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Dr. E.W.A. (Liesbeth) Zack

Faculty of Humanities
Capaciteitsgroep Semitische talen en culturen
Photographer: Sander Nieuwenhuys

Visiting address
  • Spuistraat 134
  • Room number: 2.06
Postal address
  • Postbus 1641
    1000 BP Amsterdam
  • Profiel

    Research interests 

    Liesbeth Zack is Associate Professor in Arabic language and linguistics. Her research interests include historical sources of the Egyptian Arabic dialects, Middle Arabic, modern Egyptian Arabic, Arabic sociolinguistics, and Egyptian dialect literature.    

    She is currently working on a research project entitled "The making of a capital dialect: Language change in 19th century Cairo". She is coordinator of the research group "Historical Sociolinguistics: Language Contact and Language Change" at the Amsterdam Center for Language and Communication.  She is a member of the research team of the  Arabic Excavation Diaries Project under the direction of Harvard University:

    The making of a capital dialect: Language change in 19th century Cairo  

    The language situation in the Arab world is known as diglossia, which means there is a high variety (Classical Arabic / Modern Standard Arabic) used for official purposes, and a low variety (dialect) used for informal communication. In Ottoman Egypt the language situation was complicated further because the language of the government and the elite was Turkish.  

    In the second half of the 19th century, the Arabic dialect of Cairo changed in many respects: some features which the dialect until then shared with the surrounding rural dialects, disappeared, while other features were replaced by innovative ones.

    Structural properties of the language alone cannot explain the change in the dialect, because the features that started to disappear then, had been part of the language for centuries. Therefore, the social context also has to be taken into account. In the 19th century, dramatic changes in the social structure of the city took place. Cairo in that period attracted many labourers from the rural regions of Egypt. The mixing of urban and rural dialects led to linguistic changes and the emergence of a different dialect known as modern Cairene. 

    The change of the official language of the government from Turkish to Arabic also had its impact on the dialect, since the elite who spoke Turkish until then, switched to Arabic. The urban population and the Turkish elite wanted to dissociate themselves from the speech of peasants and, accordingly, avoided stigmatized 'rural' features.

    This project aims at analyzing the characteristics of this dialect and the changes that took place, explaining these changes by studying the language in its social context, and producing a digitalized corpus that can be used in future studies.

    Curriculum Vitae

    1998, MA (doctoraal) in Arabic Studies, cum laude, from the University of Amsterdam, the Netherlands. The subject of my thesis was an analysis of the Egyptian dialect used by the Egyptian novelist Yūsuf al-Qaʿīd in his novel Laban ilʿaṣfūr ("The milk of the bird").
    1997-2006, Netherlands-Flemish Institute in Cairo, Assistant Arabic Studies.
    2006-2009, Lecturer of Arabic at the University of Amsterdam.
    2009, PhD thesis: Egyptian Arabic in the seventeenth century: a study and edition of Yūsuf al-Maġribī's "Dafʿ al-iṣr ʿan kalām ahl Miṣr".

    2009-present, Assistant Professor in Arabic Language and Culture at the University of Amsterdam.

    2012-present, project: "The making of a capital dialect: Language change in 19th century Cairo". Veni-grant 2012-2015 from NWO (The Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research).

    Alexander-Bakkerus, Astrid; Fernández Rodríguez, Rebeca; Zack, Liesbeth; Zwartjes, Otto (eds.) (2020). Missionary Linguistic Studies from Mesoamerica to Patagonia. Leiden, Boston: Brill. (Brill’s Studies in Language, Cognition and Culture; 22).

    Alexander-Bakkerus, Astrid; Fernández Rodríguez, Rebeca; Zack, Liesbeth; Zwartjes, Otto (eds.) (2020). Missionary Linguistic Studies from Mesoamerica to Patagonia. Leiden, Boston: Brill. (Brill’s Studies in Language, Cognition and Culture; 22).

