Praise & Disparagement
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Number of Nouns
Plural Nouns (continued)
Irregular Plural Nouns
As we have seen, turning a singular noun into a regular plural noun is done by adding a suffix while the main stem of the noun is preserved.
Irregular plurals work in another way. Here, there are no added suffixes but rather the radicals (root-letters) of the singular noun are taken and applied into a different pattern or structure to form the plural. Thus, the stem of the singular noun is not preserved in this kind of plural.
This is why it is called the broken Plural (the Arabic name is literally the "breaking plural" جَمْعُ التَّكْسِيْرِ). This name refers to the fact that this kind of plural involves "breaking" the stem of the singular noun.
Examples of irregular plurals:
Irregular plurals are in fact a kind of collective nouns. They are semantically plural, but grammatically they are singular. For example, when you use huroob(un) = "wars" in a sentence you won't say "these are wars" but "this is wars."
It appears that the irregular plural structures were derived from verbal noun structures because of the obvious similarity. A verbal noun in English is a gerund (like in "I love eating much"). For example, they used "warring" to say "wars" and "trading" to say "traders." The sentence "this is warring" meant to them "these are wars" and "that is trading" meant "those are traders." This is the origin of the irregular plurals.
However, unlike verbal nouns, the irregular plurals are always feminine.
We showed in the previous sections how the grammatical feminine gender markers had an original augmentative/diminutive function. This relationship between the grammatical feminine gender and the meaning of augmentation/diminution in Arabic makes it no surprise that the irregular plurals are feminine.
What is now a "feminine gender" of the irregular plural nouns was initially a mere indication of plenitude. For example, "this is much warring (neut.)" became this is "this is wars (neut.)" and eventually "this is wars (fem.)" when the feminine connotation emerged.
Some irregular plural structures have obvious "feminine markers" attached, while most of them do not. Some structures have other kinds of augmentative/diminutive suffixes like the -aan suffix which is now standardly a "dual" marker in Arabic.
Initially, Semitic peoples used the two regular plural suffixes (the masculine & feminine plural suffixes) to pluralize all nouns whether they were referring to persons, animals, or objects. However, Semites slowly started to develop a tendency toward using the broken plural instead of the regular suffixes. This phenomenon had not yet been very extensive when Akkadians (ancient Mesopotamian Semites) started to write their language. There were few irregular plural nouns in the Akkadian language, which is the oldest known Semitic language. Even Hebrew, which was still spoken until the first century CE, shows minimal presence of this phenomenon in comparison to Arabic.
It appears that Arabs and other South Semitic peoples enjoyed this kind of pluralization so much that they kept doing it until, by the time of Muhammad and Classical Arabic, the use of the masculine plural suffix -oona/-eena became restricted to participles referring to male humans.
However, there were few remnants in Classical Arabic of nouns referring to masculine objects which were pluralized by suffixing the masculine plural ending to them. Such words that were used in the Koran (the Muslim holy book) included:
"aalamoon(a) عَاْلَمُوْنَ = "worlds" (sing. "aalam(un) عَاْلَمٌ = "a world")
sinoon(a) سِنُوْنَ = "years" (sing. sana(tun) سَنَةٌ = "a year")
These plurals are called in Arabic grammar the "annexed masculine plurals" because they go against the rule of keeping the masculine plural declension for only participles referring to male humans. There is a list of all of the words that matter of this type in this page.
The usage of the irregular plural has been growing even more since the time of the Koran and more words today are irregularly pluralized. For example, adjectives referring to male humans were generally regularly pluralized in Classical Arabic, today however, they are commonly irregularly pluralized.
It is important to know that nouns can be irregularly pluralized by more than one way, that is by using more than one structure or pattern. Moreover, many nouns can be regularly and irregularly pluralized in the same time.
Irregular plural nouns are always feminine, unless they refer to male humans where they can be masculine.
When irregular plurals refer to humans, they can be treated grammatically as plural nouns instead of singular. For example, one would say "these are the writers" instead of "this is the writers;" the latter is purer but less common, especially in modern Arabic. However, the declension of an irregular plural noun will not change even if it is treated as a plural it will always have the endings of a singular noun.
When an irregular plural noun is treated as a plural (when it refers to humans), the gender of the noun will match the gender of its singular. For example, one would say "those men know what is best for them" instead of "that men knows what is best for her." The latter is purer but less common in Standard Arabic.
Since that nouns referring to female humans are usually pluralized through the feminine regular plural, irregular plurals referring to humans usually refer to male humans.
Irregular Plural Structures
The possible structures for irregular plural nouns are many. However, not all the structures are equally important. Some of the structures are used much more often than the others.
Following is a comprehensive listing of all the structures from a "structural" (morphological) point of view. The singular endings are removed. Note that many of the following structures are uncommon.
1) Structures of the Basic Forms CvCC & CvCvC
►With geminated (doubled) second radical (root-letter)
►With -a(t), -aa'< , or -aa (common ancestor -(a)at )
►With prefix 'a- ('aCvCvC → 'aCCvC)
►With prefix 'a- and suffixes -a(t) and -aa'<
2) Structures of the Form CvCvvC
►With geminated second radical
►With -iy / -iyy
►With infix -'i- (originally -wi- or -yi-)
►With prefix 'a- ('aCvCvvC → 'aCCvvC)
3) Structures of the Forms CaaCiC & CaaCeeC
►With prefix 'a-
►With prefix ma-
►With prefix ya-
►With prefix ta-
►With infix -wa- or -ya-
4) Structures with Four Radicals
Next, we are going to talk about the structures in terms of their usage.