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Review of  A Reference Grammar of Modern Standard Arabic

Reviewer: Keith Goeringer
Book Title: A Reference Grammar of Modern Standard Arabic
Book Author: Karin C Ryding
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Language Documentation
Subject Language(s): Arabic, Standard
Issue Number: 19.578

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AUTHOR: Ryding, Karin C.
TITLE: A Reference Grammar of Modern Standard Arabic
PUBLISHER: Cambridge University Press
YEAR: 2006

Keith Goeringer, independent scholar

This 708-page tome is conceived as a handbook for the general learner, as a
means to get a ''greater understanding of the Arabic language'' (xvii). As the
title implies, it focuses on Modern Standard Arabic (MSA), and while references
to literary or classical Arabic are made, they are primarily mentioned in a
comparative light. The examples are based on contemporary expository prose,
primarily from Arabic newspapers and magazines, so the grammar most closely
reflects the modern written language, not the spoken language of news broadcasts
or speeches (though some examples from these genres are also provided). The
thirty-nine chapters cover a variety of topics, starting with an overview of
Arabic and its place in Afro-Asiatic, then addressing phonology and orthography,
with subsequent chapters addressing various grammatical topics (emphasis on
morphology) such as nominal inflection, prepositions, and the verb. Ryding's
grammar includes two appendices - one describing how to use an Arabic
dictionary, and one that is a glossary of Arabic and English grammatical terms.
The latter is particularly useful since Ryding presents Arabic grammatical terms
(_nisba_, _'iDaafa_, and so on) throughout the grammar, and it is convenient to
have a one-stop shopping place for reference (though see my comments below). The
grammar ends with a list of references and an index.

While simply reading through this grammar is a daunting task, it is also an
immensely rewarding one. As Ryding notes on p. xvii, ''The idea behind this
reference grammar is to gather together in one work the essentials of MSA in
such a way that fundamental elements of structure can be readily looked up and
illustrated.'' This goal is easily met. The typeface is easy to read (with the
exception noted below), and the pages are similarly easy on the eyes, with
pleasingly wide margins that allow for annotations and give the book an
uncluttered appearance. Ryding uses a system of rendering Arabic into English
that is a hybrid of transliteration and transcription - not every Arabic letter
is given a Latin-alphabet equivalent (for example, most instances of word-final
_taa' marbuuTa_). Nonetheless, she thoroughly explains the system she uses in
the book, and I will simply call it a transliteration, since that it most often
what it is. With a few exceptions (noted below), any word that appears in the
Arabic alphabet is accompanied by a transliteration, thereby allowing those who
do not know or are not fully at ease with the Arabic alphabet to use the book.
The transliteration system follows Modern Arabic (as opposed to Classical)
usage, and some of the choices made may surprise some readers - for example, the
choice of _Z_ to represent the velarized voiced interdental fricative (as in
''Abu Dhabi''). As Ryding points out, the pronunciations of this phoneme varies
with the region, and a velarized voiced alveolar fricative is one. This also
allows Ryding to avoid unnecessarily complicating diacritics in her
transliteration system. I follow her system in this review, with the exception
of _3ayn_ (the voiced pharyngeal fricative), for which I use _3_ (as in the
example above) due to typographical limitations. The glottal stop, _hamza_, will
be indicated by /'/. Finally, words in Arabic will be surrounded by underscores,
as in _hamza_, above.

The above-mentioned thirty-nine chapters range in length from two pages (Chapter
32, ''Forms XI-XV triliteral verb) to forty-six pages (''Noun inflections'').
Within the book, the verb enjoys the most detailed treatment, with 137 pages
dedicated to it; at the other end of the spectrum, interrogatives and
conjunctions each get four pages - but that is sufficient to relate the relevant

Chapter 1 offers an introduction to Arabic, covering the place of Arabic in the
Afro-Asiatic family, and an overview of the language from both synchronic and
diachronic perspectives.

The sound system of MSA is laid out in Chapter 2, as well as the different forms
of the letters, and a description of spelling rules, conventions, and exceptions.

Chapter 3 presents an overview of Arabic morphology, along with a brief excursus
on how Arabic dictionaries are organized.

