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Broken plural

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Title: Broken plural  
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Subject: Biblical Hebrew, Ahvaz, Semitic linguistics, Moroccan dirham, Persian nouns
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Broken plural

In linguistics, a broken plural (or internal plural) is an irregular plural form of a noun or adjective found in the Semitic languages and other Afroasiatic languages such as Berber. Broken plurals are formed by changing the pattern of consonants and vowels inside the singular form. They contrast with sound plurals (or external plurals), which are formed by adding a suffix. It is distinct from Germanic umlaut, a form of vowel mutation found in Germanic languages.

There have been a variety of theoretical approaches to understanding these processes and varied attempts to produce systems or rules that can systematize these plural forms.[1]

While the phenomenon is known from several Semitic languages, nowhere has it become as productive as in Arabic.


  • Arabic 1
    • Example 1.1
    • Patterns in Arabic 1.2
  • Hebrew 2
  • Ge'ez (Ethiopic) 3
  • See also 4
  • References 5
  • External links 6


In Arabic, the regular way of making a plural for a masculine noun is adding the suffix -ūn (for the nominative) or -īn (for the accusative and genitive) at the end. For feminine nouns, the regular way is to add the suffix -āt. However, not all plurals follow these simple rules. One class of nouns in both spoken and written Arabic produce plurals by changing the pattern of vowels inside the word, sometimes also with the addition of a prefix or suffix. This system is not fully regular, and it is used mainly for masculine non-human nouns. Human nouns are pluralized regularly or irregularly.

Broken plurals are known as jam‘ taksīr (جَمع تَكسير, literally "plural of breaking") in Arabic grammar. These plurals constitute one of the most unusual aspects of the language, given the very strong and highly detailed grammar and derivation rules that govern the written language. Broken plurals can also be found in languages that have borrowed many words from Arabic, for instance Persian, Pashto, Turkish, Kurdish, Azerbaijani and Urdu, and sometimes exist in both a broken plural Arabic form and a local, adapted plural, e.g. in Pashto where the word for purpose (مطلب) can be pluralised in either its Arabic form مطالب for more formal, High Pashto, or the according to Pashto rules of plural as مطلبونه in everyday speech.

In Persian this kind of plural is called jameh mokassar (جَمِع مُکَسَر, literally "broken plural").

Full knowledge of these plurals can come only with extended exposure to the language, though a few rules can be noted.

A statistical analysis of a list of the 3000 most frequent Arabic words shows that 978 (59%) of the 1670 most frequent nominal forms take a sound plural, while the remaining 692 (41%) take a broken plural.[2] Another estimate of all existing nominal forms gives over 90,000 forms with a sounds plural and just 9540 with a broken one.[2]


Semitic languages typically form triconsonantal roots, forming a "grid" into which vowels may be inserted without affecting the basic root.

Here are a few examples; note that the commonality is in the root consonants (capitalized), not the vowels.

  • KiTāB كِتَاب "book" → KuTuB كُتُب "books"
  • KāTiB كَاتِب "writer, scribe" → KuTTāB كُتَّاب "writers, scribes"
  • maKTūB مَكْتُوْب "letter" → maKāTīB مَكَاتِيْب "letters"
  • maKTaB مَكَتَب "desk, office" → maKāTiB مَكَاتِب "offices"
note: these four words all have a common word root, K-T-B ك – ت – ب "to write"

