The Syntax of Spoken Arabic: A Comparative Study of Moroccan, Egyptian, Syrian and Kuwaiti Dialects. (Reviews of Books)

By Kaye, Alan S. | The Journal of the American Oriental Society, January-March 2002 | Go to article overview

The Syntax of Spoken Arabic: A Comparative Study of Moroccan, Egyptian, Syrian and Kuwaiti Dialects. (Reviews of Books)


Kaye, Alan S., The Journal of the American Oriental Society


The Syntax of Spoken Arabic: A Comparative Study of Moroccan, Egyptian, Syrian and Kuwaiti Dialects. By KRISTEN E. BRUSTAD. Washington, D.C.: GEORGETOWN UNIVERSITY PRESS, 2000. Pp. xvii + 442.

This book is a revised version of the author's (1991) Harvard University Ph.D. dissertation, written under the supervision of Wolfhart Heinrichs. Brustad makes it clear in her introduction (pp. 1-17) that her purpose is to compare syntactic features in four major Arabic dialects: Moroccan, Egyptian, Syrian, and Kuwaiti, which certainly represent, as she claims, very diverse varieties of the language. Furthermore, she is right to point out that syntax is one of the least-studied branches of Arabic dialectology (p. 4), but also cautions: "Much of the work on syntax of individual dialects takes as its theoretical framework generative grammar, based largely on artificially generated sentences devoid of context. This approach has not been adopted here..."(ibid.). In my view, authentic texts always provide a solid basis for outstanding grammatical descriptions, following the Bloomfieldian and Sapirian traditions of American descriptive linguistics.

The work consists of ten meaty chapters filled with interesting data in transcription and Arabic script, with literal and idiomatic translations. Some of the material discussed deals with well-investigated subject matter; e.g., negation, mood, aspect, and relative clauses, but there are chapters covering less-researched topics, such as the definiteness continuum, number agreement, and possession. Oftentimes, these four dialects are remarkably similar; however, it is the profound differences among them which, I believe, will provide an impetus to usher in a new era of their comparative-historical study. A good illustration of these differences concerns genitival constructions (pp. 70-88). As is well known from Kersten Eskell Harning's The Analytical Genitive in the Modern Arabic Dialects (Stockholm: Orientalia Gothoburgensia, 1980), the classical [idafa.sup.[contains]]-construction has given way to an analytical genitive: Moroccan dyal or d-, Egyptian [bita.sup.[subset]], Syrian [taba.sup.[subset]], Kuwai ti-Iraqi mal, etc. Just as Hebrew developed the analytic genitive exponent [LANGUAGE NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] 'of' replacing the status constructus and suffixed pronominals, exactly the same situation arose via parallel development in the modern Arabic dialects. The author asserts that dyal has the highest frequency of occurrence of any of the four morphemic choices representing the various dialect areas (p. 85), including the unusual use of d- with the numbers two to ten (e.g., x[partial]amsa ci drah[partial]m 'five dirhams', p. 86). No doubt, its frequency and the numeral usage must be interconnected. Of course, Classical and Modern Standard Arabic are not totally without an analytic genitive, and Brustad rightly compares (pp. 70-71), quoting Harning (op. cit.), examples such as almarkaz ulyamani lilluyat 'the Yemeni (sic) Language Center' (p. 71). (1) One of Brusted's major conclusions pairs Moroccan and Kuwaiti as opposed to Egyptian and Syrian, asserting that the former use the genitival exponent to "c lassify and individuate' whereas the latter to "individuate but not to classify" (p. 80).

One cannot do justice in a short review such as this to all the intricate details touched upon by the author in this rich data-oriented monograph, thoroughly backed up by numerous solid references in the dialectological literature. …

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