Arabic Grammar – 210

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Gender of nouns

Arabic nouns (substantives and adjectives) have two grammatical genders, the masculine and feminine. Every noun, including those designating inanimate things, is assigned to one of these two genders. There is no neuter gender in Arabic.

The following guidelines will help you guess the gender of an Arabic noun.

1. Nouns designating humans and animals

Nouns referring to male humans or animals are masculine regardless of their form, and nouns referring to female humans or animals are feminine regardless of their form.

Some words can be only used in reference to males, like ʔabuṋ {أَبٌ} “a father,” ʔaxuṋ {أَخٌ} “a brother,” raǵuluṋ {رَجُلٌ} “a man,”  ħiṣȃnuṋ {حِصانٌ} “a male horse,” ħimȃruṋ {حِمارٌ} “a male donkey.”

Some words can be only used in reference to females, like ʔummuṋ {أُمٌّ} “a mother,” ʔuxtuṋ {أُخْتٌ} “a sister,” ʔatȃnuṋ {أَتانٌ} “a female donkey,” ħȃmiluṋ {حامِلٌ} “a pregnant [woman],” ħȃʔiḍuṋ {حائِضٌ} “a menstruating [woman].”

Some words can be used in reference to both genders, e.g. ʔinsȃnuṋ {إنْسانٌ} “a human being,” ʕarȗsuṋ {عَرُوْسٌ} “a bride(groom),” zawǵuṋ {زَوْجٌ} “a spouse,” farasuṋ {فَرَسٌ} “a horse/mare,” ḍabuʕuṋ {ضَبُعٌ} “a hyena,” ʕaqrabuṋ {عَقْرَبٌ} “a scorpion.”

2. Nouns designating inanimate things

In order to determine the grammatical gender of such nouns, we first look at their stem forms:

  • Stems with a suffix –a⋅t are feminine.
  • The vast majority of stems with a suffix –aw/–ay are feminine (do not confuse such stems with stems of nouns III=w/y with the same ending).
  • The vast majority of stems with a suffix –ȃw are feminine (do not confuse such stems with stems of nouns III=ʔ/w/y with the same ending).

After excluding the above stem forms, we look at the meaning:

  • Proper names of towns and countries are feminine, except for some Arab country names such as ʔ·al-ʕIrȃqu  {الْعِراقُ} “Iraq,” ʔ·al-ʔUrdunnu {الْأُرْدُنُّ} “Jordan,” and Lubnȃnu {لُبْنانُ} “Lebanon.”
  • Broken plurals are feminine.
  • Mass nouns are masculine (exception: xamruṋ {خَمْرٌ} “wine (fem.)”).
  • Count nouns are masculine, except:
    • Names of countable body parts of which there are more than one. Notable exceptions are kabiduṋ {كَبِدٌ} “a liver (fem.),” raħimuṋ {رَحِمٌ} “a womb (fem.),” and miʕṣamuṋ {مِعْصَمٌ} “a wrist (masc.).” (Note that various names of body parts can be both masculine and feminine in CA.)
    • Names of the alphabet letters.
    • Exceptional words such as ʔarḍuṋ {أَرْضٌ} “land,” samȃʔuṋ {سَماءٌ} “heaven,” šamsuṋ {شَمْسٌ} “sun,” nȃruṋ {نارٌ} “fire,” rȋħuṋ {رِيْحٌ} “wind,” rȗħuṋ {رُوْحٌ} “soul,” nafsu {نَفْسٌ} “soul,” dȃruṋ {دارٌ} “home,” ṭarȋquṋ {طَرِيْقٌ} “way,” biʔruṋ {بِئْرٌ} “well,” qidruṋ {قِدْرٌ} “pot,” raħaṋ {رَحًى} “millstone,” ʕaṣaṋ {عَصًا} “stick,” faʔsuṋ {فَأْسٌ} “axe,” sikkȋnuṋ {سِكِّيْنٌ} “knife,” dirʕuṋ {دِرْعٌ} “coat of mail,” kaʔsuṋ {كَأْسٌ} “cup,” sȗquṋ {سُوْقٌ} “market,” ħarbuṋ {حَرْبٌ} “war,” ħȃluṋ {حالٌ} “state, condition,” fulkuṋ {فُلْكٌ} “ship (ark).”

3. Adjective classes

With regard to gender, adjectives can be classified in three classes.

Class Feminine
Masculine
STEM–a⋅tuṋ STEMuṋ
STEMawu

STEMayu

STEM–ȃnu
STEMȃwu ʔa–STEM–u

 

Following are examples of the three classes.

Meaning Feminine Masculine
beautiful, nice ħasana·tuṋ حَسَنةٌ ħasanuṋ
حَسَنٌ
thirsty *ʕaṭšayu > ʕaṭša·y عَطْشَى ʕaṭšȃnu عَطْشانُ
red *ħamrȃwu > ħamrȃʔu حَمْراءُ ʔaħmaru أَحْمَرُ

Only the first class is productive, i.e. it is possible to coin new adjectives for this class.

The second class was unstable already in CA. Some speakers tended to assimilate it to the first class by using the following modified patterns:

Class Feminine
Masculine
Ⅱ > Ⅰ STEMȃn–a⋅tuṋ STEM–ȃn–uṋ

So, for example, instead of ʕaṭšȃnu {عَطْشانُ} & ʕaṭša·y {عَطْشَى} they said ʕaṭšȃnu {عَطْشانٌ} & ʕaṭšȃna⋅tuṋ {عَطْشانةٌ} .

In the modern vernaculars the second class has disappeared. It has been completely assimilated to the first class. For example, in Aleppo Arabic there is masculine ʕaṭšān and feminine ʕaṭšāne < *ʕaṭšāna.

The third class is stable. It still survives in the modern vernaculars, e.g. in Aleppo ʔaħmar (masc.) and ħamra (fem.). However, this is a closed class. It is not possible to add new adjectives to it.

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