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Who wrote the first book about Arabic grammar?

Sibawayhi’s book al-Kitab was the first formal and analytical Arabic grammar. It is a groundbreaking work. Some background

Last updated: 1 year ago

Nowadays, many Arabic students think of the name “al-Kitaab” (الكتاب) as a three-volume textbook which is used at US universities to teach Arabic for beginners and at the intermediate level. The name, however, has monumental importance.

It is the title of the most important and fundamental Arabic grammar book in history – written by Sibawayhi, one of the most brilliant grammarians of all time.

In this article, we will have a brief look at his life and work.

Who was Sibawayhi?

Sībawayhi () was born in the middle of the 8th century in Shiraz, .

Later he moved to Basra (الْبَصْرةُ) in present-day Iraq where he studied the early history of Islam, jurisprudence (الْفِقْهُ), and the traditions and sayings of the Prophet Muhammad (الْحَدِيثُ).

Bust of Sibawayh
Bust of Sibawayh

He took lessons from Hammād ibn Salama (حمّاد ابْن سَلَمة), a highly respected Islamic scholar – an encounter which, as it turned out later, was of great importance for Arabic. It appears to me that Sībawayhi's linguistic inability almost forced him to study grammar in the presence of his mentor.

Like a man possessed, he began to analyze every aspect of Arabic. His findings about syntax, morphology, and phonology later became the founding text of Arabic grammatical science.

Remark: Before the Arabs were introduced to Islam, despite having a strong language, there wasn't any formalized grammar. Schol­ars have suggested that Sībawayhi was perhaps familiar with and took some rules of Aramaic as his guide for recording the Arabic grammar.

Sībawayhi died at a relatively young age (between 32 and 40 years) before he could finish his work. As for the reason for his death, there are two accounts: illness or that he died of grief after his humiliation in Baghdad. His tomb is in Shiraz in present-day Iran.

Entrance to Sibawayh's tomb in Shiraz
Entrance to Sibawayh's tomb in Shiraz

His famous book al-Kitab

Al-'Akhfash al-'Awsat (الْأَخْفَش الْأَوْسَط), a student of him, eventually published his work and gave it a rather simple title for such a monu­mental work: al-Kitāb (الْكِتاب) – the Book. In more than 900 pages, al-Kitāb set the rules and de­fined what is cor­rect and in­correct in Arabic.

Al-'Akhfash al-'Awsat was born in Balkh (Afghanistan) and became a student of Sībawayhi in Basra. He was a famous himself.

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Sībawayhi is not only the greatest Arabic linguist. He is cer­tainly one of the greatest linguists of all time. He was of Persian descent and learned Arabic later in life which may explain his systematic approach.

Sībawayhi always tried to find a logical ex­planation. He was inter­ested in the behavior of words rather than their meaning. His ap­proach was different from that of the classical Greek grammarians who saw in the meanings of words and their logical relationships the most impor­tant aspects of language.

The name al-Akhfash

Al-'Akhfash (الْأَخْفَشُ) is a strange Arabic word. It means nyctalope (someone who can see more/better by night than by day) or devoid of eyelashes, or having small eyes and naturally weak sight. It is the nickname of eleven exceptional people listed by the Islamic scholar al-Suyūtī (السُّيَوطيّ). The following three men are the most famous. The first two belong to the school of Basra:

  • al-'Akhfash al-'Akbar (الْأَخْفَش الْأَكْبَر; died 793/177 AH): he was the first to provide ancient poems with (interlinear) commentary. Note: الْأَكْبَر here means oldest and not greatest.
  • al-'Akhfash al-'Awsat (الْأَخْفَش الْأَوْسَط; died sometime between 210 and 221/825-835 AH): the most famous of all al-'Akhfash. He was a student of Sībawayhi whom he survived, although he was superior in age. It was he who made Sībawayhi's book known.
  • al-'Akhfash al-'Asghar (الْأَخْفَش الْأَصْغَر; died 927/315 AH): stu­dent of al-Mubarrad (الْمُبَرَّد). He made a name for himself by in­troducing the grammatical studies of Baghdad to Egypt.

What does the name Sibawayhi mean?

It denotes little apple.

The name Sībawayhi (سيبويه) is a Persian diminutive for سيب, the Per­sian word for apple. Some authors claim that he was called Sīb­awayhi because his cheeks looked like apples.

However, the Arabs at that time did not know about this and treated the last element of his name as the Persian word for scent (بوي). That is why his name was frequently translated as apple fra­grance.

Others mis­takenly interpreted the name as 30 scents because سی means thirty in Persian. His name was further corrupted by assimilating its last ele­ment with the Per­sian suffix –wayhi, which is found in several proper names of Persian ori­gin. This probably happened because ūye and wayhi are both spelled the same in the non-vocalized script (ويه).

How should you pronounce the name Sibawayhi?

It depends on the lan­guage. The Persian suffix ويه is pronounced ūye in contemporary Farsi. There­fore, سيبويه would be pronounced like Sībūye. In Middle Persian, it would sound like Sēbōē. In contempo­rary Arabic, people usually say Sībawèih, in Eng­lish pronounced like “Seebawe”.

Watch out: In Arabic, foreign proper nouns (names) that end in وَيْهِ such as سِيبَوَيْهِ are treated as indeclinable (مَبْنِيٌّ) which means that they always stay the same – regardless of their function in the sentence.

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