A Linguistic Comparison: Arabic and English

The Arabic language is a community of languages that differ from one Arab country to the next. For example, the current Arabic professor on Georgia Southern University’s campus, Youssef Salhi, is from Morocco, one of his teaching assistants is from Tunisia, and his other teaching assistant is from Egypt. All three of these professionals speak a different dialect of a language that is held together by a standard referred to as “Modern Standard Arabic,” though each dialect is very different. In fact one of my fellow Arabic language students, Nadia Dreid, who is from Libya, can speak Arabic well when she goes to see her relatives, yet she sometimes struggles in our Arabic language course because the Arabic that she knows is different from Modern Standard Arabic.

Perhaps this is one reason that there are several controversial topics being discussed lately about the Arabic language and the linguistics of the Middle East. Some issues that had not received much attention in the past are now gaining more light in the realm of academic research, like the existence and spreading of hundreds of Arabic auto-antonyms and how the consonants in the language are acquired by Arabic youth. The idea of phonological idiosyncrasy of elision is a concept that has also been argued when it comes to the Arabic language. It seems that the language is criticized even at its most basic level, the level of syntax, which is considered a universal feature of all languages.

Unlike many other languages, there is not a single rule for the arrangement of the subject and verb in the Arabic language. Instead there are two basic sentence types that can determine syntax: nominal and verbal. In the nominal type, sentences may not contain a verb at all (in cases in which the verb is understood by context) or contains a verb after the subject. Alternatively, in the verbal sentence type the verb precedes the subject (El-Shishiny, 1990).

Figure 1

Figure 1

Figure 2

Figure 2

One way to look at the syntax of language is to take a sentence and draw what is known as a phrase structure tree. As the trees in Figures 1 and 2, phrase trees show the syntactic categories of each word or morpheme, grouping them into nodes. The nodes can be formed only when they follow the phrase structure rules of the language. The Arabic sentences in Figures 1 and 2 both translate to the English sentence “The puppy played in the garden” (Fromkin, Hyams, & Rodman, 2011). Keeping in mind that Arabic is written and read from right to left, take a look at Figure 1, which depicts the sentence in the nominal type and is synonymous with the syntax of English—the phrase structure rules are the same as those in English. Figure 2 depicts the sentence in the verbal sentence type and features phrase structure rules that you would not typically find in English—that is NP —> PP N1, where NP means Noun Phrase, PP means Prepositional Phrase, and N1 represents a noun without a Det or Determiner.

The study in linguistics that focuses on speech sounds and how they form patterns is called Phonology (Fromkin et al., 2011). The feature of phonology in which there is an omission of one or more sounds in a word is called Elision. For example, in English we elide the words what and you to produce watcha. This linguistic phenomenon occurs a lot in the Iraqi dialect. In the following examples, the phonetic symbols used for pronunciation (I will use standard IPA) will be denoted with square brackets and in a different font-type so that it stands out. The Arabic word for birds is pronounced as [ṭʊyur] in Modern Standard Arabic, but in the Iraqi dialect it is pronounced as [ṭyur]—the first vowel sound is omitted altogether, turning what started out as two syllables into one. The Elision found in many Arabic dialects occurs for the same reasons they do in English, for the economy of effort. That is, to minimize the effort it takes to speak. It is easier to say watcha than watch you, just like it is easier to say [ṭyur] than [ṭʊyur]. The Arabic letter ع is a glottal stop that is characterized by completely stopping the air at the glottis and denoted with a question mark without the dot [ʔ] and is elided for economy of effort (Fromkin et al., 2011).

Elision can also occur because “…lexemes pronounced with certain elided segments in Iraqi Arabic have become a part of the vocabulary of this variety and have retained their deleted forms whether in isolation or in word-combination” (Ibrahim, 2012). What Dr. Ibrahim from the University of Jordan is talking about is “historic elision.” Historic elision accounts for many English words with silent letters, like limb and knee (Hasan, 2012).

