Happy New Year!

Sorry for the break in posting! Visiting family and a nasty cold will do that to you.

Most Arabs mark at least two “New Years” on their calendars, the Islamic and the Gregorian (many, especially in Iraq, may celebrate a third, Nowruz). As the Islamic calendar is lunar, and therefore shorter than the Gregorian calendar, the Gregorian date of the Islamic New Year floats; for example, we are currently in the year 1434 on the Islamic (Hijri) calendar, and the year 1435 will begin roughly around November 4, 2013. I say “roughly” because lunar calendar dates depend on the phases of the moon, so any attempt to map them to Gregorian dates in the future may be off by a day or so in either direction. The Islamic New Year is marked quietly, with prayer and reflection on the Hijra, or the Flight of Muhammad from Mecca to Medina, the event that marks year 1 of that calendar.

But today is the Gregorian New Year’s Eve, so let’s restrict ourselves to that event. “New Year” can be literally translated either as السَنة الجَديدة (al-sanat al-jadīdah, don’t forget to elide the “l” into the “s” and say “as-sa-nat-al-ja-dee-da”) or as العام الجَديد (al-ʿām al-jadīd). Both the feminine سَنة and the masculine عام mean “year,” though عام has more of an historical or record-keeping connotation. Another construct you may encounter is رأس السَنة (raʾs al-sanah)or رأس العام (raʾs al-ʿām), both of which mean “start of the year” but to which you can add the Gregorian qualifier, to wit: رأس السَنة الميلادية (raʾs al-sanah al-mīlādīyah) or رأس العام الميلادي (raʾs al-ʿām al-mīlādī), ميلادي being an adjectival marker for “Christian” (literally it’s the adjectival form of “birth,” but this is understood to refer to Jesus).

“New Year’s Day” = عَيد رأس السَنة (ʿīd raʾs al-sanah), “feast of the first of the year”

“New Year’s Eve” = لَيلة رأس السَنة (laylat raʾs al-sanah), “night of the first of the year”

“Happy New Year!” = سَنة جَديدة سَعيدة (sanat jadīdat saʿīdah) or عام جَديد سَعيد (ʿām jadīd saʿīd)


عيد ميلاد مجيد

“Merry Christmas” in Arabic is عَيد ميلاد مَجيد (ʿīd mīlād majīd), which more literally means “Glorious Christmas.”

Christmas is عيد ميلاد (ʿīd mīlād), but this raises the (slim) possibility of confusion as this is also the Arabic translation of “birthday”; literally, “celebration (ʿīd) of birth (mīlād).” So if you want to be specific, you could say عيد ميلاد مَسيح (ʿīd mīlād masīḥ) to specify “birthday of the Messiah” (which applies whether you’re talking to a Muslim or Christian, as the Quran acknowledges Jesus as the Jewish Messiah), or even go with الكريسمَس (al-krīsmas). On the other hand, if it’s December and you’re talking about ʿīd mīlād, I think you’ll be understood.

However you choose to say it, Happy Holidays to you and yours!

Hello and Goodbye

The formal Arabic greeting is السَلامُ عَلَيكُم (al-salāmu ʿalaykum, pronounced “as-salamu alaykum,” because recall that “s” is a “sun letter” and thus assimilates the “l” sound of the definite article), meaning “Peace be upon you.” The response has a short form and a long form. The short form is وَ عَلَيكم السَلام (wa ʿalaykum al-salām), “and upon you be peace,” and the long form starts with that but also adds وَ رِحْمة الله وَ بَرَكَتُهُ (wa riḥmat Allāh wa barakatuhu), “and God’s mercy and forgiveness.” Regional variations in exact phrasing, and certainly in pronunciation, will be encountered. Egyptians tend to pronounce the definite article more like “el” than “al,” for example, and in some parts of West Africa you’ll hear something like “as-salam ‘leykum.”

