Arabic Grammar Basics: Nouns and Noun Phrases

This is the first of several articles that introduce the basics of Arabic phrase structure. This article deals with nouns and phrases made with nouns (nouns modified by articles, nouns modified by adjectives, and more). These are phrases of course, not sentences. To put nouns together into sentences, you create "equational sentences" (dealt with in the article, "Arabic Grammar Basics: Equational Sentences") or else, as in English, use verbs.

A Note on Consonant Roots

As you learn nouns and adjectives, pay attention to the consonants that form these, because just as the English noun "desert" (meaning "arid terrain") is related to the verb "desertification" (meaning "turn to desert"), Arabic nouns, adjectives, and verbs are related. The root consonants in a noun or adjective will thus be found in other related words, including verbs.

Sounds and Pronunciation

In my "phonetic renditions" of Standard Arabic, I generally adhere to the American Library of Congress romanization system; however, I use /"/ for the pharyngeal fricative (something like the sound made deep in the throat when you say "aah"), and /'/ for the glottal stop.The ALALC does not transcribe the latter. In addition, I represent long domah (vowel plus wa'aw) and kisrah (vowel plus ya'a) vowels as consonants plus glides, and long fatah (vowel plus alif) as /aa/. ALALC represents these as long vowels.

Targeted Audience

While both adults and children may enjoy learning Arabic, this targets adults or older teens who already have a need to learn Arabic, or a strong interest, and who perhaps may be using online materials but want more information about how Arabic sentences are structured. This and the other articles should enable learners to quickly grasp the basics of Arabic sentence structure.

Bilingual Traffic Sign in Qatar (this is an idaafa -- shaar"[-u] 'al-ghadiriya[t-i] -- meaning Street [of] the-Ghadiriya or "[the] Ghadiriya Street") - Currybet / Wikimedia Commons - Attribution - Share Alike (http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Bilingual_traffic_sing_qatar.jpg)
Bilingual Traffic Sign in Qatar (this is an idaafa and reads -- shaar"[-u] 'al-ghadiriya[t-i] -- meaning Street [of] the-Ghadiriya or "[the] Ghadiriya Street") - Currybet / Wikimedia Commons - Attribution - Share Alike

Nouns, Defined and Undefined

Noun phrases in Arabic, like in English, may consist of an undefined (indefinite, not defined by an article such as /'al/, which is often translated into English as "the") or a defined noun. For example, /zayt-un/ means "oil," any oil, and not specific oil, because /zayt-un/ is undefined. We know it's undefined because it ends with the nominative indefinite suffix /-un/. (Nominative is the case used for nouns in isolation, or for nouns that are the sentence subject, or rather, for nouns that are the first term of the sentence subject, in cases where the subject of a sentence is composed of multiple nouns conjoined in an "idaafa;" see below.) /Zayt/ itself can refer to the oil used in cooking (the related Spanish word is "aceite"), or to the oil that's pumped from the ground. To make /zayt/ definite, we add the article /'al/: /'az-zayt-u/ ("the-oil-nominative definite marker). Note that /'al-/ is pronounced as /'az-/ before the the consonant "zay," which makes the /z/ sound; there is no change however in how /'al/ is written). Note also that the suffix /-u/ no longer ends in /n/; the /n/ was part of the indefinite suffix but not the definite one. Here is /'az-zayt-u/ in Arabic script: الزيت

One note: in Arabic short vowels are unwritten (alternately sometimes they may be written with diacritic marks over or under the text); only long (and hence in Arabic stressed) vowels are written. However when a vowel begins with the Arabic glottal stop, roughly the opening sound in the English word "apple," it is written as a long vowel, even if it is pronounced as a short vowel.

The Arabic Definite Article

A nice thing about the Arabic definite article /'al/ is that unlike in some languages (French, Spanish, Italian, and German are a few), there is only one form of /'al/, no matter whether the noun it defines is considered to be "masculine" or "feminine," singular or plural. (Arabic has still another number, called the "dual," which I don't go into here, but /'al/ does not change, regardless.)

The Definite Article and Family Names

The definite article is used before the family or clan name in Arabic, just as in English if one were talking about the Smiths, one would use the definite article and say "the Smiths." Thus the Karim clan or family is referred to as /'al-Kariym/, "the-Karim." For more on Arabic names, see the information in Richard Ishida's article, "Personal Names Around the World."

