. 2
( 23)


final position in a word. Weak hamza or “elidable” hamza is a phonetic device that
helps pronunciation of consonant clusters and only occurs at the beginning of a
word. It is often deleted in context.

3.3.1 Strong hamza (hamzat al-qaT¬ „r£n¤rdG Inµrªng):
The Arabic letter hamza (√) is often written with what is termed a “seat,” or “chair”
(kursii »°Srôoc in Arabic), but sometimes the hamza sits aloof, by itself. There is a set
of rules to determine which chair, if any, hamza will take, depending on its posi-
tion within a word, as follows: CHAIR RULES
(1) The chairs used for hamza are identical with the letters for long vowels: √alif,
waaw, and yaa√. When yaa√ is used as a seat for hamza, it loses its two dots.
(2) When used as chairs, the long vowels are not pronounced. They appear in
the script only as seats for the hamza, not as independent sounds.
(3) The choice of which chair to use (√alif, waaw, or yaa√) is determined by two
things: position of the hamza in the word and/or the nature of the vowels
immediately adjacent to hamza. INITIAL hamza CHAIR RULES: When hamza is the initial consonant in a word,
it has an √alif seat. When the vowel with hamza is a fatHa or Damma, the hamza is
written on top of the √alif, and when the vowel with the hamza is kasra, the hamza
is usually written under the √alif.16 Note that the vowel after hamza can be a short
or a long one. In written Arabic, hamza in initial position is usually invisible,
along with its short vowel. Here it is provided.

mother q„¦oCG
professor PÉàr°SoCG
where? nørjnCG
bigger ôn‘rcnCG
Islam „¦“r°SpGE
Iran ¿GôjpEG

In certain kinds of script, the hamza with kasra is split, with the hamza remaining on top of the
√alif and the kasra being written below.
Phonology and script 17 hamza When hamza occurs in the middle of a word, it normally
has a seat determined by the nature of its adjacent vowels. The vowel sounds
contiguous to hamza, on either side, whether short or long, have a firm order of
priority in determining the seat for hamza. That order is: i-u-a. That is, the first
priority in seat-determination is an /i/, /ii/, or /y/ sound, which will give hamza a
yaa√ seat (yaa√ without dots). In the absence of an /i/ sound, an /u/ or /uu/ sound
gives hamza a waaw seat, and this has second priority. If there is no /i/ or /u/ sound,
an /a/ or /aa/ gives hamza an √alif seat, and this has the lowest priority. This system
is easier to understand with examples:

yaa√ seat:

organization hay√a án„r«ng
deputy naa√ib –pFÉf
Israel π«FGôr°SpEG

well bi√r ô„pH
refuge maw√il πpFr’ne
he was asked su√ila nπp„o°S
waaw seat:

educator mu√addib ÜqpOnD’oe
affairs shu√uun ¿hD’o°T
he composes yu√allif ∞pqdnD’oj
question su√aal «GD’o°S
feminine mu√annath åsfnD’oe
(3) √alif seat:

visa ta√shiira In’°TrCÉnJ
she asked sa√alat rândnCÉn°S
head ra√s ¢SrCGnQ
late, delayed muta√axxir

(4) Medial aloof hamza: When hamza occurs medially after waaw as long vowel
/uu/, or after √alif followed by an /a/ sound, it sits aloof. In general, Arabic
script avoids having two adjacent √alifs.
18 A Reference Grammar of Modern Standard Arabic

measures ¤GAGôrLpEG
attacks i¬tidaa√aat ¤GAGópàrYpG
manliness, valor muruu√a InAhôoe
he wondered tasaa√ala n«nAÉ°ùnJ hamza: When hamza is the final letter of a word, it can either sit
aloof or have a seat.

(1) Aloof: Hamza sits aloof at the end of a word when it is preceded by a long

calmness huduu√ Ahóog
port miinaa√ Aɦ«e
free; innocent barii√ A¦ônH
Or when it is preceded by a consonant (with sukuun):

part juz√ ArµoL
thing shay√ Ar»n°T
burden Ar–pY

(2) On a seat: Final hamza sits on a seat when it is preceded by a short vowel.
The nature of the short vowel determines which seat hamza will have. A
fatHa gives it an √alif seat, a kasra gives it a yaa√ (without dots) seat, and a
Damma gives it a waaw seat.

prophecy tanabbu√ D’t‘n¦nJ
shore shaaTi√ …pWÉ°T
warm daafi√ …paGO
principle mabda√ CGnór‘ne
(3) Shift of seat with suffixes: It is important to note that word-final hamza may
shift to medial hamza if the word gets a suffix and hamza is no longer the final
consonant. Suffixes such as possessive pronouns (on nouns) and verb inflec-
tions cause this to happen. Short vowel suffixes (case and mood-markers) nor-
mally do not influence the writing of hamza. Here are some examples:

friends (nom.) oAÉbpór°UnCG
our friends (nom.) ÉfoDhÉbpór°UnCG
Phonology and script 19

our friends (gen.) ɦpFÉbpór°UnCG
our friends (acc.) ÉfnAÉbpór°UnCG
he read qara√-a nCG nônb
we read qara√-naa ÉfrCG nônb
they (m.) read Gh h ôb
D nn
you (f.) are reading ta-qra√-iina nÚF nôr¤nJ
3.3.2 hamza plus long /aa/ madda
A special symbol stands for hamza followed by a long /aa/ sound: /√aa/. The symbol
is called madda (˜extension™) and looks like this: BG . It is always written above √alif
and is sometimes referred to as √alif madda. It can occur at the beginning of a
word, in the middle, or at the end. Even if it occurs at the beginning of a word, the
madda notation is visible, unlike the regular initial hamza.

Asia É«°SBG
final ôpNBG
mirror mir√aah IBG rôpe
minarets ma√aadhin ¿pPBÉne
the Qur√ân al-qur√aan ¿BG ôo¤rdG
establishments munsha√aat ¤BÉn°»r¦oe
they (2 m.) began bada√aa BGnónH
3.3.3 Weak hamza (hamzat al-waSI π°U’dG Iµªg)
Hamzat al-waSl, elidable hamza, is a phonetic device affixed to the beginning of a
word for ease of pronunciation. It is used only in initial position, and is accompa-
nied by a short vowel: /i/, /u/, or /a/.18 For purposes of phonology and spelling it is nec-
essary to know whether an initial hamza is a strong one or an elidable one, since
elidable hamza drops out in pronunciation unless it is utterance-initial. When elid-
able hamza drops out, its √alif seat remains in spelling, but it gets a different symbol
on top of it, called a waSla, which indicates deletion of the glottal stop and liaison
between the previous vowel and the following consonant.19 If a word starting with

It is the style in certain Arab countries to write even the third person masculine plural with hamza
sitting on √alif, e.g., qara√uu GhCGnônb. Either way is correct.
It is a phonological rule that no word may start with a consonant cluster in Arabic, but certain
morphological processes result in patterns or groupings of affixes that cause consonant clusters.
The technical term for this process is aphaeresis or aphesis, deletion of an initial vowel of a word
and substituting for it the final vowel of the previous word, as the deletion of the initial “a” in
“are” in the contraction “we™re” or the initial “i” of “is” in “she™s.”
20 A Reference Grammar of Modern Standard Arabic

elidable hamza is preceded by a consonant, a “helping vowel” is affixed to the con-
sonant in order to facilitate pronunciation. Neither hamzat al-waSl nor waSla are vis-
ible in ordinary text.
In the transcription system used in this text, words that start with initial
hamzat al-waSl do not have the transliterated hamza symbol (√). The main cate-
gories of words that begin with hamzat al-waSl are as follows: DEFINITE ARTICLE, al- `dG:  The short vowel that accompanies elidable hamza
of the definite article is fatHa.

