A small history of the DNA of the broken plural – it will help us to better understand how Arabic actually works.

The history of the Arabic language (and the Semitic languages in general) is fascinating. Although we have only little information about the genesis of these ancient languages, it is worth looking at some specialties.

The broken plural is one of the most interesting and unique features of Arabic – and all the other South Semitic languages.

Are there different groups of Semitic languages?

Yes, Semitic languages are usually divided into main two groups: East (North) and West (South).

The position of Arabic is not so easy to determine. The classical view is that it is part of the main family of South Semitic languages (which has to do with our main topic here: the broken plural). Examples of South Semitic languages are Ethiopian and Old South Arabian (which by the way has nothing to do with “Classical Arabic”).

Others say that it is in the same family as Hebrew/Aramaic: Central Semitic (see below).

Others argue that Hebrew is part of the Northern Semitic family. If we compare Arabic with Hebrew, you may find more similarities than differences.

It is all very complicated and academic. I would like to focus on the idea why we could put Arabic in a different language family than Hebrew – into the group of the South Semitic languages.

The main reason has to do with the plural forms – namely, the broken plural (جَمع التَّكْسِير).

Isn’t Arabic a Central Semitic language?

Some readers might shake their heads now thinking: “Hey, that is all not correct! Arabic is definitely a Central Semitic language”. Okay, that is true if you follow the arguments of Robert Hetzron, a Hungarian-born linguist.

Hetzron suggests a group of Central Semitic languages, in which Arabic goes along with Canaanite and Aramaic – instead of Ethiopic and South Arabian.

What they all share: Central Semitic languages developed a new verbal system, a definite article, and a feminine ending. That is fine and sounds logical.

But how could we explain the broken plural then? Some researchers have suggested that the development of broken plurals in Arabic and South Semitic languages could have occurred independently.

I do see some good points in Hetzron’s model, but also understand the arguments against it. I don’t think people should be too academic here and fight about terms and definitions – it is more about understanding the main features and differences of the Semitic languages.

We simply don’t know how Semitic languages developed – and can only guess.

How do you form the plural in Arabic?

To express the idea of plurality in a noun, Semitic languages use a simple trick: the lengthening of the vowel-ending of the singular.

I like how William Wright, the famous British grammarian, has described it in lectures about the comparative grammar of the Semitic languages (1890).

“The lengthening of the sound, the dwelling upon the utterance, sufficed to convey the idea of indefinite number (in Arabic).”

William Wright – British Grammarian

Okay, but what does he actually mean? What does that mean practically? Let’s check the so-called sound plural forms (جَمْع سالِم) to get a better idea.

The sound plural form

Plural of masculine nouns

In Arabic, the indefinite plural of masculine nouns must originally have been ونْ for the nominative, ينْ for the genitive, and ْان for the accusative case.

However, it seems that speakers of Arabic didn’t like to terminate a long syllable with a consonant (except if they stopped: pausa form). They preferred a vowel.

Therefore, a short final vowel was added: the fatha (فَتْحة).

As a result, we get ونَ and بنَ and انَ.

It didn’t take long, and the accusative forms got lost and were not used anymore. So we get two forms for three cases:

nominativegenitive and accusative
ونَينَ

These forms were used for indefinite and definite words (you have ال before). However, if two nouns were connected by an Idafa-construction (إضافة), the Nun (ن) was omitted and we end up with the lengthening of the final vowel only.

What about feminine nouns? Is it different? Let’s see.

Plural of feminine nouns

We actually apply the same principle – but there is a difference: The weight of utterance was thrown not upon the case-endings, but upon the feminine termination ة (at), which became ات (aat) in the plural form.

Both regular plural forms are until today used for human nouns. Now, how did these annoying broken plurals come into the game?

Broken plurals – why do they exist in Arabic?

At the time when people started to distinguish between singular and plural, people living in the Northern East Semitic language sphere only used one pattern (morpheme) to form the plural. In Hebrew, for example, you add the suffix -im to the singular form.

