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A Reference Grammar of Modern Standard Arabic
A Reference Grammar of Modern Standard Arabic is a comprehensive handbook on
the structure of Arabic. Keeping technical terminology to a minimum, it
provides a detailed yet accessible overview of Modern Standard Arabic in
which the essential aspects of its phonology, morphology, and syntax can be
readily looked up and understood. Accompanied by extensive carefully
chosen examples, it will prove invaluable as a practical guide for supporting
students™ textbooks, classroom work, or self-study and will also be a useful
resource for scholars and professionals wishing to develop an understanding
of the key features of the language. Grammar notes are numbered for ease of
reference, and a section on how to use an Arabic dictionary is included, as
well as helpful glossaries of Arabic and English linguistic terms and a useful
bibliography. Clearly structured and systematically organized, this book is set
to become the standard guide to the grammar of contemporary Arabic.

karin c. ryding is Sultan Qaboos bin Said Professor of Arabic, Department of
Arabic Language, Literature and Linguistics, Georgetown University. She has
written a variety of journal articles on Arabic language and linguistics, and
her most recent books include Early Medieval Arabic (1998) and Formal Spoken
Arabic: Basic Course (second edition, with David Mehall, 2005).
A Reference Grammar of
Modern Standard Arabic
Georgetown University
©¤§ µ®©© °
Cambridge, New York, Melbourne, Madrid, Cape Town, Singapore, São Paulo

Cambridge University Press
The Edinburgh Building, Cambridge  µ, UK
Published in the United States of America by Cambridge University Press, New York
Information on this title: www.cambridge.org/9780521771511

© Karin C. Ryding 2005

This publication is in copyright. Subject to statutory exception and to the provision of
relevant collective licensing agreements, no reproduction of any part may take place
without the written permission of Cambridge University Press.

First published in print format 2005

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Cambridge University Press has no responsibility for the persistence or accuracy of µ¬s
for external or third-party internet websites referred to in this publication, and does not
guarantee that any content on such websites is, or will remain, accurate or appropriate.
I am especially indebted to His Majesty Sultan Qaboos bin Said, Sultan of Oman, who
generously endowed the position I occupy at Georgetown University, and whose
patronage of study and research about Arabic language, literature, and culture is well
known and widely respected. It is for this reason that I dedicate this book, with profound
gratitude, to His Majesty.

Preface xvii
List of abbreviations xxii
Acknowledgments xxv

1 Introduction to Arabic 1
1 Afro-Asiatic and the Semitic language family 1
2 An overview of Arabic language history 2
3 Classical Arabic 2
4 The modern period 4
5 Arabic today 5

2 Phonology and script 10
1 The alphabet 10
2 Names and shapes of the letters 11
3 Consonants: pronunciation and description 12
4 Vowels 25
5 MSA pronunciation styles: full form and pause form 34
6 MSA syllable structure 35
7 Word stress rules 36
8 Definiteness and indefiniteness markers 40

3 Arabic word structure: an overview 44
1 Morphology in general 44
2 Derivation: the Arabic root-pattern system 45
3 Word structure: root and pattern combined 49
4 Dictionary organization 49
5 Other lexical types 50
6 Inflection: an overview of grammatical categories in Arabic 51
7 Distribution of inflectional categories: paradigms 55
8 MSA inflectional classes 55
9 Case and mood: special inflectional categories in Arabic 56

viii Contents

4 Basic Arabic sentence structures 57
1 Essential principles of sentence structure 57
2 The simple sentence 58
3 Other sentence elements 72
4 Compound or complex sentences 72

5 Arabic noun types 74
1 Verbal noun (al-maSdar Qó°üŸG) 75
2 Active and passive participle (ism al-faa¬il πYɘdG º°SG,
ism al-maf¬uul «’©˜ŸG º°SG) 83
3 Noun of place (ism makaan ¿Éµe º°SG) 86
4 Noun of instrument (ism al-√aala ádB™G º°SG) 87
5 Nouns of intensity, repetition, profession 88
6 Common noun (al-ism º°S™G) 88
7 Generic noun (ism al-jins ¢ù¦·G º°SG) and noun of instance
(ism al-marra IôŸG º°SG) 89
8 Diminutive (al-taSghiir ’¨°üàdG) 90
9 Abstraction nouns ending with -iyya 90
10 Nouns not derived from verb roots 92
11 Common nouns from quadriliteral and quinquiliteral roots:
(√asmaa√ rubaa¬iyya wa xumaasiyya á«°SɪNh á«YÉHQ Aɪ°SCG) 93
12 Collective nouns, mass nouns, and unit nouns
(ism al-jins ¢ù¦·G º°SG; ism al-waHda IóM’dG º°SG) 94
13 Borrowed nouns 95
14 Arabic proper nouns 96
15 Complex nouns, compound nouns, and compound nominals
(naHt â«f and tarkiib –«côJ) 99

6 Participles: active and passive 102
1 Active participle (AP): (ism al-faa¬ il πYɘdG º°SG) 103
2 Passive participle (PP): (ism al-maf¬uul «’©˜ŸG º°SG) 113

7 Noun inflections: gender, humanness, number, definiteness, and case 119
1 Gender 119
2 Humanness 125
3 Number 129
4 Definiteness and indefiniteness 156
5 Case inflection 165
Contents ix

8 Construct phrases and nouns in apposition 205
1 The construct phrase or √iDaafa áaÉ°VE™G 205
2 Nouns in apposition (badal «óH) 224

9 Noun specifiers and quantifiers 228
1 Expressions of totality 228
2 Expressions of limited number, non-specific number, or partiality 230
3 Expressions of “more,” “most,” and “majority” 234
4 Scope of quantifier agreement 235
5 Non-quantitative specifiers 236

10 Adjectives: function and form 239
Part one: Function 239
1 Attributive adjectives 239
2 Predicate adjectives 240
3 Adjectives as substantives 240
4 Arabic adjective inflection 241
5 The adjective √iDaafa, the “false” √iDaafa
(√iDaafa ghayr Haqiiqiyya ᫤«¤M ’Z áaÉ°VEG ) 253
Part two: Adjective derivation: the structure of Arabic adjectives 254
1 Derivation patterns from Form I triliteral roots 255
2 Quadriliteral root adjective patterns 258
3 Participles functioning as adjectives 258
4 Derivation through suffixation: relative adjectives (al-nisba á‘°ù¦dG) 261
5 Color adjectives 270
6 Non-derived adjectives 273
7 Compound adjectives 274

11 Adverbs and adverbial expressions 276
1 Adverbs of degree 277
2 Adverbs of manner 281
3 Place adverbials 288
4 Time adverbials 290
5 Numerical adverbials 295
6 Adverbial accusative of specification (al-tamyiiz µ««ªàdG) 295
7 Adverbial accusative of cause or reason (al-maf¬uul li-√ajl-i-hi ¬∏LC™ «’©˜ŸG,
al-maf¬uul la-hu ¬d «’©˜ŸG) 296
8 Adverbs as speech acts 297
x Contents

12 Personal pronouns 298
1 Independent personal pronouns (Damaa√ir munfaSila á∏°ü˜¦e ôFɪ°V) 298
2 Suffix personal pronouns (Damaa√ir muttaSila á∏°üàe ôFɪ°V) 301
3 Reflexive expressions with nafs plus pronouns 312
4 Independent possessive pronoun: dhuu noun 312

13 Demonstrative pronouns 315
1 Demonstrative of proximity: ˜this; these™ Gòg haadhaa 315
2 Demonstrative of distance: ˜that; those™ ‚dP dhaalika 316
3 Functions of demonstratives 316
4 Other demonstratives 319

14 Relative pronouns and relative clauses 322
1 Definite relative pronouns 322
2 Definite relative clauses 323
3 Indefinite relative clauses 324
4 Resumptive pronouns in relative clauses 324
5 Indefinite or non-specific relative pronouns: maa Ée and man røne 325

15 Numerals and numeral phrases 329
1 Cardinal numerals (al-√a¬daad OGóYC™G) 329
2 Ordinal numerals 354
3 Other number-based expressions 360
4 Expressions of serial order: “last” 364

16 Prepositions and prepositional phrases 366
1 Overview 366
2 True prepositions (Huruuf al-jarr qô·G ±hôM) 367
3 Locative adverbs or semi-prepositions
(Zuruuf makaan wa-Zuruuf zamaan ¿ÉeR ±hôXh ¿Éµe ±hôX) 386
4 Prepositions with clause objects 400

