Arabic Meta-Grammars (Part 1)

Try to convince a British speaker of English to speak the language like an American, and you will probably encounter resistance. People often feel very strongly (even combatively) about the way they speak. So, are some forms of a language more equal than others? Does a language have a particular formal structure that is correct, and why? Questions like these come up for many languages, and Arabic linguists started to address them in the 10th century CE (4th century Hijri), which was a time when scholarship reached a stage of maturation and self-reflection. In this article, I will give a brief overview of the systematization of Arabic grammar, and some of the controversies around it.

A renowned Baghdadian grammarian Ibn al-Sarraj (d. 316/929) wrote a book entitled al-Usul fi al-Nahw, which could be translated as “The Principles in Grammar,” or “The Foundations of Grammar,” and was a trailblazing attempt to describe Arabic grammar in a systematic way. By this time, there were two rival schools of Arabic grammar, Basrans and Kufans, and Ibn al-Sarraj identified with the former. The Basran approach to grammar came to dominate (perhaps partly due to Ibn al-Sarraj’s book), and they differed from the Kufans in some terminology, but also a more substantive issue of methodology. In particular, the Basrans considered the rural Arabic of the Bedouins to be the pure form of the language, and criticized the Kufans for giving weight to urban usages (“We take the language from the hunters of lizards and jerboas, you Kufans take it from the eaters of yogurt and pickles.”) Image of yogurt, accompanied by quote from Basran grammarian quote scorning KufansAlso, even when the Kufans studied the rural Bedouins’ Arabic, they tended to be more open to accepting ‘anomalous attestations:’ things that Bedouins might occasionally have said but that are not a norm (i.e. not widely used). The Kufans were not averse to abstract derivation of rules and patterns in the language, but for them the boundaries of the rules would tend to be less clear-cut because they might regard ‘anomalous attestations’ as equally correct even if they don’t fit a general pattern. The Basrans, on the other hand, would tend to disregard anomalous data when deducing a rule by induction. This makes sense if one is trying to document general patterns and trends, then one is justified in ignoring outlying cases, as it is said, “The exception proves the rule.”

Shortly after Ibn al-Sarraj, other grammarians ventured into another form of theorization, beyond describing the rules of the language. Abul-Hasan al-Warraq (d. 381/991) was one of the earliest to write about meta-grammar (`ilal al-nahw), which tries to give a deeper theoretical (or philosophical) justification for why the rules are the way they are. Examples of the types of issues discussed in meta-grammar are:

  • Grammarians tell us there are three basic word categories in Arabic: ism (“noun”), fi`l (verb) and harf (particle). How do we know there are no others? And why is the fi`l, for example, called fi`l and not something else?
  • Grammarians tell us that the mubtada’ (subject of a nominal sentence) is in the marfu` (nominative) case. Why is this the case? In other words, what is the agent (`amil) that is causing the mubtada’ to be in this particular noun case? There are three different opinions about this:
  1. that the marfu` state is caused by the khabar (predicate)
  2. that it is caused by the status of ibtida’ (inception, i.e. because it is starting the sentence)
  3. that the marfu` case here is not caused by anything, but rather is the default state
  • Grammarians tell us that when calling out to someone, the noun following the vocative is, by default, in the mansub (accusative) case, because it can be considered the direct object (maf`ul bihi) of an implicit verb, “I summon,”

So, what benefit (if any) is there in this?

(to be continued)

-Suheil Laher

Photo credit: original underlying photograph: Sinan Coskun,

Shawqi’s Poem on Knowledge and Education

Egyptian poet Ahmad Shawqi presented one of his most famous poems at an event at the Higher Teacher’s College club in Cairo. The Arabic poem, 68 lines long, extols knowledge and teachers, and describes the herculean responsibility of teachers to inculcate knowledge as well as values in the next generation. After explaining the spiritual dimension and importance of knowledge, he goes on to lament the disappearance of true dedication to knowledge and truth, which, coupled with excessive individualism and pursuit of lower desires, exacerbated by the effects of colonialism, have crippled his people’s progress. He proceeds to advise teachers to rear the new generations with knowledge and integrity, and the points out the dangers of dishonorable teachers and an ignorant and unprincipled populace.

