In English, we have the word “he”, “him”, and “his”. All three of these are in fact the same word, but that word changes depending on how it’s used in a sentence. For example, you will say “I hit him”, but you will never say “I hit he” nor “I hit his”.
If “he” is becoming subject, you will say “He ate.” If it is becoming object, you will say “I hit him.” And if it is becoming possessive, you will say “His son.” The word being used is the same, but its form changes based on how you use it in a sentence, and this is called grammatical inflection.
The word HE in different grammatical cases
I hit him
Can you think of some other English words that inflect like this or similar to this?
Now, in English, very few words experience inflection. For example, nouns such as “Nick” do not change based on how they’re used in a sentence. You will say “Nick ate”, “I hit Nick”, and “Nick’s son” (or “the son of Nick”). You will say “Nick” in all three cases.
The word NICK in different grammatical cases
I hit Nick
In Arabic, the same thing happens except that most nouns (and even some verbs) experience grammatical inflection.
The Emotions Analogy
Now inflection in the two languages is not the same. So let’s work with a more suitable analogy.
Human beings experience emotions such as happiness, sadness, and anger. These emotions are reflected on a person’s face. For example, happiness is reflect through a smile, sadness through a glum look, and anger through a frown.
So when a person is happy, we will know this because we will see a smile on their face. Conversely, if we see a smile on a person’s face, we know that they are happy.
Not everyone shows their happiness in the same way; some people smile, others start laughing, and others might reflect their emotions in slightly different ways.
Now why would a person become happy or sad or mad? It is because there are certain types of people that influence their mood. Family and friends, for example, have the capacity to influence a person’s mood, making them feel happy, sad, or mad. Other individuals, such as people they do not know, do not have such an influence on them.
So let’s say Zaid is not really feeling anything. Then along comes his friend Nick and makes him happy. Zaid will become happy, this happiness will be reflect on his face by a smile, and we say that it is Nick who caused the happiness in Zaid.
Humans can change their mood depending on whom they meet. But some encounters are strange; sometimes people can change their mood simply by seeing someone else’s mood. If Zaid is not really feeling anything and he sees Nick smiling, it is quite likely that he too will start smiling. Not always, but this is the case for certain people.
Now, before we overdo this analogy and end up drawing incorrect conclusions, let’s bring this all back and talk about grammatical inflection in Arabic.
Arabic words do not really have states on their own. But when you put them in a sentence (like people in a community) , they start having grammatical states. Many words experience states (like “he” in English), some do not (like “Nick”), and some experience states but they don’t reflect it (like a person wearing a poker face).
Types of words based on whether they inflect or not
Words that inflect and show it
Words that inflect but do not show it
Words that do not inflect
Words experience grammatical states because other words start influencing them (like friends influence a human’s mood). Certain types of words can influence others (like family and friends), while others cannot (like acquaintances).
Types of words based on whether they influence inflection or not
Words that influence other words to inflect
Words that do NOT influence others to inflect
Another way words can be grammatically influenced is by seeing the state of another word and mimicking it (like when Zaid becomes happy after seeing Nick smile).
Ways in which a word can be influenced by other words
Word 1 directly influences word 2
Word 1 influences word 2, then that influence carries over to word 3
When a word is influenced in one of the two mentioned ways, its state changes (like human’s moods change) and this is reflected at the end of the word (like emotions are reflected on our faces).
What is the Purpose of All This?
When we use language, we need a way to tell us which part of a sentence is the subject and which is the predicate, which word is the subject of a verb and which is the object, etc. Without such a mechanism, sentences would just be a bunch of words slapped together that really make no sense.
In English, the mechanism is word order and extra words. For example, if we have three words – hit, Nick, and Zaid – and we say “Nick hit Zaid”, how do you know who did the hitting and who was hit? The order of the words tells you. The fact that Nick is before the verb tells you that he did the hitting, and the fact that Zaid is after tells you that he was the one hit. If you switch the order, “Zaid hit Nick”, the meaning is changed.
Another example: “Nick is crazy”. Who are we talking about and what are we saying about him? We are talking about Nick and we are saying that he is crazy. But how do we know this? We know this because there is a special word, “is”, that comes in the sentence; everything before the word is the subject (what we’re talking about), and everything following is the predicate (what we’re saying about it).
In Arabic, no such mechanisms are used. Words can be arranged in many permutations and no extra words are introduced to support understanding the sentence. But we still need to know what the subject is, what the object is, where the predicate starts, etc. We do this by grammatical inflection. It is the grammatical case of a word that tells us what role it’s playing in a sentence and hence helps us understand the meaning.
Grammatical inflection is known in Arabic as اِعْرَاب. If a word experiences اعراب it is called مُعْرَب, and if it does not experience اعراب, or experiences it but does not show it (like a poker face), it is called مَبْنِيّ.
The types of words that cause grammatical states are known as عَامِل and those that do not are called غَيْر عَامِل. When a word is influenced indirectly (like when Zaid becomes happy after seeing Nick smile), it is called the تَابِع and the word it mimics is called the مَتْبُوْع.
Unlike human emotions, the grammatical states in Arabic are just four:
1. the state of رَفْع
2. the state of نَصْب
3. the state of جَرّ
4. the state of جَزْم
There are 8 roles a noun can play in a sentence that would make it مَرْفُوْع (in the state of رفع), there are 12 roles a noun can play in a sentence that would make it مَنْصُوْب (in the state of نصب), there are 2 roles a noun can play in a sentence that would make it مَجْرُوْر (in the state of جر). For example, one of the 8 roles a noun can play is to be the subject of a verb. Arabic grammar talks about each of these 22 roles and carries the discussion over to verbs as well.
When a word enters one of these four states, that state must be reflected somehow. Depending on the type of word we’re talking about, this reflection might be done differently. There are a total of 9 ways in which a state can be reflected and grammar talks about this.
ضرب زيدٌ عمراً
The example means “Zaid hit Amr.” Here the verb ضرب does not experience اعراب and hence it is مبني. The nouns زيد and عمرو, on the other hand, do experience اعراب and are thus معرب.
The verb ضرب is an agent (عامل) and it is influencing both زيد and عمرو. It is causing زيد to be مرفوع and عمرو to be منصوب. So زيد is مرفوع by means of this verb because it is its subject (which is one of the 8 roles of رفع). And عمرو is منصوب also by means of the verb because it is its object (which is one of the 12 roles of نصب).
Finally, how do we know that زيد is مرفوع and عمرو is منصوب? Is it because زيد is first? No; we could’ve swapped the two nouns while still maintaining the same meaning. For these particular words, we know the grammatical states by the vowels on the last letters. The ضمة on زيد tells us that its مرفوع and the فتحة on عمرو tells us that its منصوب. The fact that the vowels are doubled and that عمرو has an الف at the end is not important for our purposes.