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What does nunation express in Arabic?

Nunation (تنوين) in Arabic is used when there is no definite article ال. But that is only half of the truth. The idea is much deeper.

Last updated: August 22, 2021

This article is part two of a two parts series. In case you missed part one, click here.

In the second part, we will dig deeper and see what tanween acutally expresses.

Some basic ideas

Grammarians treat nunation/tanween (تنوين) is as an indefinite article (English: a or an) or as a marker of indetermination. But the idea is much deeper. In this article, we will see why the first part of a إِضافة does not get nunation although it does not have a definite article.

Some scholars have suggested that the function of the nuna­tion is to mark the absence of the article ال. In English, we use words to mark in­definiteness (a or an). In Arabic, we don’t use words; we use diacritical marks: nunation. The value of the Nūn, however, is not entirely clear.

What Sibawayhi says about nunation

For Sībawayhi nunation (تَنْوِينٌ) is the sign that the noun has “the quality of being firmly established” which he calls تَمَكُّنٌ or أَمْكَنِيّةٌ.

Practically speaking, this means that the Arabic noun may receive the entire range of case inflections which Sībawayhi calls تَصَرُّفٌ (unre­stricted circulation, free movement).

As a rule, we can say that the more the noun is kept away from resembling a particle (حَرْفٌ) or verb (فِعْلٌ) regarding form and structure, the more it is compatible with the signs of the noun (مُتَمَكِّنٌ فِي الْاِسْمِيّةِ).

For Sībawayhi, marking indefiniteness was only a secondary func­tion of nunation. Why? In Arabic, we do have definite nouns that take nuna­tion. Proper nouns are a good exam­ple of that (زَيْدٌ, “Za­ydun”).

But we also have indefinite nouns without nuna­tion (diptotes): أَسْوَدُ (black) or مَساجِدُ which is the plural of mosque. Since the primary function of nunation is perhaps not the marking of in­definiteness, you can also have nunation in proper names like Muham­mad (مُحَمَّدٌ) or Zayd.

The noun Zayd is very well established (مُتَمَكِّنٌ أَمْكَنُ) as a noun; its case ending changes according to its position in the sentence. It accepts nunation, and it accepts all the signs of declension (cases).

Therefore, the noun زَيْدٌ is very pure (أَصالةُ الْكَلِمةِ فِي مُناسَبةِ عَلاماتِ الْاِسْمِيّةِ). For example, it doesn’t resemble a verb nor a particle.

What about the noun أَسْوَدُ? If we look at the form of أَسْوَدُ, it resem­bles a verb, and verbs are heavier than nouns. We say that it is not fully compatible with the full range of the signs of nouns (مُتَمَكِّنٌ غَيْرُ أَمْكَنَ) and thus can only receive and carry some of them. We therefore call it a diptote (مَمْنُوعٌ مِن الصَّرْفِ).

Why does the first part of a Idafa not get nunation?

Because the word is specified (further determined) by the following word and thus loses its pure indefiniteness and sign for it (= nunati­on/تَنْوِينٌ).

The إِضافةٌ-construction can show various relationships:

  • Possession (A of B): the book of the teacher (كِتابُ الْمُدَرِّسِ).
  • Being part of something: a piece of meat (قِطْعةُ لَحْمٍ). However, you usually use مِن in such situations (قِطْعةٌ مِن لَحْمٍ).
  • Belonging to a time: the rain in summer (مَطَرُ الصَّيْفِ); or space: the road to Syria (طَرِيقُ الشّامِ).
  • Denoting the material from which something is made: a chair made of wood = a wooden chair (كُرْسِيُّ خَشَبٍ). However, you usu­ally use the preposition مِن in such situations (كُرْسِيٌّ مِن خَشَبٍ)

So, why does the first word lose the nunation (تَنْوِينٌ) although it doesn’t have the definite article?

Because it is more determined, better described (تَخْصِيصٌ) by the word that follows which makes it not completely undefined/indefinite anymore. When this is the situation, the اِسْمٌ gets shortened in pronunciation by getting rid of the “n”-so­und:

  1. تَنْوِينٌ (= nunation: “-un”, “-an”, “-in”). In other words, it lo­ses the sign of true indefiniteness. We use the same vowels (mark­ers) that we also use for definite words.
  2. You delete the endings نِ (dual) or نَ (sound masculine plural). By getting rid of them, the speaker can quickly pass on to the deter­mining word, which indicates the relation between the two words.

picture credit: Markus Spiske

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What is the idea behind nunation (tanween) in Arabic?

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