Below is a translation of the first ten lines of the poem, in pentametric blank verse. Note that conventional Arabic poems typically comprise lines divided into two hemistichs, and my translation uses a separate line of English for each hemistich, and so the ten lines of Arabic have resulted in twenty lines of English. I have opted for a translation that captures the elegance of the original, and is still faithful in meaning even if not always completely literal.

The opening invokes a simile comparing the teacher to a messenger of God (i.e. Prophet). The language he uses here is within the acceptable boundaries of figurative language, and has has not been theologically problematic to Muslim scholars.

– Suheil Laher

Shawqi on Knowledge and Education

Stand for the teacher, give him full respect
The teacher’s rank is close to the prophet.
Can there be any person nobler than
The one who builds and nurtures souls and minds?
Glory to You God, O best instructor,
With the pen You taught the folk of yore.
You brought this mind forth from its darknesses,
And guided it a way of lucid light.
The teacher’s hand a crucible you made,
Its products ingots rusted or burnished.
Moses as a guide You sent with Torah,
So too the Virgin’s son, who taught Injil.
Muhammad’s fluent fount You caused to gush,
So human souls he quenched with scripture’s words.
You taught the Greeks and Egypt, who’ve declined
Displaced by suns that fain would not depart.
Yore’s giants now returned to infancy
In knowledge, learning now at deadened pace.
From eastern realms of earth the suns arose,
How is it now the western lands prevail?

Ahmad Shawqi, Poet biography

Ahmad Shawqi was one of the most famous Arab poets of the modern era. He was born in Cairo, Egypt, 1869, of mixed Arab, Kurdish, Turkish, Greek and Circassian descent. He grew up in a privileged, aristocratic household, raised partially by his maternal grandmother who was Greek and who worked in the khedive‘s court. He was a bright student, who memorized parts of the Quran while young, and became an avid reader of poetry from an early age. By the time he completed high school in 1885, he was already fluent in Arabic, Turkish and French. He then enrolled in law school, where he he also furthered his literary interests and knowledge. After graduation, he spent four years pursuing further legal studies France (sponsored by the khedive), during which time he visited Belgium and Britain. Upon returning to Egypt in 1892, he became the official poet to the Khedive’s royal court. Following the Ottoman alliance with the Germans in the early stages of World War I, the British deposed the Khedive, and Shawqi was exiled to Spain, where he lived for five years before being able to return to Egypt in 1920. In time, his renown as a poet spread through the Arab world, and his contemporaries gave him the title, “The Prince of Poets.” He died in 1932, and was elegized by many poets. Although he is most famous for his poetry, he also wrote historical fiction, as well as plays, and is a pioneer of modern Arabic verse drama. Shawqi lived at the cusp of the emergence of the modern movement in Arabic poetry, and his poetry is entirely conventional in terms of conformance to the traditional metrical patterns. He also wrote extensively in conventional genres, such as elegy, love and descriptive poetry. Nevertheless he did not hesitate to use poetry as a vehicle for contemporary social and political commentary. He also wrote fabulistic poems were perhaps partly influenced by French poets such as de la Fontaine.

Grammar, Grammars and Meta-Grammars (Part 1)

This article-u introduces some important-a facts-a about Arabic-i grammar-i.

Grammar is this structure of a language, and different languages often have significantly differents structures and rules. Imagine if (as in the opening sentence above) whenever you wrote or spoke a sentence in English, you had to tag a vowel onto the end of each noun, with the choice of vowel varying depending on how you were using the word within each sentence. That is pretty much what you do in formal (Classical as well as Modern Standard) Arabic, because the language has case endings, which are an important part of its syntax (syntax is the study of how sentences are formed in a language) yet non-existent in English and most other languages.

In modern English, syntax is mostly about the correct order of words in valid sentence (“I greeted the world” is valid, but “World the I greeted” is not), and punctuation. Even though Old English was a heavily cased language, this has largely disappeared from modern English. For example, whether we are saying,

“The man ate the potato,” or

“The potato ate the man,”

the words “man” and “potato” remain exactly the same. A few traces of case still remain in modern English, e.g.

