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English vs. Arabic Phonology and Syntax Research Paper

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Updated: Jan 28th, 2021


Arabic is the official language of many countries. It has many dialects but only one of its versions is taught in schools and used across the Arab world. This Semitic language differs greatly from English. Arabic has a three-consonant root as its basis and all words (part of speech) are followed by combining the three root consonants with fixed vowel patterns and sometimes an affix.

Arabic has 28 consonants whereas English has 24. It also has eight vowels or diphthongs against that of English, which has 22. Arabic texts are read from right to left and there is no distinction made between upper and lower cases and the punctuation rules are much looser than in English.

English has three times as many vowels as Arabic and it is inevitable for Arabs to fail to distinguish some words they hear and have difficulties pronouncing such words correctly.

Phonology deals with the distinction between tone language and stress languages. Languages with an extensive tonal system tend to make less use of stress and accent. This is because whatever functional load is carried by tonemes in one language may be carried by stress or the accent in another. Tonemes give a paradigmatic prominence to a syllable while stress mainly gives syntagmatic prominence. The main function of tonemes is to distinguish each syllable from any other possible syllable with the same segmental phonemes. Stress or accent gives prominence to one or more syllables in a word over other unstressed or accentuated syllables in the same word. Syntax deals with a combination of words into sentences.

English originated from West Germany since it began in England, specifically in the Anglo Saxon kingdom. English dispersed to the rest of the world becoming a leading language of international communication due to the extensive influence of Great Britain and the United Kingdom. Many people learn English as a second language and it is used for communication in the United Kingdom and former Britain colonies. English is used in many world organizations as the language of communication.

English is a mixture of several languages and dialects, which are from the old times, and Anglo–Saxons (Germans) brought it to the eastern coast of Great Britain in the 5th century.

Latin and the Great Vowel Shift form a basis for a significant number of English words by using their roots. It was because of this Middle English that modern English emerged.

Literature review

Many researchers have conducted studies on the mistakes committed by Arab-speaking people while learning English as a second language and focused on the field of phonology, morphology, and syntax (Abdul 15; Al-Shuaibi 195 – 328). Al-Shuaib focused on the phonology of phonotactics and found that learners had difficulty in pronouncing English initial consonant clusters with three members and final consonant clusters of three and four members. The processes involved in the pronunciation of these clusters were reduction, substitution, and deletion.

Certain phonological errors committed are related to stress and intonation. The errors are inter-lingual and occur because of the phonological differences between sound systems of Arabic and English. The declusterization process in the Arabic language shows that Arab learners unintentionally insert an anaptyctic vowel in the onset as well as at the end of certain English syllables and the major reason for this is due to the influence from their mother tongue.

Steele said that in word order variation, words are ordered according to meanings and therefore, ordered in light of the ordering of meanings in mind. The object is proposed in front of the verb due to its importance and it is up to the Arabs to propose what they think is important (23).

Three reasons explain the existence of the subject occurring early in the subject.

The thematic role of the agent tends to precede the thematic role of the patient and the prototypical subject is an agent. In other words, the closer a participant is to the energy source, the earlier it tends to appear.

More animate elements tend to precede elements that are less animate and very often the subject is humans who are conceived of as being highest in the animal hierarchy. More thematic information tends to precede information that is less thematic and very often the subject is also a theme during the discourse. If other elements are more thematic than the subject is, they are lifted out of their original position and placed before the subject.

The VSO order in Arabic

Typology deals with ways in which languages differ from each other and the contrast is not sharp. The degree of variations found in the languages makes typologists to divide languages into types according to the basic word order. This is often understood as the subject (S), object (O), and verb (V) in a typical declarative sentence. In both English and Arabic, the subject precedes the object in line with the formulated statistical manner in that subjects tend strongly to precede objects. English is SVO and Arabic is VSO, and this represents no more than a comparison of a very small part of the grammar between English and Arabic.

This part dictates the ordering of subject, object, and verb. Modern Arabic dialects are known to have agreement asymmetries that are sensitive to word order effects (Aoun, Benmamoum, and Sportiche 185 – 220). The crucial phenomena are the optionality of full agreement of the verb with post-verbal subjects and the availability of the first conjunction agreement. The asymmetries have been attributed to a variety of causes including the clausal agreement with gapping and semantic agreement effects. When both nouns are singular, there is a singular agreement on verbs in declarative.

