Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Arabic Words

Overview of Words

As mentioned in the introduction to the grammar section, words in Arabic are divided into three categories. The following is a more detailed treatment of this.

·         اسم pl. أسماء (noun): This category is defined as those words that impart a single meaning on their own  and do not afford a tense. Roughly speaking, this is equivalent to what we know in English as nouns, pronouns, adjectives, and adverbs.
·         فعل pl. أفعال (verb): This category is defined as those words that impart a single meaning on their own  and afford a tense. This is exactly what we in English know as verbs.
·         حرف pl. حروف (particle): This category is defined as those words that do not impart a meaning on their own . Roughly speaking, this is equivalent to what we know in English as prepositions, conjunctions, articles, and other particles.

Particles don’t impart a meaning on their own. This means that they are only understood when other words are mentioned along with them. In fact, their very purpose is to expose certain attributes in the words around them. For example, the word “and” cannot be understood fully unless it has something to its right and left, as in “you and I”. The purpose of “and” in this example is to expose the attribute of conjunction in the words “you” and “I”. Another example is the word “from”. On its own, it doesn’t give a clear meaning and it needs to have something after it, as in “from Basra”. In the example, the word “from” exposes the attribute within Basra of being an origin. Without “from”, this attribute would not have otherwise been apparent.

Hence any word that does not impart a meaning of its own accord, rather it helps expose attributes of other words, is a particle. If this is not the case, then the word is either a noun or a verb.

Now, nouns do not afford a tense whereas verbs do. Consider the word “yesterday”. This is either a noun or a verb since it imparts a single meaning on its own. But which of the two is it? The word “yesterday”, although its meaning has something to do with time, does not afford a tense. Hence it is a noun. On the other hand, a word such as “go” does afford a tense (the future in this case). Hence it is a verb.

These three categories cover all of the words in the Arabic language and they are mutually exclusive. That is to say, any given word must fit into one, and only one, of the above.


Nouns are categorized in many ways. The following is a list of all the useful ways in which a noun can be classified. Each one has its own place in grammar and this tutorial will give only a brief introduction to each plus a link to more dedicated tutorials as they are made available.

·         gender: all nouns are either
o   masculine or
o   feminine
·         plurality: all nouns are either
o   singular,
o   dual, or
o   plural
·         derivation: all nouns are either
o   not derived and nothing is derived from them,
o   a source of derivation (also known as a gerund), or
o   derived from a gerund
·         definiteness: all nouns are either
o   indefinite or
o   definite
·         grammatical reflection
o   many sub-categories


Nouns in Arabic are either masculine or feminine; there is no neutral gender. By default, a noun is masculine unless it has one of the four signs of femininity on it. The signs of femininity are as follows.

  1.        the explicit round Taa, called تاء مربوطة if it is attached to the letter before it (ـة) or تاء مُدَوَّنة if it is detached (ة)
  2.        the assumed round Taa
  3.        the الف مقصورة (ى) that comes at the end of nouns and is beyond the base letters
  4.        the الف ممدودة (ـاء) that comes at the end of nouns and is beyond the base letters

Method of Feminization
Round Taa
مسلمة (female Muslim)
Assumed round Taa
عين (eye)
الف مقصورة
عُلْيى (most high)
الف ممدودة
أَذْكِياء (erudite people)

There is quite a bit more to be said about gender, but that will be discussed in a dedicated tutorial.


In Arabic, nouns are either singular (there’s one of them), dual (there are two of them), or plural (there are three or more of them). A singular noun is typically made dual by adding either the suffix ـانِ or the suffix ـينِ, depending on the grammatical case of the noun.

تِـنِّـيْـن (dragon)
تِـنِّـيْـنَانِ / تِـنِّـيْـنَـيْنِ

This is seemingly quite simple, and most of the time this is all there is to it. However, there are some rules to noun duality which will be discussed in a dedicated tutorial.

A singular noun may be made plural in one of two ways. One method of pluralisation is to add the suffix ـونَ or ـينَ (depending on the grammatical case) for masculine nouns, and the suffix ـات for feminine nouns. These are called sound plurals. Another method for forming plurals is to use certain patterns. These are called broken plurals.

طالبُوْنَ / طالبِيْنَ (sound masculine)
طالبات (sound feminine)
طُلاَّب (broken)

There is a lot to be discussed with respect to plurals in Arabic. The tutorial entitled Pluralisation gives a detailed account of plurals, and the tutorial entitled Broken Plurals is an advanced discussion about forming broken plurals.


