Chapter 2: fi insertion in Tunisian Arabic
2.2. fi in Tunisian
The item fi occurs in a variety of contexts in Tunisian. Some of the collocations, namely when fi is understood as a locative preposition, are common to all other Arabic varieties; aspectual fi conversely is a geographically restricted phenomenon that has its epicenter precisely in the Tunisian region and its bordering areas. Before launching the discussion on aspectual fi, this section quickly presents the range of collocations besides the aspectual use, in which fi is found or not found in Tunisian.
First, the preposition fi. fi in Tunisian is roughly equivalent to Italian in, French en or English
‘in’. Similarly, to its Italian, French and English equivalents fi expresses in most cases a relation of central coincidence although as we will see in the course of this section there are a number of English prepositions that can be accurately translated by fi. A detailed description of the contexts in which locative fi is used is presented in McNeil (2017). In what follows I will present some of her examples.
First, she proposes that the prototypical meaning of fi is “containment” as in (5).
(5) al-ṭanžēra fī-yid-ik the-pot Ø in-hand-your
‘The pot is in your hand.’
(McNeil, 2017, (2))
As she illustrates ‘containment’ also covers the cases in which the container is not properly encasing the content:
(6) ṯāwla fī-ha mažmūʕa min l-muwaḏḏifīn table in-it group from the-employees
‘A table at which is a group of employees.’
(McNeil, 2017, (7))
Example (6) illustrates that the broad notion of containment can also extend to the cases in which there is no complete physical containment. As McNeil (2017) illustrates by means of the
following example containment also extends to abstract concepts, e.g. “member of the administration”:
(7) l-nsā illī tekhdem fī-l-idārāt waqt kāmil the-women that work.imp in-the-administration time complete
‘The women who do office work full time.’
(McNeil, 2017, (9))
According to McNeil fi is also used to indicate a spatial relation of terminal coincidence, see (8)1. (8) yarmī l-bīs fī-l-ḥofra
throw.imp the-marble in-the-hole
‘He throws the marble into the hole.’
(McNeil, 2017, (8))
The locative preposition fi can cliticize onto the invariable relative pronoun illi ‘which, that’
to form the complex element f-illi. The semantics of f-illi is compositional corresponding to the sum of its parts: fi + illi ‘in’ + ‘which’. Just like English ‘in which’, f-illi introduces a relative clause expressing a relation of containment between a place and the head, see (9).
(9) l-dār f-illi sakān semi the-home in-that live.perf Semi
‘The house where Semi lived.’
Besides its locative spatial use, McNeil illustrates the temporal function of fi which is used to express temporal coincidence, as in: “during a time period”.
(10) illī tsawwa milyūn fī-šhar which equal.imp million in the-month
‘Which is equal to million per month.’
(McNeil, 2017, (10))
1 The term central coincidence was first proposed by Hale (1986) in contrast with the notion of terminal coincidence. Central coincidence refers to a relation between a figure and a location that does not imply a change of place; terminal coincidence, on the contrary, refers to a relation in which the end of the trajectory of a figure coincide with a location. If ‘in’ expresses central coincidence in English, terminal coincidence is expressed for instance by the proposition ‘to’:
(a) John smokes in the garden (b) John goes to the garden
Tunisian fi is similar to English ‘in’ in that it accurately translates the English preposition in contexts such as (a) above. However, this is not always the case since in a limited number of contexts fi can also translate
(11) fī-l-līl / fī-l-nahār in-the-night / in-the-daytime
‘At night/during the day’
(McNeil, 2017, (12))
In the remainder of this dissertation I use the expression “locative fi” as a label for all the occurrences in which fi is interpreted as a locative preposition in any of the interpretative nuances just described. As we shall see later, the semantic contribution of prepositional fi does not transfer in any obvious way to aspectual fi, i.e. fi preceding a direct object.
2.2.2. Dummy fi: the licensing of denominal arguments
The element fi has a third use in Tunisian described as far as I know only in Brahim’s (2007) work. This third type of fi occurs before the object of a deverbal noun.
The default syntactic configuration used to license the argument of a noun in Tunisian is the construct state, see Shlonsky (2012) for a syntactic account of this construction. The construct states correspond to a configuration in which a noun head of a phrase precedes its argument in a juxtaposed sequence. These constructions are typically used to express possession, but they can also license nominal subjects and nominal objects, like in (12) and (13) respectively:
(12) qrāyet muḥammad reading Mohammed
(Brahim 2007, 99) (13) qrāyet el-qurān
‘The reading of the Quran’
(Brahim 2007, 99)
Since only an argument at the time can be licensed via a construct state, the licensing of two nominal arguments in the same phrase must resort to a second strategy.
