Monday, September 12, 2005

Poetic grammars

Grammars come in many flavors nowadays - Chomskyan, functionalist, structuralist... However, grammars in verse are something you don't see too often nowadays, so I was recently pleased to come across the ''Alfiyyat Ibn Mâlik'', a 1002-line poem describing Arabic grammar; as it says in line 3:
وأستعين الله في ألفية * مقاصد النحو بها محوية
Wa-'asta`înu llâha fî 'alfiyyah * maqâsidu nnahwi bihâ mahwiyyah
And I seek God's help in a thousand-line
Poem in which grammar's basics are outlined

It was written in the 13th century by one Muhammad Ibn Mâlik, a native of Jaen in Spain who emigrated to Syria. The poem was memorized in order to aid the student in recalling the more obscure details of Arabic grammar (strictly prescriptive, of course...) Unfortunately, the poem proved somewhat obscure to prospective students, prompting the writing of commentaries on it, such as Sharh Ibn `Aqîl, in which each verse or group of verses was explained in greater detail. As a sample of the style, I present verse 229:
ويرفع الفاعلَ فعلٌ أُضمرا * كمثل "زيدٌ" في جواب "من قرا"؟
Wa-yarfa`u lfâ`ila fa`lun 'udmirâ * kamithli "zaydun" fî jawâbi "man qarâ?"
And an implicit verb makes its subject nominative
Like "Zayd-NOM" in answer to "Who read?"

(Ie, the subject of a verb implied by context but not actually present in the sentence at hand takes the nominative.) I wonder what parallels exist in other grammatical traditions.

Incidentally, I'm back from Algeria now, and plan to report on more linguistic tidbits - as well as more luggi, on- or off-topic - shortly; I'm also starting at SOAS soon.