The discussion of syntax in Chapter 4 is thorough and highly useful, and I have
no further comments other than the fact that I had hoped for a mention (perhaps
just a footnote, which Ryding uses liberally throughout the text) of why the
negative with _laysa_ 'is not' triggers an accusative on the noun that ''is not''.
This is bound to be a curiosity for those who have studied inflectional
languages, so some description of how this marking arose (assuming it is known),
or if it is just a sort of serendipitous syncretism, would be interesting.

Chapter 5 addresses the variety of Arabic noun types, particularly as they
relate to verbal morphology. An interesting observation is made here (p. 88) on
a type of sound symbolism that is found in nouns of intensity. Specifically,
Ryding notes that the middle radical consonant is often geminated (indicated in
the orthography by a _shadda_), thereby highlighting a kind of iconicity between
the strength of a consonant ''and reference to intensity or frequency of action.''
This pattern is observed with nouns of profession (since this presumably implies
frequency of action) - thus, the root X-B-Z 'bake' yields _xabbaaz_ 'baker'.

Chapter 6 treats participles.

Chapters 7 addresses the inflection of nouns.

Chapter 8 is dedicated to _'iDaafa_, or construct phrases, and apposition.

Chapter 9 deals with noun specifiers and quantifiers.

Chapter 10 treats adjectives.

Chapter 11 treats adverbs and adverbials.

Chapters 12-14 address various types of pronouns.

Chapter 15 deals with numerals.

Chapter 16 with prepositions and PPs; and Chapter 17 with interrogatives.

In Chapter 18, which addresses connectives and conjunctions, there is an
interesting footnote on p. 408 regarding the prominence of sentence-initial
connectives in native texts. Ryding, citing Al-Batal (1990: 253), notes that a
corresponding lack of such connectives is a common flaw in passages written in
otherwise error-free Arabic by non-native speakers of Arabic.

Chapter 19 treats subordinating conjunctions (the charmingly named, in
traditional Arabic grammar, ''_'inna_ and her sisters'', since there are various
such conjunctions that pattern similarly. These words, similar to _laysa_ (but
not entirely so, since _laysa_ is at heart deverbal), cause a shift to the
accusative - in this instance, the subject of the clause that follows is marked
for the accusative. Similar to my remark on _laysa_, it would be interesting to
make mention of the historical underpinnings of this shift - but is not, of
course, necessary.

Chapters 20-39 examine the Arabic verb in great detail, introducing the concept
of tri- and quadriliteral verbs, and the various classes or forms of Arabic
verbs. Chapter 21 gives a summary of verbal inflection. Chapter 22 examines Form
I (the base form of the triliteral verb); Chapter 23 examines Form II; Chapter
24 examines Form III; and so on, through Chapter 31, which examines Form X.

Chapter 29, which addresses Form VIII triliteral verbs, has an interesting point
on p. 567 about assimilatory processes between dentals and interdentals. Of note
is the interplay between _dhaal_ (voiced interdental fricative) and _taa'_
(voiceless dental stop). The _taa'_ is an infix, and would normally assimilate
to the interdental, but in this case the two influence one another. When coming
across the _taa'_ infix, a root beginning with _dhaal_ will lose its
interdentality (influenced by the _taa'_), and the _taa'_ will become voiced
(influenced by the _dhaal_), resulting in _dd_. Thus, the root _DH-X-R_ 'amass'
will become _ya-ddaxir-u_ 'he amasses'.

Chapter 32 looks at Forms XI-XV of triliteral verbs; Chapter 33 introduces
quadriliteral verbs; Chapters 34 and 35 discuss the moods of the verb
(indicative and subjunctive in 34, jussive and imperative in 35); Chapter 36
addresses verbs of being, becoming, remaining, and seeming (called, in
traditional Arabic grammar, ''_kaana_ [this is the ''being'' part] and her
sisters'', similar to the term in Chapter 19). Chapter 36 discusses negation and
exception; Chapter 38, the passive and passive-type constructions; and the main
body of the book ends with Chapter 39, on conditional and optative expressions.

For Appendix I, on how to use an Arabic dictionary, I have no remarks, other
than to say that the explanation is helpful, and to note that it indicates that
some understanding of Arabic morphology is required in order to use an Arabic
dictionary. In Appendix II, it would have been nice to see the English-Arabic
equivalents of the entries given in the Arabic-English section, in addition to
the glossary of grammatical terms. For example, one might want to know what the
technical term for ''broken plural'' is (_jam3 al-taksiir_), without having to
search through the Arabic-English index. The term is given in the Arabic-English
section - but in the glossary section, only the terms 'sound' and 'strong' are
defined, but not 'broken'.

