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Studies in the language of the Quranic

Consonantal Text II: The feminine ending
Marijn van Putten

This study is the second in a series of studies of the language of the Quran, based on the evidence found
in the Quranic Consonantal Text (henceforth QCT). The QCT is defined as the text reflected in the
consonantal skeleton of the Quran, the form in which it was first written down, without the countless
additional clarifying vocalisation marks (ʔiʕrāb). The concept of the QCT is roughly equivalent to the
rasm, the purely undotted consonantal skeleton of the Quranic text, but there is an important
distinction. The concept of QCT ultimately assumes that not only the letter shapes, but also the
consonantal values are identical to the Quranic text as we find it today. As such, when ambiguities
arise, for example in medial ‫ ـثـ‬،‫ ـتـ‬،‫ ـبـ‬،‫ ـنـ‬،‫ ـيـ‬etc., the original value is taken to be identical to the form as
it is found in the Quranic reading traditions today. This assumption is not completely unfounded. From
the very earliest Quranic documents onwards, we already find occasional cases of consonantal dotting
(ʔiʕǧām) (Déroche 2014: 20). While the choice when a consonant is dotted and when it is not seems
highly haphazard, there are no vast disagreements with the modern Cairo Edition of the Quran when
the dots are present.

The QCT deviates in many ways from the Classical Arabic norm, and needs to be supplied with a large
number of vocalisation marks to yield the forms of the contemporary reading traditions of the Quran.
As these markings are not originally part of the Quranic text, and we do not know the origins or age of
these reading traditions, these studies on the QCT aim to look at what the QCT itself can tell us about
the language of the Quran.

This study will examine the spelling of the feminine ending -at- in the consonantal text, and the
implications this has for the original pronunciation, and subsequent development of its case endings.

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Feminine endings in the QCT

The productive feminine ending in Classical Arabic, -at-(u/a/i-n), is invariably written ‫ـه‬.1 This spelling,
although it is often considered to reflect the pausal pronunciation, actually violates the pausal rules
that normally operate on the Arabic of the reading traditions. These rules can be summed up as follows:

1. *an > ā
2. *v(n) > Ø
3. *at > *ah
Following these Pausal rules the following pausal paradigm for the indefinite feminine of ʔāyat- ‘sign’
would be expected:

1. *an > Ø, ā 2. *v(n) > Ø 3. at# > *ah

Nom. *ʔummatun *ʔummatun *ʔummat ʔummah
Gen. *ʔummatin *ʔummatin *ʔummat ʔummah
Acc. *ʔummatan *ʔummatā *ʔummatā **ʔummatā

As can be seen in the table above, one would expect the indefinite form of the feminine ending to have
orthographically two forms, a nom./gen. ‫ ـه‬and an acc. **‫ـتا‬. However such a spelling for the accusative
is not attested in the QCT. Several researchers have attempted to explain this problem.

Birkeland (1940: 97) suggests that nunation was lost on the feminine ending -at- before the masculine
ending, thus yielding different result. However, no mechanism can explain why nunation would be lost
sooner on the feminine ending than on the masculine.

Due to the mismatch in spelling and pronunciation, Fischer (1967: 54) suggests that the spellings of the
QCT orthography could not represent ‘pausal spellings’ of the noun. The indefinite accusative was
pronounced /-ah/ in pause. This is obvious from the rhyme in the Quran, where it may rhyme with
other pausal sequences of /-ah/, as Fischer (1967: 58) points out himself, e.g.

Except for the fairly common spellings of the construct feminine with ‫ـت‬, e.g. Q11:73 ‫‘ رحمت هللا‬The mercy of
God’ and Q37:62 ‫‘ شجرت الزقوم‬The tree of Zaqqûm’ (about 23% of all feminine ending constructs in the Quran).

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Q74: 50 … mustanfiratun /mustanfirah/

51 … qaswaratin /qaswarah/
52 … munaššaratan /munaššarah/
53 … al-ʔāxirata /al-ʔāxirah/
54 … taḏkiratun /taḏkirah/
55 … ḏakarahū /ḏakarah/
56 … al-maġfirati /al-maġfirah/

Therefore, Fischer is certainly wrong that the indefinite accusative of the feminine spelled ‫ ـه‬does not
represent the pausal pronunciation, his observation that the pausal pronunciation of the indefinite
accusative feminine ending is anomalous within the general pausal rules of Classical Arabic in the
Quran demands an explanation.

