The development of verbal negation in Arabic


Different versions of the ligature lām-alif لا, meaning “no,” in the Kufic calligraphic style. Source.

Standard Arabic, both Modern and Classical/Qur’ānic forms, is well-known for having very complex synthetic grammar, consisting of a noun case system, verbal moods indicated by a suffix vowel, a passive form indicated by internal vowel alterations, and so on. In modern spoken Arabic, on the other hand, the grammar is in many instances simpler and less dependent on these types of grammatical constructions.

To illustrate the difference between Standard and modern spoken Arabic, we can look to how they indicate the negative ‘not.’ Standard Arabic has five ways to negate a verb — ‹lays-›, ‹mā›, ‹lā›, ‹lam›, and ‹lan› — each with their own grammatical rules. Modern spoken Arabic, on the other hand, has only one ‹mā› — although it should be noted that the rules governing it vary from dialect to dialect.

Below I will provide a brief description of the grammar of verbal negation in Standard Arabic followed by the development and grammar of ‹mā› in the spoken dialects.


‹lays-› ‘to not be’

Arabic is a zero-copula language, i.e., there is no explicit signal to indicate the relationship between the subject of a sentence and its predicate. In plain language, this means that the verb “to be” is not used in the present tense. Because there is no verb, sentences with a zero copula are referred to as nominal sentences (as opposed to verbal sentences). For example, ‘the elephant is big’ is literally ‘the elephant big’:

l-fīl-u kabīr-∅-un
DEF-elephant-NOM big-MNOM.INDEF

the elephant is big

Note that both the subject and predicate are in the nominative case (indicated by the definite and indefinite suffixes ‹-u› and ‹-un)›.

To negate a nominal sentence, a special verb ‹lays-›, which means ‘to not be,’ is inserted before the predicate. ‹lays› is an irregular and defective verb: it exists only in the imperfective aspect (essentially the non-past tense) but is conjugated with perfective markers. Additionally, it forces the predicate to take on accusative case (marked below by ‹-an›):

l-fīl-u lays-a kabīr-∅-an
DEF-elephant-NOM big-MACC.INDEF

the elephant is not big

‹mā› + perfective

The negative marker ‹mā› is used only to negate verbs in the perfective aspect (for purposes of this post, perfective aspect is basically the past tense). In comparison to the other negative markers, the rules governing its use are very simple, requiring only that it be placed before the verb and causing no other alterations:

’akal-a l-fīl-u
eat.PFV-3.M.SG DEF-elephant-NOM

the elephant ate

’akal-a l-fīl-u
not.PFV eat.PFV-3.M.SG DEF-elephant-NOM

the elephant did not eat

‹lā› + imperfective indicative

In Standard Arabic, the negative marker ‹lā› holds many functions. In addition to being the word for ‘no’ and indicating exception (e.g. ‹lā ’ilāh-a ’illā llāh-u› ‘there is no god but God’), it also negates a verb in the imperfective aspect in the indicative mood (essentially, the non-past tense). Like ‹mā›, it does not alter the verb:

ya-’kul-u l-fīl-u
3.M.SG-eat.IMPVIND DEF-elephant-NOM

the elephant eats/is eating

ya-’kul-u l-fīl-u
not.IMPV 3.M.SG-eat.IMPVIND DEF-elephant-NOM

the elephant does not eat/is not eating

‹lam› + imperfective jussive

We have already established that ‹mā› negates verbs in the imperfective aspect/past tense. There is a second way to negate such verbs with ‹lam›, which in modern usage, is far more common than simple ‹mā›. ‹lam› is unusual in that, despite having a past tense meaning, it requires the verb to be in the imperfective aspect/non-past tense, and it also causes the verb to take the jussive mood, which is marked by a null suffix in the example below:

’akal-a l-fīl-u
eat.PFV-3.M.SG DEF-elephant-NOM

the elephant ate

lam ya-’kul- l-fīl-u
not.PFV 3.M.SG-eat.IMPVJUS DEF-elephant-NOM

the elephant did not eat

لن ‹lan› + imperfective subjunctive

The final negative form is ‹lan›, which indicates negation in the future, i.e., ‘will not.’ ‹lan› also takes the imperfective/present form of the verb but causes the verb to take the subjunctive mood, which is marked by the ‹-a› suffix below:

sa-ya-’kul-u l-fīl-u
FUT-3.M.SG-eat.IMPV-.IND DEF-elephant-NOM

the elephant will eat

lan ya-’kul-a l-fīl-u
not.FUT 3.M.SG-eat.IMPVSUBJ DEF-elephant-NOM

the elephant will not eat


In modern spoken Arabic, the negation rules are much simpler. There is only one basic negative form used for all verbal sentences ‹mā› and another for nominal sentences, which differs from one spoken variety to another. In some varieties, the verbal negative has a variant, a circumfix ‹ma-…-(i)š› inserted before and after the verb.