Below, I make some comments on individual chapters and conclude with a general
evaluation of the book as a whole.

On Chapter 2, one comment I would make is that, in the description of ''sun'' and
''moon'' letters (pp. 40-42) (a differentiation made by Arabic grammarians to
describe combinatory properties of certain letters/sounds), there is no
elucidation of what properties are common to the sounds represented by the ''sun''
letters, and what are common to the ''moon'' letters – ''sun'' letters represent
phonemes that are alveolars, interdentals, or sibilants; ''moon'' letters
represent phonemes involving the remaining places and manners of articulation.
While it is not necessarily a help to every student to know this, it could
benefit a few, and certainly would make sense to linguists. Curiously, in chart
3.1 on p. 13, /n/ is listed as an interdental – this is presumably a typo for
alveolar, and I suppose it is conceivable that this phoneme could be interdental
in some dialects... but I was unable to find any references to corroborate this
notion in other reference grammars (e.g., Fischer 2002:18, Haywood & Nahmad
2005:511b-511c). One small quibble would be that the names of the short vowels
/a/, /i/, and /u/ (_fatha_, _kasra_, and _damma_) are used in the discussion of
the rules for writing _hamza_ (the glottal stop) in (pp. 16-20) before
they have been officially introduced (in 4.3, pp. 30-31). This could cause those
who are unfamiliar with Arabic vowel phonemes and their orthographic
representation to scratch their heads somewhat, but it is a minor thing.

In Chapter 3, p. 54, Ryding makes note of a ''morphological category which is
peculiar to Arabic: humanness'' - I would submit that other languages make
morphological distinctions based on humanness, such as the ''virile'' gender in
Polish, used exclusively for human males; or noun classes I and II in most Bantu
languages, which are similarly reserved for humans. Nonetheless, Ryding's point
on the saliency of humanness in Arabic is taken.

Chapter 7 addresses noun inflections, and mention is made of diptote vs.
triptote declensions - for example, on p. 132, in the case of the sound feminine
plural, the accusative merges with the genitive in the plural. Again, for
linguists (or those inclined to linguistic wonderment), it might be interesting
to know why this is the case. How did this syncretism arise? It is not a point
that is pivotal, but a footnote on the historical background of this phenomenon
would be of interest. On p. 155, in discussing quadriliteral roots (CVCCVVC), a
distinction is made between native and borrowed words that fit this pattern. The
last word given under (4.2), 'volcano/es', is _burkaan_/_baraakiin_. I have to
wonder if this is not perhaps a borrowing, and actually belongs in (4.3). On a
more attention-catching note, the concept of ''plural of the plural'' is
introduced in section 3.2.5. Ryding notes that some nouns have a ''plural form
that can itself be made plural'', but adds that whether the choice between the
two forms is stylistic or semantic is unclear. She notes one case where the
distinction is clearly semantic: _rajul_/_rijaal_/_rijaalaat_ 'man'/'men'/'men
of distinction' This is the sort of morphological development that makes
linguists smile.

In Chapter 8, the topic is _'iDaafa_, or the construct phrase. In 2.1.1 (p.
224), names and titles are addressed in constructions such as ''King Fahd'', ''the
Prophet Muhammad'', or ''Colonel Qadhdhaafi''. My question centers on why some of
the second term nouns are definite, and others indefinite. For example, 'King
Fahd' is _al-malik-u fahd-un_, showing the indefinite nominative ending on
_fahd_. But 'Queen Noor' and 'Father Joseph' are _al-malikat-u nuur-u_ and
_al-'ab-u yuusuf-u_, respectively. As far as I know, _yuusuf_ is just a proper
name, with no other meaning - _fahd_ means 'panther' and _nuur_ means 'light' in
addition to being used as personal names, but they pattern differently. (A
personal communication with Ryding reveals that the distinction is due to the
diptote/triptote distinction - _fahd_ is triptote and nunated, but is considered
semantically definite; _nuur_ and _yuusuf_ are both diptote and cannot take
nunation, as discussed on pp. 196-7.)

