What is this Tutorial About?
Particles in the Arabic language do not have gender. Verbs do, but their gender is based on that of their subjects, and their subjects are, of course, nouns. So, in reality, nouns are the only part of speech that have any gender in Arabic.
The grammatical gender of nouns is one of two: a noun may be masculine or it may be feminine, and there is no neutral option. Moreover, masculinity is the default grammatical gender and a word does not have to have anything special in order to reflect this. Femininity, on the other hand, is not default and a noun would have to have something special to reflect this gender. Therefore, this tutorial discusses grammatical femininity in Arabic nouns.
Inflecting for Femininity
A noun is masculine by default. It must have one of four signs in order for it to be considered feminine. Which nouns receive one of these four signs (and are therefore feminine) and which do not receive any of these signs (and are therefore left masculine) is entirely coincidental. There is no rule that dictates whether a noun will be masculine or feminine; it is entirely based on coinage. Yes, there are clues such as things that are conceptually masculine will most likely be grammatically masculine as well – the word ‘man’ (رجل) is masculine and the word ‘woman’ (امرأة) is feminine.
This applies to static nouns (جامد) and gerunds (مصدر). Derived nouns (مشتق), on the other hand, usually have the capability to be masculine sometimes and feminine other times; they toggle depending on the grammatical requirements. For instance, the derived noun قاض is masculine but it has a feminine form قاضية as well.
The four signs of femininity are as follows. Below the list is a table with some examples.
1. a round Taa (ة) at the end of the noun
o if it is written ة, it is called تاء مدوَّنة
o it if is written ـة, it is called تاء مربوطة
2. an الف مقصورة at the end of the noun
3. an الف ممدودة at the end of the noun
4. an assumed round Taa at the end of the noun
Hamza; a man’s name
Fatima; a woman’s name
The round Taa is the most common sign of femininity. And notice that it can be appended to masculine participles, thus rendering them feminine, as in قاض and قاضية. You can learn more about this letter from our sister site’s alphabet tutorial entitled The Last 4 Letters of the Alphabet.
The الف مقصورة and the الف ممدودة are signs of femininity provided that they are extra. In the word مصطفى, for instance, the ى at the end of the noun is not extra; it is part of the base letters. Therefore, the word مصطفى is not feminine. The word عليى, on the other hand, is feminine because its ى is extra. You can learn more about the الف مقصورة from The Last 4 Letters of the Alphabet.
Finally, the fourth sign of femininity is an assumed round-Taa. There are only a handful of words in the Arabic language that are feminine by means of an assumed sign – this type of femininity is termed مؤنث سماعي. The way we know that a word is feminine despite not having an explicit sign is because the round Taa appears in the word’s diminutive form. For example, the word شمس is feminine despite there not being a sign; we say there is an assumed round-Taa. The reason we know this word is feminine is because the diminutive form is شميسة (notice the Taa), and also because we find the Arabs describing this word using feminine adjectives and so forth.
femininity determined by rule
femininity determined by simply hearing it from the Arabs
The table below gives a few sample words that are feminine without having an explicit sign of femininity.
many body parts that come in pairs
eye (fem. even if used in one of its various other meanings)
Types of Femininity
There are two types of femininity: one where the feminine noun has a masculine counterpart among the living beings, and one where it does not. For example, ناقة (she-camel) is of the first type because its counterpart is a male-camel and a male-camel is both masculine and living. The word شمس, on the other hand, is of the second type because, although it has a counterpart – namely, the moon – and the moon is masculine, the moon is not alive.
femininity wherein the entity has a live, masculine counterpart
femininity wherein the entity does not have a live, masculine counterpart
Feminine nouns of the second type are usually given a lot of lenience when it comes to complying to gender correspondence. For example, if such a word is the subject of a verb, the verb need not be brought feminine. And the majority of cases where this happens is in relation to feminine gerunds because gerunds tend not to have live, masculine counterparts. One can say, for instance, اشتد كراهيتي إياه (my dislike of it intensified), where كراهية is a feminine gerund and yet the sentential verb is masculine.
The grammatical rules surrounding femininity are discussed in various subtopics of grammar. However, there is one rule regarding feminine nouns that is quite prolific and permeates all subtopics.
Non-human plurals are treated singular feminine in the vast majority of cases
What this rule says is that if you have a plural noun, and the entity to which the noun refers is not a human being, then this plural will be treated singular feminine. For example, the word ثعالب (foxes) is the plural of ثعلب which means ‘fox’. This word is masculine. But it refers to something that is not human. Consequently, it will be treated singular feminine. That means that it will be described using singular feminine adjectives, verbs for which it is the subject will be singular feminine, and so forth.