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stuf 2014; 67(1): 2133

DOI 10.1515/stuf-2014-0003

Maarten Kossmann

Derivational gender in Moroccan Berber:

examples from Ayt Seghrushen
Abstract: Berber languages have a two-term gender opposition. Most nouns
are allowed to appear in both genders, expressing meaning differences such as
natural gender and size. Nouns have a neutral gender value, which is lexically
determined, and a derivation which is marked by the opposite gender. In the
case of size differences, this leads to a ternary opposition (diminutive neutral
augmentative), expressed by only two genders. The grammatical constraint on
the number of values is sometimes circumvened by using different allomorphs of
gender morphemes. With a number of sub-classes of nouns a ternary opposition
is made possible by a change in morphological sub-class.
Keywords: gender, nominal classification, derivation, morphological borrowing

Maarten Kossmann: African Languages and Cultures, PO Box 9515, NL-2300 RA Leiden,
The Netherlands. E-mail:

All Berber languages have a gender system with two members, masculine and
feminine. These genders surface in agreement, but are in most nouns also overtly
marked on the noun. In most if not all Berber languages, this system is to a
large degree derivational, in the sense that a large proportion of the nouns occurs
in both genders. This article studies the way this derivation functions in different
sections of nominal morphology on the basis of one Moroccan Berber variety, the
Ayt Seghrushen (Aytt Srun) dialect as spoken between Tahala and Zrarda in
the province of Taza in the northeastern part of the Middle Atlas. Data were kindly

1The facts of Berber nominal morphology and the basic meanings associated to gender are wellknown, and I have made no effort to provide full reference to the literature. For Ayt Seghrushen,
one may consult in particular Bentolila (1981), for Berber in general, among many others, Galand
(2010). The details of gender derivation, especially the change of sub-class, have hardly been
treated before. From discussion with participants at the Journe dtude and my own experience
I have the impression that similar facts are to be found in other Berber varieties, but it is impossible to say to what extent this is true of all the data presented here.

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provided by Abderrahmane Assini, a confident native speaker whose roots lie in

Lazib (commune rurale Ait Saghrouchen, Taza Province), but who lived much
of his life in nearby Imouzzar, another Ayt Seghrushen town. During data collection, he was working as a research assistant at Karl-Franzens Universitt in Graz
(Austria). Data collection was carried out during several stays in Graz between
2009 and 2012; many data were elicited a second time after an interval of a couple
of months, thus trying to correct for errors due to collection method.

The Ayt Seghrushen are a large tribe, living in a region stretching from Talssint
in the south to the region of Tahala in the north-east. It is among the best-studied
varieties in Berber, with large-scale grammatical overviews by Destaing (1920) and
Bentolila (1981), as well as more sketchy information provided by Abdel-Massih
(1971) and Pellat (1955), the latter in the framework of a text edition. While dialect
variation within Ayt Seghrushen is not very substantial, there are some differences.
The dialect studied here differs from the other varieties in a number of phonological and grammatical features. Most salient among these are the fact that among
the alveolars only *t is spiranticized, while the voiced alveolars remain stops, the
outcome y instead of for spiranticized *g, the absence of the deictic clitic =nn
thither, and the obligatory presence of a marker i in relative clauses (for more information on this dialect, see Kossmann 2012a and forthcoming).

2The morphological sub-classes of the

Ayt Seghrushen noun
Like in other Moroccan and Algerian varieties, the Ayt Seghrushen noun is inflected according to one out of three morphological sub-classes (cf. Kossmann
2012b: 5055 for a discussion):
a. The first system is the system with native Berber affixes. In this system, the
noun consists of maximally three parts: a prefix, a lexical base, and a suffix.
A typical example of nouns in this set is as follows:

a-funas a-funas-
u-funas -funas-
i-funas-n i-funas-in
i-funas-n -funas-in
male bovine

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Derivational gender in Moroccan Berber

The prefix encodes for state,2 number, and gender. The suffix encodes for gender
and number. When the noun marks its plural by vocalic changes, plural suffixes
are mostly absent, both in the masculine and in the feminine, e.g. a-yul donkey,
pl i-yal donkeys.

