Tag Archives: verbs

Working on the linguistic aspects of the Arabic Symbol Dictionary

quadieDr Ouadie Sabia has joined the team as a consultant specialist in linguistics and has provided us with essential support regarding the accuracy of Modern Standard Arabic lexical entries that are being added to our database. Initially he queried the way we were categorising the lexical entries as they needed to be used for both spoken communication and literacy which, when one is coping with a diglossic language does not necessarily work. There is an insightful blog on the subject written by Michael Erdman titled “Is Arabic really a single language?”

tree with root word

An introduction to the root and pattern system in Arabic from Arabic Learning

However Dr Sabia persevered with his support for our work and commented “This is a common problem with languages such as Arabic where words are derived from one root and might appear without the correct diacritics or even non-existent diacritics.  It can be hard to determine their grammatical category. “ذهب” could mean “to go” or “he went” (verb) but could also mean “gold” (noun). Because the diacritics are missing, the grammatical category is unidentifiable. However in many cases the context plays a crucial role in categorising words in Arabic. This has been proven when developing an Arabic TTS corpora. I have added the appropriate diacritics to make over a thousand Arabic sentences, readable, understandable and grammatically accurate. I also monitored the recording carried out by a talent to make sure that all the diacritics were correctly used in order to preserve the grammatical accuracy. A word function can be altered if the diacritics are incorrectly placed.  Another issues is that by changing just one diacritic we can go from a subject function in a sentence to an object function, without even changing the word order in a sentence.”

Another issue that has had to dealt with over the last few months is the inaccuracies that develop when working with English verbs that tend to be presented in the present tense and those needed in Arabic that are essentially always given as part tense.  Much discussion has resulted in the latter winning the day with a recognition that if ARASAAC symbols for verbs come with a label including ‘to’ such as ‘to go’  the ‘to’  will be removed to that the verb can be declined in any tense and with or without a pronoun.  All the verbs have now been checked by Dr Sabia and sentences added to further explain the meaning.

Arabic verb analyser

Arabic verb analyser

As Dr Sabia explains, “Having spent a reasonable time studying the lists, I have reached a clear idea about the type of tense we should be using to translate the Arabic past tense 3rd person singular masculine as the “infinitive” to + verb” in English. Arabic verbs have the form: “he + past tense” (merged) and this has to appear in the dictionary.  The second point is that the symbol user who wishes to gain literacy skills will only have to learn the declined forms. In other words, if we take the verb ذَهَبَ (he went) as an example, it will be used to teach the action of “going” in the past as a single male, then later, in order to teach the same action of “going” (male single) in the present tense, a newly declined form يَذْهَبْ would be used. Infinitive does not exist in Arabic grammar.  As a result, a translation of a verb such as ذَهَبَ has become “go”.  Verbs like “have” in English are prepositional groups in Arabic. However, for communication purposes, the team has decided to call them verbs too but this needs further discussion.

Further work has included the correction of all the AAC lists collected by the team so that they could be uploaded to the symbol management system along with 500 words that are now considered to be the most useful words for the AAC users and have become the core of the Arabic Symbol Dictionary.  The analysis of the frequency of use from a grammatical point of view, it has become clear that the lists have presented wide variations in terms of the Parts of Speech being used. Most top 100 core entries from Kelly, Beukelman, Buckwalter, Oweini-Hazoury have a very low frequency of nouns / verbs compared to Supreme Education Council list taken from reading books. A more detailed description of the findings is available in a paper presented at the 6th Workshop on Speech and Language Processing for Assistive Technologies that will be provided once the publication is available. There were also found to be distinct differences between the types of words found in English AAC user lists compared to the Arabic AAC user lists with more nouns in the latter and it is worth remembering the comments related to the use of a verb which is combined with a pronoun in Arabic.

Another task has been related to the importance of generating correctly spoken words when the Text to Speech part of the project is included in the dictionary.  This is where the diacritisation is so important for correct pronunciation of the Arabic words and much time has been spent on making sure over 1129 entries are correct.   Dr Sabia has also added all the missing SUKUUN and SHADDA to the definite articles to allow for correct reading of Moon / Sun letters.

