Syrian Arabic grammatical summary

November 8, 2020
Tags: -teaching-materials -syrian-arabic
Length: long

Updates

Update 2021-10-24 — Dual section added.

Update 2021-05-20 — Prepositions ʿa- and leʿand split into two list items.

Update 2021-02-06 — Images for place of articulation added.

Update 2021-01-18 — Phonology section expanded considerably.

Update 2021-01-03 — Presentation order standardized: translation, transcription, Arabic. Indefinite pronouns added. Various minor additions and edits.

Update 2020-12-29 — Hollow and doubled verbs added.

Update 2020-12-05 — maan- negation added. Minor readability improvements.

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
- gender
- adverbs
- the possessive exponent 
- participles
- verbal noun

Introduction

This is a short pedagogical summary of the variety of Arabic spoken in the Damascus area in Syria. It is intended to be used for quick reference and overview for beginner to intermediate language learners. It is partially based on A Reference Grammar of Syrian Arabic (Cowell 2005 [1964], Georgetown University Press1) and Arabisch-syrische grammatik (Grotzfeld 1965, Harrasowitz), to which the reader is referred for detailed and comprehensive grammatical descriptions.

This grammar uses a simplified transcription (see Phonology) adapted from Alif Baa (Brustad et al., Georgetown University Press, 2010). Words and examples are presented in transcription, translation, and, space permitting, also in Arabic script.2 The Arabic script represents written vernacular as used in text messaging, advertisement, etc. There is considerable variation in vernacular Arabic orthography, especially in the extent to which Standard Arabic spelling is followed, and forms that differ from those presented here are therefore common.

Comparisons with Standard Arabic are made where relevant.

For corrections or suggestions on improvements, please contact the author at andreas.hallberg@sprak.gu.se.

Phonology

IPA symbols in square brackets are hyper-linked to sound samples from Wikipedia. Click on them to hear an example of the pronunciation.

Consonants

Compared to Standard Arabic, several consonants are missing in Syrian Arabic, namely the dentals th ث, dh ذ, and DH ظ; as well as q ق. Furthermore, j ج is in Syrian Arabic pronounced [ʒ], as opposed to the Standard Arabic affricate [ʤ].

Place and manner of articulation3

 
Labial

Alveolar

Palatal

Velar/
Uvular

Pharyngal

Glottal
Fricative            
  — voiced     j gh ʿ  
  — voiceless f     kh H h
Plosive            
  — voiced b d, D        
  — voiceless   t, T k     ʾ
Lateral   l        
Trill   r        
Nasal m n        
Sibilant            
  — voiced   z        
  — voiceless   s, S        
Semi-vowel w   y      

The following consonants are used only in a few words:

  • emphatic m (maamaa ‘mum’)
  • emphatic b (baaba ‘dad’)
  • emphatic l (alla ‘God’)
  • g (ergiile ‘water pipe’)

The emphasis distinction in m, b, and l is not reflected in the transcription employed here.

Pointers on pronunciation

       
r ر [r] Rolled r, as in Spanish. Pronounced emphatically [rˤ] when adjacent to a or another emphatic consonant (mara ‘wife’, rSaas ‘led’).
j ج [ʒ] As in French journal.
H ح [ħ] Hissing h formed by tensioning the throat.
kh خ [x]/[χ] As the German ach or (Castilian) Spanish jota.
gh غ [ɣ]/[ʁ] As the French or German throaty r.
ʿ ع [ʕ] Produced by using swolloing muscles to restrict the air flow. It is one of the most difficult sounds for language learners to produce. Learners often wrongly percieved as a vowel a.
ʾ ء [ʔ] A stop and quick release of the air pressure by the vocal-cords, as the t in colloquial British better.
S ص [sˤ] Emphatic s.
D ض [dˤ] Emphatic d.
T ط [tˤ] Emphatic t.

Emphatic consonants

Emphatic consonants (technically “pharyngalized”) are pronounced as their non-emphatic equivalents but with the back of the tongue raised, giving a darker, thicker sound. This affects the quality of surrounding vowels, most clearly heard in aa [æː] (as English bad) becoming a backed [ɑː] (as in English far).

