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Non-sound’ verb Inflection in Arabic: Allomorphic variation and paradigmatic uniformity

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Focusing on the Levantine Arabic variety, this paper investigates the paradigmatic asymmetry observed in the inflection of sound verbs whose stems contain three or four consonants and non-sound verbs whose stems contain only two consonantal realizations. It provides a unified account of verb inflection within Optimality Theory and the theory of paradigms. The target of investigation is the allomorphic variation in the non-third person markers which appear in their basic allomorph in inflected sound verbs, but appear in their augmented éeC form in the paradigms of non-sound (weak and geminate) verbs. Previous analyses have viewed this paradigmatic inconsistency as arbitrary exceptions requiring highly specific rules or allomorphic postulates, thus treating the sound and non-sound verb systems as two distinct types. This paper shows that the interaction of independently-motivated markedness constraints with paradigmatic uniformity constraints is capable of producing these allomorphic effects without recourse to ad-hoc rules or arbitrary allomorphic statements. The two verbal types are therefore treated as a unified system.

The Optimality-theoretic account of affix allomorphy accords a prime role to the markedness constraint optimizing binarity of prosodic constituents, and rhythmic and prosodic uniformity within and across inflectional subparadigms the interaction of which explains the emergence of the augmented allomorph of the affix. The paper advocates an expanded definition of paradigms allowing grammatical categories such as gender, person, case, etc. to form subparadigms subject to what I refer to as paradigm-to-paradigm faithfulness requiring paradigmatic identity within a grammatical category regardless of verb type. Hollow verbs which present an interesting challenge to the analysis are discussed and accounted for by highlighting the role of Anchor in differentiating between hollow verbs and other non-sound verbs. The paper ends with a comparison with the contrast analysis of Broselow (2008) demonstrating on empirical grounds the superiority of the uniformity against the contrast account.

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  1. 1.

    The following phonetic symbols are used throughout this paper:

    ħ= voiceless pharyngeal fricative; ʕ = voiced pharyngeal fricative; ʔ = glottal stop; š = voiceless alveopalatal fricative; ž = voiced alveopalatal fricative; X = voiceless uvular fricative; ġ = voiced uvular fricative; ṭ/ḍ/ṣ = emphatic coronals.

  2. 2.

    In the more familiar root-based analysis informed by the descriptive contributions of the Arabic linguistics tradition, geminate, weak and hollow verbs are hypothesized to be derivatives of biliteral, glide-final and glide-medial roots respectively.

  3. 3.

    The following inflectional category abbreviations are used: 1p, 2p, 3p = first, second and third person; f = feminine; pl = plural.

  4. 4.

    Interestingly, all Arabic varieties inflect geminate verbs with the –VVC extension. I know of no Arabic dialect preserving the Classical Arabic pattern of splitting the geminate before consonantal affixes as in [radad-tu] instead of [raddeet] ‘I responded’.

  5. 5.

    Psycholinguistic experimental works present robust evidence of the psychological reality of the consonantal root (Frost et al. 2000; Boudelaa and Marslen-Wilson 2011; Ussishkin et al. 2015). However, these works focus on strong or sound triconsonantal forms, and do not include all classes of defective or non-sound forms as stimuli. Twist (2006) work on Maltese shows that her experiments elicited faster reaction times for strong verbs as opposed to weak verbs, and strong verbs also elicited fewer errors. Hence, the primacy of the root in non-sound forms is still a debatable subject.

  6. 6.

    Caballero (2006) argues for template-specific constraints to account for cases of abbreviated reduplication in Guarijio where the base truncates to match the truncated reduplicant. Verb templates in Arabic are more straight-forward and consistent and are derivable from independently-motivated constraints applying elsewhere in the language; hence postulating specific templates would be an unnecessary overloading of the lexicon with predictable information. Thanks to an anonymous reviewer for bringing Cavallero’s work to my attention.

  7. 7.

    Ussishkin (2000) proposes the Foot branching constraint (FtBranch) to avoid the ambiguity of FT-BIN, since foot binarity could be interpreted quantitatively to mean bimoraic or disyllabic foot. In a quantity-sensitive language like Arabic, adoption of this constraint requires limiting its effect to one layer of the prosodic hierarchy, for allowing both syllables and moras to branch would result in an impermissibly large syllables or feet. To avoid this, Ussishkin proposes an Alignment constraint as a “size-restricter constraint” penalizing feet containing mor than two moras.

  8. 8.

