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A study of antonymous and synonymous

couplings in Arabic with reference to


Abdul Sahib Mehdi Ali

University of Sharjah

1. Introduction

An increasingly interesting aspect of the study of lexis consists in the use of

words in connection with other words, in more or less fixed combinations,
rather than individually. This is a reflection of the realization that language is a
structure in which not only single building blocks (individual words) but also
bigger ‘prefabricated’ chunks (multiword expressions) are used. These chunks
or multiword expressions are of different types; hence the multitude of terms
used to describe them: ‘fixed phrases’, ‘fixed expressions’, ‘preconstructed phras-
es’, ‘conventionalized forms’, ‘idioms,’ ‘collocations’, ‘formulas’, etc. (See Baigent:
www). It is not our intention in this paper to provide an exhaustive list of these
types or compare them; rather we shall concern ourselves with a particular
type of word combination where basically two words are coordinated in a fixed
phrase or coupling. The two words constituting the coupling are either anto-
nyms; hence the term ‘Antonymous Couplings (ACs)’, or synonyms/near-syn-
onyms, in which case they are termed ‘Synonymous Couplings (SCs)’. Despite
their high frequency in Arabic (as well as in other languages), these couplings,
to the best of our knowledge, have not so far been subjected to a close exam-
ination. Nor have they been looked at from a translational point of view. The
present paper attempts to bring into focus the main characteristics of these
couplings, identify the semantic and syntactic constraints governing the posi-
tioning of their constituents in relation to each other, and examine their trans-
latability from one language into another.

Babel 50:4 (2004), 346–360. issn 0521–9744 / e-issn 1569–9668

© Fédération des Traducteurs (fit) Revue Babel
A study of antonymous and synonymous couplings in Arabic 347

2. The Nature of ACs and SCs

ACs and SCs are characteristically fixed phrases; they generally tend to be fro-
zen in form and do not readily allow the morphological and syntactic trans-
formations normally applied in the case of most other words and phrases. This
is one of the defining characteristics of idioms (see Fromkin and Rodman
:; Bahumaid ). This feature alone, however, does not qualify them
all to be characterized as full-fledged idioms as they sometimes lack another
equally important criterion for such characterization, namely semantic opaque-
ness – the mismatch between the semantics of the parts and the whole (Cowie et
al. : xii). As will be illustrated shortly, the constant re-use of many of these
combinations in a fixed form has not led to a radical change of meaning; they
are still used more or less literally; their meaning can easily be predicted from
their surface forms. Others, on the other hand, are couched in metaphorical
language, thus making it difficult for their meaning to be deduced from that of
their constituent parts. It is for this reason that the term ‘coupling’ is used here
as a general label for these phrases.

3. Antonymous Couplings

Consider the following examples:

() «‫( »ﻳﻦ ﻟﺜﺮ ﻣﻦ ﻟﺜﺮﻳﺎ‬lit. What has the ground to do with the Pleiades?); what
a big difference!
() «‫( ﻛﺎﻧﺖ ﻟﺤﺮ ﻗﺪ »ﺗﺖ ﻋﻠﻰ ﻷﺧﻀﺮ ﻟﻴﺎﺑﺲ‬lit. The war had destroyed the green as
well as the dry vegetation); destroyed everything completely
() «‫( ﻫﻮ ﺻﺪﻳﻖ ﻟﻬﻢ »ﻓﻲ ﻟﺴﺮ ﻟﻀﺮ‬lit. He is their friend in times of happiness/
prosperity and in times of distress/adversity); in good days and bad
() «‫ﻟﻴﻠﺔ ﺿﺤﺎﻫﺎ‬/‫( ﻗﺪ ﺗﺘﻐﻴﺮ ﻷﻣﻮ »ﺑﻴﻦ ﻋﺸﻴﺔ‬lit. Things might change between evening
and forenoon); overnight, from one day to the next, very suddenly, all of a
() «...‫( ﻟﻴﻌﻠﻢ »ﻟﻘﺎﺻﻲ ﻟﺪﻧﻲ‬lit. Let the distant one and the near one know…); let
everybody/all people know
() «‫( ﺳﺘﻈﻬﺮ ﻟﺤﻘﻴﻘﺔ »ﻋﺎﺟﻼ ! ﺟﻼ‬lit. The truth will be revealed now or in the fu-
ture); sooner or later
() «"‫ﻟﻨﺎ ﻓﻲ ﻣﻨﺎﻗﺸﺘﻨﺎ ﻟﻠﺨﻄﺔ »ﻛﻞ ﺻﻐﻴﺮ" ﻛﺒﻴﺮ‬,‫( ﺗﻨﺎ‬lit. In our discussion of the plan we
dealt with every minor and every major aspect); everything, every detail
() «‫( »ﺧﺘﻠﻂ ﻟﺤﺎﺑﻞ ﺑﺎﻟﻨﺎﺑﻞ‬lit. The warp (of a fabric) got mixed up with the weft);
348 Abdul Sahib Mehdi Ali

everything became confused, muddled, disorganized; everything got into

a state of utter confusion, was in a mess
() «‫ﻋﺮﺿﻬﺎ‬, 0‫ ﻟﻔﻮﺿﻰ »ﻓﻲ ﻃﻮ) ﻟﺒﻼ‬5‫( ﻧﺘﺸﺮ‬lit. Chaos spread in the length and
breadth of the country); everywhere
() «‫ﻻ ﻣﻦ ﺑﻌﻴﺪ‬, ‫( ﻻ ﺻﻠﺔ ﻟﻪ ﺑﺎﻟﺠﺮﻳﻤﺔ »ﻻ ﻣﻦ ﻗﺮﻳﺐ‬lit. He is not involved in the crime, nei-
ther from near nor from far); not in the least

The above examples incorporate expressions (written between inverted com-

mas) where two antonymous words (in bold type) are put together to give the
idea or quality being described maximum emphasis. Paired antonyms, or ACs,
which usually relate to universally familiar concepts like time, space, size, and
number, serve as effective tools of vivid description as they help render such ab-
stract notions as difference, disparity, totality, confusion, etc., tangible through
a process of concretization based on associating them with tangible objects or
phenomena. The following are some major characteristics of these couplings.

