Syrian Arabic grammatical summary

November 8, 2020
Tags: -teaching-materials -linguistics
Length: long

Update 2020-11-20 — Corrected spelling in Arabic script for numerals 11-19. Added subheading for auxiliary verbs.

A pdf of this post for pretty printing can be found here.


This grammar is under construction. The
following topics are planned to be added:

- syllable structure
- exclamations
- imperative
- maan-negation
- dual
- gender
- gender and number congruency
- the possessive exponent 
- verbal uses of participles
- defective, double, and hollow verbs

Introduction

This is a short pedagogical summary of the variety of Arabic spoken in the Damascus area. It is intended to be used for quick reference and overview for beginner to intermediate language learners. It was written as a complement to the Syrian-Arabic material in Al-Kitaab fii Taʿallun al-ʿArabiyya (Brustad et al., Georgetown University Press, 2013) but can be used independently. Parts of it are based on A Reference Grammar of Syrian Arabic (Georgetown University Press, 2005 [1964]), to which the reader is referred for a detailed and comprehensive grammar.

This grammar uses a simplified transcription (see Phonology) adapted from Alif Baa (Brustad et al., Georgetown University Press, 2010). Examples in Arabic script represent written vernacular as used in text messaging, advertisement, etc. There is a considerable variation in vernacular orthography, especially in the extent to which Standard Arabic spelling is followed, and forms that differ from those presented here are therefore common.

For corrections and suggestions on improvements, please contact the author.1

Phonology

Consonants

         
ʾ ء   D ض
b ب   T ط
t ت   (DH) ظ
(th) ث   ʿ ع
j ج   gh غ
H ح   f ف
kh خ   (q) ق
d د   k ك
(dh) ذ   l ل
r ر   m م
z ز   n ن
s س   h ه
sh ش   w و
S ص   y ي

Phonemes within parenthesis are specific to Standard Arabic and are not part of the Syrian Arabic phonemic system. Their respective letters are, however, commonly used in Syrian-Standard cognates in written vernacular.2

Vowels

Short Long  
i ii ي
e ee ي
u uu و
o oo و
a aa ا

Note:

  • Only long vowels have an orthographic representation.

  • i and u occur primarily in word final position as part of inflections (beet-i ‘my house’, yeʿmal-u ‘they do’).

  • The vowel here represented as e is generally realized as schwa [ə].

  • Syrian Arabic has no diphthongs, as opposed to Standard Arabic. The Standard Arabic diphthongs ay and aw correspond in Syrian Arabic to the long vowels ee and oo respectively.

Standard to Syrian phonemic conversion rules

These conversion rules represent regular sound relations in Standard–Syrian cognates. Standard Arabic pronunciation is often retained in formal or literary words (dimuqraaTiyye) and in non-Syrian Arabic place names (il-qaahira ‘Cairo’). Standard Arabic th and dh are normally realized as s and z respectively for such words.

                   
aw oo   yawm yoom   يوم day
ay ee   bayn been   بين between
q ʾ   daqiiqa daʾiiʾa   دقيقة minute
DH D   DHuhr Duhr   ضهر noon
ʾ ø   masaaʾ masa   مسا eavening
th t   thalaatha tlaate   تلاتة three
    (s)   mathalan masalan   مثلا for example
dh d   dhahab dahab   دهب gold
    (z)   idha iza   اذا if

Pronouns

Personal pronouns

  Independent Attached     متصل منفصل
I ana -i (-ya)   ـي انا
you (m.s.) enti -ak (-k)   ـك انت
you (f.s.) enta -ik (-ki) (ـكي) ـك انتي
he huwwe -o (-h) (ـه) ـو هو
she hiyye -a (-ha)   ـها هي
we neHna -na     ـنا نحنا
you (pl.) intu -kon     ـكن انتو
they honnen -on (-hon) (ـهن) ـن هنن

Forms in parenthesis are used with words with final vowel: aʿTaa-ki ‘he gave you (f.)’.

Attached pronouns are used for:

     
possession ktaab-o ‘his book’
prepositional complements maʿ-o ‘with-him’
direct objects katabt-o ‘I wrote it’
indirect objects katabt-l-o ‘I wrote for him’

The connective -l- ‘for’ for indirect objects may take the form -el- to prevent consonant clusters: katabt‑el‑kon ‘I wrote for you (pl.)’. A direct object may then be added with the word yaa-: katabt-l-ak yaa-ha ‘I wrote it (fem.) for you’.

Demonstrative pronouns

  Close Distant بعيد قريب
m.s. haada hadaak(e) هداك هادا
f.s haay(e) hadiik(e) هديك هاي
pl. hadool(e) haadooliik هدوليك هدول

Note:

  • Several forms have a stylistic variant with final e.

