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Camel in the desert

Collective nouns in Arabic: Do you use the same word for camels and a camel?

Collective nouns, plurals and singular units are tricky in Arabic. What are the correct patterns, are they masculine or feminine and should we treat them as singular or plural? An overview

Published: September 24, 2023

The Arabic plural is a tricky thing. In many textbooks and dictionaries, the subtleties of the different patterns are lost, which is a shame because depending on which plural form a speaker or writer uses, they are naturally expressing something with that form. Arabic words often have multiple plural forms. There are also special collective forms, which we will look at in more detail in this article.

Arabic plural forms – an overview

Note: You can skip this if you have passed the beginner level and go to number 2.

In Arabic, we have intact/sound plurals (الْجَمْعُ السَّالِمُ) and broken plurals (جَمْعُ التَّكْسَيرِ).

Sound plural forms

Sound plurals are easy to form and do not pose any grammatical problems. The main part of the noun remains untouched, hence the name “sound/intact”. To create the plural, we just add a few letters. There are masculine (جَمْعُ الْمُؤنَّثِ السّالِمُ) and feminine (جَمْعُ الْمُذَكَّرِ السّالِمُ) forms. The masculine forms are used almost exclusively for male people. The feminine forms are used for people and things.

Masculine form

Example: teacher m. (مُدَرِّسٌ)

CASESOUND MASCULINE PLURAL
nominative (حالةُ الرَّفْعِ)مُدَرِّسُونَ
genitive (حالةُ الْجَرِّ) and accusative (حالةُ النَّصْبِ)مُدَرِّسِينَ
In sound masculine plural forms, the و of the ending ونَ changes into ي resulting in ينَ

Feminine form

Example: teacher f. (مُدَرِّسةٌ)

CASESOUND
nominative (حالةُ الرَّفْعِ)مُدَرِّساتٌ
genitive (حالةُ الْجَرِّ) and accusative (حالةُ النَّصْبِ)مُدَرِّساتٍ
Sound feminine plural forms look the same in all cases – but the case endings are different. Watch out: The accusative case is “-in” which can be confusing.

As for the broken plurals, Arabic has more than thirty different patterns. They can be divided into the following categories:

Categories of broken plural in Arabic

  1. Minor plural (جَمْعُ الْقِلّةِ): letter (حَرْفٌ) and letters (أَحْرُف). Only for 3 to 10
  2. Major plural (جَمْعُ الْكَثْرةِ): letter (حَرْفٌ) and letters (حُرُوفٌ)
  3. Ultimate plural (مُنْتَهى الْجُمُعوعِ): mosque (مَسْجِدٌ) and mosques (مَساجِدُ); treaty (مِيثاقٌ) and treaties (مَواثيقُ). Such forms cannot be pluralized any further. Such patterns are diptotes (مَمْنُوعٌ مِن الصَّرْفِ).
  4. Plural of the plural (جَمْعُ الْجَمْعِ): house (بَيْنٌ) and houses (بُيُوتٌ) ➡ (row/set of) houses (بُيوتاتٌ). The plural itself is put into a plural to multiply the units. Therefore, we are dealing with at least 9 units (3 times 3) when we see such a form.
  5. Plural of proper nouns (الْجُمُوعُ الْأُخْرَى): Zaynab (زَيْنَبُ) and “Zaynabs” (يَيْنَباتُ)
  6. Plural of the composite nouns (جَمْعُ الْمُرَكَّباتِ): Abdallah (عَبْدُ اللهِ) and “Abdallahs” (ذَوُو عَبْدِ اللهِ). These are rare and special forms.
  7. Noun of collectivity/collective noun (اِسْمُ الْجَمْعِ): It indicates groups and does not have a singular form of the same root. Army (جَيْشٌ) – the singular form is soldier (جُنْدِيٌّ). But you can create the plural of a collective noun, e.g., armies (جُيُوش) Some words which belong into this category do not have a singular form of the same word/root (in Western grammar books: Singulativ – Kollektiv). For example: women (نِساءٌ) – the singular woman is اِمْرَأةٌ.
  8. Plural noun of genus (اِسْمُ الْجِنْسِ الْجَمْعِيِّ): apples/the apple (تُفّاحٌ) and an apple (تُفّاحةٌ); Arabs (عَرَبٌ) and an Arab m. (عَرَبِيٌّ). Such forms indicate the meaning of the plural as well as its genus. Its singular form is distinguished by the ending in ة or ياءُ النِّسْبةِ. In various Western grammar books, the Latin terms nomen unitatis (single unit) and nomen generis (plural) are used.

    What does genus mean here? It is a class, kind, or group characterized by common characteristics. It is like a general category. For example, there are many different kinds of apples, mammals, or fish.

➜ We are now going to focus on numbers 7 and 8.

A camel, camels and herds of camels

Arabic knows very many words for camels (dromedaries). There are terms for the camel at different stages of growth, many descriptions based on physical characteristics, and as many metaphors, but only four terms are really specific:

  • إبِلٌ: indicates the species and the group = collective noun. The word إبِلٌ is feminine in Arabic (see below).
  • بَعِيرٌ: the individual camel, regardless of sex
  • ناقةٌ: the female camel
  • جَمَلٌ: the male camel (sometimes, especially in dialects, used equally with إبِل for the species)

It's quite complicated. We now have to find a solution if we want to talk specifically about just one camel and about camels.

Let's dig deeper and check the word إبِلٌ in depth.

