To be or not to be, that is the question.
So echoes the timeless words of Shakespeare till today.
(Sidenote, does anyone actually understand what that line even means? I took literature as a college entrance exam, studied Othello, English is my native language and till today I’m still not 100% certain I know what the Bard was talking about.To be or not to be what?)
(But maybe that’s just me being a ignorant, uneducated, shallow plebe.)
(Yeah. Most definitely the plebe argument.)
So if you haven’t guessed already, the verb that I mean is the verb بكون or ‘to be’ or ‘is’.
Now firstly, let me tell you: don’t underestimate the implications of being familiar with this verb. Think about how often you use the word ‘to be’ in English or your native language.
The truth is, tens, possibly even hundreds of times a day.
Similarly, when you get used to hearing the sound of this precious verb in Levantine Arabic, you’ll be able to see for yourself how much your understanding improves and increases.
For that reason I think of بكون as the one of those nifty little verbs that hit the proverbial sweet spot. The one thing you can work on to improve your understanding and command multiple-fold.
But hey, don’t take my word for it.
Let me show you.
Your Basic Conjugation Package
For your easy reference, as we’re wont to do on this site to facilitate your learning, here is the conjugation table for بكون .
|هم||بكونو||bi-kuunu||all of them are|
|انت||بتكون||bit-kuun||you (mas) are|
|انتي||بتكوني||bit-kuuni||you (fem) are|
|انتو||بتكونو||bit-kuunu||all of you are|
When do you not use it?
No, that wasn’t an error.
I feel a little dumb trying to explain how to use the word ‘to be’ because, well, it’s ‘to be.’ That’s the irony sometimes with teaching language – the easiest concepts are often the hardest to explain.
Now in English we’re often taught that the word ‘to be’ or ‘is’ is used after the object of the sentence and before the predicate. For example:
The house is red.
In Arabic, however, it’s sufficient to say:
البيت احمر / albeit aHmar.
Which literally means ‘the house red.’
In Arabic (both Fusha and Levantine dialect in general), the ‘is’ is already implied because the definite article of the house (البيت) is followed by the non-definite predicate احمر . So it’s not necessary to use the word بكون in this sentence.
Similarly with sentences like:
The taxi is coming / التكسي جاي
The movie is bad / الفيلم سيئ
She is beautful / هي حلوة
As you can see, none of the above sentences require the use of بكون .
Soooo…when do I use it then?
The word بكون in Levantine Arabic (and Fusha) is more prevalent in instances when you would use the actual words ‘to be’ in English instead of ‘is’.
It has to be beautiful. /هو لازم يكون حلو
huwe lazim ya-kuun Helu.
The party will be at 10 pm. / الحفلة رح تكون في ساعة عشرة
alHifleh raH ta-kuun fe sa’ah ‘ashara
Why can’t all of you be patient? / ليه كلكم ما تقدرو تكونو صابرين؟
The Secret is in the Sound
Now by all appearances, the word بكون is exactly the word يكون in Fusha. And aside from the regular differences in conjugation between Fus-ha and Levantine Arabic, the all-important distinction you should take note of is how the word is pronounced in the Levant.
While in Fusha تكون would be pronounced ta-kuun, in Levantine dialect it would be بتكون / BIT-kuun, and NOT bi-ta-kuun. I think you’d get some really odd looks saying bi-ta-kuun.
But wait, I hear you say, could you give me some real life examples?
So this series I came across on Youtube is called كامة واحدة / kilmeh wa7deh or One Word, and is a Jordanian series focusing on youth topics and issues and this episode is called اللبس في الجامعة / allibs fil jami’eh (Attire in the University).
At the time I’m writing this, it only has 4 videos, but I like it because it’s short, sweet, easy to digest, and it has interviews with Jordanian twenty-somethings that throw up some interesting facets of youth culture.
For example, did you know that sometimes girls in hijab would put yoghurt cups underneath their scarves on the top of their heads?
It doesn’t say in the video why, but I think it has something to do with giving more height to their hijabs and giving the impression of more voluminous hair.
Who would’ve thought?
Here the word بكون appears at least 4 times in a 5-minute stretch, which tells you a ton about how often it’s used in Levantine Arabic. That’s an average of one a minute. The great thing is that I managed to pull 3 of them that used بكون in 3 different conjugations, to let you hear what it should sound like. For the conjugations that are not included in these videos, you can see them in the table above.
What she said:
كيف نكون مرتبين و انيقين؟/ keef nakuun mratibeen wu anyaQeen?
How do we become neat/organised and fashionable?
Note: Now I realise that in this sentence she said نكون instead of منكون but the م prefix is not always used, depending on the person. Either way it would still be right.
What she said:
دائما البنت بتحاول بتكون الاجمل/ daiman albenet bitHawil bitkuun al-ajmal.
Always, the girl tries to be the most beautiful.
What she said:
مثلا الشاب كشاب لازم يكون شوي رجولة. و بردو اناقة / mathalan alshaab, ka shaab, lazim yakuun shwai rujuuleh. wu bardo anaqah
For example, the guy, being a guy, has to be a little masculine. Also, fashionable.
Note: Similar to Example #1, she uses يكون instead of بكون but that’s because of the verb لازم appears before it, which eliminates the need for the ب prefix.
So I hope this has helped you to understand a little better when to use بكون. If I could distill this post into one line, it would be to use بكون only when you would use the words ‘to be’ in English and not when you need to use ‘is’.
Can you think of more examples of using بكون? Are there any changes or additions that you think should be made to the rules above? What do you think Shakespeare meant when he wrote that famous quote? I’d love to get some enlightenment, after all it’s only taken me about 27 years.