In one sub-set of nouns, the prefix vowel is absent in the tat Libre of the singular. All nouns of this type have a base starting in a single consonant followed
by a plain vowel a, i, or u. Example:
m f
el:sg fus -fus-tt
u-fus -fus-tt
i-fass-n i-fass-in
i-fass-n -fass-in

baby hand
The suffix of the feminine singular is either - or -tt. In nouns with a basis ending
in i or a, it may be absent, e.g. -arya (f) canal.

The first system is found both with nouns of Berber origin and with borrowings from Arabic.
b. The second system uses Arabic-based affixes, although they are not all exact
copies from (dialectal) Arabic (see Kossmann 2010, 2013 for discussions).
The basic structure is as follows: An obligatory prefix consisting of the Arabic
article, the lexical base, and a suffix. The article does not express anything
except that it marks that the word is a noun belonging to this specific morphological sub-category. Different from Arabic, it does not have any link to
the marking of definiteness. The suffix is mostly a marker of feminine singular gender. Plural is formed as in the original Arabic word, in most cases by
stem changes, but sometimes by a suffix. The feminine singular suffix has
two variants: -() and -a, e.g.
(3) l-kursi (m) chair (pl l-kasa)
s-snsl- (f) chain (pl s-snasl)
-bl-a (f) table (pl -bl-a)
The second system is only found with nouns of Arabic origin.

2The term state refers to case-like forms; I will use the common French terminology for these
forms. In this variety, the tat dAnnexion is used when the noun follows a preposition (with a
few exceptions) and when it is a non-topicalized subject of a verbal sentence. The tat Libre is
used under all other circumstances.

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c. The third system has no affixes at all. There is no overt marking for gender,
and number is either expressed by suppletion, or by a special pre-cliticized
plural marker i. It is not a very large class, and mainly consists of kinship
terms, e.g.
(4) uma3 (f) my sister
ylli (f) my daughter

suyma my sisters
i=ylli my daughters

The third system includes both nouns of Arabic and Berber origin.

The three systems function parallel to each other. Except in gender derivation
(see below), words are restricted to one system, and there are hardly any cases
where, for example, a singular would be in one sub-class, while the plural would
use another sub-class.

The three systems differ in the categories they express. The category of state
is only found in the system with Berber affixes, while the category of gender has
no overt expression in the sub-class without affixes.

There is a more subtle difference as regards the functioning of gender in the
system with Berber affixes and the system with Arabic affixes. In the system with
Berber affixes, the large majority of nouns allow for both genders, conveying different meanings. In the system with Arabic morphology, on the other hand, there
are hardly any words that allow for both a masculine and a feminine form according to this system.4 Thus, while it is possible to have fus (m) fustt (f) hand
baby hand, there is no way to do something similar within Arabic morphology.
Within Arabic-based affixal morphology, gender is a purely lexical feature that
cannot be manipulated using system-internal devices.

3The meaning of the gender opposition

As shown above, most nouns belonging to the class with Berber affixes allow for
both a masculine and a feminine form. The semantics involved in this fall into
different types:
a. Natural gender with humans and higher animals (i.e., those animals for
which natural gender is considered relevant), e.g.
3The voiceless lateral fricative is only attested in this word. Uma probably derives from *ulma,
as attested in other Ayt Seghrushen varieties (e.g., Pellat 1955: 153). Note however that the cluster
l is maintained in other words, e.g. ayul (f) female donkey.
4The only example I found is a loan from standard Arabic: lmullim (m) male school teacher,
lmullima (f) female school teacher.

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Derivational gender in Moroccan Berber

(5) arba (m) male child

id (m) male foal

arbatt (f) female child

id (f) female foal

b. Difference in size with other nouns; the masculine denotes something bigger
than the feminine, e.g.
(6) fus (m) hand
fustt (f)
little baby hand
ama (f) thigh ama (m) very big thigh
c. Abstract nouns describing typical behavior are feminine. This is regular with
denominations of languages and occupations, but sometimes surfaces in
other forms as well, e.g.
(7) ali (m) Berber
ali (f) Berber language
aslmai (m) fisherman aslmai (f) profession of fisherman
aryaz (m) man
aryaz (f) courage
d. Unity nouns are feminine, e.g.
(8) amma (f) (one single) apricot
e. Fruit trees are feminine, e.g.
(9) amma (f) apricot tree
Among these different categories, (a) and (b) cover a large part of the nouns in the
language. It should be noted, however, that most mass nouns allow for only one,
lexically determined, gender and number, e.g.
(10) aman (m:pl) water
idi (f:sg) sweat
asha (m:sg) sweat
arn (m:sg) flour
udi (m:sg) butter
ai (m:sg) milk
Within the relevant semantic categories, these five meanings are highly productive. In the first three meanings, one can speak of derivational processes uniquely
marked by gender change. The oppositions marked by different gender are, however, not equipollent. To the contrary, in most cases one can define one lexically
determined gender that constitutes the neutral form, while the other gender is
derived from this.

