FuSHa to Shami 4: Nouns

In Shami (and in spoken dialects more generally) nouns work very similarly to fuSHa, but there are some things you should be aware of.


Nouns can be either masculine or feminine. In the singular, most feminine nouns are distinguished by the presence of a ـة (a taa marbuuTa), as in fuSHa. Unlike fuSHa, this is pronounced as –a or -e depending on the preceding sound: generally, it is -a after ط ص ض ظ خ غ ق ح ع ه ء ر but -e after other consonants:

دبدوبة dabduube ‘teddy-bear’

محكية mé7kiyye ‘spoken’

ملعونة mal3uune ‘naughty’

بوسة boose ‘kiss’

طريقة Tarii2a ‘way’

بيضة beeDa ‘egg’

شوشرة shooshara ‘fuss’

بطة baTTa ‘duck’

There are a few exceptions to this rule, almost all of them with r: ابره ibre ‘needle’ (also ibra), شفرة shafre ‘razor’ and, usually, adjectives ending in -iir: كبيرة kbiire, صغيرة Sghiire. These have to be learnt.

There is one other common feminine endings, invariable -a, which is found in words like ذكرى zikra ‘memory’ and the feminine of colours (بيضا beeDa) and nouns of ‘defect’ (هبلا habla ‘idiot’). A few words with this ending, like شتى shita ‘winter’ and دنيا dunya world, are usually pronounced with final -e in Damascene (shéte, dénye). Unlike in MSA, many nouns that have final -a as a realisation of a final root vowel (like معنى ma3na ‘meaning’, مستشفى mustashfa ‘hospital) are treated as feminine (at least some of the time).

As in MSA, there are a number of words with no ـة which are nonetheless feminine, but these words are not necessarily the same ones as in MSA (and vary by dialect – شاي is feminine for some people but not others for example). This includes most place names, letters of the alphabet, body parts, and the following common exceptions:

أرض arD ‘earth’

بلد balad ‘town, country’

بلاد blaad ‘country’

حرب ‭7arb ‘war’

مي mayy ‘water’

سما sama ‘sky’

سكين sékkiin (also sékkiine) ‘knife’

شمس shams ‘sun’


As in fuSHa, the definite is used for both specific things that the speaker and the listener are expected to understand the reference of (i.e. the way it is used in English) and for generics, languages, some countries etc. The definite plural or singular are often used to make generalisations, sometimes causing ambiguities:

السوري شغيل éssuuri sheghghiil ‘the Syrian is hardworking’/’Syrians are hardworking’

There are a few verbs/expressions however which always take indefinite objects where we would expect the definite, unlike fuSHa:

بحكي عربي bé7ki 3arabi ‘I speak Arabic’ (not العربي)

هاد اسمو شغل haad ésmo shéghl ‘this is what work is’ [= this thing’s name is work, this is called work]

The dual

The dual is invariably formed with -een (there is no case variation):

كلبين kalbeen ‘two dogs’

كاتبين kaatbeen ‘two writers’

On feminine nouns with تاء مربوطة the suffix becomes -t:

مرتين marteen ‘two women’

حبتين 7abbteen ‘two pills’

Unlike in fuSHa, the suffix does not drop its n in iDaafe, and is rarely used with pronoun suffixes. Certain body parts that come in twos have what appears to be a dual suffix: ijreen ‘legs’, rijleen, ‘legs’, 3eeneen ‘eyes’. But this suffix acts differently. It does drop its -n in iDaafe and is often followed by pronoun suffixes, and is the normal way to express ‘someone’s Xes’:

رجليي réjleyyi ‘my legs’

ايديي iideyyi ‘my arms’

These nouns also have a proper dual with -t- inserted which does not drop the n:

عينتين ‭3eenteen ‘two eyes’

رجلتين réj@lteen ‘two legs’

Also unlike in fuSHa, the dual is not compulsory whenever two of a noun is meant and the plural can be freely used in these circumstances. It is possible, in fact, to use tneen just like any other number with the plural noun in place of the dual: تنين رجال tneen @rjaal ‘two men’. Often the dual is used to introduce the idea of two Xes before switching to the plural thereafter.

The plural

In fuSHa nouns are usually pluralised in one of three ways: with the sound masculine -uun/iin, with the sound feminine -aat, or with some kind of broken plural pattern. This is largely the same in Shami. The sound masculine plural is invariably -iin (there’s no case), the sound feminine is -aat, and there is a bewildering array of broken plural patterns which can be largely predicted from the shape of the singular noun. Some of these are the same as fuSHa:

مكتب مكاتب maktab makaateb ‘office’

مفتاح مفاتيح miftaa7 mafaatii7 ‘key’

Some correspond to fuSHa patterns closely with minor adjustments in line with common correspondences:

درس دروس dars druus ‘lesson’

كلب كلاب kalb klaab ‘dog’

شهيد شهدا shahiid shéhada ‘martyr’

Some seem to be unique to colloquial:

فرد فرودة fard fruude ‘gun’

Also unique to colloquial is the formation of a number of plurals with the suffix ـة or ـية (-a/e or -iyye) which is normally restricted in fuSHa to feminines. This applies to a number of nouns, most particularly many nisba nouns:

لبنانية lébnaaniyye Lebanese people

مسيحية masii7iyye Christians (there’s also the weird plural إسلام islaam for مسلم méslem/muslem)

شوفرية shooferiyye drivers

حلبية ‭7alabiyye Aleppans

لعيبة la33iibe ‘players’

It’s best just to learn nouns’ plurals as you encounter them (though Cowell’s Syrian grammar has an exhaustive list of patterns if you want to look it up).

Collectives and their singulars

Some nouns do not have a simple singular/plural distinction – they are collectives, which take singular agreement and refer to an undifferentiated mass of stuff:

ورق wara2 ‘paper’

بطاطا baTaaTa ‘potatoes’

بندورة banadoora ‘tomatoes’

So far so fuSHa. Like fuSHa, in order to refer to a single item (e.g. a piece), we need a ‘singulative’. This is usually formed by addition of ـة, producing a feminine singular noun. In some cases – as in English – it is difficult to form a singulative and so the generic noun حبة ‭7abbe (which itself is the singulative of 7abb) is used instead:

ورقة wara2a ‘piece of paper’

حبة بطاطا ‭7abbet baTaaTa ‘a (single) potato’

Lots of speakers are actually perfectly happy to form singulatives from loanwords like بطاطا:

بطاطاية baTaaTaaye ‘a (single) potato’

بندوراية banadooraaye ‘a (single) tomato’

Of course, these singulatives can be pluralised and counted, usually with -aat but sometimes with a broken plural:

تلت بطاطايات tlett baTaaTaayaat ‘three potatoes’

تلت وراق tlett @wraa2 or تلت ورقات tlett wara2aat ‘three pieces of paper’

Collectives also often have their own plurals formed with ـات, which then refers to a specific… instance, I guess?

شو هالبردات shu hal-bardaat ‘it’s so cold!’ = what is this cold we’re experiencing?

شو بدك بهالتلجات shu béddak b-hat-taljaat ‘what are you doing with that snow?’ = that snow in your hands

كيف اللحمات اليوم؟ kiif élla7maat élyoom? ‘how’s the meat today?’ = the meat in your shop

قهوات مرتي كتير طيبين ‭2ahwaat marti ktiir Tayybiin ‘my wife’s coffee is really tasty’ = the coffee she makes (the singular would imply the coffee that belongs to her, the coffee she is drinking as opposed to yours)

They can also have broken plurals, which often refer to large amounts or different kinds:

ميايا mayaaya ‘waters’

زيوت zyuut ‘oils’