Some quirks in the grammar of Syrian Arabic, as explained by Cowell

December 15, 2019
Tags: -linguistics
Length: medium

Update 2019-12-16 — Fixed typo. kafrat → karfat

This fall I have been teaching a course in Syrian Arabic, and in preparation for this I read Cowell’s excellent A Reference Grammar of Syrian Arabic (1964), more or less cover to cover. This grammar is nothing short of fantastic. It is well organized, fairly easy to read, and it is, above all, comprehensive. Every little nook and cranny of the language seems to be explored and explained, and all is illustrated with authentic data. (Being from 1964, it does, however, contain some examples with words that are no longer in use.) I have a pretty good command of Syrian Arabic, but I have not studied it formally, and when reading this grammar, I had quite a few aha-moments, when quirky bits of the grammar in Syrian Arabic that I had found strange or confusing fell into place. There were also a lot of things I knew intuitively, but that I had never consciously formulated, and that I had not seen formally described. This post is a description of a some things that I found particularity interesting, namely: derived verb forms with the infixes w and r; special forms of numerals for specific nouns; the “-āt of batch”, as I like to call it; the bi-/fī- complementary distribution; variants of demonstrative pronouns; and the three yeses.

Page references to Cowell are provided in parentheses in the headings.

Verb forms

Most of the verb forms in Syrian Arabic have parallels in Standard Arabic. Both Syrian and Standard Arabic have verbs in form II (faʿʿal) and a form VII (infaʿal) for example. Syrian Arabic also have forms of its own. When a have come across these verbs, I have seen them simply as your regular quadriradical verbs, not realizing that they are derivation from three-radical roots. Like quadriradical verbs, they can often be made intransitive with the ta- prefix.

Both these forms give temporally prolonged (and by extension more intense) meaning of the verb in its base form. (Perhaps telic to non-telic?)

w-infix (faʿwal فَعْوَل, p. 113)

      Derived from  
daʿwas trample   daʿas step
ʿaṣwar wring out   ʿaṣar press
sadwad stop up   sadd block
naṭwaṭ jump aroun   naṭṭ jump
šaxwaṭ scribble   šaxaṭ draw

r-infix (farʿal فَرْعَل, p. 114)

      Derived from  
xarmaš scratch (intensly)   xamaš to scratch
farʾaʿ set of (fireworks)   faʾiʿ burst
karfat curse (intensly)   kafat curse
taʿarbaṭ cling to   ʿabaṭ grasp
šarbak complicate   šabak net

The last one, šarbak, is an example of how this form is also used denominatively, that is, to form verbs from nouns: ‘to net thing up’.

Numbers (p. 171)

Syrian Arabic numbers have two forms:

  1. with final -a number used alone (sabʿa ‘seven’, xamsa ‘five’)

  2. without final -a when used with a noun (sabʿat awlād ‘three boys’, xams banāt ‘five girls’)

These are on the surface similar to the Standard Arabic gender inflected numbers, and are probably historically related to these, but have in Syrian Arabic nothing to do with gender.

Now, the quirky bit is that form (b) has a sub-class for when the numeral is used with one of the specific nouns yawm, ‘day’, šahr ‘month’, and alf ‘thousand’: sabʿat šuhūr ‘seven moths’, xamst ālāf* ‘five thousand’. These three specific, seemingly randomly selected nouns, require a special form of the numeral.

Plural of identification and indefinite quantification (p. 370)

A clunky bit of terminology here, but it makes sort sense once you get the hang of it. I like to think of it as the “-āt of batch”. This is something that had me puzzled me for many years; the feminine plural ending -āt used with mass nouns, but not to make it countable, as would be the case in Standard Arabic.

You can for example say:

ha‑r‑ruzz‑āt tayyib‑īn
this‑DEF‑rice‑F.PL tayyib‑PL*
‘this rice is good’


šaʿr‑āt‑ak ḥilw‑īn
hair‑PL‑your nice‑PL
‘your hair is nice’

This form, Cowell explains, is used to delimit a piece of a larger mass:

Some nouns which in the singular designate substance in general, or as a sample of its kind, have plurals (in -āt) designating a certain batch or indefinite quantity of that substance.

