Triptotes, Diptotes, and Why Does it Matter?

Linguisticator logo

I've been working on completing the map of Modern Standard Arabic, the variety of Arabic used for official and literary purposes, as well as the news and journalism. It is effectively the language of the Qur'an, and many consider it so. While this may not be strictly accurate, it is so close to Classical Arabic that many confuse the two.

In mapping out MSA, I have encountered a number of challenges owing to the almost diglossic nature of many Arabic-speaking communities. Because no one really speaks MSA as a native language — yet many claim to be native speakers of “Arabic”, referring to MSA — many within the Arab world assume a greater familiarity with the language than they actually have. It's a bit like getting your average English speaker to teach the English of Shakespeare or the King James Bible. Passive comprehension is high, but active production does not always follow.

The nominal system of Arabic is relatively simple compared to other languages — or so it is explained and so I thought. Arabic has two distinctions of gender (masculine and feminine), three distinctions of number (singular, dual, and plural), and three distinctions of case (nominative, accusative, and genitive). Case marking has dropped out of all spoken dialects of Arabic and is not marked in writing of MSA. Here is what you might think the paradigm table of Arabic should look like:

Singular Masculine Feminine

Sadly, this is not at all what the table looks like. There are two main complicating factors:

  1. Nouns can be part of several different declensional patterns
  2. Different numbers can be part of different declensional patterns

The first point is the most important and more challenging; the second point makes perfect sense once the first has been clarified.

There are several declensional patterns governing how case marking appears on a noun. The most common is the triptote declension, but there are also diptotes, which are nouns that only mark two cases (in the indefinite). There is also a group of nouns called “the five nouns,” and some nouns which do not change at all. Depending on what grammar you look at there are some words which are “defective.” I have been pulling the thread and unravelling this mystery, as I have scarcely found an adequate treatment of the subject.

Fortunately, living in Cambridge and as an alumnus of the university, I have access to Cambridge's libraries. Digging through 1000 page grammars of MSA and cross referencing different sources on the Arabic nominal system, I have finally been able to make sense of the different declensional patterns. Since the differences between declensions are so slight and unmarked in the written language, and since many native speakers make mistakes in producing the correct patterns, the majority of grammars present a simplified version of the real declensional system.

MSA contains the following declensions:

  1. Triptote
  2. Diptote
  3. Defective ya
  4. Defective wa
  5. Indeclinable ya
  6. Indeclinable wa
  7. Invariable
  8. The five nouns
  9. Dual
  10. Sound plural masculine
  11. Sound plural feminine

Most of the time, defective and indeclinable declensions are grouped together. You'll notice from this list that some of the declensional patterns are for a specific number (dual or plural). This brings us to the second point of complexity. Nouns do not always follow the same declensional pattern for each distinction of number. For example, a noun may be triptote in the singular and diptote in the plural.

There are three classes of nouns in MSA: sound masculine, sound feminine, and broken. Sound masculine nouns always follow the sound plural masculine declension in the plural and sound feminine nouns always follow the sound feminine declension in the plural. But broken nouns can follow any of the first 7 declensions above in both the singular and the plural (the dual is pretty constant). This means, a declension applies to a noun only in one distinction of number at a time.

The differences between declensions are very slight — so slight they would be difficult to hear most of the time when spoken at normal speed. But they are there.

Can we just gloss over these distinctions because the differences are slight and most people get them wrong anyway? No.

I have spent several days now trying to clarify and present this minor point of Arabic grammar, but that means that the map of the language will be more detailed and complete than existing treatments of the language. It means that those using our map will not just be able to kinda use case, but will know how to recognize and produce proper case marking across the language.

I find the word sometimes very frustrating when I see it in a grammar. What do you mean? Are there 3 words in the language like this or 300, or 3000? Sometimes gives no sense of frequency or importance. I want to know the every time not the sometimes.

Back to blog