Construct State
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Construct State

In Afro-Asiatic languages, the first noun in a genitive phrase of a possessed noun followed by a possessor noun often takes on a special morphological form, which is termed the construct state (Latin status constructus). For example, in Arabic and Hebrew, the word for "queen" standing alone is malika ? and malka ?‎ respectively, but when the word is possessed, as in the phrase "Queen of Sheba" (literally "Sheba's Queen"), it becomes malikat saba? ? and malkat ba ? ‎ respectively, in which malikat and malkat are the construct state (possessed) form and malika and malka are the absolute (unpossessed) form. In Ge?ez, the word for "queen" is ? n?g??t, but in the construct state it is ?, as in the phrase "[the]Queen of Sheba" ? n?g??ta b?. .

The phenomenon is particularly common in Semitic languages (such as Arabic, Hebrew, and Syriac), in the Berber language, and in the extinct Egyptian language.

In Semitic languages, nouns are placed in the construct state when they are modified by another noun in a genitive construction. That differs from the genitive case of European languages in that it is the head (modified) noun rather than the dependent (modifying) noun which is marked. However, in Semitic languages with grammatical case, such as Classical Arabic, the modifying noun in a genitive construction is placed in the genitive case in addition to marking the head noun with the construct state (compare, e.g., "that book of John's" where "book" is in the rough English equivalent of the construct state, while "John" is in the genitive [possessive] case).

In some non-Semitic languages, the construct state has various additional functions besides marking the head noun of a genitive construction.

Depending on the particular language, the construct state of a noun is indicated by various phonological properties (for example, different suffixes, vowels or stress) and/or morphological properties (such as an inability to take a definite article).

In traditional grammatical terminology, the possessed noun in the construct state ("Queen") is the nomen regens ("governing noun"), and the possessor noun, often in the genitive case ("Sheba's"), is the nomen rectum ("governed noun").

Semitic languages

In the older Semitic languages, the use of the construct state is the standard (often only) way to form a genitive construction with a semantically definite modified noun. The modified noun is placed in the construct state, which lacks any definite article (despite being semantically definite), and is often phonetically shortened (as in Biblical Hebrew). The modifying noun is placed directly afterwards, and no other word can intervene between the two, though in Biblical Hebrew a prefix often intervenes, as in the case of ?im?at ba/qîr in Isaiah 9:2. For example, an adjective that qualifies either the modified or modifying noun must appear after both. (This can lead to potential ambiguity if the two nouns have the same gender, number and case; otherwise, the agreement marking of the adjective will indicate which noun is modified.) In some languages, e.g. Biblical Hebrew and the modern varieties of Arabic, feminine construct-state nouns preserve an original -t suffix that has dropped out in other circumstances.

In some modern Semitic languages, the use of the construct state in forming genitive constructions has been partly or completely displaced by the use of a preposition, much like the use of the modern English "of", or the omission of any marking. In these languages (e.g. Modern Hebrew and Moroccan Arabic), the construct state is used mostly in forming compound nouns. An example is Hebrew bet ha-sefer "the school", lit. "the house of the book"; bet is the construct state of bayit "house". Alongside such expressions, the construct state is sometimes neglected, such as in the expression mana falafel (a portion of falafel), which should be menat falafel using the construct state. However, the lack of a construct state is generally considered informal, and is inappropriate for formal speech.


In Arabic grammar, the construct state is used to mark the first noun (the thing possessed) in the genitive construction. The second noun of the genitive construction (the possessor) is marked by the genitive case.

In Arabic, the genitive construction is called 'ifah (literally "attachment") and the first and second nouns of the construction are called ? muf ("attached"; also the name for the construct state) and ? ? muf 'ilayhi ("attached to"). These terms come from the verb ? 'afa "he added, attached", verb form IV from the root ?-?-? ?-y-f (Form I: fa) (a hollow root).[1][2] In this conceptualization, the possessed thing (the noun in the construct state) is attached to the possessor (the noun in the genitive case).

The construct state is one of the three grammatical states of nouns in Arabic, the other two being the indefinite state and the definite state. Concretely, the three states compare like this:

Different noun states in Classical Arabic, using the noun ? malikah "queen"
State Noun form Meaning Example Meaning
Indefinite malikatun "a queen" malikatun jam?latun "a beautiful queen"
Definite ? al-malikatu "the queen" ? al-malikatu l-jam?latu "the beautiful queen"
Construct malikatu "a/the queen of ..." malikatu l-baladi l-jam?latu "the beautiful queen of the country"
? malikatu baladin jam?latun "a beautiful queen of a country"
Different noun states in Egyptian Arabic, using the noun ? malika "queen"
State Noun form Meaning Example Meaning
Indefinite ? malika "a queen" ? malika gamila "a beautiful queen"
Definite il-malika "the queen" ? il-malika l-gamila "the beautiful queen"
Construct ? malik(i)t "a/the queen of ..." ? ? malikt il-balad il-gamila "the beautiful queen of the country"
? malikit balad gamila "a beautiful queen of a country"