(1) Sentence-initial: The sentence-initial hamza is pronounced.
.‘ɦog oInQGRp’rdG .lásjp’nb oán°ùnaɦoªrdG
al-wizaarat-u hunaaka. al-munaafasat-u qawiyyat-un.
The ministry is (over) there. Competition is strong.

(2) Non-sentence-initial: The hamza and its short vowel /a/ on the definite arti-
cle are deleted, although the √alif seat remains in the spelling.

.pInQGRp’rdG ˜ rºog .lájp ’nb nán°ùnaɦoªrdG søpµd
hum fii l-wizaarat-i. laakinna l-munaafasat-a qawiyyat-un.
They are at the ministry. But the competition is strong. The short vowel that accompanies elidable
hamza of this set of words is kasra.

son ibn ørHpG
name ism ºr°SpG
woman imra√a InCGôrepG
two ithnaan ¿É¦rKpG
(1) Utterance-initial: The hamza is pronounced.

.lôpaÉ°ùoe »¦rHpG ¬q∏dG oºr°SpG
ibn-ii musaafir-un. ism-u llaah-i
My son is travelling. the name of God

(2) Non-utterance-initial: The hamza and its kasra are omitted in pronuncia-
tion. Sometimes the √alif seat of the hamza is also omitted in these words.

.»¦rHG n„ne nônaÉ°S ¬q∏dG ºr°SÉpH
saafar-a ma¬a bn-ii. bi-sm-i-llaaah-i
He traveled with my son. in the name of God
Phonology and script 21 The short vowel that
accompanies elidable hamza of this set of words is kasra. The √alif seat remains in

.kGójónL kÉ°ù«FnQ o–r©s°»dG n–n®nàrfpG
intaxab-a l-sha¬b-u ra√iis-an jadiid-an.
The people elected a new president.

.kGójónL kÉ°ù«FnQ o–r©s°»dG n–n®nàrfGnh
wa-ntaxab-a l-sha¬b-u ra√iis-an jadiid-an.
And the people elected a new president. The short vowel that accompanies
these imperative forms is either kasra or Damma. The √alif seat remains.

istami¬. fa-stami¬.
Listen. So listen.

.¤ÉepÉnµrdG p√pòg rCGnôrbGp .¤Éªp∏nµrdG p√pòg rCGôrbGnh
iqra√ haadhihi l-kalimaat-i. wa-qra√ haadhihi l-kalimaat-i.
Terms borrowed from other languages into Arabic and which start with consonant
clusters, need a helping vowel to facilitate the onset of the pronunciation of the
consonant cluster. The helping vowel is written with hamza and seated on an √alif
Tawiila. For example:

studio istuudyuu ’jO’àr°SpG
strategic istraatiijiyy q»p©«JGÎr°SpG
stable; barn isTabl πr‘n£r°SpG

3.4 taa√ marbuuTa (ánW’Hrône AÉJ)

3.4.1 Spelling
The taa√ marbuuTa is a spelling variant of regular taa√. It occurs only in word-
final position on nouns and adjectives. It is not an optional variant, but deter-
mined by word meaning and morphology. In shape, it looks like a haa√ with two
dots over it.
22 A Reference Grammar of Modern Standard Arabic

corner zaawiya ánjphGR
necessity Daruura InQhôn°V
basket salla ás∏n°S
3.4.2 Meaning and use
In most cases, taa√ marbuuTa is a marker of feminine gender. For example, an
Arabic word that refers to a person™s occupation may be either masculine or
feminine, depending on whether one is referring to a man or woman (i.e., engi-
neer, teacher, doctor, student). The masculine singular is a base or unmarked
form, and the feminine singular is marked by the presence of a taa√ marbuuTa.

ambassador (m./f.) safiir /safiira In’˜n°S/’˜n°S
king/queen malik/malika ánµp∏ne/‚p∏ne
prince/princess In’enCG/’enCG
√amiir/ √amiira

student (m./f.) Taalib/Taaliba án‘pdÉW/–pdÉW
Some nouns, however, are inherently feminine in gender and always spelled
with taa√ marbuuTa. For example:

storm án˜p°UÉY
island jaziira InôjµnL
culture thaqaafa ánaɤnK
flower zahra InôrgnR
In addition to showing feminine gender on nouns, taa√ marbuuTa also shows
feminine gender on adjectives:

ás«pdnhoO ánªs¶n¦oe ánªp∏r°ùoªrdG án‘pdÉq£dG
munaZZama duwaliyya al-Taaliba l-muslima
an international organization the Muslim student (f.)

Inó«©n°S án°Urôoa ás∏p¤nàr°ùoe ánµn∏rªne
furSa sa¬iida mamlaka mustaqilla
a happy occasion an independent kingdom

3.4.3 Pronunciation
In pronunciation, taa√ marbuuTa sometimes has the haa√ sound and other times,
taa√, so that it is a combination of taa√ and haa√ in terms of its written shape and
its pronunciation. One consistent feature of taa√ marbuuTa is that it is always pre-
ceded by an /a/ sound, usually short /a/ (fatHa), but sometimes, long /aa/ (√alif).
Phonology and script 23

ship safiina án¦«˜n°S
apple tuffaaHa áMÉq˜oJ
giraffe zaraafa ánaGQnR
life Hayaat IÉ«nM
canal; channel qanaat Iɦnb
prayer Salaat I“n°U In full form pronunciation, the taa√ marbuuTa plus final
inflectional vowel is pronounced as /t/:

lás«pJÉe’∏r©ne lánµr‘n°T mán∏j’nW mIÉ«nM ˜
shabkat-un ma¬luumaatiyyat-un fii Hayaat-in Tawiilat-in
information network in a long lifetime

oás«p¦nWn’rdG oán©peÉ©rdG pón∏n‘rdG oánªp°UÉY
al-jaami¬at-u l-waTaniyyat-u ¬aaSimat-u l-balad-i
the national university the capital of the country In pause form, the final inflectional vowel
is not pronounced, and, usually, neither is the taa√ marbuuTa. In most pause form
situations, the pronunciation of taa√ marbuuTa becomes haa√. Because a final /h/
sound is hard to hear, it sounds as though the word is pronounced only with a
final /a/, the fatHa that precedes the taa√ marbuuTa.20

a democratic republic jumhuuriyya dimuqraaTiyya ás«pWGô¤oepO ásjpQ’¡rªoL
a large island jaziira kabiira In’‘nc InôjµnL
(1) Exceptions:
(1.1) If the taa√ marbuuTa is preceded by a long /aa/, pronunciation of the /t/ in
pause form is optional:

life Hayaat or Hayaa(h) IÉ«nM
young woman fataat or fataa(h) IÉàna
equality musaawaat or musaawaa(h) IGhÉ°ùoe

