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Studies on Arabic Dialectology and Sociolinguistics

Catherine Miller
Alexandrine Barontini
Marie-Aimée Germanos
et al.

Arabic Dialectology - Linguistic Descriptions

Deontic Modality in Baghdadi Arabic

George Grigore


The deontic modality – also known in the literature on the topic as speaker-oriented modality – indicates an obligation or permission imposed externally, compelling an agent to complete an action, in accordance with a corpus of pre-existent rules. In this paper, I will present an analysis of the possibilities to express the deontic modality – with its multiple facets – in Baghdadi Arabic, analysis based on a corpus of data gathered by me in the last ten years, during my visits to Iraq. The present analysis will point out the main modal verbs (i.e.: yimkin “to be possible”, yrīd “to want”, etc.), modal expressions (i.e.: lā budd min “it is inevitable”, akū luzūm “there is an obligation”, etc.), pre-verbal particles (i.e.: d-, d-rūḥ “go immediately”, etc.) and so on used to introduce the subjective degree of the compulsoriness or the permissibility, the necessity or the acceptability of an action.

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Texte intégral


1In this paper, I tried to present and analyze the possibilities of expressing the deontic – with its multiple facets – in the Spoken Arabic of Baghdad, using, as basis, a corpus of data that I have gathered throughout the years during my visits in Baghdad, corroborated with al-Ḥanafī (1978), Bițună (2013), Grigore (2010), McCarthy and Raffouli (1964, 1965).

2The deontic modality indicates the permission or the obligation, imposed externally, to complete an action according to a set of preexisting principles whose basic meanings refer to what is obligative (“You must go now”) or permitive (“You may/can go now”) (Palmer 2001: 71). The most known manifestation of deontic modality consists in the directives which Searle defines as “where we try to get others to do things” (Searle 1983: 166). Another subdivision of the deontic modality, the commissive, is defined by the same author as “where we commit ourselves to do things” (Searle 1983: 166) known also as the volitive/desiderative deontic which indicates the decisions that are taken based on the wishes of the individual instead of being based on previously established rules or principles. This type of deontic has a high degree of subjectivism with respect to the obligation and permission of completing a specific action (e.g. I want you to eat; you may eat). From Zafiu’s point of view, the real deontic is based on extra linguistic support, an independent set of rules, and, when it doesn’t exist, the speaker may operate upon false rules which correspond to its own subjective willingness, in this case, the deontic draws near the volition (Zafiu 2005: 687).

3Other authors, such as Bybee, Perkins, and Pagliuca reject the denomination of deontic and replace it by two concepts which are the speaker-oriented modality, where the speaker imposes conditions on an addressee, and the agent-oriented modality that reports the existence of an obligation imposed by external conditions to an agent forced to complete an action (1994: 176-181).

4I will analyze below the directives (obligation and permission) in Baghdadi Arabic.

1. The obligation

1.1. Imperative

5The verb’s imperative mood, in its affirmative form, always suggests the necessity or compulsiveness of performing the required act:

rūḥ ’uḫuḏ min ḫāṭir aḫū-k ‘almūd mā yibqā za‘lān ‘alē-k!
Go make up with your brother so he doesn’t stay upset with you.

lahhib id-dīč zeyn gabuḷ mā tuṭabḫ-a!
Singe the rooster well before you cook it!

6The negative form of the imperative verb – realized by using the negation particle lā – indicates the prohibition of an action:

Lā tad‘ač-nī b-īdī čāy!
Don’t jostle me! I am holding some tea.

‘alā kēf-ak! lā ddarfu‘!
Take it easy! Don’t push!

yā zau! lā titḫaṭṭā l-ḥudūd ib-ḥačy-ak wiyyā bībeyt-ak!
O, child! Don’t overstep the boundaries in talking with your grand-mother!

