Arabic Grammar – 120

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Recognizing roots

An important issue in Arabic grammar is to be able to recognize the radicals of a word, because this is often necessary for inflecting the word correctly.

Hidden radicals

Perhaps one of the most difficult issues is to be able to recognize a radical w, y or ʔ hidden by sound changes, because this requires familiarity with some of the common sound changes affecting these sounds.

Following is a summery.

    1. The sequence aw changes to ay in the following positions:
      1. Regularly at the end of word stems if:
        1. The stem contains three or more consonants besides the stem-terminal w.
        2. The consonant preceding the stem-terminal w is not y.

        For example, in *ʔaʕlawu > *ʔaʕlaw > *ʔaʕlay “higher,” but not in *daʕawa “he called,” *ʕaawun “a stick” or *yaħyawu > *yaħyaw “he lives.”

      2. Often when followed by i or ī, e.g. *mawita > *mayita “he died” and *mawītun > *mayītun “dead.”
    2. The sequence ay changes to aw if followed by ū, e.g. the irrealis *yansayū > *yansawū “they forget.”
    3. The sequences awV & ayV (where V is any short vowel that is unstressed) become ā (through the intermediate stages ō & ē) if followed by a consonant that is followed by a vowel, and become a otherwise, e.g. *qawama > qȃma قامَ “he rose, stood up,” *mawita > *mayita > mȃta ماتَ “he died,” *fatayatun > fatȃ·tuṋ فَتاةٌ “a young woman,” *daʕawat > daʕat دَعَتْ “she called,” and *banayat > banat بَنَتْ “she built.” In the word-terminal position, the sequence –awV(n) > –a(ṋ) is written ا , and the sequence –ayV(n) > –a(ṋ) is written ى (see §II.12.), e.g. *daʕawa > daʕȃ دَعا “he called,” *banaya > bana⋅y بَنَى “he built,” *ʕaawun > ʕaṣaṋ عَصًا “a stick,” and *fatayun > fataṋ فَتًى “a young man.” The same change affects word-terminal aw & –ay if they are preceded by more than one consonant, as in *yaħyawu > *yaħyaw > yaħyȃ يَحْيا “he lives,” the preposition *ʕalay > ʕala⋅y عَلَى “on,” and *ʔaʕlawu > *ʔaʕlaw > *ʔaʕlay > ʔaʕla⋅y أَعْلَى “higher,” but not in law لَوْ “if” and kay كَيْ “so that, in order to.”
    4. The sequences awV & ayV (where V is any short vowel that is stressed) become ū & ī, and these shorten to u & i if not followed by a consonant that is followed by a vowel, e.g. *qawamta > qumta قُمْتَ “you (masc. sing.) rose, stood up,” *sayarta > sirta سِرْتَ “you (masc. sing.) walked,” and *mawitta > *mayitta > mitta مِتَّ “you (masc. sing.) died.”
    5. Non-word-terminal ayī becomes ayyi, e.g. *mawītun > *mayītun > mayyituṋ مَيِّتٌ “dead,” and *awībun > *ayībun > ṭayyibuṋ طَيِّبٌ “good.”
    6. Word-terminal awū & –ayī contract to –aw & –ay, e.g. *daʕawū > daʕaw دَعَوْا “they called” and the irrealis *yansayū > *yansawū > yansaw يَنْسَوْا “they forget” and *tarḍawī > *tarḍayī > tarḍay تَرْضَيْ “you (fem. sing.) are/become pleased.”
    7. If preceded by more than one consonant, the sequences iwa & uya change to iya, and the sequences iwā & uyā change to iyā, e.g. the naṣb form *tabākuyan > tabȃkiyaṋ تَباكِيًا “feigning of crying” and *ʕādiwāni > ʕȃdiyȃni عادِيانِ “two aggressors.”
    8. Excepting uwu, the sequences VwV, VyV, Vwī & Vyī (where V is any short vowel but a) become ȋ, and this shortens to i if not followed by a consonant that is followed by a vowel, e.g. the passive forms *quwila > qȋla قِيْلَ “it was said,” *buyiʕa > bȋʕa بِيْعَ “it was sold,” and the ǵarr form *ʕādiwīna > *ʕādiyīna > ʕȃdȋna عادِيْنَ “aggressors.” In the word-terminal position, the sequence –VwV/–VyV/Vwī/Vyī > –i is written ي , and the sequence –VwVn/–VyVn > –iṋ is written ∅, e.g. *yarmiyu > yarmȋ يَرْمِيْ “he throws” (but the subjunctive form is yarmiya يَرْمِيَ ) and *qāiyun > qȃḍiṋ قاضٍ “a judge” (but the naṣb form is qȃiyaقاضِيًا ).
    9. The sequences uwu, iwū, & iyū contract to ȗ, e.g. *yauwu > yadʕȗ يَدْعُوْ “he calls,” *ʕādiwūna > ʕȃdȗna عادُوْنَ “aggressors,” and *nasiyū > nasȗ نَسُوْا “they forgot.” The sequences uwū & uyū contract to ȗ if preceded by more than one consonant, e.g. *yauwūna > yadʕȗna يَدْعُوْنَ “they call,” but not in buyȗtuṋ بُيُوْتٌ “houses.”
    10. The sequences wy & yw become yy, e.g. *lawyun > layyuṋ لَيٌّ “bending” and *abīwun = *abiywun > abiyyuṋ صَبِيٌّ “boy.”
    11. The sequence uyy changes to iyy, e.g. *marmūyun = *marmuwyun > *marmuyyun (per #10) > marmiyyuṋ مَرْمِيٌّ “thrown.”
    12. The sequence iwC (where C is any consonant) changes to iyC = ȋC, e.g. *ʔiābun > ʔiȃbuṋ إيْجابٌ “obliging.”
    13. The sequence uyC (where C is any consonant except y) changes to uwC = ȗC, e.g. *ʔuyqið̣u > ʔuwqið̣u أُوْقِظُ “I wake up [somebody].”
    14. The sounds w & y change to ʔ when they occur in word-terminal āwV(ṋ) &āyV(ṋ), e.g. *samāwun > samȃʔuṋ سَماءٌ “a sky, heaven,” and *bināyun > binȃʔuṋ بِناءٌ “building.” Usually the sound w changes similarly in non-word-terminal awȗ & uwȗ, e.g. ħuwȗlun حُوُوْلٌ > ħuʔȗluṋ حُؤُوْلٌ “years.” This change can also be seen in word initial wi– & wu–, e.g. wiuṋ وِرْثٌ > ʔiuṋ إِرْثٌ “inheritance.”
    15. The sequence ʔVʔC (where V is any short vowel and C is any consonant) becomes ʔV̑C, e.g. *ʔaʔxaru > ʔȃxaru آخَرُ “another” and *ʔuʔminu > ʔȗminu أُوْمِنُ “I believe.” Sometimes the same change happens in the sequence CVʔC, e.g. the word ʔ·aš-Šaʔmu الشَّأْمُGreater Syria” has a more common variant ʔ·aš-Šȃmu الشّامُ .