Consonant length

All consonants have a short and a long variant. The long variant is transcribed as a doubled letter. Consonant length is a central part of Arabic phonology, often changing the meaning of a word (daras ‘he studied’ vs. darras ‘he taught’, Hakat ‘she talked’ vs. Hakkat ‘she scratched’).

For plosives (ʾ, b, d, D, t, T, k) the long variant is produced by briefly holding the air pressure before releasing it and producing the sound.

Consonant length is not indicated in the Arabic script. Only very rarely is it marked with the diacritic ـّ (shadda).

Vowels

Short   Long    
i [i] ii [iː] ي
e [e]/[ə] ee [eː] ي
u [u] uu [uː] و
o [o] oo [oː] و
a [a]/[ɑ] aa [æː]/[ɑː] ا

Note:

  • The Arabic letters only represent long vowels. Short vowels are normally not indicated.

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

  • The vowel here transcribes as e is pronounced

    • [ə] schwa (as in English the) before or at word stress
    • [e] (as in English when) after word stress
  • Short and long a is pronounced backed [ɑ] when adjacent to an emphatic consonant.

  • There are no diphthongs in Syrian Arabic. The Standard Arabic diphthongs ay and aw correspond in Syrian Arabic to the long vowels ee and oo respectively.

Word stress

Word stress in Syrian Arabic is largely predictable and corresponds with the rules of word stress in Standard Arabic. Word stress occurs on

  • the last
    • long vowel followed by consonant (darrasúu-na ‘they taught us’)
    • short vowel followed by two consonants or a long consonant (darásna ‘we studied’, byedárres ‘he studies’)
  • or else on the first vowel (dárasu ‘they studied’), excluding any prefix (u-dárasu ‘and they studied’).

Standard to Syrian Arabic phonological conversion rules

                   
aw oo   yawm yoom   day يوم
        Sawt   Soot   sound/voice صوت
ay ee   bayn been   between بين
        SabaaH al-khayr   SbaaH el-kheer   Good morning صباح الخير
q ʾ   daqiiqa daʾiiʾa   minute دقيقة
        qalb   ʾalb   heart قلب
        Taariq   Taareʾ   Tariq (name) طارق
DH D   DHuhr Duhr   noon ضهر
ʾ ø   masaaʾ masa   eavening مسا
th t   thalaatha tlaate   three تلاتة
    (s)   mathalan masalan   for example مثلا
dh d   dhahab dahab   gold دهب
    (z)   idha iza   if اذا

Loans from Standard Arabic, including foreign Arabic place names, often retain the Standard Arabic pronunciation. In such words, th and dh are pronounced s and z respectively. Some examples are:

Syrian Arabic Standard Arabic    
saqaafe thaqaafa culture ثقافة
ustaaz ustaadh teacher أستاذ
demuqraaTiyye dimuqraaTiyya democracy ديمقراطية
el-qurʾaan al-qurʾaan the Quran القرآن
el-qaahira al-qaahira Cairo القاهرة

Pronouns

Personal pronouns

  Independent Attached     متصل منفصل
I ana ‑i (‑ya)   ـي انا
you (m.s.) enta ‑ak (‑k)   ـك انت
you (f.s.) enti ‑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 كتابو
prepositional complements maʿ‑o with‑him معو
direct objects katabt‑o I wrote it كتبتو
indirect objects katabt‑l‑o I wrote for him كتبتلو

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 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 has several variants not listed above, including hadook, hadenk, and hadenken.

Indefinite pronouns

     
Hada someone/anyone حدا
shi something/anything شي

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 muslem muslemiin muslim مسلمين مسلم
Regular feminine ‑aat sheghle sheghlaat thing شغلات شغلة
General human ‑(iyy)e ʿeraaqi ʿeraaqiyye Iraqi عراقية عراقي

Dual

The noun has three forms of number inflection: singular, plural, and dual. (The adjective, verb, and pronoun have no dual forms.) The dual form is used to indicate specifically two of something. It is formed by adding the ending -een to the singular (-teen for feminine formed with -e/-a).