To illustrate the way this negative works, I will describe the rules in my own dialect of urban Palestinian, as that is the one I know best. However, other spoken dialects share the same basic principles, so much of what follows applies to them as well.

Verbal sentences

To negate a verbal sentence, there are two options. The first is to insert ‹mā› by itself immediately before the verb (I will only provide past tense forms since the rules are the same for the present tense):

l-fīl ’akal-∅
DEF-elephant eat.PFV-3.M.SG

the elephant ate

l-fīl ’akal-∅
DEF-elephant not.VB eat.PFV-3.M.SG

the elephant did not eat

The second method of negation is to insert the circumfix ‹ma-…-(i)š› around the verb. In this construction, ‘the elephant did not eat’ is as follows:

l-fīl ma-’akal-∅-
DEF-elephant not-eat.PFV-3.M.SGnot

the elephant did not eat

In my estimation, the circumfix method is slightly more common. It originates from the reduction of ‹mā› and the noun شيء ‹šay’› ‘thing’ to bound affixes. The original use of ‹šay’› was probably for emphasis, as in ‘he did not eat a thing.’ This usage eventually lost its emphatic meaning and was generalized to all verbs and contracted into a suffix. This is very similar to the process that occurred in French, where a phrase like il ne marche pas ‘he does not walk a step‘ was generalized to all verbs, including verbs where pas ‘step’ would not normally fit, such as il ne mange pas ‘he does not eat.’

Nominal sentences

Recall from above that a nominal sentence has no verb but expresses the relationship between the subject and the predicate. The example I used above was ‘the elephant is big.’ In urban Palestinian Arabic, this sentence is translated as follows:

l-fīl kbīr-∅
DEF-elephant big-M

the elephant is big

To negate this sentence, the word ‹miš› (taking the place of ‹lays-› in Standard Arabic) is inserted before the predicate. This word is derived from the circumfix described above. Since there is no verb in this sentence, there is nothing to separate the two parts of the circumfix from each other, so the result is ‹ma-∅-iš› > ‹m-∅-iš› > ‹miš›:

l-fīl miš kbīr-∅
DEF-elephant not.N big-M

the elephant is not big

Implications of the simplified negation

In Standard Arabic ‹mā›, in addition to being a negative marker, is also the word for ‘what’ in nominal sentences (the counterpart for verbal sentences is ماذا ‹māḏā›). However, in modern spoken Arabic, ‹mā› developed such a strong association with negation that it caused this usage to become obsolete. Instead, to distinguish ‘what’ from the negative particle, spoken Arabic varieties devised new words from the construction ‹’ayy-u šay’› or ‹’ayy-u šay’-in huwa› ‘lit. which thing (it is).’ In Moroccan, this was reduced to ‹aš›; in Levantine Arabic, to ‹’ēš› or ‹šū›; in Iraqi Arabic, to ‹šinū›. The standard Arabic words for ‘why’ are derived from ‘what’: <li-mā> and <li-māḏā> (lit. ‘for what’). From this ‘what’ word, a new ‘why’ was developed. For example, in Iraqi and Levantine Arabic, it is ‹l-ēš› ‘lit. for what (mirroring the form in Standard Arabic)’ and in Moroccan Arabic, it is ‹‘alaš› ‘lit. on what.’

As you may have noticed in the examples of I have given, not only in the discrepancies in the interrogative pronouns and the negative construction but also the conjugation of the verbs themselves, there are many differences between Standard Arabic and modern spoken Arabic. To the unfamiliar eye, they may even appear to be entirely separate languages. However, the situation is more complex than that, and in an upcoming post, I will describe the relationship between these two varieties of Arabic and their history in more detail. But for now, this small peak behind the curtain will have to suffice.


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