I have in my hand a rather ancient text in Arabic. There's a frequent construction which I couldn't grasp the full meaning. It is [ transitive verb + preposition ], in which the preposition is fixed and means "to, over, unto, upon". When person A does this action to person B, the syntax is [subject(A) + conjugated verb + preposition + object(B)].

God "salla"s upon you. Hu wa alladhi yusalli alaikum. هُوَ الَّذِي يُصَلِّي عَلَيْكُمْ
Seems to be 3rd person masculine singular imperfect tense.

Person B is on the passive side but the mind boggling thing is this passivity is also narrated as [subject(B) + conjugated verb + preposition + object(A)].

Hi didn't "salla". (OK the object is missing here but the context compels that he should have "salla"ed to/upon God in accordance, but he did not) La saddaka ve la salla. لَا صَدَّقَ وَلَا صَلَّى Seems to be 3rd person masculine singular perfect tense.

I think the verb in question is this (form-II): https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/صلى Source text is The Quran.

I'm perplexed by this because AFAIK, the languages I speak, English, German and Turkish don't have something like this. When you are on the receiving side, the arrangement changes. A hit B; B is hit BY A. A gives TO B; B receives FROM A. In these languages either the verb, the conjugation and/or the preposition in front changes. There is a possibility that the verb in question is actually two homonym verbs but in that case at least the preposition would probably be different. (As in "A hit B." vs. "A hit on B.") Are there examples in any language that a certain action can be told using the same arrangement from points of views of both the acting side and receiving side? The author of the text might have expected the reader to discern between the active and passive meanings because there's enough contextual information. The story is roughly, person A helps person B and person B acknowledges the help of person A. It seems to me the problem is kind of logical. Any suggestion or idea might help. Thanks in advance. Background: BSc. I'm not a linguist, I have a little translation experience. My native tongue is Turkish. I don't speak Arabic. An online Arabic teacher could not answer this question.

  • Perhaps it's a special verb that allows for a type of symmetry, something like resemble in English. The sentence Frank resembles Bill is almost synonymous with Bill resembles Frank, the main difference being one of perspective. May 12, 2020 at 15:22
  • 4
    Can you please edit this to add paragraph breaks and also to include the relevant Arabic quotes (ideally as glosses).
    – curiousdannii
    May 12, 2020 at 15:34
  • The preposition may have a different function in both contexts. This is the case for the Hebrew preposition b- 'in, against' for example, which can mark something like a direct object for some verbs but is also a marker of Instrument and can mark the Agent in passive clauses. (I would have to look up whether we have verbs that use b- in both ways.) The important thing there is that the verb is in a different stem, however, so that you know that it is a passive clause. Are your Arabic examples in the same stem? Anyway, please format the question and add examples as curiousdannii requested.
    – Keelan
    May 12, 2020 at 16:34
  • Of course in a language with a language with much stricter word order where a kind of passivization is achieved using fronting of the object, you could get what you describe without needing a different stem. It's just that I would not expect that from Arabic.
    – Keelan
    May 12, 2020 at 16:39
  • 1
    Could you please share these data? Provide these sentences from Arabic.
    – Tsutsu
    May 12, 2020 at 16:45

1 Answer 1


My native language is not Arabic as well, but I know Arabic, and I don't think this is confusing AT ALL.

(1) huwwa alladi y.usalli                       aalay-kum
    He    who    3s.m.pray.present.imperfective upon-you
    'He is the one who prays upon you'

This sentence means that God prays on 'you'. Pray on 'you' does not mean worship you, it means he's the one whose prayers fall upon you. (literally. in this context, it means 'mercy' 'grace').It is similar to saying he's the one whose mercy, grace, etc. fall upon you. The order in this sentence is Subject+complementizer+Verb+Preposition+object. By the way, Arabic is an aspectual language like Russian. So the aspect here is imperfective.

Turning to the perplexed example you're saying. If you mean that this sentence can be read starting from Object-Preposition-Verb-Subject giving us

(2) aalay-kum y.usalli huwa

Which is the inverted linearization of (1), then what would be perplexing (for you of course) is the fact that this is the similar counterpart of (1). Here the sentence is focused, it's similar to the following English pair:

(3) She loves him
(4) it's him who she loves

As simple as that. There is no syntactic passivity involved, here. I know that Arabic passives are derived by vowel alternation, it's not the case here.

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