Word Order Observations in Classical Arabic

Heraa
8 min readAug 25, 2020

I’m no Sibawayh. That out of the wayh, let us take a moment to marvel at the classical Arabic grammar (nahw). I’ve once again delved into it in a proper language program after a four year hiatus littered with on and off classes, and continue to be awed by its simplicity in complexity.

Classical Arabic, or Qur’anic Arabic, has some differences from Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) in its syntax and lexicon. The former is concerned with early Arabic literature, and of course the Qur’an, and MSA refers to the standardized variety used today — and even then is usually used in writing, as there are multiple dialects across the Arabic-speaking world.

This article focuses on the typology of classical Arabic, particularly the order of subject, object, and verbs. Arabic has a more flexible word order, and it owes its flexibility to i’rab (the case marking system) (note, this isn’t necessarily true in all varieties of Arabic today as they’re often omitted when spoken out loud), and verb inflections.

What are Case Markings?

In English, how do we know who is doing the action and what the action is being done to? For example:

Fatima helped Zainab

Well, how do I how it’s not “Zainab helped Fatima”? How do I know for sure it’s Fatima who is doing the helping, and Zainab who’s being helped? You might say, duh, it’s because it’s Fatima who comes before the verb.

Exactly. In English, the grammatical functions of ‘subject’ and ‘object’ are largely determined by the word order Subject-Verb-Object (SOV). Arabic, and other languages like Urdu, Japanese, or Korean, have freer word orders. There are still stipulations, yes, but the subjects and objects are made clear in different ways. In Classical Arabic, this is done through a case marking system, in simple terms a system that categorizes words into the function they play in a sentence, like subject or object.

How does it work in Arabic?

Note: I mention the Arabic terminology in some places because as I’m learning, those are the terms I’m using — I’m a believer in learning grammar through the concepts the language uses itself — but at the same time, there’s terminology I was trained in my linguistics classes in undergrad to use and I use them more often here (like nominative and accusative), as I assume most of the readers are coming from such a perspective…

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