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.


One thought on “Grammar, Grammars and Meta-Grammars (Part 1)

  1. Pingback: Arabic Meta-Grammars (Part 2) | Suheil Laher : Language and Literature Blog

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