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Review of  The Subjunctive Mood in Arabic Grammatical Thought

Reviewer: Dinha Tobiya Gorgis
Book Title: The Subjunctive Mood in Arabic Grammatical Thought
Book Author: Arik Sadan
Publisher: Brill
Linguistic Field(s): Historical Linguistics
Subject Language(s): Arabic, Standard
Language Family(ies): Semitic
Issue Number: 24.1459

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This book, a revised and abbreviated English version of the author’s M.A. and Ph.D. dissertations, treats one of the most controversial issues in Arabic grammar, viz. the subjunctive mood in the verbal system of Classical Arabic (CA). The other two moods associated with the imperfective verb, the indicative and the jussive, are treated as options or alternatives to the subjunctive according to various opinions attributed to mainly medieval Arab grammarians. So the whole book is an elaborate overview and critical review of what particles require the following imperfective verb to be assigned the subjunctive mood or otherwise.

The author divides his work into a preface and eleven chapters, followed by a discussion and conclusion, a bibliography, two appendices and three indexes. Each of the first nine chapters, all structured alike, presents one particle, whether bound or free morpheme. The particles, termed as either primary or secondary, are generally believed to determine the form of the following imperfective verb, sometimes called operators. The majority of medieval Arab grammarians’ examples, notably those of the Basra and Kufic schools, are taken from spoken varieties of the Bedouins, the Qur’an, ancient Arabic poetry and very much less on Prophet Mohammad’s speeches, i.e. ḥadīth.

Chapter One, ‘AN (pp. 1-35), is devoted to the primary particle ‘an, which syntactically Sībawayhi and a host of grammarians consider al-aamil (operator) that induces the following imperfective verb to take the subjunctive mood, e.g. qarrara ‘an yaktuba risaalatan li’ummihi ‘He decided to write a letter to his mother’, where the final a (a diacritic called fatHa) in the verb yaktuba is this mood marker. Such use expresses futurity. However, most grammarians argue that ‘an following verbs denoting fear and desire is followed by a verb in the subjunctive mood (this ‘an being referred to as ‘an al-xafeefa), whereas ‘an after verbs denoting certain knowledge is followed by a verb in the indicative mood (this ‘an being referred to as ‘an al-muxaffafa). As for ‘an after verbs denoting doubt, it can be followed by a verb in the subjunctive or indicative mood (see pp. 29, 34-35). Still, “numerous examples, many of which are introduced by the grammarians themselves, in which the mood of the verb following ‘an is not as expected according to the grammarians’ own rules” (p. 35) are attested as deviations.

Chapter Two, LAN (pp. 37-58), introduces the second primary particle, namely lan. This is also called an operator with some functions similar to ‘an. But unlike ‘an, which I regard as a complementizer in generative terms, lan is a negator of the following imperfective verb with a future meaning, e.g. lan ‘adxula l-maktabata ‘I won’t enter the library’, where the final fatHa in the verb is the subjunctive mood marker. The jussive mood is possible, but it is believed to be “due to poetic license” (p. 57). Except for its disputable etymology, this particle “has not been widely discussed by either grammarians or modern scholars. One of the reasons seems to be that the common way of speech requires the following verb in [the subjunctive]” (p. 57).

Chapter Three, KAY (pp. 59-77), discusses another important particle (operator), viz. kay and its free variant likay (generally meaning ‘in order to’) and their two corresponding negative forms, kaylaa and likaylaa, e.g. saafara kay/likay yukmila diraasatahu ‘He traveled in order to continue his studies’. The general rule dictates that we should assign a fatHa, the subjunctive mood marker, to the imperfective verb word-finally.

Chapter Four, ‘ḎAN (pp. 79-109), presents conflicting opinions about the identity of the particle ‘iḏan, also spelt with tanween (nunation). Disagreements concern not only its two spellings, but also “its definition, the necessary conditions for its influence on the following verb, [and] its etymology” (p. 107), among other things. Although the author proposes that this particle “was originally used as an adverb meaning ‘therefore’ or ‘well’ with no syntactic effect” (p. 107), he admits that it can fulfill two different roles: that of adverb and operator.