3.1 Sequential fixedness

One major characteristic of ACs is their sequential fixedness. The order in which
the opposing words in a given coupling are placed in relation to each other is,
for the most part, not haphazard. The placement of a particular word in first
or second position seems to be subject to one or more of the following consid-

3.1.1 Near vs. distant

ACs involving the concepts of space or time almost always assign the first po-
sition to the antonym expressing the idea of spatial/temporal nearness, prox-
imity, or immediate relevance. The other antonym, which represents the other
extreme, is assigned second position. Examples:
() «2‫ﻫﻨﺎ‬, ‫ »ﻫﻨﺎ‬here and there
() «23 ‫ﻻ‬, ‫ »ﻻ ﻫﺬ‬neither this nor that
() «5‫ ﻟﻰ !ﻗﺼﺎ‬5‫ﻧﺎ‬7! ‫ »ﻣﻦ‬from one (the nearest) end to the other (the farthest)
() «"‫ »ﻟﺪﻧﻴﺎ ﻵﺧﺮ‬this world and the hereafter
() «‫ »ﻋﺎﺟﻼ ! ﺟﻼ‬sooner or later
() «)‫ﻓﻲ ﻟﻤﺂ‬, )‫ »ﻓﻲ ﻟﺤﺎ‬at present and in the future
A study of antonymous and synonymous couplings in Arabic 349

In the following example, however, the order is reversed:

() «...‫ﻟﺪﻧﻲ‬, ‫( ﻟﻴﻌﻠﻢ »ﻟﻘﺎﺻﻲ‬lit. Let the distant one and the near one know…); let
everybody, all people know…

This, however, may be accounted for in terms of the rhetorical effect this rever-
sal of the antonyms produces; the positioning of ‫ ﻟﻘﺎﺻﻲ‬before ‫ ﻟﺪﻧﻲ‬gives the
expression a tone of inflexibility and defiance, and makes the speaker sound re-
lentless and uncompromising. As it is in the nature of things that news of any
kind spreads quickly to those who are close to its source, while it may not reach
those who are distant from it, the speaker of the above expression is keen to let
everybody know his/her position on the issue in question, regardless of wheth-
er or not they know that speaker or whether or not they uphold the stand he/
she is taking. This kind of situation is sometimes more explicitly stated linguis-
tically. Consider the use of ‫‘ ﻗﺒﻞ‬before’ in the following construction:
() «‫ﻧﺎ ﺧﺎﺿﻮ ﺣﺮﺑﺎ ﻣﺸﺮﻓﺔ‬0‫ﻳ @ﻘ ﱡﺮ ﻷﻋﺪ ﻗﺒﻞ ﻷﺻﺪﻗﺎ ﺑﺄ= ﺟﻨﻮ‬A » Our enemies, before (no less
strongly than) our friends, agree/admit/concede that our soldiers fought
an honorable battle.

3.1.2 Positive/constructive vs. negative/destructive

What is seen as commendable conduct, or of a high social or religious value, al-

most always precedes what is viewed as incompatible with the norms and prin-
ciples of society and religion:
() «‫ »ﻟﺤﻖ ﻟﺒﺎﻃﻞ‬truth/correctness/rightness and untruth/falsehood/decep-
() «‫ »ﻟﺨﻴﺮ ﻟﺸﺮ‬good and evil
() «‫ »ﻟﺼﺎﻟﺢ ﻟﻄﺎﻟﺢ‬virtuous/pious/godly and evil/ wicked/depraved
() «?‫ »ﻟﺠﻨﺔ ﻟﻨﺎ‬heaven and hell

Similarly, what is valuable, preferable, or desirable is given precedence over

what is less valuable, disagreeable, or undesirable, as the following examples
() «...‫ ﻟﻐﺎﻟﻲ ﻟﺮﺧﻴﺺ ﻓﻲ ﺳﺒﻴﻞ‬B‫( »ﺑﺬ‬lit. He offered/sacrificed everything in his pos-
session, the valuable as well as the valueless, in order to…); to spare no ef-
fort, go to any length, give everything, pay any price for…
() «B‫ ﻷﺗﺮ‬B‫( »ﻓﻲ ﻷﻓﺮ‬pl. of D‫‘ ﻓﺮ‬joy, gladness’ and ‫‘ ﺗﺮح‬grief, distress’); in (times
of) happiness and in (times of) sadness
350 Abdul Sahib Mehdi Ali

() «E‫ ﻣﻮ‬, "‫ »ﻣﺴﺄﻟﺔ ﺣﻴﺎ‬a matter of life or death

Example () above might be seen as a counterexample: why not say "‫»ﻛﻞ ﻛﺒﻴﺮ‬
«"‫ ﺻﻐﻴﺮ‬since, in the discussion of any plan or project, major details are usually
given priority over minor ones? In this particular example, however, the speak-
er’s intention is not to specify which details were dealt with first and which sec-
ond; rather he/she is trying to underscore the idea that the discussion was care-
ful, thorough, and painstaking, excluding no detail no matter how trivial or
insignificant. And, of course, carefulness, thoroughness, and painstakingness,
are all favorable qualities, especially in matters relating to discussion, research,
investigation, etc.

3.1.3 Type of syntactic structure

The order may be dictated by the type of syntactic structure used to convey the
idea. For instance, one way of expressing the priority, precedence, or superior-
ity of something over another is to use ‫ﻦ‬F ‫ﻳ‬G F ‘what’ + X+ ‫‘ ِﻣ ْﻦ‬with/to’ +Y, where X
is usually inferior to, or less important than Y in terms of the value, quality, or
attribute in question. Example () above is a case in point. Here are two more
F What is this compared with that!
() «!23 ‫ﻦ ﻫﺬ ﻣﻦ‬F ‫ﻳ‬G »
() «!I‫ﻧﺤﻦ ﻣﻦ ! ﻟﺌﻚ ﻟﺮﺟﺎ) ﻟﻌﻈﺎ‬ F What are we compared to those great men (i.e.
I ‫ﻦ‬F ‫ﻳ‬G »
our forefathers)!

