Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Tigre between ejectives and pharyngealization

There is some debate over the original pronunciation of the "emphatic" consonants (Arabic ط ض ظ ص ق) in Semitic and more generally in Afroasiatic: were they ejective as in Amharic, or pharyngealized/uvular as in Arabic? For a number of reasons, such as that in proto-Semitic they did not show a voicing contrast, the general opinion is that they were glottalized. Yet pharyngealized consonants show up not just in Arabic and neo-Aramaic but even in Berber, which would on the face of it suggest that the feature predates proto-Semitic. Either we have to suppose independent parallel development, or we must assume that Berber ejectives turned into pharyngealized consonants under the influence of Arabic. The latter seems more probable, but only if we can show that it is indeed plausible for a language to make such a change as a result of widespread bilingualism in Arabic.

It turns out that Tigre, the main language of northern Eritrea, offers a concrete example of just that. The inland plateau dialect of the Mansa`, commonly considered as standard, is described by Raz (1983) as having four ejectives k' (usually [ʔ]), t', s', and č̣ , and no pharyngealized or uvular consonants. You can hear an example of standard Tigre here, which seems consistent with his description. The coastal Hirgigo dialect spoken around Massawa, however - as heard in these Learn Tigre YouTube videos, however, show a rather different situation. ḳ is simply [q] (as in "elbow", "neck", "thigh"), ṭ is [tˤ] (as in "goat"), ṣ is [sˤ] (as in "white", "black", "back"); only for č̣ can you occasionally hear a slightly ejective realization [tʃ] ~ [tʃ'] (as in "fingers" or "fingernails"). The result is a good deal easier for an Arabic speaker to pronounce! This should not be too surprising: the port of Massawa has had extensive contact with Arabic speakers for many centuries. In fact, it's said to be the place where some of the first Muslims, seeking refuge from the persecution they were suffering in Mecca, landed on their way to the Abyssinian court. Such a diversity of emphatic consonant realizations within a single language confirms in turn that it is plausible for the habit of pharyngealizing emphatic consonants to be transferred from a language to its neighbors.


David Marjanović said...

There is supposedly at least one Neo-Aramaic dialect that retains ejectives, and another has supposedly reduced the "emphasis" contrast to an aspiration contrast. I'll check soon if my source cited any sources.

PhoeniX said...

This is a great find! The emphatic t in goat sounds pretty ejective to me though, although also pharyngealized.

David Marjanović said...

Found it. Bomhard's 2008 book, p. 137–8:


In the Semitic branch, the so-called “emphatics” have three different realizations: (A) in Arabic, the emphatics have been described in the relevant literature as either uvularized (cf. Catford 1977b:193) or pharyngealized consonants (cf. Al-Ani 1970:44—58; Catford 1977b:193; Chomsky—Halle 1968:306); (B) in the Modern South Arabian languages (cf. Johnstone 1975:6—7, §2.1.2), the Semitic languages of Ethiopia (cf. Moscati 1964:23—24, §8.2), and several Eastern Neo-Aramaic dialects (such as, for example, Urmian Nestorian Neo-Aramaic and Kurdistani Jewish Neo-Aramaic), the emphatics are glottalized — the glottalization is weak in Urmian Nestorian Neo-Aramaic; and (C) in several other Neo-Aramaic dialects (such as, for example, Ṭūr-‘Abdīn), the emphatics are realized as unaspirated voiceless stops (cf. Dolgopolsky 1977:1) — here, the non-emphatic voiceless stops are distinguished from the emphatics by the presence of the feature of aspiration.

Circumstantial evidence indicates that the emphatics may also have been glottalized in Akkadian, Ancient Hebrew, and the oldest Aramaic: (A) In Akkadian, when two emphatics cooccurred in a root, one of them was changed into the corresponding non-emphatic (Geers’ Law), thus: ~ / > t ~ /; ~ > k ~ ; ~ > ~ t (cf. Ungnad—Matouš 1969:27). Now, a constraint similar to that described by Geers’ Law is found in several languages having ejectives (cf. Hopper 1973:160—161). According to this constraint, two ejectives cannot cooccur in a root. Thus, if we take the emphatics of Akkadian to have been ejectives, then Geers’ Law finds a perfectly natural explanation as a manifestation of this constraint. (B) Pharyngealization is not incompatible with voicing, but glottalization is (cf. Greenberg 1970:125—127, §2.2). Thus, Arabic has voiced as well as voiceless emphatics (cf. Al-Ani 1970:44—58; Ambros 1977:8—10 and 13—14). In Hebrew and Aramaic, however, the emphatics are never voiced (cf. Cantineau 1952:93; Moscati 1964:23—24), and the same is most likely true for Akkadian and Ugaritic as well. (C) Pharyngealization is always accompanied by the backing of contiguous vowels (cf. Hyman 1975:49; Ladefoged 1971:63—64). Similar backing is sometimes also found in conjunction with glottalization. Indeed, in all of the Neo-Aramaic dialects mentioned above, vowels are always backed when next to emphatic consonants, regardless of how the emphatics are realized. However, while backing of adjacent vowels is a mandatory corollary of pharyngealization, it is optional with glottalization. Therefore, since the emphatics of Arabic are pharyngealized, contiguous vowels are always backed (cf. Al-Ani 1970:23—24; Cantineau 1952:92; Martinet 1975[1959]:237). No such backing is observable in either Akkadian or Hebrew (cf. Cantineau 1952:93; Martinet 1975[1959]:237—238; Moscati 1964:23—24).


