كيف حالك ؟ Arabic Filter: Help me settle this question about cases.
September 21, 2006 3:32 PM   Subscribe

كيف حالك ؟ Arabic Filter: Help me settle this question about cases.

I've been learning Arabic for a little while now. One thing that constantly crops up is cases. Now, I don't find them really difficult at all, but every time I ask my teacher about the frequency of their use, she says they're really only used in poetry, the Qur'an, and other extenuating circumstances.

So the question is simple: is this true?

What makes me think it is: According to her, even Al-Jazeera speaks without cases.

What makes me think it isn't: My "Easy Arabic Grammar" book includes case lessons at the end of each unit. Obviously, that doesn't necessarily mean anything, but the fact that it's a "simlpe" grammar book and it includes that makes me wonder.

So, can any speakers help me out?

As a bonus, side-question to make this thread more interesting, if anyone feels like it (since Arabic speakers are so rare): what do you love about the language? What were the pitfalls, for you? Where did you go, if anywhere, to use it in everyday situations? Etc.
posted by Lockeownzj00 to Writing & Language (15 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
What do you mean by 'cases'? Can you give examples? I am confused.
posted by convex at 4:14 PM on September 21, 2006

Best answer: My wife is from the Middle East and confidently informs me that your teacher is right - it really is just the Qur'an, other ancient literature and poetry, although cases are used sparingly for emphasis in some other modern writing e.g. academic writing in arts subjects. They feature heavily in your grammar book because of the enormous importance of the Qu'ran in Arabic culture, and I suspect because a large portion of the audience for the book is actually learning Arabic specifically in order to be able to read it.

On preview: grammatical case.
posted by teleskiving at 4:16 PM on September 21, 2006

I've heard that the cases are vestigal. However nobody is allowed to change the text of the Qu'ran which is why they stay there.
posted by MonkeySaltedNuts at 4:20 PM on September 21, 2006

Best answer: Here's an article that amongst other things discusses cases in Arabic, for the curious.

My own progress in Arabic is pretty bad and doesn't cover anything outside of everyday dialect Arabic, but I will say that I love its terseness!
posted by teleskiving at 4:31 PM on September 21, 2006

I have read both articles and I still don't know what is meant by 'cases'. My mother tongue is arabic, what is the translation of 'cases' in arabic?
posted by convex at 4:35 PM on September 21, 2006

I think a relevant passage might be
Arabic has three cases, then: the nominative, the accusative and the genitive. The "nominative" is used to mark the noun that is the subject of a sentence (it is also the "default" case for citing a noun or adjective). The sign of the nominative is generally a final short vowel "u," although in some cases other endings must be used. In addition, there are words that are indeclinable and other exceptions that complicate the situation even more.
I don't speak arabic but I think the OP is talking about "cases" like these, which even language like english have, but english does not usually indicate case by word ending, but rather by word ordering within the sentence.
posted by RustyBrooks at 4:50 PM on September 21, 2006

I can't really answer your question about cases...I'm not that far along and kind of gave up on my studies before I got to cases.

What I love about Arabic is the sound of it; of course, it helps that I am married to an Arabic speaker! I love listening to my husband call home or talk with his friends. I think it's very sing-song despite the glottal stops and the 'ain and kh and q, and I love trying to speak it. I can say the sounds, read and write, but I am not very good at putting complicated sentences together so it's a little frustrating. I can understand maybe 30% of what is being said when sitting with my husband's family but only about 10% when watching the news (the context of the family helps comprehension a LOT!).
posted by kenzi23 at 4:57 PM on September 21, 2006

Some pronouns in English change depending on their case (I/me, he/him, she/her, they/them, who/whom).
posted by mbrubeck at 4:59 PM on September 21, 2006

Best answer: Cases are part of Classical Arabic (the kind in the Qur'an) and they are not part of Modern Arabic (the kind people actually speak). It's parallel to what's happened in many Western European languages (Old English and Latin had case endings on nouns; modern English and the Romance languages don't); the difference is that nobody but specialists is expected to know the long-dead case endings of European languages, but because of the cultural prestige of Classical Arabic and the (counterproductive and frankly nutty) insistence that it's the only "real" form of the language and the Arabic actually spoken in Arabic-speaking countries is just "dialectal" and to be avoided by foreign learners, people who study Arabic are expected to memorize noun endings that haven't been used in the living language for centuries and that (to make matters worse) are not easy to write or recognize in the laconic Arabic writing system. The article linked by teleskiving is great but quite long, so I'll excerpt the relevant part here:
Arabic has three cases, then: the nominative, the accusative and the genitive. The "nominative" is used to mark the noun that is the subject of a sentence (it is also the "default" case for citing a noun or adjective). The sign of the nominative is generally a final short vowel "u," although in some cases other endings must be used. In addition, there are words that are indeclinable and other exceptions that complicate the situation even more.

