LINGUIST List 30.230

Tue Jan 15 2019

Review: Semitic; Discourse Analysis; Morphology; Syntax: Sjörs (2018)

Editor for this issue: Jeremy Coburn <>

Date: 09-Aug-2018
From: David Wilmsen <>
Subject: Historical Aspects of Standard Negation in Semitic
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Book announced at

EDITOR: Ambjörn Sjörs
TITLE: Historical Aspects of Standard Negation in Semitic
YEAR: 2018

REVIEWER: David Wilmsen, American University of Sharjah


The book Historical Aspects of Standard Negation in Semitic, as author Ambjörn Sjörs describes it, presents a synchronic, diachronic, and comparative investigation of the expression of standard negation in Semitic. S defines standard negation as the unmarked negation of declarative verbal main clauses, adding that this definition provides a base for examining other types of negative predications, such as negation of non-verbal clauses. It happens that non-verbal main clauses regularly occur in Semitic languages.

The book is organized into sixteen chapters in three parts, two chapters of an introduction, eleven of analysis of the materials by individual language, and three chapters of concluding discussion.

Part 1 Introduction

1 Preliminaries

S explains his objectives, scope, and method as being a straightforward comparative study, eventually leading to a reconstruction of the original Semitic negator. He examines the expression of standard negation in the Semitic languages, how that differs from other expressions of negation of verbal clauses, how negated clauses differ from their affirmative counterparts, and how the negative expressions in the Semitic languages historically relate to each other. To accomplish this, he chooses languages, as he says, based upon their genealogical and typological affiliation and upon variation in the expression of standard negation in their texts. Drawing material from texts is a necessity when examining extinct members of the Semitic family. In this, it appears that he relies upon the work of other researchers into those languages and their readings of those texts. No primary materials are listed in the extensive bibliography.

He does not confine himself to the so-called “big five,” those being Akkadian, Classical Arabic, Aramaic, Classical Ethiopic, and Biblical Hebrew. Instead, he samples a range of languages from the Semitic family tree (for a brief introduction to which, see Rubin 2008). About that methodology he says:

“It is not necessary to compare all languages of one family for the sake of comparative linguistics, as long as the comparison is made on the same genealogical node. The nodal depth assumed in this investigation is determined by, among other things, the expression of negation: whenever there is variation in the expression of standard negation within one group, the variation prompts an investigation” (p. 6)

This is a reasoned choice, inasmuch as concentrating on the big five while ignoring other related languages misses much variability, and, as a result, the opportunity for reconstruction. That variability is illustrated early in a table (pp. 10–11), showing all the known Semitic languages and their negators. For ease of reference, S places the names of the languages that he examines in bold. Those are, in the order that he lists them the West Semitic languages Biblical Hebrew, Phoenician, Ugaritic, Old Aramaic, Neo-Aramaic, and Quran Arabic; the Ethiosemitic languages Tigre and Tigrinya, Amharic, Ancient Harari, Modern Harari, Wolane, Silte, Gafat, Kistani, and Peripheral West Gurage; the South Semitic languages Jibbali, Sabaic, and Minaic; and the East Semitic languages Old Assyrian and Literary Old Babylonian.

The chapter provides a review of the four main works about negation in Semitic in general,
ending with an overview of some pertinent details about Semitic language families.

2 On the Grammar of Negation

This is an overview of the typological literature on negation, clearly identifying itself with the functional school of linguistics, relying especially on the work of Dahl (1979 & 2010) and Miestamo (2005), adopting the latter’s conceptions of symmetrical and asymmetrical negation: Symmetric negative clauses do not differ from affirmative clauses other than by the presence of the negator. Asymmetric clauses do. The chapter proceeds to a discussion of non-standard negation and to the renewal of negation, in which S concentrates upon the so-called “Jespersen cycle” (Dahl 1979: 88; van der Auwera 2010), which does not seem to have occurred in Semitic languages with the exception that it is widely believed to have occurred in some Arabic dialects (Diem 2014). S also mentions here in passing another cyclic renewal of negation, the so-called “Croft’s cycle” (more properly the negative existential cycle [Croft 1991], or NEC).

