Arabic Grammar – 130

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Arabic verbs (i.e. finite verbs) are conjugated for:

  • Aspect: perfective & imperfective.
  • Voice: active & passive.
  • Person: 1ˢᵗ, 2ⁿᵈ & 3ʳᵈ persons.
  • Number: singular, dual & plural.
  • Gender: masculine & feminine.
  • Mood: indicative, energetic, subjunctive, jussive, imperative & energetic imperative.

Conjugation for aspect and voice is done through vowel mutation, that is, changing vowels in the verb stem. Conjugation for person, number, gender and mood is done by altering a suffix and a prefix attached to the verb stem without changing the stem itself, except for irregularly conjugated verbs.

Conjugating verbs through vowel mutation exists in English. Consider the difference between eat and ate. However, while in English this type of conjugation is limited to a small number of verbs, all verbs in Arabic are conjugated this way for aspect and voice.

English has no limitation on the possible shapes of verb stems: there is an infinite number of possible stem shapes. In Arabic, however, there is a limited number of possible stem shapes. In total, there is about 25 types of verb stems in Classical Arabic, but many of them are rare or vestigial. The commonly used ones are 13 types, 10 triradical and 3 quadriradical. To be able to conjugate verbs for aspect and voice, you need to be familiar with these 13 stem types and know how their vowels mutate.

The simplest type of verb stems is given the number Ⅰ. (It is also called the G-stem for the German Grundstamm “basic stem.”)

It looks as follows.

Stem Ⅰ (G-stem)
Perfective Imperfective
faʕVla فَعلَ yaVlu يَفْعلُ

The ending –a in the perfective form, and the prefix y– and the ending –u in the imperfective form are all inflectional parts. They do not belong to the stem. They mark the above forms as 3rd person masculine singular conjugations. Verbs are cited in this particular conjugation because it is the simplest one.

Thus, the actual stems are faʕVl– (perfective) and –aVl– (imperfective). These stems have a variable short vowel represented by the symbol V. We will call this vowel the theme vowel. A theme vowel exists in all types of verb stems and not only Stem Ⅰ. It is defined as the vowel before the last consonant of the stem. Its value was originally determined by the verb’s transitivity, i.e. the number of objects the verb can govern. In imperfective verbs, the theme vowel usually has the value a in intransitive verbs and u or i in transitive verbs. An opposite distribution is found in perfective verbs.

Another variable vowel is the vowel at the beginning of the imperfective stem, which we will call the prefix vowel. In Stem Ⅰ this vowel always has the value a.

Perfective vs. imperfective

A tense is a point in time used as a reference for an event indicated by a verb. An aspect is a temporal relation between a verb’s event and its tense. For example, the English perfect aspect can be used in conjunction with any point in time (any tense) to indicate that the event is finished at that point and has relevance at it. The progressive/continuous aspect indicates that the event is progressing at the referential point in time.

Unlike English, the Arabic verbal system does not mark tenses. It only marks two aspects, the first called the perfective (in Arabic the past الْماضِيْ ) and the second called the imperfective (in Arabic usually called the similar الْمُضارِعُ ). The perfective aspect simply indicates that the verb’s event is finished at the referential point in time, and the imperfective aspect simply indicates that the verb’s event is ongoing/unfinished at that point. The referential point in time is not indicated by the verb itself but by other supplementary words in the sentence.

This means that the perfective faʕala فَعَلَ can correspond to any of the following in English:

  • he did
  • he had done
  • he has done
  • he will have done

The imperfective yaalu يَفْعَلُ can correspond to any of the following in English:

  • he used to do
  • he was doing
  • he does
  • he is doing
  • he will do
  • he will be doing

In order to know what tense is meant by the speaker, we need to look at the sentence as a whole, or at the context. There are no fixed formulae for expressing the different tenses as in English. However, because the perfective verb is most commonly used for the past tense, this is considered its default tense (hence its Arabic name, the past). The imperfective verb is by default a present/future verb because these are its most common tenses.

Action vs. non-action

The Arabic verbal system marks a distinction between:

  • Action verbs, i.e. verbs denoting actions (also called dynamic or fientive/fientic).
  • Non-action verbs (also called stative).

Furthermore, non-action verbs are differentiated into:

  • State verbs: verbs denoting being or becoming in a temporary state.
  • Quality verbs: verbs denoting having or gaining a permanent quality.

Stem Ⅰ action verbs often (not always) have a as the theme vowel in the perfective, and u or i as the theme vowel in the imperfective.


Stem Ⅰ (G-stem)
Perfective Imperfective
kataba كَتَبَ yaktubu يَكْتُبُ
he wrote he writes
ʔakala أَكَلَ yaʔkulu يَأْكُلُ
he ate he eats
qatala قَتَلَ yaqtulu يَقْتُلُ
he killed he kills
kasara كَسَرَ yaksiru يَكْسِرُ
he broke (tr.) he breaks (tr.)

If the second or third radical of an action verb is a guttural sound (ʔ, h, ħ, ʕ, x, ɣ), the verb will often have the theme vowel a in the imperfective due to an old phonetic shift i/u > a near gutturals.

Stem Ⅰ (G-stem)
Perfective Imperfective
faʕala فَعَلَ yaalu يَفْعَلُ
he did he does
ǵaraħa جَرَحَ yaǵraħu يَجْرَحُ
he wounded he wounds
qaaʕa قَطَعَ yaqṭaʕu يَقْطَعُ
he cut he cuts
ǵamaʕa جَمَعَ yaǵmaʕu يَجْمَعُ
he gathered he gathers
anaʕa صَنَعَ yaṣnaʕu يَصْنَعُ
he made he makes

Stem Ⅰ state verbs often have i as the theme vowel in the perfective, and a as the theme vowel in the imperfective.

Stem Ⅰ (G-stem)
Perfective Imperfective
salima سَلِمَ yaslamu يَسْلَمُ
he was/became sound he is/becomes sound
ħazina حَزِنَ yaħzanu يَحْزَنُ
he was/became sad he is/becomes sad
ɣaiba غَضِبَ yaɣḍabu يَغْضَبُ
he was/became angry he is/becomes angry
maria مَرِضَ yamrau يَمْرَضُ
he was/became sick he is/becomes sick

Stem Ⅰ quality verbs have u as the theme vowel both in the perfective and imperfective.

Stem Ⅰ (G-stem)
Perfective Imperfective
kabura كَبُرَ yakburu يَكْبُرُ
he was/became big he is/becomes big
aɣura صَغُرَ yaṣɣuru يَصْغُرُ
he was/became small he is/becomes small
aʕuba صَعُبَ yaṣʕubu يَصْعُبُ
he was/became difficult he is/becomes difficult
sahula سَهُلَ yashulu يَسْهُلُ
he was/became easy he is/becomes easy

Eventive vs. non-eventive

Non-action verbs can mean either being something or becoming something. (Verbs with the second meaning are called inceptive or inchoative.) For example, the state verb taʕiba, yaabu تَعِبَ، يَتْعَبُ  can mean either “be tired” or “become tired.”

To become something is an event, but to be something is not. Only verbs indicating an event, whether action verbs or non-action verbs with the meaning of becoming something, can have a temporal meaning. Verbs that simply indicate being something do not indicate any time-related meaning. Thus, the verb taʕiba means simply “he is tired” when it is used as a non-eventive verb, but it has a perfective meaning “he has become tired,” “he became tired,” etc. when used as an eventive verb.

The non-eventive meaning of non-action verbs is common in Classical Arabic but rare in modern Arabic. The modern spoken vernaculars use predicative adjectives to express this meaning.


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