In Arabic, a noun can have three different inflections depending on its role in a given sentence. For example, for the word "book", it can be kitabun, or kitaban, or kitabin. The default inflection of a noun is the "un" ending. (I would guess this would be the same in all inflectional languages—that there is a default state.)

I was listening to a lecturer who enjoyed touching on the nuances not found in an ordinary grammar book. He asked, why it is agreed / decided / happened to be (fill in the word if there is an appropriate term) that the default state of an Arabic noun should have the "un" sound, and not have the "an" or "in" sound?

A question I never thought of.

I would guess, because, maybe, it is the easiest on the tongue?

The lecturer said (to my best understanding), the reason is because among the three sounds "un" sound is the one with the heaviest stress, and one would prefer to have it for the default state.

I wasn't fully satisfied, so I wanted to ask here. Do the experts have a definite or agreed answer to this matter?

(Please help with tagging the question.)

  • 1
    I assume that the "defaultness" of a certain inflectional form would not be based on some phonological reason like you suggested, but rather the syntactic role of that form. For example, the nominative form of a noun will regularly be the default since it's the one likely to begin a sentence. The phonemes that occur in the default/nominative form are likely to be pretty random - you won't be likely to find any phonological reason for their defaultness.
    – Graham H.
    Jun 5, 2023 at 14:43
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    The three forms you mention are just different case forms: nominative, accusative and genitive. It’s common for the nominative case (used for subjects) to be the shortest or most ‘basic’ form in a system (e.g. Latin nom. homō vs acc. hominem, gen. hominis), but it doesn’t have to be (e.g., Icelandic nom. hestur ‘horse’ vs acc. hest, gen. hests), and in the example you give, there’s no difference in complexity or length. The specific form of each case may have a historic reason, but often we don’t know what it is, and asking ‘why’ is not very meaningful. Jun 5, 2023 at 14:59
  • For "default" form, should way say "citation form"? Jun 5, 2023 at 15:41
  • @Graham You may be right, of course; but what you suggest—that it is just random; or, it is just it is—seems no more valid than my initial guess (easy on the tongue is picked for the most frequently used case), or what the lecturer said.
    – blackened
    Jun 5, 2023 at 16:50
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    @GrahamH. How difficult learning to pronounce a phone is generally has very little to do with how difficult the native speakers of a language (who, consequently, also decide which form of a word is cosidered the "default" form) find its pronunciation, and I do not believe the majority of native English speakers find the letter [ð] particularly difficult. Jun 10, 2023 at 19:09

1 Answer 1


It seems that the appropriate verb to fill in is "deemed", which is about analyst attitudes and mostly not about the structure of (the) language itself. You would have to ask the lecturer what he thinks it means to be a "default", since not all theories of language have such a concept.

The most likely reason (again, ask the lecturer what he was thinking) is that if you ask a really simple no-context question in a language with case inflections, like "What's the word for 'cow'?", you will get the nominative case (Latin for "the name of the thing"). It has nothing to do with stress of anything about sound, it is simply the fact that -u- is the nominative (in Classical Arabic). This is a fairly general pattern across languages, though not universal, for example in Kalenjin, the case form used for subjects ("The child saw the cat") is actually a special form that marks subjects (and only subjects after the verb), whereas the object / possessive / citation / preverbal form is different. We normally don't say that Kalenjin has "nominative" and "accusative", instead we just say that it "marks the subject". English pronouns are similar, in that distinction between "me" and "I" is that "I" is used in a very narrow context (not the default) and "me" is used more generally (more of a "default").

If Arabic speakers answered the question "What's the word for horse" by saying [farasan], we might instead say that the accusative is the default form.

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