Part 2 Presentation and Analysis of the Material

3 Old Assyrian and East Semitic

Akkadian is the longest attested Semitic language and the language of a world civilization, which left an enormous number of texts, the earliest dating to around 2,500 BC and the latest around 65 AD. Its major dialects are Assyrian and Babylonian.

The main negators in Akkadian are lā and ul[ā]. According to S, “one of the most vexing questions with regard to the system of negation in Old Assyrian is the functional distribution of lā and ulā and the historical background of the latter” (p. 63). To readers unfamiliar with the dialogues within Semitics, this vexation may seem puzzling. Several researchers - whom S acknowledges - see it as a univerbation between standard negator lā and the common Semitic conjunction /w/ ‘and’ arising from neither/nor constructions involving a negator and a conjunction lā […] w lā […] ‘not […] and not […].’ It should not seem unusual or problematic that a language attested over two and a half millennia and longer might develop some new negators out of original patterns. Here, a consideration of negative cycles might have been fruitful. But S does not consider them.

4 Ugaritic

Ugaritic is a North Semitic language known almost entirely in texts from the 14th through the 12th century BC from the ruined city of Ugarit on the northern coast of Syria. Its negators are either lā or ʔal. S identifies the latter as a prohibitive; but, in the numbered examples, it appears more as a negator of hortatives (let him not do…), also expressing negative consequence clauses (lest he do…). Ugaritic also possesses a negator ʔin.

5 Standard Biblical Hebrew

Similar to Ugaritic, the most common negators in Biblical Hebrew are lā, in Hebrew, realized as lō, and an allophone Ɂal-, the standard being lō. The negator ʔal- is also often used in what S calls prohibition, but which, from the numbered examples, again appears to mark dehortatives. S also engages in a discussion of lō […] wa lō […] constructions.

6 Phoenician

In Phoenician, there appear some innovative negators bl, ʔy ʔ(y)bl, along with the by now familiar ʔl. Because the corpus of Phoenician texts is limited, the origins of these are somewhat obscure. S appears to agree with others who derive bl from bi-lā ‘without’ (< ‘with no’). For its part, ʔy may either be a reflex of ʔal, or, as S prefers, a derivation from the wh- interrogative ʔayy.

7 Aramaic, Deir Alla, and Samalian

Aramaic texts first appear about 1000 BC. Much but not all of attested Aramaic writing is in the dialect known as Syriac, which was to become the vehicle of Eastern Christianity. Syriac was written from the 1st through the 7th centuries AD, after which it went into rapid decline with the advent of Islam. It is the second largest attested Semitic language in terms of number of surviving texts. Aramaic is still spoken in a few small, disperse populations to the present day. The negator in Aramaic is l or lh, and the prohibitive ʔal also appears, again most often as a dehortative in the numbered examples. S also discusses Western Neo-Aramaic, which possesses a negator ču in the Ma’lula dialect of western Syria - and nowhere else - alongside lā. This is probably a borrowing from Kurdish. As such, it does not aid in a reconstruction of an original Proto-Semitic negator. Nor does it add anything meaningful to an examination of variation in and between Semitic languages, another stated goal of the book. It is not clear why it should be included in the discussion at all.

8 Quran Arabic

S chooses Quranic Arabic as the oldest extensive attestation of Arabic of any variety. It possesses a wider range of negators than all other Semitic languages that S examines, those being lā, lam, lan, mā, and ʔin. He devotes most of his attention to lā and lam, deriving lam from lā and mā, the latter of which is either an innovation of Western Semitic or of Arabic itself, which exhibits by far the greatest number of attestations, it being the standard negator of the numerous spoken dialects of Arabic. S concurs with the view of earlier researchers that mā derives from a common Semitic wh- interrogative. He seems oddly uninterested in lan, which, for its part, is the negator of anticipatory predications (there is no true future tense in Arabic), and he has hardly anything to say about ʔin, devoting one paragraph and a single numbered example to it at the end of the chapter and another brief consideration of it in Chapter 14 of the concluding discussion.

