Praise & Disparagement
I have nothing to do with adds that appear on this website. I don't sell books, courses, lessons, or anything.
This website is being transferred to another domain.
© Hani Deek 2005-2018. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this website's content without express and written permission from this websites author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Hani Deek with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.
Gender of Nouns
The "ground gender" of nouns in Arabic is the masculine gender; this was expressed by the classical Arab linguists in their famous quote "the origin regarding nouns is masculinity, and femininity is a branch."
Being so, nouns are supposed to be masculine unless there is a feminine marker affixed to them.
However, there is a marked exception to this rule, which is the irregular plural nouns (collective nouns). Irregular plural nouns are grammatically singular nouns that indicate plural objects. These nouns are feminine without having feminine markers, and they cannot take feminine markers because they are feminine already.
Other than that, most of the nouns without feminine markers are masculine.
Here is the rule:
There are three feminine markers:
1. Feminine taa'<
The feminine taa'< تَاْءُ التَأْنِيْثِ is the major feminine marker that appears at the end of most of the feminine singular nouns. It almost always assumes the "tied" figure ـَة and very rarely the "open" figure ت . The tied taa'< الْتَاْءُ الْمَرْبُوْطَةُ is always preceded by a short A vowel.
Examples, click on the Arabic word to hear it:
*This is just another figure of the same letter (see joining figures for taa'< ).
As we have mentioned before, the difference between a tied taa'< ـَة and an open one ت is that a tied taa'< is pronounced -ah or -a at pause rather than -at . It will be pronounced -at only if you kept speaking after saying it. If you halt your talk right after pronouncing the tied taa'<, you must turn it into -ah or -a in regular Arabic.
In other words, the t of -at cannot be the last thing you pronounce. This is kind of similar to the rule of Arabs don't stop on a moving. It is also similar to the French liaison.
Although the tied taa'< is primarily a feminine marker, it can appear at the end of the following kinds of nouns without being a feminine marker:
Irregular plural nouns are collective nouns, which means that they are grammatically singular even though they are semantically plural. Irregular plural nouns are all inherently feminine. The presence of the tied taa'< in the above examples is not the reason for why they are feminine. There are many other irregular plural structures that do not have any feminine marker attached yet they are still feminine.
It is possible though for irregular plurals that refer to humans to be treated grammatically as plural nouns rather than singular, and the gender of the noun in that case will match the gender of its singular (it will often be masculine). This is how such nouns are treated in Modern Standard Arabic.
The presence of the tied taa'< in those kinds of nouns without functioning as a feminine marker is related to an old original function of the tied taa'<; this suffix had originally two functions in Arabic:
These original functions of the -a(t) were not dead by the time of Classical Arabic and the Quran; they were vividly in use along side the feminine function and they remained productive throughout the following ages giving rise to countless new words in the modern spoken varieties. The -a(t) is still commonly used in modern spoken Arabic to coin diminutive nouns as well as to turn count nouns into collective nouns.
The open taa'< ت occurs as a feminine marker in very scarce nouns like:
These nouns are ancient and their terminal feminine taa'< somehow escaped the process of being turned into a tied taa'<. Apart from these two nouns and maybe some few others, the open taa'< ت is not considered a feminine marker.
In some classical dialects of Arabic, particularly classical southern Arabian dialects (Himyarite), the feminine taa'< was pronounced -at invariably i.e. there was no "tied" taa'< in those dialects. This is why it is not considered officially "wrong" to pronounce a tied taa'< always -at even at pause. However, pronouncing a full -at at pause will doubtless sound awkward to most modern speakers of Arabic who are unfamiliar with this classical variety.
N.B. there are still few rural dialects today in which the tied taa'< is fully realized as -at at pause; this tends to be in dialects that are primarily derived from classical Yemeni Arabic, like modern southern Levantine Arabic (Palestine and Lebanon) and Egyptian Arabic. (The Maronite patriarch of Mount Lebanon often appears talking on Lebanese TV and he pauses realizing a full -at .)
Extra Note: Modern Variations in the feminine -a(t)
Some classical Arabian tribes had a habit of turning the vowel A into E. This is called in Arabic إِمَاْلَةٌ = "slanting" or تَضَجُّعٌ = "lying-down-like" and it happened particularly in central Arabia (Najd). For example, they would pronounce the word kitaab = "book" as kitaib (kitēb). Similar phenomena existed in other Semitic languages such as Syriac and Hebrew, and exist in English (the pronunciation of "make," hate," etc.)
Today however, this transition is no longer present in Arabia (except for traces) but it has moved to Levant and North Africa.
Levant is the region bordering the eastern shore of the Mediterranean. It was classically known to Arabs as Shaam الشَّاْمُ = "Syria" and today it comprises the four countries of Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, and Jordan. Many central Arabian tribes settled in Levant, especially the northern half (the southern half had been already settled by Yemeni tribes for centuries before Islam). After staying in Syria for a while, many of these tribes moved to Egypt and North Africa (which had been already settled by the early conquering Muslim Yemeni tribes). These Syrian/central Arabian tribes kept relocating until they finally reached Spain and settled there most of the Arab tribes that entered Spain during the Muslim conquest were from these Syrian/central Arabian tribes.
This historical information helps in explaining some of the variations between modern dialects. Classically, Levantine Arabic strongly exhibited the transition from A to E (the "slanting.") However, with the passing of time and continuous influence from other regions, this feature has been lost from nearly all Levant up to central Syria (Hama,) with only traces remaining here and there. You can still hear today the A somewhat regularly slanted into E in northern Syria (Aleppo), but this is fading there as well.
One of the traces of "slanting" that persist in almost all the modern Levantine dialects is the pronunciation of the feminine marker as -e instead of -a.
Examples, click on the Roman transliteration to hear:
*An underlined e on this site means a schwa ə (as in telephone).
Note that the vowels e and e do not exist in formal Arabic. Rural Syrian dialects use only the classical vowels (a, i, u, ā, ī, ū) but no modern vowels (e, e, o, ē, ē, ō). Hence, rural dialects "classicize" the feminine -e into -i.
The feminine marker is not invariably changed to -e in modern Levantine; as a general rule, a vowel A will not be slanted to E if it is preceded by letters produced from the throat (pharyngeal), from the roof of the mouth (velar or uvular), emphatic consonants (ص ، ض ، ط ، ظ), or the letter R (except in the two words كْبِيْرة & صْغِيْرة). Thus, the classical -a(t) becomes both -a and -e in modern Levantine.
The modern -a or -e will not be changed to -at or -et nor to anything else when they are followed by other talking. However, they will be changed to -t (without a vowel) in the construct state, which is when a noun forms the first part of a genitive construction. The evolvement of different figures for nouns in the construct state in modern spoken Arabic is similar to what had happened at much more ancient times in other Semitic languages such as Hebrew and Aramaic.
A similar, less important, evolution lead to the feminine marker becoming -o or -u in some rare modern dialects of Arabic. This is similar to what happened in the ancient Aramaic/Syriac.
N.B. Lebanese Arabic is famed in the modern Arab world for preserving the transition from A to E, but the fact is that this transition occurs natively in a very little geographic area in Lebanon (in central Mount Lebanon, where the once dominating Maronite elite lived) whereas most of the other Lebanese regions do not show real preservation of this transition but just traces of it. However, it is quite common for all Lebanese today to either fake or excessively exaggerate the transition from A to E in their talk in what appears to be part of the struggle by the different communities in that country to prove that they are "more Lebanese than" or "as Lebanese as" the others.