Past tense: suffixes and general introduction

The past tense in Levantine Arabic works pretty much the same as in MSA in most ways, although its formation is a bit different. For the details of conjugation in particular, see the comprehensive list of verb types at the end of this post.

Usage

The past is used predominantly to refer to single events in the past, depending on the verb in question.

A verb whose meaning is ‘inherently’ continuous or has a naturally long duration, like كان ‘to be’, will have a continuous or durative meaning in the past. Most verbs, however, refer to a single, delimited action in the past. To get a continuous or habitual meaning, we generally use a construction with كان ‘to be’ and the present.

Many verbs which in English we can use in the past – like ‘I knew’ – work differently in Arabic; عرفت, for example, tends to mean ‘I found out’.

The past can also be used to translate all (or almost all) English present perfect constructions, like ‘I have seen’ or ‘I have forgotten’ (although these can often also be translated by active participles). Given that عرفت, as we noted above, means ‘find out’ or ‘come to know’, we then end up with the slightly strange situation of عرفت often being used to mean ‘I know’ – i.e. in the present – with a more literal sense of ‘I have found out’ or ‘I found out’ (and so I now know). This also goes for a number of other verbs: عطشت ‘I’m thirsty’, حبيت ‘I like’, etc etc.

As well as this straightforward past usage, the past tense has a very important secondary role in hypotheticals and conditionals. We won’t go into that too much here, though.

Suffixes

The suffixes used to form the past are basically the same as in MSA, albeit shorter. The first and second person masculine suffixes are pronounced identically and must be distinguished from context. There is no third person masculine suffix. The third person feminine suffix has a number of regional variants; -et is the most common, whilst -at is I think limited to some Palestinian dialects.

ana -t
inte -t
inti -ti
huwwe zero
hiyye -et (-at, -it)
ni7na -na
intu ­-tu
hinen -u

 

Generally speaking, these suffixes can be split into three groups: the suffix -et, the suffix -u and all others (-t -ti -na -tu). Depending on the kind of root (sound, weak, hollow etc) and the form (I-X, etc) these suffixes have different effects on the internal vowelling of the verb and its stress. The exact effects are explained for different kinds of verbs in the different sections. Generally speaking, -u patterns with the suffixes beginning with consonants, but in a limited number of verbal forms it patterns with -et.

Helping vowel before a suffix

With many types of verbs, the suffixes for the first and second person, -t and -t, form a consonant cluster with the last consonant of the root (for example daras-t > darast). These consonant clusters are often broken up with a helping vowel. This helping vowel is generally optional and will appear more or less depending on speaker and dialect, but you are particularly likely to hear it when the last consonant of the root is a dental consonant (ت د ط and, in hicksy dialects where they are pronounced properly instead of as s or z, ظ ث ذ), because of the discomfort of pronouncing these consonants in a cluster with ت. As usual, the helping vowel does not affect the stress:

أخذت akhad@t – I’ve taken
اتخذت ittakhaz@t – I’ve taken (a decision)
درست darras@t – I’ve studied

Note that this helping vowel cannot appear when a vowel suffix is added (since there is no longer a final consonant cluster to break up):

أخذته akhadto – I’ve taken

It is also liable to disappear if the next word begins with a vowel:

اتخذت القرار ittakhazt ilqaraar – I’ve taken the decision

When an object suffix beginning with a consonant is attached after the first or second person -t, especially with sound verbs, the helping vowel is usually compulsory for most speakers:

رقصتنا ra22aS@tna – you made us dance

Adding suffixes

When suffixes of any kind are added – the object pronoun suffixes, indirect object pronoun suffixes, or the dialectal -sh negative suffix – those suffixes which end in vowels are lengthened and the stress shifts to them:

شفتوك؟ shéftuuk? – did they see you?
شفناش shufnaash – we didn’t see!