  • haada has a shortened form, haad, used only at the end of phrases: shuu haad? ‘What is this?’.

  • The distant plural pronoun has several variants not listed above, including hadook, hadenk, and hadenken.

Nouns

Nouns are inflected for number and definiteness, and most animate nouns (referring to humans or animals) are also inflected for gender.

Plural

There are four ways to form plural: irregular, regular masculine, regular feminine, and general human:

    Singular Plural   جمع مفرد
Irrergula   beet buyuut house بيوت بيت
Regular masculine -iin muslim muslemiin muslim مسلمين مسلم
Regular feminine -aat sheghle sheghlaat thing شغلات شغلة
General human -(iyy)e ʿeraaqi ʿeraaqiyye Iraqi عراقية عراقي

Prepositions

     
ʿa- ع to
ʿala/ʿalee- على/عليـ on
ʿand عند with, at
been بين between
been/beenaat- بين/بيناتـ among
bi-/fii- بـ/فيـ in, at
men من from
Hadd حد next to
fooʾ فوق above
taHt تحت below
maʿ مع with
wara ورا behind
ʾuddaam قدام in front of
la-/el- لـ/الـ for (ownership)

For the prepositions with two alternate forms, the first is used with nouns and the second with pronouns:

     
bi-l-beet بالبيت ‘in the house’
fii-h فيه ‘in it’

Question words

     
shuu? شو؟ what?
miin? مين؟ who?
eemta? ايمتى؟ when?
kiif? كيف؟ how?
ween? وين؟ where?
leesh? ليش؟ why?
addeesh? قديش؟ how much?
kam? كم؟ how many?

Question words are normally clause-inital, and may be preceded by a preposition:

   
maʿ miin ʿam taHki? ‘Who are you talking to?’

Only ween and kiif take attached pronouns:

     
ween-ak? وينك؟ ‘Where are you?’
kiif-ak? كيفك؟ ‘How are you?’

Yes/no-question are formed with rising intonation.

Verbs

Inflection

  Non-past Past المضارع الماضي
I e-ktob katab-t اكتب كتبت
you (ms.) t(e)-ktob katab-t تكتب كتبت
you (fs.) t(e)-ktob-i katab-ti تكتبي كتبتي
he ye-ktob katab يكتب كتب
she t(e)-ktob katab-et تكتب كتبت
we n(e)-ktob katab-na نكتب كتبنا
you (pl.) te-ktob-u katab-tu تكتبو كتبتو
they ye-ktob-u katab-u يكتبو كتبو

The pronoun is often omitted. The e in parenthesis is omitted on stems beginning with a single consonant t-shuuf-i ‘you (fs.) see’.

The non-past verb form is preceded by one of the following:

     
b- بـ habitual, generalities
ʿam عم ongoing (progressive)
Ha-/raH حـ/رح future
laazim لازم ‘have to’
auxiliary verb   see below

Note:

  • For 1s, the initial letter alif ا is normally omitted when preceded by : bektob بكتب.

  • For 1pl. the b- prefix is partially assimilated and pronounced as m: mniktib. This is often reflected in orthography: منكتب.

  • Some speakers combine b- and ʿam: ʿam b-yektob.

Auxiliary verbs

The main verb may be preceded by an auxiliary verb. Both the auxiliary and the main verb are inflected for person:

     
beddo yektob بدو يكتب ‘he wants to write’
byeHebb yektob بيحب يكتب ‘he likes to write’
kaan yektob كان يكتب ‘he was writing’
Saar yektob صار يكتب ‘he began to write’

Kaan ‘was’

  Non-Past Past المضارع الماضي
I e-kuun kent اكون كنت
you (ms.) te-kuun kent تكون كنت
you (fs.) te-kuun-i kent-i تكوني كنتي
he ye-kuun kaan يكون كان
she te-kuun kaan-et تكون كانت
we ne-kuun ken-na نكون كنا
you (pl.) te-kuun-u ken-tu تكونو كنتو
they ye-kuun-u kaan-u يكونو كانو

Kaan is used

  1. to make a verb-less clause past or future tense:

       
    aHmed kaan Taaleb ‘Ahmad was a student’
    aHmed Ha-yekuun Taaleb ‘Ahmad will be a student’
  2. to express a past ongoing (progressive) event:

       
    aHmed kaan (ʿam) yedros ‘Ahmed was studying’

Pseudo-verbs

     
bedd‑ بد ‘want’
ʿand‑ عند ‘has’
fii في ‘there is’

The pseudo-verbs are negated as verbs with maa (see Negation) but do not follow verbal person and tense inflection. bedd‑ and ʿand- are inflected for person with attached pronouns, like nouns, while fii is not inflected:

   
bedd‑a ktaab ‘she wants a book’ [‘her wish is a book’]
ʿand-a ktaab ‘she has a book’ [‘with her is a book’]
fii ktaab ‘there is a book’

Pseudo-verbs are inflected for tense with an auxiliary kaan:

   
kaan ʿand-a ktaab ‘She had a book’.
Ha-yekuun ʿand-a ktaab ‘She will have a book’.

