What is Grammatical Inflection?
In a sentence, words can play many roles. They can be the subject of the sentence, the object of a verb, possessive, etc. So how do we know what role a word is playing? If we can’t figure this out, the meaning will be ambiguous.
In English, we solve this ambiguity by using word order. For example, “Zaid sat on the bus” is clearly different from “The bus sat on Zaid.” How do we know it’s different? It’s the order that tells us.
Arabic doesn’t use order to achieve disambiguation; it uses the vowels (long or short) near the end of words. For example, “ضرب زيدٌ عمراً” is different from “ضرب زيداً عمرٌ”. Why is it different; the order of words didn’t change? It’s because of the vowels at the end of the words. This concept has been thoroughly introduced in the tutorial entitled The Heart of Arabic Grammar.
What is this Tutorial About?
inflection / declension / إعراب is the process of disambiguating the grammatical roles of words by slightly changing their endings. This tutorial discusses which types of words in Arabic inflect, and which do not.
How Will we Approach this Topic?
In classical Arabic grammar, words are divided into three categories:
· حَرْف pl. حُروف: particles
· فِعْل pl. أَفْعال: verbs
· اسْم pl. أَسْماء: everything else (nouns, pronouns, adjectives, adverbs, etc)
For each of the above three categories, we will present a section to explain the إعراب of words in that category. We will explain which words decline (are مُعْرَب) and which do not (are مَبْني).
There are relatively few particles in the language (less than a hundred) and all of them are مبني. These particles do not experience grammatical roles; they don’t become subjects, objects, or any such thing. Therefore, there is no need for them to decline and so they don’t.
Be careful not to confuse meaning with grammatical role. A particle may have several meanings (e.g. باء can mean ‘with’ or ‘by means of’), but that does not mean it experiences roles.
We can make a similar argument for verbs. They do not become subjects, or objects, or anything like that. Hence they should all be مبني. Most of them are, but some groups of verbs are actually معرب.
To understand which verbs are معرب, we divide them into three categories:
1. ماضي: the perfect tense (e.g. ضَرَبَ)
2. مضارع: the imperfect tense (e.g. يَضْرِب)
3. امر حاضر معروف: the second person, active imperative (e.g. اِضْرِبْ)
Both the perfect and imperative verbs are مبني. Furthermore, the emphatic conjugations (e.g. ليفعلن) of the مضارع as well as conjugations 6 and 12 (يفعلنَ and تفعلنَ) from every مضارع conjugation table are مبني. The rest of مضارع is معرب.
conjugations 6 & 12
Nouns, unlike the other parts of speech, do experience grammatical roles and thus need a system of disambiguation. So we would expect all nouns to be معرب. Most of them are, but there are categories of nouns that are مبني.
We will simply list the types of nouns that are مبني here because there are too many miniscule categories to get into.
· personal pronouns (e.g. ها، اياها)
· non-dual demonstrative pronouns (e.g. ذلك، اولئك)
· non-dual relative pronouns (e.g. الذي، الذين)
· conditionals (e.g. ما، حيثما)
· interrogatives (e.g. ما، من)
· verbal nouns (e.g. هيهات)
conjugations 6 & 12
the categories listed above
all other nouns
Why the Discrepancy?
A valid question to ask is: if nouns are generally supposed to be معرب, why are some مبني, and if verbs are supposed to be مبني, why are some معرب? (particles seem to be the only well-behaved entities.)
The answer to both of these questions has to do with resemblance:
· Verbs become معرب as they resemble nouns
· Nouns becomes مبني as they resemble particles
An active مضارع verb resembles its active participle (اسم فاعل), and a passive resembles its passive participle (اسم مفعول). This resemblance is in terms of where the vowels and non-vowels fall on the letters of the words. Take, for instance, the verb يستغفر and its participle مستغفر. Both words share a lot in common inasmuch as which letters have vowels, which do not, and which vowels there are. Not only that, but the active participle may even resemble the verb in meaning inasmuch as it takes on tense from time to time. For example, in the phrase “انا مستغفر الله”, the participle connotes the present or future tense and the translation is “I am (or will be) seeking forgiveness from God.” And there are four other ways in which these verbs resemble nouns.
Now, as for nouns, they become مبني as they resemble particles. This resemblance can be in one of four ways:
· Nouns are supposed to have at least three base letters, whereas particles have fewer. So when a noun has fewer than three letters, it resembles particles. E.g. ها
· Nouns may resemble particles in meaning. E.g. متى is used for interrogation, which is a meaning associated with particles. Thus it resembles particles.
· Particles are often governing agents (they act on other parts of speech), but they themselves are not governed. So nouns that act as regents but are not themselves governed resemble particles. E.g. the verbal noun دراك acts on the following word but is itself unaffected by agents.
· Particles are always in need of something following them, otherwise, they have no purpose. When a noun also requires something as such, it is said to resemble particles. E.g. the relative pronouns are in need of relative clauses (صلة) and are incomplete without them.
1. We said that verbs may resemble nouns. Can verbs resemble particles? If so, what happens in such cases?
The imperfect verbs are
mostly declinable, but some are not. Why?
Hint: think reverse resemblance. What do the مبني imperfect verbs resemble?
3. We said that nouns resemble particles. Can nouns resemble verbs? If so, what do you make of that situation?
4. Particles can resemble verbs. Consider the sisters of انّ. What should happen in such cases in terms of grammatical inflection?
5. Particles can also resemble nouns. Just as nouns decrease in number of letters, so too can particles increase in number of letters. Consider منذ. Shouldn’t such particles become معرب?