A recent syntactic account has argued that there are two mechanisms involved in the production of agreement, namely agree and space head. The act of producing an agreement controller causes the agreement feature to be more active. The phi-features of the subject head nouns more tightly control targets occurring after the subject. This causes it to produce agreement asymmetries that are sensitive to word order effects.

Arabic phonology and syntax

The phonological system of a language is like a sieve through which everything that is said passes and each person acquires the system of his mother tongue. Hearing another language being spoken makes one intuitively use the familiar phonological sieve of the mother tongue to analyze what has been said. This sieve is not suited for the foreign language and numerous mistakes and mispronunciations are the results. The sounds of the foreign language receive an incorrect phonological interpretation as they are strained through the phonological sieve of one’s own mother tongue (Jane 34).

The Arabic language is marked by a limited vocalistic system and a rich consonantal system. Three vowels are attested in both their short and long forms – a, t, and u. There is a rich inventory of guttural consonants, which include laryngeals (?) and (h), the pharyngeal’s (c), and (l), and the uvula fricatives (x).

Arabic has a triad of voiceless, voiced, and emphatic components in certain subsets of the coronal set. Arabic has a root and pattern morphology and the root is a semantic abstraction consisting of two, three, or less (less commonly four) consonants from which words are derived through the superimposition of templatic patterns.

Voiceless bilabial passive /p/ has no counterpart in the phonemic system of the Arabic language and its noiselessness by Arabs is always replaced by its voiced counterpart /b/, which has a phonemic value in the Arabic phonemic system. The labial dental affricates /v/ have no counterparts in the Arabian consonant system and are not normally realized by Arabic speaking people and replaced by the sounds /f/.

Stress is regular in Arabic and it is common for Arabs to have difficulties with the seemingly random nature of English stress patterns.

The elision (swallowing) of sounds that are common in spoken English is problematic for Arabs. This aversion to elision and the use of glottal stops before initial vowels are the primary reasons for the typical staccato quality of spoken English of Arab learners.

The traditional module of grammar is in parallel because each module exerts independent constraints. This occurs when the module is not in series when the output of one feeds into the input of the next. Phonological representations are mainly linear series of segments. Phonologists employ the use of default consonants and vowels, which appear where the consonant or vowel position in syllable structure has not been filled. In Arabic, the default consonant is the glottal stop (?) and the default vowel is /a/, which only appears initially.

The word order for Arabic syntax is VSO – verb, subject, and object and it has been argued that VSO is changing towards SVO. Arabic is considered a non-configurational language because it exhibits high word order freedom. It has great freedom of surface word order, frequent use of discontinuous constituents, and a complex verb-word system.

The word order in Arabic is as follows:

  1. Preposition + noun – this is whereby a noun coming after a preposition changes depending on whether it is definite or not and if the sound is masculine or plural.
  2. Noun + genitive – this will express a relationship of possession between two parts and Arabic lacks a possessive preposition such as ‘of’ or any other possessive particles.
  3. Auxiliary + verb – all the verbs have associated active and passive particles. The verbal nouns and forms of auxiliary verbs are rather anticipated in Arabic.
  4. Noun + relative clause – Arabic uses an indeclinable particle that is inserted into the sentence and is placed next to the modified noun. The relative pronoun and head noun agree in number, gender.
  5. Adjective + standard of comparison – comparisons in Arabic use an elative adjective followed by ‘min’ with the superlative using an elative adjective followed by an indefinite noun having the [ad] and [noun] meaning.

Dynamic verbs occur before a noun subject than stative verbs and the text type or narrative with distinct events are more likely to have verb initial clauses and stylistics. Within phrases, a word that functions as the qualifier typically follows the qualified terms. An adjective follows the noun it qualifies and the object or complement follows the verb it complements.

