I recently asked Mohanned to refresh me on the cardinal numbers which I think I learned long, long ago but had since forgotten. This gave him a good excuse to launch a full-scale assault on the grammar of numbers which we’d been toying with here and there over the past few years. As a native English speaker, getting my head around gender has been one thing, but the rules of gender and other grammar when it comes to Arabic numbers is next level. One language website gives a handy overview of the rules:
The numbers 3–10 are nouns and diptote in declension (with the exception of 8). They take inverse agreement with the nouns they are counting. So, if you have a masculine object, you use the feminine form of the number, and viceversa. Yup, doesn’t make much sense, but that’s how it works.
Ok, so far, a bit tricky, but manageable with a good bit of practice. Once you get past 10, though, you start having combinations of tens and ones. The numbers 11 and 12, using the single digits 1 and 2, have normal gender agreement, both with the ones and with the ten. The digits 1 and 2 are in their nominal forms.
The numbers 13 – 19 have normal agreement with the ten, but inverse agreement with the ones digits. These numbers (along with 11) also take the accusative case themselves — the tamyiiz accusative, or “accusative of specification.”
The tens (20, 30, 40, 50, etc.) are sound masculine plural in declension and don’t change. Complexity is over? Nope. If you have 31–39, you have to account for the agreement of the ones digits, and the rules of regular or inverse agreement.
The process continues into the thousands, with each new numeric level taking on a new set of rules. The word hundred is feminine, so to make 300, the “three” must be masculine in form to agree inversely with hundred, which is confusing, because you may have got used to basing the gender of ones digits on the counted noun, not another component of a compound number (here, the “three” is counting the noun “hundreds”).
On top of all this, you have to learn how the nouns themselves are actually paired with the numbers. One object is in the singular, two objects are in the dual, and three to ten objects are counted in the plural. Eleven or more objects actually take the singular of the noun being counted, and the noun is in the accusative case (again the tamyiiz accusative).
This covers the cardinals. Then you have the ordinals to worry about, as well as how numbers are used in dates, phone numbers, mathematical equations, measurements, designations of rulers, etc …
Another online Arabic learning site notes that “the grammar related to the numbers in Arabic is considered to be the most complicated thing about the language”.
I’ve been plugging away at work sheets trying to internalise the rules but I still feel like I’m drowning. There’s so much to think about that I end up freezing while working through the processes and whatever clarity might have been emerging just vanishes. It’s super frustrating and also a huge knock to my confidence.
Over the past few weeks I’ve been dipping in and out of The Arabic Language by Kees Versteegh which tracks the historic and linguistic development of the Arabic language. Rather serendipitously, I came across this line at the same time as I was grappling with the Arabic number grammar rules:
The morphology and syntax of Arabic numerals have baffled even the Arabic grammarians.
I found this strangely comforting — if even the experts are baffled, then I don’t feel quite so stupid for feeling the same.
While Mohanned and all the learning resources stress the importance of learning these grammar rules even though they are often ignored in colloquial spoken Arabic, I keep reminding myself that many native Arabic speakers don’t know these rules and I won’t be struck dead by a lightning bolt when I incorrectly pair a masculine number with a feminine noun while having a conversation on the street. So, me and the grammar of numbers will agree to disagree from time to time, and that’s okay.