Arabic Grammar – 20 (from old website)

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A substantive noun is a noun in the narrow sense which excludes the adjectives.

A substantive nouns can designate a person (Ali), place (Mecca), thing (house), or quality (honor).

Nouns that designate material things (Ali, Mecca, house) are called concrete nouns. Nouns that designate immaterial things (honor) are called abstract nouns.

Permanent names of persons or places are called proper nouns أَسْمَاْءُ عَلَمٍ , other nouns are called common nouns. Proper nouns refer to unique or particular objects (cannot be preceded by words such as “some” or “any”). Common nouns refer to non-unique or non-particular objects (can be preceded by words such as “some” or “any”).

Common nouns are several types in Arabic:

Count nouns refer to single units when they are singular, and to plural units when they are plural.


Plural Singular
riǵȃluṋ رِجَاْلٌ raǵuluṋ رَجُلٌ
men a man
buyȗtuṋ بُيُوْتٌ baytuṋ بَيْتٌ
houses a house
kutubuṋ كُتُبٌ kitȃbuṋ كِتَاْبٌ
books a book


Mass nouns have a singular or plural meaning when they are singular, and a plural meaning when they are plural.

When singular mass nouns refer to countable objects (such as plants or animals), they refer to an unspecified number of units of the object. When they refer to uncountable objects (such as water, sugar, sand, etc.), they refer to an unspecified amount of the object.


Plural Singular
θimȃruṋ ثِمَاْرٌ θamaruṋ ثَمَرٌ
fruits “a fruit” or “fruits”
ʔašǵȃruṋ أَشْجَاْرٌ šaǵaruṋ شَجَرٌ
trees “a tree” or “trees”
uyȗruṋ طُيُوْرٌ ayruṋ طَيْرٌ
birds “a bird” or “birds”
miyȃhuṋ مِيْاَهٌ mauṋ مَاْءٌ
[large amount of] water [an amount of] water
dimȃʔuṋ دِمَاْءٌ damuṋ دَمٌ
[large amount of] blood [an amount of] blood
riyȃħuṋ رِيَاْحٌ riuṋ رِيْحٌ
[large amount of] wind [an amount of] wind

Some nouns, like the names of materials, can indicate either a unit (a piece, a type) or a substance, so those can be both countable and uncountable. However, when plural, they usually refer only to multiple units (countable only).


Plural Singular
ʔawrȃquṋ أَوْرَاْقٌ waraquṋ وَرَقٌ
papers paper/papers


[an amount of] paper

ʔaȃbuṋ أَخْشَاْبٌ xašabuṋ خَشَبٌ
[pieces of] wood

[types of] wood

[piece/pieces of] wood

[type/types of] wood


[an amount of] wood

zuyȗtuṋ زُيُوْتٌ zaytuṋ زَيْتٌ
[types of] oil [type/types of] oil


[an amount of] oil


Collective nouns or broken plural nouns are grammatically singular nouns that refer to plural units or to large amounts of uncountable objects. All the plural nouns mentioned in the above examples belong to this category.

Oddly enough, although these nouns are called plurals they are in fact singulare tantum, which means they do not have grammatically plural forms.

It is possible for broken plural nouns that refer to humans to be treated grammatically as plural nouns. This is typical of Modern Standard Arabic.


Basic substantive structures

Substantives are either derived from other words or not derived from other words. An example of derived substantives are the verb-derived verbal substantives, which correspond to infinitives and gerunds in English.