There are a couple of less formal greetings: مَرْحَباً (marḥaban, though the formal final vowel is usually dropped and it is pronounced “marhaba”), or (more completely) مَرْحَباً بكُم (marḥaban bikum), can mean “welcome” but really is “hello.” You can reply with the same word. “Welcome” is better and more commonly translated as آهلاً وَ سهلاً (ahlan wa sahlan), to which the proper reply is أهلاً بكُم (ahlan bikum). You may also just hear ahlan alone, in which case reply back with same. One might even encounter آلو (ālū), but this is usually reserved for use on the phone and not used in person. Pronunciations will vary regionally.

The formal goodbye is مَع السَلامة (maʿ al-salāmah), meaning “with peace,” and the reply is either to repeat that phrase or to say في أمانِ الله (fī amān Allāh, pronounced “fee-aman-illah” because there’s a final short vowel on “aman” that elides into the next word), meaning “in God’s protection.” Other options include وَداعاً (wadāʿan) or الوَداع (al-wadāʿ), meaning “farewell,” and إلى اللِقاء (ilá al-liqāʾ), literally “to the encounter,” but meaning “so long” or “until next time.”

We’ll talk about time sensitive greetings, like “good morning” and “good night,” later.

Yes and No

Because I’m getting such a late jump on this, we’ll keep it simple: yes and no.

“No” is لا () and can be used both as the reply to a yes-or-no question and to negate a present-tense (but only present tense!) verb: يَفْعَلُ (yafʿalu, “he does/is doing”) is negated as لا يَفْعَلُ (lā yafʿalu, “he doesn’t/isn’t doing”). Negating past and future tenses is more complicated and we’ll deal with that later. You may also encounter كلا (kalā) as an emphatic/interjection, like “No! Never!”

“Yes” actually gives us our first chance to see a divergence between spoken vs. written Arabic. In written Arabic you will most often encounter نَعَم (naʿam), and you will also encounter it in speech. More often encountered in speech, however, is أيوة (aywah), yet this is rarely encountered in writing.

فعل = “to do”

Today’s word is فَعَلَ (faʿala, “to do”), and while it’s not a word you’re likely to encounter much in everyday speech, it is incredibly important if you want to study Arabic, because it serves as the instructional case by which grammatical forms are taught. So, for example, when you learn how to form the active participle of a form I verb, you learn the general form as فاعِل (fāʿil, “the doer”) before you start forming particular active participles from particular verbs.


“She did something.” = فَعَلَتْ شيءً (faʿalat shayʾan)

Here we see the accusative indefinite form again, with the “fathatan” over the ending of the object (shayʾ, “thing”; the meaning of “something” or “a thing” is given by the indefinite marker), and we also see the third person singular feminine past tense form of the verb, adding a ت or “-t” to the end of the third person masculine singular past tense.

So with that as preface, here are the 10 forms of the Arabic verb with the additional meanings imparted by each form.

Form I فَعَلَ faʿala, “to do” root meaning
Form II فَعَّلَ faʿʿala, “to cause (someone) to do” intensive or causative
Form III فاعَلَ fāʿala, “to do with (someone) associative; doing with someone
Form IV أفْعَلَ afʿala, “to make (someone) do” causative (but more intense than form II causative)
Form V تَفَعَّلَ tafaʿʿala, “to cause (myself) to do” reflexive of form II
Form VI تَفاعَلَ tafāʿala, “to do together” reflexive of form III
Form VII اِنْفَعَلَ infaʿala, “to be done” reflexive or passive of form I
Form VIII اِفْتَعَلَ iftaʿala, “to do myself” reflexive of form I or special case
Form IX اِفْعَلَّ ifʿalla, “to become” rarely found, usually in the case of colors (“to become [color]”)
Form X اِسْتَفْعَلَ istafʿala, “to consider it done” or “to seek to have it done” considerative or requestive of form I

There are five additional forms that are virtually never encountered in modern Arabic and are hardly ever encountered even in classical/historical Arabic texts. We will ignore them.

