Arabic Grammar Lesson on Nouns (اسم) – Get total clarity on how nouns in Arabic actually work, systematically in a step-by-step manner.

Types of Noun in Arabic

About the Noun in Arabic Grammar

As mentioned in the introduction to Arabic grammar, words in Arabic are divided into three categories; nouns, verbs and particles. This short lesson will develop the noun and categorize it based on various considerations.

اسم pl. أسماء (noun) /ism pl. asmaa’/: This category is defined as those words that impart a single meaning on their own and do not afford a tense. Keep in mind that this is more than “noun” in English. Roughly speaking, this is equivalent to what we know in English as nouns, pronouns, adjectives, and adverbs.

Nouns in Arabic grammar are categorized in many ways. The following is a list of all the useful ways in which a noun in Arabic can be classified. Each one has its own place in grammar and this tutorial will give only a brief introduction to each plus a link to more dedicated tutorials as they are made available.

·         gender: all nouns are either

o   masculine (مذكر) /mudhakkar/ or

o   feminine (مؤنث) /muannath/

·         plurality: all nouns are either

o   singular (واحد) /waHid/,

o   dual (مثنى) /muthanna/, or

o   plural (جمع) /jam’/

·         derivation: all nouns are either

o   not derived and nothing is derived from them (جامد) /jamid/,

o   a source of derivation (also known as a gerund مصدر) /masdar/, or

o   derived from a gerund (مشتق) /mushtaq/

·         definiteness: all nouns are either

o   indefinite (نكرة) /nakira/ or

o   definite (معرفة) /ma’rifa/

·         grammatical reflection

o   many sub-categories

Gender in Arabic Nouns

Nouns in Arabic are either masculine or feminine; there is no neutral gender. By default, a noun is masculine unless it has one of the four signs of femininity on it. The signs of femininity are as follows.

1.       the explicit round Taa, called تاء مربوطة if it is attached to the letter before it (ـة) or تاء مُدَوَّنة if it is detached (ة)

2.       the assumed round Taa

3.       the الف مقصورة (ى) that comes at the end of nouns and is beyond the base letters

4.       the الف ممدودة (ـاء) that comes at the end of nouns and is beyond the base letters

Method of Feminization

Example

Round Taa

مسلمة (female Muslim)

Assumed round Taa

عين (eye)

الف مقصورة

عُلْيى (most high)

الف ممدودة

أَذْكِياء (erudite people)

There is quite a bit more to be said about gender, but that will be discussed in a dedicated tutorial.

Plurality in Arabic Nouns

In Arabic, nouns are either singular (there’s one of them), dual (there are two of them), or plural (there are three or more of them). A singular noun is typically made dual by adding either the suffix ـانِ or the suffix ـينِ, depending on the grammatical case of the noun.

Singular

Dual

تِـنِّـيْـن (dragon)

تِـنِّـيْـنَانِ / تِـنِّـيْـنَـيْنِ

This is seemingly quite simple, and most of the time this is all there is to it. However, there are some rules to noun duality which will be discussed in a dedicated tutorial.

A singular noun in Arabic may be made plural in one of two ways. One method of pluralisation is to add the suffix ـونَ or ـينَ (depending on the grammatical case) for masculine nouns, and the suffix ـات for feminine nouns. These are called sound plurals. Another method for forming plurals is to use certain patterns. These are called broken plurals.

Singular

Plural

طالب

طالبُوْنَ / طالبِيْنَ (sound masculine)

طالبة

طالبات (sound feminine)

طالب

طُلاَّب (broken)

There is a lot to be discussed with respect to plurals in Arabic. The tutorial entitled Pluralisation gives a detailed account of plurals, and the tutorial entitled Broken Plurals is an advanced discussion about forming broken plurals.

Derivation

With respect to whether a noun has been derived using morphology or not, nouns in Arabic fall into exactly one of three categories. A noun could be such that it has not been derived and nothing has been derived from it. These are called frozen nouns and an example of this is the word شجرة (tree). A noun could be such that other words are derived from it using the rules of morphology. This type of noun is called a gerund and an example is the word لعب (to play / playing). Finally, a noun could be derived from a gerund. Such nouns are called derived nouns and examples include the active participle, the passive participle, the superlative, and others.

There is nothing to be said about frozen nouns; they are simply looked up in the dictionary. Very deep Arabic etymology does, however, give some attention to these types of nouns. For a detailed account of this, refer to the advanced tutorial entitled Greater Etymology. Gerunds are not thoroughly studied because there is little to be said about them beyond their patterns. For a brief look at gerunds, refer to the tutorial entitled Verb Paradigms, where the most common gerunds are given. And finally, derived nouns are discussed thoroughly in the Derived Nouns tutorial.

Definiteness within Arabic Nouns

By default, a noun is indefinite. There is no article, sign, or any mechanism that indicates this. In order to make a noun definite, one of seven things must be done. In other words, there are seven ways in which a noun is made definite; if none of those have been used, the noun is indefinite.

The methods of definiteness are as follow

1.       the noun is a personal pronoun (“هو”)

2.       the noun is a demonstrative pronoun (“هذا”)

3.       the noun is a relative pronoun (“الذي”)

4.       the noun is a proper noun (“Saudi Arabia”)

5.       it is prefixed with the definite article الـ

6.       it is a non-final noun in a possessive structure and the final noun is definite

7.       the noun comes after a particle of vocation (“يا رجل”)

Most of the above are topics with their own place in Arabic grammar and it is not appropriate to give their details here. Dedicated tutorials will be made available for each of them.

Grammatical Reflection

Most nouns in the Arabic language experience grammatical inflection. This results in nouns entering different grammatical cases depending on how they’re being used in a sentence. But not all nouns reflect their case in the same manner. So when we divide nouns based on how grammatical cases are represented on them, we get 16 categories. For a full treatment of this topic and this list of 16 categories, refer to the Reflection of Grammatical Case tutorial.

Summary

The above ways of classifying a noun in Arabic grammar are separate from one another. Thus a given noun will have a particular gender, a plurality, a derivation class, a type of definiteness, and a method of grammatical inflection. All of these methods of classification will apply to a given noun.

For example, the word شجرة (tree) is

·         in terms of gender: feminine

·         in terms of plurality: singular

·         in terms of derivation: frozen

·         in terms of definiteness: indefinite

·         in terms of its method of grammatical inflection: Reflection Type I