Obviously, with natural gender, it is difficult to determine the neutral gender of
the pair. A priori, there is nothing that makes the female more marked than the male.
It is still possible to determine such neutral forms by looking at the gender when

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referring to a mixed group, or to a group whose natural gender is unknown,

(11a) afunas (m) male bovine vs. afunas (f) cow
(11b) ix ifunasn I saw bovines (m:pl)
The sentence rix ifunasn can refer to a group of male bovines, to a mixed group,
or, most probably, to a group far away whose natural gender cannot be determined because of the distance. In this case, it appears that the neutral form of
funas- is masculine, and that the feminine is derived from this.
The derivation is much more easily detected in the case of size differences.
In such words, there is one term that expresses a neutral statement as to the size
of the object, while the other term expresses an unusual size, either unusually
big (masculine, augmentative), or unusually small (feminine, diminutive). The
choice whether the size-neutral form is masculine or feminine is lexically determined; there are no clear correlations between semantics and gender here. Compare for example:
(12) ama (f) thigh a (m) foot, part of the leg below the knee
Gender change marks that the size is different from normal. This often entails
connotations that may be positive (e.g., affection expressed by the diminutive) or
negative (esp. with the augmentative), e.g.:
(13) a (m) finger
a (f)
baby finger, sixth finger
i (f) eye aaw (m)
very big eye (negative expression)
amziyda (f) mosque amziyda (m) ridiculously big mosque
In other cases, the opposition seems to bear no further connotations, e.g.
(14) aylmus (f) hood aylmus (m) big hood
There are also cases where the opposition has been lexicalized, and the two genders refer to different entities:
(15) ahiu (m) hide ahiu (f) rug made of a hide
anay (f) spoon ana (m) ladle
In such cases, it is not possible to refer to a collection of the two types of entities
by a single word, e.g.:

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Derivational gender in Moroccan Berber

(16) lmr n tnayin d ina a drawer with spoons (f) and ladles (m)
If one would use only inayin, the drawer would only contain spoons, while
with ina it would only contain ladles.

As stated above, with animate nouns, the gender opposition normally refers
to natural gender. If this is the case, a size interpretation is not possible, e.g.
(17) afunas (m) male bovine afunas (f) cow
askkur (f) female partridge
askkur (m) male partridge
Afunas (m) cannot refer to a ridiculously big cow, nor can afunas (f) be a (cute)
little male bovine.

Among animates whose gender is difficult to determine, or mostly irrelevant
to speakers, a size interpretation is possible, and often constitutes the only likely
(18) axxuy (f) louse axxuy (m) very big louse
An interpretation in the sense of natural gender would add an aspect of anthropomorphism (as found in some traditional tales) of the type Mrs. Louse and Mr.

An important number of animates with highly salient natural gender use entirely different lexemes to denote the male and the female, e.g.
(19) aryaz (m) man
yis (m)
stallion, horse
amkkaru (m) billy goat5

amu (f) woman

aymar (f) mare
a (f)
goat (female)

In such cases, change of grammatical gender can express a difference in size:

(20) amu (m)
yistt (f)

aymar (m)
a (m)

very big woman6

little stallion
very big mare
big female goat, difficult to handle

5It is possible to have a derivation with natural gender for this item: amkkarutt (f) goat that has
not yet given birth with tender meat like a billy goat (which are mostly slaughtered at a younger
6Different from other varieties of Berber, amu does not necessarily imply masculine

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It is marginally possible to use aryaz (f) in the sense of little man, but it is normally an abstract noun meaning courage.