It is not easy in Arabic to separate the structures of non-derived substantives from the structures of derived substantives because there is an overlap. However, it seems that many of the most basic concrete substantives have the form fVʕluṋ فعْلٌ (where V means any short vowel). Examples are raʔsuṋ رَأْسٌ “head,” ʕaynuṋ عَيْنٌ “eye,” ʔanfuṋ أَنْفٌ “nose,” baṭnuṋ بَطْنٌ “belly,” šaʕruṋ شَعْرٌ “hair(s),” ṣaxruṋ صَخْرٌ “rock(s),” ramluṋ رَمْلٌ “sand,” θalǵuṋ ثَلْجٌ “ice, snow,” ɣaymuṋ غَيْمٌ “cloud(s),” ḍawʔuṋ ضَوْءٌ “light,” marʔuṋ مَرْأٌ “man,” ʔarḍuṋ أَرْضٌ “land,” šamsuṋ شَمْسٌ “sun,” naǵmuṋ نَجْمٌ “star,” naxluṋ نَخْلٌ “date palm(s),” warduṋ وَرْدٌ “rose(s),” yawmuṋ يَوْمٌ “day,” layluṋ لَيْلٌ “night,” ʔahluṋ أَهْلٌ “household,” ħabluṋ حَبْلٌ “rope,” sayfuṋ سَيْفٌ “sword,” ḍaʔnuṋ ضَأْنٌ “sheep,” ʕanzuṋ عَنْزٌ “goat(s),” riǵluṋ رِجْلٌ “leg,” ʔibṭuṋ إبْطٌ “armpit,” ǵismuṋ جِسْمٌ “body,” ʔinsuṋ إِنْسٌ “human being,” ðiʔbuṋ ذِئْبٌ “wolf,” ʕiǵluṋ عِجْلٌ “calf,” qidruṋ قِدْرٌ “pot,” ð̣ufruṋ ظُفْرٌ “fingernail,” ʕušbuṋ عُشْبٌ “grass,” duhnuṋ دُهْنٌ “grease,” *nuwruṋ > nȗruṋ نُوْرٌ “light,” rumħuṋ رُمْحٌ “spear.”

While the pattern fVʕluṋ is typical of substantives, it is not specific to non-derived substantives. It is used productively in forming verbal substantives, and there is no doubt that some of the seemingly basic substantives belonging to this pattern were originally verbal substantives.

Many basic substantives are also of the form faʕaluṋ فَعَلٌ , e.g. qadamuṋ قَدَمٌ “foot,” *sawaquṋ > sȃquṋ ساقٌ “leg,” ħaǵaruṋ حَجَرٌ “stone(s),” maṭaruṋ مَطَرٌ “rain,” *nawaruṋ > nȃruṋ نارٌ “fire,” *dayaruṋ > dȃruṋ دارٌ “home,” baladuṋ بَلَدٌ “home, town,” qamaruṋ قَمَرٌ “moon,” waladuṋ وَلَدٌ “child,” šaǵaruṋ شَجَرٌ “tree(s),” θamaruṋ ثَمَرٌ “fruit(s),” waraquṋ وَرَقٌ “leaf/leaves,” xašabuṋ خَشَبٌ “wood,” samakuṋ سَمَكٌ “fish,” baqaruṋ بَقَرٌ “cattle,” ǵamaluṋ جَمَلٌ “camel,” ħamaluṋ حَمَلٌ “lamb.”

Many substantives of the form faʕaluṋ have a liquid consonant as the second or third radical, which may suggest a phonetic change faʕl> faʕalwhen one of the last two radicals was a liquid. However, such a hypothesis cannot explain the origin of all faʕaluṋ substantives.

It should be noted that the pattern faʕaluṋ (and its lengthened variant faʕȃluṋ/fiʕȃluṋ) is a common pattern of verbal substantives, and it is likely that some of the seemingly basic substantives belonging to this pattern were originally verbal substantives.

Other patterns found sometimes in basic substantives are faʕiluṋ فَعِلٌ and faʕuluṋ فَعُلٌ , e.g. katifuṋ كَتِفٌ “shoulder,” faxiðuṋ فَخِذٌ “thigh,” kabiduṋ كَبِدٌ “liver,” raħimuṋ رَحِمٌ “womb,” ʕaḍuduṋ عَضُدٌ “upper arm,” raǵuluṋ رَجُلٌ “man,” sabuʕuṋ سَبُعٌ “beast,” ḍabuʕuṋ ضَبُعٌ “hyena,” samuruṋ سَمُرٌAcacia tortilis.”

The patterns faʕiluṋ and faʕuluṋ are much more common in adjectives than substantives, which suggests that at least some of the substantives of these patterns were originally adjectives. The adjectival origin of some of the above mentioned examples was still clear in Classical Arabic, e.g. raǵuluṋ رَجُلٌ still existed in CA as an adjective meaning “walking on foot” (derived from riǵluṋ رِجْلٌ “leg, foot”).

