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How a wasp caused the most famous debate about Arabic grammar

The question of the wasp or hornet – Masʾalat al-Zunbur (مَسْأَلة الزُّنْبُور) – caused Sibawayhi, the most fa­mous Arabic grammarian, to die of anger.

Last updated: 12 months ago

According to the story, Sibawayhi (سيبويه), the famous grammarian from Basra, was challenged by his ri­val from Kūfa, al-Kisā'i (الْكِسائِي), to pronounce himself on an ab­struse question – which later became famous as The Question of the Wasp (المسألة الزنبورية or مسألة الزنبور).

What is the Question of the Wasp?

If you say the following sentence in Arabic, should you use both pronouns in the nominative case (هُوَ and هِيَ) or do you use the sec­ond pronoun in the case (هُوَ and إِيّاها)?

كُنْتُ أَظُنُّ أَنَّ الْعَقْرَبَ أَشَدُّ لَسْعَةً مِن الزُّنْبُورِ فَإِذا هُوَ هِيَ

كُنْتُ أَظُنُّ أَنَّ الْعَقْرَبَ أَشَدُّ لَسْعَةً مِن الزُّنْبُورِ فَإِذا هُوَ إِيّاها

The sentence means:

I used to think that the sting of a scorpion was more intense than that of a wasp, but [I discovered that] it was the same.

The following translation clarifies what the pronouns refer to: I used to think that the scorpion was more vehement in stinging than the hor­net, and lo, he is (as vehement as) she.

Sībawayhi said that هُوَ هِيَ was correct. Al-Kisa'i said the opposite.

Sībawayhiهِيَ must be in the nominative (مَرْفُوعٌ)فَإِذا هُوَ هِيَ
Al-Kisā'iإِيّاها must be in the accusative (مَنْصُوبٌ)فَإِذا هُوَ إِيّاها

A similar question in English would be whether it is she or it is her should be correct. In other words, whether the word in question should be nominative, i.e., in the independent case (رَفْع), or accusa­tive, i.e., the dependent case (نَصْب).

What Sībawayhi proposed

Conjunction (حَرْفُ عَطْفٍ). It does not have a place in إِعْرابٌ.ف
Particle of surprise (حَرْفُ مُفَاجَأةٍ). It does not have a place in إِعْرابٌ.إِذا
(ضَمِيرٌ مُنْفَصِلٌ) which relates to scorpion. It is the subject (مُبْتَدَأٌ) of the nominal sentence (جُمْلةٌ اِسْمِيّةٌ). Al­though not visible due to the cemented, indeclinable shape, هُوَ is located in the position of a nominative (فِي مَحَلِّ رَفْعٍ) since it is the subject.هُوَ
Personal pronoun (ضَمِيرٌ مُنْفَصِلٌ); serves as the predicate (خَبَرٌ). It has a fixed, indeclinable shape (مَبْنِيٌّ عَلَى الْفَتْحِ), so we can't visibly mark the case. Nevertheless, the word occupies the posi­tion of a nomi­native case (فِي مَحَلِّ رَفْعٍ) since it is the predicate.هِيَ

What al-Kisa'i proposed

He agreed to every­thing we've said so far – except for the last word (إِيّاها). There are two ways to han­dle إِيّاها.

Option 1:

إِيّاها is a personal pronoun (ضَمِير مُنْفَصِل) which serves as the DIRECT OBJECT (مَفْعُول بِهِ), so it is located in the position of an accusative case (فِي مَحَلّ نَصْب). But how can it be the direct object since there is apparently no verb in the sentence?

He as­sumed that there was a verb, but it was deleted (مَحْذُوف) and is still implic­itly understood. It could have been the verb to be equivalent to (يُساوِيها). Therefore, we ap­ply the rules of a ver­bal sentence (جُمْلة>فِعْلِيّة).

Now it is getting even more complicated. Although many peo­ple say that إِيّاها is the accusative case of هِيَ, this is not entirely correct.إِيّاها has a fixed shape and has to end with a سُكُون on the Aleph in any case as the Aleph can't carry any other sign. It al­ways must be اْ . There­fore, we have to be more precise and say that إِيّاها it is placed in the po­sition of an accusative (فِي <مَحَلّ نَصْب).