Expressions like these are usually intended to suggest that the two things in-
volved in the comparison are matchless, that the one in second position is be-
yond compare. As the reader will have noticed, the same is also true of the case
in English: ‘What’s this apartment compared to our beautiful villa!’, ‘What’s he
compared with Shakespeare!’, etc.

3.2 Cross-linguistic similarities and differences

As will have already been gathered from the above examples, due to the simi-
larity of human experience, these expressions are often more or less similarly
counterparted in English [examples (), (), (), (), and () above; see also
Appendix ]. This, obviously, is a facilitating factor in translation; the transla-
tor has at his/her disposal ready-made expressions that are dynamically and
functionally oriented equivalents. Other expressions, those that are culture-
A study of antonymous and synonymous couplings in Arabic 351

or language-specific [examples (), (), (), (), (), () above] are renderable
through descriptive translation.

However, the two languages may sometimes order the same antonyms differ-
ently. This is almost always the case when the two antonyms are regarded as be-
ing of equal weight, and therefore it makes no difference which one comes first
and which second. Thus there are:
() Arabic: «‫ – »!ﺧﺬ ﻋﻄﺎ‬English: give-and-take
() Arabic: «‫ – »اﻟﺮﺑﺢ واﳋﺴﺎرة‬English: loss and gain

The above explanation is supported by the fact that there may exist in the same
language two expressions where more or less the same antonyms are used but
the arrangement is different. For example, the meaning of the above cited Ara-
bic coupling «‫ ﺟﻼ‬, ‫‘( »ﻋﺎﺟﻼ‬sooner or later’), is synonymously expressed by an-
other coupling in the same language but where the equivalent antonyms are
put in reverse order:
() «‫ ﻗﺼﺮ‬, =‫( »ﻃﺎ) ﻟﺰﻣﺎ‬lit. whether time lasts long or runs short) before long,
sooner or later.

Consider also:
() «‫ ﻣﺴﺎ‬B‫( »ﺻﺒﺎ‬lit. in the morning and in the evening) day and night
() «?‫ ﻧﻬﺎ‬/?‫ﻟﻴﻼ ﻧﻬﺎ‬/‫( »ﻟﻴﻞ‬lit. night and day) day and night

3.3 Parallel couplings

We have seen that the two antonyms of any given coupling always belong to
the same grammatical class, and have the same grammatical number. It is also
sometimes the case that the same pair of antonyms may be used twice, once in
the singular, and once in the plural, in two different, though related senses. For
example, along with () above, there is the Islamic Law coupling «‫ﻟﻜﺒﺎﺋﺮ‬, ‫»ﻟﺼﻐﺎﺋﺮ‬,
where «‫( »ﻟﺼﻐﺎﺋﺮ‬pl. of «N‫ )»ﺻﻐﻴﺮ‬means ‘venial sins’ as opposed to «‫( »ﻟﻜﺒﺎﺋﺮ‬pl. of
«N‫)»ﻛﺒﻴﺮ‬, ‘great sins, grave offenses’. Compare also:
() «J‫ ﻟﻌﺎ‬K‫ »ﻟﺨﺎ‬the special and the general
() «J‫ ﻟﻌﻮ‬K‫ »ﻟﺨﻮ‬the upper class and the common people; the educated and
the populace; high and low; all people
352 Abdul Sahib Mehdi Ali

3.4 Other linguistic properties

The high frequency of ACs in Arabic (as well as other languages) may be at-
tributed to their proverbial nature, their brevity, the decisiveness of their pro-
nouncements, and their symmetrical arrangement often in rhyme and rhythm.
These characteristics make for efficient retrieval by the speaker and easy pro-
cessing by the hearer. These couplings are found in almost all social activities
and at all levels of formality. The principle of using opposing words (the so-
called O‫ﻃﺒﺎ‬Q ‘antithesis’) to show contrast has always been a major characteristic
of Arabic poetry. Here are a few examples:
() «‫ ﻓﻮاﺋﺪ‬I‫ ﻋﻨﺪ ﻗﻮ‬I‫»”ﻣﺼﺎﺋﺐ ﻗﻮ‬ ‫ ﻣﺎ ﺑﻴﻦ ﻫـﻠﻬﺎ‬I‫ﻛﺬ ﻗﻀﺖ ﻷﻳﺎ‬
Trans: That is the way of the world: some people’s misfortunes are advan-
tageous to others.
() B‫ﻟﻰ ﺣـﺎ‬Q B‫ﻳﻐﻴﺮ ﷲ ﻣﻦ ﺣﺎ‬ «‫ﻧﺘﺒﺎﻫﺘﻬﺎ‬, ‫»ﻣﺎ ﺑﻴﻦ ﻏﻤﻀﺔ ﻋﻴﻦ‬
Trans: If God wills it, things will change for the better in the wink of an eye
(lit. between the closing and opening of an eye).
() ‫ﻳﺎ‬,‫ ﻟﻤﺴﺎ‬O‫ﻦ ﻋﻴﻦ ﻟﺴﺨﻂ ﺗﺒﺪ‬F ‫ﻟﻜ‬, ‫ﻋﻴﻦ ﻟﺮﺿﺎ ﻋﻦ ﻛﻞ ﻋﻴﺐ ﻛﻠﻴﻠﺔ‬,
Trans: The eye of approval is blind to all blemishes
But the eye of resentment reveals shortcomings
(See Ali : –)