There are some special syntax features in Arabic, which lead to complex syntax structure different from those of European English. Arabic grammar exists only in a descriptive form and there is no comprehensive formal representation for it so far. Definitive clause grammar for Arabic syntax arguments of nonterminals is used to hold special features of Arabic words such as in definitively or indefinitely determined features of nouns, which is essential to recognize many structures. Definitive clause grammar provides a general treatment of context-sensitivity through the proper use of arguments of nonterminals make it easy to account for agreements such as number, gender, and person. It also suits the possibility of imposing extra conditions on the constituents of a phrase that must be satisfied for a rule to be valid.

There is no single basic word order for the Arabic language and three basic sentence types are defined.

  1. Nominal sentences – this is a type of sentence that does not contain a verb or contains a verb that follows the subject.
  2. Verbal sentences – this is a sentence that contains a verb that precedes the subject. These sentences with special structures include such sentences as vocative sentences.

In the Arabic declarative, interrogative words or phrases are usually placed first in interrogative word questions. Forming interrogatives in Arabic requires the use of ‘do’ or ‘does’ at the beginning of the sentence. For example;

  • Does he have a house?
  • Do you smoke?

Asking questions in Arabic does not need to change the order of the sentence.

Yes or no questions in Arabic usually start with one of two words or semi words. One is used for referring to the non-present tense whereas the other refers to the present tense. Arabic does not make the distinction between actions completed in the past and without a connection to the present, leading to failure to using the present perfect tense. Arabic lacks a modal verb and it requires the inclusion of the pronoun in relative clauses.

This is unlike English in which the pronoun is omitted resulting in mistakes. Nouns have feminine and masculine gender, singular and plural number. Adjectives are morphologically similar to nouns. Predicative adjectives agree with the noun subject in gender and number. Attributive adjectives agree with the attributed noun in gender, number, case, and definiteness (Steele 22).

SVO English

English has a fixed word order which can be outlined as subject-verb-object. Object and subject are used in a rather informal semantic sense to denote the more agent-like and the more patient-like elements respectively. The APV notion is used where S is the single argument in an intransitive clause, the A is the more agent-like argument in a transitive clause and P is the more patient-like argument in a transitive clause. The properties of SVO include a preposition plus a noun, genitive plus noun, auxiliary plus a verb, noun plus relative clause, and adjective plus standard form of comparison.

English clause structure is hierarchical since it has a VP node that passes some constituency tests such as the proform and the coordination test that cannot be carried out in Arabic. The VP node is quite weak in Arabic due to the difference in word orders; it has a free word order.

English phonology and syntax

English researchers purpose grammatical architecture that imposes several format restrictions upon the complexity of phonological opacity effects. The nature of phonology in the English language is the pillar of genuine rules of phonology which operate on features that consider segments of classes of nature more randomly. Genuine phonological rules can be circumscribed to a morphologically defined domain but cannot refer to specific syntactic features. The cluster of formal properties is what differentiates morphological rules from phonological rules. The morphological rules are generally as they influence phonological units, control locality in phonology, and follow all morphological rules within the same cycle.

Lengthening and shortening morphology alters the vowels in modern English. Three syllables shortening of long vowels occurs in stressed antepenultimate syllables. The word-final consonants are extra syllabic when the long vowels undergo shortening in closed syllables. A c-v sequence coming after a short vowel undergoes lengthening. Strong past tense and past participle forms are irregular and therefore stored in long-term memory.

English has modal classes of both weak and strong verbs and it belongs to the Germanic language group. Non-native languages are incorporated into a Germanic system of conjugation, declension, and syntax. All additions in the grammar of English words are added to the nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs. Nouns include the normal plural marker – s or es and the possessive marker is – s. verbs include the third person present ending – s or es. The ending – ing in present participle – ed ending in the simple past tense and past participle and to form English infinitives. Adverbs generally receive an – ly ending and adjectives and adverbs are inflected for the comparative and superlative using – er and – est or through a combination with more or most. All the particles append freely to all English words regardless of the origin.

Syntax of English is different from other West Germanic languages about placement and order of verbs. English adjectives usually come before the noun they modify even when the adjective is of Latinate origin. Consonants may also be seen towards the left and maybe without a voice. Lenis consonants are lightly voiced or voiced and appear on the right.