Several organizations, like the Frankfurt International School, claim that elision is problematic for Arab speakers and they usually resist doing it (Shoebottom, 1996). I was taught in the beginning level Arabic course here at Georgia Southern University that there is even planned elision in Modern Standard Arabic. The Arabic definite article Al or [al] is attached to the words they modify. When [al] is connected to a word that uses the tongue like [ṭ] then the [l] in Al is elided. Therefore the birds is pronounced [aṭṭʊyur] as opposed to [al ṭʊyur]. They elide because both the [ṭ] and [l] use the tongue and it is hard to have them follow one another in a single word (Abboud & McCarus, 1983). The letters that elide with the [l] in Al are called the Sun Letters [a ʃamsiə], which begins with the elided sound [ʃ]. The letters that do not elide with the [l] in Al are called the Moon Letters [al qamariə], which begins with the non-elided sound [q] (Al-Batal, Al-Tonsi, & Brustad, 2004).

Another topic being studied today in the Arabic language is auto-antonyms. Auto-antonyms are words that are their own antonyms. For example, the English word “cleave” can mean “to split apart” or “to cling together”—obviously these are relational opposites (Fromkin et al., 2011). As with the controversy of elision, some Arabic linguists disapprove with the idea that the Arabic language has auto-antonyms and some agree. Dr. Alomoush from the Tafila Technical University in Jordan argues that there are hundreds of auto-antonyms in the Arabic language, taking in account older Arabic constructions and drawing from all the different Arabic dialects. Take for example [ḫaʒada], which means either to sleep or to stay up late at night (Alomoush, 2010). However, some of Alomoush’s claims can be disproved with synonyms—the Arabic word [an nom] means to sleep, and the Arabic word [as har] means to stay up late. One of the ways that auto-antonyms have been created in the Arabic language concerns semantics.

The meaning of words, often referred to as semantics in linguistics, is often driven, as it is in English, by intent and context as they relate to the social and psychological usages in language. For example, it was once socially popular to use the word bad to mean good. Similarly, one of the most widely used greetings in Arabic, [assalamu alekɔm], which means peace be upon you, can be regarded as an insult depending on the context in which the words are spoken and the intention of the speaker. Another way auto-antonyms are formed is by “blending.” Blending occurs when two words are combined to form a new word that incorporates the meanings of both. For example, the Arabic words [ʔaba], meaning to be at a standstill, and [baḍa], meaning to move, were blended to form the auto-antonyms [ʔabaḍa], which retains the meanings of both the words that formed it (Alomoush, 2010).

Another aspect of the Arabic language that can be compared to the English language is the way that the language is learned; what linguists call language acquisition. Language is acquired on many different levels. Let’s examine language acquisition as it applies to Arabic phonology and morphology. In a recent case study, Jordanian children of ages ranging from two to six were tested for their consonant acquisition of the Jordanian dialect of Arabic with a fifty-eight-word picture-naming test. The results showed that English and Arabic children acquire consonants at the same ages. The only real difference between the acquisitions of consonants of these languages was that certain consonants were learned earlier. For example, [f] is acquired earlier in Arabic than in English whereas [j] is acquired earlier in English than in Arabic (Amayreh, 1998). This evidence seems to suggest that the sound [f] is used more often in Arabic whereas the sound [j] is used more often in English.