17 Questions and question words 401
1 √ayn-a nørjnCG ˜where™ 401
2 √ayy-un w¦nCG ˜which; what™ 402

3 kam rºnc ˜how much; how many™ 402

4 kayf-a n∞r«nc ˜how™ 403
5 li-maadhaa GPɪpd ˜why; what for™ 403
Contents xi

6 maa Ée and maadhaa GPÉe ˜what™ 403
7 man røne ˜who; whom™ 405
8 mataa ≈àne ˜when™ 405
9 hal rπng and √a- -C G interrogative markers 405

18 Connectives and conjunctions 407
1 wa- ˜and™ (waaw al-¬aTf ∞£©dG hGh) 409
2 fa- `na ˜and so; and then; yet; and thus™ 410
3 Contrastive conjunctions 411
4 Explanatory conjunctions 412
5 Resultative conjunctions 412
6 Adverbial conjunctions 413
7 Disjunctives 417
8 Sentence-starting connectives 419

19 Subordinating conjunctions: the particle √inna and her sisters 422
1 Introduction 422
2 The particles 425

20 Verb classes 429
1 Verb roots 429
2 Verb derivation patterns: √awzaan al-fi¬l π©˜dG ¿GRhCG 433

21 Verb inflection: a summary 438
1 Verb inflection 438
2 Complex predicates: compound verbs, qad, and verb strings 446

22 Form I: The base form triliteral verb 455
1 Basic characteristics 455
2 Regular (sound) triliteral root (al-fi¬l al-SaHiiH
al-saalim „É°ùdG í««°üdG π©˜dG) 456
3 Geminate verb root (al-fi¬l al-muDa¬¬af ∞q©°†ŸG π©˜dG) 458
4 Hamzated verb root (al-fi¬l al-mahmuuz R’ª¡ŸG π©˜dG) 460
5 Assimilated verb root (al-fi¬l al-mithaal «ÉãŸG π©˜dG) 460
6 Hollow root (al-fi¬l al-√ajwaf ±’LC™G π©˜dG) 461
7 Defective verb root (al-fi¬l al-naaqiS ¢übɦdG π©˜dG) 463
8 Doubly weak or “mixed” verb root 464
9 Verbal nouns of Form I 465
10 Form I participles 470
xii Contents

23 Form II 491
1 Basic characteristics 491
2 Regular (sound) triliteral root 492
3 Geminate (doubled) root Form II 492
4 Hamzated roots in Form II 492
5 Assimilated roots in Form II 493
6 Hollow roots in Form II 493
7 Defective roots in Form II 493
8 Doubly weak roots in Form II 494
9 Examples of Form II verbs in context 494
10 Form II verbal nouns 494
11 Form II participles 496

24 Form III triliteral verb 503
1 Basic characteristics 503
2 Regular (sound) triliteral root 503
3 Geminate (doubled) root Form III 504
4 Hamzated roots in Form III 504
5 Assimilated roots in Form III 505
6 Hollow roots in Form III 505
7 Defective roots in Form III 505
8 Doubly weak roots in Form III 506
9 Examples of Form III verbs in context 506
10 Form III verbal noun 506
11 Form III Participles: 508

25 Form IV triliteral verb 515
1 Basic characteristics 515
2 Regular (sound) triliteral root 516
3 Geminate (doubled) root Form IV 516
4 Hamzated roots in Form IV 517
5 Assimilated roots in Form IV 517
6 Hollow roots in Form IV 517
7 Defective roots in Form IV 518
8 Doubly weak roots in Form IV 518
9 Exclamatory Form IV 518
10 Examples of Form IV verbs in context 519
11 Verbal noun of Form IV 519
12 Form IV participles 521
Contents xiii

26 Form V triliteral verb 530
1 Basic characteristics 530
2 Regular (sound) triliteral root 531
3 Geminate (doubled) root Form V 531
4 Hamzated roots in Form V 531
5 Assimilated roots in Form V 532
6 Hollow roots in Form V 532
7 Defective roots in Form V 532
8 Doubly weak roots in Form V 533
9 Examples of Form V verbs in context 533
10 Form V verbal nouns 533
11 Form V participles 534

27 Form VI triliteral verb 543
1 Basic characteristics 543
2 Regular (sound) triliteral root 543
3 Geminate (doubled) root Form VI 544
4 Hamzated roots in Form VI 544
5 Assimilated roots in Form VI 545
6 Hollow roots in Form VI 545
7 Defective roots in Form VI 545
8 Examples of Form VI verbs in context 545
9 Form VI verbal noun 546
10 Form VI participles 547

28 Form VII triliteral verb 555
1 Basic characteristics 555
2 Regular (sound) triliteral root 556
3 Geminate (doubled) root Form VII 556
4 Hamzated roots in Form VII 556
5 Assimilated roots in Form VII 557
6 Hollow roots in Form VII 557
7 Defective roots in Form VII 557
8 Examples of Form VII verbs in context 557
9 Form VII verbal noun 557
10 Form VII participles 558

29 Form VIII triliteral verb 565
1 Basic characteristics 565
2 Regular or sound roots 568
xiv Contents

3 Geminate (doubled) root Form VIII 568
4 Hamzated roots in Form VIII 568
5 Assimilated roots in Form VIII 569
6 Hollow roots in Form VIII 569
7 Defective roots in Form VIII 569
8 Examples of Form VIII verbs in context 569
9 Verbal nouns of Form VIII 570
10 Form VIII participles 571

30 Form IX triliteral verb 579
1 Basic characteristics 579
2 Sound/regular roots in Form IX 579
3 Geminate (doubled) roots Form IX 580
4 Hamzated roots in Form IX 580
5 Assimilated roots in Form IX 580
6 Hollow roots in Form IX 580
7 Defective roots in Form IX: rare 580
8 Form IX verbs in context 580
9 Verbal nouns of Form IX 580
10 Form IX participles 581

31 Form X triliteral verb 584
1 Basic characteristics 584
2 Sound/regular root 585
3 Geminate (doubled) roots in Form X 585
4 Hamzated roots in Form X 585
5 Assimilated roots in Form X 585
6 Hollow roots in Form X 585
7 Defective roots in Form X 586
8 Examples of Form X verbs in context 586
9 Form X verbal nouns 586
10 Form X participles 587

32 Forms XI“XV triliteral verb 596
1 Form XI: if¬aall-a s«É©apG /ya-f¬aall-u t«É©r˜nj 596
2 Form XII: if¬aw¬al-a nπnYr’n©rapG/ ya-f¬aw¬il-u oπpYr’n©r˜nj 596

3 Form XIII: if¬awwal-a n«nq’n©rapG / ya-f¬awwil-u o«u’n©r˜nj 597
4 Form XIV: if¬anlal-a nπn∏r¦n©rapG / ya-f¬anlil-u oπp∏r¦n©r˜nj 597
5 Form XV: if¬anlaa ≈∏r¦n©rapG /ya-f¬anlii p≈∏r¦n©raj 597
Contents xv

33 Quadriliteral verbs 599
1 Basic characteristics of quadriliteral verb roots
(√af¬aal rubaa¬iyya áq«YÉHQ «É©aCG) 599
2 Form I 599
3 Form II 601
4 Form III 602
5 Form IV 603
6 Examples of quadriliteral verbs in context 603
7 Quadriliteral verbal nouns 604
8 Form I quadriliteral participles 604

34 Moods of the verb I: indicative and subjunctive 606
1 The indicative mood: al-muDaari¬ al-marfuu¬ ´’aôŸG ´QÉ°†ŸG 606
2 The subjunctive mood: al-muDaari¬ al-manSuub Ü’°ü¦ŸG 608
35 Moods of the verb II: jussive and imperative 616
1 The jussive: al-jazm „¦µ·G 616
2 The imperative: al-√amr ôeC™G 622
3 The permissive or hortative imperative: laam al-√amr ôeC™G 632
4 The negative imperative: laa ™ jussive 632