    The argument for positing an underlying glide in weak verb roots comes from the observed ablaut pattern in CA where the perfective surface vowel [a[ corresponds to either the imperfective [u[ and nominal [w], or imperfective [i] and nominal [y], e.g., [ramaa yarmii ramyun] ‘throw perf., imperf, nom.’ versus [SaHa yaSHuu SaHwun] ‘awaken perf., imperf., nom.’. in Levantine Arabic, all weak forms contain a high front vowel or glide, indicating the disappearance of phonemic short /u/, cf. [ramaa/yirmi rami] versus [SiHi yiSHaa SaHayaan]. Thus, the evidence for an underlying glide no longer holds.

  9. 9.

    Noncontiguous identical elements are allowed in non-verbal stems, as in verbal noun (masdar) [malal] ‘bordam’ from [mall] ‘to be bored’, or [Haabib] ‘like-act.part.’ from [Habb] ‘to like’. Integrity violations in verbal morphology is observed only in derived causatives and intensives compelled by the necessity to realize the causative or intensive morpheme, e.g., [sammam] ‘poison-causative’ from [samm] ‘poison’.

  10. 10.

    Diachronically, the extension /ee/ evolved from the coalescence of the diphthong /ay/ attested in earlier varieties of Arabic, including Standard, and attested in some modern dialects, e.g., Lebanese, Maltese, and Yemeni. But since Palestinian Arabic has no diphthongs, I assume that the mid /e/ vowel has been phonemicized.

  11. 11.

    Gafos and Ralli (2001) have similarly argued for an internal structure of inflectional paradigms based on evidence from two Greek dialects of Lesbos where intra-paradigmatic identity constraints hold along the morphosyntactic dimensions of Person and Number.

  12. 12.

    Arabic textbooks have recently recognized the pedagogical validity of teaching third and non-third inflections as separate subsystems (Brustad et al. 1997), a striking contrast from the pre-90s textbooks which adopted the animacy hierarchy of the Germanic/Romance languages (1sg/2sg/3sg/1pl/2pl/3pl) thus introducing a non-uniform paradigm difficult to internalize.

  13. 13.

    McCarthy’s assumption of a flat paradigm makes sense for CA and MSA where the 3p feminine plural affix /-na/ is the only consonant-initial 3p affix and thus patterns more with non-third person affixes. Compare [the prosodic structure and stress placement in [katábna] ‘they-f wrote’ which patterns with [katábtu] ‘I wrote’ and not [kátabat] ‘she wrote’. Neutralization of plural affixes in many dialects in favor of the masculine marker /-u/ renders the third person paradigm more symmetric, hence a person paradigm decomposition is justified in regional and not Literary Arabic.

  14. 14.

    Left and right braces are a notational convention used to mark members of same paradigm.

  15. 15.

    The low effect of MAX-V is also observed in Standard Arabic, where vowel-final imperfective forms lose the final vowel before a vocalic affix; e.g., /ya-rmii-uun/ > [yarmuun] ‘they throw’.

  16. 16.

    The low and high vowel variants (baka/biki) are used interchangeably within the same dialects but the high vowel variant is more prominent in Lebanese, Syrian and northern Palestinian.

  17. 17.

    A similar relativized alignment constraint is introduced in Kenstowicz (2005) to account for the distribution of diminutive affix allomorphs /-it/ and /-cit/ in Spanish, where preserving the syllabic position of base segments determine the choice of the affix allomorph, [casa] > [casita] vs. [limon] > [limoncito].

  18. 18.

    Kathem Al-Saher, the renowned Iraqi singer and composer, functions as one of the jurors on the two popular programs The Voice and The Voice Kids. Observing his utterances shows many instances of augmented hollow verb conjugation, e.g., [xtaareet] ‘I selected’ and [stafaadeet] ‘I benefited’ (cf. PA [xtart] and [stafatt]). This may indicate that in some Iraqi dialects, Anchor is subordinate to MAX-μ, thus allowing augmentation to apply to all nonsound verbs without exception. More research on nonsound verb paradigms in various Arabic dialects is needed for a full typological analysis of Arabic verb morphology.

  19. 19.

    I would like to thank Sharon Hargus for bringing to my attention the Brevity principle, and for discussing its implication on stem allomorphy.

  20. 20.

    These forms were extracted from data collected for my dissertation. The consultant was a Kuwaiti student working toward his PhD at the same institution. Further data collected from various Kuwaiti serials broadcast on MBC TV corroborate the pattern.


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Correspondence to Samira Farwaneh.

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Farwaneh, S. Non-sound’ verb Inflection in Arabic: Allomorphic variation and paradigmatic uniformity. Morphology 30, 61–89 (2020).

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  • Arabic verbs
  • Optimality
  • Allomorphy
  • Inflection
  • Paradigm uniformity