Naved Islam

🗃️ · arabic

Word Construction in Arabic [Sarf]

In Arabic, you can create words all by yourself. Yes.

Create Your Own Words

In Arabic, you can create words all by yourself. Yes.

That’s a big statement which raises more questions than it answers. The first issue: if I make up a word by myself, how can anyone else know what it means?

We can make our own words because Arabic has a system for doing that! Using this system, everyone can make words that everyone else can understand. We only need to know the rules for word construction.

But chances are, when we ‘make’ a ‘new’ word, we’re actually finding a word that already exists in the dictionary.1

Through this system, we can expand our vocabulary and understand much more from all we read and hear.

Let’s learn these rules now—they’re very intuitive.

The Root System [jadhr]

In Arabic, most words are derived from a set of root letters, usually just 3 letters. A root is a shared set of letters that form the core meaning of the word. This is how roots work in English, and many other languages around the world.

An example of a root in English is -archy. From it come the words anarchy, monarchy, oligarchy, hierarchy. They all share the meaning of power and control because they share the root -archy.2

That’s the concept of a root in general. Let’s take a look at examples in Arabic. It’s best if you can read Arabic, but you can also follow along with the letter shapes you see:

عَدْل (pronounced ‘adl)3

This word ‘adl means justice, fairness. Since most Arabic words have a three-letter root, what do you think are the root letters of this word?

Well, since there are only three letters in the word, each of them is part of the root! The root is ع - د - ل (and these letters look a bit different when written together, of course. We covered the 🖋 Arabic writing system in another article.)

Now let’s change the vowelization of the word (the tiny markings on top of the letters) a little bit:

عَدَلَ (pronounced ‘adala)

This is a subtle change, but with focus: the little markings at the top of each letter have changed from before. But ignoring that small change, all the letters are the same: ع - د - ل. Since the root is the same, we know this word is close in meaning to justice.

In fact, changing the small markings turned the noun into a verb: now it means to act justly.4

Now let’s add a letter to the word:

عَادِل (pronounced ‘aadil)

We added the vowel ا to the middle of the word. In spelling, the word still looks like the original version. What do you think the three-letter root of this word is? I’ll give you a hint: we only added a ا vowel, so it’s an extra letter not part of the root.

So the root is still ع - د - ل like the two words before. What do you think this word can mean? Still something related to justice, right? Yes! The word عَادِل means someone who acts fairly, justly.

We are beginning to see how roots in Arabic work. Let’s see two more example roots to make sure we understand:

  1. ك - ت - ب (written together: كتب): This root has everything to do with writing: كتاب is a book, كاتب is a writer, مكتب is a desk.
  2. ط - ع - م (written together: طعم): This root is about eating and food: طعام is food, مطعم is a restaurant.

Given a word from a root, we know any other word with the same root will have a close meaning. There may be additions around the root letters to adjust the original meaning. These changes are not random—there are fixed patterns a word can belong to which shape it’s meaning.

Let’s take a look at these patterns now:

The System of Patterns [wazn]

Let’s explore a new root: ر - ج - ع. Written together as a verb we get:

رَجَعَ - to return (pronounced raja’a)

Now let’s change the vowelization while keeping the root the same:

رَجَّعَ - to send back (pronounced rajja’a)

The change here is very subtle in Arabic script: we added a ّ on top of the middle letter. Nothing else changed. In pronunciation (and transliteration) the word is very different though,5 and so is the meaning. Now the word means to send back instead of return!

This is a huge change even though both words have the same root! What’s going on? Aren’t words from the same root supposed to be close together in meaning?

Actually, when we reflect: to return and to send back are closely related. To return means to go back yourself; to send back means to make someone or something else return. The reverse!

Let’s try the same on a verb from a another root, ن - ز - ل:

نَزَلَ - to descend (pronounced nazala)

Now let’s apply the same ّ on the middle letter like we did before:

نَزَّلَ - to lower, send down (pronounced nazzala)

Once again, the meaning changes a lot but is still related. To descend means to lower yourself, and to send down something means to make something else descend.

In these examples, adding ّ to the middle letter modified the original meaning to apply to someone else. This is one of the patterns of Arabic word construction!

This pattern of adding ّ to the middle letter is one of many patterns found in Arabic. Patterns bring meanings to modify the root meaning. We put root letters - which have the core meaning - into patterns - that adjust the root meaning - to produce words.

This is like pouring a liquid into a container. The root can be any liquid - which is the core meaning - and it takes the shape of its container - which is the pattern.

Fitting Roots Into Patterns

Let’s apply all we’ve learned so far using a new root: خ - ر- ج:

خَرَجَ - to go out, leave (pronounced kharaja)

Think about this meaning. Then consider: what meaning will we produce if we add ّ on the middle root letter, like before, producing خَرَّجَ ?

Think: how does the meaning of the initial word transform when we add that small marking on the middle letter? When you’re ready look below:

خَرَّجَ - to take out, remove (pronounced kharraja)

The pattern we saw before applies in the same way!

