Linguistics Anonymous

03 January 2006

reflexives in arabic verbal forms.

the arabic verbal system is famous for its multiple forms based upon a common triliteral root linking each of the discrete verbs to a common semantic base (mccarthy calls these binyanim in his prosodic theory of nonconcatenative morphology. i will call them "forms"). the varying forms are created by affixing segments to the root - typically by infixation. there are many forms, but three are under consideration here: forms V, VI, and VIII, the reflexives of forms II, III, and I, respectively.

(actually, there is quite a bit of debate about the semantic relationships between the various verbal forms. classical arabic scholars identified V as the reflexive of II, VI as the reflexive of III, and VIII as the reflexive of I. this relationship seems to hold in classical arabic (CA), but it is not always the case even in modern standard arabic, the current literary descendent of CA. the picture is further complicated when looking at the spoken dialects - most of the standard semantic relationships have broken down and are not as clear-cut as the classical analysis. all data concerning this matter presented here is from Younes, Munther. 2000. "Redundancy and Productivity in Palestinian Arabic Verb Derivation." in Proceedings of the Third Conference of AIDA. Manwel Misfud, ed.)

each of the three forms under consideration here contain a common affix /ta/, identified by mccarthy and most of the standard literature as the reflexive morpheme in these forms. the intersting part about these data is that in forms V and VI the morpheme is prefixed to the verb:

root I V VI
ktb katab takattab takaatab
Drb Darab taDarrab taDaarab

in form VIII, however, the morpheme is infixed between the first and second root consonants (along with a prefixed /i-/ and a deletion of the first interconsonantal vowel):

root VIII
ktb iktatab
Drb iDtarab

i feel, contrary to the standard literature, that the form VIII morpheme in arabic is, or is in the process of becoming in modern dialects, a different morpheme than the reflexive which appears in forms V and VI. the first major reason for believing this comes from the semantic relationships outlined above. in modern arabic, form VIII has been lexicalized and rarely ever has a meaning classifiable as a reflexive of I. instead, form VII is beginning to take on the role of passive of I.

morphophonological data supports this analysis. we would expect identical morphemes to behave similarly with respect to the neutrality of their application across different environments (or at least vary in a predictable way based on the phonology of the language). however, with the form VIII /ta/, however, this is not the case. form VIII /ta/ participates in three kinds of phonological processes not exhibited by /ta/ in the V/VI environments: emphasis, voicing, and semivowel assimilation - in form VIII, the initial consonant of the morpheme assimilates to the first root consonant emphasis features ([RTR]), voicing features ([voice]), and semivowel features ([continuant]). any examination of the /ta/ morpheme specifically and the /t/ phoneme more generally in other environments shows that this is not standard to the phonology of arabic. this only occurs in form VIII.

if the VIII /ta/ is different, then what exactly is happening? younes (op. cit.) points out that this may actually be an example of a larger-level phonological process in that the phonological structure of the root actually seems to be determining which form is the reflexive of form I: VIII in roots with {n, l, r} as the first consonant, VII elsewhere. this seemingly bizarre fact can be explained quite easily if, contrary to the standard analysis, VIII is not seen as the reflexive of I. this leaves us with the following standard/reflexive alternations:

standard reflexive
II ~ V

as far as further research is concerned, there is one avenue which i think needs exploring: when presented with nunce words, do speakers of arabic generate the reflexive of a form I according to the phonological environment conditioning as specified in younes? if not, this fact would have to be explained and would possibly call into question this analysis, but if so, it would lend even more support for a reanalysis of form VIII reflexvies and their morphemes in arabic.


  • You know, it's customary to begin English sentences with capital letters.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 4:54 PM  

  • you mean nonce don't you?

    By Blogger qizhong, at 2:34 PM  

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