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Review of  The Phonology and Morphology of Arabic

Reviewer: Hayim Y. Sheynin
Book Title: The Phonology and Morphology of Arabic
Book Author: Janet C.E. Watson
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Morphology
Subject Language(s): Arabic, Standard
Issue Number: 14.3235

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Watson, Janet C. E. (2002) The Phonology and Morphology of Arabic.
Oxford University Press, The Phonology of the World's Languages.

Announced at

Hayim Y. Sheynin, Gratz College, Melrose Park, PA, USA


One may admire linguistic works of great cabinet scholars whose labors
dominated Arabic linguistics almost up to the middle of the 20th
century; however these works were based mostly on written texts and
reflected structure of a particular variety of classical or literary
Arabic with some admixture of dialectisms. The works which described
spoken (according to negative definition, vulgar) Arabic dialects were
rare, many of them were written from the positions of native
traditional philology or of pre-Saussurian linguistics, moreover their
value was diminished because of inadequate recording of the text,
including inappropriate phonetic transcription. In addition, most of
the past works dealt with research of partial details of phonology or
lexica in one or two dialects, to the complete disregard of the rest
of Arabic dialects.

Until very this day there were few general surveys of Arabic
dialectology, unlike the situation in research of major Indo-European
languages, such as German, English, Spanish, Italian or Russian.

Comprehensive description of all Arabic dialects is still reserved for
future. The work under review here advances this goal by systematic
study of two well researched Eastern Arabic dialects in the aspects of
generative grammar.

In the last 30 to 40 years the linguists increasingly use Chomskian or
post-Chomskian generative grammar as a tool or as underlying
methodology of research. This kind of investigation concerns itself
not so much with full description of the language, but with the system
of mechanisms and processes which create the structure of the language
This is the case with the work under review.

This big and solid work based on multiple travels to Arab speaking
countries (particularly to Egypt and Yemen) and extensive field work.
The author thoroughly studied Cairene and San'ani Arabic and worked
out extensive literature on the rest of Arabic dialects which was
written during last 40 years (see 'References' on pp. 287-298). The
bibliography supplied in the book is both long and relevant to the

Watson divides her book into ten chapters, as follows:
1. Introduction;
2. The phoneme system of Arabic;
3. Phonological features;
4. Syllable structure and syllabification;
5. Word stress;
6. Morphology;
7. Morphology 2;
8. Lexical phonology;
9. Post-lexical phonology;
10. Emphasis


In the Introduction the author gives some data on genealogical
classification of the Semitic language family and on the place of
Arabic in this classification. She cites the reasons why the
traditional school of Semitic philology claimed that Arabic belongs to
the South-Semitic or South-West Semitic branch, then she brings some
criteria of modern researchers who group Arabic within Central Semitic
branch (in this respect she cites opinions expressed in recent works
(Hetzron 1972, 1992; Faber 1997; Versteegh 1997). In my opinion, the
question of genealogical classification in Semitic linguistics was by
no means solved, and the opinions of the modern linguists are as good
as opinions of the classical school of the end of the 19th century and
of first third of the 20th century. The Introduction continues with
short sub-chapters on history of Arabic which depict the spread of
Arabic, development of the language, going back to the old dialects of
Central and North Arabia.

Following Holes 1995, Watson states that Arabic is the native language
of about 200 million people and it is the sole or official language in
twenty countries (according to other counts, in twenty two or even
twenty five countries). Watson defines such varieties of Arabic as
Standard Arabic, Classical Arabic and Modern Standard Arabic and
describes connections of Classical Arabic with the dialect of the
western Hijazi tribe of Quraysh. During the long period, a large
number of regional and social dialects developed, which became the
native colloquial varieties of Arabic. They have diverse each from
other to the degree of being mutually unintelligible.

Watson uses traditional division of Arabic dialects to two major
groups, Eastern and Western one with the dividing line running from
Salum (more precisely as-Sallum, the city on the northern tip of the
Egyptian-Libyan border) to roughly the Sudan-Chad border in the south.
She mentions also a division into Bedouin and urban dialects. She
correctly notes the two main features which distinguish the western
dialect group from the eastern, the typical reduction of the triple
(in her terminology 'triangular') system of short vowels [a, i, u], in
the eastern group to a double system [e,u] (Fischer and Jastrow 1980);
and the shift of word stress from a trochaic in the eastern group to a
iambic in the western group, although some anomalies pertaining to the
word stress in the limited numbers of the contemporaneous eastern
dialects are noted. In the introduction, Watson mentions major
differences in phonology, word stress and morphology of the two
dialects (Cairene and San'ani Arabic).

