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24 August, 2012

Vowel length and negation

Continuing the previous post about vowel lengths, here are some remarks about the handling of the long vowel ie under negation (which is after all the suffixation of the letter x).

Consider the verbs waqaf, kiel, and ħa. Note that the latter two are irregular, however I think they are still valid for the point I want to make. Their imperfect forms all consist of a stem which begins with the long vowel ie: nieqaf, tiekol, jieħu. Does this vowel get shortened under negation? Let’s see what the Maltese corpus has to say about this:


-ieqaf -ieqafx -iqafx -ieqfu -ieqfux -iqfux
n- 1070 21 26 850 24 12
t- 2124 116 53 23 3 2
j- 2828 90 102 1390 51 58
Totals 6022 227 281 2263 78 72


-iekol -iekolx -ikolx -ieklu -ieklux -iklux
n- 292 3 8 752 7 8
t- 935 18 18 75 1 7
j- 1339 16 21 1747 30 18
Totals 2566 37 47 2574 38 33


-ieħu -ieħux -iħux -ieħdu -ieħdux -iħdux
n- 7191 23 58 11215 24 38
t- 17643 101 163 631 6 5
j- 33070 155 204 22682 113 103
Totals 57904 279 425 34528 143 146

These are the totals of the negative forms, as percentages of the total occurrences of the corresponding positive form:

Verb Singular IE Singular I Plural IE Plural I
waqaf 3.76% 4.66% 3.45% 3.18%
kiel 1.44% 1.83% 1.48% 1.28%
ħa 0.48% 0.73% 0.41% 0.42%

So what do all these numbers mean?
When considering the singular negative, the version without the long ie vowel is more common in all cases. As an example, ma nikolx is more common than ma niekolx, which would indicate that the former is really the correct form.

In the plural though, it’s almost the complete opposite. To continue our example, this means that ma nieklux is slightly more frequent that ma niklux. However the difference in frequency is less pronounced: 7% in plural compared to 12% in singular for the given example.

So here we have another indication of the correct spelling, but not exactly hard evidence. The more I try to rely on the corpus for these things, the more apparent it becomes that it is not really a good settler of questions of minor orthographic differences.

21 August, 2012

Vowel length and pronominal suffixes in Maltese

Vowel length in Maltese seems to be one of those tricky things. The combination of pronominal suffixes with verbs ending in ‘a’ is a good example.

Direct Object suffixes

Think of the single verb form for “we saw you”: rajniek. Or should that be rajnik? Based on how it sounds as a native speaker, the latter shorter-vowel version seems more likely.

The Maltese corpus is not much help in deciding this. Just look at these frequency counts for tokens ending in jniek and jnik:

Rank Token Count
1 tajniek 4
2 rrispondejniek 3
3 smajniek 3
4 qtajniek 2
5 rajniek 2
6 drajniek 1
7 ħabbejniek 1
8 obdejniek 1
Rank Token Count
1 tajnik 6
2 għabbejnik 2
3 mejnik 2
4 rajnik 2
5 staqsejnik 2
6 avviċinajnik 1
7 għaddejnik 1
8 kkritikajnik 1
9 ħallejnik 1

In total, jniek occurs 17 times and jnik occurs 18 times. Note also the even split of the words which appear in both lists: tajniek (4) vs. tajnik (3), and rajniek (2) vs. rajnik (2).

But it turns out there is an explicit rule for this. According to “Grammatika Maltija” pg 166, whenever a verb ending in ‘a’ is going to have a pronominal suffix attached to it, the joining vowel becomes an ‘ie’. So tajna + ek = tajniek, even though when you say it it sounds a lot more like tajnik. The results from the corpus seem to confirm that I’m not the only one confused by this, although admittedly the numbers are probably too low to be statistically significant. While counter-intuitive, this rule seems pretty established, so we just accept it.

Indirect Object suffixes

What about indirect pronominal suffixes? Think of “we sang for your”, kantajnielek. Or is that kantajnilek? Again, the latter sounds like a more accurately transcription of the spoken form. The corpus reports 11 occurances of tokens ending in jnielek, and 10 for jnilek. Another even non-statistically-significant split. “Maltese” by Borg and Azzopardi-Alexander claims the former is correct, with an ‘ie’.

Direct and Indirect Object suffixes

And what happens when you have both a direct and indirect pronominal suffixes? The information is much more polarised. Using the rule above, as in “Maltese”, the ‘ie’ remains. So you have the forms kantajniehulek and ftaħniehulek.

But the corpus contains exactly zero tokens which end with iehulek, and a whopping 92 which finish with ihulek. In this case the two sources directly contradict each other. Some personal communication on the Kelmet il-Malti Facebook group confirms that the above rule no longer applies, and the more natural principle of vowel length comes into play again. So kantajnihulek and ftaħnihulek are the correct forms, and the book is wrong.