Arabic Observations: the Abstract Noun of a Question?

تَأنيث

root: ء-ن-ث / verbal noun of form II / definition: feminisation


You might know that, in order to create an abstract noun in Arabic, you can simply feminise a regular noun with the typical ـِيّة ending.

Examples include:

  • إنسانِيّة – humanity (derived from إنسان, human)
  • اِشتِراكِيّة – socialism (derived from اِشتِراك, participation)
  • لاشَيئِيّة – nothingness (derived from لاشَيء, nothing)

(If the last example sparks your curiosity, check out these two posts: The Attached لا Prefix and Arabic Observations: Root Derived From Phrase.)

I have to admit, the topic of abstract feminisation in Arabic is particularly interesting to me; my dissertation was centred around the abstract feminisation of the homeland in Arabic poetry through the lens of a conceptual metaphor. And it’s something deeply-rooted in the language.

Note: the book Metaphors We Live By has been pretty influential in cognitive linguistics (and to me, personally, in my study of language!) and will definitely change the way you look at language—completely worth the read.

What prompted me to talk about this now was a small word nestled between the pages of the Hans Wehr: ماهِيّة (listed alphabetically, on page 1044).

The definitions of particular interest here are essence and nature.

Here’s why:

As far as I can tell, ماهِيّة is actually derived from a two-word phrase—or, more specifically—a two-word question: ما هِيَ؟

ما = what

هِيَ = it (feminine—the first feminisation in this process)

ما هِيَ؟ = what is it?

These words appear to have been merged to form an intermediate not-in-use noun, ماهِي, seemingly denoting the “what-is-it” quality that’s hard to find the right words for.

And from there, it’s been feminised again to form the abstract noun with the ـِيّة ending, giving us ماهِيّة, the ultimate “what-is-it-ness” or “essence” of something. And thus we have ended up with this gem on page 1044.

I don’t know about you, but I think it’s quite difficult to not be at least somewhat in awe by a language that contains these hidden treasures.


Don’t miss the other posts in the Arabic Observations series for more linguistic deep dives, and I’ll see you on my next post.

!في أمان الله


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