Arabic Workout 01

Constant repetition mixed with something new – that’s a recipe for getting better at Arabic. In the Arabic Workout series, we will refresh and deepen our knowledge from time to time. I’ll serve up a little of the old and a few new surprises. In this issue: The verb رَأَى, the number 9,441,861, and the Egyptian-Arabic phrase bala neela.

Sharpen up your conjugation skills

The imperative of رَأَى – to see, to think

The I-verb رَأَى -يَرَى means to see; also: to think. It is one of the most complicated verbs in Arabic as sometimes letters get mixed up.

In particular, the imperative (أمر) is tricky as we end up with a form only consisting of one letter (plus one vowel) which is quite rare in Arabic.

أنتَ – you m.رَ
أنتِ – you f.رَيْ
أنتما – you bothرَيا
أنتم – you pl. m.رَوا
أنتنَّ – you pl. f.رَيْنَ
Imperative of the Arabic verb رَأى – to see/to think

Let’s go one step further and quickly repeat the forms we often need:

  • Active participle (اسمُ الفاعِل): راءٍ
  • Passive participle (اسْمُ المفْعُول): مَرْئيّ
  • Infinitive (مصدر): رَأْي or رُؤْية
هما mرَأَيايَرَيانِيَرَيايَرَيا
هما fرَأَتاتَرَيانِتَرَياتَرَيا
Conjugation of the Arabic verb رَأى – to see/to think – ACTIVE

هما mرُئِيايُرَيانِيُرَيايُرَيا
هما fرُئِيَتاتُرَيانِتُرَياتُرَيا
Conjugation of the Arabic verb رَأى – to see/to think – PASSIVE

Thinking in Numbers

Writing numbers correctly is challenging in Arabic and a kind of puzzle-solving and brain-jogging. Every month, we will analyze a number in depth.

Rules for writing numbers in ArabicRules for writing numbers in Arabic
Rules for writing numbers in Arabic, source: book Arabic for Nerds two

Analysis of 9,441,861

Let’s assume we talk about US-dollars:

9,441,861 US-Dollars

تِسْعَةُ مَلايِينَ وَأَرْبَعُمِائَةٍ وَواحِدٌ وَأَرْبَعُونَ أَلْفًا وَثَمانِمِائَةٍ وَواحِدٌ وَسِتُّونَ دُولارًا أَمْرِيكِيًّا

9 million + [(400 + 1 +40) thousand] + 800 + 1 + 60

Let’s analyze the number step by step.

  • The Arabic word for a million is مِلْيون and is a masculine noun.
  • Since we have a number from 3-10, in our situation nine, we need the opposite gender of the number (= feminine) and put the word million in Arabic into plural: مَلايينُ.
  • Watch out: the word مَلايينُ is a so-called diptote (ممنوع من الصرف).
  • Regarding the grammatical position here, مَلايين is the second part of a إضافة-construction and thus needs the genitive case (مجرور).
  • Since مَلايين is a diptote, we do not put “-in” (كسرة) but “a” (فتحة) to mark the case. Grammatically speaking, however, the word مَلايين here is in the genitive case!
  • In Arabic, large numbers are not read largest to smallest like in English, where one is the last number in the chain (four hundred forty-one). In Arabic, it is similar to German (vierhunderteinundvierzig), in other words: 100’s then 1’s then 10’s – which would be in English: four hundred and one and forty.
  • Regarding compound numbers with one such as 41 – there are two options for writing them:

    OPTION 1: The more classical way would be to use an إضافة-construction with أحَدٌ respectively إِحْدَى. For the number 41, you get in the masculine form أَحَدٌ وَأَرْبَعونَ and in the feminine form إِحْدَى وَأَرْبَعونَ. Whether you use the masculine or feminine form depends on the counted noun. Since we have multiples of ten (forty), the counted noun works as a specification (تمييز) and thus gets the accusative case (منصوب).

