In the New York Times Week in Review this weekend, I have a piece looking at the clever linguistic strategies that Egyptian protesters used to tell President Hosni Mubarak that it was time to go. (There’s also a niceslideshow accompanying the article.) Language Log readers will already know about the appearance of “Game Over” in the Cairo protests, as well as the use of Chinese to get the message across, but there were many other creative variations on that theme.
I learned from Noha Radwan, who spent a week with the protesters at Tahrir Square, that a popular rhyming chant translated the word irhal ‘go’ from Modern Standard Arabic into the colloquial Egyptian imshi (which I gloss as ‘beat it’ in the Week in Review article):
irhal ya’ni imshi (irhal means imshi)
ya illi mabtafhimshi (in case you don’t understand me)
Mubarak has sometimes been criticized for not being able to maintain high standard speech in public addresses and interviews, lapsing after a while into local pronunciations and idioms, the implication being that he’s uncultured. So this is an joking attempt to translate the more formal “irhal” into informal speech that he might comprehend better.
From Walter Armbrust, who is spending a sabbatical year in Cairo (and what a year to be there), I learned of another fascinating sign using hieroglyphs to help convey a message to “the pharaoh” (Mubarak):
i-h-r-l [Arabic letters under their hieroglyphic equivalents]
bil-hayro glif yimkin tifham ya fi’un
in hieroglyphs maybe the pharaoh will understand
(Unfortunately I haven’t seen a photo of this one yet. Update: see below.)
As for foreign languages, this photo (taken by Rebecca Mohey and sent to me by Susan Richards-Benson) shows stones arranged to spell commands of departure in five languages — Arabic إرحل (irhal), Spanish fuera, French dégage, English go out, and German raus:
(For more on English-language wordplay from the Egyptian protests, see my Word Routes column on the Visual Thesaurus. And for those interested in the parallels with Indonesian wordplay at the end of the Soeharto era, see my paper, “The New Dis-Order: Parodic Plésétan and the ‘Slipping’ of the Soeharto Regime,” Antara Kita: Bulletin of the Indonesian Studies Committee of the Association for Asian Studies, July 1998, 54:4-9).