Verb conjugation I: Simple past tense

We keep running up against the fact that it’s difficult to give examples of vocabulary without using grammar elements that I haven’t introduced, so I’m going to roll out verb conjugations over a series of posts. Doing this across three languages, four if you count the English I’m trying to explain it in, is complicated by the fact that grammarians give different names to the same concepts in different languages, and conversely the same term might mean different things in each language.

First we look at simple past tense (“did”), which is called the “perfect” tense in my Arabic grammar book although it does not correspond to the English perfect tense (“had done”). We’re using the typical “example” verb in Arabic learning, فَعَلَ (faʿala, “to do”). These all translate as “I did,” you did,” “he/she did,” etc. Be aware that when referring to mixed gender groups, the masculine form is used no matter if the group is evenly matched by gender or lopsided; if there’s one male in the group then the group is masculine.

  • First person, singular: فَعَلتُ (faʿaltu)
  • Second person, singular (masculine): فَعَلتَ (faʿalta)
  • Second person, singular (feminine): فَعَلتِ (faʿalti)
  • Third person, singular (masculine): فَعَلَ (faʿala)
  • Third person, singular (feminine): فَعَلَت (faʿalat)
  • Second person, dual (masculine/feminine): فَعَلتُما (faʿaltumā)
  • Third person, dual (masculine): فَعَلا (faʿalā)
  • Third person, dual (feminine): فَعَلَتا (faʿalatā)
  • First person, plural: فَعَلنا (faʿalnā)
  • Second person, plural (masculine): فَعَلتُم (faʿaltum)
  • Second person, plural (feminine): فَعَلتُنَّ (faʿaltunna)
  • Third person, plural (masculine): فَعَلوا (faʿalū)
  • Third person, plural (feminine): فَعَلنَ (faʿalna)

The passive voice (“is done” rather than “does”) is formed by changing the short vowels on the first two letters of the root, so instead of فَعَلَ (faʿala), you’d say فُعِلَ (fuʿila), but all the number/person endings stay the same. This is especially fun when reading a text without short vowel markings, so you could in theory be reading a verb as active when it’s actually passive.

I won’t go into negating past tense right now, because to negate past tense in Arabic you actually need to use the present tense of the verb. That will come later.


To teach

Following on from yesterday’s entry, let’s look at the word “teach.”

There are two verbs that mean “teach” in Arabic. Why? Well, recall from yesterday’s entry (on the verb “learn”) that in addition to تَعَلَّمَ (taʿallama, “to teach,” from the root عَلَمَ ʿalama, “to know”), you may also find the verb دَرَسَ (darasa, “to study”) being used to mean “learn,” since studying is the (a?) process of learning. Well, a teacher is someone who causes another person to know something, but they also cause them to study that thing, so the verb “teach” can be the form II (causative) derivation of either عَلَمَ (“to know”) or دَرَسَ (“to study”). Form II is formed by doubling the second consonant in the root, so for “teach” you have either عَلَّمَ (ʿallama) or دَرَّسَ (darrasa). You probably won’t go wrong with either (although watch for colloquial/regional variations if you’re speaking!), but دَرَّسَ has more to do with teaching at higher levels, like secondary and post-secondary.


“She teaches us Arabic” = تُدَرِّسُ لَنا اللُغةَ العَرَبيةَ (tudarrisu lanā al-lughah al-arabīyah)

“Last week I taught them the alphabet” = في الأُسبوعِ الماضي عَلَّمْتُهُم الأَبْجَديةَ (fī al-usbūʿ al-māḍī ʿallamtuhum al-abjadīyah, “in the last week I taught them—suffix “hum” added to the verb—the alphabet”)

NOTE: As our word “alphabet” is formed by mashing together the names of the first two letters of the Greek alphabet, alpha and beta, the Arabic word abjad comes from mashing together the first four letter shapes of the Arabic alphabet (the ا shape, then the ب ت ث shape, the ج ح خ shape, and the د ذ shape). Abjad is actually a term in linguistics for an alphabetical system, like Arabic, where most or all of the characters represent consonants while vowel sounds are generally implied rather than written.

Related vocabulary:

“Teacher”: the same درس v. علم clash is seen here, with the active participles of both form II verbs, مُدَرِّس (mudarris) and مُعَلِّم (muʿallim) meaning “teacher.” Again, you will probably find مُعَلِّم used for teachers at lower (elementary, middle) levels (and as a sort of general term for “instructor”), while مُدَرِّس connotes something at a higher level, so probably a high school teacher or university lecturer, but not a professor, who is called أُستاذ (ustādh, fem. أُستاذة ustādhah, from the Persian استاد).

“School” is the infamous مَدرَسة (madrasah), which has taken on horrible connotations in the west as some sort of Islamic fundamentalist/terrorist training ground, when in reality the word just means “school.” “Primary school” is probably going to be مَکتَب (maktab) or كُتّاب (kuttāb), deriving from the root كتب (kataba), which means “to write,” reflecting the centrality that literacy has in Arabic primary education.

To learn

You can’t “learn Arabic” without learning how to say “to learn,” amirite?

Sorry, let’s just move on to the vocabulary.

We are going with “learn” here in the sense of acquiring new knowledge or skills by study, not “learn” in the sense of “found out,” like “I just learned that your cat had kittens!” They are different concepts and translate differently.