9 Minaic, Sabaic, and Ancient South Arabian

Ancient South Arabian (ASA) is the language of the civilizations of southern Arabia in what is now Yemen, having left evidence of its existence in its epigraphic writings, some of them found in the far north of the Peninsula. The main negators are lhm (or lm), ʔl, and dʔ in later attestations.

10 Jibbali and Modern South Arabian

Jibbali is one of six Modern South Arabian (MSA) languages, called modern because they still exist, and Arabian for the geographic location of (most of) their speakers in the southern Arabian Peninsula. Neither it nor its sister languages are descended from ASA. Their principal negators are ɔl and lv. MSA negation is distinctive in that it appears at the end of the predicate rather than preceding it. S assumes that this is a result of a Jespersen cycle (pp. 31 & 309), in his only mention of that outside the context of spoken Arabic.

11 Tigre and Tigrinya

The negators in these two languages are ʔI and ʔay, which S derives ultimately from ʔal.

12 Amharic and Harari

Similarly, these possess negators al and aC. Here, S finally discusses some negative asymmetries and non-standard negations, revisiting both in the subsequent chapter.

13 Gafat, Kistane, and Peripheral Western Gurage

These, too, possess negators al, ǝl, and aC. Peripheral Western Gurage also possesses an. This should not be surprising, as [l] => [n] => [l] are regular sound correspondences in Semitic.

Part 3 Concluding Discussion

14 Innovative Expressions of Negation

S wraps up some theoretical matters such as collocation and univerbation with focus particles;
reanalysis of scale reversal contexts; collocation with markers of old information; collocation with pro-sentential negators, and borrowing, the latter largely applicable to Neo-Aramaic ču, borrowed from Kurdish; Gafat and Kistani *tv-, a borrowing from Cushitic; and late Sabaic dʔ, which S supposes may be a borrowing from Aksumite that spread by areal diffusion.

15 Other Negators and Negative Asymmetries

This chapter offers a brief, eight-page reiteration of some of the odds and ends of non-verbal negators and asymmetries that S had addressed earlier.

16 Reconstruction

S concludes with a fairly predictable reconstruction, more or less asserting what most already knew and what perhaps readers of this review can deduce without knowing much about the Semitic languages: the original Proto-Semitic standard negator can be reconstructed as lā. The others are innovations, mostly on the same theme, but with some idiosyncrasies, not the least of which is the Arabic mā.


I shall evaluate the worth of this book from the perspective of an Arabist and a linguist. Its virtue lies in its synthesizing between two covers all or most conventional thinking about standard negation in the Semitic languages and in proposing an elegant but unsurprising reconstruction of the original Proto-Semitic negator as lā. Its contribution is to offer a holistic, systematically comparative investigation of the phenomena.

It will, however, remain inaccessible to linguists unfamiliar with Semitic languages and the prevailing conversations, conventions, and controversies involved in their study. S utilizes terminology familiar to Semiticists without explanation, leaving the meaning opaque to those outside the field. One example amongst many is his explanation of his shorthand for verbal morphology, obviously of key importance in such a work:

“Verbal grammatical morphemes are referred to by templates making use of prs for East Semitic and qtl for West Semitic (by convention, rather than C1C2C3, ḳtl, or k’tl ). Thus, for East Semitic, von Soden’s Präteritum, Präsens, Stativ, Perfekt, and Imperativ, or Huehnergard’s preterite, durative, verbal adjective, perfect, and imperative, are referred to as iprus, iparras, paris, iptaras, and purus. The West Semitic counterparts to iprus and purus are referred to as yvqtvl and qvtvl” (p. xv)

Nor does he usually assist readers unfamiliar with Semitic languages with interlinear glosses in the numbered examples, supplying them for Semitic languages only in examples (1) and (2) and (9) of 326 examples, and even in those, without identifying verbal morphology. In Semiticist writings, there seems to be a common assumption that readers will be familiar enough with at least one Semitic language sufficiently to understand the argumentation. These and other Semiticist conventions would render the work almost if not completely incomprehensible to general linguists.