4. Synonymous Couplings

Synonymous Couplings (SCs) are phrases where synonyms or near-synonyms

rather than antonyms are coordinated in pairs. Invariably, the function of the
second synonym in these couplings is to emphasize the meaning of the first
one and characterize the coupling as a fixed phrase. As the following examples
show, SCs share almost all the characteristics of ACs: they are fixed, emphatic,
brief, sometimes figurative, and often have a harmonious structure with rhyme
and rhythm:
() «?‫ »ﻣﺮ? ﺗﻜﺮ‬once and again, again and again, repeatedly
() «R‫ »ﺑﻼ ﻗﻴﺪ ! ﺷﺮ‬unconditionally, unreservedly
() «?‫ﻻ ﻣﺎ ﻗﻞ ﻧﺪ‬Q» but for a few exceptions, with a few exceptions only
() «U‫ ﻣﺎ‬
T U‫»ﻫﺎ‬
T (Lit., of the sea, to run high, be rough or stormy and to heave,
swell, roll and surge); to be or get agitated/ upset/ furious/indignant; raise
A study of antonymous and synonymous couplings in Arabic 353

() «‫ﺑﺪ‬V! ‫( »!?ﻏﻰ‬lit. to foam or froth at the mouth – a metaphorical reference to

the sea) to flame up with rage
() «‫ »ﻃﻐﻰ ﺗﺠﺒﺮ‬to be tyrannical/oppressive/ arrogant
() «5‫ ﻧﺸﻜﺮ‬5‫ »ﻧﺤﻤﺪ‬thank God and praise be to Him
() «?‫ﻋﺎ ﺑﺎﻟﻮﻳﻞ ﻟﺜﺒﻮ‬0» to wail, burst into loud laments
() «‫ »ﺳﺎﻫﻴﺎ ﻻﻫﻴﺎ‬inattentive, absent-minded, heedless; amusing oneself in a care-
free manner, completely at ease
() «!‫( »ﺳﻤﻌﺎ ﻃﺎﻋﺔ‬lit. I hear and obey); at your service! Very well!
() «...‫( »ﻋﻠﻰ ﻣﺮ! ﻣﺴﻤﻊ ﻣﻦ‬lit. before the eyes and ears of) with full knowledge
() «‫ »ﺗﺴﻢ ﺧﻄﺎﺑﻪ ﺑﺎﻟﺘﻬﺪﻳﺪ ﻟﻮﻋﻴﺪ‬his speech was characterized by its intimidation
and threats
() «‫ ﺳﺎﻟﻤﺎ ﻏﺎﻧﻤﺎ‬0F ‫( »ﻋﺎ‬lit. he came back unhurt and successful/winner); approx:
he returned safe and sound
() «B‫ ﻳﻤﺮ‬B‫( »ﻳﺴﺮ‬near-synonyms: lit. to roam freely; graze freely (cattle) and to
be happy, merry, cheerful, in high spirits); to do as one likes
() «[‫( »ﻗﻀﺖ ﻟﺤﺮ ﻋﻠﻰ ﻟﺰ?[ ﻟﻀﺮ‬lit. The war destroyed crops and udder – the
latter word is a metonym meaning ‘livestock’); everything
() «‫ »ﻧﺼﺎ ? ﺣﺎ‬in letter and spirit
() «‫ »ﻧﺤﻦ ﻣﻌﻜﻢ ﻗﻠﺒﺎ ﻗﺎﻟﺒﺎ‬We support you with heart and soul; totally, entirely, fully

4.1 Two categories of SCs

As far as the pairing of synonyms is concerned, SCs can be said to fall into two
main categories according to the type of semantic relationship between the two
constituents of the given coupling.

4.1.1 ‘Identical’ constituents

There are those where the two constituents are almost identical in meaning and
where the meaning of the second constituent is little more than a repetition of
that of the first one [see examples (–) above]. This perhaps explains the oc-
casional use of only one of the two constituents in the same context, e.g. ‫»ﺣﺬﺗﻪ‬ ‫ﱠ‬
«?‫ﻣﺮ? ﺗﻜﺮ‬/‫‘ ﻣﺮ‬I warned him repeatedly/again and again’, ‫ﻟﺪﻳﻪ‬, N‫ﻳﺎ‬X ‫»ﻟﻢ ﻳﺘﻮﻗﻒ ﻋﻦ‬
«?‫ ﻣﺎ ﻗﻞ ﻧﺪ‬/‫ﻻ ﻣﺎ ﻧﺪ‬Q ‘He never stopped visiting his parents, but for a few excep-
tions’, etc. It also accounts for the fact that many such couplings are translat-
able into single words, as the aforementioned examples show. Further, perhaps
354 Abdul Sahib Mehdi Ali

more illustrative, examples are found in the translation of English legal docu-
ments, which abound in couplings consisting of English words complemented
by their French equivalents (Crystal and Davy :). When translated in-
to Arabic, these couplings are sometimes replaced by single words, as the fol-
lowing examples show:
() each and every = ‫ﻛﻞ‬
() free and clear of = ‫ ﻣﻦ‬B‫ﺧﺎ‬
() made and signed = F ‫ﺗﺤﺮ‬/
‫ﱠ‬ F ‫ﺣ ﱢﺮ‬A
() in good condition and repair = N‫ﺑﺤﺎﻟﺔ ﺟﻴﺪ‬
() deem and consider = ‫ﻳﻌﺘﺒﺮ‬
() keep and maintain = ‫ﻳﺤﺎﻓﻆ ﻋﻠﻰ‬ (See Sabrah :)

It should be mentioned, however, that in order to preserve the traditional reg-

ister of legal documents, and not to open the door for guesswork, translators of
this kind of register are generally inclined to translate these couplings literally.
Here are some examples from English, French, and Arabic:
English French Arabic

Null and void Nul et non avenu ‫ﺑﺎﻃﻞ‬, \‫ﻻ‬

Fraud and deceit Fraude et imposture ]‫ﺧﺪ‬, ‫ﻏﺶ‬
Safe and sound Sain et sauf ‫ﺳﻠﻴﻢ‬, =‫ﻣﺄﻣﻮ‬

