Sunday, April 22, 2007

The Arabic Plural System

Questions & Answers

By Hussein Maxos©

01. What is the plural system in general?

02. What is special about the Arabic Plural System?

03. What are the difficulties in the Arabic plurals?

04. Why aren't the difficulties solved after centuries?

05. How can native speakers of Arabic manage?

06. How can non natives manage?

07. What have you done to solve the problem?

08. What was the reaction/results to your solution?

09. Why did you decide to write a book about Arabic plural?

* What is the plural system in general?

The plural system is certain language system that imbeds number in words without specifying a specific number. This happens by making a small or a big change to the word form e.g. book-books, glass-glasses, foot-feet etc.

What can be problematic is when having no good knowledge of the plural system (in a language that has a complicated one) the problem seems bigger than the plural system itself. That's because of the noticeable frequency of plurals in any text or speech.

Simple Experiment: I randomly collected 10 pages of Arabic various texts. Each page contains about 300 words. I scanned them for plurals. I found between 31 and 65 plurals in each page. A student with poor knowledge of plurals can easily be fooled by thinking that all the plurals are new words, when in reality, he could know many of the singulars but he doesn’t know the way they were made plurals.

* What is special about the Arabic Plural System?

The complexity of The Arabic Plural System comes from its richness and varieties. That includes a variable degree of regularity, gender change, context change and the interrelation among all of these factors.

* What are the difficulties in the Arabic plurals?

Naturally, the difficulties are caused by its complexity. First, in terms of regularity, we have regular, semi-regular and irregular. Second, in terms of gender, we have masculine and feminine. Third, the context change, which means, changing the ending of the regular plurals according to their position/function in the sentence (بعض المسلمين عرب- بعض العرب مسلمون) and the sentence type (verbal or nominal sentence). Forth, the interrelation among all the previously mentioned factors. That means, in the process of recognizing or using the plural, one plural word can be noun, regular, masculine and nominative in the same time, or adjective, regular, feminine and accusative.

As for the semi-regular plural, it is commonly known as the broken plural, which is wrong. Simply, because Arabic grammar allows adding attachments (suffixes, prefixes and "in Arabic- infixes") in order to make new words on which the derivation is based. It is not called breaking the words as long as the root (base-original form) letters are kept with their order. This semi-regular plural is briefly mentioned in the grammar books despite its great importance. When mentioned, it is described as irregular or broken. Most books say it has no rules, and few books list few patterns of it (see A new Arabic grammar of the written language by Haywood Nahmad- page 50).

In fact, the semi- regular plural has about 35 common patterns that cover thousands of words. Actually, it covers part of the most common words in Arabic.

We also have the adjective plural that is two kinds. One is the regular adjective plural, which is similar to the noun regular plural in all variations. This includes being feminine, masculine, nominative accusative and genitive. The difference is that the noun is independent, so "chair" (means كرسي) is always masculine in Arabic, and "table" (means طاولة) is always feminine. Unlike the noun, the adjective is dependent on the noun it describes. Also, in Arabic, the adjective must follow its described noun in number, gender and definition, so the adjective "far" (means بعيد) can be بعيد masculine, بعيدة feminine, بعيدين plural, بعيدون plural written nominative and بعيدات plural feminine.

The second kind of the adjective plural is the semi-regular plural. It has two common patterns that cover a big number of adjectives.

At last, we have the irregular plural which has no rules, but luckily, it's applied on a small number of words.

So, now we can imagine how Arabic plural system can be complicated even with a modern and simplified approach.

That's why archaic approaches based on medieval books make it impossible.

* Why aren't the difficulties solved after centuries?

The main reason for not modernizing Arabic as a whole is considering it a holy language. The Islamists think that (classical and written) Arabic is the Qur'an language, and therefore, it has to remain intact. The Liberal Nationalists think that Arabic represents the golden age when Arabs were the world super power, united and more civilized between 7th and 13th centuries, compared to now, when Arabs are divided, oppressed and under foreign influence. Subsequently, Arabic has become the symbol of the Arabs' and Muslims' unity and identity. Therefore, Arabs, governments and intellectuals, have determined that Arabic must be protected from degradation by adhering to classical Arabic or the closest type to it (modern written Arabic or modern standard Arabic MSA). This is backward and elitist attitude, because it ignores the natural development that happened to Arabic during the last two centuries, and ignores spoken Arabic as the people's language. In fact, with scientific approach, they can examine carefully spoken and written Arabic, and they will find out that Arabic still maintain a great degree of unity within its diversity.

However, Arabic plural system is not an exception in this matter. It was left unregulated for many centuries and up to date. Luckily, native speakers have almost the same plural system in spoken, so they know most of it without a lot of education. As result, that added another reason to abandon modernizing and regulating the plural system.