Sun letters
t th d dh r z s sh l n
Moon letters ء ه
ʼ b j kh ʻ gh f q k m w y h

As communication boards using Tawasol symbols with Arabic entries have been developed Dr Sabia has been checking their accuracy as part of the ongoing evaluation process and these are being taken out into clinics for trials.  ARASAAC symbols are also being used where the image is acceptable and the English is translated.

to beWork is also being undertaken to decide which words need to become symbols but are represented as the actual word as well as abstract images.  Examples include linking words such as  “and”, “to”, “until” along with the need to make decisions around verbs such as “is”, “are”, “were” which have no equivalent in Arabic because the verb “to be” does not exist. Although, the symbol manager has to have this rather important verb in English!

Finally a monumental piece of work was completed by Dr Sabia – the manual inclusion of the Buckwalter five thousand Arabic words with their 5000 English equivalents as an addition to our collection of lists to give us an idea where the differences in parts of speech may be occurring. This list has become an invaluable aid to our work as it is the only list published as being the  “Frequency Dictionary of Arabic: Core Vocabulary for Learners (Routledge Frequency Dictionaries) by Tim Buckwalter, Dilworth Parkinson”

All this work lays the foundation for the Tawasol website that will be launched in the coming months and once again Dr Sabia has helped us by translating the content into Arabic.

Final voting on Batch One Symbols with AWSAJ Academy and two AAC users.

voting on symbol

Voting to decide on types of clothing and types of action symbols

In the past month there have been final voting sessions on the first batch of adapted symbols and the voting on whether symbols should portray individuals just in Qatari dress or a mix and if action words (verbs) where gender is an issue should be portrayed by stick figures or would the dictionary need to have both male and female representations.





More votes on this subject may yet come in from the AAC Forum,  but it is felt that the initial 50 votes, as a result of face to face meetings,  could be revealed at this stage.

clothing type

Voting shows 68% want a mix of clothing types

Drawing type

Voting shows 86% want gender specific verbs







Comments for the type of dress needed on the symbols included the following:

“less distracting”, “I like both, but prefer option 1 for Qatar” (voted for just Qatari dress) “one uncovered”, “make one of them dressed in Abaya”, “Make one of the girls wear abaya and one of the males wear a thowb”, “one in abaya and one with no headcover and for male one in thobe”, “add one person from action one”, “I prefer one to wear the abaya, one to wear a normal hijab and one without a hijab”, “with one uncovered hair”, “one girl/boy can be in Arabic traditional dress, one girl can be not covered”, 

Comments for the type of drawing needed for verbs included the following:

“To make it more culturally representative and to bring out contrast of figure – around differentiation”,  “the colours are clear”, “don’t like stick figures” “colour the stick”.

The decision has been made that we need to have a mix of clothing and verbs will be represented in both male and female where required.  

Further voting sessions for adapted symbols took place with AWSAJ Academy teachers working with Arabic AAC users.  The online Quick Voting system was used. To date 62 participants’ votes  have been logged on the Symbol Manager resulting in 2341 votes for the  initial batch of 65 symbols!  These now need to be analysed for the comments received and the level of marks given out of 5 for each of the voting criteria – the voters feelings about the symbol generally,  whether it was found to be a suitable representation of the word or phrase presented, whether it had sufficient colour contrast levels and cultural sensitivity.    For all these criteria the average scores were above 3.9.  Where individual symbols have received lower scores in any of the criteria further adaptations will be made taking into account any comments received.  These redrawn symbols will be submitted for voting once again alongside new symbols developed for the next batch of voting that will take place in May.

Average scores for symbols in Batch 1

Average scores for symbols in Batch 1 all over 3.9 out of 5

Case Study A Aejaz and Tullah also met up with two young AAC Users on separate occasions.  Aejaz set up a  batch of 21 symbols on a grid with 5 versions of thumb positions for the 5 scores for A aged 8,  with the support of his father he voted on the symbols and the results were positive with only 3 symbols being marked below the mid point as can be seen with the results below.