بدأ = “to begin, start”

We begin with بَدَأَ (badaʾa), meaning, “to begin, start.” Right off the bat we have a funny root, because the third “letter” actually isn’t a letter, it’s the hamza or glottal stop, ء. You may remember from earlier posts that the hamza often “sits” on the character used for a long vowel, and in this case, since the short vowel before it is a short “a,” it sits on the alif, the character for the long “a” sound.

Recall that Arabic lacks an infinitive form, so badaʾa actually is the third-person masculine singular past tense or “he began.”

Sentence example:

I am starting a new job today. = أبْدَأُ اليَوم وَظيفةً جديدةً (Abdaʾu al-yawm waẓīfatan jadīdatan, although in speaking you would generally pronounce it “Ab-da-ul-yawm wa-zeef-a ja-deed-a”).

Arabic verbs generally are placed at the beginning of the sentence.

The present tense, first-person singular voice of the form I verb is created by starting with an alif-hamza before the root and with no short vowel over the first root letter. In Arabic instructional parlance this is described as أفعَلُ (afʿalu).The verb faʿala means “to do” and is used in instruction as the template to show the patterns of verb forms and voices. The short “u” vowel at the end of the verb is also a present tense marker, though in speech it is either ignored or elided into the next word.

The ending -an, which is represented in Arabic by the “fathatan” or two fathas one on top of the other, like so (ً),  demonstrates both that the noun is in the accusative case (always noted by the fatha or short “a” sound) and indefinite (a job, represented by the doubled short vowel and “-an” pronunciation, or in this case “-atan” because the noun is feminine so the vowel sits on the feminine marker “-at”). It is an example of “tanween,” the indefinite marker, which is written by doubling the short vowel indicator and pronounced by adding an “-n” sound after the vowel, (“-un,” “-an,” or “-in” depending on the short vowel/case, as the short vowel sound is a case marker). Note that nouns and their adjectives take the same short vowel endings so that they agree on case and definite/indefinite. In speech, this is something that can be dropped entirely; in fact, including these sounds in speech is the equivalent of speaking King James Bible-style English in normal modern conversation. You’ll probably be understood, but you might take a little teasing for your trouble.

Related vocabulary:

بَدء (badʾ) or بَدأة (badʾah) = beginning, start

اِبْتِداءً مِن (ibtidāʾan min) = as of (+date)

Another verb that can mean “to begin” and that is related to our Persian word of the day is شَرَعَ (sharaʿa). However, it is less used to mean “begin” and more often as “to go in, enter into.” It also has the meaning of “to prescribe laws or make laws,” and it is from this word that is derived الشريعة (al-Sharīʿah, “the Sharia”), the canonical law of Islam.

Notes on Arabic pronunciation and transliteration

The Arabic alphabet consists of 28 letters plus a handful of sounds represented by non-alphabetic characters (including short vowels, which are written as accents and, once you get past first-year Arabic and certainly into literature, are usually omitted altogether). It is written right-to-left (though numbers appear to us to be written left-to-right because in Arabic you read the smallest unit first and the largest unit last, like “six-and-thirty” instead of “thirty-six”). All letters connect at least to the preceding letter (on the right), and most connect on both sides. Each letter has multiple written forms depending on where it falls in the word (e.g., the way the “ba” character is written at the beginning of the word differs from how it is written in the middle of the word and both differ from how it is written at the end of the word). Rather than show all the forms of each letter, which out of context strikes me as useless and confusing, I only show the solitary form below. It will become clear what the other forms are as we proceed through the vocabulary. After the break, a table listing the Arabic letter, its name in plain Latin characters, an undoubtedly feeble attempt to describe its pronunciation, and the character(s) typically used to transliterate that sound into Latin script. Continue reading

Nothing to Say

I was working on a piece about transliterating Arabic into Latin script, along with some notes about pronunciation, to post yesterday, but then I spent 12 hours in front of a television set simultaneously horrified but unable to stop watching.