So, too, would linguists likely find baffling the terminology that S uses in reference to the many varieties of Arabic. He refers to “Old Arabic”, “classical Arabic”, and “Arabiyya”, never explaining them. The latter, roughly synonymous with “Old Arabic”, has largely fallen into disuse. Apparently, S regards the first as being synonymous with Quranic Arabic, despite its being only one of many varieties of Old Arabic. Indeed, Quranic Arabic should properly be considered pre-classical Arabic, it serving as the basis for classical Arabic, which term itself should correctly apply only to the writings of statecraft and belles-lettres produced between the 7th and 13th centuries with the flourishing of Arab/Islamic civilization. Descendants of classical Arabic continue to be written to this day, making it the largest textually attested Semitic language.

The Arabic of writing must be distinguished from the spoken dialects of Arabic, to which S consistently and erroneously refers as “Neo-Arabic” in a haphazard discussion of the spoken varieties of Arabic, sure to confuse uninitiated readers. The living language of some 300 million souls, spoken Arabic has been described as being “highly divergent” from the Arabic of writing, especially, as it happens, in techniques of negation and interrogation. Here S is rather on the horns of a dilemma. He is largely interested in reconstructing the original Proto-Semitic negator, but the negator mā of the Arabic dialects contributes nothing to that. Yet can he hardly ignore the Arabic dialects, together constituting the largest living Semitic language.

As it happens, negation in spoken Arabic is symmetrical, the difference between affirmative perfective and imperfective verbal predications and negative lying only in the presence of the negator mā and sometimes lā. On the other hand, negation in Quranic Arabic and most Arabic writing since the 7th century is largely asymmetric. In writing, regardless of time-frame, all verbs are imperfective, with lā negating the present indicative verb; lan negating futurity, with the verb in the present subjunctive; and lam negating past time in an apocopate present-tense verb. Negation with mā occurs under delimited circumstances. S does not address this dichotomy between the Arabic of writing and the Arabic of speech.

That, too, hardly matters to the reconstruction of an original Proto-Semitic negator, and there seems to be no real point for introducing symmetry and asymmetry in negation except for the sake of thoroughness. The same is true of the cursory treatment of linguistic cycles, which S discusses precisely in the context of some Arabic dialects, which affix –š onto the verb, in the construction mā + V + š, echoing the pervasive - but incorrect - sentiment that it instantiates a stage II of a Jespersen cycle. This, too, appears to be a perfunctory mention of the phenomenon for the sake of completeness.

Such inclusivity is characteristic of dissertations, whose writers are obliged to demonstrate to their readers that they are thoroughly familiar with the relevant research on their subjects. It should be edited out of a book. The fault lies with the publisher and the author alike. S admits early on that the book is a revision of his doctoral dissertation, researched and written between 2011 and 2015, with revisions - presumably for publication - carried out between 2016 and 2017. Yet, does he miss relevant writings published throughout that period. For example, he mentions a key work in Semitic studies (Kogan 2015), published, he says, too late for consideration (p. 22, note 13), even though he would have had a year in which to consider it. For another, he mentions the NEC briefly in the context of his treatment of the Jespersen cycle. This especially with reference to the spoken Arabic non-verb negator miš, derived from mā and an existential particle šī. Remarking that it can sometimes negate verbal predicates, he observes, “the reasons for this reanalysis are not entirely clear” (p. 58). Here he cites the scholar Ljuba Veselinova (2009), who has studied the NEC extensively. Yet he misses her most important works on the matter, those being her 2013, 2014, and 2016 articles. What is more, he ignores work on the NEC in Arabic, Håland (2011) and Wilmsen (2014: 173–176), even though an Arabist whose work he cites repeatedly, Werner Diem, acknowledges Håland’s work (2014: xii), and he has apparently read at least parts of Wilmsen 2014, citing it alongside Diem on page 28. Otherwise, he has hardly anything at all to say about a negative existential cycle, except for some speculation about a possible manifestation of one of Croft’s types in Ugaritic (p. 131). He might just as well have left the entire discussion aside.

