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Ahmad b. Ali b. Masud on Arabic Morphology, Marah al-Arwah, part 1: The Strong Verb, As-Sahih.

The Arabic grammatical tradition is one of the most impressive monuments of Islamic scholarship. The interests of medieval grammarians went beyond the linguistic structures that make up the Arabic language. The best--or perhaps most speculative--among them sought out the reason and order behind language with quasi-mystical enthusiasm. In the words of a modern scholar, the grammarians of Arabic approached their subject with a "deep sense of wonder, of uncovering deeper and deeper hidden correspondences between apparently unrelated phenomena, of contemplating |within the Arabic language~ wider and wider realms of order and harmony...."(1)

The field of Arabic grammar was generally divided into two subjects: grammar proper (ilm al-nahw) and morphology (ilm al-sarf). While the first of these has received a moderate amount of attention from modern scholars, the second has not, and the work under review promises to fill in the gaps in our knowledge. Joyce Akesson has taken Ali ibn Masud's (eighth/fourteenth century) Marah al-Arwah (The Soul's Place of Rest) and translated the first part of it--on the sahih (the strong verb)--into English. She has also provided a substantial introduction and commentary on the text, and promises to consider the rest of the Marah at a later date.

There is some very interesting material here that will appeal not only to the specialist in Arabic grammar but also to Arabists and litterateurs with more general interests. As one would expect from his work's title, Ali ibn Masud describes the rules according to which the verb is conjugated. But the author includes as well a number of more speculative remarks that consider the underlying reasons that Arabic verbs take the forms that they do. In explaining the third person, feminine, singular form (faalat), for instance, Ali explains why the letter ta is attached to the root in this case. Ta, he explains, is a dental, and so "originates," as it were, from a position that is midway between a laryngeal and a labial. One might say then that ta--and other dentals--come after laryngeals because of the manner in which they are formed. Ali suggests on this basis that it is appropriate to use the ta for a feminine form of the verb because the female species--like the dental--was formed after the male. It is comments like these that make the grammatical tradition fascinating for specialists and non-specialists alike.

Akesson has done a great service in bringing this all together in one book. It is, of course, quite nice to have the original Arabic together with the translation, but it is particularly helpful to have along with them a commentary that not only cites, but often quotes from parallel or antecedent works. This makes it possible for the reader to consider the basic text in its intellectual context which is something that few who are not specialists in grammar would have the opportunity to do.

There are, at the same time, some major shortcomings in Akesson's presentation. The most significant of these is the English translation, and the biggest problem here is the translation of technical grammatical terminology. She often renders Arabic technical terms with their literal, non-technical English equivalent. She renders ishba (which refers to lengthening the vowel by adding alif, kasrah or dammah), for instance, as "saturation", and this gives little indication of the word's technical meaning. Akesson makes little effort in the text of the translation to make the technical sense of these terms clear; she might, for instance, have expanded the text with parenthetical statements, but she does not. What is more frustrating, however, is that she does not offer any more explanation for these terms in the commentary. This section is considerably longer than the actual translation and so would certainly accommodate more discussion of grammatical terms and concepts.

The format of the book is also somewhat frustrating because the author presents the Arabic text, English translation and commentary in separate sections. One must refer simultaneously to all three of these sections in order to understand what is going on, and it is quite annoying to have to first page backward from the translation to the original text and then forward to the commentary. Reading this book would have been much easier if Akesson had put text, translation and commentary on the same page as M. Carter did in his annotated translation of another grammatical text, namely, Muhammad al-Shirbini's Nur al-Sajiyah fi Hall Alfaz al-Ajurrumiyah (Amsterdam, 1981).

Accordingly, this translation of Marah al-Arwah is not an easy book to work through. It does, however, make some interesting material more accessible and provide the intellectual context in which it should be examined. We should look forward to her presentation of more of the same material at a later date.

1 Georges Bohas, J.-P. Guillaume, and D. E. Kouloughli, The Arabic Linguistic Tradition (London: Routledge, 1990).
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Author:Smyth, William
Publication:The Journal of the American Oriental Society
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Oct 1, 1992
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