The accusative case is used to designate the object of a verb in a verbal sentence, as well as being the case used for creating adverbs from nouns and adjectives. It has a number of additional uses as well, but these are the two most frequent. Its most common marker is a short vowel "a" placed at the end of the word.

Like the accusative case, the genitive case has a number of uses. It is the most common case in the Arabic language, no doubt the result of the fact that it is used to indicate the objects of all prepositions... It is also used to designate the noun which is the "possessor" in a possessive phrase (like the *--’s in the English phrase "the teacher’s book"). The marker used to indicate the genitive case in most instances is a short vowel "i" placed at the end of the word.

The use of cases in Arabic is complicated by the fact that the Arabic script only allows the writer to show the consonants and long vowels of a word. The short vowels can be indicated by a system of straight and curved lines placed above and below the letters, but these are time consuming to write and are normally included only in texts where it is important to indicate correct pronunciation: the Qur‘an, children’s textbooks, and (sometimes) poetry. This means that the reader must supply the case endings from her/his own knowledge of the language structure (syntax) when reading aloud. It also makes reconstructing the historical developments of the language more difficult, because we often cannot tell exactly how a written inscription was pronounced, or whether the language used in the inscription had a full complement of case endings or not.
Hopefully the Arabic speakers who are not sure what is mean by "case" will get the idea from that.
posted by languagehat at 5:45 PM on September 21, 2006 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Here's another question for ya'll, if you're still around:

I've been learning the Lebanese flava of Arabic, but pragmatically speaking, the Egyptian might be far more useful (not that I dislike this version--I'm sure this will condition me to a unique perspective of the language). How different are they? Do I have to be well-grounded before I confuse myself with Egyptian Arabic, or is it just a matter of pronunciation and vocabulary (ie, not changing the way you conjugate things like Japanese dialects tend to do).

Thanks for all the answers so far!
posted by Lockeownzj00 at 5:58 PM on September 21, 2006

Yup, jumping on the "no cases, mostly" pile. Native speakers please correct me, of course, but I'll say: technically, they're part of Modern Standard, but nobody really speaks Modern Standard.
posted by pullayup at 6:00 PM on September 21, 2006

Another new Arabic-student here. I'm loving the writing and I love that I'm able to put words together already after less than a month. It's going a lot faster than I expected it to!

Good luck to you!
posted by srah at 6:19 PM on September 21, 2006

Egyptian is very deformed Arabic, and you will find it very different than Lebanese which is a bit closer to traditional Arabic. In Egyptian you not only name things differently, but also pronounce certain letters in a way that does not exist in Arabic all together, for example, the letter 'Ja' is pronounced 'Ga', as you know in Arabic there is no 'Ga'.
Also the frequency of words spoken in a sentence in Egyptian varies a lot than Lebanese. 'Egyptian can be fast paced and more musical' than Lebanese which can be a bit choppy 'more pauses between words'.
My mother tongue is Lebanese btw, I do recommend you learn Lebanese first instead of Egyptian because the Egyptian dialect might deform your true sense in grasping traditional Arabic.
And btw, I still have no clue what the heck is a case, none so far gave an Arabic example nor mentioned what it is called in Arabic, instead giving English examples does not help at all. If you want to know about a matter in Arabic, name it in Arabic.
posted by convex at 9:08 PM on September 21, 2006

Best answer: Case endings.

Let me first try to explain (or at least clarify) what they are, and then I'll try and describe how they really function in Arabic as it's currently used. A "case" in a language describes how parts of that language change in particular situations. In French, the feminine case might sometimes indicate that "e" or "ette" be added to the end of a word. In English, one way of showing a possessive relationship requires putting an apostrophe and then an "s" at the end of the word: "George's sandwich" is the equivalent of "the sandwich of George." These are all kinds of cases.