“Me ate the potato,”

is incorrect, because in this situation “I” (the nominative (subject) version of the pronoun) must be used rather than “me” (which is the accusative/object version of the pronoun.

Arabic, on the other hand, is a strongly cased language, which means that nouns (and similarly pronouns and adjectives) change depending on how they are used within a sentence. There are three possible grammatical cases in Arabic, which means each noun has up to three possible variations. (Don’t worry, this is still less than Old English, which had 5 cases, modern German which has 4, and modern Finnish which has 15!) Grammatical case variations in Arabic usually involve changes to the end of the word, most often (but not always!) by means of vowels. To give you an idea of how this works, let’s imagine that English used the same system. The potato sentences from above would now become:

The man-u ate the potato-a

The potato-u ate the man-a

Similarly, we would now no longer simply say,

Hello, world

Hello aliens

Instead, we would have to say:

Hello, world-u

Hello, aliens-u

And sometimes it gets more complicated, e.g.

Hello, world-a of aliens-i!

Spoken Arabic does not use the case endings system, and we don’t know when exactly it was dropped. Nor do we know why formal Arabic maintained the case system, while other Semitic languages (like Hebrew) did not. However, we do know that a major concern of the earliest Arab grammarians was to document and classify the correct use of case endings. Some historical narrations tell us1 (and it is very likely so) that the impetus for this was to help with correct pronunciation of the Quran (Islam’s divinely-revealed book), for Arabic was at the time written without any vowels.

The early Arab grammarians’ initial aim was therefore to write a descriptive grammar in order to preserve the purity of the language. A natural consequence of this approach was to classify the descriptive grammatical rules in a logical way, for example, by saying, “The different syntactical scenarios in which the terminal vowel ending is “-u” are ….” The famous medieval grammar (the Ajurrumiyya) manual by the North African Berber scholar Ibn Ajurrum (d. 723 H / 1323 CE) uses this type of taxonomic approach to presenting grammar. However, it should be clear that this approach was neither intended to produce a pedagogic grammar (i.e. a grammar for teaching non-native speakers the language), nor is it effective for such teaching purposes (without even getting into different pedadgogical approaches to language-teaching). A taxonomical primer like the Ajurrumiyya might be of benefit to an Arabic speaker who wants to brush up on his/her knowledge of case endings, but a beginner in Arabic syntax needs to first understand how to form basic sentences and to conjugate verbs. This is why, even though Ibn Ajurrum’s grammar was traditionally considered an introductory grammar work, it is inefficient (if not downright terrible) to use it as a first textbook for an English speaker trying to learn Arabic.

Two parting remarks:

(1) In the article above, I have used the word “grammar” loosely to refer primarily to syntax, one of the two major sub-disciplines of grammar. In a future article I hope to comment on the other major branch, morphology, which is the study of the forms of words.

(2) We have not yet gotten to talk about meta-grammars (which this article’s title promised), nor the tension between descriptive and prescriptive grammars in the Arabic grammatical tradition, but in order not to make this post too long, I will stop here for now.

This writer-u bids farewell-a to the kind-i readers-i.

(Please don’t start speaking English like this, or you may drive your family and colleagues crazy.)


-Suheil Laher


1 Caliph Ali is traditionally credited with spearheading the project to write and teach grammar, in response to hearing people (whether non-Arabs or simply semi-literate Arabs) who were (inadvertently) reciting the Quran with mistakes in case-endings that would change the meaning drastically.

Let the Days Pass As They Will

Poetry has long been companion to the human spirit, attempting to record the ineffable breezes, the delicate memories, the raging fires that sometimes come over the human heart, to capture the wings that perhcance flutter within the chest. Translating poetry is more challenging than translating prose, as there will inevitably be a trade-off between faithful literal translation, and looser but more aesthetically pleasing rendering. Below is my translation of famous Arabic poem by Muhammad ibn Idris al-Shafi`i (d. 204H / 897CE). In addition to being the eponym of one of the major Sunni legal schools, and the architect of some innovative legal techniques, al-Shafi`i was renowned for his flawless command of the Arabic language.

