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October 19, 2007

I love Arabic! أُحب اللغة العربية

Filed under: Masr —مصر — Tags: , — admin @ 3:43 pm

The language is totally fascinating to me. There are a lot of rules and conventions that are strange and challenging for someone like me who has only studied indo-european languages, but once you learn the rules, there are very few exceptions to them. There is a whole class of verbs called (by European linguists) “defective” verbs, but there is no such thing as an irregular verb. As such, learning to read and write well is an accomplishment i can see on the horizon. Unfortunately, learning to speak and listen well is a totally different thing, as one has to actually internalize many of these rules and conventions—and they are legion—to listen and speak well. Matters are further complicated by the fact that the rules are quite different in the colloquial, and there are significantly more exceptions to them, as opposed to the “classical” or “modern standard Arabic”. Still, it is all very fascinating to me and i’m excited to be learning the language.

If you’ll indulge me for a little while, i’d like to tell you about some of my favorite things about the language.

Roots & patterns
Perhaps you already know this, but just about every word in the Arabic language is derived from a three-letter root (in this context, these letters are called “radicals”), modified by various patterns of internal short and long vowels (the long vowels are signified by letters in themselves, and the short vowels are signified by diacritical marks, almost none of which are used in anything but children’s books or suras from the Quran) and prefixes and suffixes. As verbs, each of these roots can theoretically have 14 different forms, differentiated by changes in internal voweling and prefixes. In practice, only a small subset of of these forms exist in the language. Also, each of these 14 forms theoretically relates to the meaning of the root in a somewhat standard way (e.g., causative, reflexive, reciprocal, etc.). In practice, this is not always, or even mostly, true, although it can give one a hint of the meaning of a new word. In some sense, this is a bit like German, except that German only uses prefixes, and Arabic doesn’t allow the piling on of multiple prefixes like German does. Arabic words can occasionally be made quite long through grammatical additions, but not like with German. Here’s one of my favorite, recently-discovered examples:

Let’s take the root نقب (nqb). There is no “infinitive” in Arabic, so the masculine, third-person, singular, past-tense conjugation of the root is used as the most basic “indicative” form. In that case, it would be pronounced “naqaba”, نَفقَبَ, to pierce, to bore, to perforate, etc. That’s form I. Form II, which is formed simply by doubling the middle radical (i.e., naqqaba, نَقّبَ) is the causative, hence to dig, to drill, to explore, to delve, etc. In my dictionary form III, the reciprocal form, which is formed by adding a long “a” between the first and second radicals (i.e., naaqaba, نافقَبَ) means “to vie in virtues with someone”. I don’t know what that means, really. Form V, the reflexive of form II, constructed by adding a “t” to the beginning of form II (i.e., tanaqqaba, تَنَقّبَ) means to investigate, but it also means to veil one’s face (a woman) or to be perforated. Form VIII (intaqaba, إنْتَقَبَ) also means to put on a veil. I find it fascinating that wearing the full face veil is conceived of (at least linguistically) in the opposite way that most of us would conceive of it, not as a covering up, but rather as a piercing. Having seen quite a few of these women wearing the niqaab (same root, of course), it sort of makes sense: it is the amorphous black mass with no discernible features other than the eyes peering (piercing?) out of little peep holes. I have to say, it looks kinda funny when they’re wearing glasses on top of it. The effect is somewhat less striking with those younger rich women wearing the niqaab out of some sort of rarified, elitist “anti-imperialism” (i generally see them in shopping malls), who decorate parts of the niqaab with patterns of sequins (or real diamonds, for all i know).

Anyway, quite interesting. Furthermore, as a noun, the word takes on even more meanings. There’s the niqaab (نقاب), which i just talked about, but if you change it just the slightest bit to niqaaba (نقابة), it suddenly means syndicate or trade union. Naqiib (نقيب) means a leader or chief. Another form, tanqiib (تنقيب), means oil exploration. AWESOME!

The dual
And then there’s the dual. Most American students hate the dual. I love it. Arabic, as you may know, has not only the singular (1) and the plural (3-10), but the dual (2, of course). This effects noun endings and adjective endings and verb conjugations. Unfortunately there is only the dual in the second and third persons (“you two” and “the two of them”), but not in the first person (“the two of us”). I wish there was. Furthermore, if you talk about three or more people, either all together or as a concatenation of names, you conjugate in the plural, just as you would expect, but if you talk about four or more persons and refer to them grammatically as pairs (i.e., in the dual), you still conjugate in the dual, not the plural! A strange and arbitrary rule, but AWESOME! Regarding the plural, if you are referring to them by specific numbers, only numbers of things or people between 3 and 10 are in expressed the plural. After that, they’re expressed in the singular. Then again, this is only true if you are specifically enumerating the thing. For instance, it’s 1,000,000 talib (the singular for “student”), but if you are talking about them without specifically enumerating them, then they are tulaab (like most masculine nouns in Arabic, talib has a “broken plural”, making it difficult to discern from the singular what the plural will look like until after years of studying the language and it’s peculiar patterns). On a side note, taliban is the dual. I’m given to understand, however, that the Afghani group got its name from the Pashto, where talib is a loan word from Arabic, but taliban in pashto is the plural of “student”, not the dual.


  1. Not you as well! I find the lingo fascinating as well. Nice post 🙂

    Comment by Moammed Amin — December 3, 2009 @ 5:13 am

  2. Sorry – as far my understanding went “masdar” is te infinitive. In the example you gave naqaba – its base word is naqbun. Its from naqbun that naqaba comes and the rest.

    Comment by Moammed Amin — December 3, 2009 @ 5:24 am

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