36 Verbs of being, becoming, remaining, seeming
(kaan-a wa-√axawaat-u-haa) 634
1 The verb kaan-a n¿Éc /ya-kuun-u o¿’µnj ˜to be™ 634
2 The verb lays-a n¢ùr«nd ˜to not be™ 637
3 Verbs of becoming: baat-a n¤ÉH √aSbaH-a nín‘r°UnCG, Saar-a nQÉ°U 637
4 Verbs of remaining: baqiy-a n»p¤nH, Zall-a sπnX, maa zaal-a n«GR Ée,
maa daam-a n„¦GO Ée 638
5 Verbs of seeming or appearing 640

37 Negation and exception 641
1 The verb lays-a n¢ùr«nd ˜to not be™ 641
2 Negative particles and their effects 644
3 Exceptive expressions 650

38 Passive and passive-type expressions 657
1 Introduction 657
2 The internal or inflectional passive 659
3 Passive with derived forms of the verb 668
xvi Contents

39 Conditional and optative expressions 671
1 Possible conditions: idhaa GPEG and √in r¿EG 671
2 Conditional expressed with -maa Ée ˜ever™ 674
3 Contrary-to-fact conditionals: la- n`d law . . . r’nd 675
4 Optative constructions 676

Appendix I: How to use an Arabic dictionary 677
Appendix II: Glossary of technical terms 682
References 691
Index 701

This basic reference grammar is intended as a handbook for the general learner “
a step on the way toward greater understanding of the Arabic language. Many
excellent and effective textbooks for teaching Classical Arabic and Modern Stan-
dard Arabic (MSA) exist, as well as published research on a range of topics in
Arabic linguistics (e.g., phonology, morphology, syntax, variation theory), but
information in English on MSA grammatical topics tends to be scattered, and if a
complete answer to a question regarding contemporary usage is needed, some-
times a number of sources need to be consulted.
The idea behind this reference grammar is to gather together in one work the
essentials of MSA in such a way that fundamental elements of structure can be
readily looked up and illustrated. It is intended primarily for learners of MSA as a
practical guide for supporting their textbook lessons, classroom work, or self-
study. This book is not intended in any way to supplant the exhaustive and pro-
found analyses of classical and literary Arabic such as those by Wright (1896,
reprint 1967) and Cantarino (1974“76). Those monumental books stand on their
own and are irreplaceable reference works. This book is a work of considerably
more modest goals and proportions.

1 Goals
This book is not designed to cover the entire field of literary or classical Arabic
grammar. A comprehensive accounting of Arabic grammar is an undertaking of
great complexity and depth, of competing indigenous paradigms (Basran and
Kufan), of several dimensions (diachronic, synchronic, comparative), and of theo-
retical investigation across the spectrum of contemporary linguistic fields (e.g.,
phonology, morphology, syntax, semantics, pragmatics, sociolinguistics, and dis-
course analysis).
The Arabic language is a vast treasure-house of linguistic and literary resources
that extend back into the first millennium. Its grammatical tradition is over a
thousand years old and contains resources of extraordinary depth and sophisti-
cation. Works in English such as Lane™s dictionary (1863, reprint 1984), Wehr™s
dictionary (fourth edition, 1979), Wright™s grammar (1896, reprint 1967), and

xviii Preface

Howell™s grammar (reprint 1986) are seminal contributions in English to under-
standing the wealth of the Arabic linguistic tradition. Yet, for the neophyte, for
the average learner, or for the non-specialized linguist, easily usable reference
works are still needed. This is, therefore, not a comprehensive reference grammar
covering the full range of grammatical structures in both Classical and Modern
Standard Arabic; rather, it centers on the essentials of modern written Arabic
likely to be encountered in contemporary Arabic expository prose.

2 Methodology
The choices of explanations, examples, and layouts of paradigms in this book are
pragmatically motivated rather than theoretically motivated and are not intended
to reflect a particular grammatical or theoretical approach. I have been eclectic in
providing descriptions of Arabic language features and structures, always with the
intent of providing the most efficient access to Arabic forms and structures for Eng-
lish speakers. For example, I have assigned numbers to noun declensions for ease of
reference. Also, I refer throughout the text to “past tense” and “present tense” verbs
rather than “perfect” tense and “imperfect” tense verbs, although this has not been
standard practice for Arabic textbooks or grammars.1 I refer to the “locative
adverbs” (Zuruuf makaan wa-Zuruuf zamaan) as “semi-prepositions” (following
Kouloughli 1994) because it captures their similarities to prepositions.2
Many Arabic terms and classifications, however, such as the “sisters of √inna”
and the “sisters of kaan-a” are highly useful and pragmatic ways of organizing and
presenting morphological and syntactic information, even to nonnative speakers
of Arabic, so they have been retained. I have endeavored to provide both English
and Arabic technical terms for categorized phenomena.
There are those, both traditionalists and non-traditionalists, who will no doubt
disagree with the mode of presentation and grammatical descriptions used in
this book. However, since this text is aimed at learners and interested laypeople as
well as linguists, I hope that the categories devised and the descriptions and
examples provided will be useful, readable, and readily understandable. Translit-
eration is provided for all examples so that readers who do not have a grasp of
Arabic script may have access to phonological structure.

3 The database
This reference grammar is based on contemporary expository prose, chiefly but
not exclusively from Arabic newspapers and magazines, as the main resource for

See the rationale for this choice in Chapter 21 on verb inflection, section 1.2.2.
Grammaire de l™arabe d™aujourd™hui, D. E. Kouloughli refers to Zuruuf makaan wa-Zuruuf zamaan as
“quasi-pr©positions.” (152).
Preface xix

topics and examples of current everyday Arabic writing practice. The grammatical
description that emerges therefore calibrates closely with contemporary written
usage. Media Arabic was chosen as a main source of data for this text because of
its contemporaneousness, its coverage of many different topics, and the extempo-
rary nature of daily reporting and editing. As a primary source of information
about and from the Arab world, newspaper and magazine language reflects Arab
editorial and public opinion and topics of current interest.3 Various subject mat-
ter and texts were covered, ranging from interviews, book reviews, feature stories,
religion and culture, and sports reports, to straight news reports and editorials. In
addition to newspapers, other sources used for data collection included contem-
porary novels and nonfiction. This is therefore strictly a descriptive grammar that
seeks to describe MSA as it is within the parameters noted above, and not to
evaluate it or compare it with earlier or more elegant and elaborate forms of the
written language.
There are doubtless those who would assert that the ordinariness of media lan-
guage causes it to lack the beauty and expressiveness of literary Arabic, and there-
fore that it is unrepresentative of the great cultural and literary achievements of
the Arabs.4 To those I would reply that the very ordinariness of this type of lan-
guage is what makes it valuable to learners because it represents a widely used
and understood standard of written expression. As Owens and Bani-Yasin (1987,
736) note, “the average Arab is probably more exposed to this style than to most
others, such as academic or literary writing.” In fact, it is a vital and emergent
form of written language, being created and recreated on a daily basis, covering
issues from the mundane to the extraordinary. With limited time to prepare its
presentation style, media Arabic reflects more closely than other forms of the
written language the strategies and structures of spontaneous expression.5
Media Arabic is straightforward enough in its content and style to form the
basis for advanced levels of proficiency and comprehension, to expand vocabu-
lary, to create confidence in understanding a wide range of topics, and particu-

Media discourse is described by Bell and Garrett (1998, 3) as “a rich resource of readily accessible
data for research and teaching” and its usage “influences and represents people™s use of and
attitudes towards language in a speech community.” They also state that “the media reflect and
influence the formation and expression of culture, politics and social life” (1998, 4).
Cantarino, for example, in the introduction to his major work, The Syntax of Modern Arabic Prose,
vol. I, states that in compiling his illustrative materials, he consulted a variety of literary sources,
but “Newspapers have generally been disregarded, since Arabic journalism “ like most news
writing around the world “ does not necessarily offer the best or most representative standard of
literary language” (1974, 1:x).
The discipline of “media discourse research” or “media discourse analysis” is a rapidly growing
one in linguistics. See Cotter 2001 for an overview of developments in this field. See also the
cogent discussion of Arabic newspapers and the teaching of MSA in Taha 1995, and Mehall 1999.
xx Preface

larly to provide clear reference points for issues of structural accuracy.6 As
Widdowson has stated, students whose future contexts of use are broad and not
clearly predictable need fundamental exposure to “a language of wider commu-
nication, a language of maximal generality or projection value” (1988, 7). I see
media language as a cornerstone of linguistic and cultural literacy in Arabic; a
medium which can be a useful goal in itself, but also a partial and practical goal
for those who ultimately aim to study the Arabic literary tradition in all its ele-
gance, diversity, and richness.