In a lengthy footnote Blau (1977: 12-13, f.n. 62) attempts to alleviate the problem of the unusual pausal
pronunciation of -at-an:

[I]t can easily be explained by analogy, rather than by sound shift. It seems that the
pausal indeterminate accusative after tâ marbûṭa was adapted to the pausal
indeterminate nominative/genitive on the one hand, and to the pausal determinate
forms on the other [...]. The reason that this adaptation occurred in these nouns rather
than in others, seems to be that in them the difference between the pausal indefinite
accusative and the other forms was greater than in other nouns. In a word like malik
'king' the pausal indefinite accusative was malikâ, as against the pausal indefinite
nominative/definite accusative form malik, the opposition being expressed by â : zero.
In a noun like malikat 'queen', however, the pausal indefinite accusative should have
been *malikatâ as against malikah in the other cases, the opposition being expressed by -
atâ : ah. Because the pausal accusative was too different, it was adapted to the other
cases, and thus malikah became the general pausal form.

This solution is not quite convincing. The alternation between -at and -ah was also attested in feminine
nouns when followed by pronominal suffixes, and there the alternation between t and h has never been
a motivation to spread one of the two by analogy. Moreover, the language of the QCT does not seem to
have a problem with differences between the indefinite nominative/genitive and indefinite accusative
pausal forms other than just ā : zero. Final weak nouns like wādin ‘wadi, river’, for example, display a
pausal indefinite nominative/genitive wād versus a pausal indefinite accusative wādiyā, i.e. a contrast
iyā : zero. This alternation was not felt to be disturbing enough to be corrected to a general wād in all

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indefinite pausal cases. Therefore, there seems to be little reason to assume that this were true for the
ending -at-.

I therefore suggest another solution, namely, that the language of the QCT had a diptotic feminine
ending -at- rather than a triptotic one as found in Classical Arabic. Diptotes in the indefinite do not take
nunation and as a result, all case endings would drop off in pause:

1. *an > ā 2. *v(n) > Ø 3. *at# > *ah

Nom. *ʔummatu *ʔummatu *ʔummat ʔummah
Gen. *ʔummata *ʔummata *ʔummat ʔummah
Acc. *ʔummata *ʔummata *ʔummat ʔummah

Assuming that nouns with the -at- ending were diptotic rather than triptotic in the language of the QCT
solves the problem of the indefinite accusative. In support of such a reconstruction, we find examples
of just this situation in the modern Arabic dialects of the Tihama in Yemen and Saudi Arabia.

Different from other Arabic dialects, these dialects retain reflexes of nunation on indefinite nouns.2 The
im-Maṯṯ̣ ah
̣ dialect of the Ṣaʕdah region has an indefinite marker -in, whereas the southern part of
Tihama has -u, and the Tihama on the northern border of Yemen has -un (Behnstedt 1987: map 13).

This indefinite ending was first remarked upon by Greenman (1979: 60) and further discussed by
Prochazka (1988: 47-49) for the Tihama region. It was described in more detail by Behnstedt (1987: 2009)
who shows that in the im-Maṯṯ̣ ah
̣ dialects almost all nouns take nunation, with the exception of nouns
with the vowel scheme ʔafʕal, faʕlāy and nouns with the feminine ending -ah or -eh (i.e. the ending *-at-)
and nouns that end in -ī. Some of the examples he cites are:

staʕdin ‘a Ḏurah-stalk’
časlin ‘a sluggard’
hāyx̂in ‘going’
ʔastnaǧ ‘deaf (masc.)’
stanǧāy ‘deaf (fem.)’
ribḥī ‘monkey’
marwah ‘firestone’ but marawātin ‘firestones’

Traces of nunation have been identified in, e.g. Najdi Arabic (Ingham 1994: 47-50), but these have a very
different function than that we find in Classical Arabic. Rather than the obligatory nature of nunation, the
function of nunation in such dialects seems to be syntactic, and its use highly optional. Examining its function,
it is not at all obvious that Najdi nunation has developed from the Classical Arabic system (pace Ingham 1994: 6);
perhaps it is of a completely different etymological origin, as per the highly original proposal of Stokes

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The ʔafʕal and faʕlāy patterns that do not take nunation are obviously related to the Classical Arabic
diptotic ʔafʕalu and faʕlāʔu, and the absence of the nunation on nouns of this type must be attributed to
their original diptotic and therefore nunation-less form. The fact that the feminine ending, likewise,
does not take nunation is a clear indication that in this dialect, feminine nouns were treated as diptotes
as well.