There are no words, in any language, to make sense of the senselessness of what happened yesterday, or the pain of seeing that list of the dead with the numbers “6” and “7” after most of the names, and I know that the sadness I’m feeling is infinitessimal compared to what the families of all the victims are feeling. My thoughts go out to them. I will be back to the focus of this blog in the next couple of days, as life permits.

Some introductory notes about Arabic and about Arabic Word a Day

Hello! أهلاً و سهلاً (ahlan wa-sahlan, “welcome”). This blog is for anybody interested in understanding a little bit, or little bit more, about the Arabic language. I am no linguist, I’m not a native speaker, I’m just someone who’s studied the language some and would like to build up his vocabulary, and if anybody else finds that useful then that’s awesome.

I am going to try to maintain this blog alongside two related ones, Persian Word a Day and Turkish Word a Day. They are “related” in the sense that all three are languages of the Islamic World, and I happen to have studied all three, which is why I’m not doing an “Urdu Word a Day” blog or “Indonesian Word a Day” blog or “Tamazight Word a Day” blog, etc (this is also why I’m not doing a “Hebrew Word a Day” blog despite the obvious Middle East connections). They are also related in that all three share a stockpile of common words that have been loaned from one to the other, and sometimes from one to the other and back to the first in a different form (the Persian gawhar or “gem” goes into Arabic as jawhar for “gem,” comes also to mean “essence” and is then loaned back into Persian as jawhar for “essence”). To the extent possible, I will try to make the Persian and Turkish words of the day either be words that derive from the Arabic root of the day, or have the same meaning or conceptual role that the Arabic root has (one day might look at the numbers in all three languages, or “left and right” in all three, or something like that).

I will primarily be looking at roots, which anyone who knows a Semitic language will understand but with which newcomers will not be familiar. Semitic languages are formed around the consonantal “root,” in Arabic’s case usually three consonants, that form a verbal root from which a number of related verbs and nouns can branch off. Each Arabic verb can have potentially 15 “forms,” although forms 11-15 are extraordinarily rare and not every root will have a meaning in each form. Each verb form follows a specific structure in the way it alters the original (form I) root, and in how it changes the meaning. For example, form II verbs double the middle consonant and can either serve as a more emphatic version of the form I root or can have the meaning of causing someone to perform the action described by the form I verb (form I qatala, “to kill,” becomes form II qattala “to massacre,” and form I darasa, “to learn/study,” becomes form II darrasa, “to cause someone to learn/study; i.e., to teach”). Another thing worth noting is that there is no infinitive structure for the verb like the English “to study”; what stands in for that form in a dictionary entry is actually the third person masculine singular past tense, so darasa technically means “he studied” rather than “to study.” The grammatical role played by what we call the infinitive is actually filled by nouns derived from the verb, the aptly named “verbal noun.” Occasionally I will take a break from this to look at connecting words, loanwords, things outside the tri-consonant root structure. I may talk grammar sometimes but hopefully not much, because it’s hard for me to talk with clarity about grammar in this kind of setting (as this paragraph amply demonstrates). This blog will, for the most part, stick to form I verbal roots and the most common nouns formed from those roots. If it actually lasts long enough, we can get into the other forms down the road. Because my training is in history and not language, I may from time to time digress into historical digression or talk about where particular words came from or went to as they meandered from one language to another. I apologize in advance.

I will be writing Arabic in both Arabic script, which reads right to left, and in Latin script transliteration. There are as many methods for transliterating Arabic as there are people trying to transliterate it, but I hope the system I use (mostly adhering to the system used by the International Journal of Middle East Studies) is simple enough to follow. My rule of thumb is that someone who knows the language should be able to unambiguously reconstruct the Arabic script from my transliteration, which occasionally means sacrificing nuances of pronunciation in order to keep to the strict written structure. I’ll try to note when that takes place.

Finally a warning about the “a day” part of this, in that it’s more a hope than a rule. I can’t promise a daily word, particularly given trying to do three of these as a non-paying lark, but I will do my best.