Marrakech - Through studying Amazigh and Moroccan Darija, two Moroccan languages that have a great deal in common between them, one can realize certain aspects about human languages in general.
Marrakech – Through studying Amazigh and Moroccan Darija, two Moroccan languages that have a great deal in common between them, one can realize certain aspects about human languages in general.
In this article, I want to exemplify the intricacy in the structures of these two Moroccan languages, by focusing on one aspect of their syntactic behavior called “reflexive anaphora.” I will do so to show that these two languages are able to reveal a fact about human languages that many others cannot.
What is reflexive anaphora?
Two examples of reflexive anaphora in English are himself and herself. Ever since the seventies, linguists like Noam Chomsky have been interested in this type of expressions because their distribution in a sentence is highly restricted, and syntacticians have been curious about how it has come to be so. To illustrate this point, consider the following two examples:
1. John expects to feed himself
2. I wonder who John expects to feed himself
In sentence 1, himself picks up John as its antecedent (himself and John are about the same person). In sentence 2, on the other hand, himself can only pick up the word who as its antecedent. Why?
In 1981, Chomsky formulated the Binding Theory to explain how reflexives come to be interpreted. The theory says that a reflexive must have a clause-mate subject as an antecedent. In sentence 1, the closest subject is John: It’s the subject of the verb expect as well as the verb feed. In sentence 2, John is the subject of the verb expect, but the subject of the verb feed is the person we are asking a question about using the word who. This explains why the only possible interpretation of sentence 2 is one under which himself picks up who, rather than John, as an antecedent.
The Binding Theory also tells us that a pronoun, like him and her, can only pick up an antecedent outside the clause where it occurs. If we replace the reflexive anaphora himself in sentence 1 with the pronoun him, it will be impossible for this pronoun to refer to the same person whose name is John.
3. John expects to feed him.
The principle requiring that a reflexive must have a clause-mate subject as antecedent is called Principle A, and the principle disallowing a pronoun to pick up a clause-mate subject as an antecedent is called Principle B.
Reflexive anaphora in Amazigh and Moroccan Darija
Amazigh and Moroccan Darija, like many other languages, have reflexive words that respect Principle A and pronouns that respect Principle B. Here are some examples of such reflexives and pronouns:
4. Yezra Anir ikhf-nes gh tisit (Anir saw himself in the mirror)
5. shaf Anir rasu flmraya (Anir saw himself in the mirror)
Amazigh and Moroccan Darija have in common that the reflexive anaphora is expressed by an expression meaning literally “his head” (or “her head,” “our head,” etc.), which is ikhf-nnes in Amazigh and rasu in the Moroccan Darija. The antecedent of the reflexive in examples 4 and 5 is the subject, exactly as predicted by Principle A of Chomsky’s Binding Theory. If we replace the reflexive in these examples with a pronoun, it becomes impossible for this pronoun to select the subject Anir as an antecedent. This is very clear in the following sentences where the pronoun cannot refer to the same person also referred to with the propper noun Anir.
6. Anir yezra-t gh tisit. (Anir saw him in the mirror)
7. Anir shaf-u (Anir saw him in the mirror)
This proves that Amazigh and Moroccan Darija respect Principle B of Chomsky’s Binding Theory too.
How do Amazigh and Moroccan Darija differ from other languages?
Amazigh and Moroccan Darija differ from other languages in two interesting ways. The first is that sentences containing a reflexive like in sentences 4 and 5 are ambiguous: they can be interpreted in two different ways. They can either mean Anir saw himself in the mirror or Anir saw his head in the mirror. In Amazigh and Moroccan Darija, the reflexive his-head is derived from the literal his-head whereas in English the reflexive himself has no literal counterpart.
The second way in which Amazigh and Moroccan Darija reflexives are different from their countrparts in other languages is that they can function as subjects of verbs expressing feelings (known as “state verbs”). For example, while it is possible to say in Amazigh i3jebyyi ikhf-inu and in Moroccan Darija 3jebni rasi, the literal translation of these expressions is impossible in English: ??Myself please me. Rather, English puts the reflexive in the object position to satisfy Principle A: I pleased myself.
We can explain this interesting difference by seeing the reflexive in Amazigh and Moroccan Darija as a compound expression consisting of two words, rather than just one as in the English word himself. The two words constituting the Amazigh and Moroccan darija reflexives are : Head + pronoun. The function of the pronoun is to lexicalize (i.e. make explicit) the gender and number of the subject. The function of the word head is to avoid having a sentence with one local dependency (subject, pronoun) that has two different functions (subject and object) and two different cases (the nominative case and the accusative case). This kind of dependency is banned by a universal constraint that Chomsky calls the Condition on Well-formed Chains.
Therefore, we don’t even need to use Chomsky’s Principle A to explain the validity of the Amazigh and Moroccan Darija sentences above. A sentence like yezra Anir ikhf-nnes gh tisit (sentence 4 above) is valid only when ikhf-nnes picks up the subject as its antecedent because the pronoun nnes lexicalizes the subject without breaking any other rule of grammar. We don’t need Chomsky’s Principle B either to explain this. The sentence yezra-t Anir gh tisit lacks validity under an interpretation where the object pronoun –t picks up the subject of the sentence Anir as an antécédent. The word ikhf is not inserted to save the dependency (subject, pronoun) from violating Chomsky’s constraint on well-formed chains (dependencies cannot have two distinct functions and two different cases).
What can Amazigh and Moroccan Darija teach us about other languages?
We may take the reflexive himself in English to be a byproduct of a historical process that copied the gender and number in the form of a pronoun him and then inserted the head self for the same reasons we insert ikhf and ras in Amazigh and Moroccan Darija, respectively. With this in mind, we will be able to understand why a reflexive needs a clause-mate subject while a pronoun cannot pick up a clause-mate subject as an antecedent. We can understand this without using Chomsky’s Binding Theory, and, in fact, this theory becomes a redundant way of describing the same basic facts which are outlined above. Thus, Chomsky’s theory is proved redundant when looked at through Amazigh and Moroccan Darija.
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