An Introduction To My Arabic: A Key To The Front Door

Thus far, I have talked about some general approaches to learning the Arabic language for those on that path. I wanted to drive home the point of just how difficult it is to learn this language for most folks, a difficulty that is partially theirs [what are you study skills like? Are you able to focus? Do you have a foundation in English grammar, etc.?] and a difficulty that is imposed on students of the language through cumbersome books, teaching methods, etc. I will now begin to post a few breadcrumbs on the path; they won’t sustain you but hopefully they will wet your appetite and provide some general directions for you to head in.

Verbs

Arabic is a language of verbs. This isn’t to say that there aren’t nouns, but to simplify your approach, think of Arabic as a language of verbal roots. Most of these roots are, what we call them in the English language, trilateral roots.

Root Definition Root Definition Form
سجد to bow/prostrate حد to sharpen/hone فعل
سجدة prostration حدة sharpness/distinctiveness فعلة
سجود prostration فعول
سجاد a prostrator/one who does prostration حداد a blacksmith/one who does ironsmithing فعال
سجادة a rug/something that is prostrated on حدادة the art of blacksmithing or ironworking فعالة
مسجد a mosque/place where prostration if performed مفعل
مسجد a prostration mark/the result of prostration مفعل
ساجد a prostrator/someone doing prostration مفعل

Let’s look at this small chart above. This is what’s known as awzan al-af’al أوزان الأفعال, or the forms of verbs. It’s also the beginning of the science of morphology or sarf علم الصرف. I mention these to you here not to scare you with burdensome taxonomy, but to begin to open some doors.

You should also know that Arabic is a language of patterns, just like the mosaics we see in the tile work of Muslim artisans. In the first row, we have the verbs “sa-ja-da” and “ha-d-da”. They are on the form or wazn of “fa-a-la”. Don’t worry about conjugation [also known as ‘i’rab اعراب] for now. Just concentrate on the “patterns”. Let’s look at the shared morphology between these two verbs: look at lines 1, 2, 4, and 5. Notice how the first line [the root] informs the other inflections of the word: to bow becomes prostration which becomes one who does the act of prostration [as a matter of habit or habitual action!] to the place of prostration and finally, to the result of prostration [line 6 is pronounced masjid while line 7 is pronounced masjad – the latter being the mark you see on people’s forheads from years of prostration].

Now, look at “ha-d-da”: to sharpen or hone becomes sharpness or distinctiveness [which is interesting: the act of sharpening a knife, for example, “distinguishes” the blade from a dull one of that the edge, upon sharpening, becomes “distinct”], which becomes the one who sharpness/hones/works with metal [a.k.a., a blacksmith – again, habitual action!], which becomes smithing. Line one is on the form of “fa-a-la” while line four is “fa’aal”; one simply exchanges the “fa”, “‘ayn”, or “lam” for the three roots letters in the form [in the case of a root like “ha-dda”, the “dal” is doubled up and therefore is also “doubled” in the form: “fa’aal” becomes “ha-daad“. This form of “fa’aal” is a common form to connote livelihoods, because, especially in the “olden days” a person’s profession was something that did habitually, over and over again: sajjaad سجاد is someone who makes sajdah all the time, or a Muslim. Likewise, the verb to cook: “ta-ba-kha” طبخ, becomes in this form, “ta-bbaa-khطباخ“a cook” or a chef; to bake: “kha-ba-za” خبز, becomes in this form, “kha-bbaa-z” خباز”a baker”. This form is even seen in the Qur’an, as Allah says:

إن بطش ربك لشديد إنه هو يبدئ ويعيد و هو الغفور الودود ذو العرش المجيد فعّال لما يريد

“Indeed your Lord’s Assault is severe! [12]. He originates and renews [13]. He is the Ever-Forgiving, the All-Loving [14], the Possessor of the Throne, the All-Glorious [15], the Doer of whatever He desires [16].” [Qur’an: 85: 12-16]

And again, in this passage:

قل إنما أنا منذر وما من إله إلا الله الواحد القهّار

“Say: ‘I am only a warner. There is no diety except God, the One, the All-Conquering.” [Qur’an: 38: 65]

The point here is to show that one, this form is a common form and two, to highlight the importance of pattern recognition. Pattern recognition is extremely importance to becoming competent at understanding Arabic and the nuances of the language. In the above examples, “fa’aal” demonstrates Allah’s majesty and power that Allah does what Allah wills constantly. Similarly, al-Qahhar—one of the Ninety Nine Names of God—is emphatic of God’s attribute as the Conqueror of creation at all times, perpetually.

So work on pattern recognition and in the next post, we’ll begin to talk about the awzan al-af’al أوزان الأفعال and how the meanings morph and change as we move through the different “baabs”.

5 Comments An Introduction To My Arabic: A Key To The Front Door

  1. kweichinger@gmx.de'Klaus

    Are there any books you would recommend on this subject?
    I’ve been studying Arabic for quite a while now and repeatedly I’ve realized that knowing this system well is probably the most important thing to know about the language. Especially because it makes memorizing vocabulary so much easier!
    Unfortunately most textbook authors don’t seem to think so and treat the subject inadequately at best. I’ve even used one that didn’t explain it at all.
    Also, I really would like to read your thoughts on books, teachers and didactic poems. Did I miss that or haven’t you posted it yet?

  2. azynas1@yahoo.ca'Azy

    ساجد a prostrator/someone doing prostration مفعل

    Shouldn’t the form here be فاعل instead of مفعل

  3. Marc

    @Azy,

    Wa ‘alaykum salaam. The form of sajid/ساجد is correct but it’s for the one who’s doing the action at that moment: “I am making prostration to God”/أنا ساجد إلى الله. “I am going to the store”/أنا ذاهن إلى السوق. However, the form of fa’al/فعّال in this case sajjad/سجّاد gives the inflection that it is something that the doer does frequently, regularly, that in some way the action defines them in some way (that it is in perpetuity). This is why we call a blacksmith someone who constantly works with metal: haddad/حدّاد; a baker who works all the time with bread (khubz/خبز): khabbaz/خبّاز. I hope this distinction is made clear for you.

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