4 Contents
The book is arranged so that grammar notes are numbered and indexed for ease
of reference; examples provided are based on information in the database. I have
omitted or avoided names of persons and sometimes I have changed the content
words to be less specific. For the most part, I have not created ad hoc examples;
illustrations of syntactic structure are based on authentic usage. A section on how
to use an Arabic dictionary is provided, as well as lists of Arabic and English tech-
nical terms, a bibliography that includes specialized and general works in Arabic,
English, French, and German, and indexes based on Arabic terms and English
Although I have tried to cover a wide range of aspects of contemporary written
Arabic usage, there are bound to be lacunae, for which I am responsible. In terms
of accuracy of description, the entire book has been submitted to native Arabic-
speaking scholars and professional linguists for checking the grammatical
descriptions and examples, but I alone am responsible for any shortcomings in
that respect.

• Proper names have been left unvoweled on the final consonant, except where
the voweling illustrates the grammatical point under discussion.
• For individual words or word groups taken out of context, the nominative
case is used as the base or citation form.
• In giving English equivalents for Arabic structures, I have included in square
brackets [ ] words inserted into English that are not present in the Arabic text
but are necessary for understanding in English.
• I have included in parentheses and single quotes (˜ ™) a more or less exact word-
ing in the Arabic text that does not appear in the English equivalent.

In his article “Broadcast news as a language standard,” Allan Bell discusses the central role of
media in reinforcing and disseminating a prestige standard language, especially in multilingual,
multi-dialectal, or diglossic societies. See Bell 1983.
Preface xxi

• In running text, English equivalents of Arabic lexical items are referred to in
single quotes ˜™.
• In giving English equivalents for Arabic lexical items, essentially synonymous
English meanings are separated by commas, whereas a semicolon separates
equivalents with substantially different meanings.
• For purposes of brevity, in providing English equivalents of lexical items with
broad semantic ranges, I have selected only one or two common meanings.
These are not meant to be full definitions, only very basic glosses.

acc. accusative
adj. adjective
adv. adverb
AP active participle
C any consonant
CA Classical Arabic
comp. comparative
def. definite
demons. demonstrative pronoun
ESA Educated Spoken Arabic
f./ fem. feminine
Fr. French
FSA Formal Spoken Arabic
fut. future
g. gender
gen. genitive
imp. imperative
indef. indefinite
indic. indicative
intr. intransitive
lw loanword
m./masc. masculine
MSA Modern Standard Arabic
n. noun
neg. negative
no. number
nom. nominative
NP noun phrase
o.s. one™s self
obj. object
p./pers. person

List of abbreviations xxiii

pass. passive
perf. perfect
pers. person
pl./plur. plural
plup. pluperfect
pos. positive
PP passive participle
pres. present
pron. pronoun
quad. quadriliteral
QAP quadriliteral active participle
QPP quadriliteral passive participle
refl. reflexive
rel. pron. relative pronoun
s.o. someone
s.th. something
sg./sing. singular
subj. subjunctive
superl. superlative
trans. transitive
v. verb
V any short vowel
vd. voiced
vl. voiceless
VN verbal noun (maSdar)
VP verb phrase
VV any long vowel

Other diacritics:

boldface words indicate key words in examples
(in examples)
boldface syllables indicate primary word stress
morpheme boundary1

For purposes of structural clarity I have indicated inflectional morpheme boundaries within
words when possible. There are points where morpheme boundaries merge (as in the endings of
defective verbs and nouns); in these cases I have omitted a specific boundary marker. I have also
omitted the morpheme boundary marker before the taa√ marbuuTa (-at -a ) and the sound femi-
nine plural ending (-aat).
xxiv List of abbreviations

/ separates singular and plural forms of substantives and
past/present citation forms of verbs, e.g.,
dars/duruus ˜lesson/s™
daras-a/ya-drus-u ˜to study™
// encloses phonemic transcription
˜™ encloses glosses or translations
* indicates a hypothetical or reconstructed form
˜ ˜alternates with; or™

I am indebted to my first editor at Cambridge University Press, Kate Brett, for
encouraging and shepherding this project in its initial stages. I gratefully
acknowledge the support and help of my subsequent Cambridge editor, Helen
Barton, who saw this project through its final stages, to Alison Powell and her
production team, and to Jacque French for her careful copy editing. Deepest
thanks go to Roger Allen and Mahdi Alosh, to my Georgetown colleagues Mohssen
Esseesy, Serafina Hager, Margaret Nydell, Irfan Shahid, and Barbara Stowasser;
and especially to David Mehall, who worked closely with me in editing and pro-
viding the Arabic script of the text.
I would also like to express my deep appreciation to Dr. Omar Al-Zawawi, Spe-
cial Advisor to His Majesty Sultan Qaboos bin Said, Sultan of Oman.
Much gratitude is owed to my colleague Amin Bonnah who advised me
throughout my research on knotty grammatical questions, and whose insight
into and knowledge of the Arabic grammatical system is encyclopedic and
unmatched. Invariably, when I had doubts or questions about particular struc-
tures or usages, I consulted Dr. Bonnah. Invariably, he had the answer or was able
to find it out. If this reference grammar is found useful and valid, it is largely due
to his guidance and contributions.
Any gaps, omissions, errors, or other infelicities in this text are my responsibil-
ity alone.
Sincere thanks go to all the faculty and students in the Arabic Department at
Georgetown University who tolerated my obsession with collecting data, drafting,
and compiling the book over a number of years. And I want to thank my husband,
Victor Litwinski, who through his caring support and virtuoso editing skills made
it possible for me to complete this project.

Introduction to Arabic

Arabic is a Semitic language akin to Hebrew, Aramaic, and Amharic, and more dis-
tantly related to indigenous language families of North Africa. It possesses a rich
literary heritage dating back to the pre-Islamic era, and during the rise and
expansion of the Islamic empire (seventh to twelfth centuries, AD), it became the
official administrative language of the empire as well as a leading language of
international scholarly and scientific communication. It is today the native
language of over 200 million people in twenty different countries as well as the
liturgical language for over a billion Muslims throughout the world.

1 Afro-Asiatic and the Semitic language family
The Semitic language family is a member of a broader group of languages, termed
Afro-Asiatic (also referred to as Hamito-Semitic). This group includes four
subfamilies in addition to Semitic, all of which are indigenous languages of North
Africa: (1) Tamazight (Berber) in the Northwest (Morocco, Mauretania, Algeria,
Tunisia and Libya); (2) the Chad languages (including Hausa) in the Northwest
Central area; (3) ancient Egyptian and Coptic; and (4) the Cushitic languages of
Northeast Africa (Somalia, the Horn of Africa).1 The Semitic part of the family was
originally based farthest East, in the Levant, the Fertile Crescent, and the Arabian
Arabic, Hebrew, Aramaic (including Syriac), and Amharic are living language
members of the Semitic group, but extinct languages such as Akkadian (Assyrian
and Babylonian), Canaanite, and Phoenician are also Semitic. The Semitic lan-
guage family has a long and distinguished literary history and several of its
daughter languages have left written records of compelling interest and impor-
tance for the history of civilization.2

See Zaborski 1992 for a brief description of the Afro-Asiatic language family and its general
For a general description of Arabic and the Semitic group, see Bateson 1967 (2003), 50“58 and Ver-
steegh 1997, 9-22. For a more detailed discussion of the Semitic family and an extensive bibliogra-
phy, see Hetzron 1987 and especially 1992, where he provides a list of fifty-one Semitic languages.
For book-length introductions to comparative Semitic linguistic structure, see Wright 1966, Gray
1934, and especially Moscati 1969.