4.1.2 Complementary constituents

The second category of SCs [examples (–) above] includes those where the
paired constituents, though not (fully) synonymous, are describable as such in
the sense that they are complementary to each other; their meanings combine
to form the overall meaning of the coupling. For example, when one wants to
indicate that one agrees with or will do what has been suggested, required or
ordered, one may need to emphatically say that the message has not only been
heard but also obeyed, in which case the meaning produced would be some-
thing like the Arabic coupling «‫ﻃﺎﻋ̀ﺔ‬, ‫[ »ﺳﻤﻌ `ﺎ‬example () above] (compare its
English equivalent ‘very well!’). Similarly, the involvement of both the senses
of seeing and hearing in the process of perceiving something taking place, say a
murder, makes one more fully aware of that thing than when only one sense is
involved, which accounts for the expression «...‫[ »ﻋﻠﻰ ﻣﺮ! ﻣﺴﻤﻊ ﻣﻦ‬example ()
above; for more examples of this type of couplings, see Appendix B].
A study of antonymous and synonymous couplings in Arabic 355

5. Conclusion

The present paper has investigated the characteristics of a particular type of

Arabic word combinations where the common denominator is the pairing of
two words in a fixed phrase or coupling. Depending on the type of relationship
holding between the constituent items of the combination, the study has iden-
tified two subtypes of these couplings, namely ‘antonymous’ and ‘synonymous’
couplings. As far as their linguistic properties are concerned, both kinds of
couplings are generally characterized by fixedness, brevity, forcefulness, sym-
bolism, and structural harmony. Another interesting characteristic is that the
particular sequence in which the two items of a given coupling are arranged is
not random; rather it is based on certain considerations – what was referred to
above by the term ‘sequential fixedness’.

The pairing of words in the above-illustrated method seems to be a linguistic

universal, which accounts for the fact that the resulting couplings pose little
or no problem in translation. It is frequently the case that the target language
has its own coupling which closely, if not identically, corresponds to that of the
source language, thus making it easy for the translator to provide a translation
equivalent that is dynamically as well as functionally appropriate, as in the case
of Arabic «‫ﺟﻼ‬a I ‫ »ﻋﺎﺟﻼ‬and English ‘sooner or later’. In the absence of such cor-
respondence, on the other hand, i.e. in the case of culture- or language-specific
couplings, the translator may resort to descriptive translation. For example, Ar-
abic «!‫ﻦ ﻟﺜﺮﻳﺎ‬F ‫ @ﻣ‬c‫ﻦ ﻟﺜﺮ‬F ‫ »ﻳ‬may be rendered into ‘What a big difference!’


Ali, A.S.M. .“A Comparative Study of Proverbs: Their Linguistic Characteristics

and Cultural implications”. Al-Mustansiriyya Literary Review, vol., –.
Ali, A.S.M. . A Dictionary of Translation and Interpreting. Sharjah: University of
Sharjah.  pp.
Bahumaid, S. . “Idiomphobia: The EFL Learner’s Syndrome”. International Journal
of Arabic-English Studies, : &, –.
Baigent, M. Speaking in Chunks: An Investigation into the Use of Multiword Phrases
in Spoken Language by Advanced Learners of English., visited on //.
Cowie, A.P., R. Mackin & I.R. McCaig. . Oxford Dictionary of Current Idiomatic
English. Vol. : Phrase, Clause & Sentence Idioms. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
lxiii+ pp.
356 Abdul Sahib Mehdi Ali

Crystal, D. & D. Davy. . Investigating English Style. New York: Longman.  pp.
Fromkin, V. & R. Rodman. . An Introduction to Language. U.S.A.: Harcourt Brace.
 pp.
Al-Munjid fil-Lughah.. Beirut: Dar El-Machreq.  pp.
Sabrah, M.M.A. . Tarjamat al-‘Uqud (Translation of Contracts). Cairo: Maktab Sa-
brah lil-Tarjamah.  pp.
Wehr, H. . A Dictionary of Modern Written Arabic (ed. and translated from German
by J. Milton Cowan). Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press (MWA).  pp.

Appendix Antonymous and Synonymous Couplings

Though not exhaustive, the following list includes almost all Arabic couplings that enjoy
a high frequency of occurrence in the language (see al-Munjid  and Wehr ).

A Antonymous Couplings

‫ ﺗﻰ ﻋﻠﻰ ﻷﺧﻀﺮ ﻟﻴﺎﺑﺲ‬to destroy everything, wreak havoc

7? ‫ !ﺧﺬ‬discussion, debate, dispute, argument
‫!ﻗﻌﺪﻫﺎ‬, ‫ ﻟﺪﻧﻴﺎ‬J‫ !ﻗﺎ‬approx.: to kick up a dust, move heaven and earth
5‫ !ﻗﺎﻣﻪ !ﻗﻌﺪ‬to upset someone seriously, throw someone into a state of violent emotion
?‫ﺑﺎ‬7^ ‫ ^ﻗﺒﺎﻻ‬back and forth, up and down
‫( ﻷﻣﺮ ﻟﻨﻬﻲ‬lit. command and interdiction) sovereign power, full power(s),
‫ ﻫﻞ ﻟﺤﻞ ﻟﺮﺑﻂ‬influential people, those in power
‫ ! ﻻ ﺧﺮ‬/ ‫ ! ﻻ !ﺧﻴﺮ‬first and last, altogether, simply and solely, merely
‫ﻟﻮ ﻟﺤﻞ ﻟﻌﻘﺪ‬, (lit. masters of solving and binding) rulers, leaders
‫ ﻳﻦ ﻟﺜﺮ ﻣﻦ ﻟﺜﺮﻳﺎ‬what a big difference!
23 ‫ ﻳﻦ ﻫﺬ ﻣﻦ‬what is this compared with that!
‫ ﺧﺘﻠﻂ ﻟﺤﺎﺑﻞ ﺑﺎﻟﻨﺎﺑﻞ‬everything became confused, got into a state of utter confusion
‫ ﺧﺬ ﻋﻄﺎ‬give-and-take; dealings, relations(esp. business, commercial); discussion
‫ ﻋﻜﺴﺎ‬7‫ ﺑﺤﺚ ﻟﻤﺴﺄﻟﺔ ﻃﺮ‬he studied the problem from all sides or in all its aspects
...‫ ﻟﻐﺎﻟﻲ ﻟﺮﺧﻴﺺ ﻓﻲ ﺳﺒﻴﻞ‬B‫ ﺑﺬ‬to spare no effort, go to any length, pay any price in order
‫ ﻟﻴﻠﻪ‬7‫ ﻳﻮﻣﻪ ﺳﻮ‬e‫ ﺑﻴﺎ‬by day and by night
E‫ ﺑﻴﻦ ﻟﺤﻴﺎ" ﻟﻤﻮ‬between life and death
‫ ﺑﻴﻦ ﻋﺸﻴﺔ ﺿﺤﺎﻫﺎ‬overnight, all of a sudden
?‫ ﺑﻴﻦ ﻣﺪ ﺟﺰ‬in a state of constant change
7‫ !ﻓﺮ‬E‫ ﺟﻤﺎﻋﺎ‬in groups and individually
?‫ ﻟﺠﻨﺔ ﻟﻨﺎ‬heaven and hell
‫ﻫﺎﺑﺎ‬3 ‫( ﺟﻴﺌﺔ‬lit. coming and going) to pace the floor, walk up and down
‫ ﻟﺤﻖ ﻟﺒﺎﻃﻞ‬truth/correctness/ rightness and untruth/ falsehood/ deception
J‫ ﻟﻌﺎ‬K‫( ﻟﺨﺎ‬lit. the special and the general) the high and the low, all classes of people,
A study of antonymous and synonymous couplings in Arabic 357