    OPTION 2: You use واحِدٌ which is more common nowadays as Modern Standard Arabic is increasingly influenced by colloquial Arabic. If you use واحِدٌ, the word is placed grammatically as an adjective.

    So, is there a difference in meaning? Not really, it is more a matter of style, but from a pure Arabic point of view, you put more stress on the meaning “one” when you use واحِدٌ.

  • The word ألف (thousand) is treated here as the counted noun.
  • Since the closest number to the “counted noun” is 40, we need the singular form of ألف and the accusative case (منصوب) because in numbers 30, 40, 50, the counted noun has the grammatical job of a specification (تَمْيِيز).
  • First we write the multiple of one hundred, i.e., the 3 to 10 element of 300 to 900.
  • In multiples of one hundred, the number from 3 to 10 serves as the first part of a إضافة. The second part is the word مائة. In case you wonder about the Aleph in مائة, check out this article.
  • The first part (3 to 10 of the hundreds) takes whatever grammatical case is required by its position in the sentence. Since we do not analyze the number in a given context (sentence), we use the nominative case (مرفوع).
  • Don’t forget that again, we need and (و) to connect the numbers.
  • Now we write the number 61. Here, since the number 1 is involved, we need to use the same gender as dollar (= masculine) as the opposite gender only applies from 3 to 10. So do not write واحدة. However, if we had, for example, 63, you use the opposite gender for 3 and would get: ثلاثة وستون دولارا.

The last word (= counted noun): US dollar

  • It is a masculine word (though that only matters for the correct gender of the word one of 861).
  • The element closest to it is سِتُّونَ (sixty).
  • For such numbers, we need the counted noun in the singular form. And we need the accusative case (منصوب) as the word is a specification (تمييز) which is why we write دُولارًا أَمْرِيكِيًّا.

Deepen your Egyptian Arabic

When I first lived in Egypt, the book and the TV series عايزة أتجوز (I want to get married) were a big hit. That’s a long time ago. Even though it wasn’t really my topic, I used it as a basis for improving my Egyptian-Arabic and made countless notes in the book. I’ll share a few snippets here from time to time.

Word-by-word translation

سموا كده وخليكوا معايا واحدة واحدة.. خلينا نتفق الأول إن موضوع الجواز والعرسان وتأخر الجواز ده موضوع حساس جدا

Say your bismillahs and stick with me step by step. First off, let’s just agree that his whole marriage, and suitors, and marrying late business is really sensitive.

لأن اللي بتتكلم فيه بصراحة يا إما بيتبصلها على إنها قليلة الأدب ومتربتش يا إما على إنها مسروعة الجواز .. يا إما على إنها بارت ومش لاقية حد يتجوزها .. عشان كده تلاقوا بنات كتير بتقول: جواز إيه بلا نيلة

Because girls who talk about this honestly are either seen as rude and ill-bred (badly raised), or as obsessed with getting married. Either that or as old maids who can’t find anyone to marry them. That’s why you find so many girls saying things like: “Forget about marriage (it’s not worth it)”.

Important words and expressions

سَمَّىsay the Basmalah

The II-verb سَمَّى usually means to name; to call by a name, but it can also mean to pronounce the Islamic formula bismillahi el-rahman el-raheem (Basmalah). Of course, in such a book, it is not really used in a religious context but more as a phrase when people introduce new things or start new ventures.

واحدة واحدةslowly, easy

It is pronounced wahda, wahda and mainly denotes that you should do something with care, step by step, gently. If someone should drive carefully, you can say wahda wahda.

يا إماeither… (or)

Usually in formal Arabic, the device يا is used as a vocative particle before names to call/address someone. But in Egyptian Arabic, it is often used as a conjunction expressing: either (… or).

بيتبصلها علىshe is seen as

Sometimes, writers add prepositions to verbs or nouns which make it difficult to decipher words for non-native speakers. Here, the ل of the verb is not part of the verb. بيتبص لها. The I-verb بَصَّ لِ means to look at (something). To express a passive meaning of I-verbs in Egyptian Arabic, you often use the verb pattern اِتفعل.