2 A Reference Grammar of Modern Standard Arabic

2 An overview of Arabic language history
The earliest stages of the Arabic language (Proto-Arabic or Old Arabic) are docu-
mented from about the seventh century BC until approximately the third century
AD, but because of the paucity of written records, little is known about the nature
of the language of those times. The only written evidence is in the form of
epigraphic material (brief rock inscriptions and graffiti) found in northwest and
central Arabia.3
The next period, the third through fifth centuries, is usually referred to as Early
Arabic, a transitional period during which the language evolved into a closer sem-
blance of Classical Arabic. There are again few literary artifacts from this age, but
it is known that there was extensive commercial and cultural interaction with
Christian and Jewish cultures during this time, an era of both Roman and Byzan-
tine rule in the Levant and the Fertile Crescent.4

3 Classical Arabic
The start of the literary or Classical Arabic era is usually calculated from the sixth
century, which saw a vigorous flourishing of the Arabic literary (or poetic) lan-
guage, especially in public recitation and oral composition of poetry, a refined
and highly developed formal oral art practiced by all Arab tribal groups and
held in the highest esteem. During the sixth century, the Arabic ode, or qaS®da,
evolved to its highest and most eloquent form. It was characterized by sophisti-
cated metrics and a “highly conventionalized scheme . . . upwards of sixty cou-
plets all following an identical rhyme.”5
The form of language used in these odes is often referred to as the standard
poetic language or the poetic koinè, and there are conflicting theories as to its
nature “ whether it was an elevated, distinctive, supra-tribal language shared by
the leadership of the Arabic-speaking communities, or whether it was the actual
vernacular of a region or tribe which was adopted by poets as a shared vehicle
for artistic expression. In particular, debate has centered around the existence
and use of desinential (i.e., word-final) case and mood inflection, a central fea-
ture of classical poetry but one which fell increasingly out of use in spoken Ara-
bic, and which no longer exists in the urban vernaculars of today. Since little is

A condensed but authoritative overview of the history and development of Arabic is provided in
the article “Arabiyya” in the Encyclopedia of Islam (1960, I:561“603). See also Kaye 1987 and Fischer 1992.
On the pre-Islamic period in particular, see Beeston 1981 and Versteegh 1997, 23“52. A good general
reference in Arabic is Hijazi 1978.
For a comprehensive, multi-volume study of the Arab world and its relations with Rome and
Byzantium in late classical antiquity see Shah®d 1981, 1984, 1989, and 1995.
Arberry 1957, 15. For further discussion of pre-Islamic Arabic poetry, see Nicholson 1987. See also
Zwettler 1978 for a survey and analysis of the Arabic oral poetry tradition.
Introduction to Arabic 3

known about the nature of the everyday spoken Arabic of pre-Islamic times or
the different levels of linguistic formality that might have been used on differ-
ent occasions, certainty has not been reached on this point, although theories
In the seventh century AD the Prophet Muhammad was gifted over a period of
years (622“632 AD) with the revelation of verses which constituted a holy book,
the QurÉn, in Arabic, which became the key text of the new monotheistic reli-
gion, Islam. The text was rendered into an official version during the reign of the
Caliph c Uthmân (644“656 AD). From that time on, Arabic was not only a language
of great poetic power and sophistication, but also permanently sacralized; as the
chosen language for the QurÉn, it became the object of centuries of religious
study and exegesis, theological analysis, grammatical analysis and speculation.7
Throughout the European medieval period, from the seventh through the twelfth
centuries, the Arabic-speaking world and the Islamic empire expanded and
flourished, centered first in Mecca and Madina, then Damascus, and then Bagh-
dad.8 Arabic became an international language of civilization, culture, scientific
writing and research, diplomacy, and administration. From the Iberian peninsula
in the West to Central and South Asia in the East stretched the world of Islam, and
the influence of Arabic. The vast empire eventually weakened under the growing
influence and power of emerging independent Muslim dynasties, with inroads
made by the Crusades, Mongol invasions from the East, and with the expulsion of
Muslims from the Iberian peninsula in the West. Arabic remained the dominant
language in North Africa, the Levant, the Fertile Crescent, and the Arabian Penin-
sula, but lost ground to indigenous languages such as Persian in the East, and
Spanish in the West.9
The language era from the thirteenth century to the eighteenth is generally
known as “Middle Arabic,” although there is some ambiguity to this term.10 During
this time, the Classical Arabic of early Islam remained the literary language, but the
spoken Arabic of everyday life shifted into regional variations, each geographical

On the nature of the standard poetic language and the pre-Islamic koinè, see Zwettler 1978, especially
Chapter 3; Rabin 1955; Fück 1955; Corriente 1976; and Versteegh 1984, especially Chapter 1.
For a brief introduction to the origins of Islam and the QurÉnic revelations, see Nicholson 1930,
especially Chapter 4.
The main dynasties of the Caliphate are: the Orthodox Caliphs (632“661 AD); the Umayyads, based
in Damascus (661“750 AD); and the Abbasids, based in Baghdad (750“1258 AD).
Arabic has remained the dominant language in countries where the substratum language was orig-
inally Semitic or Afro-Asiatic, but not where the substratum languages were Indo-European, such as
Persia or the Iberian peninsula. Aside from nationalistic and political considerations, linguistic
compatibility between Arabic and its sister languages may have enabled certain populations to
adapt more easily and throughly to Arabic. See Bateson 1967 (2003), 72“73 on this topic.
Versteegh (1997, 114“29) has a cogent discussion of the issues related to “Middle Arabic.” See also
Blau 1961.
4 A Reference Grammar of Modern Standard Arabic

area evolving a characteristic vernacular.11 The spoken variants of Arabic were not
generally written down and therefore not preserved or anchored in any way to for-
malize them, to give them literary status or grammatical legitimacy. They continued
to evolve along their own lively and supple paths, calibrating to the changes of every-
day life over the centuries, but never reaching the status of separate languages.12

4 The modern period
The modern period of Arabic dates approximately from the end of the eighteenth
century, with the spread of literacy, the concept of universal education, the incep-
tion of journalism, and exposure to Western writing practices and styles such as
editorials, short stories, plays, and novels. Many linguists make a distinction
between Classical Arabic (CA), the name of the literary language of the previous
eras, and the modern form of literary Arabic, commonly known (in English) as
Modern Standard Arabic ( MSA). Differences between CA and MSA are primarily in
style and vocabulary, since they represent the written traditions of very different
historical and cultural eras, from the early medieval period to the modern. In
terms of linguistic structure, CA and MSA are largely but not completely similar.
Within MSA, syntax and style range from complex and erudite forms of discourse
in learned usage to more streamlined expression in the journalistic, broadcast-
ing, and advertising worlds. The high degree of similarity between CA and MSA
gives strong continuity to the literary and Islamic liturgical tradition.
In Arabic, both CA and MSA are referred to as al-lugha al-fuSHâ ≈«°ü˜dG á¨∏dG, or
simply, al-fuSHâ ≈«°ü˜dG, which means “the most eloquent (language).” Badawi
(1985) draws a helpful distinction between fuSHâ al-caSr ô°ü©dG ≈«°üa (of the mod-
ern era) (MSA) and fuSHâ al-turâth §GÎdG ≈«°üa (of heritage) (CA). This is by no
means a clear or universally accepted delineation, and opinion in the Arab world
is apparently divided as to the scope and definition of the term fuSHâ ≈«°üa.13

There is speculation that the written/spoken Arabic dichotomy began much earlier, during the
ninth century. See Blau 1961, Versteegh 1984, Fück 1955. For an evaluation of the main theories
of Arabic dialect evolution and an extensive bibliography on the topic, see Miller 1986 and Bateson
1967 (2003), 94“114.
This contrasts distinctively with the situation in the Scandinavian countries, for example, where a
similar situation prevailed in that a mother language, known as Common Scandinavian, prevailed
from about AD 550“1050, and then evolved into six official, literary languages (Danish, Dano-
Norwegian, New-Norwegian, Swedish, Faroese, and Icelandic), plus many dialects. Despite the fact
that the offshoots are all considered independent languages, “within this core [mainland
Scandinavia] speakers normally expect to be understood [by each other] when speaking their
native languages” (Haugen 1976, 23“24).
See Parkinson™s informative 1991 article for an extensive discussion of fuSHâ. In his study of
Egyptian native Arabic speakers™ ability with fuSHâ, he came to the conclusion that “The impor-
tant point here is that people do not agree on a term, and that further they do not agree on what
specific part of the communicative continuum, i.e., what specific varieties, any particular term
should refer to” (33).
Introduction to Arabic 5

5 Arabic today
The Arab world today is characterized by a high degree of linguistic and cultural
continuity. Arabic is the official language of all the members of the Arab League,
from North Africa to the Arabian Gulf.14 Although geography (including great dis-
tances and land barriers such as deserts and mountains) accounts for much of the
diversity of regional vernaculars, a shared history, cultural background and (to a
great extent) religion act to unify Arab society and give it a profound sense of
cohesion and identity.
MSA is the language of written Arabic media, e.g., newspapers, books, journals,
street signs, advertisements “ all forms of the printed word. It is also the language
of public speaking and news broadcasts on radio and television. This means that
in the Arab world one needs to be able to comprehend both the written and the
spoken forms of MSA. However, in order to speak informally with people about
ordinary everyday topics, since there is no universally agreed-upon standard
speech norm, Arabs are fluent in at least one vernacular form of Arabic (their
mother tongue), and they understand a wide range of others. This coexistence of
two language varieties, the everyday spoken vernacular and a higher literary form
is referred to in linguistic terms as “diglossia.”