Chapter 2. The phoneme system of Arabic

Here Watson describes the development of the phoneme system in Arabic
from the Classical Arabic (following Sibawayh's account) to the
present-day San'ani and Cairene. After presentation of the system of
the consonants fixed in the eighth century C.E. in the table (28
consonants in nine places of articulation), she mentions how different
groups of consonants are reflected in modern Arabic dialects. Noticing
some deviations from Classical Arabic, Watson sometimes mentions
parallel phenomena in other languages (she states only facts, rarely
considers the reasons of these deviations, usually by reference to
linguistic literature). Sometimes this leads to an uncomfortable
feeling of the reader familiar with the language in question. Thus on
p. 15 we find that in a few dialects of Yemeni Arabic spoken around
the northern town of Sa'dah , the reflex of the dental-alveolar
emphatic s [subscribed dot under] is an affricate /ts/. To this
statement the footnote is ''in Modern Hebrew, the reflex of the same
sound is /ts/ according to Hetzron 1992:413.'' Both statements are
true, but the provenance of the Hebrew sound /ts/ is not a natural
development of emphatic /S/, but rather a replacement of Semitic
emphatic /S/ by a Germanic affricate /ts/ which happened in the period
when medieval Hebrew was only written language in south-western German
diaspora. In modern Hebrew this is a reflex of German z /ts/ and
identical Yiddish tsadeh/tsadi /ts/ in the position where the Semitic
emphatic /S/ in Biblical and post-biblical Hebrew was denoted by
letter Sadeh (cp. Arabic Sadiq and Hebrew Sadiq). On the same page
little bit above the cited statement, there is another one, ''only 5
percent of the world's languages today have [a voiceless palatal
fricative] /ç/ in their phoneme inventory'' (Ladefoged and Maddieson

Such general statements are hardly matter for a particular language
that includes such phoneme (unless if one represents it as an archaic
feature) in its phoneme system. Similarly discussion of development of
the proto-Semitic /g/ to Arabic jim and its reflexes in different
modern Arabic dialects is not sufficient, and especially unclear that
sudden coincidence of proto-Semitic and Cairene-Yemeni /g/ looks as a
survival of a proto-Semitic sound rather than a late diachronic
development. (Moscati 1969:38)

On the other side, when there are known correspondences between
different Semitic languages (e.g. uvular stop q and a glottal stop ',
cp. Hebrew qahal/Arab. 'ahl and Aramaic 'ara'/'ar 'a / Heb. 'arS
/Arab. 'arD/, they are not mentioned.

Chapter 3. Phonological features.

In this chapter Watson deals with the most general principals of
modern linguistics in the field of phonology from Bloomfield 1933
on. In choosing her models, Watson navigates through an array of
propositions mostly following McCarthy (1988) and Halle (1992, 1995),
arranging sequences of phonological features in the two layered model
root features and place features. She notices disagreements between
different phonologists as to exact placing of [lateral] and [coronal].
So her placing of the [lateral] features with the root group and the
[coronal] with the place group is based on an argument ''that the
specification of [lateral] as a dependent of [coronal] is unnecessary
and undesirable'' and ''that [lateral], in common with [strident],
[continuant], and [nasal], is not bound to any one particular

Representing place (articulator) features, Watson adopts Selkirk's
1993 [Labial]-Only Theory. For each one of phonetic groups Watson
formulates sets of rules which are founded on empiric rationalization
of results of previous researchers in phonology of various
languages. The number of these sets in phonology section is 81, some
of them are presented in tables, others in diagrams. Statistical
method based on material from the phoneme inventories of the 317
languages of the UPSID database is employed through use of Maddieson

Chapter 4. Syllable structure and syllabification.

Here Watson presents arguments in favor of moraic theory. Among
syllable-related processes she considers epenthesis, glottal stop
prosthesis, closed syllable shortening, and syncope. Long sets of
rules are resulted usually in bi-moraic structure of the syllable. The
author differentiates the main domain of syllabification in the two
dialects as the phonological phrase in Cairene and the phonological
word in San'ani. In the discussion of syncope, Watson opposes
Broselow's assumption (Broselow 1992) ''that syncope applies blindly
in Arabic dialects to destroy vulnerable monomoraic syllables cannot
fully account for dialects like San'ani in which syncope applies
optionally at the beginning but not at the end of the phonological
word, is partially lexical, and deletes vowels in bimoraic as well in
monomoraic syllables.''

Chapter 5. Word stress.