Chapter Five, ‘AW (pp. 112-125), is devoted to the particle ‘aw, basically a conjunction meaning ‘or’. Sadan, however, states that “[all] grammarians emphasize that in most sentence types in which ‘aw is followed by a verb in [the subjunctive], it denotes a meaning other than ‘or’” (p.111). In certain syntactic configurations, and with semantic similarities/dissimilarities, ‘aw may have meanings such as ‘unless’ and ‘in order to’; lines of poetry and Qur’anic verses are offered to support the argument. In the author’s words: “in most examples in this chapter the meaning of ‘aw followed by [an imperfective verb in the subjunctive mood] is indeed [‘illaa ‘an] (p.117).

Chapter Six, FA- (pp.127-171), which Sadan admits is “quite lengthy and involved” (pp.127-171), is devoted to another conjunct, viz. fa- , because “[the] mood of the imperfect verb following fa- is one of the most complex subjects in Arabic syntax” (p. 170). A number of semantic and syntactic reasons, including modality (a term which the author does not mention explicitly), are documented, especially those offered by Sībawayhi and al-Farrā’, where the former’s presentation is described as “more systematic” than the latter’s and hence more widely circulated and accepted by later grammarians.

Chapter Seven,WA- (pp. 173-195), handles the question of wa- when “it denotes a meaning other than ‘and’” (p. 174) and thus functioning as an operator which induces the following imperfective verb to take the subjunctive mood in a similar fashion to the preceding conjuncts. And as before, Sadan explores the ideas of Sībawayhi, al-Farrā’, other grammarians and those found in secondary sources (kept in that order) for the sake of comparison. Although it is said that “[the] mood of the imperfect verb following wa- has received considerably less attention than the mood of the verb following fa-'' (p. 194), yet it remains to say that both conjuncts can function as operators “in the same syntactic environments” (p. 195).

Chapter Eight, ῌATTᾹ (pp. 197-248), is concerned with the subjunctive mood of the imperfective verb following the particle ḥattā, bearing in mind that it can be followed by a verb in the indicative mood as well, in addition to being used as a preposition followed by a noun or an adverb meaning ‘finally’ (see p. 248) and as a conjunction meaning ‘and’ or an adverb meaning ‘even’. One may also add to this list the fact that it can be a discourse marker functioning as an empty category in sentence-initial position. Other meanings, such as ‘so…that’ and ‘such…that’, are additionally reported in the literature (see p. 217). Due to its multifunctional nature, arguments and counter-arguments are expected among grammarians, whether medieval or later, especially between Sībawayhi and al-Farrā’ and their supporters. And this is what the author tries to demonstrate using ample examples from various sources.

Chapter Nine, LI- (pp. 249-270), is the final chapter that deals with another particle, namely lī- and its four variants, which most grammarians reduce to two while only three are said to be dealt with by Sībawayhi (see p. 249). Apart from the two variations in pronunciation, all analyses are generally semantically-oriented. Sībawayhi, however, “maintains that the verb following lī- is [in the subjunctive mood] not due to its direct effect but to [a suppressed] ‘an” (p. 266). This is the claim made by the Basrians, whereas the Kufic school believes lī- to be an operator; that is, it has a direct effect on the following imperfective verb and hence assigning the subjunctive mood to it (p. 267).

Chapter Ten, FREE NAṢB (pp. 271-282), traces the tradition of assigning the subjunctive mood to an imperfective verb in the absence of an operator and hence the word “FREE” in the title of the chapter. Sadan refers to some rare instances whereby the mood of the associated verb is accounted for in terms of a suppressed ‘an residing in the speaker’s mind, perhaps due to poetic license as justified by Sībawayhi, for example, in two places in his work (see p. 271). The majority of grammarians, past and present, are of the view that the mood of the verb must be the indicative, not the subjunctive; rarity cannot be the rule (p. 282).