For pronunciation of taa√ marbuuTa on the first term of an annexation phrase (√iDaafa), see
Chapter 8, section
24 A Reference Grammar of Modern Standard Arabic

(1.2) If the word ending in taa√ marbuuTa is the first term of an annexation
structure (√iDaafa), the taa√ is usually pronounced, even in pause form:

≥°»neO án¦jóne
p q–oM áq°üpb
madiinat dimashq qiSSat Hubb
(both words in pause form) (both words in pause form)
the city of Damascus a love story

3.5 Consonant doubling (gemination): tashdiid ójór°»nJ
Sometimes consonants are doubled in Arabic. This is both a spelling and pronunci-
ation feature and means that the consonants are pronounced with double strength
or emphasis.21 The technical term for this kind of doubling is “gemination.” In Ara-
bic, the doubling process is called tashdiid, and instead of writing the letter twice,
Arabic has a diacritical symbol that is written above the doubled consonant which
shows that it is pronounced with twice the emphasis. The name of the symbol is
shadda (˜intensification™), and it looks like this: q . Like the short vowels, shadda does
not normally appear in written text, but it is necessary to know that it is there. Here
are some examples of words that include doubled or geminated consonants:

freedom Hurriyya surgeon jarraaH
ásjpqôoM ¬GqônL
pomegranate rummaan very jidd-an
¿ÉqeoQ kGqópL
to appoint pilgrimage Hajj
nøs«nY èM
love Hubb to sing ghannaa
q–oM ≈q¦nZ
doubt shakk to destroy xarraba
q‚n°T nÜsônN

3.5.1 Reasons for gemination
Gemination can result from a lexical root that contains a doubled root consonant
(such as the root H-b-b for Hubb, ˜love™), or it can result from a derivational process,
that is, it can change word meaning and create words. For example, the verb stem
daras means ˜to study,™ but a derived form of that verb, darras, with doubled raa√,
means ˜to teach.™ The meanings are related, but not the same.
Gemination can also be the result of assimilation, the absorption of one sound
into another. In these cases, the process is phonetic and not phonemic, i.e., it is a

In English, the spelling of a word with a double consonant does not indicate that the
pronunciation of that consonant is stronger (e.g., kitten, ladder, offer). However, when an identical
consonant is pronounced across word boundaries, it is pronounced more strongly. For example, in
the following phrases, the last letter of the first word and the first letter of the last word combine
together and result in stronger pronunciation: “shelf-full,” “good deed,” “hot tea,” or “still life.”
This kind of consonant strengthening resembles the process of gemination in Arabic.
Phonology and script 25

rule of pronunciation and does not affect the meaning of a word. For example, the
/l/ of the definite article /al-/ is assimilated to certain consonants when they begin
words (e.g., al-daftar, ˜the notebook,™ is pronounced ad-daftar).22

4 Vowels
The Modern Standard Arabic sound system has six vowel phonemes: three “long”
ones and three “short”: / ii/ and /i/, /uu/ and /u/, /aa/ and /a/. The difference in length
is not a difference in vowel quality, but in the length of time that the vowel is
held. The distinction between short and long is similar to difference in length in
musical notation, where there are quarter notes, half notes, and whole notes,
each one held twice as long as the other. It is possible to think of short vowels as
resembling quarter notes and long vowels as half notes, the long vowels being
held approximately double the length of time of the short vowels. Long vowels are
represented in the Arabic alphabet by the letters √alif (aa), waaw (uu) and yaa√ (ii).
They are written into words as part of the words™ spelling. Short vowels, on the
other hand, are not independent letters and are written only as diacritical marks
above and below the body of the word. In actual practice, short vowels are not
indicated in written Arabic text; they are invisible.
The pronunciation of vowels, especially /aa/ and /a/, varies over a rather wide
range, depending on word structure and the influence of adjacent consonants,
but also on regional variations in pronunciation. Moreover, the letter √alif has sev-
eral different spelling variants and the letters waaw and yaa√ function both as
vowels and as consonants.

4.1 Phonemic chart of MSA vowels

Front Central Back

i/ii p /¦ u/uu o /h


a/aa n / G

4.2 Long vowels

4.2.1 √alif The letter √alif represents a long /aa/ sound. The quality
of this sound varies from being fronted (as in the English word “fad”), a low

See section 8.1 on the definite article in this chapter.
26 A Reference Grammar of Modern Standard Arabic

central vowel (as in “far”), or a low back vowel (as in the English word “saw.”) Here
are some words with long /aa/:

Fronted: Backed:
people naas fire naar
¢SÉf QÉf
during xilaal system niZaam
«“pN „¦É¶pf
door baab leader qaa√id
peace salaam lighthouse manaara
„¦“n°S InQɦne
ruler Haakim neighbor jaar
Usually, in order to have the central or backed pronunciation, the word has a
back consonant, either a velarized one (S, D, T, or Z) or a qaaf, as the ones above
illustrate. The backed pronunciation is also used when √alif is followed immedi-
ately by raa√ (as in the words manaara, naar, and jaar). However, in certain parts of
the Arab world, especially the Eastern regions (such as Iraq), the backed pronun-
ciation is more frequent. √alif. There are three variations of the letter √alif:
√alif qaSiira (˜dagger™ √alif ), √alif maqSuura (˜shortened™ √alif ) and regular √alif ( √alif
Tawiila “ ˜tall™ √alif ). These variants are not optional but are determined by
derivational etymology and spelling conventions. √alif Tawiila This is the standard form of √alif. It is a non-
án∏j’nW ∞pdnCG.
connecting letter written into the word:
(1) √alif Tawiila in initial position: In initial position, √alif is not a vowel; it is
always a seat for hamza (accompanied by a short vowel) or madda (hamza
plus long /aa/).

√alif with hamza and short vowel:

four án©nHrQnCG

brothers ¿G’rNpEG

pipe Ü’‘rfoCG

√alif with madda:

August ÜBG

instrument ándBG

other (m.) ônNBG
Phonology and script 27

(2) √alif in medial position: In medial position, √alif Tawiila is connected to
the letter that precedes it, but it does not connect to the following

north; left shamaal «Éªn°T
she said qaalat rândÉb
side jaanib –pfÉL
The letter √alif has a special relationship with a preceding laam: it sits inside
the curve of the laam at an angle. This special combination of letters is
called a “ligature,” and is even occasionally cited as part of the alphabet
(“laam-√alif ”).

peace salaam „¦“n°S
Jordan al-√urdun ¿oOrQC™G
no laa ™
(3) √alif Tawiila in final position:
(3.1) √alif as long vowel in word-final position: At the end of a word √alif
Tawiila may occur:
here hunaa ɦog
Malta maalTaa É£dÉe
this (m.) haadhaa Gòg
(3.2) √alif Tawiila with nunation: A word-final √alif may be written with two fatHas
above it, signaling that the word is nunated, that is, marked for indefinite
accusative case (and pronounced -an). In this case, the √alif is not pronounced;
it is only a seat or “chair” for the two fatHas that mark the indefinite accusa-
tive. The accusative case often indicates that a noun is an object of a transi-
tive verb, or it may mark an adverbial function. For further description and
examples of the accusative, see Chapter 7 on noun inflections. Some exam-
ples of adverbial accusatives ending with √alif plus nunation include:
welcome k“rgnCG

tomorrow ghad-an kGónZ
thanks shukr-an kGôrµo°T
greatly kathiir-an kG’ãnc
very jidd-an kGqópL
finally kG’NnCG
28 A Reference Grammar of Modern Standard Arabic

