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Lecture | Descriptive Linguistics Seminars

Pluractionality in classical and modern spoken Arabic

Friday 1 December 2023
Descriptive Linguistics Seminars
Cleveringaplaats 1
2311 BD Leiden


The faʕʕala stem is frequently described as “intensive” dedication from transitive faʕala stems, with examples like kasar “to break”/kassar “to smash” and qatal “to kill”/qattal “to massacre”.

This is an aspect of the faʕʕala derivation, but it fails to fully explain the use of this stem. This paper will argue that the faʕʕala derivation is better explained as pluractionality, i.e. a verb form that points to the plurality of the action (repetition, multiple objects, etc.).

The pluractional aspect of the faʕʕala stem has only rarely been addressed in dialectological literature, though it has been noted for Damascene Arabic (Cowell 1964: 253). Cowell shows that the faʕʕala is used as a “pseudo-agreement” with plural but not singular objects, e.g.

lā tʔaṭṭəf haz-zhūr/Lā təʔṭof haz-zhūr “don’t pick those flowers”

lā təʔṭof haz-zahra “don’t pick that flower”

**lā tʔaṭṭəf haz-zahra 

Some verbs can take a single object, but there the semantics of the faʕʕala stem are expressly different when applied to a single object than with multiple objects, e.g. in Bahraini Arabic:

kisar iṣ-ṣaḥan “he broke the plate”

kassar iṣ-ṣaḥan “he smashed the plate into many pieces”

kassar l-iṣḥūn/kisar l-iṣḥūn “he broke the plates” (NB not smashed!)

This type of “pseudo-agreement” of the verb stem with the object is typical for pluractionals (Newman 2012: 200) and seems to be widespread, although not universal, among the modern dialects but is poorly described. I will provide an overview of pluractionality (and its absence) among the modern dialects, and I will show it continues from Old Arabic.


Mark W. Cowell, A Reference Grammar of Syrian Arabic (Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 1964).

Paul Newman, “Pluractional Verbs: An Overview,” in Pluractional Verbs: An Overview (De Gruyter, 2012), 185–210.

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