The poem is on the theme of wisdom, containing Shafi`i’s general advice for life. My translation is in tetrametric couplets, and in observing these constraints of rhyme and rhythm, the fidelity of the translation has of course been compromised (only slightly, I would like to think!)

O let the days do as they please!
And be content when fate decrees.
Do not regret what this day’s cast,
For this world’s pains for sure won’t last.
So be a man ‘gainst horrors strong,
Be kind and loyal, all life long.
If in folk’s eyes your faults abound,
And you would like that they be gowned:
Then shelter seek beneath kind acts,
For kindness well all blame retracts.
To foes never reveal weakness
For gloating foes do bring distress.
From misers seek not bounteousness
In fire is but thirst’s hopelessness
Your calmness won’t reduce income,
Nor fretfulness increase the sum.
Not grief nor happiness shall last,
Nor poverty, nor riches vast.
If in your heart you’re satisfied
Then you do own the whole world wide.
A man on whom his fate alights
No depths shall save, nor any heights.
God’s glorious earth is wide, but know,
That destiny makes it narrow.
So, face each day on even keel.
There is no balm from death can heal.

-Suheil Laher

ACKNOWLEDGMENT: Some of the metaphors in my opening paragraph are built on words written in Arabic by Egyptian journalist, literate, jurist and educationist Shaikh Ali Tantawi (d. 1990)

The Sub-Disciplines of Arabic

If you think about it, there is a lot involved in language (any language). The renowned Andalusian historian and sociologist Ibn Khaldun (d. 808 H / 1406 CE) enumerated four major areas in the study of the Arabic language:

  1. Lexicology اللغة
  2. Grammar النحو
  3. Rhetoric الببان
  4. Literature الأدب

Of course, each of these has numerous sub-disciplines and areas. How many sub-disciplines are there in all? Several writers gave twelve as a number for sub-disciplines, with some composing lines of poetry summarizing them for easy memorization, e.g. Egyptian educationist and writer Ahmad al-Hashimi (d. 1943 CE) wrote:

نحو وصرف عروض ثم قافية ** وبعدها لغة قرض وإنشـــــــــاء 
خط بيان معان مع محاضــــرة ** والاشتقاق لها الآداب أسماء 

However, it is possible to identify other disciplines beyond these twelve. Below, I present a fourteen-fold taxonomy, arranged these under a modified version Ibn Khaldun’s higher-level categories: I have added one category (‘Media,’ which deals with the sounds and script of the language), and collapsed Lexicology and Grammar into a single category ‘Words.’ For some disciplines, I list prominent sub-disciplines. In future blog posts, I might explain some of disciplines that are less familiar (name-wise or content-wise) to many people.


  1. Sounds: Phonology
    • Phonology `ilm al-aṣwāt
    • Phonetics (including Qur’anic Phonetics `ilm al-tajwīd)
  1. Script: Orthography (`ilm al-rasm / al-khaṭṭ)


  1. Origin, Coinage (`ilm al-waḍ`)
  2. Meaning
    • Lexicology (matn al-lughah)
    • Triconsonantal Semantic Patterns `ilm al-ishtiqāq
  1. Internal Structure of Words: Morphology (`ilm al-ṣarf)
  2. Terminal Variations on Words: Syntax (`ilm al-naḥw)
  • Rules of Syntax qawa`id al-naḥw
  • Meta-Grammar `ilal al-naḥw / uṣul al-naḥw


  1. Linguistic Pragmatics (`ilm al-ma`anī)
  2. Imagery, Figurative Expression (`ilm al-bayān)
  3. Rhetorical Embellishments (`ilm al-badī`)


  • Poetry

  1. Prosody, Metrics (`ilm al-`arūḍ)
  2. Rhymes (`ilm al-qawāfī)
  3. Writing Poetry (qarḍ al-shi`r)
  • Prose

  1. Composition (al-inshā’)
  2. Public Speaking (al-khaṭābah / al-muādara)


– Suheil Laher

Ubuntu (Hellos and Goodbyes, Part 2 of 2)

    • Disclaimer 1 (for IT folks): No, this article is not about Linux-based operating systems.
    • Disclaimer 2 (for non-language geeks): You may find this article a bit heavier than normal. If so, feel free to scroll down to the last paragraph which sums it all up.

