Arabic grammar: Origin and development

Anass Nmari

Most works on the history of linguistics concentrate on Western Traditions of language and grammar. This essay is devoted to a tradition outside this mainstream, Arabic Linguistic Tradition (ALT). In the ALT, one distinguishes three essential parts: Grammar, Philology and Rhetoric. The fact that ALT borrows much from other traditions is true for both Grammar and Philology, whereas Rhetoric makes the gist of the ALT's contribution to the whole field of Linguistics, as it has been dealt with as a separate field of study. In this essay, I discuss mainly the origin of Arabic Grammar (AG), and its development in the light of the grammarians' contributions. In the first part, I present and discuss different versions for the emergence of AG. In the second part, I explain the use of analogy in AG providing a set of examples for further illustration. In the final part, I present a number of contributions considered essential to the development of AG, and to the ALT as a whole. Finally, a general conclusion sums up the whole issue of AG, and is meant to show the results of this essay.

Arabic Grammar: The emergence

Arabic, not unlike other languages, has been evolving throughout its long history. Although, Arabic prescriptive rules have relatively been stable for the reason that Arabs looked at change in the Arabic language as a sort of corruption, bearing in mind the powerful link that exists between this language and, on the one hand, Islam as a dominant religion, and on the other hand, the pre-Islamic heritage. The emergence of AG, thus, was a result of a real concern to protect the Qur'anic texts through protecting the Arabic language; it is this concern to maintain the purity of the language. In addition, AG emerged because of the rapid expansion of Islam in the period of the prophet Mohammed, the first four Caliphs and the reign of the Umayyad Caliphs; the Muslim territories reached present-day Afghanistan and Saragossa (Spain). In this sense, the emergence of AG is partially a political decision meant to teach the conquered non-Arabs the language of Islam. As a result, non-Arabs learned Arabic as a Lingua franca to facilitate communication among different "Islamized" peoples. It is important to note that many of the Grammarians were not Arabs by Origin, for example: Abu Alaswad Addu'ali, Sibawayh and many others. This emphasizes the real concerns of non-Arab grammarians to understand Arabic and introduce it to their peoples. As for direct reasons, there exist two different versions for the emergence of AG. One version relates it to a dialogue between Abu Alaswad Addu'ali and his daughter who said: ?? ????? ?????? (what is the most beautiful thing in the sky?) whereas she meant ?? ????? ?????? (Beautiful is the sky!). The first sentence is a question the answer of which might be ????? ?????? ????? (the most beautiful thing in the sky is the moon.). Another version relates the emergence to Abu l Aswad Addu'ali hearing a man reciting a verse of the Quran: ?? ???? ???? ?? ???????? ??????? (God is free of the treaty obligations made with the unbelievers and his prophet), where it correct sentence is ?? ???? ???? ?? ???????? ??????? (God and his prophet are free of the treaty obligations made with the unbelievers.). The two versions, though, share in common the general conclusion that the Arabic language is in danger, and something has to be done to correct how it was spoken. In Ibn Jinni's definition of AG, it is clearly stated that AG is a result of two main reasons: teaching Arabic to non-Arabs, and correcting Arabs who made grammatical errors in their spoken Arabic (mainly words' endings). As the majority of versions about the emergence of AG relate directly or indirectly to Abu Alaswad Addu'ali, it has been said that he was the first to contribute to AG; he was the first to use red dots above, below or next to letters to indicate the three short vowels. In addition to that, Abu Alaswad was the first to innovate ?????? (the glottal stop) and ????? (the Gemination). On the other hand, Analogy, the use of which dates back to the Greeks and the Romans, was first introduced to AG by Ibn Abi Ishaq Al Hadrami.

