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.