Arabic Verbs in Time: Tense and Aspect in Cairene Arabic. John C. Eisele. Semitica Viva 20. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz Verlag, 1999. Pp. xiv + 264. DM 78,00 (paper).

One of the most widely discussed issues in the field of Semitic languages is the relationship between "aspect" and "tense" and how they are represented by morphological and lexical devices. In this work, a revised version of his 1988 doctoral dissertation, John C. Eisele focuses specifically on expressions of aspect and tense within the verbal system of Cairene Arabic. His primary aim is to show how verbal inflection determines the temporal and aspectual reference of sentences and how it interacts with other componentes of sentence structure, including temporal and aspectual adverbials, as well as with the lexical aspect of verbal roots (p. 25).

In the introduction, Eisele reviews the literature on tense and aspect in Arabic and concludes that neither the "aspectualist", nor the "tense-aspectualist" approach, nor other mixed proposals have fully succeded in elucidating the relationship between thses notions in Arabic. This shortcoming, he argues, is due to methodological deficiencies, consideration of relatively few of examples, and the treatment of the verbs in isolation from the semantics of lexical roots and from syntactic context.

Chapters 2-4 provide the general framework of the analysis, in which the nature and relationship of concepts such as "tense", "time reference", "formal aspect", and "lexical aspect" are elucidated. Time reference is considered deictic if related to speech time and non deictic if unrelated, specific if delimited (i.e. indicating an event) and non specific if nondelimited (i.e., indicating habituality). The approach is mostly generative and transformational. The theoretical framework is largely drawn from work on English, and English examples predominate in comparative data that the author adduces.

Chapter 4 includes a presentation of the basic morphological expressions of tense and aspect in the Cairene Arabic verb (perfect katab,unmarked imperfect yiktib,bi-imperfect bi-yiktib,and ha-imperfect ha-yiktib). The use of the notions of reference time, speech time and event time allows the author to derive, for example, the various meanings of bi-imperfect depending on wether the reference time is specific, and the form thus progressive, or nonspecicif, resulting in a habitual reading of the form. The basic approach is that of Koschmieder (1929), essentially temporal, with some insights into a "modal" perspective (imperfect = modal = I should write"). This approach sometimes leads to problems, since aspect –in my view, the basic opposition in the Cairene verb– is not consistently integrated into this framework.

Chapter V deals with present-time copular sentences, introducing two thouhgt-provoking claims. The first is that a time reference is associated with nonverbal predicates in verbless sentences, not as a function of predicate complement used, but of marking on the null-predicator node. This is shown by the use of the active participle with futurate and resultative values in equational sentences. The argument is that time reference is always associated with the predicate of an utterance. Because verb forms appear only in predicate position, they come to be associated with the predicate’s time reference. But in equational sentences, time reference remains associated with the predicate. The second states that copular pronouns ( axuu-ya huwwa id-duktuur "my brother he (is) the doctor) are not really copular in any sense, but function in topic-comment phrases as the subject of the comment phrase. This is, I believe, a good, refreshing look at these structures, for the pronoun, in my view, primarily serves to introduce the comment and does not usually agree with the topic (al-mushkila huwwa id-duktuur "the problem (f.) he (m.) is the doctor (m.)).

The most interesting chapters are 6 and 7. Chapter 6 includes a thorough and detailed review of the uses and meanings of compound tenses, with a fine discussion of the notions of finite verbs, auxiliaries, catenatives and adverbials. The author’s integration of almost all of the complex structures and forms of the Cairene Arabic verb into his theoretical framework is sound and elegant, for it looks at the distributional properties of these forms when both syntactic and semantic criteria are applied.

Chapter 7 deals with a classification of verbs and predicates in Cairene Arabic in terms of lexical aspect, improving on some previous proposals. The lexical classes are divided into statives (nonchange of state) and nonstatives (change of state). Nonstatives are, in turn, subdivided into (1) a momentaneous (achievements) class, which may consist of inchoatives (perception and cognition) or non-inchoatives (translocation) and (2) an interval class, which includes telics (definite change of state) and nontelics (indefinite change of state) (p. 229).

