Berber Morphology. Introductory Notes

Research Paper (undergraduate), 2016
31 Pages


Table of Contents


1 – Nominal Morphology
1.1 Subcategories of Nouns
1.2- Gender and Number Inflections in Berber
1.2.1- Gender
1.2.2 – Number

2. – Verbal Morphology
2.1- The Aspectual Stems
2.1.1 – The Unmarked Stem
2.1.2 – The Perfect Stem
2.1.3 – The Intensive Stem
2.2. – Derived Verbs
2.2.1 –The Causative
2.2.2- The Reciprocal
2.2.3- The Passive
2.3 – Affixes
2.3.1 – Personal Pronouns Personal Subject Pronouns – Direct and Indirect Objects – The Orientation Index




Berber, an Afro-asiatic language spoken in North Africa, is one of the endangered languages in the area. The reason for this is that globalisation has turned attention towards hyper-central and super-central languages like English and French. Therefore, it is judicious to present a synopsis of its linguistic aspects inviting scholars from different schools to investigate issues relating to segmental, suprasegmental and word formation processes.

In particular, this article aims to shed light on aspects of Berber nominal and verbal morphology and affixation. As far as the former is concerned, gender and number will be highlighted. As to second, verb structure will be analysed, peculiarities of aspectual stems and derivation pointed out. Finally, we conclude by considering the different affixes that attch to verb stems.

1 – Nominal Morphology

1.1 Subcategories of Nouns

Berberists such as Abdel Massih (1968), Laoust (1918- 1939), Pencheon (1973), Saib (1981) and Oussikoum (1995) to cite but a few, divide Berner nouns into two types: basic and derived. Basic nouns are those that bear no relation to any verb. That is, they are not derived from any other category. Illustrative examples are given below:

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As to the nouns pertaining to the second category (i.e. non-basic nouns) they may be derived from already existing nouns or verbs. Nouns derived from nouns are very rare. Illustrative examples are given in (2).

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The other set of nouns, those derived from verbs, are commonly labelled ‘deverbal nouns’. They constitute the largest group of derived nouns in Berber. For illustration, we supply the following examples:

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Within this category of deverbal nouns, a distinction is made between agentive nouns and action nouns. According to previous scholars, the term ‘agentive noun’ refers to the doer of the action expressed by the corresponding verb. The following agentive nouns provide an illustration:

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As the examples in (4) above show, the agentive noun derivation is in general accomplished by the prefixation of a vowel (a or i) plus a nasal consonant (m or n) to the input verbs. (Cf. Bensoukas (1994-2001)) and Jebbour (1991-1996)). Prefixation changes the morphological make-up of input verbs.

On the other hand, action nouns refer to the action expressed by the verb. An action noun may basically refer to the result of the action, the time on which it happens or a state. To illustrate, we present the following data:

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Action nouns may be masculine or feminine. Their derivation is accomplished through the application of different processes such as:

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Other processes are at play in the action noun formation. Suffice it to say that the addition of the affixational elements leads to the augmentation of the number of syllables. For further information, the reader is advised to consult the following authors: (Loubignac, 1942; Laoust, 1932; Pencheon, 1973; Anasse, 1994 and 2001).

Another category of ‘deverbal nouns’ is the so-called noun-adjectives. These are morphologically indistinguishable from nouns, but are so on syntactic grounds. In fact, like nouns, these adjectives take the same number and gender marking. However, when part of a phrase, these adjectives are post-modifiers since they follow the nouns they describe.

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Worthy of note is the fact that the majority of adjectives is derived from verbs. A small number is basic, however. Moreover, these adjectives may function as nouns. That is, they can head noun phrases as the following examples show:

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In (8a) the adjective is adjoined to the noun, the head of the noun phrase. However, in (8b), the adjective is the head of the noun phrase. Thus, adjectives may play the same role as nouns, a fact which explains the label noun-adjective.

Before we close this subsection, we should mention that some processes may be used in the derivation of both noun-adjectives and agentive nouns-viz.: the prefixation of a vowel a, i or u. In the next subsection, we consider two aspects that nouns and adjectives share in common-namely gender and number.

1.2- Gender and Number Inflections in Berber

1.2.1- Gender

Berber has a binary gender system: the masculine and the feminine. It ignores the dual and the neutral genders. In the singular, masculine nouns start with a vowel (a, i or u). Nouns beginning with /a/ are by far the most dominant. Morphologically speaking, the masculine is the unmarked gender because the feminine contains an additional marker /t---- (t)t/.

The feminine noun formation is a productive morphological process. It consists in placing a /t/ before and or after the input masculine noun. This derivation can be illustrated by the following diagram:

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N.B.: [F F] and [M M] denote the derived feminine and the input masculine nouns, respectively. Simplex /t/ is phonetically realized as [θ]. A geminate /tt/ resists spirantization.

For illustration, we present the following examples:

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The data in (10) exemplify the different forms the feminine nouns may take. In (10a) only [θ -----θ] is affixed to the input masculine noun.

