Arabic Grammar – 75

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A very old phonetic development in Arabic is the shortening, and sometimes dropping, of terminal long vowels.


§a. It seems that the shortening of terminal long vowels began in junctional forms (of continuous speech). For example, the pronoun ʔanȃ أَنَاْ “I” was in good Classical Arabic pronounced ʔana أَنَ in continuous speech and ʔanȃ أَنَاْ at pause (see لسان العرب under أنن , and see Chaim Rabin, p. 151). Some speakers pronounced it always with its original long vowel ʔanȃ, but the philologist الجوهري called this a bad language لُغَةٌ رَدِيْئَةٌ .

A similar pronunciation for the connected pronoun –hu ـــهُ “him” existed in the dialect of ʔAzdu ʔ·as-Sarȃ·ti أَزْدُ اَلْسَّرَاْةِ (who inhabited ʕAsȋr). In this dialect the pronoun –hu was pronounced at pause –hȗ ـــهُوْ (e.g. naħwa-hȗ نَحْوَهُوْ “towards him;” ka-ʔanna-hȗ كَأَنَّهُوْ “it is like he [is];” see the Lisȃn under ها ). It seems that this pronunciation existed also in other dialects (see Sibawayh volume IV, p. 189). The following quote is from the Lisȃn under ها :

وروي عن أَبي الهيثم أَنه قال “مَرَرْتُ بِهْ وَمَرَرْتُ بِهِ وَمَرَرْتُ بِهِيْ”. قَالَ “وإِن شِئْتَ مَرَرْتُ بِهْ وبِهُ وبِهُوْ”، وكذلك “ضَرَبَهُ” فِيهِ هَذِهِ اللُّغَاتُ، وكذلك “يَضْرِبُهْ ويَضْرِبُهُ ويَضْرِبُهُوْ”.

The ʔAzdu ʔ·as-Sarȃ·ti also pronounced the case-vowels long at pause, e.g. they said hā-ðȃ Zaydȗ هَذَاْ زَيْدُوْ “this is Zayd,” hā-ðȃ ʕAmrȗ هَذَاْ عَمْرُوْ “this is ʕAmr,” marartu bi-Zaydȋ مَرَرَتُ بِزَيْدِيْ “[I] passed by Zayd,” and marartu bi-ʕAmrȋ مَرَرَتُ بِعَمْرِيْ “[I] passed by ʕAmr” (see Sibawayh volume IV, p. 167, and Chaim Rabin p. 56, §g).

Sibawayh also mentioned (in vol. IV, p. 216) the pausal forms qȃlȃ قَاْلا for qȃla قَاْلَ “[he] said” and yaqȗlȗ يَقُوْلُوُ for yaqȗlu يَقُوْلُ “[he] says/will say.”

§b. Pausal lengthening of the case-vowels was employed regularly in chanting poetry التَّرَنُّمُ . This is not surprising because poetry usually preserves archaic linguistic features. The following is quoted from Sibawayh’s:

أما إذا تَرَنَّمُوا فإنهم يُلْحِقُونَ الألفَ والياءَ والواوَ ما يُنَوَّنُ وما لا يُنَوَّنُ، لأنهم أرادوا مَدَّ الصَّوْتِ، وذلك قَوْلُهُمْ، وهو لامرىءِ القيس‏ِ،‏ “قفا نبك من ذكرى حبيبٍ ومنزلي”؛ وقال في النصب، ليزيد بن الطثرية‏، “فبتنا تحيد الوحش عنا كأننا قتيلان لم يعلم لنا الناس مصرعا”؛ وقال في الرفع، للأعشى‏، “هريرة ودعها وإن لام لائمو”. هذا ما يُنَوَّنُ فيه، وما لا يُنَوَّنُ فيه قولُهم، لجرير‏، “أقلى اللوم عاذل والعتابا”؛ وقال في الرفع، لجرير‏، “متى كان الخيام بذي طلوحٍ سقيت الغيث أيتها الخيامو”.

§c. Some speakers could not but pronounce a long vowel at pause. If they paused at a closed syllable (a syllable not ending with a vowel), they would add an epenthetic ȋ, e.g. they would say qadȋ قَدِيْ for the emphatic particle qad قَدْ , ʔ·alȋ اَلِيْ for the definite article ʔ·al- اَلْـ , and sayfuṋȋ سَيْفُنِيْ for sayfuṋ سَيْفٌ “a sword” (Sibawayh vol. IV, p. 216).

§d. Given that Arabic words are not accented on the final syllable, we probably should not assume that some speakers of CA lengthened short terminal vowels. Rather we should assume that terminal vowels were invariably long in some prehistoric phase of the language, then those vowels began to be shortened in junction only. The motivation for this shortening could have been the avoidance of superheavy syllables of the form CVVC (see §II.16.E.). Such syllables would have arisen when a word terminating with a long vowel was followed by a word beginning with a prosthetic junction hamza·t. Since the Arabic definite article begins with a junction hamza·t, this would have been common.