Eisele describes this classification as follows: "there are no clear boundaries between the classes... The result is, I believe, a more realistic picture of the lexical structure of the language, in which verbs and predicates lie along a continuum of runing from pure stativity to pure activity" (p. 251). However, this description does not prevent the author from seeking reasons for exceptions to general rule (see e.g. p. 247 for verbs like laff "to wrap" and maat "to die", verbs characterized as nonstative, interval, inchoative, and expressing a definite change of state, which, in some contexts, function as stative verbs).

In general, Eisele’s book is well written and represents a step forward in the long debate over the question of tense and aspect in Semitic languages. The synchronic perspective applied, the refined look at syntactic variation and the attention drawn to distributional properties of verb forms make the end-product a good monograph. Semiticists, dialectologists and those interested in general linguistics who delve into the volume will be highly rewarded. The theoretical framework is consistently applied to a wide range of well choosen examples.

Nonetheless, there are a number of points at which the monograph could be improved or corrected. For instance, with regard to transliteration, Eisele tries to reproduce the alphabetical relationships of the Arabic script rather than providing an accurate phonetic or phonemic representation. This is, of course, a legitimate choice. All conventions, including transcriptions or transliterations, involve some arbitrariness. It is thus consistency and coherence that make a given system adequate. The author’s system generally works without problems, but note that the representation of the article does not conform to the goal expressed above: sh-sh or d-d, (ish-shugl "the job", p. 10, or id-duhr "the noon", p. 73), are far from being close to the Arabic graphemic system, which would instead suggest the use of l-sh and l-d. Another point is the use of < >, the symbol for hamza, at the beginning of words containing an initial glottal consonant ( ana "I", p. 10, akal "to eat", p. 18, aggar "to rent", p. 22 isif "to be sorry", p. 22, etc.), whereas the same symbol is not used when the word contains an initial alif, which is not viewed as an integral part of the stem (ista add "to be ready", p. 18, itkallim "to talk", p. 22, etc...). This, again, is another failure in the attempt to reproduce the Arabic alphabet. Another shortcoming is the use of the symbol < > to reproduce both the both the Arabic characters hamza and qaaf, which actually merge in Cairene Arabic phonology, but not, to be sure, in the usual script. Thus, one may question whether transliteration provides a better notation than the usual phonemic transcription. Morevoer, the latter solution avoids the heavy influence of the conventions of the Classical Arabic alphabetical.

Misprints and errors are very few. I noted only that the root {sd } (emphatic /s/) and its derivates are consistently spelled incorrectly as {sd } (non-emphatic /s/). One curious choice, not justified in my view, is the transliteration mi ammad, "translated" into English as Mu ammad.

There are several gaps in the author’s review of previous scholarship (pp. 4-25). Exhaustiviness is, I concede, a utopian ideal. But many other interesting authors and works should have been cited and analyzed. Among them, I would suggest here the monoghraph of David Cohen cited in the bibliography (Cohen 1989), but otherwise neglected, despite its importance and its interesting diachronic and comparative remarks. An earlier work by the same author (Cohen 1984), dealing with the interaction of aspect and tense and the development of the verbal system in Arabic and Semitic, should also have been consulted. Another interesting approach is found in an article by Caubet (1991), that offers a general overview of the renewal of the Neo-Arabic verbal system through the use of the active participle, emphasizing its dynamic character and proposing modality vs. nonmodality and concomitance vs. nonconcomitance as key notions in comparing the verbal systems of several dialects of Arabic. It would have also been useful to bring in the up-to-date presentation of Zaborski (1995), which defends the view of Kuri» owyckz (1973), that tense and aspect are not morphological categories but an opposition of relative anteriority vs. relative non-anteriority (i.e. simultaneity), against other "aspectualist" or "temporalist" approaches. Other works dealing with tense and aspect in Arabic but not cited by Eisele are Reuschel (1996), a recent and accurate work concerning tense and aspect in the Quran; Messaoudi (1985); and Mitchell & El-Hasan (1994).