Chapters 20-39 deal with the verb. There is one complaint I have with Chapters
22-31, or in other words, those chapters that deal with Forms I-X of Arabic
verbs. The chapters have sample conjugations of the specific verb forms in
question, but all the verbs are in Arabic, without transliteration. This is a
shame, since it means these verbs are not transparent to those who do not read
Arabic (though the Arabic is generally fully voweled). I find it helpful to see
verb paradigms transliterated, in order to appreciate the specifics of the
particular structures. Moreover, I found myself having to peer intently at the
forms to see the voweling, since the vowel signs themselves are quite small (but
maybe that is simply indicative of shortcomings with my vision). This practice
is, nonetheless, in marked contrast to, for example, Chapter 7, where the
paradigms of nouns are laid out in Arabic and in transliteration. It is
something that might be addressed in subsequent editions of this book.

In any work of this size, typos or formatting errors are unavoidable. I point
out some of them here, but have sent a list of those I found (or think I found)
to the author. The errors I found fall generally into three categories:
formatting issues, spelling issues (regional or non-standard), and typos.
Formatting is far and away the largest category, with the most frequent issue
being spacing between or around letters in transliterations. This may seem like
nitpicking, but those who cannot read the Arabic - and thus rely on the
transliteration - might be confused by the incorrect spacing, particularly those
that occur in the vicinity of /'/ and /3/ (which make up the majority of such
errors). A sampling of typos includes: ''Mauretania'' instead of ''Mauritania'', or
''the Chad languages'' instead of ''the Chadic languages'' on p. 1; ''throughly''
instead of ''thoroughly'' in ff. 9 on p. 3; ''Mauretania'' and ''Bahrein'' instead of
''Mauritania'' and ''Bahrain'' in ff. 14 on p. 5; ''letter'' instead of probably
''medial'' in the top row of table 2 on p. 11; the connecting tail missing on
final _Zaa'_ in the continuation of table on p. 12; the spacing after /l/ in
entry 23 (a) and (b) for _laam_ on p. 15; _'aaSifa_ instead of _3aaSifa_ on p.
22; the spacing in /i/ in first sentence of 4.3 on p. 30; ''dependants'' instead
of ''dependents'' on p. 57; ''an'' instead of ''and'' in 2.5.5 on p. 70; spacing
around _3ayn_ in _ta3yiin-u_ in on p. 82; spacing around _hamza_s in
_naa'ib-u l-ra'iis-i_ at top of p. 83; _rabbaa3_ instead of _rabbaa3a_ for
feminine of 'weightlifter' in section 5 on p. 88; _matronynmic_ instead of
_matronymic_ in on p. 97

One final cavil would be with the way the individual chapters are laid out, and
with the page headers. If one opens the book to a random page, there is no way
of telling in which chapter one has landed. The divisions within chapters start
at 1, then go to 1.1, 1.1.1, etc., before moving on to 2, 2.1, 2.2.2, all within
the same chapter. A cursory check of the book found one chapter (5, Arabic noun
types) that ended with section 15.3, and another (26, Form IV triliteral verb)
that ends with 12.2.7. This could be addressed in two ways, though one would
entail longer section headings. The first numeral in the section heading for a
given chapter would be the chapter number itself – thus, for the above examples,
we would have 5.15.3 or That way, one could tell at a glance where
one was. As an alternative (or additional) means, the right-page header to the
left of the page number could have the chapter number before that chapter's
title, as in ''Chapter 5: Arabic noun types'', or just ''5: Arabic noun types''.

In closing, Karin Ryding's _A Reference Grammar of Modern Standard Arabic_ is a
well-designed, clearly written, and highly welcome reference book for students
of Arabic as well as linguists who are seeking information on the structure of
the language. The range of source material and the clarity of its organization
will make it an indispensable reference book in both private and institutional

Al-Batal, Mahmoud. (1990) Connectives as cohesive elements in a modern
expository Arabic text. In _Perspectives on Arabic Linguistics II_, edited by
Mushira Eid and John McCarthy. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins.

Fischer, Wolfdietrich. (2002) _A grammar of Classical Arabic_. New Haven, CT:
Yale University Press.

Haywood, J.A. and H.M. Nahmad. (2005) ) _A new Arabic grammar of the written
language). London: Lund Humphries.

Keith Goeringer is a linguist by education and avocation. His areas of interest
include phonetics and syntax.

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