We still have to solve one thing: Where is the predi­cate (خَبَرْ) for the subject (مُبْتَدَأ), i.e., هُوَ , of the primary (nominal) sen­tence? Sīb­awayhi said that it isهِيَ . Following option 1, however, it is the entire verbal sentence (with the estimated, deleted verb).

It is actually pretty common that an entire sentence serves as the خَبَرْ. In such a situation, we assign a place value and say that the sen­tence occupies the position of a nominative case (فِي مَحَلّ رَفْع) be­cause the rule says that the predicate has to be in the nomi­native case. That's all pretty confusing, but it is a way to justify why you see the per­sonal pro­noun in the accusative case.

Option 2:

The personal pronoun إِيّاها is the PREDICATE of the deleted verb (خَبَر كانَ الْمَحْذُوفة مِع اِسْمها). The rules say that the predicate of كانَ has to be مَنْصُوب<, so we arrive at إِيّاها.

We already said that هُوَ is the subject of the primary nominal sen­tence. This subject also needs a predicate. So, where is here? The predi­cate is represented by كانَ , including its two governed factors (وَمَعْمُولَيْها). They altogether serve as the predicate of the nominal sen­tence and altogether fill the posi­tion of a nomi­native (فِي مَحَلّ رَفْع).

Back then public debates about grammar were a form of enter­tainment in which the goal was not so much to establish a truth as to defeat an opponent in front of an audience. Sībawayhi was con­vinced that an accusative (مَنْصُوب), which would be إِيّاها, can't be the predicate of a nominal sen­tence.

Suddenly, his rival, al-Kisā'i, presented four Bedouins who were pretending to have just happened to be wait­ing at the door. They announced that a true would only say إِيّاها.

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What happend after the dispute?

Sībawayhi left Baghdad and went to Shi­raz in Persia where he soon died of anger and grief at the result of the debate, consoled by a payment of 10,000 dirhams solicited for him by al-Kisāʾī, as legend has it. Others say that he died from illness. He passed away in 796 (180 AH), per­haps at the age of forty.

Followers of the Basra school claim that al-Kisā'i had bribed them before to support his answer. Fol­lowers of the Kūfa school reject this and say that it would be an insult to throw such allega­tions on al-Kisā'i's name. In the end, all four Bedouins testified that هُوَ إِيّاها was correct. Sīb­awayhi, it seemed, was wrong.

The dispute was typical for the discussions at that time because it dealt with “what can be said” and “what can't be said” in Ara­bic. Sīb­awayhi was being judged on this ability to speak correctly and not on the logic of his analysis. If one made a mistake, it sim­ply meant that he didn't say it in the way the Bedouins speak.

Translation attempts

Note: The translation of the last part of the famous sentence is tricky. It is not clear which words the feminine pronouns, in fact, re­late to. Several translators came to different results.

Slane (1842-1871)and behold! It was so.
Blau (1963)and behold, the one is (like) the other.
Carter (2004)and sure enough it is.(Cart. relates هِيَ‎/‎إِيّاهَا‎ to لَسْعة)
Ramzi Baalbaki (2014)but [I discovered that] it was the same.
Versteegh (2014)but it was the other way round.
Lutz Edzard (2016)(however,) the former is (like) the latter.

In my mother tongue (German), I would say: Ich glaubte, der Skorpion stäche heftiger als die Hornisse/Wespe, und siehe, sie ist (in dieser Beziehung wie) er.

A more detailed in-depth analysis is founds in the book Arabic for Nerds 2.

More of that:

Picture (free to use): pixabay.com

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Arabic for Nerds
Arabic for Nerds
11 days ago

العربية والإنجليزية لغتان مختلفتان تمامًا. هذا الموقع مخصص لغير الناطقين باللغة العربية.

Zenah Mattar
Zenah Mattar
11 days ago

ليش بتعملوا مواقع عن العربي مش بالعربي؟ ما فهمت.

Arabic for Nerds
Arabic for Nerds
11 days ago
Reply to  Zenah Mattar

Zenah Mattar العربية والإنجليزية لغتان مختلفتان تمامًا. هذا الموقع مخصص لغير الناطقين باللغة العربية.

Manuel Souto Pico
Manuel Souto Pico
4 years ago

What is Arabic grammar based on nowadays and how does it get updated?

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