This -āt is not an actual plural, but a ‘batch-marker’. ha‑r‑ruzz‑āt tayyibīn ‘this rice (pl.) is good’, uttered when having a meal, means something like ‘this patch of rice [delimited by being in the pot] is good’. In contrast, ha-r-ruzz tayyib, without the indefinite quantification designated by the plural form, uttered in the same situation, would mean ‘This [type of rice] is good.’ That is, it is not delimited to this particular limited amount or batch at hand.

Cowell mentions that if one of the nouns that may take indefinite quantification (the -āt of batch) has a possessive pronoun, it generally must have this -at-ending, to donate only the batch. This is because the possession makes the noun definite and delimited in nature. The second example above, šaʿr‑ā‑ak ḥelwīn ‘your hair is nice’, would therefore be strange without the -āt. šaʿr‑ak ḥilw would mean something like ‘your hair in general [not just the hear on your head?] is nice’.

The bi-/fi- complementary distribution (p. 479)

The preposition ‘in’ in Syrian Arabic is bi- (bi‑l‑xazāna ‘in the cupboard’). However, this preposition can only be used with nouns, not with pronouns. For pronouns, you have to use the preposition fī-, witch has the same meaning (fi‑ha ‘in it’). The one exception is the expression šū bak? ‘What is [the matter] with you’.

bi-/fi- thus have complementary distribution between nouns and pronouns. This is in contrast to Standard Arabic where you can use both prepositions in both situations. Thus, the only people who use with nouns when speaking Syrian Arabic are foreigners, like myself, who haven’t been able to quite shake off the Standard Arabic grammar through which they first learned Arabic.

Variants of demonstrative pronouns (p. 552)

There is a bewildering variation in demonstrative pronouns in Syrian Arabic. Cowell does a good job in presenting them in an organized manner. Like English and Standard Arabic, Syrian Arabic has a proximal set of demonstrative pronouns (for things close to the speaker) and a distal set of demonstrative pronouns (for things further away from the speaker). For each of these there is (at least) one each for masculine singular, feminine singular, and plural:

  • proximal

    ms.: hāda
    fs.: hādi, hayy
    pl.: hadōl
  • distal

    ms. hadāk
    fs. hadīk
    pl. hadōlīk, hadōk, hadenk, hadenken1

This is fairly straight forward. However, the forms ending in a consonant (except hayy) also have stylistic variant with -e (hadōle, hadīke, etc.). And the masculine singular proximal hāda also has a shortened variant hād, that is only used at the end of phrases: šū hād? ‘what is this?’, but not, for example *hād kombyūtar ‘This is a computer.’

The yeses (p. 436)

The normal word for ‘yes’ in Syrian Arabic is ēh. There is also mbala, which is used to reply in the affirmative to a statement or question formulated in the negative (mū juʿān inta? ‘Are you not hungry?’, mbala ‘Yes’). You also often hear the Standard Arabic naʿm in Syrian Arabic contexts. In Syrian Arabic, naʿm is however only used in two specific contexts:

  1. with rising intonation to ask for a repetition of what was just said (naʿm?).

  2. with falling intonation (that is, not with question-like raise in intonation) as an answer to

    a. a call


    b. a command

    Hāt iš-šāy. ‘Give me the tea.’

-a/-e as a plural ending (p. 213)

This plural ending is a bit strange because it is identical to the feminine singular. Thus, il-harāmiyye can mean both ‘the thieves’ and ‘the [female] thief’.

This form of the plural is used for:

  1. nouns with the suffix -ji
    (kahrabji ‘electrician’ → kahrabjiyye ‘electricians’)

  2. many nisba-adjectives, that is, adjectives formed with -i
    (lebnāni ‘Lebanese’ → lebnāniyye ‘Lebanese (pl)’)

  3. occupational nouns of the form faʿʿāl
    (ṣarrāf ‘moneychanger’ → ṣarrāfiyye ‘moneychangers’)

  4. substantivized adjectives of the pattern faʿʿīl
    (šaġġīl ‘worker’ → šaġġīle ‘workers’)

Bonus: ‘The Syrian drawl’ (p. 379)

Yes/no questions may be pronounced […] with a level or slightly rising medium-high pitch and long drawl on the last syllable.

hēk yaʿniiiiiiii?

  1. This last variant is not mentioned by Cowell.