7Sometimes, the imperatives may be preceded by the particle: yaḷḷa (yā ’allāh) “oh, God”, “come on”, “go on”, “hurry up”, which signifies an encouragement, an incentive to perform the required task:

yaḷḷa, tḥalḥal išwayya ḫāṭir aftaḥ bāb iṯ-ṯallāge!
Come on, move a little so I can open the door of the refrigerator!

8For reinforcement yaḷḷa can be combined with ḫallī “let’s” in many cases:

yaḷḷa, Hasan, ḫallī ninzil min il-buruğ, tarā ānī dāyḫ!
Come on, Hasan, let’s go down from the tower because I am dizzy!

9Also, yaḷḷa can sometimes precede the particle de which strengthens the imperative, thus indicating that the speaker lost patience and the recipient should proceed with performing the required task:

de-yaḷḷa, ḫallī nirğa‘ li-ṭ-ṭarma!
Oh, come on, let’s come back to the porch!

10Besides the aforementioned one, there is another reinforced form of the imperative which is formed by adding the particle de before the simple imperative verb: de-rūḥ “go immediately!”, de-ktib “write immediately!”, etc.

11The particle de seems to have its origin in Ottoman Turkish where it is used as an abbreviation for hayde/haydi, hadi “come on”:

Haydi qoš čabuq!
Allons, cours vite!
Come on, run quickly!

Hayde qîz-îm biz-e bir-er qahve söyle!
Allons, ma fille, commande-nous un café à chacun!
Come on, my girl, order a coffee for each of us! (Deny 1928: 714).

12This preverbal particle is also found in contemporary varieties of Anatolian Turkish:


Go immediately!

13The similarity, on all levels, of the Mesopotamian preverbal particle de with the Turkish particle de is more than obvious. Haim Blanc considers that: “Such imperatives with /de/ are perhaps a shade more energetic than the plain imperative and a shade less energetic than the imperfect plus /ma/” (1964 : 117):

‘alī gāl hīči? d-ḫallīnā min hāḏā! msawdan!
Ali said that? Spare us from him! He’s crazy!

1.2. The VII stem

14Out of all the derived Arab verbal stems, the VII stem (which represents the passive voice in the Mesopotamian dialects), at the imperfective aspect shows the necessity of performing an action in a certain fashion and comes as a recommendation, as an advice to be cautious so that the usual practice is respected in the given conditions:

li-hdūm tinḫisil ihnā bi-ṭ-ṭašit!
The clothes can
be washed here in the wash basin!

15The most prevalent use of this derived stem is the negation which adds a meaning different from the affirmative form, thus indicating the stringent need to not perform a certain action, insisting on this fact which, hence, becomes totally prohibited: 

il-ḫubuz mā yinḏebb bi-z-zibāle!
The bread can’t be thrown in the garbage!

dīr bālek! hāḏī l-bāb mā tinfitiḥ! mafhūm?
Be careful! This door can’t be open! Understood?

hāḏā l-‘ilāğ mā yinširib gabuḷ ir-rayūg!
This remedy can’t be drunk before breakfast!

16In all the above mentioned examples, the verb can be preceded, for strengthening, by lāzim “must”. The insertion of lāzim decreases the degree of prohibition, drawing it nearer to a recommendation:

li-hdūm lāzim tinḫisil ihnā bi-ṭ-ṭašit!
The clothes must be washed here in the wash basin!

1.3. Derivatives from the root l.z.m.

17Most of times, in Baghdadi Arabic, for expressing the deontic, derivatives from the root l.z.m. – yilzam, lāzim, malzūm, luzūm – that indicate the necessity of performing an action, action which cannot be delayed – are used:

āku luzūm ağī-k bāčir?
lā, māku luzūm tiği ent, tigdar tdizz fadd wāḥid aḫar.
– Is there need that I come to you tomorrow?
– No, there is not need that you come, you can send another one.

bāčir kull šōfer lāzim ‘alē yinṭī-nī fad[d] pāket ğigāyir.
– Tomorrow every driver must give me a packet of cigarettes.

mū lāzim tdallil iṭ-ṭifil, li’an yikbur miṯil wilid ni‘ma w dalāl.
You must not spoil the child, because he will grow up as the pampered rich.

