Foreign forces shape many parts of any language, especially vocabulary and alphabet. But that’s surface level similarity.
Grammar is where true similarities and contrasts between languages are made clear. It is the core of every language, inherited from its parents in the language family.
We will examine two core features of grammar that set Arabic apart from English, and reflects its distant linguistic heritage.
Besides the usual singular and plural forms, Arabic has the dual form. Singular for one person or thing, plural for three or more, and dual for two.
Arabic has pronouns and verb conjugations for each of them. Then, there are versions for both genders. This results in 14 pronouns total!
|3rd Person||He : هُوَ||They both : هُمَا||They : هُم||Masc.|
|3rd Person||She : هِيَ||They both : هُمَا||They : هُنَّ||Fem.|
|2nd Person||You : أَنْتَ||You both : أَنْتُمَا||You all : أَنْتُم||Masc.|
|2nd Person||You : أَنْتِ||You both : أَنْتُمَا||You all : أَنْتُنَّ||Fem.|
|1st Person||We : نَحْنُ||We: نَحْنُ||Me: أَنَا||-|
All these pronouns might be overwhelming at first glance… but don’t worry! Many of them repeat and the rest follow clear logic. (For example, dual is used the least out of the three, so we can use the same pronoun for it across masculine and feminine genders.)
But the bigger question: why have so many pronouns anyway?
When thinking about the features of a language, especially grammar, it can be easy to say “that’s just how it is.” But that’s not good enough; for something to be how it is, there must be a reason. If we can’t find one, we have to look harder!
In this case, having a dual form makes sense because pairs occur so often in life.
Whether due to body parts, marriage, or the reality of the universe in general1, we find pairs everywhere. Thus we lose a lot of meaning and precision if we mix the dual with all other plurals. (And to get that precision back in English, we end up adding the word “both” as seen in the table above.)
Just like that, we can reflect on and find the reasoning for how grammatical systems work.
And we can investigate things in reverse too, by looking at what drives the decision to not include certain features in a language. For example, why is there no neutral gender in Arabic grammar?
No Neutral Gender
There are no gender neutral words in Arabic. Every word is either masculine or feminine in grammar. Thus the word sun ( شمس ) is considered feminine while the moon ( قمر ) is masculine! There is also no gender neutral pronoun “it.”
The benefit here is the prioritization of humans in the language.
Humans are male and female, so it makes sense for our languages to reflect that. On the other hand, most gender neutral things are non-living. They are not the users or audience of language. So why should our language cater to them with a dedicated gender?
Instead, by forcing genderless things like the Sun to be one of two grammatical genders, we can avoid the hassle of a third gender. A small compromise to make the language much simpler!
Just like this, we can find the benefits in every part of Arabic grammar, from the most fundamental systems to rules that are rarely used.
This article is part of the Welcome to Arabic series, exploring Arabic with fresh eyes.
Allah says, “and We created pairs of all things so that you [people] might take note.” Surah Yasin 36 ↩︎