Monday, January 15, 2007

The plural-breaking mountains of Oman

Arabic is well-known in phonological circles for the diversity and complexity of its broken plurals (jam` at-taksiir جمع التكسير) - that is, plurals formed at least partly by internal modification of the word. The commonest type for four-consonant roots is mainly characterised by an -aa- after the second consonant. For example:

daftar-un > dafaatir-u "notebook"
kawkab-un > kawaakib-u "planet"

Certain rather regular complexities emerge when a long vowel is present in the singular; depending on position, it is either treated as an extra consonant or affects the length of an output vowel:

xaatam-un > xawaatim-u "ring"
risaal-at-un > rasaa'il-u "letter"
qaanuun-un > qawaaniin-u "law"

If the stem has more than four consonants and takes this plural types, the later ones get dropped off the edge, so to speak:

`ankaabuut-un > `anaakib-u "spider"

Now this has been the subject of some interesting work, notably in autosegmental phonology, where such phenomena have been taken as a strong argument for separating consonants and vowels into separate tiers. For Arabic, the plural morphology itself - in this case, the skeleton -a-aa-i[i]-, but there are many others - never seems to involve infixing a true consonant; diminutives in -u-ay-i- can be explained away by treating -y- as a semivowel. But that changes if we look beyond Arabic...

Jibbali/Sheri is a Semitic language spoken on the southern coast of Oman, and (despite its location) is neither descended from nor mutually intelligible with Arabic. Among other changes, it no longer has distinctive vowel length. Its commonest equivalent of the Arabic plural form described above involves the insertion of -ab-/-ɛb- instead of -aa-:

dəftɔr > defɛbtər "notebook"
kənsed > kenabsəd "shoulder"
mɛrkɛb > mirɛbkəb "boat"
muṣħar > muṣɛbħar "branding iron"

although it does have a more Arabic-like form with -o-/-ɔ- in some (mainly feminine) cases:

maħfer > moħofur "basket"
ħalḳũ-t > ħɔloḳum "Adam's apple"

Note that the -ab- plural is productive enough to apply to Arabic borrowings like dəftɔr. I would love to know how this form emerged; as far as I know, no other Semitic language has a b-infix plural.

Ratcliffe, Robert R. The 'Broken' Plural Problem in Arabic and Comparative Semitic. John Benjamins: Amsterdam 1998.


Anonymous said...

Hmm. Very interesting, I can't even think of infixing with consonants. In 'arabic, its always with vowels (unless I'm mistaken?). But the only semitic language I have any experience with is 'Arabic, perhaps you could illuminate..

EMC said...

In some other Semitic languages e.g., Aramaic, /b/ is sometimes derived from consonantal /w/ or /uu/; for instance, /tabra/ "mountain" from /tuura/. Possibly the infix /b/ comes from an original semivowel of this sort.

bulbul said...


absolutely. In Ge'ez (and IIRC Tigrinya, too), the semivowel [w] can often turn to the bilabial stop [b] and vice versa and [w] often corresponds to Arabic/Hebrew/Aramaic [b]. Both Tigrinya and Ge'ez are, just like Jibbali, South Semitic languages, so we may be onto some family trait here...


Don't you mean Shehri?

Lameen Souag الأمين سواق said...

I think you're on to something - the Harsusi equivalents have -oo-, so -aa->-oo->-aw->-ab- is certainly conceivable. I'll have to look out for other examples of such a shift.

Re Sheri: I am assured that the/a correct transcription of the name is Śħeri. Presumably Shehri would be based on an Arabic version.

Anonymous said...

the people are referred to in the Oman Phone book with the spelling ' al Shahri '

John Cowan said...

I'm reminded of how in Greek au eu have become af ef before voiceless consonants.

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