Arabic Grammar – 150

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Denominal nouns (continued)
Nouns in –a⋅t

The suffix –a⋅t is one of the most common suffixes in denominal derivation. It has many functions, some of which are fairly productive.

In general, the meanings of the the suffix –a⋅t can be divided into two opposing groups.

Meanings of the suffix –a⋅t
  • Singulative: makes a count noun from a mass noun.
  • Instancing: indicates a single instance of an action.
  • Diminutive: indicates smallness.
  • Feminizing: indicates the feminine gender.
  • Plurative: makes broken plurals.
  • Frequentative: indicates repetition or longevity of action.
  • Augmentative: indicates largeness or intensity.
  • Abstractive: forms abstract nouns.

 

In Arabic, unlike in English, mass nouns frequently refer to things that are countable, which creates many ambiguities. In order to resolve the ambiguities, the suffix –a⋅t commonly converts mass nouns to count nouns. This is the singulative function. It works just by adding the suffix without stem modification.

Count noun Mass noun
θamara⋅tuṋ ثَمَرةٌ θamaruṋ ثَمَرٌ
a fruit “a fruit” or “fruits”
šaǵara⋅tuṋ شَجَرةٌ šaǵaruṋ شَجَرٌ
a tree “a tree” or “trees”
baqara⋅tuṋ بَقَرةٌ baqaruṋ بَقَرٌ
one head of cattle cattle
axra⋅tuṋ صَخْرةٌ axruṋ صَخْرٌ
a rock “a rock” or “rocks”
xašaba⋅tuṋ خَشَبةٌ xašabuṋ خَشَبٌ
a piece of wood wood

 

A completely opposite function is when the suffix –a⋅t forms a plural noun from a singular noun. Plurals formed this way are broken plurals and their formation usually involves stem modification in addition to the suffix.

Plural Singular
kataba·tuṋ كَتَبةٌ kȃtibuṋ كاتِبٌ
writers a writer
dibaba·tuṋ دِبَبةٌ dubbuṋ دُبٌّ
bears a bear
*quawa·tuṋ > quȃtuṋ قُضاةٌ *qȃiyuṋ > iṋ قاضٍ
judges a judge
ħiǵȃra·tuṋ حِجارةٌ ħaǵaruṋ حَجَرٌ
stones a stone
ʔaila·tuṋ أَسْئِلةٌ suʔȃluṋ سُؤالٌ
questions a question

 

Mass nouns are not usually pluralized this way, but occasionally it happens, and it can cause ambiguity. For example, from the word ramluṋ {رَمْلٌ} “sand” comes the derivative ramla·tuṋ {رَمْلةٌ} which means either “one grain of sand” or “large amount of sand, desert.” The first meaning is the one commonly understood in modern Arabic. However, the second meaning can be found today in the name of Ramla·tu ʔ·as-Sabʕatayni {رَمْلةُ السَّبْعَتَيْنِ} , a desert in Yemen.

When the suffix –a⋅t is attached to a verbal substantive (which corresponds to the English infinitive and gerund), it can indicate an instance of the action indicated by the verbal substantive. For example, from the verbal substantive ḍarbuṋ {ضَرْبٌ} “hitting” comes the derivative ḍarba·tuṋ {ضَرْبةٌ} “one instance of hitting = a hit,” from nað̣aruṋ {نَظَرٌ} “looking” comes nað̣ra·tuṋ {نَظْرةٌ} “one instance of looking = a look,” and from ǵulȗsuṋ {جُلُوْسٌ} “sitting” comes the modern Arabic ǵalsa·tuṋ {جَلْسةٌ} “a session” (note that the stem is modified in the last two examples). Sometimes the intended meaning may be the manner of the action, e.g. in Classical Arabic the word ǵilsa·tuṋ {جِلْسةٌ} means “a manner of sitting” (in CA the form fiʕla·tuṋ {فِعْلةٌ} is particularly associated with this nuance).

It should be noted, however, that the suffix –a⋅t in verbal substantives can be an integral part of their formation. For example, verbal substantives of Form III verbs can have the form mufȃʕala·tuṋ {مُفاعَلةٌ} (e.g. musȃʕada·tuṋ {مُساعَدةٌ} “helping,” muṣȃraʕa·tuṋ {مُصارَعةٌ} “wrestling”). In these words the suffix –a⋅t is part of the verbal substantive stem and has an abstractive meaning.

The abstractive meaning of the suffix –a⋅t is an outgrowth from the older frequentative meaning that indicated repetition or longevity of an action. For example, the verbal substantives kitȃbuṋ {كِتابٌ} and kitȃba⋅tuṋ {كِتابةٌ} both mean “writing,” but the second can also mean “being a writer,” i.e. “writing frequently.” Likewise, ʔimȃruṋ {إمارٌ} and ʔimȃra⋅tuṋ {إمارةٌ} both mean “commanding,” but the second can mean “being a commander.” The frequentative suffix –a⋅t in words such as kitȃba⋅tuṋ and ʔimȃra⋅tuṋ was reanalyzed as an abstractive suffix, and it was next used for forming abstract nouns from concrete nouns, e.g. the abstract noun ṭarȋqa·tuṋ {طَرِيْقةٌ} “a way” (as in “I’ll do it my way”) was derived from the concrete noun ṭarȋquṋ {طَرِيْقٌ} “a way” (as in “This is the way to the airport”).