In Arabic, this is often entirely different. Arabic knows many broken plurals. Broken plurals are only found in South Semitic languages. They are also called internal plurals because you do not add suffixes. You just play with the inside body of the word.

The broken plural forms can cause learners a headache and are often considered one of the most difficult things.

How many broken plural patterns are there in Arabic?

Many scholars say 31. Some have even counted almost 100.

In fact, it mostly comes down to roughly ten important patterns. Many nouns use the plural pattern CvCvv where C stands for root letter and v for vowel. In this formula, a long vowel counts as two short vowels. This plural pattern works for approximately 80 percent of all nouns.

For example: the word man (رَجُل) forms the plural رِجال

Arabic broken plurals – despite their bad reputation – are actually not difficult. It is possible to put all major forms and rules on a single poster!

You can quickly check singular and plural forms and learn about the most important features of each pattern. For each pattern, there is an example. Every word is fully vowelled.

Get this great study tool today!

What is the DNA of the Arabic broken plural?

The broken plurals are most probably in their nature just singular abstract forms which more and more were used in a concrete and collective sense – and so got the meaning of a plural. In other words, broken plurals are nothing but a kind of collective nouns.

There is another idea why broken plurals are strictly speaking not real plural forms. Which gender and number do we use for broken plurals? We can say that they function as feminine singular nouns, which shows that semantically they are collectives. In short: We understand them as plural forms, but grammatically, they are actually singular.

For example: closed doors (أَبْوَابٌ مَقْفُولةٌ). The second word has to agree with the first word –> we use the singular, feminine form.

Why are broken plurals in Arabic feminine?

It is true that all broken plurals are feminine.

Some broken plural patterns even have a feminine marker (ة or ى).

We can go further and look at the feminine suffix that many nouns use to express the plural. For example, the word for friend (صَدِيق) has the plural form أَصْدِقاء.

Notice the ending اء which is treated as a feminine ending if the Hamza is not part of the root.

Why is that? This has to do with the idea of feminine markers. Many classical scholars have written about that. They stated that the feminine gender markers convey certain ideas and meanings in Arabic – let’s check them.

What can a feminine ending indicate in Arabic?

  • The original idea is to indicate something inferior (okay, that may sound misogynistic but it is the original idea of the feminine signification). The very first idea was not to denote sex or gender.
  • In the very beginning, the feminine ending indicated a diminutive or was used to downgrade a thing or person.
  • But over the years, this has often changed even into the opposite.
  • So, the feminine ending may work as an amplifier and is used for augmentation, i.e., they reinforce the idea of the original word.
  • It may be used to indicate abundance.

Does Hebrew know broken plurals?

Generally speaking, no. There are some rare examples. Many broken plurals in North-West Semitic languages can be explained as old collective nouns or abstract nouns.

Can you form the plural of a plural (جَمع الجمع) in Arabic?

Yes. That might sound weird, but this is a distinctive feature of South Semitic languages such as Arabic.

In South Semitic languages, the differences between the singular, collective and plural form are fluid. It is even possible that a collective noun developed the meaning of a singular noun, and as such formed a new plural form.

Sounds complicated? An example:

مَكانٌأَمْكِنةٌأَماكِنُ
placeseveral placesgroups of places
singularminor plural (جَمعُ قِلّةٍ)plural of the plural

What’s the big deal here? Some plural patterns can be changed to get what is called the plural of the plural (جَمْعُ الْجَمْعِ).

  • أَمْكِنةٌ is the plural of the singular word مَكانٌ.
  • The plural أَمْكِنةٌ itself, however, can be put into a plural form as well: أَماكِنُ. Now comes the crucial thing: This last form cannot be made plural further (الصِّيغةُ نِهايةُ الْجَمْعِ الَّذِي يُمْكِنُ أَنْ تَصِلَ إِلَيْهِ الْكَلِمةُ).
  • That is why a word like أَماكِنُ is called an ultimate plural. (مُنتَهَى الْجُمُوعِ). Many ultimate ultimate plural forms are diptotes! (See also Arabic for Nerds 1, question #239)

Watch out: the word بَلَد is very special.

