Why is Arabic hard to learn?
December 11, 2017

How are Arabic words formed?

How are Arabic words formed?

The idea for this article came about while I browsing Pinterest and I found these wonderful illustrations of arabic words turned into their literal meaning. They look jaw-dropping! Which made me think about how Arabic words are formed and why they are so difficult to distinguish. In this article I am going to explain common arabic words and how they came to life.

Roots and patterns

Remember when I said that arabic vocabulary is more difficult than grammar itself? Well, that’s because arabic words are formed using A LOT of roots and patterns. What are roots and patterns? Think about it this way: the root of the word is like a brand new smartphone and the pattern is the account settings you make on that smartphone in order for it to work. In other words, a root can generate a myriad of nouns, verbs, adjectives and so on. How does that happen? By being integrated into a pattern.

Roots are most of the time made up of three consonants  and a slight number of them have more consonants. We’ll cover the last category in another article. As far as three letter roots are concerned, they are the core of an arabic word. That is why some arabic dictionaries do not list words according to their first letter, but they list the root alphabetically and under that particular root one can find the word one is looking for. This article will approach an easier example and the second part will kick it up a notch with a more complicated one:

The root درس (letters dāl, rā, sīn) has more than ten entries in Hans Wehr’s “A dictionary of Modern Written Arabic” and it is related to the concept of studying. We’ve got the verb دَرَسَ (darasa) which means to study. We also have تدريس (tadrīs), which means teaching, دِراسَة (dirāsat) which means study, مَدْرَسَة (madrasat), which means school, دَرْس (dars) which means lesson and مُدَرِّس (mudarris) which means teacher. It is pretty obvious that all these words entail the notion of knowledge acquisition, but they all look different due to the different patterns applied. Arabic patterns consist of  prefixes, suffixes and infixes attached to the root and which give the final version of the word. Let’s take a deeper look:

  • دَرَسَ (darasa) and دَرْس (dars) look very similar, but the vowel pattern makes the first word a verb and the second one a noun.
  • The word دِراسَة (dirāsat) not only has a long vowel after the second root consonant, but the feminine gender suffix (ta marboutah) as well. Moreover, after the first root consonant the vowel has changed from a to i.
  • The word تَدْرِيس displays the preffix ta, no vowel on the first root consonant and a long i after the second one.
  • مَدْرَسَة (madrasat) and مُدَرِّس (mudarris) look almost the same and their pronounciation is very much alike too. However they have pretty different meanings; you’ve got to thank arabic root and patterns for that! Both words start with the letter mīm, but the internal vowel system is different and the first word also ends with ta marboutah.

Here is a table of all the words and their patterns:

دَرَسَTo studyDarasaC1aC2aC3a
دِراسةStudy (noun)DirāsatC1iC2āC3at

Note: ”C1”, C2”,” C3” stand for ”first root consonant”, ”second root consonant”, ”third root consonant”


Remember the  analogy I stated earlier? Now you’ve got a clear example: the 3 letter root درس is like a brand new smartphone, and the added vowels could be your Google account, the prefixes could be new installed apps and the suffixes could be your security code or your ringtone. You need all of that to come up with something you can use.

It could be a little confusing at first, but see the bright side: you’ll put your logical thinking skills to the test 🙂

Do patterns have a meaning?

Yes, they do. Although it is not the case for every single basic arabic word, these patterns have an implicit meaning to them. For example, the pattern for the word madrasat (مَدْرَسَة) is maC1C2aC3at. That is usually the pattern that describes a place, and a school is the place you study in. Another Arabic word with the same pattern and meaning is مَحْكَمَة (maḥkamat), it means court and respects the same pattern, only the root is obviously different and it is regarded as the place of issuing ʼaḥkām (أحكام), or sentences. Then there is the arabic word for farm or plantation, مَزْرَعَة (mazraʽat), which follows the same pattern. The list could go on.

Another important pattern can be found in words such as كاتِب (kātib, or writer) or ساكِن (sākin, or resident). The pattern is C1āC2iC3 and it renders the active participle, i.e. a person who writes and a person who resides somewhere. The passive participle follows a different pattern and it has become widespread in basic arabic phrases. Words like مَعْرُوف (maʽrūf), مَصْنُوع (maṣnūʽ) and مَفْهُوم (mafhūm) share the same passive participle pattern, C1aC2ūC3, and are very much used in Arabic, since they mean well-known, produced/manufactured and understood/concept. Needless to say, there are more patterns used and they all show up as you go deeper and deeper into your quest for searching arabic words and their meaning.

Biggest challenges when it comes to root&patterns

As I mentioned earlier, the number one issue with roots&patterns is that there are a lot of them. Really now, a lot. If I stroll down memory lane back to my university years, I remember being shocked by the fact that there are more than 20 or 30 plural patterns! Luckily for all of us Arabic learners, some patterns are used more than others.

Another problem you might run into is the lack of vowel marking in written Arabic. I’m not talking about textbooks or informative articles like this one, I’m referring to 99% of the written texts you see in Modern Standard Arabic. What does that mean? That only consonants are written and the reader has to understand by intuition and good command of Arabic what the word is and means. It could be troublesome because some patterns are very similar to others, which could generate confusion.


There you have it, the essential info you needed to know about arabic words. Don’t get discouraged, you’ll get better at guessing these roots and patterns in time, patience is key. Part two is going to be live soon, so stay tuned!