Ibn Abi Ishaq Al Hadrami (117 - 205 AH) and the Use of Analogy:

In most of the linguistic traditions, analogy played an essential role in the development of the language. In this sense, Arabic is not an exception; we distinguish in ALT two distinct kinds of analogy. Grammatical Analogy (?????? ??????) is used by the grammarians to generate rules out of one rule. The following diagram presents the different components of Grammatical Analogy:

Another kind of Analogy, in the Arabic Tradition, is Analogy in use. This type is used to generate an endless number of words or sentences basing on one general rule. A child, for example, learns that the addition of the letter "?" is the general rule to form the feminine, thus, she applies the rule on any given word (????- ?????) (small) (???? - ?????) (sleeping), and she applies it even on other anomalies (??? - ????) (double) whereas (???) is used for both the masculine and feminine. In fact, analogy is a kind of a "dynamic" theory that allows more change without any grammatical justifications.

The Grammarians' contributions to the development of AG:

A number of grammarians, from the emergence to AG till now, have contributed to its development. The first grammarian said to have contributed to AG was Abu Alaswad Addu'ali. Abu Alaswad, the founder of AG, was the first grammarian to use colored dots above, below and next to a letter to indicate the three short vowels of the Arabic language. It is also believed that he was the first to innovate the glottal stop ?, and the gemination ?. This contribution was very significant to the Arabic language for the Arabs wanted to protect the Qur'an specifically from change. In fact, this desire was the result of a real concern and consciousness of the Arabs to maintain their language. By the same token, Al Khalil Ibn Ahmed Al Farahidi was one of the most important philologists of the Basra School. His contribution to AG was very significant as he came up with the current standard for the vowel marks in the Arabic Script. Another major contribution was the first Dictionary of the Arabic language: Al Farahidi's Kitab Al' Ayn.

His way of trying out the consonants was that he opened his mouth pronouncing a glottal stop and then producing a consonant, for instance, 'ab, 'at, 'ah, 'a', 'agh. He concluded that the ' is produced deepest in the throat. Therefore, he assigned the first chapter to the', followed by the nearest consonant, and so on successively until he reached the last consonant, which was the m.

Actually, later generations remembered Al Khalil for his invention of metrics and lexicography. Kitab Al' Ayn focused on the Bedouin tribes of the Arabic Peninsula, their expressions, proverbs and poetry. Al Khalil also spontaneously invented a new phonetic order for the consonants. Al Khalil authorship of Kitab Al' Ayn, though, was doubted by many scholars, and al-Layth Ibn Al Mozzafar, his pupil, was usually referred to as the real author. Others say that the book was a combination of what Al Khalil wrote before his death, and what he had told to his student Ibn Al Mozzafar. One major debate in the history of AG was the great debate between Sibawayh the Imam (Leader) of the Basran School and Al Kissa-i who was the Imam of the Kufa School. The two schools had different views about different questions related to the Grammar and usage of the Arabic language. Thus, these debates were of a significant contribution to the development of AG. Indeed, Sibawayhi's Al Kitab Fi Anahw was a landmark in Arabic Grammar as it was the first coherent description of the Arabic language's entire system. In the continuous process of the development of AG, and after the death of Sibawayh, the book of Sibawayhi gained its real value, and, in the course of time, the book was approved to be Qur'an Anahw (the Qur'an of Grammar).

In sum, Arabic Grammar, not unlike other Grammars of other living languages, has been undergoing a process of development. Actually, AG benefited a lot from the previous findings of the preceding traditional approaches; From the ninth century, a large heritage of new philosophical ideas had been important both from the Greek and the Alexandrian languages. At the same time, AG was special because of its own environment which was wholly affected by Islam as a predominant religion, by the geographical situation of the Arabic Peninsula, and by the expenditure of Muslim territories. Nowadays, Grammar of the Arabic dialects offer a fertile field for the linguist to investigate, in the light of the relatively new linguistic theories which themselves find their roots in the traditional approaches to language study.

  • Versteegh, K (1997). Landmarks in Linguistic Thoughts III: the Arabic Linguistic Tradition. USA/Canada, Routledge.

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