Historical changes in Sub-word formation

The case of Arabic -a(t)

  • Myriam Dali
  • Eric Mathieu University of Ottawa
Keywords: number, gender, nominalization, grammaticalization, singulatives, collectives, groups, Distributed Morphology, affix migration


The aim of this article is to identify a new case of historical variation involving Sub-word formation. Most, if not all, research on diachronic changes in generative grammar involves changes or innovations in the status of linguistic terminals from M-words to Sub-words or vice-versa, but seldom discusses historical changes within M-words. Using insights from Diertani (2011) and the operation affix migration, with the support of analogy, we give a formal account of the various changes that the suffix –a(t) went through in early Semitic (focusing on Arabic), and the various meanings it picked up along the way. We propose that innovations in the function of –a(t) arose in circumstances of analytical ambiguity: the number and gender-marking properties of –a(t) developed out of the reanalysis of a pre-existing morpheme (but with no eradication of the previous function(s)). Based on reconstruction studies, our account of –a(t) is comparative and deductive and is based on theoretical insights from Distributed Morphology as well as featural accounts of number (Noyer 1992, Nevins 2011, Harbour 2011, Harbour 2014).