5.1 Diglossia
The divergence among the several vernacular forms of Arabic, and between the
vernaculars as a whole and the standard written form, make the linguistic situ-
ation of the Arab world a complex one.15 Instead of having one universally
agreed-upon standard speech norm, each major region of the Arab world (such
as the Levant, the Arabian Gulf, the western Arabian peninsula, western North
Africa, Egypt, and the Sudan) has as its own speech norm, a spoken vernacular
coexistent with the written standard “ MSA. Vernacular speech is much more
flexible and mutable than the written language; it easily coins words, adapts
and adopts foreign expressions, incorporates the latest cultural concepts and
trends, and propagates slang, thus producing and reflecting a rich, creative,
and constantly changing range of innovation. Vernacular or colloquial lan-
guages have evolved their own forms of linguistic artistry and tradition in terms
of popular songs, folk songs, punning and jokes, folktales and spontaneous per-
formance art.

Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Sudan, Mauretania, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine, Syria, Iraq,
Kuwait, Bahrein, Qatar, UAE, Oman, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen.
For more on diglossia, see Ferguson 1959a and 1996, and Walters, 1996. See also Southwest Journal of
Linguistics 1991, which is a special issue devoted to diglossia. Haeri 2003 is a book-length study of
the relationships among Classical Arabic, MSA, and colloquial Arabic in Egypt.
6 A Reference Grammar of Modern Standard Arabic

Their changeability, however, also means that Arabic vernaculars may vary sub-
stantially from one another in proportion to their geographical distance. That is,
neighboring vernacular dialects such as Jordanian and Syrian are easily mutually
intelligible to native Arabic speakers; however, distant regional dialects, such as
Moroccan and Kuwaiti, have evolved cumulative differences which result in the
need for conscious effort on the part of the speakers to accommodate each other
and adjust their everyday language to a more mainstream level. Educated native
Arabic speakers have enough mutual awareness of dialect characteristics that
they can identify and adjust rapidly and naturally to the communicative needs of
any situation.16 This spontaneous yet complex adjustment made by Arabic speak-
ers depends on their knowledge of the vast reservoir of the mutually understood
written language, which enables them to intercommunicate. Therefore, Arabic
speakers share a wealth of resources in their common grasp of the literary lan-
guage, MSA, and they can use this as a basis even for everyday communication.
In the re-calibration of Arabic speech to be less regionally colloquial and more
formal, however, some researchers have identified another variation on spoken
Arabic, an intermediate level that is termed “cultivated,” “literate,” “formal,” or
“educated” spoken Arabic.17 Thus, the Arabic language situation is characterized
not simply as a sharp separation between written forms and spoken forms, but as
a spectrum or continuum of gradations from “high” (very literary or formal) to
“low” (very colloquial), with several levels of variation in between.18 As Elgibali
states (1993, 76), “we do not . . . have intuition or scholarly consensus concerning
the number, discreteness and/or stability of the middle level(s).”
These levels are characterized by (at least) two different sociolinguistic dimen-
sions: first, the social function; that is, the situations in which speakers find
themselves “ whether those situations are, for example, religious, formal, aca-
demic, casual or intimate. Secondly, these levels are conditioned by the educa-
tional and regional backgrounds of the speakers. In this intricate interplay of
speech norms, situations, and backgrounds, educated native Arabic speakers eas-
ily find their way, making spontaneous, subtle linguistic adjustments to suit the
dimensions of the occasion and the interlocutors.

For a detailed discussion of variation in Arabic see Elgibali 1993.
Ú˜q¤ãŸG á«qeÉY, or
This is known as “cultivated” speech in Arabic: ¬âmmiyyat al-muthaqqaf®n
Ú˜q¤ãŸG á¨d.
lughat al-muthaqqaf®n A number of Arabic linguists have researched and discussed
this phenomenon, but there is no consensus as to the nature, extent, definition, and use of this
part of the Arabic language continuum. The focus of the dispute centers around the ill-defined
and unstable nature of this particular form of spoken Arabic and whether or not it can be
distinguished as an identifiable linguistic level of Arabic. For more discussion of this point, see
Badawi 1985, Elgibali 1993, El-Hassan 1978, Hary 1996, Mitchell 1986, Parkinson 1993, and Ryding
1990 and 1991.
See, for example, the five levels distinguished in Badawi 1985 and the “multiglossia” of Hary 1996.
Introduction to Arabic 7

5.2 Modern Standard Arabic: MSA
MSA is the written norm for all Arab countries as well as the major medium of
communication for public speaking and broadcasting.19 It serves not only as the
vehicle for current forms of literature, but also as a resource language for com-
munication between literate Arabs from geographically distant parts of the Arab
world. A sound knowledge of MSA is a mark of prestige, education, and social
standing; the learning of MSA by children helps eliminate dialect differences and
initiates Arab children into their literary heritage and historical tradition. It aids
in articulating the connections between Arab countries and creating a shared
present as well as a shared past. Education in the Arab countries universally
reinforces the teaching and maintenance of MSA as the single, coherent standard
written language.
A number of excellent Western pedagogical texts have been developed over the
past fifty years in which MSA is discussed, described, and explained to learners of
Arabic as a foreign language.20 However, up to this point, there has been no com-
prehensive reference grammar designed for use by western students of MSA.

5.3 Arabic academies
Grammatical and lexical conservatism are hallmarks of MSA. Arabic language
academies exist in several Arab capitals (Cairo, Damascus, Baghdad, Amman) to
determine and regulate the procedures for incorporation of new terminology,
and to conserve the overall integrity of MSA.21 Although foreign words are often
borrowed into Arabic, especially for ever-expanding technical items and fields,
the academies try to control the amount of borrowing and to introduce and
encourage Arabic-derived equivalents, such as the Arabic word hâtif ∞JÉg (pl.
hawâtif ∞JG’g) for ˜telephone™ (based on the Arabic lexical root h-t-f ), to counteract
the widespread use of the Arabized European term: tiliif»n ¿ ’˜«∏pJ.
According to Versteegh (1997, 178) “From the start, the goal of the Academy was
twofold: to guard the integrity of the Arabic language and preserve it from dialec-
tal and foreign influence, on the one hand, and to adapt the Arabic language to
the needs of modern times, on the other.” Another researcher states

Arab academies have played a large role in the standardization of modern written
and formal Arabic, to an extent that today throughout the Arab world there is more
or less one modern standard variety. This is the variety used in newspapers, newsreel

For a discussion and definition of this particular term, see McLaughlin 1972.
See, for example, Abboud and McCarus 1983; Abboud, Attieh, McCarus, and Rammuny 1997;
Brustad, Al-Batal, and Al-Tonsi 1995 and 1996; Cowan 1964; Middle East Centre for Arab Studies
(MECAS) 1959 and 1965; Rammuny 1994; Ziadeh and Winder 1957.
For more detail on Arabic language academies see Holes 1995, 251“55 and Stetkevytch 1970, 23“25
and 31“33.
8 A Reference Grammar of Modern Standard Arabic

broadcasting, educational books, official and legal notices, academic materials, and
instructional texts of all kinds. The three academies that have had the greatest influ-
ence are those based in Cairo, Damascus and Baghdad. Among the common objec-
tives of these academies is the development of a common MSA for all Arabic-speaking
peoples. (Abdulaziz 1986, 17).

