Died Circa 796
Career . Little is known about the life of Sibawayh, who, more than any other individual, was the foundational grammarian of Arabic. It is likely that he was born between about 755 and 766 and died around 793–796. Like many well-known grammarians, the language he became expert in was not his mother tongue. He was of Persian origin and migrated at an early age to Basrah, where he studied hadith, law, and grammar with many well-known teachers, including the famous Khalil ibn Ahmad (died between 776 and 791), who had a considerable influence on Sibawayh.
Writings . Sibawayh’s only work is called Kitab Sibaiuayh (“The Book of Sibawayh”), which was edited after his early death by his student al-Akhfash al-Awsat (died between 825 and 835). A huge book for its time, this comprehensive treatment of Arabic grammar spans nine hundred pages. Sibawayh started with seven introductory chapters and then dealt with syntax, morphology, and phonology, in that order. He based his findings on three sources: the Qur’an, early Arabic poetry, and the speech of the Bedouins. Finding the most reliable indication in his third source, Sibawayh collected firsthand evidence from the Bedouins, as well as citing secondhand information. He also had the critical acumen to reject some Bedouin evidence as incorrect. Furthermore, he judged speech on the basis of its effectiveness rather than as a set of logical propositions. He also frequently gave psychological or contextual explanations. Sibawayh’s grammar book is an original work of great genius that broke new ground. There are no precedents for it in Syriac, Greek, or Latin. Formerly, Greek and Sanskrit had perhaps been the best-described languages. After Sibawayh, Arabic was for centuries the most thoroughly analyzed and elucidated of languages from a grammatical point of view—a claim that may still hold true today.
M.G. Carter, “Sibawayh,” in Encyclopedia of Islam, CD-ROM version (Leiden: Brill, 1999).