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”.

An Introduction To My Arabic – How To Begin

To continue on the topic of learning Arabic, I will share a few more thoughts that I think will prove useful, God willing, for the aspiring student. I will lay down some tips for the beginner and give some additional information on some of the steps I took in my journey to learn the Arabic language.

My first tip here is something of a precursor to the journey into Arabic (or any foreign language for that matter): tidy up your own ship before booking passage on another. What I mean here is simple: if you wish to learn the complexities of Arabic grammar, morphology, sentence structure, and rhetoric (to name a few) then it will require you to brush up (for the adept) or (even more likely) learn these subjects in the English language first. I will list my reasons in succession.

First, we’ll start with grammar. Being that most books, programs, and classes (over) emphasize grammar, it will require even the fairly educated to go back and refresh their memory on this topic. Being that most students in the U.S. who were born after the 1960’s or so (rough guess) did not learn grammar, this topic may appear to be entirely new or unfamiliar. The result for these students is that they must now learn two languages at the same time: a new technical language in English to express the intricacies of grammar as well as a new foreign language (here meaning Arabic). Let me provide an example:

“The Arabs call declension i’rab اعراب, and words fully declined are said to be munsarif منصرف. However, certain classes of noun are not fully declined, and are termed ghair munsarif غير منصرف [other than munsarif]. European grammarians sometimes called these diptotes as opposed to the regular triptotes.” Source: A New Arabic Grammar of the Written Language by J.A. Haywood and H. M. Nahmad.

As you can see, the language in this book (considered to be a standard manual on the university level) is very technical on the English side, let alone the grammar-specific terms it’s addressing in Arabic. Most students will find this language to be somewhat inaccessible due to their lack of familiarity with technical grammatical language. In my interactions with students who have studied Arabic language, most if not all related that this process expanded their knowledge of English grammar (in some cases, it was their first introduction to grammar period). All admitted that they would have benefitted from learning English grammar first before starting off on this path.

I will address in the next post my thoughts on books, teachers, and didactic poems.