4Binary and ternary systems

The size system thus basically has three terms, expressed in a morphological
system that consists of only two terms:
Augmentative > Neutral term > Diminutive
(m) (m or f) (f)
As a result, the system does in principle not allow for expressing an augmentative
and a diminutive with a single word. Only the derived meaning that belongs to
the gender opposed to the gender of the neutral term can be lexically expressed.
A feminine neutral term can have an augmentative, but not a diminutive, while a
masculine neutral term can have a diminutive, but not an augmentative. This will
be called the binary system. Examples:
(21) allab (f) gown
allab (m)

[no diminutive]
aslham (m) mantle aslham (f)

[no augmentative]
addar (f) house addar (m)

[no diminutive]
afuy (f) sun
afuy (m)

[no diminutive]

type of very densely woven gown

mantle for children
gigantic house
big sun

In spite of this systemic problem, a number of nouns in the Berber-affixes subsystem still allow for both a diminutive and an augmentative. This ternary system
is achieved by means of a subtle play with allomorphic variation in gender morphology. In the first place, as shown above, many feminine nouns ending in i and
a do not have a suffix in the feminine singular. Such suffixless feminine nouns
are able to express the diminutive by adding the feminine singular suffix -tt to the
neutral form, e.g.
(22) arya ~ irya (f) canal
aryatt (f) small canal
malla (f) turtledove mallatt (f) little turtledove
ixsi (f) ewe
ixsitt (f)
little ewe

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Derivational gender in Moroccan Berber

The second group consists of nouns that have the zero form of the masculine singular prefix in the tat Libre. Some of these nouns allow for the adjunction of the
regular nominal prefix a- in order to express the augmentative; the opposition is
not possible in the tat dAnnexion, which has the prefix u- anyhow, e.g.
(23) baiq (m) slap in the face

baw (m) faba bean

abaiq (m) very hard slap (ea: ubaiq)

abaw (m) very big faba bean (ea: ubaw)

This is far from systematic, and many nouns which belong to this sub-group do
not allow for an augmentative derivation. Thus it is impossible to have an augmentative from fus (m) hand or a (m) finger, and **afus, **aa are not

As stated above, nouns with Arabic-based affixal morphology do not allow for
gender derivation using Arabic devices. There is no way, for example, of making
a feminine **lkamyuna the little truck on the basis of lkamyun truck. However,
this does not mean that these nouns cannot have diminutives or augmentatives.
In order to achieve this, the noun changes its morphological sub-class as mentioned above, these classes are formally different:
Arabic-based affixes
diminutive/augmentative: Berber-based affixes.
Words in this class have a ternary system, i.e., they can express both the diminutive and the augmentative, as the neutral term is entirely different:
(24) lkamyun (m) truck

lkursi (m)

bu (m)
skull cap

unubil (f) car

akamyun (f)
akamyun (m)
akursitt (f)
akursi (m)
abu (f)
abu (m)
unubil (f)
aunubil (m)

little worthless truck

gigantic truck
little chair
very big chair
little skull cap
big skull cap
little car7
big car

7Note that in unubil the initial represents the assimilated form of the Arabic article l-, while
in unubil it represents the assimilation of prefixal to a following . In this noun, the vowelless
allomorph of the prefix is used (see section 2) in the diminutive, while the augmentative has a
prefixal vowel.

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In such words, the feminine singular suffix -() of the Arabic-based forms is lost,
something which is easiest shown looking at the augmentative:
(25) ssnsl (f) chain asnsl (f) little chain

asnsl (m) big chain
On the other hand, the allomorph -a of the feminine singular of the Arabic-based
forms is maintained:
(26) bla (f) table ablatt (f) little table

abla (m) gigantic table
Nouns with three forms are well-attested, but the ternary opposition is by no
means found with all Arabic-based nouns. In many cases, only the diminutive or
the augmentative are accepted, e.g.:
(27) lkakia (f) cap akakiatt (f) little cap

[no augmentative]
A similar situation occurs with nouns of the third morphological sub-class, the
nouns which have no affixes at all. Most of these nouns refer to humans; however,
differences in natural gender are always expressed by suppletion (type: my son
my daughter). In order to make diminutives and augmentatives, the nouns
are introduced into the morphological class of nouns with Berber affixes. Kinship
terms of the class without affixes are inherently first person possessed; only by
means of pronominal suffixes is a different interpretation possible. The diminutives and augmentatives, however, are not inherently possessed, and in order to
express my X, it is necessary to use the genitival pronoun inu my, e.g.
(28) ymma (f)
my mother
ymma-s (f) his mother

ymma- (f) your mother
aymmatt (inu) (f) (my) little mother

id uymma (m)
an enormous mother (ea)
Most of these terms only allow for the diminutive, e.g.:
(29) tti (f)

attitt (f)

my paternal aunt
paternal aunt (younger than the speaker)