قليل الأدبill-mannered

Literally, قليل means little, but if it is used in a إضافة-construction, it expresses lacking in; having little of.

متربتشnot (well) raised

The Egyptian V-verb اِتْرَبَّى means to be raised; but often also in the sense of to be well brought-up. The م at the beginning and the ش at the end are the devices for the negation.

بارِتْshe became undesirable (unmarriageable)

The I-verb بار – يبُور means to be or become undesirable or unmarketable. So, the sentence el-bint baaret (البنت بارت) means the girl became unmarriageable. When I was in Egypt, still, I could hear the proverb: an unmarriageable woman belongs in the father’s house (البايرة لِبيت ابوها – el-bayra libeet abuuha).

The word بايرة (= the active participle, feminine form) is common in many dialects and is used for a woman who was never married, but has passed the age of marriage (usually linked to the ability of having children).

The Arabic root ب-و-ر and the I-verb بارَ is an old root, already mentioned in the Holy Qur’an int the sense of to waste; to perish. The word بَوارٌ, in the Qur’an, means utter loss, and is used in verse 14:28: Have you not seen those disbelievers who meet Allah’s favors with ingratitude and lead their own people to their doom? (أَلَمْ تَرَ إِلَى ٱلَّذِينَ بَدَّلُوا۟ نِعْمَتَ ٱللَّهِ كُفْرًۭا وَأَحَلُّوا۟ قَوْمَهُمْ دَارَ ٱلْبَوَارِ)

The adjective buurany (بوراني) means made of dried ingredients (as opposed to fresh ones). There is a German singer called “Andreas Bourani”, so I am actually not sure if his last name has any connection to this word as his parents, whom he had never met (he grew up in a German foster-family), were most probably of North-African decent.

جَواز إِيه بَلا نِيلةForget about marriage!

The expression “bala neela” (بلا نيلة) is interesting. It can mean various things: Whatever! It’s not worth it! Forget about it! Also: crap! bullshit!

It consists of two words: We have the word bala which can mean without or is used as a device signalling prohibition or disapproval (damn). And we have نِيلة. In old dictionaries of Classical Arabic, I could learn that also the words نِيل (as in the river Nile) and نِيلة denote indigo. Now, what’s indigo?

Indigo is a blue color extracted from the indigo plant, one of the most famous Egyptian plants (in old times). Some people have suggested that it took its name because of its growth on the banks of the Nile River. Indigo was known already in Pharaonic times. In the Delta and in Upper Egypt, farmers sometimes wore blue robes, which were also dyed with indigo. In old times, Egyptian women in the countryside used this indigo as a dye on their faces to express sadness over the death of a dear person (it was one of the many signs).

From that connotation, though this is just my guess, the meaning of disaster has evolved. For example: gat-ak neela (جاتك نيلة), which you can often hear in old Egyptian movies (for example with Mary Munib). Also itnayyil bi-neela means the same (go to hell).

Today, the word neela can also mean lousy, rotten. For example, houses in a rotten condition (بيوت مستواها نيلة).

You can even use the word as a verb: nayyel (نيّل) which means to mess up or اِتْنَيِّل which means to get in a mess; to get lost. It is often used as an intensifier: I didn’t get the bloody job or anything! (لا اتوظَّفْت ولا اتنَيِّلْت). If you use the participle مِتْنَيِّل, often with يا, it means you miserable! (يا متنيّل).

Send us your topic! This is an ongoing series on Arabic for Nerds and will be tailored to your needs. What do you find difficult about Arabic? What would you like to see repeated here? If you have a topic, please drop me a line or use the comment section below.

If you would like to write an episode of an Arabic workout for Arabic for Nerds, you are very welcome – just send me a message and outline your topics!

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