Substantives of the patterns faʕiluṋ and faʕuluṋ almost always have CA variants conforming to the more usual substantival pattern fVʕluṋ, e.g. kabiduṋ كَبِدٌ “liver” (c.f. Hebrew *kabid– > kāḇēḏ כָּבֵד “liver”) has the variants kabduṋ كَبْدٌ and kibduṋ كِبْدٌ ; katifuṋ كَتِفُ “shoulder” (c.f. Hebrew *katip– > kāṯēp̄ כָּתֵף “shoulder”) has the variant kitfuṋ كِتْفٌ ; faxiðuṋ فَخِذٌ “thigh” has the variant fixðuṋ فِخْذٌ ; raħimuṋ رَحِمٌ “womb” has the variant riħmuṋ رِحْمٌ ; ʕaḍuduṋ عَضُدٌ “upper arm” has the variants ʕaḍduṋ عَضْدٌ and ʕuḍduṋ عُضْدٌ ; sabuʕuṋ سَبُعٌ “beast” has the variant sabʕuṋ سَبْعٌ ; ḍabuʕuṋ ضَبُعٌ “hyena” has the variant ḍabʕuṋ ضَبْعٌ , etc.

Very few substantives have a in the second syllable but i in the first syllable, e.g. ḍilaʕuṋ ضِلَعٌ “rib” (c.f. Hebrew *ṣilaʕ– > ṣēlāʕ צֵלָע “rib”) and ʕinabuṋ عِنَبٌ “grape(s)” (c.f. Hebrew *ʕinab– > ʕēnāḇ עֵנָב “grape(s)”). These could have arisen from older faʕal forms by dissimilation.

Substantives of the pattern fiʕil commonly appear in the modern spoken vernaculars as anaptyxic variants of the CA pattern fiʕluṋ, e.g. Bedouinic gidir for CA qidruṋ قِدْرٌ “pot.” Very few substantives of this pattern are found in CA, the most important of which is ʔibiluṋ إبِلٌ “camel(s).” (This word is attested as ibilu already in Neo-Assyrian, more than a thousand years before CA).

On the other hand, substantives of the pattern fuʕuluṋ فُعُلٌ as anaptyxic variants of fuʕluṋ are commonplace in CA, e.g. ʔuðunuṋ أُذُنٌ , ʕunuquṋ عُنُقٌ , and ʕuḍuduṋ عُضُدٌ for ʔuðnuṋ أُذْنٌ “ear,” ʕunquṋ عُنْقٌ “neck,” and ʕuḍduṋ عُضْدٌ “upper arm” (the last one is itself modified from ʕaḍuduṋ عَضُدٌ).

Substantives of the pattern fVʕVVluṋ, fȃʕVluṋ, and other complex patterns must be of verbal or adjectival origin, even if they sometimes appear to have basic concrete meanings, like *samāwun > samȃʔuṋ سَماءٌ “heaven,” ʔatȃnuṋ أَتانٌ “female donkey,” ɣazȃluṋ غَزالٌ “gazelle,” ǵanȃħuṋ جَناحٌ “wing,” ðirȃʕuṋ ذِراعٌ “arm,” dimȃɣuṋ دِماغٌ “brain,” ħimȃruṋ حِمارٌ “donkey,” silȃħuṋ سِلاحٌ “weapon,” ǵidȃruṋ جِدارٌ “wall,” ǵabȋnuṋ جَبِيْنٌ “forehead,” baʕȋruṋ بَعِيْرٌ “camel,” ṭarȋquṋ طَرِيْقٌ “way,” sabȋluṋ سَبِيْلٌ “way,” ʕamȗduṋ عَمُوْدٌ “pillar,” xȃtamuṋ خاتَمٌ “seal,” ħȃǵibuṋ حاجِبٌ “eyebrow,” kȃhiluṋ كاهِلٌ “upper part of the back,” ǵȃnibuṋ جانِبٌ “side,” ħȃʔiṭuṋ حائِطٌ “wall,” qȃribuṋ قارِبٌ “boat.”

Note that some of these may be loanwords, e.g. compare ħimȃruṋ “donkey” and xȃtamuṋ “seal” to Ancient Egyptian ḥmr “donkey” and ḫtm “seal.”

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