"This" and "That"

You might want to be still more specific and point to the oil. In this case, you might want to say, "this oil" or "that oil." In Arabic either would be /haadhaa 'az-zayt-u/, which means "this/that the-oil-nominative definite."

In Arabic, it's necessary to define a noun with the article /'al/ before further defining it with the demonstrative adjective /haadhaa/ ("this" or "that"). Shortly you will see that nouns in Arabic can be "feminine" as well as masculine; feminine nouns take the demonstrative adjective /haadhihi/. Note that /haadhaa/ (and the feminine form /haadhihi/) can mean either "this" or "that." Arabic does not distinguish these. Here is /haadhaa 'az-zayt-u/ in Arabic script: هذا الزيت

Plural and Singular

Arabic nouns of course have plural forms as well as singular ones, and many plurals are irregular. But there's some good news: non-human plurals are modified by adjectives in the feminine singular form, and the feminine singular form of adjectives is perfectly regular, formed by adding a special ending (see below).

Idaafa

Noun phrases in Arabic, like in English, can consist of more than a single noun. Idaafas are Arabic noun phrases with more than one noun conjoined together. Let's look at idaafas.

Idaafas are a common Arabic way to connect several words, when one modifies another. To say the Arabic lesson for example, instead of saying "the-lesson" (/'ad-dars-u/ in Arabic), followed by a modifying adjective "Arabic," (/'al-"arabiy-u/ in Arabic), you can say, /dars-u 'al-lughat-i 'al-"arabiyat-i/ (lesson-nominative definite marker the-language-genitive definite marker the-Arabic-genitive definite marker). Here is this in Arabic script: درس اللغة العربية

Notice that the second term ('al-lughat-i (the-language-gentive definite ending) 'al-"arabiyat-u; the-Arabic-genitive definite marker) is definite, that is, it is defined using a definite article, /'al/. However the first term /dars-u/ (lesson) does not get an article. It's still definite however: it's defined by the second term, /'al-lughat-i 'al-"arabiyat-i/.

Having the first term without an article and the second term with one shows a relationship: the second term in some way possesses the first. Idaafas are often translated into English as nouns conjoined with the preposition "of." Thus /dars-u 'al-lughat-i 'al-"arabiyat-i/ is translated as "the lesson of the Arabic language," or in more proper English, "the lesson in the Arabic language."

Feminine Forms: The "Conjoined T"

Another note: the /t/ sound at the end of /"arabiyat-i/ is called, in Arabic, "tah-marbutah" (t-conjoined) or "connected t." Adding "tah-marbutah" to the end of /"arabiy/ makes /"arabiy/ feminine, so that it agrees in gender (it also agrees in number) with lughat-i (language-the), which is feminine. Yes, Arabic, like many languages, including Spanish and French, has two "genders" for non-human nouns. "Tah-marbutah" is not pronounced except before another vowel. Thus the feminine ending in Arabic normally sounds like the feminine ending in Spanish, like the vowel /a/ (fatah) that is pronounced before tah-marbutah, even though I transcribe the feminine ending here as /-at/.

Idaafas and Place Names, Personal Names

Common idaafas include names for places, such as /sharq[-u] 'al-awsaṭ[-i]/ (East[-nominative definite marker] the-middle[-genitive definite marker]), "the Middle East," and many street names, for example the name of the street written on the sign whose photo appears here, /shara"[-u] 'al-ghadiriya[t-i]/ (street[-nominative definite marker] the-Ghadiriya[feminine ending for adjective-genitive definite marker). The word for street by itself is /shara"[-u]/: شارع

Idaafas also occur in personal names. An example (from Wikipedia) is /"Abd[-u] [']ur-Rahiym[-i]/ (servant[-nominative definite marker] the-Merciful[-genitive definite marker which is not pronounced]), "Servant of the Merciful." /Muḥammad 'al-Kariym[i]/ similarly means Mohammed of the Karim family.

Idaafas With More Than Two Terms

There can be more than two terms in an idaafa. It's common to have several terms in fact. "The head of my brother's company," in Arabic, /ra'is[-u] (head/chief-[nominative definite ending]) sharikat[-i] (company[-genitive definite ending]) shaqiyq-iy (brother-my)/ is an example.

