Creating Simple, Verb-Free Sentences in Arabic

There are two ways to form sentences in Arabic: You can manipulate definite and indefinite nouns and adjectives, or you can pull together nouns, adjectives, and verbs. In Arabic, it's possible to create a complete sentence with a subject, object, and verb without actually using a verb! This concept may seem a little strange at first, but this article helps you see the logic and reasoning behind such a structure.

To be or not to be: Sentences without verbs

Before you can construct verb-free sentences, you need to know that there's actually no "to be" verb in the Arabic language. The verb "is/are" as a proper verb simply doesn't exist. That's not to say that you can't create an "is/are" sentence in Arabic — you can. "Is/are" sentences are created without the use of an actual verb. In other words, you create "to be" sentences by manipulating indefinite and definite nouns and adjectives, similar to what's covered in the article "Understanding the Interaction between Nouns and Adjectives."

When you put an indefinite noun with an indefinite adjective, you create an indefinite phrase. Similarly, when you add a definite adjective to a definite noun, you end up with a definite phrase. So what happens when you combine a definite noun with an indefinite adjective? This combination — defined noun and undefined adjective — produces an "is/are" sentence similar to what you get when you use the verb "to be" in English.

For example, take the defined noun al-kitaab (the book) and add to it the indefinite adjective kabiir (big). The resulting phrase is al-kitaab kabiir, which means "The book is big." Here are some more examples to illustrate the construction of "is/are" sentences:

  • al-walad mariiD. (al-wah-lad mah-reed; The boy is sick.)
  • al-bint SaHiiHa. (al-bee-net sah-hee-hah; The girl is healthy.)
  • as-sayyaara khadraa'. (ah-sah-yah-rah kad-rah; The car is green.)
  • aT-Taaliba dakiiya. (ah-tah-lee-bah dah-kee-yah; The student is smart.) (F)
  • al-mudarris qaSiir. (al-moo-dah-rees kah-seer; The teacher is short.) (M)
  • al-'ustaadh Tawiil. (al-oos-taz tah-weel; The professor is tall.) (M)

If you want to use additional adjectives in these verb-free sentences, you simply add the conjunction wa. Here are some examples of "is/are" sentences with multiple adjectives:

  • al-walad mariiD wa Da'iif. (al-wah-lad mah-reed wah dah-eef; The boy is sick and weak.)
  • al-bint SaHiiHa wa qawiiya. (al-bee-net sah-hee-hah wah kah-wee-yah; The girl is healthy and strong.)
  • as-sayyaara khadraa' wa sarii'a. (ah-sah-yah-rah kad-rah wah sah-ree-ah; The car is green and fast.)
  • aT-Taaliba dakiiya wa laTiifa. (ah-tah-lee-bah dah-kee-yah wah lah-tee-fah; The student is smart and nice.) (F)
  • al-mudarris qaSiir wa dakiiy. (al-moo-dah-rees kah-seer wah dah-kee; The teacher is short and smart.) (M)
  • al-'ustaadh Tawiil wa Sa'b. (al-oos-taz tah-weel wah sahb; The professor is tall and difficult.) (M)

This construct is fairly flexible, and if you change the nature of one of the adjectives, you radically alter the meaning of the jumla (joom-lah; sentence). For instance, the examples all show a defined noun with two indefinite adjectives. What happens when you mix things up and add an indefinite noun to an indefinite adjective and a definite adjective?

Consider the example al-bint SaHiiHa wa qawiiya (The girl is healthy and strong). Keep al-bint as a definite noun but change the indefinite adjective SaHiiHa into its definite version, aS-SaHiiHa; also, drop the wa, and keep qawiiya as an indefinite adjective. The resulting phrase is al-bint aS-SaHiiHa qawiiya, which means "The healthy girl is strong."