    Singular Dual   المثنى مفرد
Masculine ‑een walad waladeen boy ولدين ولد
Feminine ‑teen saaʿa saaʿateen hour ساعتين ساعة

The dual is used only in contexts where the precise number is important:

   
ʿinna saaʿateen bas We only have two hours.
ash-shaʿʿa fii-ha ghurfateen u-maTbakh The apartment has two rooms and a kitchen.

Otherwise the plural is used:

   
raaHu aHmad u-rafiiʿu ʿa-buyuut-un Ahmad and his friend went home [to their houses (pl.)]
maa ʿinna wlaad, bas banaat, riim w-raniya we don’t have any boys, only girls (pl.), Riim and Rania

The dual is avoided on nouns with attached pronouns, except for pairwise occurring body parts. The plural follow by an explicit itneen ‘two’ is used instead:

     
akhwaat-i l-itneen my two sisters اخواتي الاتنين
sayaaraat-u l-itneen his two cars سياراتو الاتنين
ghassili iidee-ki wash your hands غسل ايديكي

Note:

  • When used with an attached pronoun, the n in the dual ending is dropped.

     
    iid ‘hand’ → iideen ‘two hands’ → iideek ‘your two hands’.

Prepositions

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

Note:

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

         
    bi‑l‑beet in the house بالبيت
    fii‑h in it فيه

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.) t(e)‑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‑ habitual, generalities بـ
ʿam ongoing (progressive) عم
Ha‑/raH future حـ/رح
laazim ‘have to’ لازم
auxiliary verb    

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: mnektob. This is often reflected in orthography: منكتب.

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

Hollow verbs

Hollow verbs have a long vowel in the middle of the stem. They are of three types, each with different middle vowel in non-past tense: 1) uu, 2) ii, and 3) aa. The inflection of the three types does not differ in past tense, where the middle long vowel is invariably aa, reduced to e in past tense in forms with consonantal suffixes (1s, 2ms, 2mf,1pl, and 2pl).

  1. Middle uu (raaH ‘went’):

      Non-Past Past المضارع الماضي
    I e‑ruuH reH‑t اروح رحت
    you (ms.) t‑ruuH reH‑t تروح رحت
    you (fs.) t‑ruuH‑i reH‑ti تروحي رحتي
    he ye‑ruuH raaH يروح راح
    she t‑ruuH raaH‑et تروح راحت
    we n‑ruuH reH‑na نروح رحنا
    you (pl.) t‑ruuH‑u reH‑tu تروحو رحتو
    they ye‑ruuH‑u raaH‑u يروحو راحو

    Some other frequent verbs of this type are kaan ‘was’, ʾaal ‘said’, raaH ‘went’, shaaf ‘saw’/’met’, ʾaam ‘stood up’, and maat ‘died’.

  2. Middle ii (Saar ‘became’):

      Non-Past Past المضارع الماضي
    I e‑Siir Sert اصير صرت
    you (ms.) t‑Siir Sert تصير صرت
    you (fs.) t‑Siir‑i Sert‑i تصيري صرتي
    he ye‑Siir Saar يصير صار
    she t‑Siir Saar‑et تصير صارت
    we n‑Siir Ser‑na نصير صرنا
    you (pl.) t‑Siir‑u Ser‑tu تصيرو صرتو
    they ye‑Siir‑u Saar‑u يصيرو صارو

    Some other frequent verbs of this type are ʿaash ‘lived’, jaab ‘fetched’, baaʿ ‘sold’. and daar ‘turned’.

  3. Middle aa (naam ‘slept’):

      Non-Past Past المضارع الماضي
    I e‑naam nem‑t انام نمت
    you (ms.) t‑naam nem‑t تنام نمت
    you (fs.) t‑naam‑i nemt‑i تنامي نمتي
    he ye‑naam naam ينام نام
    she t‑naam naam‑et تنام نامت
    we n‑naam nem‑na ننام نمنا
    you (pl.) t‑naam‑u nem‑tu تنامو نمتو
    they ye‑naam‑u naam‑u ينامو نامو

    Some other frequent verbs of this type are khaaf ‘was frightened’ and ghaar ‘was jealous’.

Doubled verbs

Doubled verbs have a stem ending in a lengthened (doubled) consonant. In past tense forms with consonantal suffixes, ee is added.