A similar distribution is found by Greenman (1979): ʔafʕal forms and feminine nouns do not take the -u
indefinite marker.

Prochazka (1988: 47f.) observes a rather more complex situation for the dialect of Bal-Qarn. The
indefinite marker has two allomorphs -ū/u in pause and -in in non-pausal position. The feminine ending
-ah/-eh does not take this ending, nor does the ʔafʕal elative, the ʔafʕal for physical defects and colours,
however, does take this ending.3 A puzzling problem is that in non-pausal position the feminine nouns
seem to also take the indefinite marker -in. Prochazka also cites free variation in pause between the
feminine ending with and without -in, puzzlingly, in pause:

rēt rāyīlu ‘I saw men’

rēt rāyīlin fim-ḥugnah ‘I saw men in the field’

rēt kahleh/kahlitin ‘I saw an old woman’

rēt kahlitin tiḥtiṭub fim-yibāl ‘I saw an old woman gathering wood in the mountains’

hu akbar minni ‘he is older than I’

bētin aḥmaru ‘a red house’

This distribution is not dissimilar to the one that we find in Classical Arabic, but cannot have been the
original situation, as that would require us to formulate the pausal sound laws *-at-un > *-ah, but *-un >
ū, which is phonetically implausible. The situation attested in the dialects described by Behnstedt and
Greenman likely preserve the original distribution.

From this evidence, it is clear that in these dialects the feminine endings were originally diptotes
without nunation.4 Therefore, there is clear evidence that in some dialects of Arabic, the feminine
ending -at- was originally diptotic, and as such it becomes likely that also in the language of the QCT the
feminine ending was diptotic, which would perfectly explain the unexpected reflex of the indefinite
Prochazka also says that the feminine ending -a (original alif maqṣūrah) does not take this ending, but does not
cite any examples in his overview, but page 49 mentions miʕ za ‘goats’ < *miʕ zā.
In the vast majority of other dialects, it is of course possible that the feminine ending *-at- was also diptotic,
but it is simply impossible to see it, as they have not retained nunation or case to confirm it.

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Motivation for diptotic feminines

It is difficult to imagine how originally triptotic feminine nouns would have become diptotic in both
the language of the QCT and Tihama Arabic, either as individual innovations or as a shared innovation.
Diptotes make up a small and rather erratic group of inflecting nouns within the Arabic language, and
it is difficult to imagine how this would have spread to all feminine nouns. It is more attractive to
suppose that the feminine ending *-at- was originally diptotic, and only later became triptotic.

Whereas feminine nouns are always triptotic in the Classical Arabic grammar, this is not the case for
feminine proper names. If a feminine proper name ends in the feminine ending -at- it is always diptotic.
This is even true when it is suffixed to a stem which in the masculine form would normally be triptotic.
Most masculine proper names are diptotic, but the ones that are triptotic can be summed up by the
following criteria (Fischer 2002: §153):

● Stem shape CvCC: ʕamrun, Zaydun, Ḏiʔbun

● Diminutives: Zuhayrun, Kuṯayyirun
● Participles: Muḥammadun, Ḥāriṯun, Muslimun, Hāniʔun
These three categories become diptotic the moment the feminine suffix is attached:

● CvCCat: Sawdatu, Ḥafṣatu, Ramlatu

● Diminutives: Fuṭaymatu
● Participles: Fāṭimatu, ʕāʔišatu, ʔamīnatu, Ḫādiǧatu
The only thing about these names that make them diptotic is the feminine ending. Therefore there
seems to be something about the feminine ending that is associated with diptosy.

One might consider the possibility that the diptosy of the feminine ending developed in this category of
proper names, and spread to all feminine nouns. It is, however, difficult to motivate how such a
marginal characteristic of feminine names would come to be spread analogically to all feminine nouns
in general.