You can grasp what's going on here by dividing the terms into clauses: The first clause is the definite noun/definite adjective combination al-bint aS-SaHiiHa (the healthy girl); the second clause is the indefinite adjective qawiiya (strong). Combining these clauses is the same as combining a definite noun with an indefinite adjective — the result is an "is/are" sentence. Here are more examples to help clear up any confusion you have regarding this concept:

  • al-walad al-mariiD Da'iif. (al-wah-lad al-mah-reed dah-eef; The sick boy is weak.)
  • as-sayyaara al-khadraa' sarii'a. (ah-sah-yah-rah al-kad-rah sah-ree-ah; The green car is fast.)
  • aT-Taaliba ad-dakiiya laTiifa. (ah-tah-lee-bah ah-dah-kee-yah lah-tee-fah; The smart student is nice.) (F)
  • al-mudarris al-qaSiir dakiiy. (al-moo-dah-rees al-kah-seer dah-kee; The short teacher is smart.) (M)
  • al-'ustaadh aT-Tawiil Sa'b. (al-oos-taz ah-tah-weel sahb; The tall professor is difficult.) (M)

Notice that a simple change in the definite article changes the meaning of the phrase or sentence. For example, when the noun is defined and both adjectives are indefinite, you create an "is" sentence, as in "The boy is big." On the other hand, when both noun and adjective are defined, the adjective affects the noun directly, and you get "the big boy."

Building sentences with common prepositions

In grammatical terms, prepositions are words or small phrases that indicate a relationship between substantive and other types of words, such as adjectives, verbs, nouns, or other substantives. In both English and Arabic, prepositions are parts of speech that are essential in the formation of sentences. You can add them to "is/are" sentences to give them more specificity. Table 1 lists the most common prepositions you're likely to use in Arabic.

Table 1: Common Prepositions

Arabic

Pronunciation

Translation

min

meen

from

fii

fee

in

'ilaa

ee-lah

to

ma'a

mah-ah

with

'alaa

ah-lah

on

qariib min

kah-reeb meen

close to

ba'iid min

bah-eed meen

far from

'amaama

ah-mah-mah

in front of

waraa'a

wah-rah-ah

behind

taHta

tah-tah

underneath

fawqa

faw-kah

above

bijaanibi

bee-jah-nee-bee

next to

You can use these prepositions to construct clauses and phrases using both indefinite and definite nouns and adjectives. Here are some examples:

  • al-bint 'amaama al-madrasa. (al-bee-net ah-mah-mah al-mad-rah-sah; The girl is in front of the school.)
  • aT-Taawila fii al-ghurfa. (ah-tah-wee-lah fee al-goor-fah; The table is in the room.)
  • al-'ustaadha fii al-jaami'a. (al-oos-tah-zah fee al-jah-mee-ah; The professor is in the university.) (F)
  • al-maT'am bijaanibi al-funduq. (al-mat-ham bee-jah-nee-bee al-foon-dook; The restaurant is next to the hotel.)
  • ar-rajul min 'amriika. (ah-rah-jool meen am-ree-kah; The man is from America.)
  • al-madiina qariiba min ash-shaaTi'. (al-mah-dee-nah kah-ree-bah meen ah-shah-teeh; The city is close to the beach.)
  • as-sayyaara al-bayDaa' waraa'a al-manzil. (ah-sah-yah-rah al-bay-dah wah-rah-ah al-man-zeel; The white car is behind the house.)
  • al-walad al-laTiif ma'a al-mudarris. (al-wah-lad ah-lah-teef mah-ah al-moo-dah-rees; The nice boy is with the teacher.)

In addition, you can use multiple adjectives with both the subject and object nouns:

  • al-'imra'a al-jamiila fii as-sayyaara as-sarii'a. (al-eem-rah-ah al-jah-mee-lah fee ah-sah-yah-rah ah-sah-ree-ah; The beautiful woman is in the fast car.)
  • al-mudarissa ad-dakiyya 'amaama al-madrasa al-bayDaa'. (al-moo-dah-ree-sah ah-dah-kee-yah ah-mah-mah al-mad-rah-sah al-bay-dah; The smart teacher is in front of the white school.) (F)
  • al-kursiiy aS-Saghiir waraa'a aT-Taawila al-kabiira. (al-koor-see ah-sah-geer wah-rah-ah ah-tah-wee-lah al-kah-bee-rah; The small chair is behind the big table.)
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