Hass ‘felt’:

  Non-Past Past المضارع الماضي
I e‑Hess Hassee‑t احس حسيت
you (ms.) t‑Hess Hassee‑t تحسي حسيت
you (fs.) t‑Hess‑i Hassee‑ti تحس حسيتي
he y‑Hess Hass يحس حس
she t‑Hess Hass‑et تحس حست
we n‑Hess Hassee‑na نحس حسينا
you (pl.) t‑Hess‑u Hassee‑tu تحسو حسيتو
they ye‑Hess‑u Hass‑u يحسو حسو

Some other frequent verbs of this type are radd ‘answered’ and Dall ‘remained’.

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

kaan ‘was’

The verb kaan ‘was’ is used

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

       
    aHmad kaan Taaleb Ahmad was a student
    aHmad Ha‑yekuun Taaleb Ahmad will be a student
  2. to express a past ongoing (progressive) event:

       
    aHmad kaan (ʿam) yedros Ahmed was studying

It is a hollow verb with middle uu in non-past tense:

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

Pseudo-verbs

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

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] بدها كتاب
ʿand-a ktaab she has a book [with her is a book] عندها كتاب
fii ktaab there is a book في كتاب

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

     
kaan ʿand-a ktaab She had a book. كان عندها كتاب
Ha-yekuun ʿand-a ktaab She will have a book. حيكون عندها كتاب

Question words

     
shuu what شو
miin who مين
eemta when ايمتى
kiif/shloon how كيف/شلون
ween where وين
minnen from where منين
laween whereto لوين
leesh why ليش
addeesh how much قديش
kam how many كم
ayyi/anu which اي/انو

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

     
maʿ miin ʿam teHki? ‘Who are you talking to?’ مع مين عم تحكي؟

Ween and kiif may take attached pronouns:

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

Yes/no-question are formed with rising intonation. The Standard Arabic particle hal is in Syrian only used for rhetoric questions.

Negation

Syrian Arabic has three main forms of negation:

     
maa ما verbs
muu مو non-verbal clauses
laa لا imperative

For declarative clauses, in effect, muu is only used to negate a verbless clauses in present tense, otherwise the maa is used:

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

maa-n-

maa‑ followed by a connecting ‑n‑ and an attached pronoun (maan‑i, maan‑ak, maan‑ik, etc.) may be used to reply in the negative to a statement, question, or implication. For example,

     
maa‑n‑i juʿaan I am not hungry ماني جوعان

can be used to answer someone saying that you are hungry, asking whether you are hungry, or urging you to eat.

Numerals 1–100

The independent form of the numeral in the table below is used when the numeral stands by itself and is not followed by a noun, and the counting-form is used when the numeral is followed by counted a noun: tlaate ‘three’, but tlatt ewlaad ‘three boys.’

  Independent Counting 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 اطنعش
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 تمانطعشر تمانطعش
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     تسعين
         
100 miyye miit   مية

Note:

  • Except for 1 and 2, numerals are not inflected for gender, as opposed to Standard Arabic.

  • 1–2 are used only for emphasis or contrast, or when ordering in restaurants and the like (etneen shaay ‘two tea’, see also Dual). 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 following nouns:

         
    eyyaam days (khamst eyyam five days)
    eshhur months (khamst eshhur ‘five months’)
    aalaaf thousands (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 counting form of the unit number and the ending ‑Taʿsh, with irregularities in 11, 12, and 15.

  • Decades (20, 30, etc.) are constructed from the counting form of the unit number and the ending ‑iin, with only 20 having an irregular form. In complex numbers, the unit in independent 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 counting form for 100: miyye u‑tlaate kelime ‘103 words’.

  1. Available as pdf on https://ia801609.us.archive.org/31/items/AReferenceGrammarOfSyrianArabic_201704/A_Reference_Grammar_of_Syrian_Arabic_text.pdf

  2. For an overview of the Arabic script, see The Arabic Writing System (available for download at http://andreasmhallberg.github.io/documents/). 

  3. Images (modified) created by User:ish shwar (original .png deleted), .svg by Rohieb, CC BY-SA 3.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/, via Wikimedia Commons