After a fairly long wait, my article on the prefixes in Eastern Berber has finally appeared in Rivista degli Studi Orientali. I am somewhat happy that it has come out on this series, as it was one of the journals that Paradisi first published his work on Awjila Berber. As I owe my title of PhD in part to his work, I am happy to be able to write something about the Libyan Berber languages in this journal.
So what is the article about? Well the title says it all really.
In Eastern Berber (which I take to mean all Berber languages from Libya except for Zwara, and now, presumably Yefreni) we find that the common Berber prefixes sg. m. a- /f. ta- and pl. m. i- / f. ti- are very often shortened or lost completely, and often in environments where we might not expect this in other Berber languages.
Siwi seems to follow the lines of Zenatic languages (mostly). It loses the prefix vowel of the singular in front of CV, seemingly randomly. In the plural system the productive rule iCC > əCC has shortened the plural prefixes i-/ti- in predictable environments.
Foqahi, which is linguistically close to Siwi (and more distantly to the other Zenatic languages), however, has a surprisingly un-Zenatic look to its prefix system. It loses the singular prefix a- in almost every lexical item, with the exception of nouns with the shape CVC, which is exactly the environment where Siwi and other Zenatic languages would normally lose it. The i- plural prefix occasionally drops out in certain environments. The feminine plural prefix is always t(ə)-, never ti-.
Sokni, another close relative of Siwi, has, is quite similar to Siwi, losing the prefix vowel in front of CV. The plural prefix is t(ə)- and never ti-.
Nefusi, which I think is most closely related to Ghadamsi (discussed below), loses the prefix vowel in front of CV, but also in front of Cə unless the stem is CəCCVC. This distribution puzzles me, but works perfectly if you look at the data. Once again, the feminine plural prefix is always t(ə)-, never ti-.
Ghadamsi's system is more difficult to describe. In general the prefixes a-/ta- are retained (although the are shortened in some environments, it seems). The plural prefix i- is always lost, presumably due to a sound law that dropped it, as suggested by Kossmann (1999b). In the vast majority of cases the feminine plural prefix is tə-, ti- seems to be limited to certain types of plural formations.
Despite Awjili being my main language of expertise in the east, I have to admit I was unable to find any sensible conditioning to the prefix vowels in Awjili. The singular either has a vowle a or a shortened vowel. Awjili never has a masculine plural prefix, and the feminine plural prefix is always t(ə)-.
To sum up, many of the prefix shortenings found in Eastern Berber can be understood as regular phonetic conditioning. The conditioning, however, is quite unusual, and not similar to what you find in the west. I now wonder if they bear any resemblance to the Tuareg shortening of the prefix, which is also quite different from the western dialects.
I conclude the article discussing the issue of the complete absence of the feminine plural prefix ti- in all but one of the dialects discussed. I argue that you can easily show that this does not constitute a sound law *ti- > tə-, as there are examples of the sequence ti- (for example in i-vowel initial stems like Nefusi tinzərt 'nose'). If it cannot be explained in such a way, one must find another solution. I argue that it is unlikely that it would only be the feminine plural prefix that generalized the Etat d'Annexion (none of the Eastern Berber languages discussed have retained the Etat d'Annexion, a type of 'case' marking in Berber, involving a shortening of the prefix vowel).
I finally argue that, if it cannot be a generalization of the Etat d'Annexion, and it cannot be a regular sound change, that it indeed might be ancient, and that all dialects that have the plural prefix ti- simply homogenized the system: *a-, *ta- pl. *i-, *tə >> *a-, *ta- pl. *i-, *ti-. I was quite careful about that conclusion at the time, and I still am, although I think the reasoning is sound. But I might be missing some detail that a researcher one day would clear up. It would certainly make the system 'neater'. Researchers have generally tried to derive these prefixes from pronominal elements (suggesting that they were original definite (and/or indefinite) articles of sorts). There is no obvious candidate for a pronominal element tə, while there are good possibilities for ti.
The point remains, if we wish to explain the feminine plural prefix as coming from an ancient deictic element *ti, we need to account for the Eastern Berber data in some way.
This morning I received an e-mail from Adam Strich, who pointed out to me that the Songhay language Tadaksahak, which is a strongly mixed language with Tuareg in fact has nouns of Berber origin where the masculine plurals have a prefix i- and the feminine plurals have a prefix tə-. This is actually highly unexpected, because the feminine plural prefix of Tuareg is never tə- but always ti-. This situation might suggest that, indeed as a I suggested, the situation with feminine plural prefix tə- is old. I do not, however, pretend to know enough about Tadaksahak to really be able to evaluate whether the tə- could not somehow be a reflex of *ti-.