Last updated: 1 year ago
A guest article by Reginald Hefner
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Reginald Hefner (better known as Raaji – راجي – to his Arab friends) is a multilingual language nerd. He has a BA in Russian, Chinese, French, Spanish and an MA in Arabic from Middlebury College. Furthermore, he has an excellent command of Chinese and Japanese. He is currently working as an Arabic instructor at York College in Pennsylvania.
I started to study Arabic in 1965 in a small rural town called Chambersburg in the mountains of South-Central Pennsylvania about a one-half hour drive by automobile (some people still use horses and buggies in this area) from the Mason-Dixon Line, which divides “the North” from “the South” in the United States.
At that time, the only resource that I had for self-study of Arabic was William Wright's Arabic Grammar, which was originally translated from Caspari's German text into Latin about 1844 and translated from Latin into English about 1896.
I remember thinking at the time that one day I would like to travel to Germany to purchase the original Caspari text in German since Wright's text was an abridgment with a lot of editing and commentary like, “No need to explain this, as it is just like the Ancient Greek, Latin, or Hebrew…” in an age when it was presumed that all educated persons were well-grounded in Latin and Greek (ancient Attic Greek, to be specific).
The dominant thinking for teaching Latin and Greek at that time was that if one “mastered” all the verb forms, then everything else would simply fall into place and present few difficulties. This thinking and methodology were then extended to instruction in other languages, including Arabic.
Sure enough, one only had to reach page 29 in Wright before being presented with the fifteen Arabic verb forms for triliteral verbs, replete with examples culled from various authentic texts (texts written by natives, for natives, in a native country).
“Wait a minute,” you might say, “I thought there were only ten verb forms; my textbooks never mentioned any forms beyond ten.” Nope!!
There are 15. FIFTEEN.
Overview of the Arabic verb forms XI to XV
Here is a list of rare verb forms: XI to XV (11 to 15)
XI and XII are the most common patterns.
Examples of rare Arabic verb forms
|to be very red
|to be disheveled (hair)
|to be hunchbacked
|to mount a camel
|to be pitch black
|to be mighty
Whenever anyone does mention the other forms, they are dismissed (I'm tempted to say, “contemptuously dismissed,” but I'll restrain myself here) with such usual comments as:
“These are rare forms only used in ‘Classical Arabic',” or
“These forms are so rare that they are only listed in grammar books now and nobody uses them,” or
“There is no use in learning these rare forms; we have hard enough time teaching the common I-X forms (then they might mention that IX is “not so common“), etc.
But, such statements and others like them beg the question: “If these forms are so rare, then why did they survive at all, why didn't they just disappear over time, owing to lack of use?”
Most rare forms in any given language vanish after a while, except for some fossilized vestiges of their existence in the past at some point, rather like the future subjunctive in Spanish, which most high school Spanish teachers claim doesn't exist (yet, one cannot read Don Quixote de la Mancha by Cervantes without this mood appearing on page after page).
My own contention here is that these Arabic verb forms from XI-XV are not so rare as they are made out to be and that high intermediate through advanced Arabic students should be taught them (I suppose that if I were writing an academic paper, something along these lines would be my “thesis statement.”)
Rare Arabic verb forms in modern novels
I did not always think this way, but over time I have reached this tentative conclusion. What initially sparked this line of reasoning was a sentence in the short story Al Taai'h (التائه) by Ibrahim Abd Al-Qadir Al-Mazini (إبراهيم عبد القادر المازني), in which he used the verb اِغْرَوْرَقَ بِ which is form XII and means to fill (with water). The title of the story means “lost or stray”; it's about a small boy who gets lost for a day and all that happens to him. You will not find this short story on the internet probably because it was on pages 402-412 of a larger work entitled: “Fii al-Tariiq” (في الطريق) published in Cairo in 1937.
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It surprised me since this was a modern story by a modern author, not some obscure Classical piece of prose or poetry. Understanding the text demanded that I recognized the verb form. Clearly, the author made a deliberate, conscious decision to use this Form XII verb as his mot juste, even though he had lots of other options in “modern Arabic” available to him.
I had the good fortune to be able to discuss this issue with Dr. Abdul Kareem Said Ramadan while I was working on an M.A. in Arabic at Middlebury College, and he had told me that generally the verbs in these forms are used to describe something, the intensity of which is greatly magnified.
So, in this case, the eyes were not just tearing up, but overflowing with tears—a distinct and subtle difference apparently captured best in Arabic by dint of this verb form XII.
At first, I had thought that perhaps this was a fluke or a one-time phenomenon, but I then started to notice increasingly more of these verb forms in modern texts.
So, when I had an opportunity, I had asked Dr. El-Said Badawi about this “trend” that I had been observing, and he told me that he himself was seeing these verb forms in various newspaper articles from around the Arab world, as though there were a movement to revive their active use.
Some more examples
For example, Dr. El-Said Badawi mentioned one being used in the sense of “to mow a lawn with a mechanical lawn-mower on which one can sit,” something I doubt existed in Classical Arabic (unless, of course, they mounted a camel to use it to chew on lawns; “to mount a camel” is also one of these forms, by the way: اِعْلَوَّطَ).
And, when I had to give an oral autobiographical presentation in which I had to talk about my grandfather, who was a hunchback, owing to polio when he was young, the only verb to spring to mind was, of course, “He was a hunchback,” or, اِحْدَوْدَبَ the use of which quite nearly gave Dr. Nahla from Alexandria, Egypt a heart attack and a hearty laugh in my Arabic linguistics course.
You can order them here! T-shirts with rare Arabic verb forms
Reggie (together with the illustrator Dawn Cheik) has designed unique t-shirts for Arabic nerds. They feature rare verb forms – with Arabic script and illustration.
picture credit: Gerald Drißner; Reginald Hefner