    Missionary Linguistic Studies from Mesoamerica to Patagonia presents the results of in-depth studies of grammars, vocabularies and religious texts, dating from the sixteenth – nineteenth century. The researches involve twenty (extinct) indigenous Mesoamerican and South American languages: Matlatzinca, Mixtec, Nahuatl, Purépecha, Zapotec (Mexico); K’iche, Kaqchikel (Guatemala); Amage, Aymara, Cholón, Huarpe, Kunza, Mochica, Mapudungun, Proto-Tacanan, Pukina, Quechua, Uru-Chipaya (Peru); Tehuelche (Patagonia); (Tupi-)Guarani (Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay).
    The results of the studies include: a) a digital model of a good, conveniently arranged vocabulary, applicable to all indigenous Amerindian languages; b) disclosure of intertextual relationships, language contacts, circulation of knowledge; c) insights in grammatical structures; d) phone analyses; e) transcriptions, so that the texts remain accessible for further research. f) the architecture of grammars; g) conceptual evolutions and innovations in grammaticography.

    Zack, Liesbeth and Schippers, Arie (eds.) (2012). Middle Arabic and Mixed Arabic: Diachrony and Synchrony. Leiden: Brill. (Studies in Semitic Languages and Linguistics; 64)

    Zack, Liesbeth and Schippers, Arie (eds.). Middle Arabic and Mixed Arabic: Diachrony and Synchrony.  

    In recent scholarship, the connection between Middle Arabic and Mixed Arabic is studied in a more systematic way. The idea of studying these two varieties in one theoretical frame is quite new, and was initiated at the conferences of the International Association for the Study of Middle and Mixed Arabic (AIMA). At these conferences, the members of AIMA discuss the latest insights into the definition, terminology, and research methods of Middle and Mixed Arabic. Results of various discussions in this field are to be foundin the presentbook, which contains articles describing and analysing the linguistic features of Muslim, Jewish and Christian Arabic texts (folklore, religious and linguistic literature) as well as the matters of mixed language and diglossia.
    Contributors include: Berend Jan Dikken, Lutz Edzard, Jacques Grand'Henry, Bruno Halflants, Benjamin Hary, Rachel Hasson Kenat, Johannes den Heijer, Amr Helmy Ibrahim, Paolo La Spisa, Jérôme Lentin, Gunvor Mejdell, Arie Schippers, Yosef Tobi, Kees de Vreugd, Manfred Woidich, and Otto Zwartjes. 

    Publisher: Brill, Leiden.
    Series: Studies in Semitic Languages and Linguistics  64.  
    ISBN 9789004222298. 
    Publication date: April 2012.      

    Zack, Liesbeth (2009). Egyptian Arabic in the seventeenth century: a study and edition of Yūsuf al-Maġribī’s Dafʿ al-iṣr ʿan kalām ahl Miṣr. Proefschrift. Amsterdam, Utrecht: ACLC, LOT (LOT Dissertation Series; 199).

    PhD thesis

    Dafʿ al-iṣr ʿan kalām ahl Miṣr دفع الإصر عن كلام أهل مصر " Removing the burden from the speech of the Egyptians", was written in 1606 by Yūsuf al-Maġribī يوسف المغربي (d. 1611), and provides its readers with valuable information about the Egyptian dialect used in the 17 th century. The work is unique because it was one of the earliest attempts to study colloquial Arabic. It is a list of Egyptian Arabic words, which al-Maġribī checked for consistency with Classical Arabic. His aim was to prove that many Egyptian dialect terms, which were considered to be "incorrect"Arabic, in fact had their roots in the Classical Arabic language. Al-Maġribī focused on the words used in daily Egyptian life, such as the names of tools and utensils and food and drink, as well as the speech of traders and artisans. These entries are often adorned by anecdotes and lines of colloquial poetry and therefore, provide the reader with insight into the culture and daily life of Egypt in this period. This volume, which was published in 2009, consists of two parts: the first is a study of aspects of daily life, the colloquial poetry, the linguistic characteristics of the dialect of this period, and a glossary of the words which are mentioned by al-Maġribī. The second parts is the edition of the Arabic text, based on the autograph.

