The structural foundations of Arabic

Arabic is a language that is full of rules, and this often feels overwhelming to learners. Truth be told, the rules can be overwhelming to native speakers as well. However, it is these very rules that make it a language that can be understood, not just memorized.

Where learners (and educators) often err is in the approach. One of the biggest mistakes of many students—even native speakers—when learning the language is to get bogged down by the details, rather than looking at the bigger picture.

Arabic is a structural, logical language. The best way to learn the language is to take a step back and understand the structure, the logic of the language. All the rules fall into place and make sense once the student can see how they fit into the bigger picture of the language.

Let’s look at the structure of these two sentences to see an example of the logical structure of the Arabic language:

i) يَدْرُسُ الْأَوْلادُ اللُّغَةَ الْعَرَبِيَّةَ / yadrusu alawlaadu allughata al3arabiyyata

ii) الْأَوْلادُ يَدْرُسونَ اللُّغَةَ الْعَرَبِيَّةَ / alawalaadu yadrusuuna allughata al3arabiyyata

In the first sentence, the verb (يَدْرُسُ/yadrusu) doesn’t agree in number with the subject (الْأَوْلادُ/alawlaadu). However, in the second sentence, the verb (يَدْرُسونَ/yadrusuuna) does agree in number with the subject (الْأَوْلادُ/alawlaadu). What is the difference between the two sentences?

We can see that the first sentence starts with the verb, and the second sentence starts with the subject. It’s easy to deduce, therefore, that if the verb comes before the subject, it doesn’t have to agree in number with the subject. On the other hand, if the subject comes after the verb, the verb has to agree in number with the subject.

This rule is simple enough, but it seems to lack any logic behind it. Why is it the way it is?

If students just learned this rule, without understanding the underlying logic, they would understandably feel that it’s just another rule they need to memorize without any context. Therefore, it could easily get lost with all the other decontextualized rules they have had to learn.

But this rule has a logic behind it—a reason.

In Arabic, there are two kinds of sentences: verbal sentences and nominal sentences. A verbal sentence is one that has the structure “verb + subject”. A nominal sentence is one that has the structure “subject + predicate”. It’s often called a subject–predicate sentence. The predicate is often a single word describing the subject; for example: ٌالْأَوْلادُ كِبار. However, the predicate can be many different things, including a sentence. But—and this is the key point!—when the predicate is a sentence, it has to be a complete sentence. In other words, the predicate sentence within the nominal sentence needs to have a subject pronoun that refers back to the subject of the sentence at large and therefore connects the predicate sentence to the sentence at large.

A nominal sentence with a verbal sentence as the predicate has the following structure:

Subject + [verb + subject pronoun].

Our second example sentence has this structure. The reason the verb agrees in number with the subject is that the plural suffix (ـونَ/-uuna) is in fact a suffixed subject pronoun, which is needed to connect the predicate sentence to the sentence at large. As previously mentioned, the predicate sentence needs to be a full sentence that’s capable of standing on its own. And indeed, due to having a subject pronoun, the verb in this sentence can stand on its own as a full sentence.

Once you grasp the logic behind this sentence structure (rather than memorizing it without any understanding), you will understand the reason why the sentence structure is the way it is. Eventually, you will internalize it on a deep, intuitive level, because the different aspects of the language will fall into place structurally, and you will no longer need to rely on rote memorization.

Because Arabic is a logical language, it’s a language that you can—and ought to—study in depth, to be able to truly understand and internalize its logic and structure. Arabic is a language that begs to be understood. Once you have a grasp on it, it becomes much easier, because you start figuring out the logic behind the rules and start working things out on your own.

Indeed, that is why Arabic grammar was standardized in such a structural, logical manner. When Arabic was standardized, in order to be preserved, the grammarians took a logical, structural approach, because they believed that this approach was reflective of the way Arabs understood and related to their language. The grammarians documented the language in such a way so as to enable learners to acquire the language as if they were acquiring it natively, to transmit the language down the generations and keep it alive. It is because of this that Standard Arabic continues to exist today, even though Arabs have stopped acquiring it natively since the 11th century.

In other words, Arabic is a language that was made to be learnt. Its rules—its structure, its logic—exist to aid learners in acquiring, understanding, and ultimately internalizing the language and gaining an intuitive feel for it.

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