Scott Bridges

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The unknown

A few weeks ago I asked Mohanned to run me through the passive voice in Arabic since we were encountering it more and more often in the stuff we were reading. He showed up the next week with a few pages photocopied out of a text book and told me it was easy so I should go home, learn it, and then teach it back to him the next week.

“The passive voice,” begins the text, “is widely used in Arabic without the negative associations regarding style that the passive voice has in English.”

(As a university tutor who has spent far too much time waging war on students’ passive voice sentences, I knew this was going to take some getting used to.)

“In Arabic the doer of the action [in the passive voice] is supposed to go unmentioned,” continues the text. “In fact, the Arabic word for the passive is al-majhool ‘the unknown’.” How fantastic! I keep coming across little examples of poetry like this one built into the language and I find them absolutely delightful.

Anyway, it turns out that Mohanned was right (as always) and it is really easy to turn an active voice sentence into a passive voice one. All you’ve got to do is take the active past tense verb, change the short vowel diacritics, remove the pronoun suffix which serves as the subject, and you’ve got the passive sentence. So, for example: darastu al-kitaab (I studied the book) becomes durisa al-kitaab (the book was studied).

“The only real difference,” says the text, “is that in English we can mention who did the action in the passive, whereas in Arabic we cannot.” Indeed, when I was recounting all of this Mohanned today to prove that I’d learned it, he told me that the object in an Arabic passive sentence takes on a special role, somewhere between subject and object — what’s called the naa’ib faa’il, or “deputy subject”. See what I mean about all these delightful little examples of poetry?

But, of course, as soon as I worked it and started getting cocky I came crashing back down to reality because, as I’ve learned while studying Arabic, nothing is actually that easy. This passive construction becomes a problem in basically all written contexts because the short vowel diacritics are almost never printed which makes it quite tough for us learners. Without the diacritics, a printed word could potentially mean half a dozen things, and the active/passive construction is not immediately obvious without studying the sentence construction. As the text quite sarcastically notes:

students are often uncomfortable with the passive voice when reading Arabic texts because the unvoweled passive conjugations often look exactly like the active voice conjugations. Since many students often are horrified at the thought of reading for meaning and recognizing words in context, and since they are usually very weak in grammar, sentences in the passive voice often are totally misunderstood.

Reading for meaning? Sounds awful.

1 Comment

  1. You may keep asking your students to refrain from using passive voice, because the Western culture is direct. Whereas, in Arabic, it is either inappropriate to point the blame on someone, or you don’t want to get in trouble addressing an influential person with something wrong they’ve done. This is why, lots of Arabic journalism relies on the passive voice “the UNKNOWN” to discuss the matter with some freedom.

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