Recognizing affixes

Another difficult issue is how to tell whether a consonant is a radical or an affix. An important principle that helps in this regard is that affixes do not exist in verbs and nouns with less than four consonants, the only exception being the nominal suffix −a⋅t. Thus, if a word has only three consonants and none of them is ⋅t ة , they are all considered to be radicals.

In the following examples the radicals are colored blue and the affixes are colored red.

Word with affix Word without affix




boys a bet(ting) (masc.)
*ʕulyawu > ʕulyȃ


*ʕaawun > ʕaṣaṋ


highest (fem.) a stick (fem.)
*ðikrayu > ðikra·y


*qiwayun > qiwa⋅y


remembrance (fem.) forces
*aħrāwu > aħrȃʔu


*samāwun > samȃʔuṋ


a desert (fem.) a sky, heaven (fem.)
*ʔarāiyu > ʔarȃḍiṋ


*qāiyun > qȃḍiṋ


lands a judge (masc.)




leaves, papers time (masc.)
*maʕnayun > maʕnaṋ


*madayun > madaṋ


meaning (masc.) extension (masc.)


If a word has more than three consonants, there is no easy way to tell which consonants are the radicals. You must be familiar with the common Arabic word patterns in order to judge such a word, or you can look in a dictionary under different roots until you find your word.

Sometimes two words will seem to have the same affix, but this will be only an illusion, like in the following example.

Word with suffix –āw Word with prefix ʔa
*ruʔasāwu > ruʔasȃʔu


*ʔaʕdāwuṋ > ʔaʕdȃʔuṋ


chiefs enemies

While both stems of these words have the same ending –ȃʔ, only the left one has an actual suffix.


Sometimes two words will seem to have the exact same form, but they will actually be different forms, like in the following example.

Word with prefix ʔ·in– Word with infix –t–




outburst, explosion killing oneself, suicide


Sometimes two words will be exact homographes and homophones, but they will still be different forms.

Word with suffix –ay Word with prefix ʔa–
*ʔasrayu > ʔasra·y


*ʔasraya > ʔasra·y


captives he traveled at night


If you are starting to learn Arabic, you don’t need to worry much about the difficulties explained in this page. You don’t need to be a grammar wiz in order to learn Arabic. Most Arabic-speakers are not great experts at the grammar of standard Arabic.


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