Another general shortcoming is a failure to discuss diachronic explanations of some phenomena, although diachronic considerations do receive brief mentio (p. 125-6, n. 11). To mention but a case, the optionality of perfective-imperfective with law constructions is, in my view, closely connected with older stages of the language, in which the perfective was the only choice. The use of the imperfective reflects the loss of the perfective aspectual (completeness) value and its replacement in this use with imperfective forms. To analyze this morphological variation from a purely synchronic point of view is not at all adequate, leaving the observer to puzzle over an apparently unmotivated alternation.

A clear linguistic definition of Cairene Arabic or, at least some discussion of the history and status of this variety of Arabic should have been provided, since readers, specially those interested in general linguistics, may not be familiar with the actual status of contemporary varieties of spoken Arabic.

Some of the grammaticality judgements cited are unclear to me, while others seem doubtful. Eisele provides no statistical information and no precise data about informants and their responses to the questionnaire (which is not included). As a result, one cannot verify the data obtained. Some questionable examples of utterances presented as ungrammatical are: p. 111, 12a: *mihammad huwwa biyiktib ig-gawaab, p. 113 *mihammad huwwa raah amriika, p. 116 il-mas ala (hiyya) innu raah amriika (where it is claimed that hiyya is here obligatory or strongly preferred), or p. 118, 27a: *ma-huwwaash katab ig-gawaab.

Eisele states (p. 113) that, while Literary Arabic is a VSO language, Cairene Arabic is a SVO language. Though such a distinction in word order is generally accepted, one should bear in mind that it has not been statistically confirmed. Moreover, a recent work (Dalghren 1997) provides evidence that the distinction in word order between Classical Arabic and Neo-Arabic dialects is not so clear-cut. As for Egyptian Arabic, the data are puzzling, and it is difficult to determine whether it is an SVO or a VSO language. Impresionistic evidence suggest SVO order, but a meaningful study is needed to establish it.

I should note that a look inside the Arabic grammatical tradition might well clarify avarious issues of syntax. For example, Arab grammarians offer some interesting analyses of the topic-comment construction that deserve further examination, for they are close to the approaches of other modern scholars. But, apart from one brief mention (p. 113), the author makes no use of this material. It ight also prove valuable to compare the verbal forms of Cairene Arabic with those of other Arabic and Semitic varieties in a deeper way. Relevant examples include the regular use of the active participle in Modern Hebrew to denote present tense and the spreading use of the ka- imperfect in Moroccan Arabic, as analyzed in Caubet (1993,2:184-99).


Caubet, Dominique

1991 "The active participle as a means to renew the aspectual system: a comparative study in several dialects of Arabic", in Semitic Studies in honor of Wolf Leslau (ed. A.S. Kaye). Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, I, pp. 209-24.

Caubet, Dominique

1993 L’arabe marocain. II, Paris-Louvain: Peeters.

Cohen, David

1984 La phrase nominale et l’évolution du système verbal en sémitique. Paris: Peeters.

Dahlgren, Sven-Olof

1998 Word order in Arabic. Gotemburg: Orientalia Gothoburgensia.

Koschmieder, Edwin

1929 Zeitbezug und Sprache: ein Beitrag zur Aspekt- und Tempusfrage. Leipzig: B.G. Teubner.

Kurilowicz, L.

1973 "Verbal aspect in Semitic", Orientalia 42:114-20.

Mesasoudi, Leila

1985 Temps et aspect. Approche de la phrase simple en arabe écrit. Paris:

Mitchell, T.F. & El Hasan, S.

1994 Modality, mood and aspect in spoken Arabic. London-New York: Routledge.

Zaborski, Andrzej

1995 "Kurilowicz and the so-called ‘aspect’ in classical and modern Arabic", in Analecta Indoeuropea Cracoviensia II, Kurylowicz memorial volume (ed. W. Smoczynski, Cracovia), I, 529-41.

Reviewed by Ignacio Ferrando, University of Cádiz (Spain)