Introduction to Arabic grammar / مُقَدّمة للنَحْو العَرَبِيّ

Introduction to Arabic grammar / مُقَدّمة للنَحو العَرَبِيّ

This introduction to Arabic grammar is an essential aspect of mastering the Arabic language. Its comprehensive system provides a framework for understanding and constructing sentences accurately and effectively. It is traditionally divided into two main branches which are صَرْف (ṣarf), morphology, and نَحْو (naḥw), syntax.

Morphology, صَرْف (ṣarf), and syntax, نَحْو (naḥw) are two essential components of Arabic grammar, which play a significant role in understanding and constructing sentences in the Arabic language. Here’s an explanation of these concepts:

  • Ṣarf (صرف) – Morphology: refers to the study of word formation and structure in Arabic. It deals with the various patterns and forms that words take when they undergo changes due to their roles in sentences. Sarf covers the root system of the Arabic language, where most words are derived from a combination of three or four root letters. It also includes the various conjugations and forms that verbs, nouns, and adjectives can take depending on their grammatical context. In summary, Sarf is concerned with the internal structure of words and how they change in different linguistic contexts.
  • Naḥw (نحو) – Syntax: focuses on the arrangement of words in a sentence and the relationships between them. It establishes the rules that govern sentence structure, word order, and agreement between different parts of speech. Naḥw helps to determine the grammatical role of each word in a sentence, such as subject, object, verb, adjective, adverb, etc., and how these roles influence the meanings and interpretations of sentences. In essence, Naḥw is concerned with the external structure of sentences and the rules that dictate how words interact with each other.

Both categories can further be divided into several sub-parts which are essential to understand in order to have a comprehensive overview of the Arabic language as a whole.

Sarf (Morphology) – Main Sub-categories:

  • Root System (الجُذُور): Understanding the root system, which typically comprises three or four consonants, is crucial in Arabic, as most words are derived from these roots. The roots carry a basic semantic meaning that is expanded upon or modified through various linguistic processes.
  • Patterns (الأَوْزان): Learning how words are derived from root letters by applying different patterns or scales (الأَوْزان) helps in recognizing and constructing various forms of words, such as nouns, verbs, and adjectives.
  • Verb conjugation (التَصْرِيف): Grasping the conjugation rules for verbs is essential, as it allows learners to use verbs in different tenses, voices, moods, and with different subjects.

Nahw (Syntax) – Main Sub-categories:

  • Parts of Speech (أَقْسام الكَلام): Familiarizing oneself with the three primary parts of speech in Arabic – nouns (اِسْم), verbs (فِعْل), and particles (حَرْف) – is essential for understanding their individual roles and functions within sentences.
  • Sentence Structure (التَرْكِيب): Understanding the different types of sentence structures in Arabic, such as nominal sentences (Jumla Ismiyya) and verbal sentences (Jumla Fi’liyya), helps in constructing and analyzing sentences effectively.
  • Noun cases (الإعراب – al-i’rab): Understanding the inflection of nouns and adjectives based on their grammatical roles in a sentence, such as case, gender, number, and state (definite or indefinite).

Let’s dive now dive into it and see in more detail what each category consists in:

Ṣarf (صرف) – Morphology

The root system (الجُذُور)

The root system (الجُذُور) in Arabic is a fundamental aspect of the language’s morphology and is essential to understanding its structure and formation of words. Arabic is a Semitic language, and like other languages in this family, it relies on a root system composed mainly of three letters. These roots all carry at least one core meaning, which is expanded upon or modified through various linguistic processes to create a vast array of related words. 

By and large, Arabic roots are crafted from three consonants. These consonants are referred to as radicals, because they form the root when combined. Roots consisting of three radicals are known as triliteral roots. Some examples might include:

خ-ر-ج
kh-r-j
ع-م-ل
ʿ-m-l
ف-ت-ح
f-t-ḥ
ك-ت-ب
k-t-b
Root
to go outto workto opento writeCore meaning conveyed

However, there exist a few quadriliteral roots as well. 

س-ي-ط-ر
s-y-ṭ-r
ت-ر-ج-م
t-r-j-m
Root
to dominate/controlto translateCore meaning conveyed

While two-letter or biliteral roots can be found in certain names like يد (hand) and فم (mouth), a lot others have become “triliteralized” over time; thus, allowing the least number of radicals at 3. 

The Arabic root system not only facilitates the understanding of the language but also helps to identify the relationships between words and their meanings. By recognizing the root letters in a word, speakers and learners can often deduce its core meaning and its relation to other words with the same root. This feature makes the Arabic language highly efficient and expressive, allowing for the conveyance of complex ideas and nuanced meanings through a relatively limited set of root letters.