J‫ ﻟﻌﻮ‬K‫ ﻟﺨﻮ‬people of distinction, the common and the exceptional, the high and the
‫ ﻟﺨﻴﺮ ﻟﺸﺮ‬good and evil
"‫ ﻟﺪﻧﻴﺎ ﻵﺧﺮ‬this world and the hereafter
‫ﻫﺎﺑﺎ ﻳﺎﺑﺎ‬3 there and back; back and forth, up and down
"?‫ ﻟﺮﺑﺢ ﻟﺨﺴﺎ‬loss and gain
‫ ﻟﺮﻓﻴﻊ ﻟﻮﺿﻴﻊ‬high and low; all
‫ ﺣﺪﻧﺎ‬E‫?ﻓﺎ‬V in groups and alone
‫ﻓﻲ ﻟﺴﺮ ﻟﻌﻠﻦ‬/‫ ﺳﺮ ﻋﻼﻧﻴﺔ‬secretly and publicly
‫ ﻟﺴﺮ ﻟﻀﺮ‬in good and bad times, for better or for worse
‫ ^ﻳﺠﺎﺑﺎ‬J! ‫ ﺳﻠﺒﺎ‬negatively or positively
‫ !ﺑﻰ‬J! ‫ ﺷﺎ‬whether he likes it or not, willingly or unwillingly, willy-nilly
‫ ﺷﺮﻗﺎ ﻏﺮﺑﺎ‬the whole world
‫ ﻟﺼﺎﻟﺢ ﻟﻄﺎﻟﺢ‬the virtuous and the evil
‫ ﻣﺴﺎ‬B‫ ﺻﺒﺎ‬in the morning and in the evening, mornings and evenings
‫ ﻟﺼﻐﺎﺋﺮ ﻟﻜﺒﺎﺋﺮ‬venial sins and grave offenses
‫ ﻛﺎ?ﻫﺎ‬, ‫ ﻃﺎﺋﻌﺎ‬willingly or unwillingly
‫ ﻗﺼﺮ‬, =‫ ﻃﺎ) ﻟﺰﻣﺎ‬sooner or later, before long
‫ ﺟﻼ‬J! ‫ ﻋﺎﺟﻼ‬sooner or later
‫ﻧﺒﻪ ﻣﺎ ﺗﺄﺧﺮ‬f ‫ ﻣﻦ‬J‫ ﻏﻔﺮ ﷲ ﻟﻪ ﻣﺎ ﺗﻘﺪ‬God has forgiven all his sins
‫ ﻓﻲ ﻷﻏﻠﺐ ﻷﻋﻢ‬in most cases; mostly, generally
B‫ ﻷﺗﺮ‬B‫ ﻓﻲ ﻷﻓﺮ‬in (times of) happiness and in (times of) sadness
)‫ ﻓﻲ ﻟﺤﺎ) ﻓﻲ ﻟﻤﺂ‬at present and in the future
‫ ﻓﻲ ﻟﻌﺎﺟﻞ ﻵﺟﻞ‬in the future and now
"‫ ﻓﻲ ﻟﻤﺼﻠﺤﺔ ﻟﻤﻔﺴﺪ‬in good and bad times, for better or for worse
‫ﻋﺮﺿﻬﺎ‬, 0‫ ﻓﻲ ﻃﻮ) ﻟﺒﻼ‬throughout the country, all over the country
‫ ﻓﻲ ﻛﻞ ﻋﺼﺮ ﻣﺼﺮ‬always and everywhere, at any time and any place
‫( ﻟﻘﺎﺻﻲ ﻟﺪﻧﻲ‬lit. the distant one and the near one) everybody, all people
‫( ﻟﻘﺮﻳﺐ ﻟﺒﻌﻴﺪ‬lit. the near one and the distant one) everybody
‫ ﻗﻮﻻ ﻋﻤﻼ‬by word and deed
‫( ﺑﻴﻦ ﻛﺮ ﻓﺮ‬lit. between attack and retreat) alternately, intermittently, by fits and starts
"‫ ﻛﻞ ﺻﻐﻴﺮ" ﻛﺒﻴﺮ‬every detail
‫ ﻻ ﻣﻦ ﻗﺮﻳﺐ ! ﺑﻌﻴﺪ‬not in the least, not by a far cry
23 ‫ﻻ‬, ‫ ﻻ ﻫﺬ‬neither this nor that
7? ‫ﻻ‬, ‫ ﻻ ﻳﻘﺒﻞ !ﺧﺬ‬an indisputable matter
‫ﺑﻴﺮ‬7 ‫ﻻ‬, ‫ ﻟﻴﺲ ﻣﻦ ﻫﺬ ﻷﻣﺮ ﻓﻲ ﻗﺒﻴﻞ‬he has absolutely nothing to do with this affair
‫ﻻ ﺑﻜﺜﻴﺮ‬, ‫ ﻟﻴﺲ ﻣﻨﻪ ﻻ ﺑﻘﻠﻴﻞ‬to have absolutely nothing to do with something
‫ﻟﻚ‬3 ‫ ﻟﻴﺲ ﻫﺬ ﻓﻲ ﺷﺊ ﻣﻦ‬this has absolutely nothing to do with that
T ‫ ﻟﻴﻞ‬day and night; day in day out
E‫ﻣﺎ !ﺧﺮ‬, ‫ ﻣﺎ ﻗﺪﻣﺖ‬what I have ever committed
‫ ﻣﺒﺎﺷﺮ" ﺿﻤﻨﺎ‬directly and indirectly
‫ﻣﻐﺎ?ﺑﻬﺎ‬, e‫ ﻷ‬c?‫ ﻣﺸﺎ‬the entire world
358 Abdul Sahib Mehdi Ali

