Disaster in the Philippines

I’m very late on this, but the devastation caused in the Philippines by Typhoon Haiyan is enormous, with at least 10,000 killed and hundreds of thousands displaced, most undoubtedly into refugee camps or worse. Please give what you can, if you are able. I gave to UNICEF this evening and also sent an SMS donation to the World Food Program, but there are many ways to contribute. See here, and here, for lists of organizations, and if you have any other suggestions please leave them in comments.



Verb conjugation II: “to be”

The Arabic verb “to be” is كانَ (kāna), which makes it a “hollow verb” (the second letter is a vowel, not a consonant). These have a slightly irregular conjugation, where the long vowel may disappear in the past tense:

  • “I was” = كُنتُ (kuntu)
  • “you (m, sing.) were” = كُنتَ (kunta)
  • “you (f, sing.) were” = كُنتِ (kunti)
  • “he was” = كانَ (kāna)
  • “she was” = كانًت (kānat)
  • “you (dual) were” = كُنتُما (kuntumā)
  • “they (m, dual) were” = كُنا (kunā)
  • “they (f, dual) were” = كُنتا (kuntā)
  • “we were” = كُنّا (kunnā)
  • “you (m, pl.) were” = كُنتُم (kuntum)
  • “you (f, pl.) were” = كُنتُنَّ (kuntunna)
  • “they (m) were” = كانوا (kānū)
  • “they (f) were” = كُنَّ (kunna)

In the present tense the verb is usually omitted. Simple subject-predicate sentences are identified when the subject and the predicate fail to agree on definite-indefinite, like “the teacher is a man”: المُدَرِّس رَجُلٌ (al-mudarris rajulun). An indefinite noun/adjective does not take the definite marker ال, and its final short vowel is doubled (though this has the effect of adding a final “-n” sound (be aware that when speaking the language these final short vowels and endings usually just disappear. If the subject and the predicate are both definite, then the appropriate (in terms of gender/number) third person pronoun may be inserted between them to make it clear that this is a sentence, so “the teacher is that man”: المُدَرِّس ذٰلِك الرَجُلُ (al-mudarris dhālik al-rajul).

HOWEVER, we should know the present tense form of كانَ for other reasons, so let’s conjugate it:

  • “I am” = أكونُ (akūnu)
  • “you (m, sing.) are” = تَكونُ (takūnu)
  • “you (f, sing.) are” = تَكونينَ (takūnīna)
  • “he is” = يَكونُ (yakūnu)
  • “she is” = تَكونُ (takūnu)
  • “you (dual) are” = تَكونانِ (takūnāni)
  • “they (m, dual) are” = يَكونانِ (yakūnāni)
  • “they (f, dual) are” = تَكونانِ (takūnāni)
  • “we are” = نَكونُ (nakūnu)
  • “you (m, pl.) are” = تَكونونَ (takūnūna)
  • “you (f, pl.) are” = تَكُنَّ (takunna)
  • “they (m) are” = يَكونونَ (yakūnūna)
  • “they (f) are” = يَكُنَّ (yakunna)

One reason it’s good to know the present tense of كانَ is because negating the past tense in Arabic, paradoxically, requires using the present tense form of the verb, in the “jussive” mood. You can compare the conjugation below with the one above to see the differences in the jussive as compared with the simple present tense. Preceding the verb is the negative particle لَم (lam):

  • “I was not” = لَم أكُن (lam akun)
  • “you (m, sing.) were not” = لَم تَكُن (lam takun)
  • “you (f, sing.) were not” = لَم تَكوني (lam takūnī)
  • “he was not” = لَم يَكُن (lam yakun)
  • “she was not” = لَم تَكُن (lam takun)
  • “you (dual) were not” = لَم تَكونا (lam takūnā)
  • “they (m, dual) were not” = لَم يَكونا (lam yakūnā)
  • “they (f, dual) were not” = لَم تَكونا (lam takūnā)
  • “we were not” = لَم نَكُن (lam nakun)
  • “you (m, pl.) were not” = لَم تَكونوا (lam takūnū)
  • “you (f, pl.) were not” = لَم تَكُنَّ (lam takunna)
  • “they (m) were not” = لَم يَكونوا (lam yakūnū)
  • “they (f) were not” = لَم يَكُنَّ (lam yakunna)

Negating the present tense of كانَ requires a completely irregular form:

  • “I am not” = لَستُ (lastu)
  • “you (m, sing.) are not” = لَستَ (lasta)
  • “you (f, sing.) are not” = لَستِ (lasti)
  • “he is not” = لَيسَ (laysa)
  • “she is not” = لَيسَت (laysat)
  • “you (dual) are not” = لَستُما (lastumā)
  • “they (m, dual) are not” = لَيسا (laysā)
  • “they (f, dual) are not” = لَيسَتا (laysatā)
  • “we are not” = لَسنا (lasnā)
  • “you (m, pl.) are not” = لَستُم (lastum)
  • “you (f, pl.) are not” = لَستُنَّ (lastunna)
  • “they (m) are not” = لَيسوا (laysū)
  • “they (f) are not” = لَسنَ (lasna)

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.