(3.3) silent inflectional √alif Tawiila: The √alif Tawiila is written as part of the
third person masculine plural past tense inflection, but it is only a
spelling convention and it is not pronounced. If a pronoun suffix is added
to this verb inflection, then the silent √alif is deleted:23
.G’¶nM™ .n‚pdònc G’fÉc .ºgQ’¡X ≈∏Y Ég’∏ªM
laaHaZ-uu. kaan-uu ka-dhaalika. Hamal-uu-haa ¬alaa Zuhuur-i-him.
They noticed. They were like that. They carried it on their backs. “DAGGER” √alif: √alif qasiira In’°ünb ∞pdnCG:  This form of √alif is a spelling
convention used only with certain words. It is a reduced version of √alif Tawiila
written above the consonant (hanging above it rather like a dagger), rather than
beside it in the body of the word. As with the short vowels written above or below
the word, this form of √alif is not normally visible in ordinary text. It is therefore
necessary to know that a word is spelled with √alif qaSiira in order to pronounce it
correctly. The words spelled with √alif qaSiira are not many in number, but some
of them are used with great frequency. The most common ones include:

God allaah ' ¬q∏dG
god ¬dEG
this (m.) haadha Gòg Gò``g
pp '
this (f.) haadhihi √pòg √ò`g
these haa√ulaa√i pA™D’g pA™D’`g
that (m.) dhaalika ‚pdP ‚pdP
thus haakadhaa Gònµg Gònµ``g
but laakinna søpµd √alif maqSuura IQ’°ü¤e ∞dCG : The √alif maqSuura looks like a yaa√ without
dots. This form of √alif occurs only at the end of a word. It is a spelling convention
occurring with certain words because of their derivational etymology. Sometimes
a dagger √alif is added above the √alif maqSuura to distinguish it from a final yaa√.
Some words spelled with √alif maqSuura are proper names, such as:

Leila laylaa Moses muusaa
≈∏r«nd ≈°S’e
Mona munaa Mustafa muSTafaa
≈¦oe ≈˜£°üe

This √alif is called √alif al-faaSila or “separating √alif.” It is also sometimes referred to as “otiose
Phonology and script 29

Other words ending in √alif maqSuura may be any form class: verb, preposition,
noun, adjective:

he built banaa piety taqwaa
≈¦nH i’r¤nJ
upon greatest (f.) kubraa
≈∏nY iôr‘oc
to, toward ¤pEG

Sometimes, in an indefinite noun or adjective, the √alif maqSuura is a seat for
the indefinite accusative marker, fatHataan, and the word is pronounced with an
/-an / ending instead of -aa. This depends on the word™s etymology. For declension
and more examples of these words, see Chapter 7 on noun inflections.

hospital mustashfan k≈˜°»nàr°ùoe
echo Sadan kión°U
coffeehouse maqhan k≈¡r¤ne
Most words spelled with final √alif maqSuura have to change it to √alif Tawiila if
the word receives a suffix and the √alif is no longer final:

ki’nàr°ùoe o√G’nàr°ùoe iôob
k ÉfGôob ≈enQ ÉgÉenQ
mustawan mustawaa-hu quran quraa-naa ramaa ramaa-haa
level, status his status villages our villages he threw he threw it (f.)

Certain function words spelled with √alif maqSuura shift from √alif to a diph-
thongized yaa√ when they receive pronoun suffixes:24

iónd É¡rjnónd ¤pEG º¡r«ndpEG ≈∏nY ºoµr«n∏nY
ladaa √ilaa √ilay-him ¬alaa ¬alay-kum
with, at with her to, toward to them (m.) on, upon upon you (pl.)

4.2.2 Semivowels/semi-consonants waaw and yaa√
The letters waaw and yaa√ have two functions. They represent the consonant
sounds /w/ and /y/, respectively, and they also represent the long vowels /uu/ and
/ii/. English has something similar to this because the letter “y” can act as a con-
sonant, as in the word “yellow” or it can act as a vowel, as in the word “sky.”26 The
Arabic /ii/ sound symbolized by yaa√ is like the /i/ in English “machine.” The /uu/
sound symbolized by waaw is like the /u/ in “rule.”

For rules and full paradigms of these prepositions, see Chapter 16 on prepositions and
prepositional phrases.
This particle also has the sense of possession: ˜she has.™
See note 1.
30 A Reference Grammar of Modern Standard Arabic waaw: The letter waaw represents either the sound of
/ w/ or the long vowel /uu/. For example, in the following words, it is /w/:

boy walad state wilaaya
óndnh ánj™ph
season mawsim first
ºp°Sr’ne «shnCG

And in the following it is /uu/:

breakfast faTuur entry duxuul
Q’£na «’NoO
light nuur forbidden mamnuu¬
Q’f ´’¦rªne THE SOUNDS OF yaa√: The letter yaa√ represents either the sound of /y/ as
in “young” or the long vowel /ii/ as the “i” in “petite.” For example, in the
following words it is /y/:

Yemen yaman ønªnj
white ¢†n«rHnCG
day yawm „¦r’j n
In the following words it is pronounced as /ii/:

elephant fiil π«a
dune kathiib –«ãnc
religion diin øjO

4.3 Short vowels and sukuun (al-Harakaat wa l-sukuun ¿’µq°ùdGnh ¤Écnôn«rdG)
The set of three short vowels consists of the sounds /a/,/ i/, and /u/. They are not
considered part of the Arabic alphabet and are not as a rule visible in written Ara-
bic. The short vowels are referred to in Arabic not as letters (Huruuf ) but as
“movements” (Harakaat). That is, they are seen as a way of moving the voice from
one consonant to another.
Short vowels can be written into a text, but ordinarily they are not. Two excep-
tions to this are the Qur√ân and children™s schoolbooks. In the Qur√ân, the short
vowels are made explicit so that readers and reciters can be absolutely certain of
the correct pronunciation of the sacred text. In schoolbooks, they are inserted so
that children can study and master word structure and spelling as they learn how
to read MSA. As reading skill progresses, the use of short vowels in pedagogical
texts is phased out. This is done because the patterning of short vowels is largely
predictable and therefore marking them is considered redundant.
For learners of Arabic as a foreign language, the absence of short vowels
requires extra attention to word structure and morphological patterning, and
Phonology and script 31

memorization of the exact sound of the word as well as its spelling. Just because
the vowels are invisible doesn™t mean they don™t exist.