5‫ ﻟﻰ !ﻗﺼﺎ‬5‫ﻧﺎ‬7! ‫ ﻣﻦ‬from one end to the other; wholly, entirely, completely
J‫ﻟﻰ !ﺧﻤﺺ ﻟﻘﺪ‬Q d!‫ ﻣﻦ !ﻋﻠﻰ ﻟﺮ‬from head to toe
O?‫ ﻻ ﻳﺪ‬O?‫ ﻣﻦ ﺣﻴﺚ ﻳﺪ‬whether he knows it or not, knowingly or without his knowledge
‫ﺑﻴﺮ‬7 ‫ ﻣﻦ ﻛﻞ ﻗﺒﻴﻞ‬of every origin
2‫ ﻫﻨﺎ ﻫﻨﺎ‬here and there
‫ ﻳﺼﺎﺑﺤﻪ ﻳﻤﺎﺳﻴﻪ‬he attends to it mornings and evenings; he is constantly, incessantly oc-
cupied with it
‫ ﻳﻌﺮﻓﻪ ﻣﻦ !ﻟﻔﻪ ^ﻟﻰ ﻳﺎﺋﻪ‬he knows it from A to Z; completely, thoroughly

B Synonymous Couplings

‫ !ﺑﻰ ﺳﺘﻜﺒﺮ‬to refuse, turn down, reject, be haughty, arrogant, supercilious

‫ ﺗﻰ ﻋﻠﻰ ﻟﺮﺣﺐ ﻟﺴﻌﺔ‬to be welcome
?‫ﻻ ﻣﺎ ﻗﻞ ﻧﺪ‬Q but for a few exceptions, with a few exceptions only
‫ ﻫﻼ ﺳﻬﻼ‬welcome ‫?ﻧﺎ ﻫﻞ ﺳﻬﻞ‬7 ‫ ﻟﻪ ﻓﻲ‬he is a welcome guest in our house
‫ ﺑﺎﻟﺘﻬﺪﻳﺪ ﻟﻮﻋﻴﺪ‬by intimidation and threats
[7? ‫ﻻ‬, ‫ ﺑﻐﻴﺮ ﺿﺎﺑﻂ‬completely unrestrained, out of all control
R‫=( ﻗﻴﺪ ! ﺷﺮ‬,‫ ﺑﺪ‬،=,0) ‫ ﺑﻼ‬unconditionally, unreservedly, without any reservation
‫ ﺑﻨﺼﻪ ﻓﺼﻪ‬in the very words, literally, precisely
c‫ ﺳﺎ‬J‫ ﻋﻠﻰ ﻗﺪ‬c‫ ﺟﺮ‬to become fully effective, be in full progress, be in full swing
‫ ﺣﺒﺎ ﻛﺮﻣﺔ ﻟﻚ‬for your sake and in your honor; most gladly, with the greatest pleasure
?‫ﻋﺎ ﺑﺎﻟﻮﻳﻞ ﻟﺜﺒﻮ‬0 to wail, burst into loud laments
[‫ ﻟﺰ?[ ﻟﻀﺮ‬agriculture and stock farming; everything
‫ ﺳﺎﻫﻴﺎ ﻻﻫﻴﺎ‬amusing oneself in a carefree manner; completely at ease
‫ ﻟﺴﻠﺐ ﻟﻨﻬﺐ‬plundering, looting, spoliation, pillaging
‫ﻟﺴﻤﻊ ﻟﻄﺎﻋﺔ‬/‫ ﺳﻤﻌﺎ ﻃﺎﻋﺔ‬I hear and obey! At your service! Very well!
‫ ﺷﺎﻛﻴﺎ ﺑﺎﻛﻴﺎ‬complaining and wailing
‫ ﺷﺮﻋﺎ ﻓﺮﻋﺎ‬with full right, with good cause, justly
2‫ ﺣﺴﻦ ﻟﺴﻴﺮ ﻟﺴﻠﻮ‬N0‫ ﺷﻬﺎ‬certificate of good conduct; blameless life
‫ ﺷﻴﺒﺎ ﺷﺒﺎﻧﺎ‬everybody, all people
‫ ﻃﻐﻰ ﺗﺠﺒﺮ‬to be tyrannical, oppressive; to behave arrogantly or tyrannically
‫ ﻇﻠﻤﺎ ﻋﺪ ﻧﺎ‬unjustly, wrongfully
‫ ﻟﻌﻴﻦ‬d!‫ ﻋﻠﻰ ﻟﺮ‬very gladly; just as you wish!
‫ ﻋﻠﻰ ﻣﺮ! ﻣﺴﻤﻊ ﻣﻦ‬before the eyes and ears of; with full knowledge of
‫ ﻓﻲ ﺣﺮﻛﺎﺗﻪ ﺳﻜﻨﺎﺗﻪ‬in all his doings; in every situation
‫ ﻓﻲ ﺣﻠﻪ ﺗﺮﺣﺎﻟﻪ‬in all his doings, in everything he does
‫?ﺳﺎ ﺑﺤﺜﺎ‬7 ]‫ ﻗﺘﻞ ﻟﻤﻮﺿﻮ‬to master something (e.g., a skill, a field of study) thoroughly
‫ ﻗﻠﺒﺎ ﻗﺎﻟﺒﺎ‬with heart and soul; inwardly and outwardly; fully; entirely
[?‫?ﻋﺎ ﺑﺬ‬3 ‫ ﺷﺒﺮ ﺑﺸﺒﺮ‬n‫ ﻗﻠﺪ‬to imitate someone or something religiously
‫ ﻛﻼ ﺛﻢ ﻛﻼ‬no and a hundred times no, absolutely not
‫ﻻ ﺣﻴﻠﺔ‬, ‫ ﻻ ﺣﻮ) ﻟﻪ‬he is completely powerless, he is at the end of his resources
‫ﻻ ﺑﺎﷲ‬Q "‫ ﻻ ﺣﻮ) ﻻ ﻗﻮ‬there is no power and no strength save in God
A study of antonymous and synonymous couplings in Arabic 359