  • The word بَلَدٌ means village or town. The plural form is بِلاد. This plural form may also denote country (which makes sense as all towns together form a country).
  • Hence, the singular word بَلَدٌ was more and more also used to denote country. If you want to form the plural of بَلَدٌ in the meaning of countries, you get: بُلْدان
  • The plural form بِلاد usually denotes country (singular) or countries which form a whole/entity. For example, البلاد العربية

Remark: I guess that the word بَلَد may have its roots in the Latin word palatium which denotes one of the seven hills in Rome and was used as a synonym for palace. But that is just a guess. If anyone has more information about the etymology of that word, please let me know.

Are there other criteria to distinguish between South and North Semitic languages?

Yes. Besides the broken plural, there are three other important features for South Semitic languages:

  • The passive participle prefix م is typical for South Arabian languages.
  • South Arabian languages know the verb stem فاعَلَ (in Arabic III).
  • Many Semitic languages know b and p. In South Semitic languages such as Arabic, the letter f actually corresponds to what is sometimes pronounced as p. An example: The Arabic verb for to lose, to look for is faqad (فَقَدَ). In (Biblical) Hebrew, the corresponding verb to look after/to visit is paaqad (פּקד). Now, where is the connection? The first Hebrew letter פּ is the letter Pe which is occasionally pronounced as “f” – see the comment by Boris at the end of this post.

Picture credit: Ylanite Koppens from Pixabay

Last updated: Sep 6, 2019 @ 16:20

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  1. It’s important to note that broken plurals go back to proto-Semitic and even before that to proto-Afroasiatic. Berber, Egyptian, and the Cushitic languages all have examples of pluralization through vowel changes.

    So Arabic and Ethiosemitic sharing broken plurals is a *retention* from the earlier common language, not an innovation. Central Semitic qua Hetzron is defined by the set of innovations shared between Northwest Semitic and Arabic. South Semitic, being based on the retention of broken plurals, is not a true genealogical grouping but merely geographical. But Arabic and Ethiopic do share features, likely due to areal exchange up and down the Arabian peninsula and loans from before the time the Ethiosemitic languages entered the Horn of Africa from Arabia.

    1. Many thanks! Do you know more about the situation of Hebrew, i.e., why Hebrew has not developed broken plurals, but Arabic, despite being a much “newer” language, eventually did (again)? And do you have a good source/book you could recommend about this topic? I know that it is very controversial and that we simply don’t have enough information to provide a definite answer. But I love reading about it. Would appreciate it.

  2. Let’s take the root P K D from your example.
    The word “פקד” (in modern Hebrew means “commanded”) is pronounced as p (“pakad”). When we use diacritics, we add a dot inside the letter פ (the dot is called “dagesh”). Once the letter פ looses its first position in the word, it looses the dagesh and is pronounced as f. For example if we add a vav (“and”), we get “ופקד” (“and commanded”) where פ is pronounced as f.

    The same goes with the letter bet ב and khaf כ
    ביתו – beyto — his house (with a dagesh)
    לביתו – leveyto — to his house (without the dagesh)

    כוכב – kokhav – star. The first כ has the dagesh and is pronounced as K and the second one doesn’t (it’s not the first letter of the word) and, therefore is pronounced as “kh”.

    Nowadays, the dagesh does not affect the pronunciation of the letters tav ת and gimel ג with or without the dagesh. The different pronunciation of tav ת still exists in the the Ashkenazi (“t” with dagesh and “s” without) and yemenite (“t” vs “th”) liturgy.

    This is an oversimplified description of the rules.

    1. Hi Boris, thanks a lot! I am really not an expert on the transliteration of words. Do you know if you write “p” in Hebrew only if it is pronounced as “p”? In other words, if the letter is pronounced as “f”, would you write “f”? And what about “b”/”v”? Would be great to know about that. Thanks!

Any thoughts or ideas about this? Leave a reply!

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