In fact, this discontinuous morpheme is used when the masculine noun ends in a non-syllabic segment. The affixes [θ-----] and [θ-----tt] are employed when the input masculine noun is vowel-final (see (10b) and 10c).

On the other hand, Berber contains forms that challenge this claim. In fact, the [θ----θ] affixes are found in some feminine forms. The examples in (11) below illustrate this situation:

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The affixes [θ---] and [θ---tt] are used in the majority of cases with input masculine nouns that end in a vowel. On this account, the reason behind the use of the prefix alone or the discontinuous morpheme is a mystery. Some scholars maintain that the feminine marker is just the initial chunk of the feminine morpheme, as it appears to be constant in all instantiations of feminine forms except in those loanwords from Moroccan Arabic (MA) (e.g.[ eddiliθ < MA [eddalya] grape tree). This position was held by Aspinion (1953, p 8) who states the following rule:

(12) “ Tous les noms commençant par un /t/ sont du genre féminin.”

Therefore, in an attempt to explain what constitutes the feminine morpheme in Berber, Saib (1972-1973-1986) presents a plausible explanation for this dilemma. According to this author, the geminates exhibited by the feminine singular nouns arise though the process of regressive assimilation largely made use of in Berber. The geminate is the result of abutting two-like consonants with the same place of articulation. The examples in (13) hammer back this point.

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/aћerrad/ /taћerrad+t/ [θaћerratt] ‘ploughing’

Returning to the feminine nouns with a [tt] ending but whose corresponding masculine does not end in a dental stop (e.g. [arba] [θarbatt]), Saib (ibid.) argues that three possible alternatives suggest themselves- viz.


(i) To consider the /t/ element of the complex suffix as resulting from an insertion motivated by euphonic needs.
(ii) To posit an underlying corresponding masculine singular form with a stem-final dental stop on the basis of the occurrence of this stop in the feminine plural
(iii) To assume that the feminine singular forms such as:[ara] [araθen] ; [θaratt] [θaraθin] have acquired their final geminate by analogy with forms like those in (13) above.

Saib argues that the first alternative, advanced by Hanoteau (1896), will not do because it cannot explain why all nouns with a final stem vowel phonetically do not select this means. This point is further backed up by the fact that for euphony purposes, Berber dialects use the glide /y/.

As to the second alternative, it has no problems accounting for all masculine plural forms in [-θen] with corresponding feminine plurals in [-θin]. For Saib (see also Pencheon (1973), they represent an instance of back formation from the plural. However, this hypothesis faces some problems in accounting for masculine nouns with [-θin]. Consider the data in (15) below:

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The second hypothesis cannot explain cases where masculine plural nouns in [-θen] have no corresponding feminine / diminutive counterparts or feminine plural nouns in [-θin] with no corresponding masculine forms:

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With hindsight, if for feminine singular forms ending in a geminate (e.g. [θarbatt]), we posit a corresponding masculine singular form ending in a dental stop, that segment would make the last syllable heavy expecting stress to fall on that syllable-viz.,:

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As the asterisk shows, stress doses not fall on the final syllable. Rather it falls on the initial syllable. The second alternative cannot explain this fact. Worthy of note is the fact that the geminate at the end of a feminine noun tends to degeminate (e.g.: [θirritt] [θirriθ] ‘charcoal’.

The above argument holds true for the third alternative. It cannot explain why masculine plural nouns in [-θen] lack corresponding feminine forms.

For a good number of nouns, including kinship nouns, gender is idiosyncratic. In fact, it is assigned on the ground of semantic criteria (cf. Pencheon, 1973; Basset, 1952). Consider the following data:

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That the nouns in (18) are assigned feminine gender is due to their meaning. In English, for example, ‘girl’ is assigned the feminine gender because it refers to a female and ‘boy’ is assigned the masculine gender because it refers to a male (see Corbett (1991)). To sum up, gender in Berber can be assigned on the basis of two criteria: a) formal and b) semantic.

Before closing this subsection, we should note that the affixation of the feminine morpheme alters the morphological shape of the input masculine nouns. In particular, the suffix [θ] may give rise to word-final consonantal clusterings violating the canonical syllable template of Berber (i.e. CVCC). Illustrative examples are given in (19):

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On the basis of data like these, we legitimately ask the following question: what is the prosodic status of the suffix [θ]? Does it make the final syllable heavy? We consider the feminine suffix to be extraprosodic, as it violates the dialect’s template (see Hdouch, 2004). What is more, this hypothesis can explain the variation that characterizes the feminine noun formation (i.e. [θ-] vs [θ---θ]).

As far as the morphology of Berber is concerned, the extraprosodicity hypothesis can explain the variation that characterizes an aspect of Tamazight morphology- namely the feminine gender formation. As mentioned above, it has been claimed that the feminine morpheme is a prefix /t/. This was the stand of Aspinion (1953, p8). Other Berberists contended this view arguing that the feminine morpheme is discontinuous–viz.,: /t-----t/. This position has been held by Pencheon (1973), Saib (1974),. Consider the following examples illustrating the two groups:

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Berber Morphology. Introductory Notes
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Youcef Hdouch (Author), 2016, Berber Morphology. Introductory Notes, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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