Some languages take it a step further. Arabic, like German and Latin, give even higher-order grammatical ideas their own special markings. In classical Arabic the subject of a verb, its direct object, its indirect object, possessive relationships, perfect and imperfect verbs, and many other cases all need to be indicated clearly.

So the case system has no "function," per se. It's a consequence of the langage. Arabic (and others) just do it. This is one of the main problems I had when I first started learning.

Arabic shows cases by using Harakat (حركات), diacritics, which indicate vowel sounds. (In some situations those sounds are appended directly to the word using letters, but that's way above this discussion.) There are three types of Harakat: FatHa ("a," like "adjust" ), Damma ("oo"), and kasra (short "i").

To give an idea of what kind of complexity we're talking about, Arabic has two broadly defined classes of case: verbal - that is, relating to verbs - and nominal, which apply only to nouns. The nominal cases are the genitive, also called majrur (مجرور) and indicated by the kasra; the nominative, called marfua' (مرفوع) and indicated by damma; and the accusative, called manSuub(منصوب) and indicated by fatHa. The verbal cases are the perfect, called al-maadi (الماضي); the imperfect indicative, or al-mudaari' al-marfua' (المضارع المرفوع); the imperfect subjunctive, called al-mudaari' al-mansuub (المضارع المنصوب); and the imperfect jussive, called al-mudaari' al-majzuum (المضارع المجزوم).

That's an overview. I can assure you that if you continue to keep up with Arabic, cases will become the bane of your existence.

Now, cases aren't especially useful. People so far have been correct in pointing out that they're used (or invoked) most commonly in reference to the Qur'an, where the difference between whether a verb is passive or active, and as indicated by the corresponding case, could be an important theological issue. They're also used in news broadcasts and political speeches, neither of which you'll likely be doing in your career as an Arabist. So why are they taught if they're not useful? Because knowledge of case endings has always been a sign of good education. Knowing how to put together a good solid sentence with proper case endings will mark you as someone who knows his or her stuff. To hear someone speak in a dramatic and flowing fusHa (classical Arabic), with full case endings, is something quite special.

I complained about this once to a Jordanian fellow I met, who said like this: "Sure. If you speak to a cabdriver or a shop owner with case endings, they'll laugh at you. But as soon as you walk away, that guy's friend will punch him in the head and say 'see that? He speaks Arabic better than you do!'"

Most educated people when speaking in formal contexts will do their best to use as much fusHa as their knowledge permits. I personally believe that if you want to master the language you try and do the same.

Finally, what I enjoy about Arabic. Someone above mentioned that they appreciate Arabic's "terseness." I respectfully disagree. What I continually marvel at is Arabic's ability to find the right word for the right occasion. One of my favorite verbs is إغدَودَن (ighdaudana) "To grow long, luxurious hair." Classical Arabic has a rhythm and a flow all its own, and prizes being able to say the same thing in many different ways. A well-written speech might include a phrase like "and this well-regarded and highly-esteemed gentlemen of great stature, who is long of patience and large in humbleness, etc." And spoken Arabic is a wonderfully rich folk language with expressive gestures, idioms, and a series of call-and-response sayings you'll catch yourself working into everyday conversations. My Cairo friends - almost none of them Muslim - would speak in strange Arabic-English hybrids, and insh'alla ("god willing) and hamdulilla ("praise god") would show up at appropriate and sometimes inappropriate occasions.

I hope this is somewhat helpful. I've learned a fair bit of Levantine Arabic, though my Egyptian isn't nearly as good as it could be, and I'm happy to help with any other Arabic questions you might have.
posted by awenner at 12:18 AM on September 22, 2006 [2 favorites]

awenner, thanks for that very clear explanation.
If that is the case then yes cases are indeed important, I use them all the time and al jazeera do use them too. The only situation where you might tend to ignore cases is when speaking, but when reading a newspaper or writing almost anything, "you don't write in modern arabic do you?" you will find yourself using cases.
Most of the correct usage over time will start to come from how it sounds rather the words' order and grammar. I don't know about your teacher, pay attention to that 'easy' arabic book of yours and you will appreciate arabic even more and will be appreciated in return as an arabist. As awenner mentioned people might laugh at you if you are probably a native but as a forghiner speaking in a proper way they can only show admiration.
posted by convex at 8:30 AM on September 22, 2006

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