The patterns (الأَوْزان)

The concept of patterns (الأَوْزان, Awzan) is a component of Arabic morphology that plays a vital role in understanding the language’s structure and formation of words. Arabic patterns are the templates applied to root letters to create different word forms, such as nouns, verbs, and adjectives. These patterns allow for the extraction of various meanings and functions from a single root, giving the Arabic language its richness and flexibility. The ability to form numerous related words by applying different patterns to a set of root letters is a distinguishing feature of Arabic and other Semitic languages.

Patterns (الأَوْزان) are integral to the process of deriving words from their roots in Arabic. By modifying the root letters with different patterns, speakers can create words that share a core meaning but differ in terms of tense, voice, gender, or grammatical function. The patterns are known as nominal or verbal models. This is expressed by the addition of vowels, letters, and other modifications to the root.

For example, the root letters د-ر-س (d-r-s) convey the basic meaning of things related to studies or studying. Here are different patterns built on these particular root letters.

Root letters د-ر-س (d-r-s)
تَدْرِيس 
teaching
مُدَرِّس 
a teacher
مَدْرَسة 
a school
دَرَسَ
he studied

Every time, the three letters of a root come in the same sequence. Take for instance ‘teaching’: We begin with ت bearing fatḥa signified by ( َ ), then include a sukūn designated as ( ْ ) on the first letter from root (د), and lastly wedged between the two last root letters is a ي . This corresponds to a particular pattern. Here is the schematic representation of this pattern (using ❌ to denote a root letter).

تَـ ❌ـيـ

With other roots, the same scheme would give the words:

Pattern تَـ ❌ـيـRoot-letters
تَسْجِيل
registration
س-ج-ل
تَطْبِيق
application
ط-ب-ق
تَلْخِيص
summary
ل-خ-ص

By recognizing the patterns at work, speakers can readily identify the relationships between words and their meanings. Mastering the various patterns (أَوْزان) allows to form and comprehend a wide range of words based on a relatively limited set of root letters. Furthermore, proficiency in using patterns facilitates the process of learning new vocabulary, as learners can extrapolate meanings and relations between words by identifying the underlying root letters and the patterns applied to them.

Note: A handful of words are composed solely of a single letter, which then connects to the word that follows. Additionally, complement pronouns (known as pronoun affixes) attach themselves to complete the word. To discover its root form accurately, it is crucial first to distinguish between the real and graphic word before proceeding further.

بِبَيْتِكُم
at your house
ِبـ (preposition) 
كُم (attached pronoun) 

The inflection (التَصْرِيف)

The inflection تَصْرِيف (taṣrīf) is an essential concept in Arabic morphology that refers to the inflection or morphological alteration of words, including both verbs and nouns. It deals with the systematic changes in the form of words to reflect their grammatical roles, tense, voice, mood, gender, number, or case. In essence, taṣrīf is the process of modifying the structure of words to convey different meanings or functions within a sentence.

The concept of تَصْرِيف (taṣrīf) has similarities with the English language, although the specifics of how each language handles inflection may differ. In both languages, words undergo changes in form to reflect their grammatical roles and functions. For example, in English, verbs are inflected to indicate tense (e.g., “write,” “wrote,” “written”) and person (e.g., “I write,” “you write,” “he writes”). Similarly, in Arabic, verbs are conjugated according to tense, voice, mood, person, and number. 

Moreover, in English, nouns can change their form to indicate plurality (e.g., “cat” vs. “cats”) or possession (e.g., “cat” vs. “cat’s”), while in Arabic, nouns undergo declension to show case, gender, number, and state. Although the specific rules and patterns of inflection vary between Arabic and English, the concept of altering the form of words to convey different meanings or functions is a common feature shared by both languages.

Naḥw (نَحْو) – Syntax

Parts of Speech (أَقْسام الكَلام)

Understanding parts of speech (أَقْسام الكَلام) in Arabic is essential for understanding the language’s structure and syntax. These are the fundamental building blocks that form the basis of Arabic grammar. The main parts of speech  (أَقْسام الكَلام) in Arabic are:

  • The noun (الاِسم): represents people, animals, objects, places, or abstract ideas in Arabic. Nouns can be inflected for gender (masculine or feminine), number (singular, dual, or plural), and grammatical cases (nominative, accusative, or genitive). They can also be in either a definite or indefinite state. Classical Arabic grammarians classify nouns as words denoting a meaning not correlated to time.
الكِتاب 
the book 
خالِد 
eternal
أَسَد 
a lion 
مَكّة 
Mecca
  • The verb (الفِعل): conveys actions or states of being and is conjugated to reflect tense, voice, mood, person, and number. Verbs in Arabic are derived from root letters and follow specific patterns (أَوْزان) that determine their meaning and function. Learning the conjugation rules and patterns for verbs is essential for accurate communication in Arabic, as the correct form of a verb is necessary to convey the intended meaning and grammatical function within a sentence. Classical Arabic grammarians classify verbs as words denoting an action correlated to time (past, present, or future).
كَتَبَ 
he wrote
يَكْتُبُ 
he writes 
سَيَكْتُبُ 
he will write  
اُكْتُبْ 
write! (imperative)
  • The particle (الحَرف): a diverse category of words that function as connectors, prepositions, conjunctions, or other grammatical elements that provide structure and context to sentences. Particles do not undergo inflection and are crucial for understanding the relationships between nouns, verbs, and other sentence elements.
أَنْ
that
في
at
مِنْ
from

Sentence Structure (التَرْكِيب)

Sentence structure (التَرْكِيب) in Arabic is somewhat self-explanatory. It refers to the arrangement and combination of words to form sentences and phrases. This aspect of grammar focuses on the structure and relationships between the various components of a sentence, including nouns, verbs, and particles. 

One of the primary aspects of التَرْكِيب is the study of sentence types and their constituents. In Arabic, sentences can be broadly categorized into two main types: الجُمْلَة الاسْمِيَّة (al-jumla al-ismiyya, nominal sentence) and الجُمْلَة الفِعْلِيَّة (al-jumla al-fi’liyya, verbal sentence), which we’ll cover later. Understanding the different sentence structures and their components helps build meaningful and grammatically correct sentences in Arabic.

Grammatical cases (الإِعْراب)

Noun cases (الإِعْراب) refer to the specific categories or roles that declension can indicate for nouns and adjectives in a sentence. In Arabic, there are three main noun cases:

  • Nominative (مَرْفُوع – marfū’): Indicates that a noun or adjective is the subject of a sentence or part of a subject. It is usually marked by a ḍamma ( ـُ ) at the end of the word.
  • Accusative (مَنْصُوب – manṣūb): Indicates that a noun or adjective is the object of a verb, preposition, or particle. It is usually marked by a fatḥa ( ـَ ) at the end of the word.
  • Genitive (مَجْرُور – majrūr): Indicates that a noun or adjective is part of a genitive construction (إِضافة – iḍāfa), which usually represents a possessive relationship. It is usually marked by a kasra ( ـِ ) at the end of the word.

There’s one additional case called the jussive (المَجْزوم – al-majzūm) which is not a case for nouns but is primarily used for verbs. It indicates the jussive mood and typically appears in the context of commands, requests, or expressions of negation. It is usually marked by a sukūn ( ـْ ) at the end of the word.

Last but not least here’s a comprehensive table to understand which words in Arabic are subject to grammatical cases and which ones are not. Nouns subject to grammatical cases are called مُعْرَب (declinable – muʿrab) while the ones which aren’t are called مَبْنِي (indeclinable – mabnī).

DeclinableIndeclinable
NoneAllParticles / الحُروف
Imperfect tense / المُضارِعPerfect tense / الماضي

Verbs / الأَفْعال
plural feminine in the imperfect tense / المُضارع + نُون النِسْوة
Imperative / الأَمْر
Most of themPronouns / الضَمائِر



Nouns / الأَسْماء
Demonstratives / أَسْماء الإشارة
Relative pronouns / الأَسْماء المَوصُولة
Interrogatives / أَسْماء الاِسْتِفْهام

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Introduction to Arabic grammar

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  1. Wow, Maa Shaa Allah! I’m truly impressed by the incredible effort you’ve invested in crafting these comprehensive lessons. I’m a native speaker trying to find lessons to teach my own kids (English speakers) the classical Arabic. I have found that your work is comprehensive. Please continue your fantastic work!

  2. Merci pour ce très bel article. J’étudie un à un vos petits cours pour me préparer à une future formation pour maitriser cette langue fascinante. Concernant le cas indirect (hourouf al-jarr) quelle est la différence entre ism al-majrour et mudaf/mudaf alaihi ? Il est possible que cette notion soit étudiée plus tard. Je vous prie d’être indulgent concernant mes fautes, je n’ai aucune formation universitaire. 🙂

    1. Merci pour votre commentaire, Lio. J’ai créé un forum dédié sur le site qui sert d’espace d’échange pour les questions liées à la langue arabe. J’aimerais bien que vous reposiez la question sous forme d’un nouveau topic au sein du forum car j’essaie en ce moment de le dynamiser (tant bien que mal). Je me ferai un plaisir de vous répondre là-bas, le format y est plus adapté à l’échange.