    Last update: May 2023

  • Research group 'Historical sociolinguistics'

    Workshop announcement

    The research group Historical Sociolinguistics organizes a workshop Methodological Challenges in Historical Sociolinguistics: 'Oral and Written Texts' and 'Elite Bilingualism and Diglossia' (23 and 24 May 2023, online). Please see the announcement for more details: Announcement. The programme and abstracts can be downloaded here. If you would like to attend the lectures, please send me an e-mail: e.w.a.zack[at]


    The research group 'Historical sociolinguistics' studies how language and society have interacted in the past, combining the fields of sociolinguistics and historical linguistics. This research group focuses on language contact and change in its socio-historical context. Language contact happens when speakers of different varieties of a language, or of different languages, interact with each other, causing the languages to influence each other. 

    The research group is based at the Amsterdam Center for Language and Communication (ACLC)

    Key objectives

    • study processes of language change from a historical sociolinguistic perspective
    • investigate stability (and the lack thereof) across dialects and languages
    • investigate bilingualism in its historical context
    • identify and discuss methodological issues connected to working with historical written sources

    Group members

    Muhadj Adnan, Sabine Dedenbach-Salazar Saenz, Margreet Dorleijn, Rebeca Fernández Rodríguez, Sune Gregersen, Camiel Hamans, Guillermo Olivera, Caroline Roset, Manfred Woidich, Arjen Versloot, Liesbeth Zack (coordinator), Ewa Zakrzewska.


  • Publications


    • Zack, E. W. A. (2024). From Pioneer to Thug: Lexical Change in Cairene Arabic. In C. Berlinches Ramos, J. Guerrero, & M. Benítez Fernández (Eds.), AIDA Granada: A Pomegranate of Arabic Varieties (pp. 445-455). (Estudios de Dialectología Árabe; Vol. 21). Prensas de la Universidad de Zaragoza.


    • Zack, L. (2022). Middle Arabic in Legal and Financial Documents from the Dakhla Oasis (Egypt). In J. Lentin, & J. Grand'Henry (Eds.), Middle and Mixed Arabic over Time and Across Written and Oral Genres: From Legal Documents to Television and Internet Through Literature = Moyen arabe et arabe mixte à travers le temps et les genres écrits et oraux: des documents légaux à la télévision et à internet en passant par la littérature: Proceedings of the IVth AIMA International Conference (Emory University, Atlanta, GA, USA, 12-15 October 2013) (pp. 277-302). (Publications de l'Institut Orientaliste de Louvain; Vol. 73). Peeters. [details]
    • Zack, L. (2022). The Pronominal Suffixes After Two Consonants in Cairene Arabic: A Historical Overview. In M. Klimiuk (Ed.), Semitic Dialects and Dialectology: Fieldwork—Community—Change (pp. 113-132). Heidelberg University Publishing. [details]
    • Zack, L. (2022). Three cases of plagiarism? A study of four nineteenth-century Egyptian-Arabic textbooks. Historiographia Linguistica, 49(2-3), 267-301. [details]


    • Zack, L. (2021). Excerpt from Yūsuf Al-Maġribī’s Dafʿ al-Iṣr ʿan Kalām Ahl Miṣr (1606). In E-M. Wagner (Ed.), A Handbook and Reader of Ottoman Arabic (pp. 209-225). (Cambridge Semitic Languages and Cultures; Vol. 9). Open Book Publishers. [details]
    • Zack, L. (2021). Excerpts from Yaʿqūb Ṣanūʿ’s Abū Naḍḍāra Zarʾa And ʿabd Allāh Al-Nadīm’s Al-Ustāḏ. In E-M. Wagner (Ed.), A Handbook and Reader of Ottoman Arabic (pp. 381-397). (Cambridge Semitic Languages and Cultures ; Vol. 9). Open Book Publishers. [details]