4.3.1 fatHa: án«ràna short /a/
The short vowel /a/, called fatHa, ranges in pronunciation from low central (as in
“dark”) to lowered mid front (as in “best”), depending on context. The short vowel
/a/ is represented, when written, by a small diagonal mark sloping downward to
the left ( n ). It is placed above the consonant that it follows in pronunciation.

country balad ón∏H
she danced raqaSat rân°ünbnQ
mint na¬na¬ „n¦r©nf

4.3.2 kasra : Inôr°ùnc short /i/
The short vowel /i/, called kasra, ranges in pronunciation from a high front vowel
(as in “petite”) to a lower front vowel (as in “sit”). Kasra is represented by a mark
similar to fatHa, but is written underneath the consonant it follows ( p ). Examples:

pepper filfil πp˜r∏pa
skin jild ór∏pL
apricots mishmish ¢»pªr°»pe

4.3.3 Damma: ásª°V short /u/
The short /u/ sound in Arabic, called Damma, ranges from a high back vowel (as in
“duke”) to a lower rounded back vowel (as in “bull”). The Damma is represented by
what looks like a small waaw, or an English apostrophe (o ). It is written above the
consonant which it follows. Examples:

cities mudun ¿oóoe
ear ¿oPoCG

quarter rub¬ „rHoQ

4.3.4 Absence of vowel: sukuun ¿’µo°S
A consonant is not always followed by a vowel. Sometimes one consonant comes
immediately after another, or a consonant will end a word. In order to indicate
clearly that a consonant is not followed by a vowel, Arabic uses a diacritical mark
called a sukuun (˜silence™) which looks like a mini-zero (r )placed directly above the
32 A Reference Grammar of Modern Standard Arabic

As with the short vowel indicators, the sukuun is invisible in ordinary script. It
is shown here in the following examples:

room ghurfa we drink nashrab
ánarôoZ Ünôr°»nf
temple ma¬bad sand raml
ón‘r©ne πrenQ

4.3.5 Extra short or helping vowels
An epenthetic or helping vowel may be inserted at the end of a word in con-
text in order to prevent consonant clusters and facilitate smoothness of pro-
nunciation within a sentence. In a sentence, these helping vowels are added
to words that would otherwise end with sukuun when the following word
begins with a consonant cluster. The determination of the helping vowel is as
follows: kasra: The short vowel kasra is by far the most frequent
helping vowel.

n.QÉ‘rNC™G oInój ôn©rdG p¤nôn°»nf ?oônªnJrD’oªrdG ≈¡nàrfG pπng
nasharat-i l-jariidat-u l-√axbaar-a. hal-i ntahaa l-mu√tamar-u?
The newspaper published the news. Did the conference end? Damma: The helping vowel Damma is used with the
second person plural personal pronouns and third person plural pronouns when
they are spelled with Damma:

.oás«pªr°SsôdG oánãr©p‘rdG oºo¡ràn∏n‘r¤nàr°SpG
istaqbal-at-hum-u l-bi¬that-u l-rasmiyyat-u.
The official delegation met them.

.nOGqhtôdG oºoµnfhôp‘nàr©nj
ya-¬tabir-uuna-kum-u l-ruwwaad-a.27
They consider you (m. pl.) the pioneers.

?n„¦É©s£dG oºoàrjn ônàr°TG pπng
hal-i shtaray-tum-u l-Ta¬aam-a?28
Did you (m. pl.) buy the food?

Phonetically, ya-¬tabir-u-kum-u r-ruwwaad-a.
Phonetically, hal-i shtaray-tum-u T-Ta¬aam-a? There are two helping vowels here, a kasra on the
question-word hal in order to prevent a consonant cluster with the past tense Form VIII verb, and
Damma after the subject marker -tum affixed to the past tense verb.
Phonology and script 33 waaw A special case of a long helping
vowel /uu/ occurs when the object of the verb following the second person masculine
plural past tense suffix /-tum/ happens to be a pronoun. A long /uu/ is inserted as a
buffer between the subject marker on the verb and the object pronoun:

? Ég’`“rôn°»nf πng
hal nashar-tum-uu-haa?
Did you (m. pl.) publish it? fatHa: The short vowel fatHa has restricted use as a
helping vowel. With the word min ˜from,™ the helping vowel is fatHa before the
definite article and otherwise, kasra.

pârjn’oµrdG nøpe pÜrôn¨rdG nøpe
min-a l-kuwayt-i min-a l-gharb-i
from Kuwait from the west

Üôn«rdG pAÉ¡pàrfG pøpe ɦpªr°SG pøpe
min-i ntihaa√-i l-Harb-i min-i sm-i-naa
from the end of the war from our name

4.4 Diphthongs and glides
Diphthongs or glides in Arabic are combinations of short vowels and semivowels.
The sequences that occur are /aw/, /ay/, /iy/, and /uw/. The sequences */iw/ and */uy/
are usually prohibited.

4.4.1 Diphthongs /aw/ (PRONOUNCED LIKE THE “ow” IN “power”)29
above fawqa almonds lawz
n¥r’na Rr’nd
pine-nuts Sanawbar appointment maw¬id
ônHr’n¦nU ópYr’ne /ay/ (PRONOUNCED LIKE ENGLISH “eye,” OR “aye”)30
egg bayDa car sayyaara
án°†r«nH InQÉq«n°S
to change ghayyar night layl
ôs«nZ πr«nd
In less formal spoken Arabic and in colloquial Arabic the diphthong /aw/ changes to a long vowel
/oo/, pronounced like the /o/ in “note.”
Again, in less formal Arabic and colloquial Arabic, the diphthong /ay/ changes to the long vowel
/ee/, pronounced like the long /a/ in “date.”
34 A Reference Grammar of Modern Standard Arabic

4.4.2 Glides
Glides are vowel“consonant combinations where the vowel and consonant have
very close points of articulation, such as /iy/ (high front vowel plus palatal sonant)
and /uw/ (high back vowel plus rounded bilabial sonant). In most cases the glide
consonant is doubled. HIGH FRONT GLIDE /iy/:
Arab (f.) Egyptians miSriyy-uun
ás«pHnônY ¿’qjpôr°üpe

denied manfiyy yearly sanawiyy-an
q»˜r¦ne kÉqj p’n¦n°S HIGH BACK GLIDE /uw/:
growth numuww enemy
q’ªof hónY
youth futuwwa height
Is’oàoa q’∏oY

5 MSA pronunciation styles: full form and pause form
When reading MSA formally, aloud, words are pronounced according to certain

5.1 Full form
When complete voweling is observed, all vowels are pronounced, including all
the short vowels that are contained in the words but not visible in the text. This
also includes any word-final inflectional vowels and is called “full” form pronun-

.p¢ùrenCG nán∏r«nd pánªp°UÉ©rdG ¤pEG pásjpQ’¡rªo©rdG o¢ù«FnQ nôn°†nM
HaDar-a ra√iis-u l-jumhuuriyyat-i √ilaa l-¬aaSimat-i laylat-a √ams-i.
The president of the republic came to the capital last night.

5.2 Pause form
There is also a standard Arabic pronunciation principle that a word-final short
vowel may be left unpronounced. This is called “pause form” in English and waqf
∞rbh (˜stopping™) in Arabic. There are two variants of this principle:

5.2.1 Formal pause form
When reading MSA aloud, the standard practice is to use pause form on the final
word of a sentence, or (if it is a long sentence) wherever there is a natural “pause”
for breath.
Phonology and script 35

.¢ùrenCG nán∏r«nd pánªp°UÉ©rdG '¤pEG pásjpQ’¡rªo©rdG o¢ù«FnQ nôn°†nM
HaDar-a ra√iis-u l-jumhuuriyyat-i √ilaa l-¬aaSimat-i laylat-a √ams.31
The president of the republic came to the capital last night.

