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What is the idea of tanween (تنوين) in Arabic?

Nunation (تنوين) can tell you something about the character and personality of a word. It is a deep idea developed by the first Arab grammarians.

Last updated: 10 months ago

Nunation or Tanwīn (تَنْوِينٌ) stands for an extra نْ at the end of a noun (اِسْمٌ), which you pronounce (لَفْظًا) but do not write (لا خَطًّا). It practically means that you add a pronounced “n”-ending to an indefi­nite noun if you mark it with case endings.

In this article, we will have a closer look about the origin and idea of the term nunation. In a second article, we will check what nunation actually expresses.

The term tanween

The term تَنْوِينٌ is the مَصْدَرٌ of the يُنَوِّنُ – نَوَّنَ (R2=و) denot­ing adding Nun(-ation) to a noun. At the early stages of Arabic, it indi­cated the nasalization of the final vowel of the word in the case ending of the noun.

Therefore, تَنْوِينٌ is nothing but an extra ن without a vowel (نُونٌ زائِدةٌ ساكِنةٌ) at the end of a word. In the early stages of Arabic, Tanwīn was not primarily a marker of indefiniteness (a; an) which ex­plains why it is found on proper names like مُحَمَّدٌ (Muhammad-un). Instead, it simply marked the absence of the definite article. The sign of the Nunation is the doubling of the relevant vowel sign.

Early application of tanween

Let's see an example: a book (كِتابٌ), pronounced “kitābun“.

Schol­ars disagree whether the word, in early stages of Arabic, used to be written like this: كِتابُنْ. In other ancient , the let­ter Mīm had been used for a similar purpose. Nevertheless, the form with the writ­ten ن helps us to understand what nunation means: adding a نُونٌ. In Classical Arabic, such نُونٌ can't be expressed by the let­ter ن of the al­phabet. In­stead, we use diacritical signs such as ٌ_.

What is the difference between nunation (تَنْوِينٌ) and the letter نُونٌ?

  • تَنْوِينٌ: It may occur at the final position of a noun depending on the function of the word. If you stop at the word, you don't pro­nounce it. E.g.: كِتابٌ – كِتابْ. You pronounce it “kitābun” or “kitāb”.
  • نُونٌ: If you see the letter ن in the basic form of a noun (singular), it is a root letter. You can't get rid of it. If you stop at the end of the word, you have to say the ن. For example: مُؤْمِنٌ – مُؤْمِنْ. You pro­nounce it “mu'minun” or “mu'min”.

The concept and value of the Nūn in the application of the Tanwīn is deeply rooted in the fields of syntax and morphology. To determine whether a noun gets nunation or not, we have to look at the characterist­ics of a word, its shape, gen­der, and pattern.

The Sīb­awayhi examined many words and organized them hierar­chically. He used the terms light and heavy.

Lighter words

Lighter words (أَخَفُّ) are better established (أَشَدُّ تَمَكُّنٍ) and usually were first. By first, we mean that it is the origin and from that source other forms were derived. Let's see what Sībawayhi found out.

  1. The lighter form is usually the shorter one.

This means that…

  • …the indefinite is lighter than the definite;
  • …the masculine is lighter than the feminine. In other words, the feminine form is heavier than the masculine, because it is de­rived from the masculine form. We could also say that the mas­culine form comes first.

2. The noun is lighter than the verb because a verb must have a noun with it, while a noun does not necessarily need a verb.

In the words of Sīb­awayhi: “Can't you see that the verb needs the noun, without which there wouldn't be an utterance, whereas the noun can do without the verb?”1

Practically speaking, this means that a tran­sitive verb needs an ob­ject. This makes the verb heavier than the noun, even if that heaviness is just the result of an insertion. Furthermore, verbs are heavier, mainly because they are derived from nouns.

Now, what about HEAVY words?

Heavier words

  • Verbs have heavy endings and do not carry nunation be­cause they are heavier than nouns.
  • Heavy words don't get a كَسْرةٌ in the genitive case. Words such as red (أَحْمَرُ) are considered heavy by the Arabs, which is why they have a فَتْحةٌ (“-a”) in the genitive case.
  • Adjectives like أَحْمَرُ, although they are nouns (اِسْمٌ) in Ara­bic, are heavy because they resemble a verb in the – and verbs, in the logic of Sībawayhi, are heav­ier than nouns.

Hierarchy of Arabic words

We can derive the following hierarchy:

Hierarchy in Arabic
(c) Arabic for Nerds 2, p. 88

In other words, when you drop the تَنْوِينٌ, this was a sign for Bedouins in an­cient times that a word be­comes heavier.

But Sībawayhi did not only analyze forms and gender to deter­mine whether a word is light or heavy. He also had a look at the sounds (phonological sense).

  • The letter ي is lighter and more frequent than the و.
  • The marker of the genitive case (كَسْرةٌ) is lighter for the Arabs than the sound of the nominative (ضَمّةٌ) case.

Three take-aways

Okay, but what should we make out of that? What does light and heavy tell us? Sībawayhi concluded that…

  • …the indefinite form is more declinable (أَشَدُّ تَمَكُّنٍ) than the definite. Most words are declinable when indefinite.
  • …the singular is more declinable than the plural. This ex­plains why some plural patterns are diptotes (مَمْنُوعٌ مِن الصَّرْفِ) and cannot get تَنْوِينٌ when indefi­nite. Such plural forms follow pat­terns that are exclu­sively used for plurals and could not be used for singular pat­terns! E.g., keys (مَفاتِيحُ).
  • …the masculine is more declinable than the feminine because تَنْوِينٌ is the sign of the more declinable. Why is this im­portant? When you deal with diptotes (مَمْنُوعٌ مِن الصَّرْفِ), you will find out that feminine nouns are more often dip­totes than mas­culine.

In a forthcoming article, we will check what nunation actually expresses.

  1. أَلَا تَرَى أَنَّ الْفِعْلَ لَا بُدَّ لَهُ مِنَ الِاسْمِ وَإِلَّا لَمْ يَكُنْ كَلَامًا وَالِاسْمُ قَدْ يَسْتَغْنِي عَنْ الْفِعْلِ ↩︎
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The Niqabi Coder Mum
The Niqabi Coder Mum
2 years ago

Very very interesting! waiting for the next part. Incidentally what resources do you prefer/recommend for studying Sībawayhi’s works?

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