With respect to whether a noun has been derived using morphology or not, nouns fall into exactly one of three categories. A noun could be such that it has not been derived and nothing has been derived from it. These are called frozen nouns and an example of this is the word شجرة (tree). A noun could be such that other words are derived from it using the rules of morphology. This type of noun is called a gerund and an example is the word لعب (to play / playing). Finally, a noun could be derived from a gerund. Such nouns are called derived nouns and examples include the active participle, the passive participle, the superlative, and others.

There is nothing to be said about frozen nouns; they are simply looked up in the dictionary. Very deep Arabic etymology does, however, give some attention to these types of nouns. For a detailed account of this, refer to the advanced tutorial entitled Greater Etymology. Gerunds are not thoroughly studied because there is little to be said about them beyond their patterns. For a brief look at gerunds, refer to the tutorial entitled Verb Paradigms, where the most common gerunds are given. And finally, derived nouns are discussed thoroughly in the Derived Nouns tutorial.


By default, a noun is indefinite. There is no article, sign, or any mechanism that indicates this. In order to make a noun definite, one of seven things must be done. In other words, there are seven ways in which a noun is made definite; if none of those have been used, the noun is indefinite.

The methods of definiteness are as follow
  1.        the noun is a personal pronoun (“هو”)
  2.        the noun is a demonstrative pronoun (“هذا”)
  3.        the noun is a relative pronoun (“الذي”)
  4.        the noun is a proper noun (“Saudi Arabia”)
  5.        it is prefixed with the definite article الـ
  6.        it is a non-final noun in a possessive structure and the final noun is definite
  7.        the noun comes after a particle of vocation (“يا رجل”)

Most of the above are topics with their own place in grammar and it is not appropriate to give their details here. Dedicated tutorials will be made available for each of them.

Grammatical Reflection

Most nouns in the language experience grammatical inflection. This results in nouns entering different grammatical cases depending on how they’re being used in a sentence. But not all nouns reflect their case in the same manner. So when we divide nouns based on how grammatical cases are represented on them, we get 16 categories. For a full treatment of this topic and this list of 16 categories, refer to the Reflection of Grammatical Case tutorial.


The above ways of classifying a noun are separate from one another. Thus a given noun will have a particular gender, a plurality, a derivation class, a type of definiteness, and a method of grammatical inflection. All of these methods of classification will apply to a given noun.

For example, the word شجرة (tree) is
  •        in terms of gender: feminine
  •        in terms of plurality: singular
  •      in terms of derivation: frozen
  •        in terms of definiteness: indefinite
  •         in terms of its method of grammatical inflection: Reflection Type I


Arabic morphology has its own way of classifying and dealing with verbs. The main topic of grammar, however, is grammatical inflection. In light of this concept, grammar divides verbs into the following categories.

  •        ماضي (perfect): the past tense verb
  •         مضارع (imperfect): this includes the present, future, prohibition and all variations
  •         أمر حاضر معروف (imperative): this includes only the active, second-person conjugations of the command verb

The Grammatical Inflection tutorial discusses which of the above types of verbs inflect for grammatical case, and the Grammatical Reflection tutorial discusses how that inflection is reflected on the verb.


There are less than 80 particles in the entire language. Due to the number being so small, it is possible to categorize them based on their meanings and their effects, explaining the meaning of each particle one by one.

Particles are divided into the following 15 categories.
  1.        حروف الجر: genitival particles
  2.        الحروف المشبهة بالفعل: the particles that resemble verbs
  3.        الحروف العاطفة: conjunctions (e.g. “and”)
  4.        حروف التنبيه: particles used for alerting (e.g. “Hey!”)
  5.        حروف النداء: vocative particles (e.g. “O”)
  6.        حروف الإيجاب: particles for affirmative answers (e.g. “yes”)
  7.        حروف الردع: particles used for negative answers (e.g. “never”)
  8.        الحروف الزائدة: extra
  9.        حروف التفسير: particles that introduce an explanatory sentence (e.g. “i.e.”)
  10.    حروف المصدر: gerundival particles
  11.    حروف التحضيض: particles use for prodding
  12.    حروف القرب: particles used to indicate nearness in time or certainty (e.g. “has/had”)
  13.    حروف الإستفهام: interrogative particles
  14. 14.   حروف الشرط: conditional particles
  15. 15.   Miscellaneous

Since there are so many categories, they will not be discussed at this point.

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