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Why are the adjective and the ‎حال‎ often confused in Arabic?

The adjective and Hal are often confused and mistranslated in Arabic. Checking whether the targeted word is definite or not will help.

Last updated: June 7, 2021

The adjective (صفة) and the circum­stantial description (حالٌ) can have the same form – but serve in different functions. This will be our topic in this article.

The adjective

In English, the word beautiful is an adjective. In Arabic, the corresponding word جَمِيلٌ is a noun (اِسْمٌ) that may have the function of an adjective (صِفةٌ or نَعْتٌ).

This is confusing for native speak­ers of English because Arabic doesn’t know a specific word class called adjective. If we use the term adjective in Arabic, we only denote a function and not a type or class.

But that is the only difference.

Like in English, an adjective in Arabic is a word (or phrase) that describes or clarifies a noun or pronoun. Adjectives tell us more about size, shape, age, color, origin, or material of a person, thing, a place, or time.

In Arabic, adjectives are called صِفةٌ or نَعْتٌ. Both terms denote description, characterization.

The صفة is a derived noun (اِسْمٌ مُشْتَقٌّ) from a root. There are several types. We will check them now.

What can be used as an adjective in Arabic?

The active participle (اِسْمُ الْفاعِلِ)

The active participle (اِسْمُ الْفاعِلِ) is a description of an action (صِفةُ بالْحَدَثِ). This is pretty much the same in English. The active par­ticiple for to go is going.

The passive participle (اِسْمُ الْمَفْعُولِ)

The passive participle (اِسْمُ الْمَفْعُولِ) refers to something hav­ing undergone the action of the verb. to breakbroken.

Quasi participles (الصِّفةُ الْمُشَبَّهةُ)

A description resembling an active (or passive) participle (الصِّفةُ الْمُشَبَّهةُ) is a noun that indicates a meaning of firmness. It indicates persistence and permanence. It usually denotes a quality inherent in people or thing.

This explains why the root of a صِفةٌ مُشَبَّهةٌ cannot build an active participle (اِسْمُ فاعِلٍ). A صِفةٌ مُشَبَّهةٌ like noble (كَرِيمٌ) denotes not something that hap­pens on one occasion only but something that is inherent in the character. We could say that the الصِّفةُ الْمُشَبَّهةُ is a repre­sentative or substi­tute for the non-existent اِسْمُ الْفاعِلِ.

Regarding its form, it is a derived noun (اِسْمٌ مُشْتَقٌّ) of the root. Purist grammarians, by the way, say that you should use the مَصْدَرٌ for ana­lyzing and forming derived nouns – and not the past tense verb.

The exact and complete term is الصِّفةُ الْمُشَبَّهةُ بِاسْمِ الْفاعِلِ which could be translated as: a quality similar to the active participle (agent-noun). مُشَبَّهٌ is the passive participle of the II-verb يُشَبِّهُ / شَبَّهَ denoting or make it to be like or to resemble.

Form of exaggeration (صِيغةُ الْمُبالَغةِ)

The form of exaggeration (صِيغةُ الْمُبالَغةِ) is derived from a root that is capable of forming the active participle (اِسْمُ الْفاعِلِ.) Now, can every verb build an active participle? As we have seen above, the الصِّفةُ الْمُشَبَّهةُ is incapable of that; so the answer is no!

The صِيغةُ الْمُبالَغةِ is actually just a way to say that some­one is performing the active participle (i.e., an action) often, many times, or intensively (يَحْدُثُ كَثيرًا لَهُ اِسْمُ الْفاعِلِ).

Adjectives in Arabic need agreement

The صفة has to agree with the noun it describes in four things:

Determination (def. or indefinite)نَكِرَةٌ * مَعْرِفةٌ
Case markerمَرْفُوعٌ * مَجْرُورٌ * مَنْصُوبٌ
Gender (نَوْعٌ – جِنْسٌ)مُذَكَّرٌ * مُؤَنَّثٌ
Number (عَدَدٌ)مُفْرَدٌ * مُثَنَّى * جَمْعٌ

Let’s look at this in one sentence.

I bought a new car..اِشْتَرِيْتُ سَيَّارةً جَدِيدةً

Let’s do an analysis:

The object that is described (مَنْعُوتٌ).سَيَّارةً
The description (صفة). It needs agreement (مُطابَقةٌ) and takes the same grammatical features as the object which it describes.جَدِيدةً

The circumstantial qualifier (حال)

In English, if you want to explain the circumstances of a complete sentence, you can use while, when, although, that is. Another option are participles (smiling, crying) which work as modifiers.

In Arabic, we use a circumstantial description, also called circumstantial qualifier or status (حالٌ). It is added to an already complete sentence as a kind of supple­ment.

  • The حالٌ expresses the state or condi­tion of the sub­ject (or object) while the action takes place.
  • The صاحِبُ الْحالِ (concerned by the status) is the en­tity (sub­ject and/or object) whose circumstances are described, qualified by the حالٌ.

The حالٌ can consist of a word (e.g., an active partic­iple) or even an entire sentence! If the حالٌ is not expressed by a single word (مُفْرَدٌ), it will need a connector (رابِطٌ) – for example the و.

In order to identify a حالٌ, you ask كَيْفَ؟ (how?).

  • The حالٌ has to be indefinite (نَكِرةٌ) and in the accusative case (مَنْصُوبٌ).
  • The صاحِبُ الْحالِ is almost always definite (مَعْرِفةٌ) – otherwise, you may need to play with the word-order. The صاحِبُ الْحالِ can be ei­ther the subject (فاعِلٌ) or the object (مَفْعُولٌ بِهِ).
The man drank the coffee smiling..شَرِبَ الرَّجُلُ الْقَهْوةَ مُبْتَسِمًا

Question: How did he drink the coffee?

The differences between حال and adjective

Now we actually have everything together to answer our question. The صفة is different from the حالٌ ‎‎– and here is why:

  • A sentence following a definite word is a حالٌ. It de­scribes the subject or object while the action takes place.
  • A word (or sentence) following an indefinite word is a صفة → a de­scription that is not connected to the ac­tion which the sub­ject/object is doing.

In the following two examples, we will see the word باكيًا which means crying. The function and thus the meaning and translation are very different!

I don’t want to see a crying child.لا أُحِبُّ أَنْ أُشاهِدَ طِفْلًا باكيًا

باكيًا is an adjective (نَعْتٌ) and not a حالٌ! The حالٌ can only refer to a definite word! Here, the نَعْتٌ is a general statement.

I don’t want to see the child crying.لا أُحِبُّ أَنْ أُشاهِدَ الطِّفْلَ باكيًا

In the last sentence باكيًا is not an adjective anymore. It is a circum­stantial description (حالٌ) for الطِّفْلَ which is the صاحِبُ الْحالِ. It describes the condition of a certain child while I am watching the child.

Picture credit: Eva Elijas ; Pexels

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