Syllabic nasals and liquids are unstressed syllables. Some consonants are normally labialized or at times pre-tonic. Despite this, they are rarely transcribed. In the English spoken in Scotland and other dialects around the globe, the fricative ‘x’ is common. However, it is pronounced with a ‘k’.

The sequence /howl/, which is the same as /HW/, is an extra phoneme. The ‘r’ may be put into different categories depending on which dialect of English it has been written in. The allophone of /l/ is the clear ‘L’ and the velarized (dark) /l/.

The vowels in English also differ considerably among the different dialects. They may also be transcribed with certain symbols. The process of vowel reduction involves the reduction of the volume and the time required to pronounce it.

A normal sentence in English comprises of a series of increasing pitch on the last syllable and then the decrease in pitch on the other syllables. The rising pitch on the last stressed syllable and falling pitch on unstressed syllable is applicable in tag questions and questions on whom. However, the yes or no pattern is different due to the rising on the last stressed syllable and remaining high on all the following syllables. All the yes or no questions start with an auxiliary verb such as have, do, did, and will, and asking questions in English requires changing the order of the sentence.

English has several sentence structures depending on the subject and the type of clause used.

  1. Subject or predicate sentences – these are sentences about something or someone and the subject refers to that thing or that person in the sentence. The predicate contains information about that thing or person that is the subject.
  2. Simple subject or predicate sentences – the simple subject is the main word in the subject and the simple predicate is the main word in the predicate. The simple subject is always a noun or pronoun and the simple predicate is always a verb.

A complex sentence comprises of one independent clause and one or more dependent clauses. A dependent clause starts with a subordinating conjunction, for example, that, because, while, although, where and if. A dependent clause standing alone without an independent clause is called a fragment sentence. Compound complex sentences contain three or more clauses – of which at least two are independent and one is dependent.

Problems and common errors by Arabic speaking people

The English language is essential for people from many fields of study. For example, those pursuing computer courses or medicine need to be proficient in English. Consequently, over a billion people speak English to at least a basic level including Arabic-speaking people. The growth of English reduces the linguistic diversity in many parts of the world and English plays an important role in language attrition (Makattash 56-65)

Arabs learning English encounter problems in both speaking and writing (Abdul 34). For many Arabic students learning English is a mere formality as there are not too many teachers whose mother tongue is English. Many of the studies conducted previously investigated lexical, phonological, and syntactical errors made by Arabic speaking people learning English. Research showed that students commit errors in writing skills (Abdul 15). There is strong indignation against the constant degradation of the English language proficiency of Arabic students. Arabic students have communication problems and find it difficult to communicate freely in English. They might dislike the current methods of teaching English and the learning environment and simply do not want to study it.

The major errors among Arab students learning English as a second language are syntactic errors in the verb phrases and the noun clauses. Also, they make mistakes in verb formation and tenses which are a sequence of tenses, their substitution, deletion, or confusion of tenses.

Subject-verb agreement errors are the lack of the ending “s” for the third-person singular and the misusage of the verb “to be”. In pronunciation, Arab learners stress wrong syllables and use the wrong intonation. Mukattash said that ” Arab University students continue making some basic errors in pronunciation, speaking, morphology and syntax (83)”. The problem is that students cannot use English correctly and appropriately in the classroom or in daily life.

Some errors always preserve the consonant structure of the target word. The vowels are often incorrect but more importantly, they are omitted or turn up in the wrong place relative to the surrounding consonants. Many of the Arabic dialects do not have a voicing distinction. Most of these errors are due to specifically lexical processes, rather than simple phonological ones (McCrum 21).

Arabic words are different from words in Indo European languages where the words tend to be made up of a relatively stable root, and a system of affixes that are added on the stem. Most of the Arabic words are based on a root that consists of three consonants and the three consonants can be combined with different patterns of vowels to produce a whole family of words that share a common meaning.

Modern Arabic writing does not normally represent short vowels and the consonants are written down with the reader required to fill the vowels that are appropriate to the context. Arab readers are accustomed to scripts that place great importance on consonant structures and play down the importance of vowels. In English, words with a similar consonant structure are not always semantically related and vowel differences can be critical since this convention seems stranger to an Arabic speaker (Ricardo and Mcmahon 65).