Chapter Eleven, THE POSSIBLE INTERCHANGEABILITY OF RAF’ AND NAṢB (pp. 283-290), covers the possibility of assigning the subjunctive or indicative mood interchangeably to the verb following the conjuncts ‘aw, fa- and wa- and their pertinent meanings. The Kufic school maintains that meaning remains stable irrespective of mood; their evidence comes from Qur’anic verses. The Basrians, on the other hand, defend their position in saying that each mood conveys a different meaning (see p. 290).

The last six pages (291-296) which round out the book’s whole argument under the title “DISCUSSION AND CONCLUSION” (pp. 291-296). These pages summarize the differences in approach between early grammarians, especially Sībawayhi and al-Farrā’, and later ones. Dialectal differences and historical developments in CA are reiterated; the Old Iraqi School, mainly represented by Kufic thought, is once more brought up. In the end, the speaker’s intention cannot be ignored in any grammatical analysis.

Let me start from the bottom line: the book is without any doubt an excellent piece of work that took the author a decade to complete. This book, like Saliha’s (2010) dissertation, which is written in Arabic, is a worm’s eye view of the “subjunctive” mood overview/review of the verb in CA.

As any book is far from perfection, a number of remarks ought to be made here. First of all, I am not happy with the title of the book; it is intriguing. I wish the generic word Arabic was converted into CA so that an average reader would be aware of what variety of Arabic is intended right from the start. Alternatively, the author could have included discussions related to Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) in order to give a more comprehensive picture. For example, textbook writers introducing MSA to non-native speakers do not distinguish between case such as ‘accusative’, assigned to nouns, and the corresponding mood, e.g. subjunctive, assigned to verbs. Like all Arab grammarians, ancient and modern, only one grammatical term is given for both case and mood, viz. manṣūb, and this is what instructors erroneously teach at the American DLIFLC (Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center), for example, right now, whereas Sadan does make the correct distinction but without a comment about such confusion. He is, however, to be thanked for clarification.

Secondly, footnoting as well as cross-referencing is overused; the reader is disrupted now and then, especially with the overused “See”, to the extent that one loses focus and interest to go on reading smoothly. An average reader in particular is likely to get bored; s/he will have to leave out what might be called ‘redundancies’.

Four more issues are worth noting: (1) some explanations are not supported by examples (see, for example, pp. 156-157); (2) examples in Arabic script are so rare (but see chapter 4); (3) transcription that is intended as phonetic representation that should not start with Roman capital letters as if we were starting an English sentence; and (4) the inclusion of tribal variations in pronunciation is unnecessary for the purpose of generalizations; a few instances do not count that much in accounting for any grammatical system.

Last but not least, the only lexical mistake which I found is the word “literary” (p. 316 line 10), which ought to be ‘literally’; otherwise, the production quality is an amazing.

Saliha, Amal Mahmood. 2010. Operators inducing the subjunctive mood in the imperfective verb as documented in the book of Saḥīḥ al-Bukhāri (in Arabic): An applied syntactic study. Unpublished M.A. dissertation. Ghazza Strip: Islamic University. Retrieved on 4 Feb. 2013:
Dinha Gorgis is a former professor of linguistics who has taught at a number of Arab universities since 1973 and is currently an Assistant Professor of Arabic at DLIFLC in Monterey, California. He is also ex-editor-in-chief of Sayyab Translation Journal, published in London, and a reviewer on the editorial board of linguistik, The Linguistic Journal, and Glossa. He has reviewed for the LINGUIST List and for eLanguage. His most recent contribution is: “Academies of the Arabic Language and the Standardization of Arabic. Encyclopedia of Applied Linguistics, ed. Chapelle, C. A. Oxford, UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012.

Format: Hardback
ISBN-13: 9789004232952
Pages: 402
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