Such lapses are perhaps excusable in a dissertation; but they are inexcusable in a book. I have not read Sjörs’s dissertation, but I have read both the dissertation and number 87 in the same Brill series under which the current title is listed (Davy 2013 & 2016 - reviewed in Linguist List 28.4574), finding hardly any difference between one and the other. I warrant that this would be true of Sjörs’s book and dissertation, too. The editorial board of the Brill series is remiss in not demanding a substantial rewriting of theses, as the better academic publishers do. Perhaps this is one of the reasons that Brill is acquiring the reputation for publishing any Semitic language study that is submitted to it.

Even with its gaps in the recent literature, this is a fine dissertation, but it is, for the reasons stated, disappointing as a book. It will be a useful reference for Semiticists. Even then, a thoroughgoing examination of all expressions of negation, standard and non-standard negation, would have been of greater interest. On the other hand, except that it does provide a Semitic context for Arabic and an overview of the literature of negation in Semitic, it will be of little added use to Arabists, for whom the internal matters of negation are already well known. It will likely prove nearly incomprehensible and therefore largely unusable to general linguists.


van der Auwera, Johan. 2010. On the Diachrony of Negation. In Laurence Horn (ed.) The Expression of Negation, Berlin and New York: De Gruyter, 73–109.

Croft, William. 1991. The evolution of negation. Journal of Linguistics. 27(1), 1–27.

Dahl, Östen. 1979. Typology of Sentence Negation. Linguistics, 17: 79–106.

Dahl, Östen. 2010. Typology of Negation. In Laurence Horn (ed.) The Expression of Negation, Berlin and New York: De Gruyter, 9–38.

Davey, Richard J. 2013/2016. Coastal Dhofari Arabic: A sketch grammar. PhD dissertation, Manchester University/Leiden: Brill.

Diem, Werner. 2014. Negation in Arabic: A Study in Linguistic History. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz.

Håland, Eva Marie. 2011. miš yinfaʿ a change in progress? A study of extended usage of the negation marker miš in Cairene Arabic. MA thesis, University of Oslo.

Kogan, Leonid. 2015. Genealogical Classification of Semitic: The Lexical Isoglosses. Berlin: De Gruyter.

Miestamo, Matti. 2005. Standard Negation: The Negation of Declarative Verbal Main Clauses in a Typological Perspective. Berlin and New York: De Gruyter.

Rubin, Aaron. 2008. The Subgrouping of the Semitic Languages. Language and Linguistics Compass 2, 61–84.

Veselinova, Ljuba. 2009. “Standard and Special Negators in the Slavonic Languages: Synchrony and Diachrony.” In Björn Hansen and Jasmina Grković-Major (eds.) Diachronic Slavonic Syntax: Gradual Changes in Focus. Vienna: Kubon and Sagner, 195–208.

Veselinova, Ljuba. 2013. Negative existentials: A cross-linguistic study. Rivista di Linguistica 25/1. 107–145.

Veselinova, Ljuba. 2014. The negative existential cycle revisited. Linguistics 52/6, 1327–1389.

Veselinova, Ljuba. 2016. The Negative Existential Cycle viewed through the lens of comparative data. In Elly van Gelderen (ed.) Cyclical Change Continued. Amsterdam/New York: John Benjamins.

Wilmsen, David. 2014. Arabic Indefinites, Interrogatives, and Negators: A linguistic history of western dialects. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


David Wilmsen is Head of the Arabic and Translation Studies Department at the American University of Sharjah. He has spent more than twenty-five years in the Arabophone world, first at the American University in Cairo then at the American University of Beirut before coming to the United Arab Emirates. He has researched the grammaticalization of Arabic object markers, interrogatives, negators, and existential particles. He is currently researching participial pronominal object marking and the grammaticalization and use of existential particles in the dialects of Emirati Arabic and has recently begun a long-term project in documenting the dialect geography of Emirati Arabic.

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