In Arabic, verbs are inflected to indicate a range of grammatical categories and features. Mastering Arabic verbal inflection is critical to conjugating verbs correctly and using them accurately in speech and writing.
In this article, we will provide an overview of the inflectional features of Arabic verbs, including:
- The past and non-past stems
- How affixes are added to stems
- The forms for each stem
- The non-past moods
- The dictionary form of Arabic verbs
Understanding Arabic morphology and how verbs are inflected for categories like tense, person, number, and gender will equip you with the foundational knowledge to use verbs properly in context.
Proper verb usage demonstrates solid Arabic proficiency. For beginner or advanced learners, grasping Arabic verb inflection is crucial for continued language development.
By the end of this guide, you will have a solid grounding in the building blocks of Arabic verbal inflection. Let’s get started!
The Past and Non-Past Stems
Every Arabic verb has two stems that serve different functions:
- The past stem (al-māḍī) is used to conjugate verbs in the past tense.
- The non-past stem (al-muḍāri’) is used for present, future, and non-indicative tenses and moods.
Each of these stems has forms for both the active and passive voices. So, a typical Arabic verb will have the following:
- A past stem for active voice
- A past stem for passive voice
- A non-past stem for active voice
- A non-past stem for passive voice
The past and non-past stems are central to Arabic verb conjugation. Getting them right is key before you can start manipulating verbs to express different tenses, moods, etc.
These two stems may also be referred to using the terms “perfective stem” and “imperfective stem,” respectively. This reflects an older, aspectual interpretation of their function.
However, most modern linguists analyze them as grammatical tense stems, not aspectual. Some idiomatic verbal constructions seem aspectual, but these are best analyzed as quirky exceptions rather than a proper aspectual distinction.
Adding Affixes to the Stems
Once you have identified the correct past or non-past stem of an Arabic verb, the next step is to add affixes to specify other grammatical categories:
For the past stem:
- Suffixes are added to indicate:
- Person (first, second or third)
- Number (singular, dual, or plural)
- Gender (masculine or feminine)
For the non-past stem:
- A combination of prefixes and suffixes is used:
- The prefixes generally indicate a person
- The suffixes indicate number and gender
So, in summary:
- Past stem: Suffixes only
- Non-past stem: Prefixes + suffixes
Let’s look at some examples:
- kataba (he wrote) – past stem = katab-, add suffix -a for 3rd person masculine singular
- yaktubna (they [f.] write) – non-past stem = ktub-, add prefix ya- for 3rd person and suffix -na for feminine plural
As you can see, the affixes play a crucial role in conjugating the verb stems to create the desired verb form.
The Forms for Each Stem
For each of the two stems (past and non-past), there are 13 possible forms. This allows verbs to be conjugated very precisely.
The 13 forms for each stem are:
- 3 persons
- 1st person
- 2nd person
- 3rd person
- 3 numbers
- 2 genders
- katabtu (I wrote) – 1st person, singular, masculine past
- katabtumā (you two wrote) – 2nd person, dual, masculine past
- yaktubna (they [f.] write) – 3rd person, plural, feminine non-past
So, each stem has 13 forms covering the following:
- Person (1st, 2nd, 3rd)
- Number (singular, dual, plural)
- Gender (masculine, feminine)
This allows each verb to be conjugated very precisely to match the subject.
Now let’s look at the non-past moods.
The Non-Past Moods
In the non-past stem, Arabic has 6 distinct moods:
- Short energetic
- Long energetic
The mood is generally indicated using suffixes on the non-past stem. When no number suffix is present, the mood suffix endings are:
- -u for indicative
- -a for subjunctive
- No ending for imperative and jussive
- -an for short energetic
- -anna for long energetic
When number suffixes are added, the mood distinctions are marked either by:
- Different suffix forms (e.g. -ūna for indicative vs. -ū for subjunctive)
- No distinction at all between some moods
The imperative only exists in the 2nd person, without the normal 2nd person prefix ta-/tu-.
So, mood is an essential non-past category marked by suffixes. Mastering the mood suffixes will allow you to conjugate verbs to express commands, wishes, possibilities, and more.
The Dictionary Form
In Arabic dictionaries and verb tables, each verb is listed using the 3rd person masculine singular past tense form.
For example, the verb meaning “write” is listed as:
kataba (he wrote)
This citation form provides the past stem, which is:
The corresponding non-past stem would be:
So the dictionary form kataba tells us:
- The past stem is katab-
- The non-past stem is -ktub-
This is more useful than citing the non-past stem form, since the vowels are usually clearer from the past tense.
So when you look up an unfamiliar verb, you can use the 3rd person masculine past tense (the dictionary form) to identify its two stems, which provides the basis for all future conjugations.
Knowing the dictionary form is the key building block for mastering verb usage.
In this overview, we have covered the core components of Arabic verbal inflection:
- The two stems, past and non-past, form the basis of all conjugations
- How affixes are added to the stems to indicate grammatical features
- The specific forms that exist for each stem allow precise conjugation
- The moods of the non-past stem
- The dictionary form convention using the 3rd person’s masculine past
Mastering these morphological features will provide a solid foundation for Arabic verb usage. Being able to conjugate verbs and match them to the subject correctly is critical for fluency.
Arabic verbal inflection may seem daunting initially, but you can systematically build your knowledge by breaking it down into manageable pieces.
This introduction should have equipped you with the core building blocks. Use this as a reference as you continue expanding your understanding through further reading, lessons, and practice.
If you are looking for a comprehensive beginner course on Arabic grammar and verb conjugation, I recommend checking out this online Arabic course for beginners. Interactive lessons and practical exercises are a great way to reinforce the concepts covered here.
I hope you found this overview of Arabic verbal inflection helpful. Please let me know if you have any other questions!