Dolgopolsky (1977) is: Emphatic consonants in Semitic, Israel Oriental Studies VII:1—13.

Lameen Souag الأمين سواق said...

David: Thanks for the detailed quote!

PhoeniX: After re-listening, I agree: in one of the two repetitions it's ejective as well as pharyngealized (in the other it sounds just pharyngealized to me).

Bob Hoberman said...

Thanks, Lameen, for this really valuable information. As for Neo-Aramaic, I have to set the record straight: there are no ejectives, and probably no glottalization. I've listened carefully to a wide range of dialects including "Urmian Nestorian" and Kurdistani Jewish Neo-Aramaic, and written about the phonology of several, and I've never heard ejectives or glottalization. No grammar or phonological description that I know of mentions Neo-Aramaic ejectives or glottalization, with the exception than Garbell (1965, The Jewish Neo-Aramaic Dialect of Persian Azerbaijan, p. 33): "in the production of ["flat"] p, t, k the glottis is entirely closed in S [the southern sub-dialect) and only slightly opened in N [the northern sub-dialect]"; this is in addition to pervasive velarization in emphatic words. Geoffrey Khan's 2008 grammar of the same dialect includes careful instrumental phonetic examination of some emphatics, and doesn't mention glottalization. (I don't have Tsereteli's works from the 1940s-1960s handy to check, so perhaps some Aramaic speakers in the Caucasus do have ejectives, but on the other hand I've heard another distinguished Georgian linguist, Thomas Gamkrelidze, pronounce Arabic with ejectives!) Dolgopolsky, in the article that Bomhard cites, gives no references to his information on Aramaic.

As for Ṭūr-‘Abdīn, Bomhard is correct but misleading when he says "the emphatics are realized as unaspirated voiceless stops" and wrong when he says "the non-emphatic voiceless stops are distinguished from the emphatics by the presence of the feature of aspiration." According to Jastrow's fine 1985 grammar, /ṭ/ is a voicless unaspirated velarized stop, and /t/ is "mittelstark aspiriert" before a vowel and in word-final position; moreover, Ṭūr-‘Abdīn has /ḍ/ and /ṣ/, which are likewise velarized. (Some Neo-Aramaic dialects do have an opposition of aspirated and unaspirated stops under the influence of Kurdish.)

My conclusion: No Neo-Aramaic dialect has ejectives. And no Neo-Aramaic dialect has any laryngeal feature (glottalization or aspiration) instead of (corresponding to, cognate with) velarization/pharyngealization. If Garbell is right, velarized stops in one dialect may have simultaneous glottal closure (probably similar to English t in a word like get.)

My guess is that Aramaic acquired velarization/pharyngealization as an areal feature from Arabic. One reason for thinking this is that the old Aramaic spirantization applies to stops but not to the emphatic /ṭ/‎ or /q/. Glottalization could account for this, but pharyngealization can't.

Bob Hoberman said...

Correction! I overlooked Geoffrey Khan's massive 2016 grammar of the Urmi Christian dialect (what Bomhard calls "Nestorian"). His description is quite similar to Garbell's, in that unaspirated consonants in pharyngealized/velarized environments, including the reflex of ‎/ṭ/‎, retain "glottal tension". But the important thing is that this is in addition to pharyngealization. So it's still the case that no Neo-Aramaic dialect has a laryngeal feature as the main phonetic property of emphatics.

David Marjanović said...

Wow, thanks! Good to know! So it looks like the report of ejectives is a misunderstanding of "closed glottis".

My guess is that Aramaic acquired velarization/pharyngealization as an areal feature from Arabic. One reason for thinking this is that the old Aramaic spirantization applies to stops but not to the emphatic /ṭ/‎ or /q/. Glottalization could account for this, but pharyngealization can't.

I rather think that spirantization only happens to aspirated consonants (whether that's a phonologically distinctive feature or not, of course). Whether the unaspirated ones are ejectives or not has no bearing on that.

Lameen Souag الأمين سواق said...

Bob: Thank you for some very detailed and insightful comments! I do wonder what happens in Neo-Aramaic dialects in the Caucasus though.

David: I don't see any reason to suppose that the voiced consonants of Aramaic were ever aspirated.

David Marjanović said...

Sorry: among voiceless consonants, spirantization only happens to aspirated ones.

Voiced ones can become aspirated for no particular reason, though. It's documented in Middle Chinese (the "second muddy" consonants). If that happened in Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic shortly before spirantization, we probably have no way of finding out.

petre said...

David -

"among voiceless consonants, spirantization only happens to aspirated ones."

Sounds kinda plausible, but can you help me with (counter-)examples?