A spread in the opposite direction is much easier to motivate. Feminine common nouns that are
regularly derived from masculine nouns may easily have received a triptotic pattern analogous to that
of the masculine form. Because proper names with the feminine ending do not have the same
morphological relation to triptotic masculine names, the same spread did not affect them. The diptotic
feminine ending of the proper names are thus to be considered a linguistic vestige in Classical Arabic of
the original diptotic nature of the feminine ending -at-. The retention of this vestige was perhaps aided
by the diptosy of most proper names.

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Besides the feminine ending -at-, Arabic has two other feminine endings, -āʔ- and -ā (orthographically ‫ى‬
< *-ayu). Both of these feminine endings are also diptotic (Fischer §153b and note 1). This reveals a
general pattern of diptosy as being associated with markers of the feminine gender. These facts
therefore are most easily explained through a reconstruction of Proto-Arabic where all three feminine
endings, *-at-, *-ay- and *-āy/ʔ- were diptotic.

Reconstructing original diptosy for feminine nouns in Proto-Arabic, however, raises problems within
its broader Semitic context. The two other Semitic languages that show signs of diptosy, Ugaritic and
Ancient South Arabian, appear to simply have triptotic flection for feminine ending <-t>.

Ugaritic, like Arabic, has a diptotic flection (Tropper 2000: 304f.). These mostly concern personal names
with an -ān suffix (cf. the diptotic faʕlān- adjectives in Classical Arabic, Fischer 2002: §119). Feminine
nouns, however, are consistently triptotic (Tropper 2000: 302ff). Ugaritic, like Arabic, has retained
diptotes in names, but there is no direct evidence that feminine names remained diptotic.

In Sabaic, the vast majority of the nouns in the absolute state have mimation, the structural equivalent
to Arabic nunation. However, Sabaic names, masculine or feminine, generally lack mimation, which is
presumably a reflection of the same tendency to diptosy that we find in Arabic proper names (Beeston
1962: §27.4). However, we seem to find the very same distribution that we find in Classical Arabic,
where masculine participle proper nouns are triptotic, e.g. mḥmdm */muḥammadum/ (Ry 574, accessed
through DASI) and feminine names are diptotic, e.g. mḥbbt */muḥabbab(a)tu/ (Ir 16, line 4, accessed
through DASI).

A full account of the place of diptotic feminines within Proto-Semitic requires further research that
falls outside of the scope of this paper. Discussion of this topic, however, will have to be conducted with
the possibility in mind that in Proto-Arabic, all feminine endings were originally diptotic.

In this paper, I have shown that the nouns with the feminine ending -at- in the dialect of the QCT
behave like diptotes and that this behaviour is paralleled in several dialects still spoken today in the
Tihama region. It is has been argued that this situation may go back to Proto-Arabic, as it is difficult to
imagine how these dialects acquired diptotic feminine endings if they were originally triptotic. An open
question is how this information should be interpreted in light of the other Semitic languages.

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The diptotic value of the feminine ending stands in stark contrast with the triptotic feminine endings
as found today in Quranic reading traditions. This suggests that there is a tangible linguistic disconnect
between the language of the QCT and the reading traditions. I leave the implications of this conclusion
to scholars of Islamic studies.

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Blau, J. 1977. The Beginnings of the Arabic Diglossia. A study in the origins of Neoarabic. Afroasiatic
Linguistics 4:4, pp. 175-202 (pp. 1-28).
Behnstedt, P. 1987. Die Dialekte der Gegend von Ṣaʿdah (Nord-Jemen). Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz.
Birkeland, H. 1940. Altarabische Pausalformen. Oslo.
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accessed 2 september 2016).
Déroche, F. (2014) Qurʿans of the Umayyads. A First Overview. Leiden & Boston: Brill.
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Gesellschaft 117, pp. 30-77.
Greenman, J. 1979. A Sketch of the Arabic Dialect of the Central Yamani Tihāmah. Zeitischrift für die
Arabische Linguistik 3, pp. 47-61.
Prochazka, T. 1988. Gleanings from the Southwestern Saudi Arabia. Zeitschrift für Arabische Linguistik 19,
pp. 44-49.
Tropper, J. 2000. Ugaritische Grammatik. Münster: Ugarit-Verlag.
Stokes, P. forthcoming. The origins of Nunation in the Arabian dialects.