Saturday, April 02, 2011

In search of the missing radical: a piece of Berber historical morphology

Berber normally has no glottal stops (ء = ʔ) – in fact, Chafik suggested that this was why North Africa favours the Warsh reading of the Qur'an, in which most glottal stops are omitted. However, it turns out* proto-Berber did have glottal stops - and you can still see their footprints on the verbal system.

Berber languages normally have three basic aspect/mood forms:
  • the “aorist” (or “simple imperfect”), used mainly for hypothetical events (“eat!”, “I will eat”, “I would eat”...);
  • the “preterite” (or “simple perfect”), used mainly for past events conceived of as wholes (“I ate”, “I have eaten”);
  • the “intensive” (or “intensive imperfect”), used for events ongoing at the time being referred to, irrespective of tense (“I eat”, “I am eating”, “I was eating”, “keep eating!”)
Usually, you can predict the preterite and intensive from the aorist. For three-consonant roots – eg lmd “learn”, a widespread Phoenician loanword – this is how it works in Tuareg (Tahaggart):
  • Aorist: ǎlməd “learn!”
  • Preterite: (y)-əlmǎd “(he) learned” (change the vowel pattern)
  • Intensive: (i-)lammǎd “he is learning” (double the middle consonant)
Tuareg has kept a distinction between two short vowels, ǎ and ə; but most varieties have just merged the two, so there is no difference in three-consonant roots between the aorist and preterite. So in Siwi, for example, you get:
  • Aorist: əlməd “learn!”
  • Preterite: (y)-əlməd “(he) learned”
  • Intensive: (i)-ləmməd “he is learning”
(Students of Akkadian/Assyrian/Babylonian will be getting a sense of déjà vu now...)

But some verbs have two consonants rather than three. Looking at Siwi I noticed that, if the verb had two consonants and no long vowels, there seemed to be two possibilities for the intensive, not just one; contrast:
  • Aorist: fəl “leave!”
  • Preterite: (y)-əfla “(he) left”
  • Intensive: (i)-təffal “he is leaving”
  • Aorist: ləs “wear!”
  • Preterite: (y)-əlsa “(he) wore”
  • Intensive: (i)-ləss “he is wearing”
So why the split?

Well, looking at the intensive forms, you see that in fəl you double the first consonant, while for ləs you double the second one. If you wanted to try to relate these to three-consonant verbs, you might think of something like:
- fəl < *Xfl
- ləs < *lsX

But if you look at Siwi on its own, there seem to be a lot of problems with this idea: in particular, why would the preterite of fəl end in -a?

Looking wider provides some answers. It turns out that in Tuareg – like Kabyle, and Tashelhiyt, and Ghadamsi, and a few other varieties – these verbs are distinct in the preterite too, and they are distinguished in exactly the way you'd expect from that little piece of internal reconstruction:
  • Aorist: əfəl “leave!”; əǵən “kneel!”
  • Preterite: (y)-fǎl “(he) left”; (y)-ǵǎn “(it) knelt”
  • Intensive: (y)-ffal “he is leaving”; (y)-ǵǵan “it is kneeling”
  • Aorist: ǎls “wear!”; əsəl "hear!"
  • Preterite: (y)-lsa “(he) wore”; (y)-sla "he heard"
  • Intensive: (y)-lass “he is wearing”; (y)-sall "he is hearing"
It's just that in Siwi – and Mzabi, and Chaoui, and Tarifit, and all the other Zenati Berber languages – the preterites of these two verb classes are merged, so they both end in -a. So our internal reconstruction is looking good... but what consonant might have been lost?

Zenaga, the Berber language of Mauritania, gives us part of the answer. In Zenaga, they look like this:
  • Aorist: ägun “kneel!”
  • Preterite: (y)-ugän “(it) knelt”
  • Intensive: (y)-uggan / (yə)-ttugun “it is kneeling”
  • Aorist: ätyši “wear!”, ätyšaʔ-m “wear! (to a group)”
  • Preterite: (y)-ityša “(he) wore; ityšäʔ-n “they wore”
  • Intensive: (yi)-yässä “he is wearing”; yässäʔ-n “they are wearing”
Notice that glottal stop ʔ that shows up when you add a consonant. That isn't automatic in Zenaga: contrast y-ugrah “he heard”, ugrān “they heard”. So it looks as though the original conjugation of “wear” was something like:
  • Aorist: *ǎlsəʔ “wear!”
  • Preterite: *(y)-əlsǎʔ “(he) wore”
  • Intensive: *(yə)-lassǎʔ “he is wearing”
We can also see that the missing first consonant in verbs like fəl, if they had one, was not ʔ – as far as I know, no Berber language has preserved evidence of what it may have been. (The t showing up in Siwi is probably not original, but rather borrowed from the intensive of vowel-initial roots.)