In this chapter Watson discusses the world-stress systems of Cairene
and San'ani, Section 5.1.1 is about the basic stress rules for each
dialect. Section 5.2.1 describes the theoretical model assumed to
analyze stress in the dialects, section 5.3.1 and 5.4.1 an analysis of
word-stress assignment in Cairene and San'ani correspondingly. Other
issues of prosodic features in the two dialects are treated also.

The next two chapters are devoted to morphology on two different
levels even both of these levels are clearly phonological.

Chapter 6. Morphology.

Here Watson describes the cases when in the two dialects treated the
coronal plosives in intervocalic or word initial position turn to
voiced sounds while geminate voiced nonsonorant stops are devoiced in

Juxtaposing the assimilation of final consonant /l/ of the article to
a coronal obstruent in both dialects (and optionally to a velar
plosive in Cairene) and absence of similar assimilation when two of
the consonants (/l/ + a contiguous coronal obstruent [or velar plosive
in Cairene]) belong to the same morpheme, or where they occur on the
boundaries of two neighbouring morphemes. Noting importance of
morphologic factor within the phonology of Arabic, Watson attempts to
briefly describe morphology of the language, Using samples of the
second formation of regular verbs (fa??al / yu|fa??al) from roots
d-r-s and r-k-b she shows a principal word morphology. Then she states
according to Moore 1990, that the traditional theories of Arabic
morphology are unable to account the discontinuous morphemes and
follows McCarthy 1981 considering association of melody elements with
elements of the skeletal template. Then she repeats principles of
Universal Association (Section 4.1 in Watson's book based on Goldsmith
1976; McCarthy 1982; Archangeli 1984a; Pulleyblank 1986; Watson 1989),
demonstrating them on root w-j-d and some of its verbal forms. In
continuation, she explains that morphemes with the repeating phonemes
are not original. Thus San'ani /hagg/ [h with the subscribed dot]
'right, possession' is a result of filling a template from left to
right (like katab), the process which underlies the gemination. The
consonant structure is absolutely dependable on template, while the
vocalic melody is only partially independent of the template and the
consonantal melody. There are many cases when the vocalic melody is
lexically stipulated (as vowels a/i/u in models qatl, qitl, qutl [t
with the subscribed dot]. One can apply this theory to similar cases
in other Semitic languages (e.g. Hebrew).

Watson deals with prosodic morphology (following Selkirk 1980;
McCarthy and Prince (1986, 1988, 1990a, 1990b). The elements of
phonological word (W), foot (F), syllable (s) and mora are described
and basic stems are exemplified in their relation to prosodic
elements. Then following Ratcliffe 1990, Watson accepts the view, that
Arabic has two morphological levels. Level one, which affects the stem
of the word (predominantly non-concatenative or infixal morphology)
and level two, which does affect the stem of the word, works
predominantly by adding affixes to the beginning and end of the word
base (mostly concatenative or affixal morphology).

Here Watson uses the word 'stem' which is a mistaken usage, in my
opinion. I would use term 'base' or 'base-form' instead. Then lengthy
sections follow considering level-one verbal morphology, level-one
nominal morphology. Concluding the chapter, Watson notes that some of
level one morphological processes involve at least a limited degree of
concatenation. She also admits that because of richness of Arabic non-
concatenative morphology and restrictions of space she limited the
coverage of this chapter. Although I understand her restrictions and
complexity of the task, I would prefer that she had cover only a part
of her topic, but would do it in greater detail.

Chapter 7. Morphology 2.

Here Watson describes level-two morphology, concatenative affixal
formations. But even here there are exceptions which she mentions:
1. the discontinuous morpheme ma ... -sh [s-hacek] in Cairene and in
San'ani, 2. imperfect subject markers. Accounting for much richer
arsenal of the Cairene affixes, Watson includes an interesting
historical note about significant change of population in Cairo
following a severe plague in 1835 (Woidich 1997). This demographical
change brought influences of other languages and dialects. The main
foreign separable morphemes come from Turkish. The schemes of
level-two verbal morphology follow with short explanations dealing
mostly with conformity with the templates, syllabic and moraic
structure. Affixation of further morphemes in Cairene usually causes
lengthening of the short vowel preceding the suffix or shortening long
syllable preceding the suffix. The rich suffixal morphemes especially
in Cairene are exemplified at length with mentioning of their
functions and phonological processes at junctures.

Chapters 8-10 deal with general phonological processes. Watson divides
these processes to those sensitive to lexical information and
morphological structure, and those which do not exhibit such

Chapter 8. Lexical phonology.