5.4 De¬nitions of MSA
A fully agreed-upon definition of MSA does not yet exist, but there is a general
consensus that modern Arabic writing in all its forms constitutes the basis of the
identity of the language. Modern writing, however, covers an extensive range of
discourse styles and genres ranging from complex and conservative to innovative
and experimental. Finding a standard that is delimited and describable within
this great range is a difficult task; however, there is an identifiable segment of the
modern Arabic written language used for media purposes, and it has been the
focus of linguists™ attention for a number of years because of its stability, its per-
vasiveness, and its ability to serve as a model of contemporary written usage. Dis-
semination of a written (and broadcast) prestige standard by the news media is a
widespread phenomenon, especially in multilingual, diglossic, and multi-dialectal
One of the most complete descriptions of MSA is found in Vincent Monteil™s
L™arabe moderne in which he refers to “le n©o-arabe” as “l™arabe classique, ou
r©gulier, ou ©crit, ou litt©ral, ou litt©raire, sous sa forme moderne” (1960, 25). That
is, he understands “modern Arabic” to be the modern version of the old classical
language. He also states that “on pourrait aussi le traiter d™arabe ˜de presse™, ©tant
donn© le rôle d©terminant qu™a jou©, et que joue encore, dans sa diffusion . . .
lughat al-jarâ√id” (1960, 27). Defining MSA through its function as the language of
the Arabic news media is a useful way to delimit it since it is not officially codified
as a phenomenon separate from Classical Arabic and because Arabic speakers and
Arabic linguists have differing opinions on what constitutes what is referred to as
al-lugha al-fuSHâ. As Monteil also remarks, “s™il est exact de reconna®tre . . . que
l™arabe moderne ˜se trouve être une langue assez artificielle, une langue plus ou
moins fabriqu©e™ plutôt qu™un ˜usage codifi©,™ il faut d©clarer . . . que ˜c™est une
langue vivante™ et qui ˜correspond à un besoin vital™” (1960, 28). It is these charac-
teristics of newspaper language, its vitality and practicality, that make it a prime
example of modern written Arabic usage.
Elsaid Badawi™s phrase, fuSHâ al-caSr ô°ü©dG ≈«°üa, is his Arabic term for MSA
(1985, 17), which he locates on a continuum (at “level two”) between Classical Ara-
bic (“level one” ) and Educated Spoken Arabic (“level three”). As he points out, the
levels “are not segregated entities,” (1985, 17) but shade into each other gradually.
He identifies level two (MSA) as “mostly written” rather than spoken, and levels
Introduction to Arabic 9

two and three as essentially “in complementary distribution” with each other
(1985, 19), that is, they function in separate spheres, with some overlap.
Leslie McLoughlin, in his 1972 article “Towards a definition of Modern Standard
Arabic,” attempts to identify distinctive features of MSA from one piece of “qual-
ity journalism” (57) and provides the following definition which he borrows from
M. F. Sac ®d: “that variety of Arabic that is found in contemporary books, newspa-
pers, and magazines, and that is used orally in formal speeches, public lectures,
learned debates, religious ceremonials, and in news broadcasts over radio and tel-
evision” (58). Whereas Sac ®d states that MSA grammar is explicitly defined in
grammar books (which would bring it close to CA), McLoughlin finds several
instances in which MSA differs from CA, some of which are lexical and some of
which are syntactic (72“73).
In her Arabic Language Handbook (1967; 2003, 84), Mary Catherine Bateson iden-
tified three kinds of change that differentiate MSA from CA: (1) a “series of
˜acceptable™ simplifications” in syntactic structures, (2) a “vast shift in the lexicon
due to the need for technical terminology,” and (3) a “number of stylistic changes
due to translations from European languages and extensive bilingualism.”
In the research done for this book, a wide variety of primarily expository texts,
including Arabic newspaper and magazine articles, as well as other forms of MSA,
were consulted and put into a database over a period of ten years. The morpho-
logical and syntactic features of the language used in these writings were then
analyzed and categorized. This resulted in the finding that few structural incon-
sistencies exist between MSA and CA; the major differences are stylistic and lexi-
cal rather than grammatical. Particular features of MSA journalistic style include
more flexible word order, coinage of neologisms, and loan translations from west-
ern languages, especially the use of the √iDaafa áaÉ°VEG or annexation structure to
provide equivalents for compound words or complex concepts. It is just this abil-
ity to reflect and embody change while maintaining the major grammatical con-
ventions and standards that make journalistic Arabic in particular, a lively and
widely understood form of the written language and, within the style spectrum of
Arabic as a whole, a functional written standard for all Arab countries.
Phonology and script

This chapter covers the essentials of script and orthography as well as MSA phono-
logical structure, rules of sound distribution and patterning, pronunciation con-
ventions, syllable structure, and word stress. Four features of Arabic script are
distinctive: first, it is written from right to left; second, letters within words are
connected in cursive style rather than printed individually; third, short vowels
are normally invisible; and finally, there is no distinction between uppercase and
lowercase letters. These features can combine to make Arabic script seem impen-
etrable to a foreigner at first. However, there are also some features of Arabic
script that facilitate learning it. First of all, it is reasonably phonetic; that is, there
is a good fit between the way words are spelled and the way they are pronounced.
And secondly, word structure and spelling are very systematic.

1 The alphabet
There are twenty-eight Arabic consonant sounds, twenty-six of which are consis-
tently consonants, but two of which “ waaw and yaa√ “ are semivowels that serve
two functions, sometimes as consonants and other times as vowels, depending on
context.1 For the most part, the Arabic alphabet corresponds to the distinctive
sounds (phonemes) of Arabic, and each sound or letter has a name.2 Arabic letter
shapes vary because Arabic is written in cursive style, that is, the letters within a
word are systematically joined together, as in English handwriting. There is no
option in Arabic for “printing” or writing each letter of a word in independent
form. There is no capitalization in Arabic script and therefore no distinction
between capital and small letters. Letters are instead distinguished by their posi-
tion in a word, i.e., whether they are word-initial, medial, or final. This is true

“Certain consonants have some of the phonetic properties of vowels . . . they are usually referred
to as approximants (or frictionless continuants), though [/w/ and /y/] are commonly called
semivowels, as they have exactly the same articulation as vowel glides. Although phonetically
vowel-like, these sounds are usually classified along with consonants on functional grounds”
Crystal 1997, 159. See also section 4.2.2. this chapter.
For further reading about the Arabic alphabet and its close conformity with the phonemes of the
language, see Gordon, 1970, 193“97.

Phonology and script 11

both in printed Arabic and in handwriting. Handwriting is not covered in this
text, but there are several excellent books that provide instruction in it.3
Every letter has four possible shapes: word-initial, medial, final, and separate.
The following table gives the names of the sounds of Arabic listed in dictionary or
alphabetical order, along with their shapes:4

2 Names and shapes of the letters

Arabic letter shape

Name Final Letter Initial Independent


É` É` G G

baa√ –` `‘` `H Ü
taa√ â` `à` `J ¤
thaa√ å` `ã` `K §
jiim è` `©` `L ê
Haa√ í` `«` `M ¬
xaa√ ï` `®` `N ±
daal ó`` ó`` O O
dhaal ò`` ò` P P
raa√ ô`` ô`` Q Q
zaay µ`` µ`` R R
siin ¢ù` `°ù` `°S ¢S
shiin ¢»` `°»` `°T ¢T
Saad ¢ü` `°ü` `°U ¢U
Daad ¢†` `°†` `°V ¢V
Taa√ §` `W `W •

McCarus and Rammuny, 1974; Brustad, Al-Batal, and Al-Tonsi, 1995; Abboud and McCarus 1983,
part 1:1“97.
There is an older order which is not used for organizing dictionary entries, but which is used in
presenting elements of a text in outline, much as English speakers would make points A., B., and
C. That order is called the √abjad, and is usually recited in the form of words: √abjad, hawwaz,
HuTTii, kalaman, sa¬faS, qurishat, thaxadh-un DaZagh-un (l≠¶°V ò®K â°Tpôb
n n ln n r n o ¢ün˜©°S ønª∏c »p£MRs ’g ón©HGCn ).
r r n nn q o n r
12 A Reference Grammar of Modern Standard Arabic

Arabic letter shape (cont.)