Finally, now we have the modern living version (of plural) on tongues and the medieval version in the books.

* How can native speakers of Arabic manage?

As I said earlier, native speakers naturally know most of the plural system from their spoken language, particularly the semi-regular. In addition, spoken simplifies regular plural by using one ending (suffix ين) for all cases of nominative, accusative and genitive.

Concerning written Arabic, Arabs spend many years in schools studying written and classical Arabic, yet they always have difficulties understanding the grammar, because it remains unchanged since the medieval time. This means, difficulties in understanding the complicated sentence construction on which the changeable ending of the regular plural is dependent. In addition, many other parts of the Arabic sentence are changeable in written Arabic.

So, Arabs keep making mistakes and keep guessing about the regular plural, but many times, they tolerate this, because they know it doesn't affect the meaning, despite that mistakes in the regular plural are not tolerated in schools or any exam.

In my case, I stopped making mistakes and guessing about the regular plurals in written Arabic after studying in schools for thirteen years, specializing in Arabic and training for three years.

* How can non natives manage?

Non Arabs who learn Arabic have also difficulties too, but they are slightly different.

Surely, when non Arabs try to learn Arabic, they face difficulties in every sense. In the beginning level, they face traditional methods, in addition to the original natural difficulties such as different alphabet and pronunciation. In the intermediate level, they face a complicated grammar and a huge vocabulary. As their vocabulary grows, they realize the problem of plurals. After years of study, they could learn the Arabic sentence construction, which means they could manage with the regular plural.

Contrary to the natives, non natives can have an ever lasting problem with the semi-regular plural, because it covers a wide range of specific words that have to be collected and learned.

Without an easy-to-understand system, the foreign student of Arabic will collect randomly an endless list of common words with their plurals. Also because the semi-regular plural is more frequently used than other types of plurals, they will end up with a mess of words without having a clue about the rules governing this elusive plural. That's why this (semi-regular) plural took the main focus in my book.

* What have you done to solve the problem?

During my teaching of Arabic to non natives, which means a daily direct contact with students, soon I noticed the students confusion concerning the plurals, especially, the semi-regular plural.

I started collecting words and making lists with explanation, and handed them out to the students in our classes. These lists were carefully analyzed in every intermediate and advanced course I ran. It was fantastic and cooperative atmosphere in the class, and our main goal was to search for the rules that govern the language, particularly, the rules of plural. My students know that I have radical views in Arabic and I'm always curious about the new language rules evolved in the Renaissance (19th century) and the modern period.

The frustration that came after counseling all available books in Arabic or English has intensified our efforts.

We were collecting plural patterns and applied them on every text in the classes. That included texts from newspapers, magazines, novels, web sites, soaps, movies, news broadcasts and other radio and TV programs. It took years, many cooperative students and courses, and a lot of revision and refinement to get the best rules and simplest approach that proved by practice to be the excellent solution for the problems of Arabic plural.

* What was the reaction/results to your solution?

Few weeks after the first "formal" list of plural patterns was printed many years ago, I found out that my students had given copies to other foreign students in town.

Later, I met students who decided to quit their study and enroll in my language center because of my good reputation which spread more with the circulation of the plural paper. Furthermore, receiving praise from many people and places has encouraged me to turn the small plural chapter in my grammar book into a separate book. I also made an electronic copy of the book and offered a sample on the Internet. In less than two years, this sample became more downloaded than all my other books samples on my web site, according to my web site stats. And according to Google search, my plural book sample has become one of the most circulated file on the net in this subject.

See links

and there are more.

Also, university students and researchers have quoted from it, and I always receive requests for the full version.

* Why did you decide to write a book about Arabic plural?

Compared to teaching, writing a book means addressing unlimited and unknown audience. In teaching one can see the student age, interests and background, but addressing readers, especially overseas, means having to be prepared to meet an audience from every age, interest and background.

Therefore, I had to prepare my books for the most common cases, rules, examples and usage of the language in variable circumstances.

I would like to publish my book The Arabic Plural System so I can offer the full version, reach a big audience, be compensated for the years I worked on and meet an increasing demand for Arabic worldwide.

Hussein Maxos

Damascus, Wednesday, April 18, 2007

A simple map of the Arabic Plural System













No rules





Acc & Gen

Suffix اتِ

Suffix اتُ

Suffix و

Suffix ين

Suffix ون

Accusative & genitive


Nominative in genitive phrase

Accusative & genitive


35 common patterns

Qualities of plural types

Plural type

Number of words


gender change


Unlimited number

Variable in written



Big number




Small number





Anonymous Magdalene said...

Keep up the good work.

3:19 AM  

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