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Review of  Modern Arabic

Reviewer: Andrzej Zaborski
Book Title: Modern Arabic
Book Author: Clive Holes
Publisher: Georgetown University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Applied Linguistics
Subject Language(s): Arabic, Standard
Book Announcement: 16.2189

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Date: Sat, 09 Jul 2005 06:11:43 +0200
From: Andrzej Zaborski <>
Subject: Modern Arabic: Structures, Functions, and Varieties, rev. ed.

AUTHOR: Holes, Clive
TITLE: Modern Arabic
SUBTITLE: Structures, Functions, and Varieties
EDITION: Revised edition
SERIES: Georgetown Classics in Arabic and Linguistics
PUBLISHER: Georgetown University Press
YEAR: 2004

Andrzej Zaborski, Jagellonian University of Cracow

This is a revised edition of the book which was originally published by
Longman in 1995 and which is one of the really important books on
contemporary Arabic discussing the grammar of Modern Standard Arabic as
well as different complex sociolinguistic situations in several Arab
countries. Holes himself (p. 7) identifies prospective readers
as "advanced students of Arabic who have a good practical knowledge of the
standard language and perhaps one dialect". Taking this into consideration
it must be said that the basic introduction to Arabic script on pp. 391-
396 is not at all necessary. Professional Arabists profit from the book as
it provides many original and important insights (nota bene found also in
extensive footnotes!) and well-selected data, although the publication at
the same time of the great Modern Written Arabic: A Comprehensive Grammar
by Elsaid Badawi, Michael G. Carter and Adrian Gully, London 2004,
Routledge, and of the monumental Syntax der Arabischen Schriftsprache der
Gegenwart by Hashem El-Ayoubi, W.Fischer and M. Langer (strangely not
mentioned at all, although the first volume appeared already in Wiesbaden,
Reichert Verlag in 2001 and second volume in 2003) has seriously
diminished the usefulness of Holes' selective description of Modern
Standard Arabic which constitutes the majority of his book. In short, I
would not recommend the book for real beginners who should start with a
grammar of Modern Standard and/or Classical Arabic such as K. Versteegh's
The Arabic Language, Edinburgh University Press 1997, but I recommend
Holes' book for all other readers as a kind of useful supplement.

Some flaws which could have been avoided:
p. 1: it should be mentioned that Berber is still well represented in the
Siwa Oasis in NW Egypt;
p.2: "several hundred thousand native speakers of Kurdish" in Iraq is
quite wrong since there are at least as many as three and a half million
Kurds in Iraq; Modern South Arabian languages are spoken not only in Oman
but also in Yemen; Nilo-Saharan and not Bantu languages are spoken in
Southern Sudan; the Arabic dialect is still spoken in Kormakiti in
northern Cyprus; it is not enough to say that "Maltese is undoubtedly
structurally an Arabic dialect" -- it should be added that since centuries
Maltese is a separate, independent language and although it is undoubtedly
of Arabic origin, from the sociolinguistic point of view it is most
interesting that many if not most of the Maltese including some linguists
are not inclined to accept this fact;
pp. 5 and 39: it is not correct to say that "Classical Arabic is no more a
functional linguistic idiom for Arabs than liturgical Latin is a living
language for Roman Catholics" since today apart from a very tiny minority
Roman Catholics (including even many if not most French priests!) do not
have any knowledge of Latin at all and apart from a very small margin
Latin has not been a liturgical language for almost five decades -- the
situation in Arab countries is rather similar to the situation in Romance
countries about c. 1100 when Latin was still the main or even the only
written language and a language of culture in general while 'Neolatin' or
Romance, e.g. Italian dialects were already normally spoken and their
speakers still could understand some Latin even without studying it;
p. 15: it is not correct to explain the meaning of the name 'Koran'
as 'reading, recitation' (p. 15) -- al-Qur'a:n means rather 'The Recited
pp. 36-40: far too little attention is paid to Middle Arabic in the 'Brief
History of Arabic' in which we miss a reference to Ignacio
Ferrando's 'Introduccion a la historia de la lengua arabe -- nuevas
perspectivas', Zaragoza 2001: Portico, which is an important contribution;
pp. 50-51: contrary to Holes' claim, also Ugaritic has --u
for 'Imperfect', -a for 'Subjunctive' and zero for 'Past/Jussive' as well
as 'Energetic' -an and -anna - the latter not mentioned by Holes; even in
Akkadian we have zero ending for the Past, a survival of --am < *-an as
well as --u and even traces of -a.

Holes, like many other Arabists, underestimates the profound differences
between the language situation, language use, language policy etc. in
particular Arab countries which is not surprising since very few Arabists
really know the situation in all Arab countries. Holes provides some very
limited data on the situation in Tunisia which he visited in the year 2000
but otherwise his characteristic of the problems of Arab West is minimal.
He knows the situation in Egypt quite well but although more or less
directly he admits that Cairo Arabic is a de facto national language of
Egypt he underestimates the existence of Cairo Literary Arabic represented
since decades by copious, mainly modern drama and poetry but also prose
writings, mentioning only 'certain erstwhile leftist Egyptian writers such
as Yusuf Idris' (p. 50) and underestimating tens of others, especially
those active in the last decades. The fact is that in Egypt there is both
Modern Standard/Literary Arabic a n d Cairo/Egyptian Literary Arabic!
Certainly in Egypt 'written Egyptian' does n o t "conventionally convey
multiple associations of the 'domestic', 'homely', 'amusing',
and 'nonserious' " (p.50), it is just the 'normal', viz. non-artificial
means of modern artistic literary communication for so many writers.
Thanks to Egyptian films and satelite television Egyptian Arabic
influences Arabic varieties in other countries. Holes does not mention the
problem of the official arabicization in the Maghreb and underestimates
the use of French which is still very intensive (although decreasing for
several reasons) in the Arab West. It is surprising that Holes uses past
tense saying that 'many (Arab specialists -- A.Z.) continued to use
English or French' which is still a reality especially among engineers and
medicine doctors. The language situation in the most multilingual Arab
country, viz. Sudan is not discussed at all.