In Classical Arabic, a word in the construct state is semantically definite if the following word is definite. The word in the construct state takes neither the definite article prefix al- nor the indefinite suffix -n (nunation), since its definiteness depends on the following word. Some words also have a different suffix in the construct state, for example masculine plural mudarris?na "teachers" vs. mudarris? "the teachers of ...". Formal Classical Arabic uses the feminine marker -t in all circumstances other than before a pause, but the normal spoken form of the literary language omits it except in a construct-state noun. This usage follows the colloquial spoken varieties of Arabic.

In the spoken varieties of Arabic, the use of the construct state has varying levels of productivity. In conservative varieties (e.g. Gulf Arabic), it is still extremely productive. In Egyptian Arabic, both the construct state and the particle bit "of" can be used, e.g. kit?b Mu?ammad "Muhammad's book" or il-kit?b bit Mu?ammad "the book of Muhammad". In Moroccan Arabic, the construct state is used only in forming compound nouns; in all other cases, dyal "of" or d- "of" is used. In all these varieties, the longer form with the "of" particle (a periphrastic form) is the normal usage in more complicated constructions (e.g. with an adjective qualifying the head noun, as in the above example "the beautiful queen of the nation") or with nouns marked with a dual or sound plural suffix.


In Syriac Aramaic, the construct state evolved much in the same way as in Modern Hebrew, becoming a relic by the time of the Peshitta.


In Hebrew grammar, the construct state is known as smikhut ([smi'?ut]) (‎, lit. "support" (the noun), "adjacency"). Simply put, smikhut consists of combining two nouns, often with the second noun combined with the definite article, to create a third noun.[3]

?‎ -- /'bajit/ -- "(a) house"
‎ -- /ha-'bajit/ -- "the house"
?‎ -- /be(j)t/ -- "house-of"
‎ -- /'sefer/ -- "(a) book"
? ‎ -- /be(j)t 'sefer/ -- "(a) school" (literally "house(-of) book")
? ?‎ -- /be(j)t ha-'sefer/ -- "the school" (formal; literally "house(-of) the book")
?‎ -- /?u'?a/ -- "cake" (feminine)
‎ -- /?vi'na/ -- "cheese"
? ‎ -- /?u'?at ?vi'na/ -- "cheesecake"
‎ -- /di'bur/ -- "speech"
?‎ -- /'?ofe?/ -- "freedom" (an example of a noun for which the smikhut-form is identical to the regular form)
? ‎ -- /'?ofe? di'bur/ -- "freedom of speech" (literally "freedom(-of) speech")
? ‎ -- /'?ofe? ha-di'bur/ -- "the freedom of speech" (literally "freedom(-of) the speech")

As in Arabic, the smikhut construct state, the indefinite, and definite states may be expressed succinctly in a table:

Different noun states in Hebrew with smikhut, using the feminine singular noun ?malka "queen"
State Noun form Meaning Example Meaning
Indefinite ?malkah "a queen" ? malka yafa "a beautiful queen"
Definite ha-malkah "the queen" ?ha-malkah ha-yafah "the beautiful queen"
Construct ?malkat "a/the queen of ..." ? ?malkat ha-medina ha-yafah "the beautiful queen of the country"
? malkat medina yafah "a beautiful queen of a country"
Different noun states in Hebrew with smikhut, using the plural masculine noun tapu?im "apples"
State Noun form Meaning Example Meaning
Indefinite tapu?im "apples" tapu?im y'ruqim "green apples"
Definite ?ha-tapu?im "the apples" ? ?ha-tapu?im ha-y'ruqim "the green apples"
Construct tapu?e "a/the apples of ..." tapu?e ha-etz ha-zeh "the apples of this tree"
?tapu?e adamah "apples of earth" (in Modern Hebrew "potatoes")

Modern Hebrew

Modern Hebrew grammar makes extensive use of the preposition shel (evolved as a contraction of she-le- "which (is belonging) to") to mean both "of" and "belonging to". The construct state (smikhút) -- in which two nouns are combined, the first being modified or possessed by the second -- is not highly productive in Modern Hebrew. Compare the classical Hebrew construct-state 'em ha-yéled "mother:CONSTRUCT the-child' with the more analytic Israeli Hebrew phrase ha-íma shel ha-yéled "the-mother of the-child', both meaning "the mother of the child", i.e. "the child's mother".[4]

However, the construct state is still used in Modern Hebrew fixed expressions and names, as well as to express various roles of the dependent (the second noun), including:

  • A qualifier (e.g. repúblika-t banánot "Banana Republic"; hofaa-t bkhora "premiere", lit. "performance-CONSTRUCT precedence")
  • A domain (e.g. ? mevakér ha-mdiná "the State Comptroller", lit. "critic:CONSTRUCT the-state"; ? more derekh "guide", lit. teacher:CONSTRUCT way")
  • A complement (e.g. ? orekh din "lawyer", lit. "arranger:CONSTRUCT law")
  • A modifier (e.g. menora-t kir "wall lamp", lit. "lamp-CONSTRUCT wall").

