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,


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