The collective noun (اِسْمُ الْجَمْعِ) for camel is إبِلٌ. Why did we say above that it is considered feminine in Arabic? Because a quasi-plural noun that has no proper singular is necessarily feminine in when not applied to humans. Another indication for the feminine gender is that in the diminutive form, إبِلٌ gets a ة, which results in أُبَيْلةٌ (there are many discussions about the diminutive form and what it actually applies to). But the most important thing to remember is that إبِلٌ does not have a singular form (لا مُفْرَدَ لَهُ مِن لَفْظِهِ).

What does that practically mean? When you use an adjective with إبِلٌ, you need the feminine form because adjectives need agreement. The same is true for verbs. For example: the smaller camels (الْإِبِلُ الصُّغْرَى). Small is ٌصَغِير in the masculine form and صَغِيرةٌ in the feminine form. Let's build the so-called form (comparative/superlative): smaller/smallest. For the masculine form, we get أَصْغَر and for the feminine, صُغْرَى.

So when we specifically mean one camel, what do we do? We have to use other words. A female camel is ناقةٌ and a male camel is فَحْلٌ which basically means stud.

It is getting even more complicated. There is a plural form of the collective noun which is آبال, rarely أَبِيل. So, what does this form express? The plural can be interpreted as herds of camels. That is similar to أَبْقارٌ or أَغْنامٌ which mean flocks of goats (or sheep) and herds of bulls or cows.

Is a dual form of إبِلٌ possible? Yes, it is! إِبْلانِ means two herds of camels. Some scholars have suggested that it may also express two hundreds of camels.

Remark: In ancient times, the word إبِلٌ was sometimes used as a synonym for money (مالٌ) or as a metaphor for rain clouds.

Collectives and single units: an analysis

Arabic plural forms of collective nouns for people and animals (and things) are quite tricky. It depends on the following things: Are we creating the plural of a unit (a/one fish) or of the collective (fishes)?

Then we have to look at what we do with words that describe a single unit but do not express a collective. And we need to look at words that are the other way around: words that describe a collective but cannot express a single unit.

termtranslationsingulardualplural
اِسْمُ الْجِنْسِ الْجَمْعِيِّfishسَمَكٌسُمُوكٌ
اِسْمُ الْجِنْسِa/one fishسَمَكَةٌسَمَكتانِسَمَكاتٌ
اِسْمُ الْجَمْعِhorsesخَيْلٌخُيُولٌ
اِسْمُ الْجَمْعِ (single unit, but of different root)a/one horseفَرَسٌفَرَسانِأَفْراسٌ
The difference between Arabic collective nouns and singular units

Differences between اِسْمُ الْجِنْسِ and اِسْمُ الْجَمْعِ

Characteristics of the اِسْمُ الْجِنْسِ

We can usually build the single unit from the same word.

  • Has mostly NOTHING to do with people
  • It is used to generalize the genus (a kind of logical generality)
  • No special patterns
  • Never has the feminine ending
  • But watch out: A single unit does have the ending ة

Characteristics of the اِسْمُ الْجَمْعِ

A collective refers to a group of individuals that is linguistically conceived as a unit. An individual from the group is represented by another word (from the same or a different root).

  • Almost exclusively words that refer to people or groups of animals
  • Group term focuses more on the quantitative size. Remark: According to the famous Mubarrad (مبرد), nouns in this group can be counted if they are preceded by a qualifier, such as ثلاثون من الإبل (thirty camels).
  • The single unit is not related to the word, but is either a word of a different pattern or even an entirely different word of a different Arabic root.
  • These words often have a feminine ending.
  • Typical patterns: Especially فَعْلٌ and فَعَّلةٌ; also the feminine form of active participles (اِسْمُ الْفاعِلِ) and feminine Nisba endings (نسبة).

The question of agreement: singular or plural?

Once we have solved the question of the right word, a few grammatical subtleties await us. Which form do you use for the verb, an adjective, or a pronoun? Rule of thumb: Usually use the singular form.

Arabicmeaningagreement in
SINGULAR
agreement in
PLURAL
شَعْبpeopleX
قَوْمpeopleX
فِرْقةgroupX
مَجْمُوعةgroupXX
فَرِيقgroupXX
جُمْهُورpublicXX
جَيْشarmyX
شُرْطةpoliceX
Singular or plural? If you are not certain, use the singular (this is a general rule in Arabic).

Some general remarks and guidelines about agreement

  • The agreement with collective nouns denoting non-humans is usually in the singular, while the agreement with collective nouns denoting humans is in the plural.
  • Names of peoples, countries and ethnic groups, e.g., Copts (قِبْط): The agreement with these nouns can be singular or plural.

Collective nouns in English

Words such as team, family, police, band, army, forest are collective nouns in English.

I recently had a discussion about what is correct in English: “The band is playing” or “The band are playing”?

Both are correct, but the usage depends on whether you are using British English or American English.

In British English, collective nouns like band can take either a singular or plural verb, depending on whether the emphasis is on the group as a whole or on the individual members of the group. If you want to emphasize that the band is playing as a unit, you would say, “The band is playing. However, if you would like to emphasize that the individual members of the band are playing, you would say, “The band are playing.

In American English, collective nouns usually take a singular verb. So in American English, you would say “The band is playing” whether you want to emphasize the group as a whole or the individual members.

Collective nouns are also difficult in English (for non-native speakers). Sometimes the grammar (suggesting singular forms) and what is actually meant (plural forms) occur in the same sentence. For example: The family wants to eat maqluba (مقلوبة), so they look for recipes on the Internet.

Sometimes you need to have a good feel for the language to understand what is meant. When adjectives appear with collective nouns, it is not always clear what they are referring to. If you say a big family in English, the adjective big means that the number of people, the group, is large – not that the individual members are fat. On the other hand, when you say a beautiful family, you mean that the members of the family are good-looking (unless you mean it in a sarcastic sense). So beautiful then refers to all the members constituting a beautiful unit.

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