āni malzūm arūḥ wiyyā-k.
I am obliged to go with you.

1.4. Prepositional structures

18The preposition ‘ind or ‘idd “at” has the meaning of property when it indicates a material thing at the disposal of its owner ‘ind-ī ḫāšūge “I have a spoon” or it has metaphoric meaning with respect to abstract notions such as time, science etc. When used with verbal nouns it has the meaning of performing an action:

‘ind-a kitāba.
He has to write.

‘ind-ī ḥačī wiyyā-k.
I have to talk to you.

19The use of the preposition warā “behind” is more common than the use of ‘ind “at” as if the action pursues the performer, forcing him to solve it or to act upon it in order to get rid of it:

warā-y rūḥa li-bēt ‘amm-i.
I have to go to my uncle’s house.

il-yōm warā-y ḫasil iz-zūliyye w ṭabuḫ.
Today I have to wash the carpet and to cook.

mā agdar addān-ak il-yōm…, waḷḷa, warā-y daf‘at il-kahrabā’.
I cannot lend you today, by God, I have to pay the electricity.

20At times, the spatial orientation can be opposite with regards to what I just presented, more exactly warā is replaced by giddām “in front of”; in this situation the action that must be performed becomes a hurdle for the performer, thus, forcing him to remove it in order to continue his way.

21The expressions used in the Standard Arabic al-fuṣḥā for introducing the deontic modality, such as lā budda, lā maḫrağa, lā mafarra, etc. (the common denominator – “there is no escape” – being the lack of any possibility of escaping from accomplishing the required action) can also be found in Baghdadi Arabic: māku mafarr “there is no escape”, māku ṭafra “there is no jumping”, māku šarda “there is no fleeing”, māku mukān “there is no place”, etc. Generally, they appear together with lāzim:

māku šarda min id-dōlma, yōmiyye lāzim tinwakil.
There is no escape from the dolma, you have to eat it daily.

māku šarda min iğ-ğihāl, lāzim trabbī-hum, tlabbis-hum, tnawwim-hum, t’akkil-hum.
There is no escape from children, you must raise them, dress them, put them to sleep, and feed them.

māku ṭafra min hāḏā l-msawdan, lāzim tinṭī-h fad(d) rašde.
There is no escape (jumping) from this crazy, you must hit him.

māku mukān trūḥ l-a, lāzim tibqā hnā.
There is no place to go, you must stay here.

māku ayy ḥall, lāzim tnām mustašfā.
There is no solution, you must enter hospital.

22Sometimes, the reinforcement of the deontic is attained by the repetition of the verb, underlining the indomitable destiny:

Māku ṭafra min[n] iz-zawāğ, titzawwağ-titzawwağ.
There is no escape (jumping) from marriage, you get married-you get married.

1.5. Be careful!

23The phrase dīr bāl-ak “be careful”, “pay attention” is used for warning the recipient upon a punishment that follows the execution of a certain action. Hence, it indicates the forbidding of an action, or, better said, the abstinence from performing it:

dīr bāl-ak tōgaf ihnā!
Be careful, don’t stay here!

Mamnu’ tōgaf ihnā!
It is forbidden to stay here!

dīr bāl-ak tiktub ‘a-l-ḥāyiṭ ib-ṭabāšīr!
Be careful don’t write with the chalk on the wall!

dīr bāl-ak tākel dhūm w ent ‘ind-ak sukkar
Be careful, don’t eat fat because you have diabetes.

dīr bāl-ak tḫarmuš is-sayyāra mālt-i
Be careful, don’t scratch my car!

1.6. rād-yrīd “to want”

24The verb rād-yrīd “to want” at the imperfective aspect 3rd person, plural, signifies an imposition of an act from the authorities (ḏōl, hāḏōl  “these”, “the authorities”, “those in power”):

yirdūn minn-ak viyez, iḏā tidḫul Turkiyā.
They want visa from you, if you enter Turkey.