    Swedish poet Hjalmar Gullberg (d. 1961) opined that the ancient custom of strangers meeting, only to exchange brief words about the road, and then parting again, eases the pain of a farewell, and that this should be the way we interact with people. Sweden was a trailblazer in the early spread of telephone technology, and regardless of whether Gullberg’s poem had this specifically in mind, the telephone may indeed have had a tangible impact on the way people interact. Professor Alan Koenigsberg has remarked that, “The phone overnight cut right through the 19th-century etiquette that you don’t speak to anyone unless you’ve been introduced.” Today, a century and a half later, this has only increased, with people commonly accepting electronic “friend requests” from individuals they have never met. Nevertheless, it has been argued that technology is making us more alone, and has the potential to harm the way we think and focus. I will not delve into these debates, but will comment briefly on a couple of aspects of the interplay between language and the human condition.

    Languages as Different Ways of Seeing the World

    In my previous blog post, we saw that “Hello” in English is simply a hailing word, whereas In Arabic, rather than a simple hailing, other expressions (that carry the sense of welcome) were the norm. Therefore, the common translations of “Hello,” into Arabic are functional, rather than literal translations. It is enrichingly revealing to realize that different languages express themselves differently in the same situations (as we got some sense for in the discussion about various hellos and goodbyes). But languages are not just different ways of expressing the same ideas; they often involve different ways of looking at the world, and this is one of the ways in which learning languages broadens your horizons. The Italian Marxist political thinker Gramsci (d. 1937) advocated the teaching of Latin (which had long been a dead language by his time), because he realized that learning a language develops a person’s critical consciousness, and provides “a profound ‘synthetic’ phislosophical experience.” Of course, one does not have to share Gramsci’s political views in order to agree with his observations on the enriching potential of learning a new language.

    Language and Humanness

    We might also wonder whether the way we say something impacts our broader and deeper human experience. If I were to judge from the difference between English and Arabic hellos, I might have initially have guessed the impact to be minimal, given that most speakers of Arabic and English today are probably not conscious of the underlying and original meanings of the greetings they are using. But perhaps there is reason to pause and reconsider.

    Both social norms and language are dynamic, and there might sometimes be links between the ways in which each changes. For example, the use of traditional polite expressions seems to be on the decline in English, with many people nowadays either omitting them or replacing them with new expressions (e.g. Responding to a “Thank you!” with “You got it!” instead of “You’re welcome.”) Whether or not this necessarily implies that people are less polite nowadays has been debated, but some psychologists have demonstrated that expressions of gratitude have a positive effect on our emotional states (and by the same token, hurtful words can not only cause emotional trauma, but even structural changes to the brain). Similarly, it has been suggested that the customary Shona greetings foster and cultivate the attitude of ubuntu (humanity, or “a universal bond of sharing that connects all humanity.”) One could perhaps suggest the same about many greetings and farewells in various others languages, for these often contain some inquiry about, or wish for, the other person’s well-being. We might even venture that people are aware, on some level, of the ubuntu / humanitas sentiments of their greetings. After all, if you are really angry with someone, chances are you will dispense with these “niceties” when you speak to them.

    The concept of ubuntu is very similar to the Latin humanitas, which refers to the full development of “humanness” (including human virtues). The English word “humanities” derives from the Latin term “humanitas,” which refers to the full development of “humanness” (including human virtues). The Arabic word adab أدب refers to both literature and etiquette. Language is a fundamental part of the human condition, and the study of language obviously falls under the domain of the “humanities.” For Italian thinker Lorenzo Valla (d. 1457), language in fact represented the synthesis of all human thought. And much earlier, a pre-Islamic Arabian poet remarked,

    The lad’s tongue is half of him, and [the other] half his heart,

    So naught remains thereafter save the [mere] form of flesh and blood.”

