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Quranic Grammar - Gender (الجنس)

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In Arabic linguistics, the gender of a noun may refer to semantic, morphemic or grammatical gender. In the Quranic Arabic corpus, nouns are tagged for gender according to grammatical gender, since this determines how the noun will function syntactically. Using grammatical gender allows gender agreement to be considered through dependencies in the syntactic treebank. The different distinctions of gender may be illustrated by considering the second word of verse (13:11):

(13:11:2)
muʿaqqibātun
(are) successive (Angels)

Fig 1. The second word of verse (13:11) is an indefinite form II
masculine plural active participle and is in the nominative case.

This noun is a plural of plurals and has been tagged as masculine since this is its grammatical gender, which is the type of gender annotated in the Quranic corpus. In particular, the noun is:

  • semantically masculine (masculine in meaning)
  • morphemically feminine (feminine in form)
  • grammatically masculine-rational (masculine by syntatic function)

The way that the gender of this noun is annotated is sensitive because the word refers to the angels, whose gender is considered to be semantically masculine according to the Islamic faith. The Quran mentions those who incorrectly consider the angels to be feminine in verse (43:19). Although the word appears feminine in form, it is masculine in meaning as well as in grammatical function. The verse in chapter 13 (sūrat l-raʿd) which contains the noun under discussion reads:

Sahih International: For each one are successive [angels] before and behind him who protect him by the decree of Allah. Indeed, Allah will not change the condition of a people until they change what is in themselves. And when Allah intends for a people ill, there is no repelling it. And there is not for them besides Him any patron.

The fact that this noun functions as masculine syntactically can be seen through gender agreement. The following verb in the same verse refers to this noun, and is conjugated for third person masculine plural:

TranslationArabic wordSyntax and morphology
(13:11:8)
yaḥfaẓūnahu
who guard him
V – 3rd person masculine plural imperfect verb
PRON – subject pronoun
PRON – 3rd person masculine singular object pronoun
فعل مضارع والواو ضمير متصل في محل رفع فاعل والهاء ضمير متصل في محل نصب مفعول به

Fig 2. Morphological annotation for the verb at (13:11:8)
- precise translation depends on context (see translation accuracy).

Gender Distinctions in Arabic

Semantic Gender

Semantic gender is determined by the meaning of a noun. For example, boys and girls, and men and women will have different biological gender. According to semantic gender, the words حامل (pregnant) and بنت (girl) are feminine, where as ملائكة (angels) and the noun معقبات at (13:11:2) above are both masculine. Words such as كراسي (chairs) have no semantic gender. The possible values for semantic gender are masculine, feminine or none.

Morphemic Gender

Morphemic gender (also known as illusory gender) specifies the form of the morpheme which is used to construct the word. The ta-marbuta and āt suffix are feminine morphemes. The suffixes ūn and īn are masculine. This means that the word خليفة (Caliph) is morphemically feminine (feminine in form) although semantically masculine (masculine in meaning). The two possible values for morphemic gender are masculine or feminine.

Grammatical Gender

Grammatical gender is also known as functional gender, and determines how words such as nouns and adjectives function syntactically. The rules which determine gender agreement differ according morphological features such as part-of-speech, plurality and rationality. Two prominent syntactic constructions which are relevant to gender agreement are adjectives and numbers:

  1. For adjectives, singular nouns agree in semantic gender if this is masculine or feminine (but not if the gender is none), or they agree with morphemic gender if semantic gender is none. Plural noun rules for agreement use the feature of rationality (عاقل or غير عاقل). Rational plurals agree with semantic gender but irrational plurals always take feminine singular adjectives. This is why كراسي (masculine plural) takes كبيرة (feminine singular) as an adjective.
  2. The gender polarity (reverse gender agreement) of numbers is based on the singular form of the word regardless of the morphemic gender of its plural. For example خمسة سجلات (five folders) because سجل is masculine, and خمس مكتبات (five libraries) because مكتبة is feminine.

Seel Also

Language Research Group
University of Leeds
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