‫ﻻ ﻓﻲ ﻟﻨﻔﻴﺮ‬, ‫ ﻻ ﻓﻲ ﻟﻌﻴﺮ‬neither here nor there; unimportant, of no consequence

‫ﻻ ?ﻏﻴﺔ‬, ‫ ﻣﺎ ﻟﻪ ﺛﺎﻏﻴﺔ‬he has neither a bleating (sheep) nor a braying (camel); he has abso-
lutely nothing
?‫ ﻣﺮ? ﺗﻜﺮ‬once and again, again and again, repeatedly
B‫ ﻣﻐﺪ ﻣﺮ‬an ever-frequented place; an aspired goal
g‫ ﺻﻮ‬g ! ‫ ﻣﻦ ﻛﻞ‬from all sides or directions
g‫ ﺻﻮ‬g‫ ﻣﻦ ﻛﻞ ﺣﺪ‬from all sides, from all directions, from everywhere
g‫ ﻣﻦ ﻛﻞ ﻓﺞ ﺻﻮ‬from everywhere
B‫ ﻳﻤﺮ‬B‫ ﻳﺴﺮ‬grazing freely, roaming freely; free and unrestrained


This paper discusses a particular type of Arabic word combinations, where basically two
words, either antonyms or synonyms, are coordinated in fixed phrases or ‘couplings’
that are of frequent occurrence in the language. Depending on whether the seman-
tic relationship between the component parts of a given coupling is one of antonymy
or synonymy, the study identifies two subtypes of these phrases, namely ‘Antonymous
Couplings’ and ‘Synonymous Couplings’, respectively. Both types of couplings are here
subjected to a close examination with a view to pointing out their main characteris-
tics and identifying the various types of constraints governing the positioning of their
components in relation to each other. The study also sheds light on some cross-linguis-
tic similarities and differences of these couplings, their relevance to human experience,
and their translatability from one language into another. It is concluded:
(i) that both types of couplings are characterized by brevity, forcefulness, symbolism,
and structural harmony;
(ii) that the particular order in which the two components of a given coupling are ar-
ranged is not haphazard; rather it is governed by one or more of a number of con-
(iii) that both types of couplings lend themselves well to functional and dynamic trans-
lation due to the fact that the pairing of words in such couplings is a linguistic uni-
versal, which in turn is attributable to the similarity of human experience.


Cet article traite d’un type particulier de combinaisons de mots en arabe, dans lesquelles
deux mots, soit antonymes, soit synonymes, sont associés dans des phrases fixes ou
«jonctions», qui apparaissent fréquemment dans la langue. Selon que la relation sé-
mantique entre les composants d’une jonction donnée est du type antonyme ou syno-
nyme, l’étude identifie deux sous-types de phrases, à savoir respectivement, les «jonc-
tions d’antonymes» et les «jonctions de synonymes». Les deux types de jonctions font
360 Abdul Sahib Mehdi Ali

ici l’objet d’un examen approfondi, en vue de montrer leurs caractéristiques principales
et d’identifier les différents types de contraintes qui régissent la position de leurs com-
posants les uns par rapport aux autres. L’étude éclaire également certaines similitudes et
différences inter-linguistiques de ces jonctions, leur rapport avec l’expérience humaine
et leur traductibilité d’une langue à l’autre. Elle conclut en disant que:
(i) les deux types de jonctions se caractérisent par la concision, la vigueur, le symbol-
isme et l’harmonie structurelle ;
(ii) l’ordre particulier dans lequel se trouvent les deux composants d’une jonction don-
née n’est pas dû au hasard, mais il est plutôt déterminé par une ou plusieurs consi-
dérations ;
(iii) les deux types de jonctions se prêtent bien à la traduction fonctionnelle et dy-
namique, en raison du fait que le groupement de mots dans ces jonctions est un
univers linguistique qui, à son tour, est attribuable à la similitude de l’expérience

About the Author

Abdul Sahib Mehdi Ali has a Ph.D. in Linguistics from the University of London, UK
(); teaches Linguistics and Translation in the Department of English Language and
Literature, University of Sharjah, United Arab Emirates; was Chairman of the same
Department for four years; was Chairman of the Department of Translation, Al-Mus-
tansiriyya University, Baghdad, for twelve years (–); is the author of several
publications in the fields of translation, lexicography, lexical studies, and contrastive
linguistics; has recently published A Dictionary of Translation and Interpreting (Eng-
Address: Dept. of English Language and Literature, University of Sharjah. P.O. Box
, Sharjah, United Arab Emirates. E-mail:

Chambre Revue trimestrielle Driemaandelijks tijdschrift
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Interprètes et B-1342 Limelette

Philologes Comité de rédaction: M.L. Bouchons, F. Cavallier, R. Haeseryn, W. Zöller

Belgische Condition pour les non-membres

Prix au numéro: Euro 5,00
Kamer van Abonnement annuel: Euro 25,00 / Euro 37,00 hors Belgique

Vertalers en Paiement: par virement ou versement au CCP nº 000-0073269-34 ou

Filologen compte bancaire 310-0463867-02 de la Chambre Belge des Traducteurs,
Interprètes et Philologes, Bruxelles