“Learn” in its purest “acquisition of knowledge” form translates as the fifth form verb تَعَلَّمَ (taʿallama). The form I root is عَلَمَ (ʿalama), which means “to know” and makes all kinds of great words that we can talk about on other occasions. Recall that to derive a form V verb, you take form II of the root (here عَلَّمَ, ʿallama), and add a “ta” prefix. Form II verbs mean “to cause someone to do (form I),” so in this case “to cause someone to know” or “to teach,” and form V verbs are the reflexive form of that, which here would be “to cause oneself to know” or “to learn.”


“I am learning Arabic” = أتَعَلِّمُ اللُغةَ العَرَبية (ataʿallimu al-lughah al-ʿarabīyah)

“Yesterday they learned the names of the planets” = أمس تَعَلَّموا اسماءَ الكَواكِبِ (ams taʿallamū asmāʾ al-kawākib)

Related vocabulary:

“Education” = تَعَلُّم (taʿallum), the verbal noun of تَعَلَّمَ, can mean “education,” although the more common words are تَعليم (taʿlīm) or تَدريس (tadrīs), both verbal nouns based on the two form II verbs that mean “to teach” (see next entry).

“Student” is totally unrelated: طالِب (ṭālib, fem. طالِبة ṭālibah, “asker” or “demander”; the student “asks” knowledge of the teacher). If your mind immediately went to “the Taliban,” that’s because “the Taliban” began as a student protest movement so the word ṭālibān means “students.”

NOTE: Sometimes you will find the form I verb دَرَسَ (darasa) used to mean “learn,” but this is an imprecise meaning of this verb, which really means “study,” not “learn.” I guess you could argue that it means “learn” in the sense of “the process of learning,” but I think if you want to be clear and accurate, تَعَلَّمَ is the better choice (although I make no claims about speaking; colloquial usage trumps everything).

Good Morning

I decided to take a break from family vocab just before our final entry on in-laws, and instead make good on something I said I would do a while ago. Back when we talked about how to say hello and goodbye, I said that we’d get to more time-specific greetings, like “good morning” or “goodnight,” later. Well, it’s a lot later now, so let’s do it.

First, some basic vocabulary:

Morning: صَباح (ṣabāḥ), فَجْر (fajr, specifically “dawn” and seldom used in greetings)

Day: يَوم (yawm, the 24-hour day), نَهار (nahār, the period dawn-dusk)

Afternoon: بَعد الظُهر (baʿd al-ẓuhr, literally “after noon”)

Evening: مِساء (misāʾ), غُروب (ghurūb, specifically “sundown” and seldom used in greetings)

Night: لَيل (layl), لَيلة (laylah, yes, like the song)

Good: خَير (khayr),  جَيِّد(jayyid), or  طَيِّب(ṭayyib)

Happy: سَعٓيد (saʿīd)

Nice: لَطيف (laṭīf)

Beautiful: جَميل (jamīl)

Now, the phrases:

Good morning: صَباح الخَیر (ṣabāḥ al-khayr), response is صَباح النور (ṣabāḥ al-nūr, literally “morning of light”)

Good afternoon/evening: مِساء الخَیر (misāʾ al-khayr), response is مِساء النور (misāʾ al-nūr, literally “morning of light”)

Goodnight: لَيلة سعيدة (laylah saʿīdah)

Good day: يَوم جَيِّد (yawm jayyid), يَوم جَميل (yawm jamīl), يَوماً طَيِّباً (yawman ṭayyiban), يَوماً سَعيداً (yawman saʿīdan)

“Have a nice day!”: any of the above (under “good day”), طابَ نَهارُكَ (ṭāba nahārukanaharuki for a woman—literally “May your day be good”), or the more formal أتَمَنى لَكَ (لَكِ) نَهاراً سَعيداً (atamaná laka—laki if speaking to a woman—nahāran saʿīdan, or “I hope you have a happy day”)

Family vocab VI: cousins

Family vocab I: mother and father

Family vocab II: child, son and daughter

Family vocab III: brothers and sisters

Family vocab IV: aunts and uncles

Family vocab V: grandparents

Since Arabic complicates more distant family relations by designating paternal uncles and aunts differently than maternal uncles and aunts, cousins will be equally complicated. Indeed, you can’t just be someone’s cousin in Arabic, you have to be the “son of ____” or “daughter of ____.” It’s easier to do this as a list:

  • Son of paternal uncle = اِبب عَمّ (ibn ʿamm)
  • Son of paternal aunt = اِبب عَمّة (ibn ʿammah)
  • Son of maternal uncle = اِبن خال (ibn khāl)
  • Son of maternal aunt = اِبن خالة (ibn khālah)
  • Daughter of paternal uncle = بِنت عَمّ (bint ʿamm) or اِبنة عَمّ (ibnat ʿamm)
  • Daughter of paternal aunt = بِنت عَمّة (bint ʿammah) or اِببة عَمّة (ibnat ʿammah)
  • Daughter of maternal uncle = بِنت خال (bint khāl) or اِبنة خال (ibnat khāl)
  • Daughter of maternal aunt = بِنت خالة (bint khālah) or اِبنة خالة (ibnat khālah)

Family vocab IV: aunts and uncles

Family vocab I: mother and father

Family vocab II: child, son and daughter

Family vocab III: brothers and sisters

A number of languages distinguish between maternal and paternal aunts and uncles; English is not one of them, but Arabic is. A paternal uncle is عَمّ (ʿamm, pl. أعمام aʿmām), and a paternal aunt is the feminine form, عَمّة (ʿammah pl. عَمّات ʿammāt). Maternal uncle is خال (khāl, pl. أخوال akhwāl), and maternal aunt is خالة (khālah, pl. خالات khālāt).

One thing to bear in mind is that we’re talking about blood relatives only; in-laws are another entry.