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The ability root in Palestinian Arabic and its actuality entailment


The ability root in Palestinian Arabic (PA) licenses actuality entailments under perfective-marking, but not under imperfective-marking. In this, the root mirrors the behavior of similar expressions in other languages. However, further morphosyntactic environments that are unique to PA provide empirical arguments against certain theoretical accounts of actuality entailments, and show a robust correlation between aspect-shifting and actuality-entailment licensing.

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  1. 1.

    The PA judgements reported in this study came from informal elicitations with eight personal acquaintances of the author’s. All eight are adult native speakers of Palestinian Arabic. Judgements from other languages were taken from the cited references, and in one instance, from comments of an anonymous NLLT reviewer that were later partially confirmed from personal elicitations.

  2. 2.

    Though these languages differ from English in overtly distinguishing pfv from imp, the inferences in the (a) examples—the AEs that is—have been known to have parallels in English itself, as in John was able to hit three bullseyes in a row. See von Wright (1963) and Thalberg (1969).

  3. 3.

    Baglini and Francez (2016) revisited Karttunen and Peters’s (1979) analysis and offered a different take on the meaning of manage. The details need not concern us here.

  4. 4.

    Note that what Karttunen and Peters would call a “conventional implicature” is represented as a definedness condition in the two entries, a formal notion that is typically used to capture presuppositions. Whether the inferences of these implicative verbs should be represented in this way is something that I do not address here, as it does not affect my main claims.

  5. 5.

    See Arregui et al. (2014) for a crosslinguistic survey of the different uses of imp-marking.

  6. 6.

    Bhatt attributes this distinction to Lawler (1973), Dahl (1975). See also Carlson’s (1995) distinction between “inductive-” and “rule-”based accounts of genericity.

  7. 7.

    For a detailed discussion, see Hacquard (2014); see also Falk and Martin (2017) for discussion of cases where manage takes generic readings.

  8. 8.

    The entry of imp in (12b) is specific to its generic uses. We will return to other, non-modal uses later.

  9. 9.

    Hacquard (2014) and Mari and Martin (2007) also share Homer’s judgement.

  10. 10.

    Following questions from an anonymous reviewer, I leave it open whether it is the /b-/ prefix that contributes the imperfective meaning in (24), or the templatic arrangement of the root consonants. Since my concern is with the overall meaning of the form, and how it differs from the meanings of other forms, the contributions of its morphological parts are not something that needs to be fully understood here.

  11. 11.

    prt also provides nominal agentive forms from verbal roots, as in the well-known case of /kaatıb/ “writer” from the root /ktb/. This reading plays no role in the data we consider.

  12. 12.

    In fact these data are likely not so heterogeneous, and can all be analyzed as instances of a perfect-like construction. I will talk more about this possibility later. Let me note that, while it may appear odd at first to translate an allegedly perfect construction with a progressive, this would not be odd if the relevant form (the root appearing in prt) were assumed to be stative. There is an alternative view, due to Boneh (2010), that associates these roots with telic meanings, e.g. “lift” instead of “be carrying” and “fall asleep” instead of “sleep.” Boneh uses result-states to account for the readings in (27b-c), but I do not think the account can explain why these sentences can be used to felicitously answer the question What was he/she doing? unlike other eventives that permit post-state readings in the prt, e.g. “go home.” See also Hallman (2017) for discussion of Boneh’s analysis.

  13. 13.

    In English, acceptability in the simple present is often used to diagnose stativity, but because there is no identifiable counterpart to the simple present in PA, I chose the progressive diagnostic instead.

  14. 14.

    The precise characterization and source of this inference is unclear, but the finding does not affect the point made here, that the roots are stative, nor does it affect the point made earlier about the absence of AEs in the (past) participial form of the ability root. I will say more about this in Sect. 5.

  15. 15.

    Oddly, the inference in the present suggests quite strongly that the relevant action is being attempted, but in the past it does not. Thus in the company of the past, the imp and the prt forms of the ability root seem to be similar in saying that the relevant ability was (unboundedly) ongoing. I suspect that the difference between the present and the past in this case is related to the difference between the English present perfect and the past perfect (see Portner 2011 for a review). A thorough investigation of this connection is beyond the scope of this paper, however.