    • Alexander-Bakkerus, A., Fernández Rodríguez, R., Zack, L., & Zwartjes, O. (Eds.) (2020). Missionary Linguistic Studies from Mesoamerica to Patagonia. (Brill's Studies in Language, Cognition and Culture; Vol. 22). Brill. [details]
    • Zack, L. (2020). Egyptian Railway Vocabulary. Wiener Zeitschrift für die Kunde des Morgenlandes, 110, 257-282. [details]


    • Zack, L. (2019). Historical Arabic Dialectology: Interpreting the Sources. In W. Arnold, & M. Klimiuk (Eds.), Arabic Dialectology: Methodology and Field Research (pp. 207-238). Harrassowitz Verlag. [details]


    • Abdulla, R., Poell, T., Rieder, B., Woltering, R., & Zack, L. (2018). Facebook polls as proto-democratic instruments in the Egyptian revolution: The ‘We Are All Khaled Said’ Facebook page. Global Media and Communication, 14(1), 141-160. [details]


    • Zack, L. (2017). Vulgar and Literary Arabic in Nineteenth-century Egypt: A Study of Three Textbooks. In N. S. Eggen, & R. Issa (Eds.), Philologists in the World: A Festschrift in Honour of Gunvor Mejdell (pp. 233-260). (Instituttet for sammenlignende kulturforskning. -Serie B; Vol. 168). Novus Press. [details]


    • Poell, T., Abdulla, R., Rieder, B., Woltering, R., & Zack, L. (2016). Protest leadership in the age of social media. Information, Communication & Society, 19(7), 994-1014. [details]
    • Zack, L. (2016). Arabic Language Guides Written for the British Army during the British Occupation of Egypt, 1882-1922. In D. Schmidt-Brücken, S. Schuster, & M. Wienberg (Eds.), Aspects of (post)colonial linguistics: Current perspectives and new approaches (pp. 1-26). (Koloniale und Postkoloniale Linguistik = Colonial and Postcolonial Linguistics; No. 9). Walter de Gruyter. [details]




    • Zack, L., & Schippers, A. (Eds.) (2012). Middle Arabic and mixed Arabic: diachrony and synchrony. (Studies in Semitic languages and linguistics; Vol. 64). Leiden: Brill. [details]


    • Zack, L., Pilette, P., & den Heijer, J. (2021). L’imāla finale en Égypte: Une approche diachronique. In N. Comolli, J. Dufour, & M-A. Germanos (Eds.), Libellules arabes, sémitiques, italiennes, berbères: Études linguistiques et littéraires offertes à Jérôme Lentin par ses collègues, élèves et amis (pp. 629-662). Geuthner. [details]



    • Zack, L. (2016). Nineteenth-Century Cairo Arabic as Described by Qadrī and Nahla. In G. Grigore, & G. Bițună (Eds.), Arabic Varieties: Far and Wide: Proceedings of the 11th International Conference of AIDA, Bucharest, 2015 (pp. 557-567). Editura Universității din București. [details]


    • Alexander-Bakkerus, A. (Guest ed.), & Zack, L. (Guest ed.) (2014). Revitalizing Older Linguistic Documentation: Proceedings of the Vth International Meeting. Linguistics in Amsterdam, 7(2), 45-174. [details]
    • Alexander-Bakkerus, A., & Zack, L. (2014). Preface Revitalizing Older Linguistic Documentation: Proceedings of the Vth International Meeting. Linguistics in Amsterdam, 7(2), 45-48. [details]
    • Zack, L. (2014). The use of the Egyptian dialect in the satirical newspaper Abu naddāra zarʾa. In O. Durand, A. D. Langone, & G. Mion (Eds.), Alf lahǧa wa lahǧa: proceedings of the 9th Aida Conference (pp. 465-478). (Neue Beihefte zur Wiener Zeitschrift für die Kunde des Morgenlandes; Vol. 8). Lit. [details]


