Etymology Usage

Hey, Mr. Taliban

Q: I used to HATE hearing American newscasters use “Taliban” as a plural. I considered it a British affectation. I finally asked my longtime copyeditor, one of the best in the Bay Area, and she politely informed me that “Talib” is singular and “Taliban” is plural. So it’s OK for an American to use “Taliban” as a plural, because it is one!

A: “Taliban” is widely regarded as a plural noun in both the US and the UK.

Most news organizations, both here and abroad, treat “Taliban” as plural. Here are snippets from a few news and opinion articles published in recent weeks:

“The Taliban have not claimed responsibility” (AP) …. “the Taliban have ordered their forces “ (CNN) … “the Taliban have embarked “ (The New Yorker) … “the Taliban are now inveigling children” (Huffington Post) … “even if the Taliban are in the ascendancy” (Financial Times) … “the Taliban are rightly accused” (The Guardian) … “The Taliban are seeking” (Toronto Star) … “The Taliban are extremely unlikely” (New York Times) … “the Taliban are being strangled” (Fox News).

However, it’s not unusual to find “Taliban” used as a singular collective noun when referring to the Islamic group as a single entity. Here are some examples:

“The Taliban is a concern, but it’s not public enemy number one” (Washington Post) … “the Pakistani Taliban has stepped up attacks” (Voice of America) … “the Taliban has no interest in reconciliation”  (CNN) … “the Taliban has returned to those arid hills” (Boston Globe) … “The Taliban is using the idiom of justice as its calling card and recruiting card” (Brig. Gen. Mark Martins, quoted in the Wall Street Journal).

For the period we examined in a Google News search, the uses of “Taliban” with plural verbs (“are,” “were” “have”) outnumbered those with singular verbs (“is,” “was,” “has”) by about two to one.

Who’s right—is “Taliban” plural, or is it a singular collective noun?

Only a few standard dictionaries have weighed in on this, since “Taliban” came into use in English less than 20 years ago.

The American and English versions of the Cambridge Dictionaries Online say “Taliban” can be used with either a singular or plural verb, but no examples are given.

Merriam-Webster’s Online as well as the online Longman’s Dictionary of Contemporary English say “Taliban” is a plural noun.

Etymology is on the side of the plural usage, and that’s the position taken by most news organizations.

In the Pashto and Persian languages, ṭaliban is a plural form of ṭalib, a word from Arabic that means a student or seeker. (In Arabic, the plural would be tullab or talaba.)

The Oxford English Dictionary has no separate entry for “Taliban,” but under the noun “Talibanization” it notes: “The name Taliban arises from the fact that the movement began amongst Afghan Islamic students exiled in Pakistan.”

The dictionary’s first citation for the name in English is from a January 1995 issue of Asiaweek:

“A powerful new armed faction, known as the Taliban or ‘religious students,’ mysteriously emerged in October and has already transformed the balance of power in southern Afghanistan.”

Etymology aside, there’s an argument to be made for using “Taliban” as a singular in the US when referring to the Islamic organization itself, rather than the members of it.

In American usage, collective nouns like “company” and “government” are routinely treated as singular, though a British speaker would treat them as plural.

As for how to refer to an individual member of the group, we hear “a Taliban” more often than “a Talib,” etymology be damned. But the usual practice is to use “Taliban” as an adjective in phrases like “a Taliban fighter” or “a Taliban suicide bomber.”

In his book Organizations at War in Afghanistan and Beyond (2008), Abdulkader H. Sinno defends the singular usage of “Taliban” this way:

“Taliban joins the Arabic noun talib (seeker, as in seeker or truth or knowledge) with the plural Dari and Pashto suffix ‘an.’ I refer to the Taliban in both the singular and plural to reflect current practice. It is more accurate to use the singular tense, however, because the Taliban is an organization with a structure and not an amorphous group of students like the name would indicate and the organization’s mythology would imply.”

Our position is that the plural use of “Taliban” for members of the movement is firmly established in common usage and is etymologically sound. But when speaking of the organization rather than its members (as in “The Taliban is growing”), it’s reasonable to use the word as a singular collective noun.

Check out our books about the English language