, which, in Egypt at least, is more often encountered
in print than in speech, for example in the public announcement of a death. Our con-
tention that euphemism does not violate conversational maxims notwithstanding, it
14 scarcely makes sense to speak of conversational implicature with written forms,
15 although Grice himself adduces examples of writing, such as a non-committal letter
16 of reference. Grice has been both criticized and defended for adducing writings as
17 examples of conversational implicature (see Green, 1990, who sympathizes with him,
for a summation of both perspectives).
6 See Haugh (2002: 129), who makes exactly this point with the euphemism kick the
19 bucket. (Farghal, 1993b and 1993c, would call this a dysphemism.)
20 7 Badawi and Hinds (1986) gloss this as You jinxed their getting married with all your
21 jabbering about them.
22 8 That notwithstanding, Ghosh (1983: 222) points out that brothers and patrilateral
cousins as potential competitors pose high risk as sources of envy.
9 Tthis compulsion not to speak is illustrated by the statement uttered by an office mate
24 when we were asked to provide the achievements of department graduates for a news-
25 letter; with reference to the fact that a recent graduate had been offered a job at the
26 World Bank (which, however, had not then been formally confirmed), it was decided
27 to avoid any mention of it with the excuse alaaan ma-n-urr alee-ha so as not to
ruin her luck by speaking about it.
10 When my wifes graduation ceremony for her masters degree approached, her father
29 was not informed until the very day it was to occur for fear that he might go and
30 spread the news amongst the relatives in his native village, whose talk might inadvert-
31 ently derail the entire proceedings.
32 11 Much of this part of the discussion is derived from Wilmsen (1999).
12 If the exchange is especially playful, this can be pronounced /komiila/.
13 For an explanation of such meanings, see Wilmsen (1999).
34 14 Stewart (1997, 327) observes that this is a prophylactic euphemism for the referent
35 of [a] curse, which literally disclaims that the curse is intended for him while figura-
36 tively referring directly to him. The same may be said for the other references
37 adduced here and any other such deflected references of this sort. Note that women
referring to each other by their childrens names works in exactly the opposite
manner: it appears to be referring to the children, but it is intended to refer to anyone
39 but them.
40 15 This is also used to avoid mention of diseases like cancer il-maradilli ma bi-yi-
41 tsammaa- the unmentionable disease, also referred to as il-marad il-wii the
42 awful disease, or il-marad il-xabiis the malignant disease (as if there were a
disease that is not awful or cancers that were not malignant). I am grateful to Madiha
Hegazi of the Arabic and Translation Studies department at the American University
44 in Cairo and to Amin Bonna of the Department of Arabic and Islamic Studies at Geor-
45 getown University for supplying these examples.


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16 When considering the reasons for employing reverse gender reference in an earlier 1
study (Wilmsen 1999), I overlooked the use of reverse gender reference as a prophy- 2
lactic against envy.
17 For example, a grandmother holding a child on her lap receiving the congratulations
of well-wishers, when asked the sex of the child answered, wallahi m-ana arfa By 4
God, I dont know. I am again grateful to Madiha Hegazi for supplying this example. 5
18 I am indebted to Mustafa Mughazy for bringing these practices to my attention. 6
Stewart (1997: 351) also makes note of awarding boys gender-ambiguous names. 7
19 Note that women may address each other using their childrens names but be reluctant
to refer directly to those same children by name.
20 He is writing specifically of cursing, whereby a mother by the very act of cursing, is 9
in effect protecting the child from the eventual occurrence of the disaster mentioned 10
in the curse. (351). 11
21 Writing about envy, Wikan (1996: 124) comments that there should be nothing out of 12
the ordinary in this, commenting that, Egyptians have great tolerance for ... ambiva-
lence, ambiguity, and inconsistency especially in themselves and their dear ones.
She rather finds the western concept of consistency as a moral norm to be odd. 14
22 The repetition of formulae involving five is a characteristic charm against asad and 15
arr. The five fingers of the hand held aloft with the palm forward, often with the 16
imprecation xamsa wa xmeesa (roughly five-ish five) are another manifestation of 17
this. A symbolic representation of this is to be found in the so-called hand of Fatma
trinkets made of brass or plaster or emblazoned on stickers upon which is written the
ditty ya naas ya arr kifaya l-arr Oh people, Oh evil, enough talk. These are 19
affixed to vehicles and the doorways of houses to ward off envy. 20
References 23
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matics and Cognition 5: 2150. 25
Badawi, S. and M. Hinds (1986) A Dictionary of Egyptian Arabic, Beirut: Librairie du 26
Liban. 27
Carston, R. (2005) Relevance theory, Grice, and the Neo-Griceans: A response to Laurence 28
Horns Current issues in Neo-Gricean pragmatics, Intercultural Pragmatics 2: 30319.
Davis, W.A. (1998) Implicature: Intention, Convention, and Principle in the Failure of
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1 Horn, L. (2005) Current issues in Neo-Gricean pragmatics, Intercultural Pragmatics 2:

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