Monday, November 28, 2011

Meaningless morphemes from Malta to Matrouh

A while back, Bulbul pointed out to me that in Maltese (the Arabic-derived language spoken in the EU member state of Malta) the plural of "guru" (guru) is "guruwijiet" (where "j"=y.) Obviously, the stem is "guru". The plural suffix is -iet, which is one of the commonest Maltese plurals, and derives from Arabic -āt; compare saltn-a "kingdom" > saltn-iet. But in that case what is the -ij- (ie -iyy-) doing there, and in other cases like omm "mother" > omm-ij-iet? On the face of it it looks like a morpheme without a function.

Oddly enough, as I discussed in my PhD thesis, you get the same phenomenon in Siwi Berber. It happens with Arabic external plurals, eg lə-kdew-a "squash" > lə-kdew-iyy-at, but also with Berber ones, eg ta-ngugəs-t "wagtail bird" > ti-ngugs-iyy-en, baṭaṭəs "potatoes" > baṭaṭs-iyy-ən (the usual plural suffixes are feminine -en and masculine -ən.) You seem to get it occasionally in western Libyan Arabic too (eg žnarāl "general" > žnarāl-iyy-a.)

In both Maltese and Siwi, it appears to be used mainly on nouns whose form is unusual - ones with syllable structures and vowel patterns that are unusual for nouns in the language. The -iyy- suffix looks just like the suffix used to derive nouns indicating origin from a place (eg Sīwi(yy) < Sīw-a); most plural markers in Arabic are specific to nouns of a particular shape, but this suffix can be attached to nouns of any shape. In a sense, it serves as a bridge to reformat the input (the singular) into a form acceptable to the plural function. It thus has a functional value within the context of the morphology. However, it fairly clearly has no meaning at all - which seems fairly remarkable to me. I suppose you could compare the -iss- that shows up in some forms of French -ir verbs (fin-ir "to finish" > nous fin-iss-ons "we finish"), but historically that seems to be part of the stem rather than just an originally meaningless add-on as here.

Can you think of another morpheme (suffix/prefix/whatever) that has to be there in some contexts, but that has no meaning?

14 comments:

kato said...

In the Maltese example, would the -ij- in the plural omm-ij-iet "mothers" not come from *ummahāt, resulting from the loss of -h-?

bulbul said...

Well, maybe. But that wouldn't explain scores of plurals of the same type, both native (art - artijiet) and borrowed (missier - missirijiet, karta - kartijiet). Unless, of course, omm is the source and missirijiet the first new plural formed by analogy and then came the rest. Makes sense semantically, but how likely is it?

John Cowan said...

Actually, French -iss- is from Latin -ēsc-, which was a resultative in Latin (adolēscō 'become adult', e.g.) but became semantically bleached down to nothing in the Romance languages. Semantic bleaching is common enough, and there is nothing to prevent it from going all the way.

A similarly fully bleached affix in English is -ate, which began as the Latin past participle suffix. But because it was more or less random which Latin verbs were imported into English using the present stem and which as participles, there simply is no synchronic reason why we use prepare and separate in English rather than *preparate and/or *separe.

David Marjanović said...

How about West Germanic (lost in English) ge- in past participles? And how did it end up as part of the stem in gewinnen "win"? And what about the second /g/ in gegessen (past participle of essen?

Semantic bleaching is common enough, and there is nothing to prevent it from going all the way.

Indeed, Latin con- as a verb prefix has bleached all the way in AFAIK all Romance languages. In many words it had already bleached pretty far in Classical Latin.

bulbul said...

it appears to be used mainly on nouns whose form is unusual
It's a bit more complicated than that. I mean I wouldn't be surprised if it were something like the conjugation patterns of borrowed verbs which are modelled after verba tertiae infirmae - i.e. an irregular form was extended to borrowings and then regularized [1]. But what about such cases as art/artijiet (instead of *arieti) or żmien/żminijiet (instead of *azmina)? Maltese has no problem with broken plurals and borrowed nouns (see storja/stejjer), so what giveth?

[1] Corpus data on the ratio of native words vs. borrowings forthcoming.

Abu Ilyás said...

Mmm... what about Persian plural ending ـجات as in سبزى > سبزيجات or ميوه > ميوجات?

Rain_Drops said...

As you concluded it's used mainly on nouns whose form is unusual. We are familiar with this kind of plurals in Egypt, if you know a poet named Nageeb Sorour, his most famous diwan is named "k***-ommeyyat"

Abu Ilyás said...

Please correct me if I am wrong but I guess كس أميات is the expected plural of كس أمية and not of كس أم.

Lameen Souag said...

JC: -ate is a great example synchronically, but both it and -esc- at least had a meaning to start with!

DM: I'd say ge- is still functional, but that second g- looks a lot more like this -iyy-...

Bulbul: In the absence of a phonemic glottal stop, art is a pretty atypical word - but more significant perhaps is the fact that "earth", "time", and for that matter "mother" are all words that are very rarely pluralised, increasing the pressure to adopt some commoner plural type. Looking forward to your corpus data!

Abu Ilyas: I think the -j- in -jāt is because most Persian nouns ending in a vowel used to end in -g, but it would be interesting to have more details on the history of that one.

Rain Drops: thanks. Do you have any more clear-cut examples? (The one you give sounds like a pun on Rubā3iyyāt to me...)

Abu Ilyás said...

Yet we have a plural like دوا > ادويه / ادويجات whose singular is clearly of Arabic origin...

John Cowan said...

In Garo, which has a vast number of borrowings from English and Bengali (in principle, any English or Bengali word is a valid Garo word if a Garo-speaker chooses to adopt it), there is a dummy verb root ka- to which verbal endings can be added, since borrowed verbs are indeclinable. I can't check this now, but I believe I remember the example disimisi kajok '3SG has dismissed' correctly.

afifay said...

Wouldn't it be a hiatus break (fr. rupture d'hiatus) preventing two vowels from colliding as in tamazight :

yenna-as -> yenna-y-as, he told him/her
a argaz! -> ay argaz!, o man!
tama-u -> tama-y-u, this side ?

y is irrelevant semantically but makes sense phonetically

ref. Michel Quitout - Grammaire berbère: rifain, tamazight, chleuh, kabyle - page 22

Anonymous said...

@John Cowan: But that's the prototypical light verb, the suru of the Japanese, and the et-/bol- of the Turkic peoples!

John Cowan said...

Suru has many meanings, of which this use with borrowed verbs is just one. But ka, IF I remember correctly, has no other use: it is purely a vehicle for verb endings.