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Searching for the Secrets of Arabic Verb Conjugations

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Arabic grammar has an unfair reputation of being needlessly complex and riddled with inconsistencies.

A better word might be intricate. There’s a lot to memorize, but also a lot of patterns that reveal themselves when examined.

One such pattern is within Arabic verb conjugation. Conjugation is the umbrella term for correctly using the different forms of Arabic verbs—which is not something you can just waltz in to. How many other languages can you think of that have different verb forms for talking to women and men?

This article is designed for people who are just starting out with Arabic grammar, and who want to know what makes Arabic verbs so intricate.

Log in to Download Your Free Cheat Sheet - Useful Verbs in Arabic Table of Contents
  1. Verb Roots in Arabic
  2. Arabic Verbs Love Arabic Pronouns
  3. Conjugating Arabic Verbs in Present Tense
  4. Conjugating Arabic Verbs in the Past and Future Tenses
  5. Can a Verb Be “Defective?”
  6. Conclusion

1. Verb Roots in Arabic

Top Verbs

Arabic, as a Semitic language in the same family as Hebrew and Amharic, has vocabulary based on roots. Most nouns and verbs are formed from twins, triplets, quadruplets, or quintuplets of consonants that then change their vowels or add consonants to make additional words.

The overwhelming majority of words in Arabic have three consonants (called triliteral), and there are barely any two-consonant roots (biliteral) at all. Some linguists propose that there used to be a lot more biliteral roots, but right now, there are only a few very short words like that.

This is good knowledge to have about Arabic in general, but especially when it comes to verbs.

Arabic verbs are usually thought of as belonging to one of fifteen different forms (though only ten get used very much). Form I verbs (they always get described with Roman numerals) are the “base” forms of the verb. 

Other Arabic verb forms have different vowel additions and are usually associated with certain types of verbs. For example, Form II verbs have a doubled middle root letter. They’re usually more intense versions of Form I verbs, like كَسَّرَ, meaning “to shatter,” from the word كَسَرَ, meaning “to break.”

  • لَقَد كَسَرتُ الزُجاج.
    laqad kasartu al-zuǧāǧ.
    “I broke the glass.”
  • لَقَد كَسَّرَت الرَصاصَةُ النافِذَة.
    laqad kassarat al-raṣāṣaẗu al-nāfiḏah.
    “The bullet shattered the window.”

We’ll leave detailed discussion of verb forms for another article. For now, just know that you should think of “verb forms” as corresponding to different words formed by the same root, and “verb conjugations” simply as different forms of the same word.

2. Arabic Verbs Love Arabic Pronouns

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If you’ve already learned European languages like French or Spanish before, it may come as a surprise to you that Arabic verbs fuse together with Arabic pronouns. Each pronoun in Arabic has a suffix form that attaches to the verb to show the direct object.

Therefore, if you say “I saw him,” you’re really saying “Isawhim” all pushed together as one word. Not so far off from how we actually speak the language! How does that look in practice?

We haven’t gotten to Arabic conjugation rules yet, so don’t worry about the actual verb tenses in the following examples.

  • آدَم يَراه.
    ʾādam yarāh.
    “Adam sees him.”
  • إنَّهُ يَرى آدَم.
    ʾinnahu yarā ʾādam.
    “He sees Adam.”
  • لا يُمكِنُني أَن أَجِدَك.
    lā yumkinunī ʾan ʾaǧidak.
    “I couldn’t find you.”
  • لا يُمكِنُكَ أَن تَجِدَها.
     lā yumkinuka ʾan taǧidahā.
    “You couldn’t find her.”

This is very important for you to know, because in different tenses, the attached form of the pronouns will, in fact, change ever so slightly. 

This is one aspect of learning where doing a lot of listening and reading aloud will help you. Native speakers have the muscle memory for what forms of the pronouns go with which Arabic verb tenses, but they didn’t get there through magic.

It’s all practice!

With that said, let’s start looking at Arabic conjugation charts.

3. Conjugating Arabic Verbs in Present Tense

More Essential Verbs

In Arabic, there’s no difference between the present and present progressive tenses. So saying “I run” in Arabic could mean either “I am running” or “I usually run” in English, depending on the context and adverbs.

The present tense is considered one of the most difficult to remember, because it’s the one with both prefixes and suffixes—but only for some of the pronouns! Here’s an Arabic conjugation table for you:

EnglishRomanizationArabic
“I”‘a–أ–
“you” (masculine singular)ta–ت–
“you” (feminine singular)ta–iinaت–ين
“he” / “it”ya–ي–
“she” / “it”ta–ت–
“we”na–ن–
“you” (masculine plural)ta–uunaت–وت
“you” (feminine plural)ta–naت–ن
“they” (masculine)ya–uunaت–ون
“they” (feminine)ya–naي–ن

Yes, it’s definitely quite a bit to memorize. And unfortunately, this is just for Form I verbs! Although Form II and others do share similarities with these patterns, you’ll definitely have to do a fair bit of studying before all of the Arabic verb conjugation patterns make sense to you.