Negation

     
maa ما verbs
muu مو non-verbal clauses

In effect, muu is used to negate verbless clauses in present tense, otherwise the negation maa is used:

  Verbal clause Verbless (“is”) clause
  ‘Ahmed is studying.’ ‘Ahmed is a student.’
     
Past aHmed maa daras aHmed maa kaan Taaleb
  أحمد ما درس أحمد ما كان طالب
     
Present aHmed maa byedrus aHmed muu Taaleb
  أحمد ما بيدرس أحمد مو طالب
     
Future aHmed maa Ha‑/raH yedrus aHmed maa Ha‑/raH yekuun Taaleb
  أحمد ما حـ/رح يدرس أحمد ما حـ/رح يكين طالب

Numerals 1–100

  Absolute Construct مضاف غير مضاف
1 waaHed (m.)/waHde (f.)     واحد/وحدة
2 etneen (m.)/tenteen (f.)     اتنين/تنتين
         
3 tlaate tlatt تلات تلاتة
4 arbaʿa arbaʿ أربع أربعة
5 khamse khams خمس خمسة
6 sette sett ست ستة
7 sabʿa sabʿ سبع سبعة
8 tmaane tman تمان تمانة
9 tesʿa tesʿ تسع تسعة
10 ʿashara ʿashar عشر عشرة
         
11 eddaʿsh eddaʿshar ادعشر ادعش
12 eTnaʿsh eTnaʿshar اطنعشر اططعش
13 tlaTaʿsh tlaTaʿshar تلاطعشر تلاطعش
14 arbaʿTaʿsh arbaʿTaʿshar اربعطعشر اربعطعش
15 khamasTaʿsh khamsTaʿshar خمسطعشر خمسطعش
16 seTTaʿsh seTTaʿshar سطعشر سطعش
17 sabʿaTaʿsh sabʿaTaʿshar سبعطعشر سبعطعش
18 tmanTaʿsh tmanTaʿshar تماطعشر تماطعش
19 tesʿaTaʿsh tesʿaTaʿshar تسعطعشر تسعطعش
         
20 ʿeshriin     عشرين
30 tlaatiin     تلاتين
40 arbaʿiin     اربعين
50 khamsiin     خمسين
60 settiin     ستين
70 sabʿiin     سبعين
80 tmaaniin     تمانين
90 tesʿiin     يسعين
         
100 miyye miit   مية

The absolute form of the numeral is used when it stands by itself and is not followed by a noun. The construct form is when the numeral is followed by counted a noun: tlaate ‘three’, but tlatt ewlaad ‘three boys.’

Note:

  • 1–2 are used only for emphasis or contrast, or when ordering in restaurants (itneen shaay ‘two tea’). Otherwise, the lone noun in singular or dual is used: ktaab ‘[a/one] book’; ktabeen ‘two books’. 1 and 2 are the only numerals that inflect for gender.

  • 3–10 have a special form with a final -t when used with one of three nouns eyyaam ’days’, shehuur ’months’, and aalaaf ’thousands’: khamst eyyam ’five days’, ʿashart aalaaf ‘ten thousand’.

  • For 3–10, the counted noun is in the plural: tlatt kutub ‘three books’, and for numerals above 10, it is in the singular: iddaʿashar ktaab ‘eleven book[s]’.

  • 11—19 are constructed from the construct form of the unit and ‑Taʿsh, with irregularites in 11, 12, and 15. The suffix -ar is added in construct forms.

  • Decades (20, 30, etc.) are constructed of the construct form of the unit and the ending ‑iin, with only 20 having an irregular form. In complex numbers, the unit in absolute form appears before the decades with the two parts connected with u- ‘and’: sabʿa u‑tlaatiin, ‘thirty‑six’.

  • For numbers above one hundred there is no construct form for 100: miyye u-tlaate kelime ‘103 words’.

  1. andreas.hallberg@sprak.gu.se 

  2. For the use of connected letter-forms, see The Arabic Writing System (available for download at http://andreasmhallberg.github.io/documents/).