  16. 16.

    Perhaps there is a way to make the PED specific to the pfv, or to aspectual operators that require complete events to fall in the time window that is specified by tense. Such a revision of Hacquard’s proposal would be very different from the original, however, since it would no longer rely just on the modality of imp to block AEs, but also on its viewpoint semantics.

  17. 17.

    I thank an anonymous reviewer for bringing up this point.

  18. 18.

    See e.g. Dowty’s (1979) and Landman’s (1992) “Activity Postulates” for attempts to derive actual truth conditions for activities.

  19. 19.

    The “now” part of the label “extended now” refers specifically to the present perfect; in the case of the past perfect the extension applies to a prior interval.

  20. 20.

    For detailed crosslinguistic investigation, see e.g. Iatridou et al. (2003), Pancheva (2003).

  21. 21.

    The idea of classifying “carry” and “sleep” as statives, and of explaining the U-readings of their prt-forms accordingly, may seem odd to readers who associate “carrying” and “sleeping” with activities. It is a fact, however, that in the PA progressive these roots do not sound natural, and certainly lose the meanings indicated above. Like other statives, progressive marking on these roots produces an ingressive reading, which in the case of “carry” comes to mean “lift,” and in the case of “sleep” comes to mean “fall asleep.” See also footnote 12.

  22. 22.

    This description is very rough, but it will do for my present purposes. The Bulgarian sentences are Iatridou et al.’s (2003) examples (35) and (36).

  23. 23.

    It is noteworthy that the ability verb in Bulgarian has both a perfective and an imperfective stem, and both can appear under the perfect. As expected, AEs result in the former case but not in the latter (Roumi Pancheva p.c.). In (i) I show the plain pfv and imp forms; in (ii) the perfect forms:

    1. (i)
    1. (ii)

    It would be interesting to see if the same effect can be found in PA, but unfortunately the PA prt form does not co-occur with additional aspect morphology.

  24. 24.

    This a well-known challenge in the literature on coercion, and a variety of contextual factors and lexical idiosyncracies seem to be at play (see e.g. Pustejovsky 1995 and de Swart 2011). It must be noted that the idea of associating the ability expression with the actualistic shift is independent of the question why that particular shift is available, and why it is associated with ability in e.g. PA. So, accepting a view like Homer’s (as I do) does not explain why the expression of ability in PA undergoes actualistic shift instead of, say, ingressive shift. The discussion above is an attempt at relating Homer’s act to de Swart’s “dynamic” shift, but I must leave the job of working out the details to future work.

  25. 25.

    This conjunctive definition faces problems under negation. In Alxatib (2016b, 2019) I suggested replacing the conjunction with a biconditional presupposition.

  26. 26.

    (62b) carries the same implication that its English translation does: that it took some effort on Iyad’s part to love Lolo.


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The project that led to this paper began in a conversation that I had with Livia Camargo Souza about modals in Brazilian Portuguese. I thank her for her input, and for inspiring me to think about Palestinian Arabic. For suggestions and discussion, I thank Yi-Hsun Chen, Veneeta Dayal, Reem Faraj-Kanjawi, Kai von Fintel, Jane Grimshaw, Valentine Hacquard, Felipe Hisao Kobayashi, Fabienne Martin, Jon Nissenbaum, Roumi Pancheva, Orin Percus, Alaa Sharif, Yael Sharvit, three anonymous NLLT reviewers, and audiences at the Rutgers SURGE group, the CUNY colloquium series, and NELS 46. An older and much simpler version of this paper appeared in the NELS 46 proceedings volume as Alxatib (2016a).

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Alxatib, S. The ability root in Palestinian Arabic and its actuality entailment. Nat Lang Linguist Theory 39, 657–685 (2021).

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  • Actuality entailment
  • Palestinian Arabic
  • Aspect
  • Telicity
  • Modals
  • Implicativity
  • Aspect-shift