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A peek into an idiom. The 4th of Impossibility.

Hello everyone,
Today, I want to explore an expression with you all, rather than a proverb as I usually do. You can consider the next phrase or sentence to be an idiom. I'm not sure about the history of such saying or idiom but to my knowledge this saying do actually extend back in its history to the classical times, before the raise of Islam even. And probably had some influence from Greek mythology, as I'll explain below.

هذا مِنْ رابِع المُسْتَحيلات

Translation: This is a 4th of impossibilities.

Transliteration: háðá min rábi3i al-mustaħílát.

Occasion: This idiom is said to express a surprise or to confirm the impossibility of something.


هذا: This.
من: From, of.
رابع: Fourth.
المستحيلات: The impossibilities.


I've always wondered about the meaning of this idiom or saying when I heard it long time ago and until recent years. After looking it up, it turned out to be based on a folk belief which probably dates back before the Islamic times and Arabs used it to express that one thing is impossible to happen or occur. According to folklore, the impossible things, or impossibilities, in this life are three: Al-Ghoul (الغول: Ghoul, Goblin), Al-3anqá' (العنقاء: Phoenix, Griffin), and Al-Khil Al-Wafiy (الخل الوفي: The loyal friend). It seems that ancient Arabs deemed these things impossible, or at least hard, to be found. From this folk belief, comes the saying mentioned above: This is the fourth, or a fourth, to these 3 impossibilities; Expressing and adding extremity to the impossibility of the topic under discussion.


I believe Duolingoers running through the Arabic skills here already passed through the word هذا (This), and I've explained many times that the small stroke over the first letter (H) which resembles a tiny Alif is actually not required; That's just a guide. Unfortunately, some users did indeed report that Duolingo did not accept their answer without it. Not sure about that, but this should be normal as we don't write that small Alif in our daily writing. In fact, I don't even know where to find it on my own keyboard!
Secondly, we have the preposition (مِن: min). According to English, or generally speaking, the Latin- or Greek-based grammatical classifications, this might be called a "preposition" but the case with Arabic grammar and how it is typically taught in schools is a bit different. The preposition (من: Min) is one of a major class of articles in Arabic that are called collectively أحرف الجر, Meaning: articles of drawing (or pulling). What these articles do is, they cause the last consonant in the next word to get Kasrah below (and the noun is said to be Majrúr: مجرور, meaning drawn or pulled down). We can see that in the next word: (رابِع: Rábi3i); Unfortunately, I couldn't put Kasrah here because of a problem with the font and it wouldn't show up correctly under the last letter of the word. Notice, however, despite translating this article to "from" and "of," bear in mind that it is not an equivalent to "of" in English as means to form a genitive relation between words. Genitive or adding nouns together or possession in Arabic is formed in a completely different manner without any article equivalent to "of" in English. This is what we are going to see in the next and last 2 words here.
The 3rd word here is actually an adjective turned into a noun. As you may have known already, in Arabic, the adjectives come after the noun, and if they are attributive, they mimic the noun in its cases (gender, status, definition, number). Ordinal numbers in Arabic follow suit, but they are also can be turned into nouns by adding them to other nouns or simply by defining them with (AL). Think of English adjectives, like "impossible" which can be defined as "the impossible" and even ordinal numbers in English, like "third" and "the third". We see here how an adjective can be turned into a noun or get it to have a stance of a noun by special means. Here, we have a similar case, where (رابع:Rábi3i) is considered a noun, with the next word (المستحيلات: al-mustaħílát) is being added to it to form a Genitive relationship (the fourth of impossibilities). Probably I've stated before how the definite article in a Genitive compound like this one always come to the second element in the compound (المستحيلات in this case).
The last word here, المستحيلات, is a feminine plural, and it is common in Arabic to have a masculine word with a feminine plural and vice versa. Without delving deeper into the origin of this word or how it is formed, the singular form of this word would be (المستحيل: al-mustaħíl) - the impossible. Again, we see an adjective turned into a noun here. In fact to be exact, the word (impossibility) would rather be translated as استحالة (istiħálah) in Arabic. But for consistency, I've used the word (impossibilities) here in my translation.

We see here, again, an instance of translation that do not coincidence pretty much between the two languages. As stated before, it is always better to translate the meaning rather than following a word-by-word approach. But most importantly here, I really wanted to shed some light on some aspects of Arabic grammar which, most of the time, non-Arabs are not quite familiar with when they study Arabic, simply because most of the resources tend to explain the Arabic grammar under the hierarchy of the classical Latin or Greek approach and classifications. Unfortunately, this approach is problematic when it comes to various languages, specially those out of the context of the Indo-European umbrella. Now, I need to post this and jump into bed… I do need a vacation. تصبحون بخير

July 28, 2019


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Thank you very much! This is very interesting - I'm just at the beginning of my studies and can't relate to some things you've said yet. But I think sometimes language learning is like a puzzle - you find a piece and don't know yet where to put it, but one day the picture will become clear, and the piece will find its place. :-)

I am really grateful for all the explanations, and I hope I won't lose sight of them. Thanks and good night! شكرا

July 28, 2019


Bitte schön :) عفواً

It's OK to not relate to some of these info. It's about your journey with the language. Even us, as native speakers, we wouldn't know everything about the language (and hence we would need thesaurus books). Sometimes, people like me for example, are much more into science, and I've studied most of it in English (and Arabic at some point), but when it comes to finance I get lost in the jargon of words in English in relation to finance and economy; Almost hopeless. To me it's like learning English all over again, simply because I'm not used to that field and its terms. I think this happens in every language and for every language learner, almost.


I've got to admit I've been reading your posts and leaving a like without actually commenting. These are really great and they are really in depth. I'm gonna use this with my Arab friends.

Lingots coming your way. Thanks very much and have a good night. Better get some sleep too.


I'm glad they are beneficial for you dear :)

well, you don't have to comment (or even like) - I'm just happy that they are amusing to read after all :)

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