Friday, April 20, 2007


A query on LINGUIST List the other day asked for examples of other languages which, like English, have a verb "exist" distinct from the general-purpose existential "there is". In Algerian Arabic, such a verb has emerged in recent years through borrowing from French - and has enjoyed the rare distinction of being publicly condemned by the president:
"Ma tinsistish", "ma texistish", the President of the Republic repeated, exclaiming: "What is this language?! It's not French, nor Arabic, nor Tamazight." Looking irritated, he added "I've heard some say that this is a matter of Algerian specificities. If so, I refuse as a citizen to be a part of these specificities."
(L'Expression 9 Mar 2006. The quote can't be found on the official record, which just has a general condemnation of the "repulsive jargon we use in our daily dealings, in which it's sometimes hard to find our national language or even our original unadulterated colloquial dialect.")
Silly as it may sound, this borrowing does have advantages. kayen is the usual way of expressing "there is" in Algerian Arabic, but there are contexts in which it simply won't work - you could not reasonably render "I exist" as *kayen ana, or "Homer existed" as kan kayen Homer (any more than "there's me" or "there used to be Homer" really mean the same thing.) You have to have recourse to loanwords for that, whether you use a Classical Arabic word (mawjuud, say) or a French verb.

Anyway, I did a quick web search for examples of this, not expecting much - but it seems that the online corpus of colloquial Algerian Arabic is bigger than you might have thought, and as full of code-switching as you might expect given who is most likely to have web access. Anyway, presidential proscription or not, a number of examples come up:
* hahahaha mazal yexisti had nou3 taa les femmes? (lol does this kind of women still exist?)
* Antik yerhem waldik, can u send me the link of derja dikssiounaire blenglizia ila yexisti bien sour (Antik please can u send me the link of Darja Dictionary in English if it exists of course)
* Hiphop ma zal yexisti (Hiphop still exists)
* en deux mots : ma yexistich en un mot makachou. (In two words: it doesn't exist. In one word: there isn't any.)
* c un ideal li ma yexistich (It's an ideal that doesn't exist)

Note the -i in this verb. In Algerian Arabic, Classical final-y verbs have mostly merged to end in -a in the past 3rd person and -i everywhere else: bka "he cried", yebki "he cries", bkit "I cried", ebki "cry!"; wella "he returned", ywelli "he returns", wellit "I returned", welli "return!". The rest of the stem remains constant throughout the conjugation; only the final vowel changes in such cases. Some of the commonest forms of French verbs happen to end in [e]: j'existais, il existait, exister, existez... So by an interesting compromise, throughout North Africa most French verbs are borrowed as final-y forms: tilifuna "he called", ytilifuni "he calls", tilifunit "I called", tilifuni "call!" (< telephoner). exister is no exception.

I wonder if other dialects have adopted this word too? I found one example from Tunisia, but that scarcely counts as a different dialect...


bulbul said...

"Ma tinsistish", "ma texistish", the President of the Republic repeated, exclaiming: "What is this language?!
Looks like Maltese with bad spelling, your excellency :o)

That word-final -i does look interesting. What you said about borrowed verbs becoming IIIy verbs in Algerian Derja applies to Italian or English verbs in Maltese as well: they end either in -ja or -a in 3rd person singular perfect (ezista, studja, obda, stabilixxa) and with the exception of one class (studja - jistudja) all end in -i in singular imperfect: jezisti, nobdi, jistabilixxi). Plural forms, however, end in -u (or -aw for the studja class).
What does the plural of yexisti look like, if there is any?

And I totally love love love that second example.

Lameen Souag said...

It would be yegzistiw or yegzistu, but I can only find an example of the former:

"Mazalhoum yexistiw had el 3ibade ???" (Do such people still exist?)

Lameen Souag said...

Interesting how Maltese reached a similar strategy, btw. A few of the (oldest?) loanwords in Algerian Arabic don't follow it: gerdef "salute" < "gardez-vous", and an interesting strategy from earlier times can be observed in Shay Lamora: direct use of Spanish infinitive forms.

bulbul said...

yegzistiw? Hm, interesting. Is the word final diphtong just an allophone to -u or is it indicative of something else?

Interesting how Maltese reached a similar strategy, btw.
Yep, that's what intrigued me.
I haven't seen Manwel Mifsud's "Loan Verbs in Maltese" yet, but I assume he has a word or two to say on the subject.

Good point with Shay Lamora and the infinitives. I gather that was what lead Corre to believe that these were not borrowed directly from Spanish/Provencal, but from a pidgin, i.e. Lingua Franca - The Original. Kinda makes more sense now.

Lameen Souag said...

Not an allophone of -iw, no... more of a sociolinguistic variable thing. Basically, the default is that V-final verbs keep the V throughout (yebRa "he gets well" > yebRaw "they get well", yebki "he cries" > yebkiw "they cry"). But of course this represents a regularisation of an originally less regular pattern with plain -u (yebku "they cry"), and what is presumably the older form is still available.

Affarijiet said...

My reaction was the same as bulbul's. These loan words in Algerian are strikingly similar to how they're rendered in Maltese.
The ending -iw for the plural form exists in certain dialects of Maltese too albeit not the standard. I've often heard it especially in Gozo.

Anonymous said...

Intersting post!
In tunisia I never heard someone saying "Yixisti", we have the pendant "Famma" to the algerian "Kayen", and I think in the tunisian Darja you can use "Famma" to say "I exist", we have a nice expression for uppish people: "Ishsh ya thebbana, ma famma fed'denya ken a:na" (Fly go away, is there only me in this world?), "Famma" is also used in many other expressions like "Famma rabbi fed'denya" (There is a God in this World) etc.
And about the ending -i, in the tunisian dialect there is the frequently used verb "kanben" (or kamben, for to plan, from the french verb combiner) that does not end with an -i: kanben >he planed, ykanben >he's planing, ykanbnou >they are planing.
I know many other examples like "nerverz, ynervez" (nerver), "tnervez, yetnervez" (s'enerver), "jengel, yjengel" (jongler), "gerrev, ygerrev" (faire la greve), or the frequently used "re:gel, yre:gel" (regler) etc.
And the verbs wich have an -a in 3rd person singular perfect, i know one that does not take an -i in present: "tlansa, ytlansa" (se lancer)
All these examples are more used than "Yexisti", wich is more youth slang.


bulbul said...


thank you for the explanation. I asked because it reminded me of Maltese defective verbs where in plural, -u alternates with -aw (nesa-jinsew/beda-jibdew vs. mexa-jimxu/bena-jibnu), which quite puzzles me.

Panu said...

Maltese is what I thought of, too - it is a language I am currently learning, for professional reasons. So, this sort of thing exists (sic!) in Maghreb Arabic too?

Maltese is actually the language that should be used as the global lingua franca. Or as the Mediterranean lingua franca, at the very least. Nobody would be discriminated against, with a language that is equally approachable for the speakers of English, Romance and Arabic. Besides, it is a delightful language in its own right.

David Marjanović said...

Maltese is actually the language that should be used as the global lingua franca. Or as the Mediterranean lingua franca, at the very least. Nobody would be discriminated against

Nothing against pharyngeal fricatives (għ, ħ), but they are very difficult to produce if you aren't used to finding your pharynx in the first place. Phonemic glottal stops are also very un-European, and while they are more common elsewhere, they are e. g. absent from most of India and China.