§e. The pausal lengthening of the case-vowels contradicts the rules of pause described in §II.17.. This is because that lengthening is much older than these rules. Arabic writings from the pre-Islamic era (particularly those written in the Nabataean Aramaic alphabet) regularly added w and y to indicate the pausal pronunciation of the case-vowels. For example, the male personal name Yazȋdu يَزِيْدُ was written in Nabataean Yzydw (for the pausal pronunciation *Yazȋdȗ), the male personal name Ħȃriθuṋ حَاْرِثٌ was written Ħrtw (for the pausal pronunciation *Ħāriθȗ), the male personal name ʕAbdu ʔ·Aḷḷāhi عَبْدُ اَلْلَّهِ was written ʕbd ʔlhy (for the pausal pronunciation *ʕAbdu ʔAḷḷāhȋ), etc. In the Ħiǵr inscription of 267 AD the male personal name Kaʕbuṋ كَعْبٌ was written Kʕbw (for the pausal pronunciation *Kaʕbȗ). In the Namȃra·t inscription of 328 AD the (apparently) tribal name Nizȃru نِزَارُ was written Nzrw (for the pausal pronunciation *Nizārȗ), etc. (see Kees Versteegh, The Arabic Language, p. 28, and Chaim Rabin’s p. 56 §g). In the biblical book of Nehemiah an Arab chieftain’s name is written three times Gɛšɛm גֶשֶׁמ < *Gašm גַשְׁמ* and one time (in 6:6) Gašmû גַשְׁמוּ . Chaim Rabin suggests that the second form was originally written in Aramaic. This could be the earliest attested Arabic name with a pausal case-vowel (it perhaps goes back to c. 400 BC ?).

Some scholars reject the idea that the terminal w and y of Nabataean Arabic represent case vowels. This is because these symbols are used inconsistently. For example, the ending w from an inscription of 57 AD does not represent the correct case-vowel in the phrase mlk Nbṭw (for Classical maliku ʔ·an-Nabaṭi مَلِكُ اَلْنَّبَطِ “the king of the Nabataeans”). The same applies to the phrase šrkt Tmwdw from an inscription of the 2nd century AD (perhaps for šarika·tu Θamȗda شَرِكَةُ ثَمُوْدَ “the community/people of Θamȗd”). In the Ħiǵr inscription of 267 AD we find the astonishing sentence hlkt py ʔl-Ħgrw for halakat fiy ʔ·al-Ħiǵri هَلَكَتْ فِيْ اَلْحِجْرِ “[she] died in Ħiǵr.”

However, many scholars believe that these are just mistakes. It is likely that many of those inscriptions were written by people who spoke corrupt Arabic which did not have the case-vowels (for evidence that the Ancient North Arabian dialects lacked terminal short vowels, see Ernst A. Knauf, in The Qurʾȃn in Context (2010), volume 6, p. 224). It is a well-known fact in the Arab culture that city-dwellers do not speak as good Arabic as the nomads (who are known as Bedouins اَلْبَدْوُ ).

This is a proverb mentioned in the Lisȃn under brr:

وَيُقَالُ: أَفْصَحُ الْعَرَبِ أَبَرُّهُمْ. مَعْنَاهُ أَبْعَدُهُمْ فِي البَرِّ والبَدْوِ دَارًا.

This means “the best speakers of Arabic are those who live deepest in the wilderness/desert.”

According to tradition, prophet Muħammad was sent as an infant into the wilderness where he grew up with Bedouins from the tribe of Saʕdu بَنُوْ سَعْدٍ (a subgroup of Hawȃzinu هَوَاْزِنُ , who lived around Ṭȃʔif). From those Bedouins the prophet acquired “clarity of tongue and purity of language” صَفَاْءُ اَلْلِّسَاْنِ وَنَقَاْءُ اَلْلُّغَةِ . This story might not be very real, but it shows how the Bedouins were praised for their better language.

In early Classical Arabic the word Nabaṭuṋ نَبَطٌ or Nabȋṭuṋ نَبِيْطٌ was a general designation for sedentary people who worked in agriculture, whether in Mesopotamia, Greater Syria, or even within the Arabian peninsula. The Nabaṭ mostly spoke Aramaic, but also Arabic (see “Nabaṭ” in the Encyclopaedia of Islam). The Arabic-speaking Nabaṭ were known for not speaking good Arabic. Even today the adjective Nabaṭiyyuṋ نَبَطِيٌّ is applied to a variety of poetry that lacks the case-vowels and resembles the vernacular dialects (whereas the adjective faṣȋħuṋ فَصِيْحٌ “clear > eloquent, linguistically correct” is applied to the good old poetry).

So the fact that Nabataean inscriptions sometimes used incorrect case-vowels is because those inscriptions were written by Nabaṭ, i.e. sedentary people with poor command of the good language.

In the written language of the Qurʔȃn, which is the language of Mecca in the 7th century AD, the only case-vowel that is spelled with an alphabet letter is the accusative a, spelled with a terminal ʔlif. This was the only case-vowel that was still lengthened at pause in the speech of Mecca. The nominative u and genitive i were dropped at pause per §II.17., and so they were not written. The terminal w in the personal name ʕAmruṋ عَمْرٌو was kept because it (apparently) served to distinguish this name from the name ʕUmaru عُمَرُ .


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