5.2.2 Informal pause form:
When reading MSA aloud or when speaking MSA less formally, pause form is
sometimes used on most or all words ending with a short vowel.
.¢ùrenCG án∏r«nd ánªp°UÉ©rdG ¤pEG ásjpQ’¡rªo©rdG ¢ù«FnQ ôn°†nM
HaDar ra√iis l-jumhuuriyya √ilaa l-¬aaSima laylat √ams.32
The president of the Republic came to the capital last night. taa√ marbuuTa: A word that ter-
minates in taa√ marbuuTa is usually pronounced as ending in -a or -ah in pause form
unless it is the first term of an √iDaafa, in which case it is pronounced as a /-t-/ sound.

capital ánªp°UÉY

university jaami¬a án©peÉL
organization ánªs¶n¦oe
¿ÉªoY ánªp°UÉY ¤hôr«nH án©peÉL
jaami¬at bayruut
¬aaSimat ¬umaan
the capital of Oman the university of Beirut

6 MSA syllable structure
There are a limited number of possible syllable sequences for MSA word structure.
First of all, no word or syllable may start with a vowel. If a word appears to start
with a vowel, such as √islaam or √umma or √abadan, what is actually heard is a
vowel preceded by a glottal stop (hamza). English speakers tend not to hear the
glottal stop because it is not phonemic (meaningful) in English. It is, however, a
real consonant in Arabic.

week ´’‘r°SoCG

if GPpEG

Final short vowel /-i/ is unpronounced.
Note that in order to avoid consonant clusters and ease pronunciation, when speaking in pause
form, sometimes helping vowels have to be inserted.
For a more detailed description of taa√ marbuuTa pronunciation, see McCarus and Rammuny 1974,
112“13. See also section 1.2 of Chapter 7, on feminine gender marking.
36 A Reference Grammar of Modern Standard Arabic

The second rule is that no word or syllable may begin with a consonant cluster,
such as /sk/ or /br/. Consonant clusters within syllables are prohibited, except for
one situation: In pause form, a word may end in a consonant cluster, such as:
fahimt ˜I understood™ ârªp¡na or ista¬malt ˜I used™ âr∏nªr©nàr°SpG. Syllable structure in MSA
is therefore limited to the following five combinations of consonants and vowels.

6.1 Full form pronunciation syllables
(1) “Short” or “weak” syllable: CV (consonant“short vowel)
e.g., -ma, -bi, -hu
(2) “Long” or “strong” syllables: CVV (consonant“long vowel)
or CVC (consonant“short vowel“consonant)
e.g., -faa, -dii, -ras, -tab

6.2 Additional pause form pronunciation syllables
(1) “Super-strong” syllables: CVVC (consonant“long vowel“consonant)
or CVCC (consonant“short vowel“consonant“consonant)
e.g., -riim, -nuun, -sart, -rabt
These super-strong sequences occur primarily in word-final position.34

7 Word stress rules
Stress rules refer to the placement of stress or emphasis (loudness) within a word.
In English, stress is not fully predictable and is learned by ear or along with word
spelling. Some words in English are differentiated only by stress, for example:
invalid (noun and adjective), present (noun, adjective, and verb), suspect (noun
and verb), conduct (noun and verb).
Stress in Modern Standard Arabic, on the other hand, is essentially predictable
and adheres to some general rules based on syllable structure. Because MSA is not
a spontaneously spoken language, the rules given here for stress patterns are for
the way MSA is pronounced when read out loud or used in speaking from pre-
pared texts in the Eastern Arab world. In Egypt and the Sudan, stress rules are
different for MSA as well as the colloquial language. Nonetheless, the standard
Eastern form is “a nearly universal norm,” acceptable and understandable
throughout the Arab world.35

Active participles of geminate Form I verbs contain an internal CVVC sequence, for example, qêÉM
Haajj ˜pilgrim,™ IsOÉe maadda, ˜substance,™ ásaÉc kaaffa ˜entirety,™ „¦É°S saamm ˜poisonous,™ ±ÉL jaaff ˜dry,™
q q
q q
„¦ÉY ˜aamm ˜public; general,™ ¢UÉN xaaSS ˜private; special,™ or QÉM Haarr ˜hot.™ Some borrowed words
also contain this sequence, such as raad-yuu ’jOGQ ˜radio.™ See Chapter 6 on participles, section 1.1.2.
McCarthy and Prince 1990a, 252. They also note that “there is inconsistency in the stressing of
standard Arabic words between different areas of the Arab world, and no direct testimony on this
subject exists from the Classical period.”
Phonology and script 37

Different sets of rules are used for full form pronunciation and pause form pro-
nunciation. They overlap to a great extent, but there are some differences. The
major feature of all these stress rules is that stress placement is calculated from
the end of a word “ not the beginning. Note that some Arabic words are composed
of several morphological elements, including case endings and pronoun suffixes
of various sorts, so that the length of words may vary substantially.

7.1 Full form stress rules
7.1.1 Stress is never on the ¬nal syllable
Therefore, in words of two syllables, stress is on the first, no matter what that first
syllable is like (strong or weak). Examples (stress is indicated by boldface):
to, towards we
¤pEG ø«f

maadhaa zaaruu
what they visited
hiya hunaa
she here
n»pg ɦog

7.1.2 Stress on penult
Stress is on the second syllable from the end of the word (the penult) if that sylla-
ble is strong (CVC or CVV). Examples:

efforts (nom.) juhuudun lO’¡oL
students (acc.) Tullaaban kÉHq“oW
they taught her darrasuuhaa Ég’°SsQnO
they (f.) write yaktubna nør‘oàrµnj
you (m. pl.) worked ºoàr∏pªnY

7.1.3 Stress on the antepenult
If the second syllable from the end of the word is weak (CV), then the stress falls
back to the third syllable from the end (the antepenult):

a capital lánªp°UÉY

all of us ɦt∏oc
a library (nom.) maktabatun án‘nàrµne
he tries yuHaawilu o«phÉ«oj
Palestinian (f.) filasTiiniyyatun lás«p¦«£r°ùn∏pa
38 A Reference Grammar of Modern Standard Arabic

7.1.4 Summary: word length
Therefore, in full-form pronunciation, MSA stress falls either on the second or
third syllable from the end of the word. Note that if a suffix is attached to a word,
it increases the number of syllables and may change the stress pattern, e.g.,
university jaami¬atun
our university jaami¬atunaa ɦoàn©peÉL
office l–nàrµne
his office maktabuhu o¬o‘nàrµne
we studied darasnaa ɦr°SnQnO
we studied it (f.) darasnaahaa Égɦr°SnQnO
7.2 Pause form stress rule
The same basic set of rules applies to pause form, but there is an important addi-
tional rule for pause form pronunciation: Stress falls on the final syllable of a
word if that syllable is a super-strong one (CVCC or CVVC).