Name Final Letter Initial Independent

Zaa√ ® `¶` `X ®
„` `©` `Y ´
ghayn ≠` `¨` `Z Æ
faa√ ∞` `˜` `a ±
qaaf ≥` `¤` `b ¥
kaaf ‚` `µ` `c ‘
laam π` `∏` `d «
miim º` `ª` `e „¦
nuun ø` `¦` `f ¿
haa√ ¬` `¡` `g √
waaw ’` ’` h h
yaa√ »` `«` `j ¦

The cursive nature of Arabic script, as shown above, requires several forms for
each letter. Most letters are joined to others on both sides when they are medial,
but there are a few that are called “non-connectors” which are attached to a pre-
ceding letter, but not to a following letter. The non-connectors are: √alif, daal,
dhaal, raa√, zaay, and waaw, as shown in the following examples:

country bilaad O“pH
decision qaraar QGônb
soldier jundiyy ¦ó¦oL
delicious ladhiidh òjònd
ministry wizaara InQGRph
star kawkaba án‘ncr’nc
3 Consonants: pronunciation and description
It is impossible to provide a fully accurate description of Arabic sounds solely
through written description and classification. Some sounds are very similar
to English, others slightly similar, and others quite different. This section pro-
vides a phonemic chart and some general principles of pronunciation as well as
Phonology and script 13

descriptions of Arabic sounds. The descriptions given here are for standard MSA
pronunciation. Some sounds have allophones, or contextual variations, as noted.5

3.1 Phonemic chart of MSA consonants

Labial dental Interdental Alveolar Palatal Velar Uvular Pharyngeal Glottal

¤T• ‘ ¥ A
Voiceless t k q √
Ü O D ¢V
Voiced b d

Voiced j

± § ¢S S ¢U ¢T x ± ¬ √
Voiceless f th s sh H h

P Z® zR gh Æ ¬´
Voiced dh

„¦ n¿
Nasals m

Laterals l


h ¦
Semivowels w y

3.2 Description of Arabic consonants
These descriptions are both technical and nontechnical, with examples relating
to English sounds wherever possible.6

1 hamza (√) (A) voiceless glottal stop: like the catch in the voice between
the syllables of “oh-oh”;7
2 baa√ (b) (Ü) voiced bilabial stop; /b/ as in “big”;
3 taa√ (t) (¤) voiceless alveolar stop; /t/ as in “tin”;

Colloquial regional variants, such as the pronunciation of /j/ as /y/ in the Arab Gulf region, or /k/
plus front vowel as /ch/ in Iraqi colloquial, are not provided here because they are nonstandard for
formal pronunciation of MSA.
For an in-depth, traditional account of Arabic phonetics, see Gairdner 1925. For technical analyses
of Arabic phonology and its history, see Al-Ani 1970 and Semaan 1968.
As Gairdner points out, another good example of this in English would be the hiatus prefixed to
the stressed word “our” in the sentence “It wasn™t our fault” (1925, 30).
14 A Reference Grammar of Modern Standard Arabic

voiceless interdental fricative; / / or /th/ as in “thin”;8
4 thaa√ (th) (§)
5 jiim (j) (ê) There are three standard regional variants:
(a) voiced alveopalatal affricate; / j/ as in “jump”;
(b) voiced alveopalatal fricative (zh): as the /z/ in “azure”
or the medial sound in “pleasure”;
(c) voiced velar stop; /g / as in “goat”;9
6 Haa√ (H) (¬) voiceless pharyngeal fricative; a sound produced deep in
the throat using the muscles involved in swallowing.
Constrict these muscles while at the same time pushing
breath through “ as though you were trying to stage-
whisper “Hey!”10
7 xaa√ (x) (±) voiceless velar fricative; like the /ch/ in Bach or Scottish
loch; in some romanization systems it is represented by
8 daal (d) (O) voiced alveolar stop; /d/ as in “door”;
9 dhaal (dh) (P) voiced interdental fricative: /D/ or /dh/ pronounced like
the /th/ in “this”;
10 raa√ (r) ( Q) voiced alveolar flap or trill: as /r/ in Italian or Spanish; a
good example in English is to pronounce the word “very”
as “veddy”;
11 zaay (z) (R) voiced alveolar fricative: /z /as in zip;
12 siin (s) (¢S) voiceless alveolar fricative: /s/ as in sang;
13 shiin (sh) (¢T) voiceless palatal fricative: /sh/ as in ship;
14 Saad (S) (¢U) voiceless velarized alveolar fricative: /s/ but pronounced
farther back in the mouth, with a raised and tensed
15 Daad (D) (¢V) voiced velarized alveolar stop: /d/ but pronounced
farther back in the mouth, with a raised and tensed
16 Taa√ (T) (•) voiceless velarized alveolar stop: /t/ pronounced farther
back in the mouth, with a raised and tensed tongue;

Arabic has two different symbols for the two phonemes or different kinds of “th” in English - the
voiceless, as in “think” (often transcribed as / / ) and the voiced interdental as in “them” (often
transcribed as / D /). Thaa√ /§/ is the voiceless one whereas dhaal /P/ is voiced. In this text, the
voiceless version / / is romanized as /th/, and the voiced / D / as /dh/.
The variations are essentially as follows: the first is more characteristic of the Arabian Peninsula
and Iraq, the second more Levantine and North African, and the third specifically Egyptian and
Sudanese pronunciation. Occasionally, a mixed pronunciation of jiim is found, with one variant
alternating with another, especially /j/ and /zh/.
The nature of the pharyngeal consonants Haa√ and ¬ayn is described in detail in McCarus and
Rammuny 1974, 124“34 and in Gairdner 1925, 27“29.
Phonology and script 15

17 Zaa√ (Z) (®) There are two standard variants of this phoneme:
(a) voiced velarized interdental fricative: /dh/ as in
“this” pronounced farther back in the mouth, with a
raised and tensed tongue;
(b) voiced velarized alveolar fricative: /z/ pronounced
farther back in the mouth with a raised and tense
ayn ( c ) (´)
18 voiced pharyngeal fricative: this is a “strangled” sound
that comes from deep in the throat, using the muscles
used in swallowing;12
19 ghayn (gh) (Æ) voiced velar fricative: a “gargled” sound, much like
French /r/;
20 faa√ (f ) (±) voiceless labiodental fricative: as /f / in “fine”;
21 qaaf (q) (¥) voiceless uvular stop: this is made by “clicking” the
back of the tongue against the very back of the mouth,
where the uvula is;
22 kaaf (k) (‘) voiceless velar stop: /k/ as in “king”;
23 laam (l) («) voiced lateral: this has two pronunciations:
(a) /l/as in “well” or “full” (back or “dark” /l/ );13
(b) /l/as in “lift” or “leaf” (fronted or “light” /l/ );14
24 miim (m) („¦) voiced bilabial continuant: /m/ as in “moon”;
25 nuun (n) (¿) voiced nasal continuant: /n/ as in “noon”;
26 haa√ (h) (√) voiceless glottal fricative: /h/ as in “hat”;
27 waaw (w) or (uu) (h) bilabial semivowel: /w/ as in “wind” or long vowel
/uu/ pronounced like the “oo” in “food”;
28 yaa√ (y) or (ii) (¦) palatal semivowel: /y/ as in “yes” or long vowel /ii/
pronounced like the long /i/ in “machine.”15

The notation of Arabic consonants and their use in orthography is quite
straightforward, except for the following considerations, which are described in
detail: the orthography and pronunciation of the letter hamza, the spelling and
pronunciation variants of the the taa√ marbuuTa, and the doubling of consonant

Pronunciation of Dhaa / Zaa√ varies regionally; the interdental and alveolar fricatives are the most
widely accepted.
See note 10.
Technically, this variant of /l/ is velarized. The tongue is raised in the back of the mouth. Although
primarily an allophonic variant, for a theory of its status as a separate phoneme in Arabic, see
Ferguson 1956.
This variant of /l/ is more fronted and palatalized even than the light /l/ in English and is closer to
French /l/ as in “belle.” See Gairdner 1925, 17“19 for discussion of “dark” and “light” /l/.
When yaa√ is the final letter of a word, it is printed without dots in Egyptian publications;
elsewhere in the Arab world, it receives its two dots at all times and in all positions.
16 A Reference Grammar of Modern Standard Arabic

strength (gemination). The nature of the approximants (semivowels) waaw and
yaa√ is also discussed at greater length under the section on vowels.

3.3 hamza rules: orthography and pronunciation
There are two kinds of hamza, strong and weak. Strong hamza is a regular conso-
nant and is pronounced under all circumstances, whether in initial, medial, or

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