Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Level 1 (Part B) - Modern Standard Arabic

Continued from Level 1 (Part A)

Tanwin and Case Endings

The "tanwin" and case endings were the next new concepts taught in Level 1. The pronunciation of Arabic words involves not just the sounds of the consonants and vowels in them but also the sound of the case endings. Basically, the last letter of an Arabic word carries a specific vowel depending on the nature of the word in a sentence. The damma is added to nominative words, the fatha to the accusative words and the kasra to the genitive words. If the word is not definite, the vowels are "doubled" in the pronunciation with the "tanwin", which causes the word to end with a 'n' sound. These pronunciation rules definitely compounded the difficulty in learning the language. For beginners, we were expected to know these rules but I had to put aside these rules for the time being as they hindered my progress, especially in learning new vocab.

In order to know the case endings to pronouce when reading Arabic text, I have to identify whether a word is nominative, genitive or accusative. Generally, nouns in isolation, the subject of sentences, the predicate of a nominal sentences are all in nominative. Nouns preceded by a preposition are genitive and so are nouns that come after the first noun in an "idafa" construction. Accusative case is much more complicated as they deal with verbs which are taught Level 2. At Level 1, we only learn to form non-verbal sentences, i.e. sentences without verbs like "do", "play", "run" etc.

Idafa Construction

Idafa construction is a basic grammar for identifying possession. For example, the man's dog in Arabic will be "كلب ﺍﻠرجل ". By the way, Arabic text is read from right to left. In this example, كلب is dog while ﺍﻠرجل is the man. Literally, it means dog of the man, the possessive word "of" implied by the construction of an indefinite noun followed by a definite noun. This construction can involve more than two nouns but the final noun must be definite. The whole string of nouns forming the idafa is considered definite. Besides nouns, adjectives can also to added after the last noun to describe the noun, only after the idafa not in between the nouns. This rule poses difficulties for novices like me to link the adjectives to the correct nouns. For example, "the short key of the big door of the small car of the tall man" is clear in English. But in Arabic, the sentence will look like this:

"مفتاح باب سيارة ﺍﻠرجل ﺍﻠقصير ﺍﻠكبيرﺍﻠصغيرة ﺍﻠطويل "

The four adjectives (in red) have to be placed after the last noun "the man" but it is not clear whether "short" describes the key or the door or the man. However, it is clear that "short" does not describe the car because the adjective did not have a feminine ending to agree with the car, which is a feminine noun. The adjectives also have to be attached with the definite article ﺍﻠ otherwise a sentence will be formed instead. To know which adjective is describing which noun in an idafa, one has to read from context or make a guess or split the idafa with "ﻞ ". The last technique allows an adjective to be placed immediately after the noun they described in an idafa construction by first making that noun definite with " ال " and adding "ﻞ " to the next noun in the idafa sequence.

Nominal Sentences

The order of [indefinite noun][definite noun] in idafa is very important because by swapping the positions, it will mean "the man is a dog" i.e. " الرجل كلب ". There is no verb-to-be in Arabic and the "is" is implied by the construction of a definite noun followed by an indefinite noun. This is the simplest form of nominal sentences. In the above example, ifقصير (short) is placed at the end and without the ﺍﻠ the sentence will mean "The key of the big door of the small car of the man is short."

"مفتاح باب سيارة ﺍﻠرجل ﺍﻠكبيرﺍﻠصغيرة ﺍﻠطويل قصير "

Idafa and nominal sentence constructions are the most substantial topics in the second half of Level 1. Through the exercises, I learned new words and formed simple nominal sentences with the words I knew. Besides forming nominal sentences by the two constructions, one can also replace the idafa or definite noun with a proper name (e.g. Egypt or Ahmad) or with pronouns (e.g. he, she or they) or with demonstratives (e.g. this, that, there, here) or by joining nouns or idafas with prepositions (e.g. under or on). At this juncture, we were introduced to the preposition "ﻞ " which can be attached to definite nouns to indicate possession. This preposition is the Arabic version of "to have" of English.

Nevertheless, there are always some exceptions that fall outside these standard constructions. For example, we cannot use any of the above to form the sentence "Ahmad is the President" as both the nouns are definite. In this case, a pronoun must be added in between the two: "Ahmad he is the President." The requirements were to be able to recognise the different constructions, differentiate between phrases and sentences and make simple sentences.

Making Questions

After learning the techniques of sentence making, forming questions was the next topic. The techniques of questioning are not very different from English or Chinese with the standard question words like who what when where why and how. In addition, there are the interrogative particles "ﻞﻫ" and "ﺃ " for yes/no questions. As usual, exercises were given to drill me on the concepts. With a slightly broader vocab base, I was given simple text of short paragraphs containing nominal sentences to read.

Negation of Nominal Sentences

As I was "verbless" at this stage, I could only make nominal sentences which were restricted by the extent of my vocab. The next concept taught naturally was the negation of nominal sentences so as to expand the use of my limited vocab. I was taught how to negate "The girl is beautiful." to become "The girl is not beautiful." This is useful when I need to negate without having to know the word of the opposite meaning or when I need to give negative answers. The "not" of English in Arabic is "ليس ".

However, the use of this word is not as straightforward as "not" in English where it can be placed before a noun or adjective without being grammatically wrong. ليس , if used at the beginning of a sentence negate the predicate and there are a few rules to follow. First, the predicate negated has to be changed from nominative case to the accusative, which means the words in the predicate have to be pronounce with the fatha. Second, if the subject is feminine, ليس becomes ﻟﻴﺴﺖ. If ليس is used in the middle of a sentence, things get complicated as it has to conjugate according to the subject in gender and number - that means 12 different forms of ليس. This is a preview to verbs which conjugate in a similar fashion.

At the end of MSA Level 1, I was able to read Arabic script with vowel markings but given my limited vocab, my level of comprehension of external materials was near zero at this stage. I took 28 hours of private lessons over 3 weeks to cover Level 1.

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