    In any case, since I started this post with comments on how technology has changed our communication, it is appropriate to end on the same note, but with a couple of practical take-away points that suggest themselves to me:

    1. Language is integral to the human condition, and all human languages have the potential to be used positively or negatively. When communicating in the virtual world, in particular, let us not forget the etiquette and netiquette that reflect our ubuntu, our humanitas. Its a lot easier to not be nice when the other person is not physically in front of you.
    2. Recall from my previous post that the ways in which the “world” is described are illuminating, covering meanings of immediacy, nearness, human history, and distinct spheres. The virtual world is a new sphere of our existence, but if we lose touch with the “immediacy” of our tangible surroundings and direct interactions, then “the age of man” runs the risk of losing its humanitas and spiralling ever further “down”.

    Feel free to agree with me, correct me, or dismiss this as the random ravings of a listless linguaphile.

    – Suheil Laher

Hellos and Goodbyes (Part 1 of 2)

Words have fascinating stories, and languages have personalities. Is one simply attracting someone’s attention by saying “Hello,” or is it also a promise of hospitality? And does “goodbye,” merely signal parting company, or something deeper? This post will explore the English words, “hello,” “world” and “goodbye,” and their Arabic equivalents. I hope to have a follow-up post soon in which I continue with some general reflections and comments about what role language might play in society.

English Hello, World, Goodbye

“Hello” is a generic greeting which we use innumerable times in our daily lives, especially on the telephone (which was instrumental in popularizing the word). You might think it does not carry much specific meaning beyond a generic initiation of dialogue, and indeed etymologists tell us that the English word “hello” comes from medieval European words meaning “to shout in the chase,” or “to hail (e.g. a ferryman).” (But more on that soon!) The word “world,” also seemingly innocuous, actually comes from Germanic roots with a literal meaning of, “the age of man”. And the quotidian word “goodbye” is originally a 16th century contraction of the phrase “God be with you,” although few people nowadays, even among the religious, intend or are even conscious of this meaning.

Arabic Hellos

Google translate renders, “Hello, world,” as مرحبا بالعالم . But common alternatives one encounters are ahlan wa-sahlan أهلأ وسهلا (or its contraction ahlan أهلا) for “hello,” and dunya دنيا for “world.” Note that none of the Arabic “hello” words has the meaning of shouting or hailing that underly the English “hello.” One might hazard a guess that there is an onomatopeic dimension to the English word, in which case, interestingly enough we do find an Arabic parallel. Ibn Faris defines the fundamental meaning of the Arabic root “H-L-L” to be “raising the voice.” Ibn Manzur and others mention the following exclamations that might onamatopeically be sisters of “hello”:

  • halan هلاً : used to rebuke a horse or camel)
  • hālin هالٍ: to command the horse to approach
  • halā هلا : a command, “hurry!”
  • hallā هلّا : an exhortation or urging

Nevertheless, the Arabs did not commonly use these expressions to greet one another upon meeting. Instead, they used the expressions we mentioned above, which have the following literal meanings:

  • ahlan wa-sahlan أهلاً وسهلاً : a family and a soft plain (the implication being, “You have found family (i.e. don’t think of us as strangers) and a soft plain (not a hard, rugged, inhospitable piece of land)”
  • marḥaban : space, or abundance (the implication being, “You have found space and abundance,” (i.e. don’t be worried, you are welcome and will be taken of).

We can also mention the Islamic Arabic greeting

  • al-salām ʻalaykum : “peace [be] upon you”

Arabic “Worlds”

  • ʻālam عالَم comes from same root as ʻilm (meaning knowledge), with the fundamental meaning of the root having to do with making something distinct, and hence a world is something with a distinct identity [Ibn Faris]. This is remarkably close to one meaning of the modern English “world,” namely, “A particular group of living things,” or similarly, “All that relates to a particular sphere of activity.
  • dunyā دنيا on the other hand, comes from the root d-n-w, connoting closeness, and hence dunyā is the immediate world (as opposed to the world after death). Other close roots include d-n-a and d-w-n, which connote lowness. There is a parallel to Irish and Old Slavonic words for “world” that derive from the root for “bottom, foundation”; not very remarkable.