Shlonsky (o.c.) explains that whenever two denominal arguments are preset, the subject takes precedence over the object and is licensed via the construct state, while the object is licensed in situ by a preposition. As we can see in the following example, in configurations of this kind Tunisian resorts to fi for the licensing of the nominal object:
(14) tarbyet-ha fī-awlēd-ha education-her fi-children-her
‘Her education of the children’
(Brahim 2007, 99: (16)a)
This pattern is reminiscent of the phenomenon referred to in English as ‘of-insertion’ (Alexiadou 2001; Alexiadou and Schäfer 2010), consisting of the last resort insertion of a dummy preposition needed to license structural case on the theme of a deverbal nouns, since nominal structures do not present an appropriate functional head. See example (15):
(15) John’s education of the children
Going back to Tunisian, dummy fi occurs systematically also on nominal complements introduced by a definite article, see (16):
(16) l-mēkla fī-l-ḥar tžīb l-uḏ
the-consumption fi-the-spicy.food give.imp the-hemorrhoids
‘The consumption of spicy food will give you hemorrhoids’
(Brahim, Ahmed 2007: 99 (17)a)
DPs which are “formally definite”, that is to say definite because of the presence of the definite article ǝl- ‘the’, cannot occur in a construct state. Consequently, nominal objects of this kind are licensed in situ by fi.
Tunisian fi, like English ‘of’, behaves as a dummy case licenser in the above described contexts. It operates whenever case cannot be assigned via the construct state due to the occurrence of another denominal argument or because the deverbal noun is formally definite. I refer to this use of fi as “dummy fi”, due to the absence of identifiable semantic content.
2.2.3. A note on existential constructions in Tunisian
Some readers of this work who are familiar with modern varieties of Arabic other than Tunisian may wonder why a section on the uses of fi does not include a subsection on existential constructions. This absence is due to the fact that the item fi in Tunisian is not used in existential predications.
A common feature distinguishing modern Arabic varieties from Classical Arabic is the wide spread use of the locative preposition fi in existential constructions. See for instance the following Syrian example:
(17) fī iṭṭa taḥt l-kirsi there Ø cat under the-chair
‘There is a cat under the chair.’
(Syrian Arabic, Jarad 2015, 236: (2))
Thus, in many varieties, including obviously Syrian, the locative preposition fi expresses existentiality, a noteworthy innovation in comparison with Classical Arabic in which fi is a locative preposition only. Classical Arabic, in contrast, presents multiple strategies to express existential predications and, among the possible means, there is the use of two locative adverbs hunaaka ‘there is, there are’ and θammat-a ‘there is, there are’:
(18) hunāka mawḍūʕāni muhimmāni there Ø topic.dual important.dual
‘There [are] two important topics’
(Standard Arabic, Ryding 2005, 61: (11.1))
(19) fa-ṯammata qiyamun mukhtalifatun for-there value.pl different.pl
‘For there [are] different values’
(Standard Arabi, Ryding 2005, 61: (11.2))
A general belief shared by a number of scholars is that fi has synchronically replaced hunāka and ṯammata across the board; for instance Jarad (2015) states that, to his knowledge, the above mentioned forms are no longer attested in any spoken variety of Arabic. Despite the widespread use of existential fi, however, there are at least three modern Arabic varieties (i.e. Tunisian, Libyan and Maltese, Wilmsen 2015), in which the Classical Arabic forms have not completely disappeared; a fact that proves Jarad’s generalization incorrect.
Going back to Tunisian, while locative hunāka disappeared in this variety, ṯammata in its reduced form ṯamma or, more frequently, famma, has become the default way to express existential predication, see for instance the following sentences taken from Halila’s (1992) dissertation:
(20) famma ktāb fūq ṭ-ṭāwla there book on the-table
‘There is a book on the table.’
(Halila 1992, 253: (1)a)
Tunisian famma recalls the English element ‘there’ since similarly to ‘there’ it also functions as locative demonstrative:
(21) nuskin famma live.imp there
‘I live there.’
(Halila 1992, 261: (11)a)
Different from the English ‘there’, however, existential famma behaves as a predicate and, coherently with the behavior of other predicates, it occurs in-between the two negations ma- and -š in negative existential constructions:
(22) ma-famma-š ktāb fūq ṭ-ṭāwla neg-there-neg book on the-table
‘There isn’t a book on the table.’
(Halila 1992, 265: (15)a)
Thus, while most modern Arabic varieties innovate existential predications by re-analyzing the locative prepositional item fi into an existential particle, Tunisian does not: θamma and famma, in fact, are present day continuations of the Classical Arabic locative adverb θammata, which is also an existential predicate.
In consideration of the facts illustrated above, therefore, a description of the use of fi in Tunisian should not and cannot include a discussion of existential constructions.
The particle fi in Tunisian has three functions corresponding to: locative fi, dummy fi and aspectual fi. The former function is by no means specific of Tunisian. All Arabic varieties indeed present a locative preposition fi expressing central coincidence.
In Tunisian the particle fi is also used to license denominal objects when other conditions prevent them from being licensed in a construct state. In these contexts, fi is divorced from any specific interpretative content and is merged in syntax to license structural case on a nominal complement, for this reason I refer to this collocation as “dummy fi”.
Finally, fi is not used as an existential predicate in Tunisian differently from what we can observe in the majority of the modern spoken varieties of Arabic.