This is particularly important with the third person masculine object suffix -o, which when attached to a vowel causes lengthening and a stress shift but is not, itself, distinctively pronounced:

شفتيه؟ shéftiih? – did you (fem) see him?

et

The ‘she’ suffix -et – though not, I don’t think, its variants -at and -it – is the most complex suffix. It is always pronounced -et unless a suffix is attached. When a suffix beginning with a consonant is added, it takes stress as you’d expect. In addition, its pronunciation changes to -it-, or in dialects with the é vowel-ét-:

ضربتني Darbétni – she hit me

So far, so simple (relatively speaking). But when -et takes a suffix which begins with a vowel – -o-ak-ik for example – it becomes a tricksy bastard. Depending on the shape of the verb – its type (sound, doubled, weak etc) and its form (I, II, III etc) – the suffix comes in two types:

TYPE 1: The suffix can be stressed and pronounced as –ét/-it in defiance of the normal rules of stress. This generally happens where the suffix follows a vowel and a consonant and appears before a consonant, which would usually mean that the vowel would have to be reduced:

درسته darrasét(darrasito) – she taught him (as-et-o would normally contract to as-t-o)

TYPE 2: The suffix can be unstressed. In most Syrian and Lebanese dialects in this case it is pronounced é (defying the general rule that é only appears in stressed syllables). In dialects without the é vowel, like Jordanian and Palestinian, it will be pronounced -it:

برمته barméto (barmito) – she turned it

 Contracting -et

Some Syrian speakers (and maybe this also applies to Lebanese) have a feature called the contracting –ét. Speakers who use this form contract the -ét to -t before suffixes beginning with a vowel. This is in line with the normal rules of vowel loss (where a non-stressed or u is dropped when it is followed by a consonant and another vowel).

خلته khallto – she made him…
بكته bakkto – she made him cry

Generally, a helping vowel is inserted to break up any three-consonant cluster which might result from this, which as usual can’t take stress:

برمته bar@mto – she turned it

As the examples of بكته and خلته show, however, doubled consonants are exempt from this rule and cannot be broken up. Instead, they are pronounced identically (to me at least) to single consonants when part of a cluster like this. So بكته is really pronounced like bakto.

The contracted forms for these speakers correspond to those where for other speakers the short vowel of the suffix is not stressed: barmétak will appear for speakers with contracting -et as bar@mtak, but darraséto stays the same.

Which specific verb forms can take contracting -et is detailed in the conjugation tables section, but the general rules are as follows:

  1. Sound form Is can take contracting -ét, but no other sound verbs do.
  2. Verbs ending in a doubled consonant (e.g. doubled verbs, form IX verbs like اسود swadd ‘turn black’, some other weird verbs like اشمأز shma2azz) can all take contracting -et.
  3. Hollow verbs (with a weak middle consonant) can all take contracting -et. This only applies to those which actually behave like hollow verbs (i.e. their middle consonant appears as either a long or short vowel in their conjugation), and not to hollow form IIs, IIIs, Vs, VIs, or other forms where the weak letter always appears as a consonant; these act like their equivalent sound verb patterns for all intents and purposes and thus don’t take contracting –et.
  4. Other than form Is and form VIIIs, defective verbs (with a weak final consonant) can all take contracting –et.


List of conjugations

Sound: Form I (fa3al, fé3el), Form II, Form III, Form IV, Form V, Form VI, Form VII, Form VIII, Form IX, Form X
Assimilating: Form I (for other forms see sound equivalents)
Hollow: Form I (fu3t, fi3t, ra7t), Form VII, Form VIII, Form X (for other forms see sound equivalents)
Defective: Form I (fa3afé3i), Form II, Form III, Form IV, Form V, Form VI, Form VII, Form VIII, Form Xfoo3a
Doubled: Form I, Form IV, Form VII, Form VIII, Form X (for other forms see sound equivalents)
Quadriliteral: Form II (sound), Form II (defective), Form V
Irregular: ija, stanna