Arabic “Goodbyes”

  • wadāʻ وداع , Google Translate’s default version of “goodbye,” simply means, “parting,” and would be used more as the noun (as in “say a quick goodbye,”) than a greeting.
  • Maʻas-salama مع السلامة , an alternative, literally means, “with safety,” i.e. “Go with safety.” This is clearly closer to the original sense of the English “goodbye,” even though the Arabic is not explicitly religious.

Two other, less common, expressions are closer, in this respect, to the original “goodbye:”

  • Allāh maʻak الله معك is literally, “God [be] with you,” (and hence the literal equivalent of “goodbye,”) and is used by some people.
  • Fī amān Allāh في أمان الله : “In the safety of God.”

Well, that’s it for this post. But since I hope to see you again soon for the conclusion of this, I will not say goodbye, but rather:

Au revoir! Auf wiedersehen!

– Suheil Laher

Hello, world!

Words, and languages, have dynamic lives with depth and complexity. Take the ostensibly simple statements, “Hello, world,” and “Goodbye.” We casually use these terms daily. The computer programmer’s major concern might be to illustrate how to display these characters on the screen (in the first case), or to signal to a user that a piece of software has terminated (in the second). But for the student of language(s), these two simple statements are a trove of meaning (and even of social history), especially when one attempts to translate these subsequently not-so-simple statements into another language (I will discuss Arabic in particular).

A statement as simple as, “Hello, world,” is sufficiently ambiguous that translating it into Arabic is not straightforward. There are semantic ambiguities, and different approaches to translation. Since all of these issues would be too much to cover in one post, I will spread the discussions over multiple posts.

In this first post, I will focus on the ambiguities of the vocative aspect of “Hello, world!” I will therefore (somewhat arbitrarily) choose the Arabic words ahlan أهلاً for ‘hello’ and ʻālam عالَـم for ‘world,’ although I may revisit that lexicological (to do with meanings of words) choice in a later post.

A vocative expression involves directly addressing a person. The vocative in English differs from the vocative in Arabic in three major respects:

  1. In English, it is rare (nowadays) to include ‘O’ before the vocative (as in ‘O world!’). This ‘O’ (not to be confused with the exclamation of pain or surprise ‘Oh!’) is called a vocative proclitic. Arabic has numerous vocative proclitics, but the most common is yā يا , and it is used more commonly than the English ‘O.’ Note that in both languages, the proclitic is an adjunct; it can be omitted without making the sentence ungrammatical.
  2. In English, there is no change to the noun that represents the person/thing being addressed in the vocative expression, whereas in Arabic (since it is a cased language) the ending of the noun changes.
  3. In English, there is only one basic form of the vocative (although the proclitic might vary : ‘O’, ‘Hey,’ or (in informal speech), ‘Yo,’ whereas in Arabic there are multiple forms, each with accompanying rules of case (see #2 above), and nuances of meaning.



1 – Vocative Proclitic


Rarely used

yā يا

Commonly used

2 – Case Change to Noun

No Change

Noun Ending Changes

3 – Different Expressions



So, to wrap up this post, I will illustrate three common forms of vocative using our Arabic version of “Hello, world.” Note that I am including the proclitic yā in all cases, although it could optionally be dropped.




Hello, world!


Hello, ʻĀlam!

(The latter addressing someone whose name is ʻĀlam)

أهلاً يا عالَـمُ


Hello, world!

أهلاً يا أيُّها العالَـمُ


Hello, [any] world!

(e.g. if you were broadcasting a general message to all of the recently-discovered multiple earth-like planets, without having one specific world in mind, but rather to greet any world that might respond)

أهلاً يا عالَـماً

Note that expressions A and B look and sound different in Arabic, but are translated the same in English. According to the renowned scholar Fakhr al-Din al-Rāzī (d. 606 H /1209 CE), their meaning subtly differs in one of two ways. B is more emphatic, and indicates either that the matter is important, or that the addressee is inattentive.