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Using verbal nouns as nouns of place: A lesson on the logical precision of Arabic morphology

I came across a question asking why the word سِفارة (embassy) has the pattern that it has, because this pattern is unusual for nouns of place.


The word سِفارة is actually simultaneously a noun of place and a مصدر (verbal noun). There are quite a few nouns of place that have the same pattern as the verbal noun associated with them. These are commonly governmental bodies. Other examples include وِلاية (state), إِمارة (emirate), and وِزارة (ministry).


So now the question is why this happens. What’s different about these nouns of place?


These nouns all have the pattern فِعالة. In other words, the first letter of the root takes a كسرة, and there’s an ا between the second and third letters, and a ة after the third letter.


Many nouns have this pattern, as well as the pattern فِعال, which is the same pattern but without the ة at the end, i.e. without the feminine marker. These nouns often refer to things that are containers of something. Here are a few examples:


i) نِقاب (niqab): contains the hair and face;

ii) رِياض (oasis): contains water;

iii) عِمامة (turban): contains the hair.


This containment can also be abstract. For example, the word رِياضة means “sports”. It contains all the sports.


Skills and trades often have this pattern, because said skills contain all the skills associated with them. For example, to be successful at خِياطة (sewing), you need to have all the skills associated with sewing. In other words, the act of sewing is a “container” of all the skills associated with it.


Governmental bodies are sovereign authorities. They contain the entirety of the acts that they do. For example, a وِلاية (state) contains the وِلاية (act of governing) over the people and land that it governs.


What might make سِفارة confusing is that it’s not commonly used as a verbal noun. There’s a verbal noun with the same root that is much more common: سَفَر (travelling). While these two words share the same root, سِفارة is a form 1 verbal noun, whereas سَفَر is a form 3 verbal noun. The form 3 conjugations of the root relate to travelling. The form 1 conjugations relate to diplomacy/making peace. سِفارة as a verbal noun is the act of diplomacy, and a سِفارة (embassy) contains the سِفارة (acts of diplomacy) of a state.


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