In this chapter are discussed phonological processes which require
access to morphological information. Among them: pre-suffix
lengthening, glide formation, n-strengthening, diphthong reduction, h-
dissociation, and melodic processes which involve different cases of
assimilation. Watson's observations demonstrate that assimilation in
Cairene is more pervasive than in San'ani. The most important idea in
this chapter that the majority of prosodic lexical processes apply
prior to Tier Conflation (TC), although the melodic processes apply
after TC (comp. Bat-El 1988).

Chapter 9. Post-lexical phonology.

Here considered unstressed long vowel shortening (in CA), resolution
of V-V sequences by vowel deletion, glide formation or glottal stop
epenthesis. Gemination of clitic-final sonorant (in SA) is explained
as the requirement for the phonological word to adhere to the prosodic
requirements of the syllable. Melodic processes dictate the usual
assimilation of /n/, /l/, /r/ to the following consonant; assimilation
of adjacent sibilants, anticipatory voicing (in CA), etc.

Chapter 10. Emphasis [i.e. phonological emphasis].

Following Jakobson 1957, Garbell 1958 and others who expend the notion
of emphasis to include the pharyngeals, uvulars and the traditional
coronal emphatics, Watson high lightens a large number of phonologic
problems, demonstrating them mostly on the Cairene emphatics.

Here Watson cites phonological analysis Laufer and Baer 1988 based on
''300 minutes of video recording from nine Hebrew and Arabic
speakers.'' I am unfamiliar with this video recording, however
knowing specifics of modern Hebrew, it is safe to assume that modern
Hebrew phonology is not applicable to this aspect of Semitic

Already describing the previous opinions on the nature of emphasis,
Watson clarifies that that emphasis does not involve a single
articulatory feature. In a number of Arabic dialects pharyngealization
is enhanced by labialization and lateral spreading. In some dialects
this realized by replacing stemmatic /i/ by /a/ or /u/ (from Lebanese
to some Yemeni dialects), moreover in some dialects the labialization
is not restricted to the emphatic phoneme or to the vowels in verb
stem , but spreads throughout the phonological word. However in
Cairene the labialization is restricted to the emphatic phoneme itself
(Harrell 1957).'' Description of acoustic processes relevant to
emphasis is a very complex task. Watson demonstrates only a small part
of them, those which most relevant to Cairene and San'ani. This
chapter might be a base for much larger monograph on details of
phonological processes of pharyngealization and labialization.


As a shortcoming of the book we can find that the author nowhere in
the work states clearly what corpus of texts she used, how and by whom
it was recorded and transcribed. Even Watson wrote a theoretical
linguistic comparative analysis of two different dialects one would
expect to be sure in the authenticity of the texts which form a basis
of her research. One can surmise upon reading her preface (p. VII),
''Acknowledgments'' (p. VIII), and the list of her publications in the
''References''(pp. 296-297) that everything she cites as examples are
the utterances she recorded and transcribed herself during her
journeys to Yemen and Egypt. However for the linguists and especially
for young researchers who prepare themselves to the field work in
dialectology it would be interesting to know about the methods and
devices used for recording of oral speech and for phonetic

In conclusion we can state that Watson made a significant contribution
into synchronic linguistic description of two Arabic dialects, using
modern linguistic theories and navigating through the sea of opposing
views. Her advantage is an active knowledge of San'ani and Cairene and
perusal of existing linguistic literature. This work sheds light on
other Arabic dialects as well. Among other achievements of this study,
one may notice a consistent application of principles of generative
linguistics to the phonological processes of Arabic language. Her
phonological treatment of morphology of Arabic sets an example.


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Hayim Y. Sheynin holds Ph.D. in medieval Hebrew literature from the
University of Pennsylvania (1987). He studied Classical philology,
Semitic, Slavic and Romance languages, and General linguistics. In the
last period his interests are mostly in research of Jewish languages,
particularly Judeo-Spanish (Ladino) and Judeo-Arabic. He also
researched manuscripts of the Cairo Genizah, Hebrew paleography, Jewish
booklore, Greek and Latin manuscripts, history of text, history of
printing and libraries. Since 1968 this reviewer contributed a numerous
articles and reviews to academic and popular periodicals in Russia,
Hungary, Israel, Spain, Austria, and USA. He taught a variety of
undergraduate and graduate courses in Leningrad/St. Peterburg (Russia),
Haifa (Israel), Dropsie University (Philadelphia, PA., USA), and Gratz
College (Philadelphia and Melrose, PA, USA) and lectured for academic
and popular audiences. He is interested in Sociolinguistics, Historical
linguistics, History of linguistics, Linguistic theories, and
Lexicography. Recently he reviewed a number of books on Arabic