In this tutorial on singulars and plurals in Arabic, we will discuss how to form regular or “sound” plurals /jamʿ sālim/ (both sound masculine and sound feminine), give some details about broken plurals /jamʿ taksīr/, and discuss when to use which.
Table of Contents
Introduction to Singular, Dual, and Plural Nouns in Arabic
In Arabic, we indicate that there is only one of something by using the singular form of the noun. Similarly, we indicate that there is two of something by using the dual form. The chart below gives a simple example.
ط، ل، ب on the pattern فاعِل
Now plurality is where the discussion becomes more interesting.
In Arabic, plurals can be sound or broken. Sound plurals /jamʿ sālim/ are created simply by adding a suffix to the singular form (ـوْنَ or ـيْنَ for the masculine and ـاتٌ for the feminine), whereas broken plurals /jamʿ taksīr/ change the internal structure of the singular (ergo the term ‘broken’).
Another distinction between the two is that there is only one form for the sound plural for each of the two genders, whereas there are many broken plurals in the language.
Here is a summary of the Arabic terms that describe the types of plurals in Arabic.
The broken plural /jamʿ taksīr/; a word that is pluralized by changing the noun’s structure
جمع المذكَّر السالم
The sound masculine plural /jamʿ mudhakkar sālim/
جمع المؤنَّث السالم
The sound feminine plural /jamʿ mu’annath sālim/
In this tutorial, we will discuss how to form the sound plurals /jamʿ sālim/, give some details about broken plurals /jamʿ taksīr/, and discuss when to use which. What we do not discuss is how to form broken plurals; that is covered in an advanced tutorial entitled Broken Plurals elsewhere on the Learn Arabic Online website.
Forming Sound Plurals
Rendering a noun plural using a sound plural is quite simple. Both the masculine and feminine versions have only one basic form each. And this form involves simply adding a suffix to the noun as indicated in the chart below.
The only thing to note is that the form for the masculine plural is changed slightly depending on the grammatical case of the noun.
Nouns that Can Use Sound Plurals
In this section we identify the types of nouns that can use this nice, simple Arabic plural. But remember, if a noun is capable of using the sound plural, it does not necessarily mean it will use it in practice.
The Sound Masculine Plural in Usage
Two types of nouns can use this plural: static nouns (جامد), and derived nouns (مشتق). This excludes gerunds (مصدر).
As for static nouns, only men’s names that do not end in تاء مربوطة can pluralize this way.
As for derived nouns, only those relating specifically to men which are void of تاء مربوطة can pluralize this way.
Remember, we have only described nouns that can theoretically use the sound masculine plural. Not all nouns realize plurality in the described manner. Below are some examples of nouns that, despite meeting the requirements for sound plurality, use broken plurals instead:
Similarly, there are exceptions to the above rules. What we mean by that is that some nouns that do not meet the above criteria may pluralize using the sound masculine suffix. These exceptions, however, are very, very few in number. Below are a few examples:
The Sound Feminine Plural in Usage
This plural can be applied to any noun; static nouns, gerunds, and derived nouns are all capable of using it, theoretically speaking. The examples below illustrate this form being used on several types of nouns.
But, as noted with masculine plurality, a broken plural may be chosen to pluralize a word despite the legitimacy of the sound feminine plural.
Notice that, unlike for masculine plurals, the sound feminine may apply to non-humans. In fact, a word which is grammatically masculine may be pluralized using the feminine form.
Practice with Sound Plurals
For each of the following:
I. Identify whether the sound plural (masculine or feminine, as appropriate) can be used or not, based on the rules we learned
II. If it can, provide the sound plural (remember to use morphophonemic rules as appropriate)
III. Using a dictionary, check to see whether the sound plural is one of the Arabic plurals used for the noun
IV. If so, is it the only plural form or are there broken-plural alternatives?
e. بَيْت (couplet)
f. ميكال (Michael)
There are many patterns on which we can place base letters in order to form broken plurals. For each new noun, students normally memorize the broken plural(s).
Broken plurals are often divided into those that indicate on a multitude of 3 to 9, and those that indicate on a multitude greater than 9. The pattern of the plural tells us which of the two is the case, and typically we do not memorize which pattern is for which.
The lesser broken plural (indicates on something 3-9 in number)
The greater plural (indicates on something greater than 9 in number)
Below is an example of a word that happens to have many broken plurals, most of which are lesser Arabic plurals and some of which are greater:
Greater Broken Plural Example
Lesser Broken Plural Example
Arabic Plurals may themselves be pluralized. This is a rare occurrence; an example is given below:
إِنْسان ج. ناس ج. أَناسِيّ
Practice with Broken Plurals
For each of the following singulars, use a dictionary to find all the plural forms. Some words have no broken plurals (they use sound), some have only one, some have many, some even have both a sound plural and broken plurals.
Spending some time with this will go a long way in developing your skills to recognize singular, dual and plural nouns in Arabic.
Which Plurals to Use
Using a dictionary, figure
out whether a sound plural will be used, a broken
plural, or both.
If only the sound is used,
clearly the matter determined.
For example, امتحان has only one plural which is the sound feminine: امتحانات
If only broken plurals are
used, one of them will be chosen.
For example, the word اَسَد has only broken plurals
This step requires caution; often a word will have many meanings and each of its plurals is reserved for one of those meanings:
For example, the word امر means both ‘issue’ and ‘command’. The plural for issue is اُمور and the plural for command is اَوامِر.
Even if all of the plurals are synonymous, they may still carry varying connotations (like in the multitude, as discussed).
If both a sound and broken
plurals exist, it is usually the broken plural that is used. The sound plural
is reserved for certain grammatical circumstances.
For example, the word for طالب (student) can theoretically be pluralized using طالبون. But it also has plurals طُلاّب and طَلَبة. The latter two will be used under normal circumstances, and the former will be used only as حال. For example, جاءني الطلبة طالبين كتبهم (the students came to me looking for their books).