By Yahya Kharrat, Western Communications
For those learning Arabic for the first time, the language’s case endings are challenging. Yet, understanding the background of these grammatical rules offers the learner insights into the language and culture they will find invaluable in furthering their studies.
Some languages, ancient and modern, are ‘inflected.’ This permits them to indicate the grammatical functions of certain words in a sentence. Arabic has this linguistic feature, represented by diacritical marks placed at the end of a word, essential for the reader to understand and appreciate the correct and appropriate meaning of a written work and what revolves around it.
There are three diacritical indicators: Dama, Fa-tha, and Kasra. Each of these case inflection markers clarifies the function that the word performs in the sentence.
The Dama ( -ُ-) identifies the word as being in the nominative case, in other words the doer of the action (subject), and is given the sound of the vowel ‘u’ as in the word ‘put’. Its diacritical marker is a tiny superscript (و) placed above the last letter of the word.
The Fat-ha (-َ- ) indicates that the word is in the accusative case, as the receiver of the action (object), and is given the sound ‘e’ as in the word ‘led’. Its diacritical marker is a short slanting stroke placed above the last letter of the word.
The Kasra (ــِـ) indicates that the word is in the genitive case following a preposition or possession and is given the sound of the vowel ‘i’ as in the word ‘hit’. Its diacritical marker is a short slanting stroke placed below the last letter of the word.
The following three examples using the word ‘professor’ will illustrate these points (consider the last vowel of the word ‘Alustath’ which means ‘the professor’).
- The professor left. (Kharja Alustathu خرجَ الأستاذُ .)
The word for ‘professor’ is the subject of the sentence, ending with a Dama (و) over the last consonant. This produces an ending tone sounding like the letter ‘u’ as in the English word ‘put’.
- I saw the professor (Shahtu Alustatha شاهدت الأستاذَ .)
The word for ‘professor’ is the object of the verb, so ends with a Fat-ha, with a short stroke above the last consonant. This produces an ending tone sounding like the letter ‘e’ as in the word ‘led’.
- I came across the professor (Marartu bi Alustathi مررت بالأستاذ).
Here the word for ‘professor’ comes after a preposition, and is in the genitive case, so ends with a Kasra, a short stroke below the last consonant. This produces an ending tone sounding like the letter ‘i’ as in the word ‘hit’.
The ancient Arabs had no need of such diacritical markers to indicate cases in their day-to-day usage. Their pronunciations voicing the correct inflections came naturally through common usage.
Before the language was used by non-Arab speakers, the native speakers had a perfect understanding of the cases and how to use the tones to identify them without any need for a formal education on the subject. This was due to their habitat and the Classical language in which they were nurtured.
In their writings, because they were immersed in this environment, Arabic native speakers did not need the inflections to identify the case endings of the words. However, the arrival of many non-native speakers of Arabic who mingled with the native speakers gave rise to many mistakes and misunderstandings in communication, both orally and in written words. For this reason, grammarians of that time developed a pedagogical system to facilitate the identification of cases in the language.
The first of the grammarians to propose such a system was Abu al-Aswad al-Du’ali (603-688 CE).
Abu al-Aswad al-Du’ali developed this system at a time when errors of articulation were extensive and rampant, especially with the spread of Islam during the reign of the Umayyad’s. Together with his students, he developed a primitive system of graphic characters that were written in red, to identify a particular inflection reflecting the grammatical cases. A circle indicated an accusative case, a square indicated a nominative case and a triangle indicated the genitive case. Aba al-Aswd al-Du’ali supervised his students as together they applied this system of detailed notation to the entire text of the Qur’an. This early system of notation was introduced to ensure the correct inflectional cases; it contributed a great deal to the ability of non-Arab speakers to learn how to recite the Qur’an properly.
A large wave of new converts accepting Islam emerged in the Abbasid Dynasty and Andalusia period which began in the early 7th Century. This made it more urgent to read not only the Qur’an but also other important Arabic genres of literature, including the sayings of Prophet Muhammad.
At the time of this golden age, the written Arabic language did not have any dots or other diacritics. A later syntactician, Al-Khalil Ebin Ahmad Al-Farahidi (718-789 CE) introduced another system of notation using dots and diacritical marks to indicate cases. He also compiled a lexicon known as Al-Ayn, which is still in use today.
The science of syntax and morphology continued to evolve and progress after the advent of Al-Farahidi with the appearance of many well-informed linguistical scholars. Pre-eminent among them was the master Sibawayh (765-796 CE), author of the most important treatise on syntax, Al-Kitab. It presented all words within the parameters of the three cases – nominative, accusative, and genitive – as well as other grammatical moods such as the subjunctive, indicative, and imperative.
Yes, Arabic case endings are challenging to many who are learning Arabic for the first time. But the discerning student who understands the grammatical rules of the Arabic language, is equipped to appreciate its literary and poetic texts, and has mastered conveying that knowledge orally to listeners.
Modern Languages and Literatures professor Yahya Kharrat holds a PhD in applied linguistics and an MA in language teaching methodology from the University of Kansas. Kharrat has taught a wide range of language courses for nonnative speakers as well as heritage speakers. His areas of interest include Arabic literature, applied linguistics, and pedagogy of Arabic as a second language.