Hebrew adjectival phrases composed of an adjective and a noun feature adjectives in the construct state, as in e.g. ?sh'vúr lév ("heartbroken", lit. "broken-CONSTRUCT heart").


In Berber, the construct state is used for the possessor, for objects of prepositions, nouns following numerals, and subjects occurring before their verb (modified from the normal VSO order).

In some cases, (not) applying the construct state could completely alter the meaning of the phrase. The Berber particle d means "and" and "is/are". To decrease the confusion the Berber word for "and" can be written "ed". Also, a large number of Berber verbs are both transitive and intransitive, according to context. In the intransitive case, the construct state is required for the subject.


  • Aryaz ed weryaz -- lit. "The man and the man" -- (instead of *Aryaz ed aryaz).
  • Taddart en weryaz -- lit. "The house of the man" -- (instead of *Taddart en aryaz).
  • A?yul ed userdun -- lit. "The donkey and the mule" -- (instead of *A?yul ed aserdun).
  • Udem en tem?art -- lit. "The face of the woman" -- (instead of *Udem en tam?art).
  • Afus deg ufus -- lit. "Hand in hand" -- (instead of *Afus deg afus).
  • Semmust en terbatin -- lit. "Five girls" -- (instead of *Semmust en tirbatin).
  • Yecca ufunas -- "The bull has eaten" -- (while Yecca afunas means: "He ate a bull").
  • Ssiwlent tem?arin - "The ladies have spoken" - (instead of *Ssiwlent tim?arin).


The Dholuo language (one of the Luo languages) shows alternations between voiced and voiceless states of the final consonant of a noun stem.[5] In the "construct state" (the form that means 'hill of', 'stick of', etc.) the voicing of the final consonant is switched from the absolute state.[] (There are also often vowel alternations that are independent of consonant mutation.)

  • /t/ 'hill' (abs.), /god/ (const.)
  • /l??/ 'stick' (abs.), /luð/ (const.)
  • /k?do/ 'appearance' (abs.), /kit/ (const.)
  • /t?o?o/ 'bone' (abs.), /t?ok/ (const.)
  • /buk/ 'book' (abs.), /bug/ (const.)
  • /k?tabu/ 'book' (abs.), /k?tap/ (const.)

Similarities in other language-groups

It has been noted since the seventeenth century that Welsh and other Insular Celtic languages have a genitive construction similar to the Afro-Asiatic construct state, in which only the last noun can take the definite article. Examples include:

  • Breton: dor an ti [door the house] 'the door of the house'
  • Welsh: dr?s y t? [door the house] 'the door of the house'
  • Irish: doras an tí [door.NOMINATIVE the-house.GENITIVE] 'the door of the house'

(Compare, for example, colloquial Arabic b?b al-bayt [door the-house] 'the door of the house' and Classical Arabic b?b-u l-bayt-i [door.NOMINATIVE the-house.GENITIVE].) It has been suggested that the Insular Celtic languages may have been influenced by an Afro-Asiatic substrate language, or that languages in both groups were influenced by a common substrate language, now entirely lost. However, it is also possible that the similarities with the construct state are coincidental.[6]

See also


  1. ^ Hans Wehr, Dictionary of Modern Standard Arabic: () fa
  2. ^ Faruk Abu-Chacra, Arabic: An Essential Grammar: p. 61
  3. ^ Wikisource-logo.svgGesenius' Hebrew Grammar,§89, §92, §128, §130
  4. ^ Zuckermann, Ghil'ad (2006), Complement Clause Types in Israeli, Complementation: A Cross-Linguistic Typology (RMW Dixon & AY Aikhenvald, eds), Oxford University Press, Oxford, pp. 72-92.
  5. ^ Stafford, R. (1967). The Luo language. Nairobi: Longmans.
  6. ^ Hewitt, Steve (2009). "The Question of a Hamito-Semitic Substratum in Insular Celtic". Language and Linguistics Compass. 3 (4): 972-995. doi:10.1111/j.1749-818X.2009.00141.x.

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