The abstractive –a⋅t was added to words ending with the relative suffix –iyy in examples such as barriyya·tuṋ {بَرِّيّةٌ} “wilderness,” from barriyyuṋ {بَرِّيٌّ} “wild,” from barruṋ {بَرٌّ} “land, wilderness.” On the model of such words many other words were formed in later Arabic, such as ʔinsȃniyya·tuṋ {إنْسانِيّةٌ} “humanity,” ultimately from ʔinsȃnuṋ {إنْسانٌ} “a human being,” and ʔimkȃniyya·tuṋ {إمْكانِيّةٌ} “possibility,” directly from ʔimkȃnuṋ {إمْكانٌ} “being possible.” Sometimes such words were made out of phrases, e.g. mȃhiyya·tuṋ {ماهِيّةٌ} “quiddity” comes from mȃ huwa {ما هُوَ} “what is?”

The suffix –a⋅t can be diminutive, e.g. from qiṭʕuṋ/qaṭȋʕuṋ {قِطْعٌ/قَطِيْعٌ} “something cut” came qiṭʕa·tuṋ/quṭʕa·tuṋ {قِطْعةٌ/قُطْعةٌ} “piece.” Similarly in kisra·tuṋ {كِسْرةٌ} “fragment,” luqma·tuṋ {لُقْمةٌ} “morsel,” muḍɣa·tuṋ {مُضْغةٌ} “morsel,” etc.

The augmentative meaning can appear in substantives, e.g. maqbara ·tuṋ {مَقْبَرةٌ} “graveyard” from maqbaruṋ {مَقْبَرٌ} “burying (place),” and in adjectives, e.g. ʕallȃma·tuṋ {عَلّامةٌ} “very knowledgeable, erudite” from ʕallȃmuṋ {عَلّامٌ} (same meaning).

The feminizing meaning of the suffix –a⋅t is the most common and most productive.

Plural Singular
maa·tuṋ/ʔ·imraʔa·tuṋ مَرْأةٌ/اِمْرَأةٌ mauṋ/ʔ·imruʔuṋ مَرْأٌ/اِمْرُؤٌ
a woman a man
ʔ·ibna·tuṋ اِبْنةٌ ʔ·ibnuṋ اِبْنٌ
a daughter a son
ifla·tuṋ طِفْلةٌ ifluṋ طِفْلٌ
a female child a male child
muʕallima·tuṋ مُعَلِّمةٌ muʕallimuṋ مُعَلِّمٌ
a female teacher a male teacher
qiṭṭa·tuṋ قِطّةٌ qiṭṭuṋ قِطٌّ
a female cat a male cat

 

Side note

The feminine meaning of the suffix –a⋅t could have evolved from the diminutive meaning, since females are physically smaller than males. Also note that the diminutive is used for endearment in Arabic as well as in other languages.

 

In principle, any noun can be feminized by adding the suffix –a⋅t to it, unless it already has another feminine suffix. Thus, it is possible to derive ħimȃra·tuṋ {حِمارةٌ} “a female donkey” from ħimȃruṋ {حِمارٌ} “a donkey,” even though Arabic has a specific word for the female donkey ʔatȃnuṋ {أَتانٌ} . Note, however, that the feminine –a⋅t cannot be added to words that are used only in reference to females, like ʔummuṋ {أُمٌّ} “a mother,” ʔatȃnuṋ {أَتانٌ} “a female donkey,” ʔatȃnuṋ {حامِلٌ} “a pregnant [woman],” ʔatȃnuṋ {طالِقٌ} “a divorced [woman],” ʔatȃnuṋ {عانِسٌ} “a spinster,” ʔatȃnuṋ {عاقِرٌ} “a barren [woman],” etc.

The feminine meaning came to be associated with the suffix –a⋅t wherever it is used. Thus, words like θamara⋅tuṋ {ثَمَرةٌ} “a fruit,” ḍarba·tuṋ {ضَرْبةٌ} “a hit,” qiṭʕa·tuṋ {قِطْعةٌ} “a piece” musȃʕada·tuṋ {مُساعَدةٌ} “helping,” ṭarȋqa·tuṋ {طَرِيْقةٌ} “a way,” and maqbara ·tuṋ {مَقْبَرةٌ} “a graveyard” are all grammatically feminine nouns because they have the suffix –a⋅t, even if they designate inanimate things, and even if the suffix –a⋅t serves other functions in them.

However, if a word with the suffix –a⋅t refers to a male, it is grammatically masculine. This applies to adjectives with an augmentative –a⋅t, like ʕallȃma·tuṋ {عَلّامةٌ} “erudite,” raħħȃla·tuṋ {رَحّالةٌ} “traveler,” ṭȃɣiya·tuṋ {طاغِيةٌ} “transgressor, tyrant,” etc. It also applies to male personal names like ʔUsȃma·tu {أُسامةُ} and Ħuðayfa·tu {حُذَيْفةُ} .

Variant

The suffix –t, without a vowel, is a variant of –a⋅t < –at known from other Semitic languages. In Arabic the vowelless form is only vestigial. The clearest example is in bintuṋ {بِنْتٌ} “a daughter,” which is a feminine derivative of the biradical ʔ·ibnuṋ {اِبْنٌ} “a son.” Another word that appears to have it is ʔuxtuṋ {أُخْتٌ} “a sister,” the feminine of ʔaxuṋ {أَخٌ} “a brother.” However, the word for “brother” is originally triradical *ʔaxwuṋ, and the Hebrew *ʔax(a)wat– > ʔāħȏṯ {{אָחוֺת}} “sister” suggests that the Arabic word for “sister” is modified from an older word that had the vocalized suffix –at.

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