“Once Upon a Time” in Arabic


root: ق-ص-ص / noun / plural: قِصَص / definition: story

Once upon a time… It’s the typical opening of the stories I’m sure most of us used to read when we were younger. But what’s the Arabic equivalent of this phrase? And how does it make sense grammatically?

The Arabic equivalent of “once upon a time” is:

كان يا ما كان

(…often mistakenly written كان يا مكان or some other variation based on the pronunciation.)

I’ve actually come across two grammatical explanations of the phrase. In both, the past tense verb كان means “it was” or “it happened”.

In the first grammatical explanation, يا is the vocative particle (i.e. it’s used to get someone’s attention) and ما (“what”) is functionally equivalent to the relative pronoun الذي. Meaning that كان يا ما كان would literally translate to: o, what happened, happened.

The other explanation is that يا is used to mean “or”, signifying an opposing statement, and ما is the negation of the past tense verb. In this explanation, the phrase would translate to: it happened, or it did not happen.

Either way, now you’ll know what the phrase means when you come across it, and—who knows—perhaps you’ll use it in a story of your own!

Another phrase we might see that has a similar meaning to كان يا ما كان is في يوم من الأيام (“One day…”), which follows one of the structures we covered in the post Three Ways to Say “One of” in Arabic—so check that out too if you haven’t already!

That’s all for today, إلى اللقاء!

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