Arabic writing begins from right to the left rather than from the left to the right. Arabic speakers see words rather differently from English. Most of the errors appear at the extreme right position more quickly than one would expect. The errors are much fewer than expected at accepting the initial pair of items.

There are differences in phonology and syntax of Arabic and English languages. These differences are common in word processing and they are related to the lexicology and orthography of both languages. The main goal of learning English as a second language is the ability to speak, write, and understand daily life. The students should comprehend what they hear and be able to speak so the listener understands them as well.

By using strategic know-how, Arab students acquire valuable experience in communicating in English, and here the main idea would be not the correctness of answers or the usage of right grammatical structures and the word choice but the process of interaction itself. Strategic competence is the ability to select those effective means of performing a communicative act that makes it possible for both parties.

According to Taron:

Communication strategy is the learner’s attempt to bridge the gap between their linguistic competence in the target language and that of the target language interlocutors or the technique of coping with difficulties in communicating in an imperfectly known sound language. (p. 288)

By using communication strategies, students solve the problems they may encounter while communicating in a foreign language either second or third language. If they come across some difficulty in comprehension or communication, learners avoid using particular language or grammatical structures; they may also paraphrase sentences and phrases or find synonyms; gestures are of great help too as long as the recipient gets the message.

Students may also insert a word or a phrase from their first language or use word coinage that produces items that do not exist in the target language to achieve their communication goals. According to Mohammed Shoeb Khan, “the great number of erroneous utterances that Arab learners of English produce in oral performance and their recourse to communication strategies is an indication of how serious the problem is. ” (p. 10 )

Conclusion and recommendations

The phonology of Arabic and English languages is quite different because they originate from two different families. This variation in phonology and syntax poses a challenge to the Arab speaking people who are learning English as a second language.

Communicative strategies are very important for Arab students and every teacher should enlighten the learners of the communicative potential of communication strategies. Moreover, to see the teaching project out, they should sensitize specific situations in class so the students have more real examples to solve their communication problems. Teachers of Arabic learners should provide students with the definition of communication strategy and ask them to perform tasks that require them to use communicative strategies such as definition and storytelling.

Arabic learners can improve their phonology and syntax so that they can communicate well with English speakers. For that, they may do extracurricular exercises for self-development, do online tests, work in groups, attend English language speaking clubs, even read up-to-date magazines and newspapers, and watch educational programs in English.

The difficulty experienced by Arabs in adopting English as a second language can now be understood and approached differently by some trained personnel to ensure that the learning process is made easy and the pronunciation of certain letters and words is made possible. English is quite a common language and learning it would enable the Arabs to be able to communicate easily with other people from other countries and diverse cultures.

Works cited

Abdul, Haq. An Analysis of Syntactic Errors in the Composition of Jordanian secondary students. Unpublished MA Thesis.Jordan: Yarmouk University, 1982. Print.

Aoun, James, Edwin Benmamoum, and David Sportiche. Argument and conjunction in some varieties of Arabia. Linguistic inquiry 2 (1994): 185 – 220. Print.

Al-shuaibi, Shamir. A phonological Analysis of English phonotactics of syllable initial and the final consonant clusters by Yemeni speakers of English. MA dissertation. Language in India 9 (2000): 195 – 328. Print.

Jane, Watson. The Phonology and morphology of Arabic. Oxford University Press: oxford, 2002. Print.

Khan, Shoeb Mohamed. Ecumenical Problems of Arab Learners of English.Druck and Bindung:Books on Demand GmbH, 2011. Print.

Makattash, Lewis. The problem of difficult in foreign language learning. Amman Jordan: University of Jordan, 1983. Print.

McCrum, Robert. The story of English. New York: Viking. Print.

Ricardo, Bermudez, and John McMahon. English phonology and morphology: The Hand book of English linguistics. Oxford: Blackwell, 2010. Print.

Steele, David.Word Order Variation: A typological study. Stanford: Stanford University press, 1978. Print.

Tarone, Elaine. Some thoughts on the notion of ‘communication strategy.’ TESOL Quarterly 15 (1981). 285-295.

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