Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Level 1.5 - Modern Standard Arabic

Continued from Level 1 (Part B)

MSA Level 1.5 began with revision of the key concepts taught in Level 1 such as adjectives, prepositions, nominal sentences (plus negation), idafa constructions, demonstratives and interrogative (making questions). My vocab was rather weak at this point in time and my tutor prompted me to quickly devise a systematic way to commit new words to memory. I tried different approach like making pictorial cards with words on the back and drilling with the MSA Vocab Clinic software I bought. The process was painful but I made some progress. Recalling my experience in learning Chinese, I believe that the most effective way to build vocab is to read widely. However, this could only be done after I have attained a minimum standard of the language.

Using the Hans Wehr Arabic-English Dictionary

The first new concept/skill taught in Level 1.5 was the use of the Hans Wehr Arabic-English Dictionary. This was my first insight of the foundation of the Arabic language and suddenly I sensed hope of grasping the language. Arabic words can be basically categorised according to their root and words of similar nature are derived or morphed from the same root. For example, the following words relating to the basic concept of writing with the root ﺐ ﺖ ﻚ:

كتب to write
كتابة writing
كاتب writer
كتيب booklet
كتاب book
مكتبة bookshelf/library
مكتب desk

So, the key to using the dictionary is to identify the root of an Arabic word in order to know which page to turn. Well, things are not always straightforward as there are always exceptions and for beginners like me, some of the conjugations are not immediately clear. Under the root, which is normally the verb in perfect tense, there are up to 10 common forms of verbs that can be derived from the root. There are more detail classification guidelines for each verb type but beginners like me will not need to master all the verb types at this level of study. The verbs are followed by nouns and adjectives relating to the root. As in the above example, the root is presented in كتب (kataba) which means "he wrote". The conjugation rules to derive the present and future tenses would only be taught at Level 2. Nevertheless, armed with the newly acquired skills, I went on to read more text with new words requiring me to look up the dictionary. The search process also helped improve my memorisation of the new words.

For English-Arabic translation, I use the online dictionary at, which is user-friendly and comprehensive.


The rest of Level 1.5 dealt with the major topic of duals and plurals. The importance of gender and the type of cases is manifested through the way plurals are created. In Arabic, there are special grammar rules governing duals. To create masculine duals, such as two pens, the suffix "ﻦﺎ" will have to be attached to nominative words. For genitive and accusative words, the suffix "ﻦﻴ" will have to be attached. For feminine words, the ta marbuta "ﺔ or ﺓ" will be changed to "ﺖ" before the suffixes are added. The following table provides the summary:

There are three more rules to note for the duals. Firstly, the "ﻦ" at the end of the dual word will be dropped if the noun forms the idafa construction. Secondly, the adjectives and demonstratives describing the duals will also have to take the same suffixes. Thirdly, all duals take the kasra as the case ending.

Sound Plurals

The grammar of plurals in Arabic is much more complicated than duals. There are basically three classes of plurals: sound masculine plurals, sound feminine plurals and the broken plurals.

Sound masculine plurals apply only to nouns related to the words describing male human beings and majority of occupations such as male doctors, male engineers, male teachers etc. Similar to the duals, a suffix is attached to these nouns to make them plurals. "ﻦﻮ" is attached for nominative words while "ﻦﻴ" is attached for genitive and accusative words. All sound masculine plurals take the fatha as the case ending. Hence, it is possible to know if a word refers to a plural noun by its pronunciation. That's why this class of plurals are called "sound masculine plurals".

Sound feminine plurals apply to most words describing the female human beings, all occupations undertaken by females and also certain non-human nouns. Again, suffixes are attached but unlike the feminine duals, the ta marbuta is dropped entirely before attaching the suffixes. "ﺖﺎ" is attached for all words but with different case endings. Nominative sound feminine plurals take the damma while the genitive and accusative take the kasra. Similar to the masculine duals, the "ﻦ" at the end of the sound masculine plurals will be dropped if the noun forms the idafa construction. The following table provides the summary:

Based on the above rules on duals and sound plurals, I was drilled on converting nouns to sound plurals and vice versa. I was also tasked to spot the duals and plurals with a cut-out from the recruitment page in the newspaper.

Broken Plurals

If you find sound plurals difficult, the broken plurals are a worse lot. A good majority of Arabic plurals are broken ones and they are formed by modifying the structure of the noun by basically adding or removing vowels at different positions in a word while retaining the root. There are purportedly over 15 patterns that broken plurals can be formed. However, applying the patterns is not a straightforward exercise like the duals or sound plurals. For example, there are at least three patterns that can changed words formed by three consonants into broken plurals:

قلم > pen(s) > ﺃﻘﻠﺍﻢ
ﺐﻠﻛ > dog(s) > ﺐﺍﻠﻛ
ﻲﻨﻏ > rich(es) > ﺀﺎﻴﻨﻏﺃ

The word "pen" is changed to plural "pens" by adding " ﺃ " before the first consonant and " ﺍ " is added before the last consonant. However, for a similar 3-consonant word like "dog", the plural "dogs" is created by simply adding " ﺍ " before the last consonant. In the third case, which is a adjective, the " ﺃ " is added before the first consonant and " ﺀﺎ " after the last consonant to create the plural.

Given the complexity of broken plurals, I decided to learn these plurals by treating them as new words. As I progress and build up my vocab, I hope I will be able to internalise these patterns and apply them instinctively like the native speakers.

Plurals and Adjectives Agreement

Unlike the duals where the adjectives will take the same suffixes in order to agree with the nouns, adjectives do not agree with plurals all the time. For non-human plurals nouns like objects or concepts or ideas etc., the adjectives will always take the feminine singular regardless the gender of the nouns. For human plurals, the noun and adjective have to agree in all aspects.

Most of the broken plurals also take the usual nominative, genitive and accusative case endings and indefinite nouns take the "tanwin". The three case endings are called "trip totes". However, there are some broken plurals that do not take the tanwin and the genitive case for the indefinite words. These broken plurals are called "dip totes". There is no definite way to identify these words except that they are formed by at least 3 syllables where one of which is a long vowel. These words are marked with "2" superscript in the Hans Wehr Dictionary.

End of Level 1.5

The subsequent exercises mainly focused on the recognition of broken plurals, converting sentences into plurals and adjusting the agreement of the adjectives. At the same time, more new words were introduced to build up my vocabulary. There were also some exercises on the negation of nominal sentences with plurals as well as making questions involving plurals. At the end of the text, I read a few short passages providing descriptions of various countries like Switzerland and Egypt and I composed a short simple passage on Singapore.

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