In the chapter on 'Phonology' Holes mentions the traditional pronunciation
conventions of Koranic and Classical poetry recitation (p. 57) but it is
impossible to agree with his allegation that 'none of the reading
conventions currently in use for the pronunciation of MSA has any
historical validity' (p. 59) since the obligatory traditional
pronunciation of the Koran certainly has at least some historical
validity. There is no need to suspect that the this traditional
pronunciation of the holy text has not been transmitted as accurately as
possible, inevitable influence of colloquial phonetics being only
marginal. There is nothing on the pronunciation of 'ayin which was
analyzed rather as a stop than as a fricative by al-Ani years ago but
which, nevertheless, is pronounced as a fricative in most varieties. It is
strange that Holes does not even mention the alternative stress on the
first syllable, e.g. in mádrasa (p. 63, cf. pp. 79-81) and does not
mention even the problem of stress in the genitive construction (status
constructus). The discussion of syllable types in Arabic dialects is
limited to Cairo and Bahrain Sunni dialects and the special structures of
e.g. Mesopotamian. and Maghrebian dialects are not mentioned at all.
Actually the discussion of pausal forms (pp.63-68) as well of the
different use of verbal forms (p. 86-89) does not belong to phonology but
rather to morphology (or morphonology) and syntax. In the subchapter
on 'Dialect and orthography' only examples from Bahraini poetry as written
by one Bahraini poet are given and analyzed. Why the author has refrained
from discussing problems of Cairo Arabic spelling which he knows so well?
There should be at least a mention of the Lebanese as a l a n g u a g e
(!) distinct from Arabic promoted by Sa'id 'Aql and Maurice Awad as well
as by several other younger Lebanese writers who use Arabic script and/or
special good Latin orthographies.

In the chapter on verb morphology Holes misses important publications by
Larcher summarized and updated in his book 'Le Systeme verbal de l'arabe
classique', Aix-en-Provence 2003, Université de Provence which is valuable
also for Modern Standard Arabic. On the other hand Holes provides a good
supplement to Larcher when he presents verbal derivation in dialects which
was the subject of my paper read at the Third International Conference of
Association Internationale de Dialectologie Arabe in Malta in 1998. Holes
emphasizes correctly that in both Modern Standard Arabic and in the
dialects the verbal system is evolving toward a tense system but he
explains the opposition between the 'Perfect' and 'Imperfect' (his use of
the name 'p-stem' for the latter is objectionable since p-stem occurs also
in the 'Apocopate' which is a past tense!) as that between 'completed'
and 'noncompleted/ongoing' actions and states and argues that the use of
the 'Perfect' in conditional sentences, in optative phrases as well as
with resultative function (e.g. fahimt "I understand'; cf. Latin Perfect
novi which means 'I know' and not 'I knew') shows that "'pastness' is not
central to the s-stem" (p. 218). This last assumption cannot be accepted
because in many languages, even in English (!), real past tenses are used
in the same way.

The discussion of dialect structures is practically limited to Cairo and
Bahraini Arabic with some occasional references to a few other dialects,
e.g. Damascus, Baghdadi, Jordanian varieties. In the chapter on noun
morphology there is an important statement that "In uneducated dialectal
speech relatively unaffected by MSA, the verbal noun does not figure very
often, other locutions being preferred" (p.147). It is a widely spread
phenomenon that nominalizations are avoided in many spoken languages but
it is a pity that we are not told what 'other locutions' actually are. On
p. 149 we do have an example of a nominalization ('eating of the things')
in 'the plain colloquial of the Gulf'. The use of the quite idiosyncratic
term 'broken plurals' (a calque translation from Arabic!) has a long
tradition in Arabic studies but it has a big disadvantage since it
separates Arabic linguistics from all other branches of linguistic
sciences. "Broken plurals" are just internal plurals called also plurals
with Ablaut or with apophony having good typological counterparts e.g. in
English plurals 'feet', 'teeth', 'geese' and also 'oxen' and 'children'
etc. Holes does not mention internal plurals of the type furs-a:n 'riders'
corresponding to 'active participle' forms like sing. fa:ris 'rider'
although he does mention bi'b-a:n 'doors, gates'. I have not found a
mention that internal plurals are, at least in their majority, collectives
since in well known circumstances they require a verb in singular.

Final conclusion: this is still an important book presenting both
descriptive linguistic and sociolinguistic analyses that every Arabist
must take into consideration.


I am chair of Afroasiatic linguistics, Jagellonian University of Cracow
specializing in comparative Afroasiatic linguistics including Arabic
dialectology and history of Arabic. I am coeditor of the Encyclopaedia of
Arabic Language and Linguistics (forthcoming at Brill, Leiden) responsible
among others for morphology and comparative problems. I was visiting
professor at the universities of Vienna, Heidelberg, Torino, Udine and
Mainz, fellow of the Institute for Advanced Studies at the Hebrew
University of Jerusalem. Chief editor of "Folia Orientalia" published by
the Polish Academy of Sciences.

Format: Paperback
ISBN: 1589010221
ISBN-13: N/A
Pages: 440
Prices: U.S. $ 39.95