    • Zack, L. (2012). Li‘b al-manār, an Egyptian shadow play: some comments on orthography, morphology and syntax. In J. den Heijer, P. La Spisa, & L. Tuerlinckx (Eds.), Autour de la langue arabe: études présentées à Jacques Grand'Henry à l'occasion de son 70e anniversaire (pp. 333-351). (Publications de l'Institut orientaliste de Louvain; No. 61). Université catholique de Louvain, Institut orientaliste. [details]
    • Zack, L. (2012). Quenching the thirst for knowledge: an analysis of the colloquial material in al-Xafāğī’s "Šifā’ al-ġalīl fīmā fī kalām al-‘arab min al-daxīl". Estudios de dialectología árabe, 6, 193-220. [details]


    • Woidich, M., & Zack, L. (2009). The g/ğ-question in Egyptian Arabic revisited. In E. Al-Wer, & R. de Jong (Eds.), Arabic dialectology: in honour of Clive Holes on the occasion of his sixtieth birthday (pp. 41-60). (Studies in Semitic languages and linguistics; Vol. 53). Brill. [details]


    • Zack, E. (2008). Vernacular versus Classical Arabic: a 17th century scholar’s view on the Egyptian Arabic dialect. In J. Lentin, & J. Grand'Henry (Eds.), Moyen arabe et variétes mixtes de l'arabe à travers l'histoire : actes du premier colloque international (Louvain-la-Neuve, 10-14 mai 2004) (pp. 489-504). Peeters. [details]



    • Zack, L. (2012). 'Leave, I want to have a shower!' The use of humour on the signs and banners seen during the demonstrations in Tahrir Square. In R. Genis, E. de Haard, J. Kalsbeek, E. Keizer, & J. Stelleman (Eds.), Between West and East: Festschrift for Wim Honselaar on the occasion of his 65th birthday (pp. 711-729). (Pegasus Oost-Europese studies; No. 20). Pegasus. [details]


    • Zack, L. (2008). Dialect in zeventiende-eeuws Cairo. ZemZem, 4(3), 122-128. [details]

    Prize / grant

    Membership / relevant position

    • Zack, L. (2016). General Secretary of the AIDA board, Association Internationale de Dialectologie Arabe (AIDA).
    • Zack, L. (2016). Lid van de Wetenschappelijke Adviesraad, Netherlands-Flemish Institute in Cairo.

    Media appearance

    Talk / presentation

    • Zack, L. (speaker) (31-5-2017). Cairene Arabic in the 19th century: a comparison of three textbooks., 12th AIDA conference (Association Internationale de Dialectologie Arabe), Marseille.
    • Zack, L. (speaker) (21-3-2017). What did ‘literary Arabic’ look like in 19th-century Egypt? Middle Arabic in text books for teaching Arabic as a foreign language., Fifth International Symposium of the International Association for the Study of Middle and Mixed Arabic AIMA , Strasbourg.
    • Zack, L. (speaker) (24-11-2016). A case of plagiarism: three 19th-century descriptions of Egyptian Arabic., VIIth International Colloquium of the Research group "Revitalising Older Linguistic Documentation" (ROLD), University of Amsterdam.


    • Zack, L. (participant) (30-5-2017 - 2-6-2017). 12th AIDA conference (Association Internationale de Dialectologie Arabe), Marseille (participating in a conference, workshop, ...).
    • Zwartjes, O. J. (organiser), Alexander-Bakkerus, A. (organiser), Zack, L. (organiser), Fernández Rodríguez, R. (organiser) & Balsem, A. C. (organiser) (24-11-2016 - 2-12-2016). Book exhibition Revitalizing Older Linguistic Documentation 2006-2016, Amsterdam (organising a conference, workshop, ...).
    This list of publications is extracted from the UvA-Current Research Information System. Questions? Ask the library or the Pure staff of your faculty / institute. Log in to Pure to edit your publications. Log in to Personal Page Publication Selection tool to manage the visibility of your publications on this list.
  • Ancillary activities
    • No ancillary activities