See Arabic pronunciation
for my guide to pronunciation of Classical (Quranic
) Arabic, and my system of transliteration
of the script.
Arabic grammar, like that of all Semitic languages, hinges on a 'root' of three consonants (occasionally two or four). The root is not pronounced: it is not a word. It carries the basic meaning, and words are formed by filling in the consonant root with vowels and adding affixes in characteristic patterns.
The consonants k-t-b denote writing, j-l-s denotes sitting, d-r-s denotes studying, sh-r-b drinking.
As simple verbs the roots are filled and inflected for person as follows. For now I stick to the singular of the perfect
katabtu I wrote
katabta you (masc.) wrote
katabti you (fem.) wrote
kataba he wrote
katabat she wrote
Note that a gender distinction is made not only in the third person as in most European languages, but also in the second person. The simplest form of the verb is the 'he' form. We name our verbs with the infinitive, 'to write'; Arabs speak of the verb kataba 'he wrote'.
Similarly jalasa 'he sat', darasa 'he studied', shariba 'he drank'. Most verbs have an a-a-a pattern in the perfect, some have a-i-a like shariba, and a few have a-u-a.
Arabic is an aspectual language. It doesn't have tenses as such, it has two aspects, perfect (or perfective) and imperfect(ive). The imperfect often covers present and future times. The vowel pattern is different and so are the person affixes:
?aktubu I am (was) writing
taktubu you (masc.) are writing
taktubiina you (fem.) are writing
yaktubu he is writing
taktubu she is writing
The she form and the you-masculine form are the same here.
The future is formed by prefixing sa-: sataktabu 'she will write'.
Only the singular forms were given above. There are plurals formed along similar lines (katabnaa 'we wrote', naktubu 'we are writing'), and in the second and third persons there is also a dual. Gender distinction extends into the plural.
Where the perfect has a-i-a pattern the imperfect has a-a-u, as in sharibnaa 'we drank', nashrabu 'we are drinking'.
Other parts of speech can also be formed from these consonantal roots, e.g. maktuub
'assembly, session, parliament', madrasah
'Patterns' of vowels and affixes are pervasive in the language. Some nouns have plurals that are made simply by adding something to the singular. The 'weak' masculine ending is -uun:
but the majority change the vowel pattern internally and often add affixes. Although some rules exist, in general there is no comprehensive way of predicting these. You just have to learn what plural class a singular belongs to. This is called the 'broken plural'. Some words can have both kinds of plural.
t!aalib student t!ullaab students
kitaab book kutub books
bayt house buyuut houses
manzil house (sic) manaazil houses
walad boy ?awlaad boys
jawab answer ?ajwibah answers
su?aal question ?as?ilah questions
The feminine ending is -ah in the singular; it forms its plural by changing to -aat in the plural: malikah 'queen', malikaat 'queens'.
There is a dual, used for two things, so the plural is only for three or more. The dual ending is -aan, with feminine -ataan.
Arabic has three cases, nominative
, and genitive
. In the singular these have the respective endings -u, -a, -i
. They are also used on broken plurals. When the word is said in isolation these endings are not pronounced, so I have omitted them in the above. They are also not pronounced at the end of a phrase. This may be called the pausal
The weak masculine plural ending is actually -uuna, with accusative and genitive -iina. The dual ending is actually -aani with accusative/genitive -ayni. The final vowels of these are also omitted in pausal position, giving -uun, -iin, -aan, -ayn.
The feminine -ah is pausal; when it's followed by a case ending it's pronounced -at-. This alternation of consonants is ancient in Semitic, paralleled in Hebrew, and is called the ta marbuta.
s follow nouns and agree in gender and number. However, broken plurals may be treated as feminine singular.
kitaabu kabiir big book
kutubu kabiirah big books
madrasatu kabiirah big school
madrasaatu kabiiraat big schools
The definite article
is a prefix al-
, familiar from words like alcohol
'the book', al-malikaat
Agreeing adjectives also take it: al-baytu al-kabiir 'the big house'. The vowel of the article drops off after another one, so that's pronounced al-baytu-l-kabiir.
This is classical (Quranic) Arabic; in modern Arabic you often see el-.
The L of the article assimilates phonetically to a lot of consonants. These are called 'sun letters' because the L assimilates to the SH of shams 'sun', and where there is no change they are called 'moon letters' because of qamar 'moon'.
ash-shams the sun
as-su?aal the question
at!-t!aalib the student
ad-dars the lesson
an-nahr the river
The indefinite article is -n on the case ending: baytun kabiirun 'a big house', pronounced baytun kabiir because the second ending is pausal. It also occurs on some proper names, e.g. Muh!ammad-un.
The a of the definite article is also lost after prepositions, such as: fii 'in', li 'to', bi 'with, by', and min 'from'. Long vowels shorten, and min grows its own linking vowel. They take the genitive. So fii al-kitaabi 'in the book' is pronounced fi-l-kitaab, and 'from the sun' is mina-sh-shams.
The article is used after the demonstratives: 'this, these' is m.sg. haadhaa, f.sg. haadhihii, m.dual haadhaani, f.dual haataani, pl. haa?ulaa?i, again with shortening of the final long vowel: haadha-l-bayt 'this house'. The corresponding words for 'that' are m.sg. dhaalika, f.sg. tilka, m.dual dhaanika, f.dual taanika, pl. ?ulaa?ika.
There is no verb 'to be' in the present. A nominal sentence
is one where the adjective is not definite:
'the house is big'. In the past the verb kaana
is used, future yakuunu
Where a verb is used it occurs initially:
qara?a Muh!ammadun al-kitaab 'Muhammad read the book'.
The numerals are
- ?ah!ad masc., ?ih!daa fem.
- ithnaan masc., ithnataan fem.
s from three onward have the peculiar property (shared with other Semitic
languages) that they have opposite
gender to the noun they qualify.
thalaathatu ?awlaad three boys
thalaathu malikaat three queens
From the simple verb a number of other verb stem
s can be derive
d by internal change and affixation
. For example, kasara
'he broke' gives the intensive kassara
'he smashed' by consonant doubling. These derived stems typically have a characteristic meaning, but often they have departed a great deal in semantic latitude
from the original meaning, and just have to be learnt. No verb exhibits all the possible derived stems, but using kasara
'break' as the example, the other stems are kassara, kaasara, ?aksara, takassara, takaasara, inkasara, iktasara, istaksara
. All of these have their own personal inflections, imperfects, passive
s, and derived nouns. (Arab grammarians use the verb fa&ala
'do, make' as the paradigm.)
Disclaimer. Needless to say this is a very simplified sketch and omits anything that looks like an exception. But that said, /msg me if you notice any corrections that need to be made.