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Lesson 7c: Roots and Patterns

Lesson 7, Part A:
  • Intro
  • Dialogue
Lesson 7, Part B:
  • Questions
Lesson 7, Part C:
Arabic Root System
  1. Read about the Arabic Root and Pattern system.
  2. Take the Root Comprehension Quiz.
Roots & Patterns

One of the most interesting aspects of Semitic languages like Arabic is the Word Root System.

What is a Word Root? A word root is a group of letters (usually three) that has a general meaning. Variations of this root are created by applying patterns to create actual words that are related to the meaning of the root. As an example the root (d r s):
د ر س

has the general meaning of learning. Here are some words derived from this 3-Letter Root:
د ر س
To study
To teach

Go through each word and make sure you can pick out the root. Note that letters can appear between the root letters but that all three of them always appear in the same order.

Why should I bother with roots? Good question. Here are some of the benefits of paying attention to roots from the beginning of your Arabic studies.
  • Learning new words: When you learn a new word that has the same root as another word you already know, it makes it much easier. The two words then reenforce each other so that you can always use the one to remember the other. For example if you already know the word for green and you recognize that the word for vegetable has the same root, it will be much easier to learn.
  • Guessing new words: When you are reading and come across a new word that you don't know but which shares a root that you do know, it can help you guess at the meaning until you have time to look it up in a dictionary.
  • Finding Patterns: As described in the next section, patterns are the letters left in a word once you remove the root.
Weak Letters: When used as a root letter, the three long vowels ا ، و، يare considered "weak" in that depending on the pattern used, they may or may not be present.

Root Length:
  • Three-Letter: The vast majority of words in Arabic have 3 root letters.
  • Four-Letter: A small number of words have have 4 root letters. Many of these are actually the same two letters repeated twice.
  • Five-Letter: There is a very small number of nouns which have 5 root letters. However no verbs have 5 root letters.
  • Two-Letter: Officially there are no words with a two-letter root. But this is awkward for words with only two letters like أَب (father) and أَخ (brother).Many linguists believe that originally the Semitic languages (Arabic and Hebrew) made strong use of Two-Letter roots but that over time most of them become Three-Letter roots. The traces remain in a small number of two letter words as well as in groups of three-letter words with a similar meaning and the same first two letters for their root.

What letters can form the root?
  • Short vowels and the taa' marbuuTa NEVER form part of the root
  • Weak letters can form part of the root but are often missing or altered
  • In addition the following 10 letters are sometimes part of a pattern and not part of the root: The 3 weak letters ( ا و ي), the hamza (ء), and these 6 letters ( ت ,س ,ل ,م ,ن, هـ )

Over time you'll get better at separating the root from the pattern and it will become automatic.

A pattern (also referred to as Measure, Form, Meter or Weight) consists of the letters in a word other than the root. While the root will convey a meaning like: food, writing or beauty, the pattern conveys a grammatical meaning like: "The most X", "The thing that has been Xed" or "The one who Xs".

Specifying a Pattern: A pattern is general and can be applied (in theory) to any root. So how do you specify a pattern? The traditional way in Arabic, which we will also use, is to use the root for "To Do":
ف ع ل
(f 3 l) as a generic root to show patterns. Now let's look at some examples:

Example 1: Noun of Place (إسم مَكان)

Pattern: Place of X

Once again, we are applying the pattern to the generic root "f 3 l", and we end up with "maf3al". If we replace the root letters with a dash, we would get "ma--a-". Make sure you understand what we are doing before moving on.

For our first example we will combine this pattern with the root (T 3 m) ط ع م which has the general meaning of "Feeding/Food" to get the Arabic word for restaurant. So if we plug this root into the Pattern "ma--a-", we end up with "maT3am".

Restaurant - maT3am

Note: There are a few variations of this pattern (different vowels and taa' marbuuTa) but they all start with "ma" or "mu". For example we gave madrasa which ends with a taa' marbuuTa as an example above.

Example 2: Superlative

A superlative means "The most X", such as the biggest, smallest, tallest, etc. While in English we add "est" to an adjective to make a superlative, in Arabic a pattern is used. The pattern for a superlative is:

Pattern: The most X

For our second example we will combine this pattern with the root (k b r) ك ب ر which has the general meaning of "big" to get the Arabic word for "biggest/greatest". So if we plug this root into the Pattern "af3al", we end up with "akbar".

Biggest/Greatest - akbar

Note: Not all adjectives use this pattern, but most do. Superlatives will be covered in detail in TenguGo Arabic 2.

Example 3: Verb Form

Verb forms are a very important (and complicated) topic that will be covered in detail in TenguGo Arabic 2. To summarize there are 10 verb forms (or verb patterns). When studying Arabic these 10 forms are usually numbered from I to X using Roman numerals (Native speakers don't use this numbering system).

The simplest verb form is I (that's Roman numeral 1) which is what you will be learning starting in Lesson 10. Verb forms II through X (that's Roman numerals 2 through 10) will be covered in TenguGo Arabic 2 and each have a general meaning like "To do X repeatedly" or "To try to do X" or "To do X with effort". For our example, we will use Verb Form VII (Don't worry about what a form VII verb is exactly. We are using it as an example of a somewhat complicated pattern).

Verb Form VII

The meaning that a Verb Form VII imparts on a root isn't as straight forward as the superlative and "Noun of Place" patterns but it is often results in a passive or reflexive verb. For this example we'll apply it to the root (k s r) ك س ر which has the general meaning of Break. So if we plug this root into the pattern "infa3ala", we end up with "inkasara".

To be broken - inkasara

Finding the Root (جِذر)
Let's go through the process of determining the root for a few examples. As you'll see, determining the root is not always obvious without some knowledge of Arabic Grammar.

Example 1: Here is the simplest scenario: A word with just three letters.

Dog - kalb
Since this word only has three letters we can assume they are all root letters. So the root is:
  1. ك
  2. ل.
  3. ب.

Example 2: This next example has 4 letters. So is it a 3 or 4 letter root?

Coffee shop - maqhaa

As you learned above one of the patterns is َمَفعَل which means "Place of X". In this case the first letter is not part of the root but rather is part of the pattern (though there are roots beginning with م). So does this mean the root is ق ه ى? Not quite. The last letter in the root is actually the weak letter و which (along with ي) sometimes becomes an Alif. The actual Root is:
  1. ق
  2. ه.
  3. و.
As in the Arabic word for coffee: قَهوة (qahwa).

Example 3: Our last example has 5 letters. Is it a 3, 4 or 5 letter root?

To be cut off - inqaTa3a

Well, hopefully you recognized this as a Form VII verb. As in the above example, you know that the first 2 letters are part of the pattern and not the root. Knowing this, we can determine that the last 3 letters form the root:
  1. ق
  2. ط.
  3. ع.
As in the Arabic word for To Cut: قَطَعَ (qaTa3a).

Note: There are several patterns that place extra letters between the root letters so you can't always get the root just by removing letters from the beginning and the end of a word.

There will be times when you just won't be able to figure out what the root is. In that case, just take a deep breathe and move on. It will get easier over time.


Root Comprehension Quiz