For example, Arabic has a ternary number system: singular, dual, and plural. If a bilingual speaker uses an English phrase as a subject that would have dual number in Arabic (but of course the distinction doesn't exist in English), does the Arabic verb take the dual or plural form? Or is this blocked because of the mismatch?

My instincts tell me it would take dual number, but I'm not sure. What is the theoretical account for this?

  • can you clarify with an example? Do you mean something like "[in English] his hands [in Arabic] were in front of his face" (obviously with necessary grammatical adjustments for Arabic syntax)?
    – Tristan
    Apr 14, 2022 at 16:23
  • @Tristan Sure, that works. I was reluctant to pick a NP with dual number in Arabic because it's been a while since I studied Arabic and didn't want to pick something that wouldn't actually be dual (i.e. is "hands" singular because its "a pair of hands"?) Apr 14, 2022 at 16:27
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    For sure, I think a lot of number changes happen when borrowing, but I'm specifically wondering about code-switching and how those features interact. Apr 14, 2022 at 18:44
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    I'm just not clear what kind of answer you're expecting. You get the form you'd expected based on the L1, or the form you'd expect based on the L2, or something in between, and for everything on this spectrum it's entirely clear how to explain it.
    – Keelan
    Apr 15, 2022 at 9:29
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    @AzorAhai-him- I don’t really see the difference. The features don’t line up in either case. English doesn’t distinguish singular/plural or formal/informal in the second person, while Spanish does; similarly, English doesn’t distinguish dual/plural, while Arabic (at least MSA, apparently) does. The speaker of course knows underlying number equally well regardless of language, just like the speaker knows if they’re addressing one or more people formally or informally. Apr 18, 2022 at 13:59

1 Answer 1


If a bilingual English and Arabic speaker would have to use an English subject with an Arabic verb, it is fully up to the speaker, no matter which language the context is in, to choose which form would be the most appropriate, since there are no rules about mixing languages.

Because Arabic and English are normally not mixed, the experienced "mismatch" is minimal - the main mismatch is the language. For this reason, most people would probably use the dual Arabic verb, since it more accurately reflects reality, and using the plural would create a larger mismatch, so to speak, than the usage of the dual form would.

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