To go out means to leave yourself, and to remove something means to make it leave. This is amazing!

After reading the meaning of خَرَجَ, you applied your knowledge of the ّ pattern to discover and understand a brand new Arabic word!

This pattern we have observed applies broadly:

  • علم - to know, علّم - to teach;
  • فهم - to understand, فهّم to make understand;
  • and so on!

Patterns Don’t Always Work This Way

But we must realize; for many root letters, there is no valid word created using this pattern of putting ّ on the middle root letter. For example:

طَلَبَ - to request (pronounced talaba)

Adding a ّ to this word produces a weird meaning:

طلّب - to make someone request (pronounced tallaba).

Thus this word doesn’t actually exist, even if it could in theory. Its meaning is very weird and it’s not useful to have a dedicated word for it. So not all roots fit in all patterns!

Also, the pattern of putting ّ on the middle root letter has produced the same change in meaning so far: the speaker does the action to someone else instead of herself. But this same pattern can bring different modifications to the meaning of other roots.6 Thus the same pattern doesn’t bring the same meaning to every root!

Exploring More Patterns

Important warnings aside, we now can combine our knowledge of roots and patterns and explore further. Instead of adding ّ , other patterns can add letters like ت or أ, modify vocalization, and more.

There are ten major patterns for verbs in Arabic, from each of which many nouns are derived. Every pattern applies its own modification to the default meaning of the root like we have seen.

Let’s go back to the root we started with (ع - د - ل) and see what happens when put into several different patterns:

  1. عَدَلَ - to act justly (pronounced ‘adala)
  2. عَدَّلَ - to rectify, modify (pronounced ‘addala)
  3. عادَلَ - to make equal (pronounced ‘aadala)
  4. تَعَدَّلَ - to be altered (pronounced ta’addala)
  5. تَعادَلَ - to tie (in a competition), be balanced (pronounced ta’aadala)
  6. اِعْتَدَلَ - to be moderate, even, balanced (pronounced i’tidaal)

Take a moment to read, and re-read, the above list and meanings.

Throughout every variation, the three root letters ع - د - ل are always present. This brings a similar meaning to all the words even if they feel different at first sight.7

Going through them one-by-one in order:

  1. To rectify something means to remove what’s wrong with it, just like justice is the opposite of evil.
  2. To make equal can be part of justice too, and to modify is like rectifying - but it could go either way.
  3. To be balanced, such as by tying in a competition, is equality and fairness in a way.
  4. Being moderate in something is related to fairness, as in not going to extremes and being in the middle.

All these words from different patterns help us better understand the meaning of the original root. The root and other patterns all enrich each other.

These patterns for word construction are mathematically precise. But they lead to an artistic spectrum rich in meaning.

Benefits of Word Construction

This is how we can construct words in Arabic. When we want to express a meaning and don’t have the word for it, it’s very likely we can take a root we already know and just put it inside a different pattern.

And the reverse too! When we hear a brand new word in Arabic, chances are it’s not a new word at all. Rather, for us it’s a new combination of a root and pattern we already know. In a moment we can figure out what it means based on other related words we know.

Words are the base unit of expression, and this powerful system makes Arabic a delight to use and consume. We’ve barely scratched the surface of Arabic morphology, known as Sarf. In the future, with Allah’s Mercy, we can explore its beauty even more.

  1. And occasionally, you’ll make a word that is really awkward and never used at all, even if technically right. But even if you sound funny by saying it, the meaning will still get across. ↩︎

  2. Another example is psy (psycho, psychic, psychology, etc.). But the English root system is not nearly as useful as the Arabic root system, in my opinion. This is because the English system isn’t as standardized as Arabic. This is why very few English speakers grasp the role of roots in the language (in comparison to Arabic). But poking holes in English is not our topic here—that is the topic of large books! ↩︎

  3. The system of transliteration used in this article is not very accurate or pretty. It prioritizes ease of reading for all people. This article is aimed at beginners who can’t read Arabic and transliterations, or as revision for people who know Arabic. ↩︎

  4. You might wonder how we can tell the two apart if Arabic is written without vowelization. Usually it’s clear from context and the rest of the sentence. In case it’s not, the small vowels must be written out to clarify. ↩︎

  5. Truly language was spoken before it was written, and written language falls short here. ↩︎

  6. For example: مَرِضَ means to be sick. Applying the pattern we’ve seen so far to create مَرَّضَ should mean to make someone sick, right? That’s not the case! Here, this same pattern modifies the root meaning into to nurse someone – back to health, the opposite of sickness and the meaning of the root! This is a complication, but the possible meanings each pattern can bring are well known and studied. We’ve covered the most common meaning of this pattern in the article. ↩︎

  7. Looking at the variety of added letters, you may wonder: how do we differentiate root letters from letters added by a pattern? Good question! This is a core study of Arabic morphology (sarf)! For a later article, inshaAllah. ↩︎

Updated April 1, 2021

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