A's scores for the symbols










casestudyMWhen working with M in the Shafallah Center,  the criteria  for voting was simplified to thumbs up for an acceptable symbol straight across for in the middle and  thumbs down for a reject.  The latter worked well and once again most symbols were found to be acceptable.  It is hoped we will have more case studies to share and batch 2 of the adapted symbols will be voted on during May and early June before Ramadan.



Past or present tense, plurals and other grammatical structures

grammatical morphemes

Class 2 milestones and patterns in development – Indira Cevallos (slideshare )

It seems amazing that one can spend over a month discussing the intricacies of verbs and how they should be represented in our Arabic / English Symbol dictionary.  The team have reached what Speech Therapists may describe as Brown’s stage 2, where we are learning how to represent more grammatical structures from verb tenses to plurals and simple multiword phrases.  These can be difficult to translate into representative symbols as well as work across two very different languages.  Yet if AAC users are to be able to make use of a core vocabulary and start to develop real language and literacy skills they must be available in any symbol dictionary that is going to be useful.

In English we tend to accept that the verb will be seen initially in the present tense so one would search for ‘play’ as the root word in for example the Oxford English Dictionary .  However, in Arabic dictionaries such as The Dictionary of Modern Written Arabic compiled by Hans Wehr and edited by J Milton Cowan which has been reviewed as one of the best Arabic English dictionaries by Sa’id  (1962) lists of action words are based on the root of the verb usually the imperfect, as an action happening in the past ’ لعب ‘ .  This root of three consonants, can then be easily conjugated (if it is regular) with a series of vowel changes and additional prefixes and/or suffixes.  http://acon.baykal.be/

verb conjugation

So the first dilemma is how do we present our lexical entries – Should the English be in the past or the present?  Should the symbols all have additional elements that illustrate the past as their main entry – going from Arabic to English?

Widgit verbsHow do we represent the past and the future when the writing is going from right to left – is the arrow for past going from right to left or left to right?  Widgit offer a very good example of how this is achieved in English with their symbols.

Google offer an example of how this should be achieved on applications and the web when there is a discussion about bi-directionality.  In Arabic we will need to mirror all the indicators of past and future as well as any diagonal marks.  So lines originally coming from top left down to right will need to change to top right down to left.

In terms of mirroring actions it will depend on what the person is doing but discussions around Arabic etiquette are being represented throughout the symbols with right hand use for anything to do with food and drink and other appropriate actions.

eating symbols

Verbs also have gender specific spellings so representing the word as a symbol – should the verbs have boys or men as well as girls or females carrying out the actions.  It may not be possible to have just the one version or a stick figure if we are supporting literacy skills and yet for those who are just getting to grips with AAC clarity and uncluttered symbols will be essential.

There are similar issues with singular and plural – can one just add the equivalent of +s as in ARASAAC symbols or a ++ as in Widgit – neither are needed if the image illustrates the fact that there are more than one.  So how relevant are these extras, do they help when teaching concepts for literacy skills?   How do we show this change of status in Arabic where plurals are different for male and female individuals  –  teachers – معلمات           معلمون  and then inanimate objects  for example tables –   طاولات  and table –  طاولة

plural plus sign



Finally (for the moment) in Arabic an adjective can change its spelling to fit the noun it follows and just as in English there are irregular words and irregular ways of changing them.  So developing guidelines as to how these things will best be represented in symbols is challenging as we reach over 800 Arabic lexical entries!


Brown, R. (1973). A first language: The early stages. London: George Allen & Unwin.

Sa’id M, F.,  (1962) Review of The Dictionary of Modern Written Arabic is an Arabic-English dictionary compiled by Hans Wehr and edited by J Milton Cowan. Language, Vol. 38, No. 3, Part 1 (Jul. – Sep., 1962), pp. 328-330 Published by: Linguistic Society of America. http://www.jstor.org/stable/410799 Accessed: 23 March 2015