minister waziir discussions mubaaHathaat
ôjRnh ¤ÉãnMÉ‘oe
boundaries Huduud I tried Haawalt
OhóoM ârdnhÉM
7.2.1 Summary
To summarize, MSA stress falls on either the second or the third syllable from the
end of the word or, in pause form, on the final syllable if it is super-strong.36

7.2.2 Other pause form conventions PAUSE FORM nisba: Words in pause form that end with the nisba (relative
adjective) suffix -iyy should technically have stress placed on that final syllable
(CVCC), e.g.,

Yemeni yamaniyy official ra√iisiyy
q»¦nªnj q»°ù«FnQ
Arab Bedouin badawiyy
q»HnônY ¦hnóH
And this is done in very formal spoken MSA. However, it is often the case in spo-
ken MSA (as in colloquial Arabic) that this ending is treated not as -iyy but simply

As McCarthy and Prince concisely note: “The stress system is obviously weight-sensitive: final
syllables are stressed if superheavy CvvC or CvCC; penults are stressed if heavy Cvv or CvC;
otherwise the antepenult is stressed” (1990a, 252).
Phonology and script 39

as long ii, in which case the stress is placed as though the last syllable contained
an open long vowel:

Yemeni official ra√iisii
»¦nªnj »°ù«FnQ
Arab Bedouin badawii
»HnônY ¦hnóHn
marbuuTa: In pause form, taa√ marbuuTa, along with its case ending, is not
pronounced, and this eliminates a syllable from the word. Therefore, stress has to
be recalculated, and certain words spelled with taa√ marbuuTa shift the stress when
pronounced in pause form.

Full form
(includes case
ending) Pause form

jaami¬at-un án©peÉL

madrasat-un án°SnQróne

muHaaDarat-un muHaaDara Inôn°VÉ«oe

The shift in stress in the above examples occurs because when the taa√ marbuuTa
plus case ending is deleted, the third syllable from the end becomes the second
syllable from the end, and because it is weak (CV), it cannot receive the stress, so
the stress shifts back to the previous syllable. There are also cases where the dele-
tion of taa√ marbuuTa plus case ending does not alter the stress pattern. This hap-
pens if the syllable that originally had the stress is a strong syllable. In this case
the strong syllable retains the stress, in keeping with the general rules.37

Full form Pause form

madiinat-un madiina án¦jóne

Hamaamat-un Hamaama áneɪnM

buTuulat-un buTuula ánd’£oH

For additional reading on Arabic word stress and generative phonology, see Brame 1970 and Abdo
40 A Reference Grammar of Modern Standard Arabic

8 De¬niteness and inde¬niteness markers
8.1 De¬nite article al- `dG

8.1.1 Spelling
The definite article in Arabic is spelled with √alif-laam and is attached as a prefix.
This spelling convention makes a word with the prefixed definite article look like
just one word. The definite article thus never occurs independently ( al- `dG ). It is a
proclitic particle, i.e., always attached to a word “ either a noun or an adjective.

the sheikh al-shaykh the night al-layla
ïr«s°»dG án∏r«s∏dG
the genie al-jinnii the women al-nisaa™
»q¦p©rdG AÉ°ùpq¦dG

8.1.2 Pronunciation
In general, the definite article is pronounced “al” but many speakers shorten the
/a/ sound so that it sounds more like “el” (as in English “elbow”). It is spelled with
elidable hamza (hamzat al-waSl) (see above), so if the definite article is not utterance-
initial, the hamza drops out in pronunciation and the vowel pronounced with the
laam of the definite article is actually the final vowel of the preceding word (see
also above under hamzat al-waSl). SUN AND MOON LETTERS
(1) Sun Letters (Huruuf shamsiyya ás«p°ùrªn°T ±hôoM): Certain sounds assimilate or
absorb the sound of the laam in the definite article. These sounds or letters
are called “sun letters” (Huruuf shamsiyya). When a word begins with one of
these sounds, the √alif-laam of the definite article is written, but the laam is
not pronounced; instead, it is absorbed or assimilated into the first letter or
sound in the word and that letter is doubled in strength. A shadda is written
over the sun letter itself to show that the /l/ is assimilated into it and strength-
ens it, but the shadda does not show in normal printed Arabic.
The sun letters or sounds that absorb the /l/ of the definite article are as follows:
¿ « ® • ¢V ¢U ¢T ¢S R Q P O § ¤
taa√, thaa√, daal, dhaal, raa√, zaay, siin, shiin, Saad, Daad, Taa√, Zaa√, laam, nuun

English Pronounced Arabic

at-tijaara InQÉ©pqàdG
the commerce

ath-thaqaafa ánaɤsãdG
the culture
Phonology and script 41

English Pronounced Arabic

ad-diin øjqódG
the religion

adh-dhahab –ngsòdG
the gold

ar-rabb qÜsôdG
the lord

az-zuhuur Q’gtµdG
the flowers

as-sirr ôpq°ùdG
the secret

ash-shams ¢ùªs°»dG
the sun

aS-Suuf ±’q°üdG
the wool

aD-Dajja ás©s°†dG
the noise

aT-Tabiib –«‘s£dG
the doctor

aZ-Zill qπpq¶dG
the shadow

al-libaas ¢SÉ‘pq∏dG
the clothing

an-nuur Q’q¦dG
the light

(2) Moon letters (Huruuf qamariyya ásjp ônªnb ±hôoM): “Moon letters” do not absorb
the /l/ of the definite article. The moon letters are:
¦ h √ „¦ ‘ ¥ ± Æ ´ ± ¬ ê Ü CG
hamza, baa√, jiim, Haa√, xaa√, √ayn, ghayn, faa√, qaaf, kaaf, miim, haa√, waaw, yaa√

English Pronounced Arabic

al-√islaam „¦“r°SrE™G

al-badw hrón‘rdG
the bedouin

al-jayb –r«n©rdG
the pocket
42 A Reference Grammar of Modern Standard Arabic

English Pronounced Arabic

al-HaZZ qßn«rdG
the luck

al-xardal «nOrôn®rdG
the mustard

al-¬arab Ünôn©rdG
the Arabs

al-gharb Ürôn¨rdG
the west

al-filfil πp˜r∏p˜rdG
the pepper

al-qamar ônªn¤rdG
the moon

al-kanz µr¦nµrdG
the treasure

al-markaz µncrônªrdG
the center

al-handasa án°Snór¦n¡rdG
the engineering

al-wizaara InQGRp’rdG
the ministry

al-yad ón«rdG
the hand SUMMARY: SUN AND MOON LETTERS: The Arabic alphabet, or inventory of
consonant sounds, is therefore divided into two groups: sounds that assimilate
the /l/ of the definite article and sounds that do not. The sounds are best learned
through memorization, listening, and speaking practice. Note that in many
transliteration systems (Library of Congress, for example), when written Arabic is
romanized into Latin letters, the definite article is spelled “al” even though in
pronunciation the /l/ may be assimilated. That is the case in the romanization in
this text.

