The language has astonishing sweep and granularity that are explicit and penetrative to a degree redolent of lore and legend. The open-sesame to Arabic’s magic for this English speaker is Wright’s majestic grammar. (1) Here, of an early morning on this date in this place, settling with a mug of coffee and oat milk into my ongoing tour of the broken plurals, I encounter the following:
“Sometimes there is even a treble formation; firqaẗ(un), a band, a party or sect…”
The “treble formation,” meaning the three possible plurals for the term, are: firaq(un), ‘afrāq(un), ‘afārīq(un).
“Such secondary plurals can be properly used only when the objects denoted are at least nine in number, or when their number is indefinite.” (1)
“Properly used”: be still my heart. What this rule has in common with poetry is that it seduces with strangeness, yet eludes unspooling into paraphrase and applicability. What exactly are the “objects” to be counted? Bands themselves, or the individuals comprising them? But does it matter? What’s gleaned about another language culture’s approach to multiplicity is glorious: To describe several of a thing is contingent on the measure of its more-than-oneness.
It’s possible that Wright’s record on this point, as on others, is archaeological; the linguistic fact, however, and the wonder of it, stand recognized and felt. It broadens the mind and quickens the sympathies to take note of distinctions that fellow humans have made, and do make, in talking about their world.
(1) W. Wright, A Grammar of the Arabic Language, Simon Wallenberg Press, 2007. Reprint of the classic work first published in 1874, and updated in 1896, ii, 232, D.
(2) My character set is this: ‘ a ā A i ī u ū ay aw b t ẗ ṯ j ḥ ẖ d ḏ r z s š ṣ ḍ ṭ ẓ ^ ḡ f q k l m n h w y
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