We don’t have space here for fourteen more charts covering each form, but you can definitely turn to some excellent online grammar guides if you wish to know more about conjugating different Arabic verb forms.

One of the best ways to get used to these forms is to read a lot of example sentences. On the one hand, practicing writing out the chart from memory is good for your recall, but it’s only good if you combine it with a strong sense of what “feels right” built up from lots of reading and listening.

  • لا يُمكِنُني أَن أَتَذَكَّرَ ما قالَهُ الأُستاذ.
    lā yumkinunī ʾan ʾataḏakkara mā qal-ahu al-ʾustāḏ.
    “I can’t remember what the teacher said.”
  • مِن فَضلِكَ ذَكِّرني غَداً.
    min faḍlika ḏakkirnī ġadan.
    “Please remind me tomorrow.”
  • أَنا أُعَلِّمُكَ كَيْفَ تَتَحَدَّث العَرَبِيَّة.
    ʾanā ʾuʿallimuka kayfa tataḥaddaṯ al-ʿarabiyyah.
    “I am teaching you to speak Arabic.”

4. Conjugating Arabic Verbs in the Past and Future Tenses

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Good news! The past and future tenses are considered much easier than the present. There’s only suffixes, no prefixes. And on top of that, every single verb form has the same suffixes in the past tense!

EnglishRomanizationArabic
“I”–tu–تُ
“you” (masculine singular)–ta–تَ
“you” (feminine singular)–ti–تِ
“he” / “it”–aVowelling sign “a” (fatha ” َ ” )
“she” / “it”–at–تْ
“we”–na–نا
“you” (masculine plural)–tum–تم
“you” (feminine plural)–tunna–تن
“they” (masculine)–uu–و
“they” (feminine)–na–ن
  • .ذَهَبتُ إلى حَفلَةٍ موسيقِيَّة اللَيْلَة الماضِيَة.
    ḏahabtu ʾilā ḥaflaẗin mūsīqiyyah al-laylah al-māḍiyah.
    “I went to a concert last night.”
  • سَرَقتَ مِحفَظَتي، أَلَيْسَ كَذَلِك؟
    saraqta miḥfaẓatī, ʾalaysa kaḏalik?
    “You stole my wallet, right?”
  • لَقَد اِصطادَت قِطَّتي طائِراً.
    laqad iṣṭādat qiṭṭatī ṭāʾiran.
    “My cat caught a bird.”

Wasn’t that a piece of cake? Just wait until you learn how to do Arabic conjugation for the future tense.

The future tense in Arabic is formed by adding the word sa and then the verb in present tense. That’s it! You may also see the word sawfa used in the same way, and you’re right. Both words are interchangeable for creating the future tense in Arabic.

Of course, you still have to conjugate the present tense form. But in a way, that’s even better because you’ll get practice with it every time you hear someone use the future form. Let’s see some examples:

  • هَل سَتَعودُ إلى المَنزِل لِلإحتِفالِ بِرَأسِ السَنَة الجَديدَة؟
    hal sataʿūdu ʾilā al-manzil lilʾiḥtifal-i biraʾsi al-sanah al-ǧadīdah?
    “Will you go back home to celebrate New Year’s?”
  • سَأَدرُسُ لِمُدَّةِ ثَلاثِ ساعات اليَوْم.
    saʾadrusu limuddaẗi ṯalāṯi sāʿāt al-yūm.
    “I’m going to study for three hours today.”

 5. Can a Verb Be “Defective?”

Someone Wearing a Cast on Their Foot

If you do any research at all on Arabic grammar, you’ll find that there’s a concept of “weak,” “defective,” “sick,” and “hollow” verbs. Don’t worry, Arabic is a very healthy language. This is just the way most people refer to the verbs in Arabic that have “weak” letters as part of the roots.

These weak letters are: و (waaw), ا (alif), and ي (yaa’). You can kind of picture that their sounds are indeed a little less distinctive than something like “t” or “j.”

They’re called “weak” because they end up assimilating into the nearby sounds. The rules for this are quite predictable, but at the same time, they’re relatively complicated since there are three weak letters and three places where they could go in a word.

One example is when a و  is the first letter of the root, like “to arrive,” which has the pattern w-s-l. Instead of the first person conjugation being ʾwaṣil, the first sound drops off and you’re left with ʾaṣil. 

Pretty intuitive! The rest of the rules are quite easy to pick up as well, and since they’re based on natural sound changes, they’re easy to remember as long as you do enough speaking practice.

6. Conclusion

Even if it may seem like a lot to take in now, speaking Arabic with correct conjugations is going to be extremely impressive to native speakers.

When you actually start speaking Arabic, try writing down what you say at the same time so you can use all the time you need to get the correct verb forms and pronouns right.

As we mentioned before, reading and listening to lots of Arabic is a great way to build your language skills without a ton of effort. That’s exactly what you can do right here on ArabicPod101.com

This lesson on the Arabic conjugation of verbs should serve as a good starting point for you, especially if you plan to continue discovering the language. If you have any questions on what you’ve learned about Arabic conjugation so far, don’t hesitate to reach out in the comments!

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