8.2 Inde¬nite marker: nunation (tanwiin øj’r¦nJ)
Indefiniteness, which corresponds to the use of “a” or “an” in English, is not
marked with a separate word in Arabic. Instead, it is marked with a suffix, an /n/
sound that comes at the end of a word. This /n/ sound is not written with a regu-
lar letter /nuun/. It is indicated by writing the final inflectional vowel on a word
twice. In the case of Damma, nunation is often indicated by giving the Damma a
“tail” or flourish at the end, rather than doubling it.38

The writing conventions for this indefinite marking are described in detail in Chapter 7,
section 4.2.1.
Phonology and script 43

Nunation as a marker of indefiniteness may appear on nouns, adjectives, and
adverbs. Certain classes of words (e.g., diptotes) are restricted from having

a house (nominative) bayt-u-n lâr«nH
a house (genitive) bayt-i-n mâr«nH
a house (accusative) bayt-a-n kÉàr«nH
Note that the accusative form of nunation often needs a “seat” or “chair” which
is usually √alif Tawiila.39 For example:

place makaan-an kÉfɵne
bridge jisr-an kGôr°ùpL
many kathiir-an kG’ãnc
In words spelled with taa√ marbuuTa, the nunation sits atop the final letter and
the accusative nunation does not require an √alif chair. This is also the case in
words that end with hamza preceded by a long vowel.

an embassy (nominative) sifaarat-u-n lIQɘp°S
an embassy (genitive) sifaarat-i-n mIQɘp°S
an embassy (accusative) sifaarat-a-n kIQɘp°S
an evening (nominative) masaa√-u-n lAÉ°ùne
an evening (genitive) masaa√-i-n mAÉ°ùne
an evening (accusative) masaa√-a-n kAÉ°ùne
Certain “defective” nouns use √alif maqSuura as a seat for the fatHataan in both the nominative and
the accusative cases, e.g., k≈¦©e ma¬nan ˜meaning™ or k≈¡¤e maqhan ˜coffeehouse.™ See section 5.4.4
of Chapter 7 for further details of this declension.
Arabic word structure: an overview
“The Semitic root is one of the great miracles of man™s language.”1

1 Morphology in general
Morphology, or word structure, pertains to the organization, rules, and processes
concerning meaningful units of language, whether they be words themselves
or parts of words, such as affixes of various sorts. Meaningful components and
subcomponents at the word level are referred to as morphemes.2 Arabic morphol-
ogy is different from English in some very basic respects but it is highly system-
atic. In fact, Arabic and the Semitic languages have had substantial influence on
the development of certain key concepts in theoretical morphology.3
Theories of word structure, or morphology, usually focus on two essential
issues: how words are formed (derivational or lexical morphology) and how they
interact with syntax (inflectional morphology, e.g., marking for categories such
as gender, number, case, tense). Arab grammarians, starting in the late eighth and
early ninth centuries AD, developed sophisticated analyses of Arabic morphology
that differ from modern Western theories, but interrelate with them in interest-
ing ways.4 Because this reference grammar is intended primarily for the use of
Western readers, it is organized along the lines of traditional Western categories,
with inclusion of the Arabic terminology.
Derivational or lexical morphology has to do with principles governing word
formation (such as analysis of the English words “truthful” or “untruthfulness”

Lohmann 1972, 318.
Aronoff (1976, 7) gives this general definition of morphemes: “the units into which words are
analyzed and out of which they are composed.” This definition is adequate as a start, although
Aronoff notes that it is problematic in certain ways for morphological theory. For a general
introduction to traditional morphology a good place to begin is Matthews 1974. He writes: “the
morpheme is established as the single minimal or primitive unit of grammar, the ultimate basis
for our entire description of the primary articulation of language. Words, phrases, etc., are all
seen as larger, complex or non-primitive units which are built up from morphemes in successive
stages” (1974, 78). For further developments in morphological theory see Aronoff 1976 and 1994,
Anderson 1992, and Spencer 1991.
“It may thus well be that all Western linguistic morphology is directly rooted in the Semitic
grammatical tradition” (Aronoff 1994, 3).
For discussion of how Arabic morphological categories interrelate with Western theories, see
Ryding 1993. See also discussions in Aronoff 1994, esp. 123“64 and Anderson 1992, 57“58; Monteil
(1960, 105“223) has an excellent overview of MSA morphological issues.

Arabic word structure: an overview 45

derived from the base word “true”).5 Inflectional morphology describes how
words vary or inflect in order to express grammatical contrasts or categories, such
as singular/plural or past/present tense. Derivation, since it is the process of cre-
ating words or lexical units, is considered procedurally prior to inflection, which
subsequently acts upon the word stem and modifies it, if necessary, for use in con-
text (by affixing /-s/ in English for plural, for example, or /-ed/ for past tense). These
are two fundamental categories, therefore, in approaching language structure.
However, the boundaries between derivation and inflection are not as clear-cut in
Arabic as they are in English because Arabic morphology works on different
principles, and because Arabic morphological theory views elements of word
structure and sentence structure from a different perspective.6
Readers who are consulting this reference grammar for answers to specific
questions may want to skip over the morphological theory and consult the para-
digms (inflectional charts), and the book is designed to allow them to do so. How-
ever, those who are studying Arabic with goals of understanding the processes
and categories of Arabic language structure will find that descriptions of the
morphological structure are helpful not only in understanding the theoretical
framework of Arabic, but also in organizing their knowledge in order to serve as a
foundation for higher levels of achievement and proficiency. Moreover, without a
sound grasp of Arabic morphological principles, learners will be unable to make
use of Arabic dictionaries.

2 Derivation: the Arabic root-pattern system
Arabic morphology exhibits rigorous and elegant logic. It differs from that of
English or other Indo-European languages because it is to a large extent based on
discontinuous morphemes. It consists primarily of a system of consonant roots
which interlock with patterns of vowels (and sometimes certain other conso-
nants) to form words, or word stems. This type of operation is not unknown in
English. If one looks at the consonant sequence s-ng, one knows that its meaning

In the word “untruthfulness,” for example, there are four morphemes: un-, truth, -ful, and -ness.
Three of these morphemes are bound, i.e., they cannot occur on their own, and one (“truth”) is
±ô°U ’«f,
The two major categories of grammatical analysis in Arabic are Sarf and naHw which
are often translated as morphology and syntax, respectively. However, the boundary between them
is not the same boundary as in Western grammatical theory. The category of Sarf covers many
areas of derivational morphology (e.g., the ten forms of the verb) and some inflectional morphol-
ogy (e.g., the past tense paradigm); but it does not include the study of case and mood. A further
category of Arabic grammatical analysis, ishtiqaaq, is often translated as ˜etymology™ but actually
deals more with Arabic derivational morphology. It is etymology (the study of word origins and
development) in the sense that it deals extensively with the creation of words from the lexical
root system, but not in the Western diachronic sense that examines the evolution of lexical items
and their meanings over time and through different, though related stages of language evolution.
46 A Reference Grammar of Modern Standard Arabic

has to do with vocal music. By inserting different vowels into the vowel slot
between the /s-/ and the /-ng/ several different English words can be formed:

sing (v.)
sang (v.)
sung (v.)
song (n.)

All of these items are words, or stems that can have suffixes such as “sing-ing,”
“song-s,” “sing-s,” “song-™s,” “sing-er,” or prefixes, such as “un-sung.” As a compar-
ison, the consonant sequence s-ng corresponds roughly to the concept of an Arabic


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