But there's still a problem here: why is *-ǎʔ reflected differently in the intensive vs. the preterite? A full answer for that would require a look at reflexes of the glottal stop in general, not just in the verbal system. But in several Berber languages, in fact, it's reflected identically. Compare, from opposite ends of the Berber world:

Tashelhiyt (southern Morocco):
  • Aorist: ls “wear!”
  • Preterite: (i)-lsa “(he) wore”
  • Intensive: (i)-lssa “he is wearing”
Awjila (eastern Libya):
  • Aorist: əsəl “hear!”
  • Preterite: (yə)-sla “(he) heard”
  • Intensive: (i)-səlla “he is hearing”
Clearly, Tashelhiyt and Awjila are not likely to form a subgroup! So my tentative interpretation would be that the form with -a is regular, and the form without -a found in Siwi, and Tuareg, and Kabyle, and almost every other Berber language between southern Morocco and Awjila is analogical – the intensive is always formed from the aorist, and it must have felt wrong to have one that looks as though it's based on the preterite. I've been looking at the always problematic subgrouping of Berber lately, and this would have interesting implications for that – it would suggest that Kabyle is more closely related to Zenati than to Moroccan Atlas Berber, since they share this innovation. But in Berber a lot of innovations seem to have spread areally, so it's scarcely conclusive.

* (All but the last bit of this post is an introductory summary of work by Prasse, Kossmann, and Taine-Cheikh that I've recently been digesting. It offers an interesting small-scale parallel to the story of Saussure's laryngeals.)


PhoeniX said...

Great to see you delve into this subject!

Just something I'd like to add was the following.

I think fel is not of the type Xfl, or at least not of the type ʔFL. Verbs that have an initial gottal stop, generally retain a stable long vowel in the other Berber Languages

For example Taine-Cheikh's root ʔGH/H* `to refuse'(page 20)
A yoʔgih P yuʔgäh

This corresponds perfectly with Tamazight GY `to refuse'
A yagey P yugey

Proto-Berber would be:
A *äʔgëy P *ëʔgäy
(*ë for schwa, *ä for short a)

The place of the glottal stop may have been before the vowel, but due to Zénaga evidence this is hard to determine. But I have trouble understanding how *ʔä/*ʔë would yield a/u. But maybe that's my Indo-Europeanist mind wanting to find *VH > VV

I think the loss of y in Zénaga is regular in this context, but the reflexes word finally can be very confusing.

So then what was fel?

I think that we should not look for a third consonant in this root.

A *fël(?) P *fäl I *ffal

I don't understand the *a infix in the Intensive (I'd expect ffël). But the long f can be explained by changing the rule to 'The before last consonant geminates' rather than 'the middle consonant geminates'.

(I'm sorry if this is a double post, Blogger was giving me errors)

Lameen Souag الأمين سواق said...

I agree that certainly the X in "fel" is not from a glottal stop - that would have shown up in Zenaga.

Prasse suggests the structure fXl for "fel" etc instead. At first I thought this was mad, but the more I think about the better it sounds. The cluster would explain why the initial vowel shows up in the imperative etc., while intensive fǎXXǎl > fal makes good sense. Then instead of the vowel length being irregular, it's the gemination of f that's irregular, and we have to assume that it was motivated by a secondary application of a rule like the one you suggest - "geminate the penultimate consonant in the intensive".

Now in general fel-type verbs do not have a glottal stop in Zenaga. But there is one odd, apparently irregular exception:
- Aorist: aḍuṛ “fall!”
- Preterite: (y)-uḍar “(he) fell”
- Intensive: (y)-uḍḍaʔṛ “he is falling”

We could explain this by supposing that there is a contrast between *fhl "go" and *ḍʔr "fall", if we assume that even in Zenaga ʔ > 0 / C_, or at least C_[short vowel].

Anonymous said...

interesting! But how do you know "lemed" (study/learn) is a Phoenician word?