What does a wasp/hornet have to do with Arabic grammar?
Legend has it that the question of the wasp or hornet, in Arabic: Masʾala(t) al-Zunbūr (مَسْأَلة الزُّنْبُور), caused Sībawayhi, the most famous Arabic grammarian, to withdraw and die of anger and grief.
According to the story, Sībawayhi (سيبويه) was challenged by his rival from Kūfa, al-Kisā’i (الْكِسائِي), to pronounce himself on an abstruse question.
If you say the following sentence in Arabic, should you use both pronouns in the nominative case ( هُوَ هِيَ ) or do you use the second pronoun in the accusative case ( هُوَ إِيّاها )?
|I used to think that the sting of a scorpion was more intense than that of a wasp, but [I discovered that] it was the same.|
كُنْتُ أَظُنُّ أَنَّ الْعَقْرَبَ أَشَدُّ لَسْعَةً مِن الزُّنْبُورِ فَإِذا هُوَ هِيَ (or هُوَ إِيّاها).
|The following translation clarifies what the pronouns refer to: I used to think that the scorpion was more vehement in stinging than the hornet, and lo, he is (as vehement as) she.|
Sībawayhi said thatهُوَ هِيَ was correct. Al-Kisā’i said the opposite.
|Sībawayhi||هِيَ must be in the nominative (مَرْفُوع).|
فَإِذا هُوَ هِي
|Al-Kisā’i||إِيّاها must be in the accusative (مَنْصُوب).|
فَإِذا هُوَ إِيّاها
A similar question in English would be whether it is she or it is her should be correct. In other words, whether the word in question should be nominative, i.e., in the independent case (رَفْع), or accusative, i.e., the dependent case (نَصْب).
Let’s analyze what Sībawayhi proposed:
|Conjunction (حَرْف عَطْف). It has no place in إِعْراب .|
|Particle of surprise (حَرْف مُفَاجَأَة). It has no place in إِعْراب .|
|Personal pronoun (ضَمِير مُنْفَصِل) which relates to scorpion. It is the subject (مُبْتَدَأ) of the nominal sentence (جُمْلة اِسْمِيّة). Although you can’t see it (due to the fixed, indeclinable shape), it is placed in the location of a nominative case (فيِ مَحَلّ رَفْع).|
|Personal pronoun (ضَمِير مُنْفَصِل) serving as the predicate (خَبَر). It has a fixed, indeclinable shape (مَبْنِيّ عَلَى الْفَتْح), so we can’t mark the case visibly. Nevertheless, the word occupies the position of a nominative case (فِي مَحَلّ رَفْع) since it is the predicate.|
What did al-Kisā’i propose? He agreed on everything we’ve said so far – except for the last word (إِيّاها). There are two ways to handle إِيّاها .
He assumed that there was a verb, but it was deleted (فِعْل مَحْذُوف) and is still implicitly understood. It could have been the verb to be equivalent to (يُساوِيها). Therefore, we apply the rules of a verbal sentence (جُمْلة فِعْلِيّة).
Now it is getting even more complicated. Although many people say that إِيّاها is the accusative case of هِيَ , this is not entirely correct.إِيّاها has a fixed shape and has to end with aسُكُون on the Aleph in any case as the Aleph can’t carry any other sign. It always must beاْ . Therefore, we have to be more precise and say that إِيّاها it is placed in the position of an accusative (فِي مَحَلّ نَصْب).
We still have to solve one thing: Where is the predicate (خَبَرْ) for the subject (مُبْتَدَأ), i.e., هُوَ , of the primary (nominal) sentence? Sībawayhi said that it isهِيَ . Following option 1, however, it is the entire verbal sentence (with the estimated, deleted verb).
It is actually pretty common that an entire sentence serves as the خَبَرْ . In such a situation, we assign a place value and say that the sentence occupies the position of a nominative case (فِي مَحَلّ رَفْع) because the rule says that the predicate has to be in the nominative case. That’s all pretty confusing, but it is a way to justify why you see the personal pronoun in the accusative case.
We already said that هُوَ is the subject of the primary nominal sentence. This subject also needs a predicate. So where is here? The predicate is represented by كانَ , including its two governed factors (كانَ وَمَعْمُولَيْها). They altogether serve as the predicate of the nominal sentence and altogether fill the position of a nominative (فِي مَحَلّ رَفْع).
Back then public debates about grammar were a form of entertainment in which the goal was not so much to establish a truth as to defeat an opponent in front of an audience. Sībawayhi was convinced that an accusative (مَنْصُوب), which would beإِيّاها , can’t be the predicate of a nominal sentence. Suddenly, his rival, al-Kisā’i, presented four Bedouins who were pretending to have just happened to be waiting at the door. They announced that a true Bedouin would only say إِيّاها .
Followers of the Basra school claim that al-Kisā’i had bribed them before to support his answer. Followers of the Kūfa school reject this and say that it would be an insult to throw such allegations on al-Kisā’i’s name. In the end, all four Bedouins testified that هُوَ إِيّاها was correct. Sībawayhi, it seemed, was wrong. Sībawayhi left Baghdad and went to Shiraz in Persia where he soon died of anger and grief at the result of the debate, consoled by a payment of 10,000 dirhams solicited for him by al-Kisāʾī, as legend has it. Others say that he died from illness. He passed away in 796 (180 AH), perhaps at the age of forty.
The dispute was typical for the discussions at that time because it dealt with “what can be said” and “what can’t be said” in Arabic. Sībawayhi was being judged on this ability to speak correctly and not on the logic of his analysis. If one made a mistake, it simply meant that he didn’t say it in the way the Bedouins speak.
Note: The translation of the last part of the famous sentence is tricky. It is not clear which words the feminine pronouns, in fact, relate to. Several translators came to different results.
|Slane (1842-1871)||and behold! It was so.|
|Carter (2004)||and sure enough it is. (Cart. relates هِيَ / إِيّاهَا to لَسْعة.)|
|Ramzi Baalbaki (2014)||but [I discovered that] it was the same.|
|Lutz Edzard (2016)||(however,) the former is (like) the latter.|
|In German, I would say: Ich glaubte, der Skorpion stäche heftiger als die Hornisse/Wespe, und siehe, sie ist (in dieser Beziehung wie) er.|
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