Patterns in Arabic

Other examples
CiCāC CuCuC كتاب kitāb (book) كتب kutub (books)
CaCīCa سفينة safīna (ship) سفن sufun (ships) juzur (islands),
mudun (cities)
CaCīC سبيل sabīl (path) سبل subul (paths)
CuCCa CuCaC غرفة ġurfa (room) غرف ġuraf (rooms)
CaCCa شقة šaqqa (apartment) شقق šuqaq (apartment)
CiCC CiCaC قط qiṭṭ (cat) قطط qiṭaṭ (cats)
CaCC CuCūC قلب qalb (heart) قلوب qulūb (hearts) funūn (arts), buyūt (houses)
judūd (grandfathers)
CiCC علم ʻilm (science) علوم ʻulūm (sciences)
CuCC جحر juḥr (hole) جحور juḥūr (holes)
CaCC CiCāC كلب kalb (dog) كلاب kilāb (dogs)
CaCaC جمل jamal (camel) جمال jimāl (camels)
CiCC ظل ẓill (shadow) ظلال ẓilāl (shadows)
CuCC رمح rumḥ (spear) رماح rimāḥ (spears)
CaCuC رجل rajul (man) رجال rijāl (men)
CaCC ʼaCCāC يوم yawm (day) أيام ʼayyām (days) ʼarbāb (masters)
ʼajdād (grandfathers)
CiCC حلم ḥilm (prudence) أحلام ʼaḥlām (meaning minds)
CuCC ربع rubʻ (quarter) أرباع ʼarbāʻ (quarters) ʼaʻmāq (deeps)
CaCaC سبب sabab (cause) أسباب ʼasbāb (causes) ʼawlād (boys),
ʼaqlām (pens)
CaCaCa ورقة waraqa (paper) أوراق ʼawrāq (papers) ʼašjār (trees)
CaCūC ʼaCCiCah عمود ʻamūd (pole) أعمدة ʼaʻmidah (poles) Ends with taʼ marbutah
CaCīC ʼaCCiCāʼ صديق ṣadīq (friend) أصدقاء ʼaṣdiqāʼ (friends)
CaCīC CuCaCā' سعيد saʻīd (happy) سعداء suʻadāʼ(happy) wuzarāʼ (ministers) mostly for adjectives and occupational nouns
CāCiC CuC2C2āC كاتب kātib (writer) كتاب kuttāb (writers) ṭullāb (students)
sukkān (residents)
Gemination of the second root; mostly for the active participle of Form I verbs
CāCiCa CawāCiC قائمة qāʼima (list) قوائم qawāʼim (lists) bawārij (battleships)
CāCūC CawāCīC صاروخ ṣārūḫ (rocket) صواريخ ṣawārīḫ (rockets) ḥawāsīb (computers)
CiCāCa CaCāʼiC رسالة risāla (message) رسائل rasāʼil (messages)
CaCīCa جزيرة jazīra (island) جزائر jazāʼir (islands) haqāʼib (suitcases),
daqāʼiq (minutes)
CaCCaC CaCāCiC دفتر daftar (notebook) دفاتر dafātir (notebooks) applies to all four-literal nouns with short second vowel
CuCCuC فندق funduq (hotel) فنادق fanādiq (hotels)
maCCaC maCāCiC ملبس malbas (apparel) ملابس malābis (apparels) makātib (offices) Subcase of previous, with m as first literal
maCCiC مسجد masjid (mosque) مساجد masājid (mosques) manāzil (houses)
miCCaCa منطقة minṭaqa (area) مناطق manāṭiq (areas)
CvCC(ā/ī/ū)C CaCāCīC صندوق ṣandūq (box) صناديق ṣanādīq (boxes) applies to all four-literal nouns with long second vowel
miCCāC maCāCīC مفتاح miftāḥ (key) مفاتيح mafātīḥ (keys) Subcase of previous, with m as first literal
maCCūC مكتوب maktūb (message) مكاتيب makātīb (messages)


In Hebrew, though all plurals must take either the sound masculine (-im ים-) or feminine (-ot ות-) plural suffixes, the historical stem alternations of the so-called segolate or consonant-cluster nouns between CVCC in the singular and CVCaC in the plural have often been compared to broken plural forms in other Semitic languages. Thus the form malkī מלכי "my king" in the singular is opposed to məlaxīm מלכים "kings" in the plural.[3]

In addition, there are many other cases where historical sound changes have resulted in stem allomorphy between singular and plural forms in Hebrew (or between absolute state and construct state, or between forms with pronominal suffixes and unsuffixed forms etc.), though such alternations do not operate according to general templates accommodating root consonants, and so are not usually considered to be true broken plurals by linguists.[4]

Ge'ez (Ethiopic)

Broken plurals were used in some Ethiopic nouns. Examples include ˁanbässa 'lion' with ˁanabəst 'lions', kokäb 'star' with kwakəbt 'stars', ganen 'demon' with aganənt 'demons', and hagar 'region' with ˀahgur 'regions'.[5] Some of these broken plurals are used in Amharic today, but generally seen as archaic.

See also


  1. ^ Robert R. Ratcliffe. 1998. The “Broken” Plural Problem in Arabic and Comparative Semitic: Allomorphy and analogy in non-concatenative morphology. John Benjamins.
  2. ^ a b Boudelaa, Sami; Gaskell, M. Gareth (21 September 2010). "A re-examination of the default system for Arabic plurals". Language and Cognitive Processes 17 (3): 321–343.  
  3. ^ "Ge'ez (Axum)" by Gene Gragg in The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the World's Ancient Languages edited by Roger D. Woodard (2004) ISBN 0-521-56256-2, p. 440.
  4. ^ "Hebrew" by P. Kyle McCarter Jr. in The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the World's Ancient Languages edited by Roger D. Woodard (2004) ISBN 0-521-56256-2, p. 342.
  5. ^ pp. 64, 280, 198, 216. Wolf Leslau. 1991. Comparative Dictionary of Ge'ez (Classical Ethiopia). Wiesbaden: Harrasowitz.

External links

  • Pattern-and-root inflectional morphology: the Arabic broken plural
  • The Arabic Noun System Generation
  • A detailed account of plurality in Arabic
  • On the way to an algorithm for forming broken plurals in Arabic
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