25Yrād, an abbreviation from yinrād, the VII stem has a role of passive voice of the verb rād- yrīd “to want” with the assimilation of the consonant /n/ by the consonant /r/ followed by the latter’s reduction – due to usage – to a simple /r/:

yrād l-ak šuġul hwāye, ḥattā tkawwin nafs-ak.
There is much work needed from you, until you fulfil yourself.

1.7. The necessity meaning

26All the names that have the meaning of necessity, need – such as ḥāğa, ḍarūra, ḍarūri – are used for expressing a deontic meaning:

’aku ḥāğa tiṭla‘ min il-bēt ib-hāḏa l-wakit?
Is there any need to get out of the house in this time?

māku ḥāğa tsawwī kull hāy il-hōse.
There is no need to make all this uproar.

ḍarūri tḫābir-nī l-yōm.
You must call me today.

1.8. ġaṣban ‘alā

27The expression ġaṣban ‘alā “in spite of” is used to express the coercion of somebody, hence, in spite of his will, to perform an action, the coerced not being convinced of its utility:

raḥ tsudd il-bāb ġaṣban ‘alē-k
You are going to close the door in spite of your wish.

ġaṣban ‘alē-k, tidrus il-handase, mū l-adab.
In spite of you(r) (wish), you are going to study engineering, not literature.

1.9. Past participles

28The past participle – muṭarr, mağbūr – of some verbs that express compulsiveness is used to show an action imposed by a situation that has no other way out:

muṭarr iddāyan flūs min ‘amm-a.
He is obliged to borrow money from his uncle.

mağbūr il-yōm arūḥ li-l-ḥiwāza.
I am obliged today to go to the farm (i.e. private estate).

1.10. The oath

29The oath is defined as the binding of self to refrain from something or to set out to perform something, bearing the meaning of absolute truth for the one who takes an oath, of pure faith. Its insertion in a sentence gives the acceptation of compulsiveness of fulfilling the mentioned act in such a way that the speaker will not lose his credibility in front of peers:

w dā‘t abūya rāḥ aḍrub-ak bi-s-siččīn.
By my father’s honor, I’ll bit you with the knife.

1.11. The verb ḫalla “let’s”

30The imperative of the verb ḫalla, even though it has deontic acceptations, still holds the predominant meanings of advice, incentive:

ḫallī nfūt minnā ḫāṭir mā yšūfnā.
Let’s go this way so he won’t see us.

lā tḫallī l-‘itwī ybūl bi-ṭ-ṭarma!
Don’t let the tomcat piss on the porch!

2. The permission

2.1. The verb yğūz

31The manifestation of permissiveness is accomplished with the help of the verb yğūz:

yğūz tākel hassa.
It is fit to eat now.

2.2. masmūḥ “permitted”

32The past participle of the verb sumaḥ “to permit”:

masmūḥ l-ak tākel hassa.
It is permitted for you to eat now.

2.3. The verb ḫallā

33And, also, with the imperfective and imperative of the verb ḫallā:

aḫallī-k tig‘ud wiyyā-nā ba‘ad ma tiğlib el-nā raggiyye ellī taḥat ič-čerpāye.
I allow/ I permit you to sit with us after you bring us the watermelon which is under the bed.

lā tḫallī l-‘itwī ybūl bi- ṭ-ṭarma!
Don’t let the tomcat piss on the porch!

Final remark

34A remark emerges from all the given examples that, across this research, the verb is either imperative or imperfective (present), the perfective form eliminating the deontic meaning, hence the sentence becomes purely descriptive:

mā čān lāzim tgūmīn min il-firāš w tuṣubġīn ša‘r-eč bi-l-ḥanna.
You should not have got out of the mattress and to dye your hair with henna.


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Department of Arabic, University of Bucharest, Romania

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