The term I learned for "brother" was not /shaqiyq-u/ but /'akh-u/. If I use /'akh-u/ to say "my brother," I must of course say /'akh-iy/ (brother-my). As I understand it, it's not just a "religious brother" that is referred to as /'aḥ-u/; a blood brother can be called an /'akh-u/. So the way I say "the head of my brother's company" is: /ra'is[-u] sharikat[-i] 'akh-iy/.

I've indicated, by transcribing a case ending, the case of all but the last term in this idaafa construction (each case ending is realized a simple vowel; the case endings are not written in Arabic except as diacritic marks and these marks mostly are only used in children's books). The first term is nominative (and has a nominative case ending, when the ending is pronounced), at least in isolation. Elsewhere the first term's case depends upon sentence grammar. The case of all other terms is genitive. I do not include a case ending for the last term because its final vowel merges with that of its suffix, /-iy/, which is the Arabic pronoun meaning "my." Note that /-iy/ is always conjoined to the preceding noun.

Here is /ra'is[-u] sharikat[-i] 'akh-iy/ in Arabic script: رئيس شركة أخي

The Endings -i, -u, etc.

The various inflectional endings we've seen, /-u/ and /-un/ (both for the nominative case), /-a/ and /-an/ (for the accusative case), and /-i/ and /-in/ (for the genitive), are important only in very formal standard Arabic. Except in the case of "equational sentences," these endings are rarely pronounced. These do sometimes affect the vowel that follows, making it longer.

One ending, the accusative indefinite (/-an/), is pronounced. The accusative indefinite ending, pronounced /-an/, is used to make adverbs, such as /jidd-an/ (which means "very"). If someone asks how you are in Arabic, you might of course say /'al-ḥamd-u laalah/ (the-praise God; which means "praise to God;" that is, "the praise goes to God, however you are, for the fact that you are living;" you can also say /bikhayr 'al-ḥamd'u laalah/ -- /bikhayr/ means "fine," thus indicating wellness; "fine, praise to God"); but you might instead simply say /jayyiyd jidd-an/ ("well very," meaning, "very well"). You might also in some dialects say /qwais/. The accusative indefinite ending looks like Arabic "alif" unless diacritics are added: ا

Here's /jayyid jidd-an/ in Arabic script: جيد جدا

Another phrase that uses /-an/ is "hello" or /marḥaban/, which is written: مرحبا It's from the three-consonant root rḥb ("welcome"): رحب

Li/La and Other Prepositions

Another way to conjoin nouns and the words that modify them is with the preposition /li-/. /Li-/ means roughtly "for" (but be careful translating prepositions; the meanings are not equivalent exactly to those of English prepositions; that is, a single Arabic preposition rarely translates into a single English preposition and vice versa, though there's some intersection). Sometimes idaafas are best and sometimes /li-/, and sometimes it's possible to use either. /Li-/ is a prefix.

However if you want to say "about," in, for example, "the book about computers," without using an idaafa, you use not /li-/ but the preposition /"an/: /'al-kitaab[-u] "an 'al-kumbyuwtar[-i]/ (the-book[-nominative definite marker] about the-computer[-genitive definite marker]). You can still of course use an idaafa here: /kitaab-u 'al-kumbyuwtar[-i]/. If you use the idaafa, note that the article /'al/ of course only occurs with the last term. It would also occur before any adjectives modifying the idaafa. In this idaafa however, there are no adjectives, only nouns. Here is /'al-kitaab[-u] "an 'al-kumbyuwtar[-i]/ in Arabic script: الكتاب عن الكمبيوت

You can of course have an indefinite book in this phrase, "a book about computers," /kitaab-un "an 'al-kumbyuwtar[-i]/. This, in Arabic script, is: كتاب عن الكمبيوت

Conjunctions

It's of course possible to conjoin nouns with the conjunctions /wa/ ("and") and /'am/ ("or").

For Further Study

For those who want more details, there are several good grammars online. One is Mohammed Jiyad's 101 Rules: A Short Reference for Arabic . .. . (Mount Holyoke College, Spring, 2006); another is Karen C. Ryding's A Reference Grammar of Modern Standard Arabic (Cambridge University Press, 2006). For offline grammars, there is Abboud et. al. Elementary Modern Standard Arabic, Vols 1 and 2 (Cambridge). For a fairly detailed grammar with examples from real world texts (some semi-classical), see Vicente Cantarino's The Syntax of Modern Arabic Prose, Vols 1 - 4 (Indiana University Press).

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*Note that Arabic script reads not from left to right, but from right to left.