Arabic and English also share the component of language acquisition known as overgeneralization, which occurs when a speaker has acquired rules about morphology but not the exceptions to those rules. Having experience overgeneralization myself when I was a child, I can remember making the plural of ox, oxes—I had learned the morphological rule to add s or es to a noun to make it plural, but I had not learned any exceptions to this rule (i.e. that the morpheme that makes ox plural is en). Coincidentally, I have also experienced overgeneralization again recently with my acquisition of the Arabic language. In Arabic, colors (blue, green, etc.) have two forms—a masculine form and a feminine form, which must agree with the noun they are modifying. To change the masculine form of the Arabic word for the color brown, [buni], to the feminine form, you must add the feminine letter  ة  to form [bunijə]. There is an exception to this rule for the color blue, [azraq], in which the onset vowel segment is moved to the end of the word to form [zərqaʔ] (Al-Baldawi, 2011). Before I had learned the exception to this rule I overgeneralized the rule that I did know and came up with the word [azraqiə], which is not an Arabic word. This idea also extends to the inflection of verbs. The general rule to change from the infinitive to last tense with English verbs is to add the morpheme ed, though there are exceptions. For example, the past tense of bring is brought (Fromkin et al., 2011). These are known as irregular verbs. In Arabic, to change from the infinitive to first person present tense the general rule is to add the morpheme  ا , [a], at the beginning of the word. However, there are Arabic words that already begin with [a] and are thus inflected by changing the vowel segment in the middle of the word. For example, the infinitive for to eat in Arabic is [akala] and the first person present tense form is [akul]. Verbs that deviate from the regular morphology are called sick verbs.

On the surface the Arabic language seems to be a unique language with features not found in other languages. But if we look closely, it has many features that are the same; maybe not the feature of the Arabic language’s lack of rules of syntax and subject-verb arrangement, but certainly in the fields of semantics and phonology. Both English and Arabic elide words for economy of speech. Arabic also has auto-antonyms, just like in English where words have two opposing meanings based on optimism, sarcasm, irony, mockery, ridicule, context, intent, and tone.

References:

Abboud, P. F., McCarus, E. N. (1983). Elementary Modern Standard Arabic: Pronunciation and Writing (vol. 1). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Alomoush, O. I. (2010). On Linguistic Aspects of Auto-Antonyms in Arabic. International Journal of Academic Research, 2(4), 408-413.

Al-Baldawi, W. N., Saidat, A. M. (2011). Linguistic Overgeneralization: A Case Study. International Journal of Academic Research In Business and Social Sciences, 1, 184-193.

Al-Batal, M., Al-Tonsi, A., & Brustad, K. (2004). Alif Baa: Introduction to Arabic Letters and Sounds. (2). Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press.

Amayreh, M. M., & Dyson, A. T. (1998). The acquisition of Arabic consonants. Journal Of Speech, Language & Hearing Research, 41(3), 642.

El-Shishiny, H. (1990). A Formal Description of Arabic Syntax in Definite Clause Grammar. Proceeding COLING ’90: Proceedings of The 13th Conference On Computational Linguistics, 3, 345-347.

Fromkin, V., Hyams, N. & Rodman, R. (2011). An introduction to language. (9). Boston: Wadsworth.

Hasan, A. N. (2012). A phonological Study of Elision in Standard English and Standard Arabic. Journal of Babylon University, 2. Retrieved from http://www.iasj.net/iasj?

Ibrahim, M. A. (2012). Sound Disappearance: The Phonological Idiosyncrasy of Elision in Iraqi Arabic. Cross-Cultural Communication8(5), 44-49.

Shoebottom, P. (1996). The Differences Between English and Arabic. Frankfurt International School. Retrieved from http://esl.fis.edu/grammar/langdiff/Arabic.htm

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About evinhughes

I am a graduate of Georgia Southern University located in Statesboro Georgia. I have a bachelors degree in Information Technology and a bachelors in Writing and Linguistics.
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2 Responses to A Linguistic Comparison: Arabic and English

  1. Muhammad abdelwahed says:

    Arabic language has very little exceptions, for the feminine for of (buni) to bunia and azraq to zarqa is not an exception. Basically Arabic word is not formed mainly by suffixes and perfixes as it depends on triconsonantal roots and other derivatives are formed due to the structure of the word for ex. Words like akhdar azraq ahmar have the feminine khadra zarqa hamra and words like bonni jinni sunni has the feminine bonniah jinniah sunniah so any derivative from the word depends on its root and order of consonants and vowels and their type and all of these rules exist in Arabic grammar references but not taught explicitly for beginners.

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