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Derivational gender in Moroccan Berber

mmi (m)
my paternal uncle
ammitt (f) paternal uncle (younger than the speaker)
baba (m)
ababatt (f)

my father
little father

The situation is complicated further by the existence of a few words ending in

a which have two augmentatives. One of these maintains a, while the other has
ay instead. The former is a normal augmentative, while the second is strongly
pejorative, e.g.
(30) kuka coke akukatt (f) little bottle of coke

akuka (m)
very big bottle of coke

akukay (m) ridiculously big bottle of coke
muka8 owl amukatt (f)

amuka (m)

amukay (m)

little owl
big owl
kind of owl, bigger than amuka,
which is said to announce a death

The basic terms in both examples belong to the third sub-class. It is impossible to
say whether this is coincidence or not.
Change of sub-class is not restricted to gender derivation concerning size.
It is obligatory in the derivational system of collectives and unity nouns. Like a
number of other Berber varieties (e.g., Beni Iznasen, cf. Kossmann 2009), in the
Ayt Seghrushen variety studied here all nouns that oppose collectives to unity
nouns express this by means of a change in sub-class. Collectives invariably
belong to the system with Arabic affixes, while unity nouns belong to the system
with Berber affixes. Neutral forms of unity nouns are always feminine. As a result,
it is not possible to make diminutives from such nouns, but augmentatives are
allowed. Examples:
(31) lum (m) chick peas aumtt (f) one single chick pea

aum (m)
very big individual chick pea

[no diminutive]
nnamus (m) mosquitoes

anamus (f) one single mosquito

anamus (m) an enormous mosquito
[no diminutive]

8Muka is a feminine noun without a prefix, cf. i n muka an owl.

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In Berber the gender opposition can take many different meanings: natural
gender, size, individuation, and abstract behavior. In principle, these meanings
are not mutually exclusive one can easily imagine a diminutive of a naturally
gendered animate, or a small individualized fruit. Still, size differences and the
other meanings are mutually exclusive. The size interpretation is only regularly
available when the other interpretations are impossible. This is especially clear in
the case of animates that have suppletive expression of gender, such as amu
woman (as opposed to aryaz man). In such nouns, a size derivation is available
and indeed represented (amu very big woman).

The meaning size is different from the other meanings. Other meanings can
overlap, and nouns can be ambiguous as to their meaning because of this. Thus,
both the unity noun and the fruit tree are marked by feminine gender, and such
words have two interpretations:
(32) amma (f) an individual apricot, an apricot tree
Similarly, feminine gender can both refer to a female animate and to an abstract
noun of common behavior with the same basis, e.g.
(33) ali (f) Berber woman, Berber language
The Berber system of gender derivation is highly interesting for a number of reasons. In the first place, it represents a not that common case of highly productive
gender derivation. In the second place, there is a fundamental mismatch between
the binary system of the gender opposition, and a ternary system in one of the
major meaning of the opposition, size. This mismatch is to some degree accepted
in the language, in that certain oppositions are simply not expressed with certain
words, but sometimes morphological allomorphies are used to resolve this. In the
third place, Berber has several different sub-classes of nouns. Gender derivation
is only possible within one of these sub-classes. In order to express the derived
meanings of gender, nouns belonging to the other sub-classes have to change
their class. This interplay of etymologically defined sub-classes provides a fascinating insight in the dynamics of borrowed morphology once it has entered a

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Derivational gender in Moroccan Berber

tat dAnnexion
tat Libre
f feminine

m masculine
pl plural
sg singular

Acknowledgments: The research for this article has been undertaken in the framework of the projects Arabisch im Mittleren Atlas at the universities of Graz and
Vienna, financed by the Austrian Science Fund (FWF) and How Arabic Influenced
Berber at Leiden University, financed by the Netherlands Organization for Scientific
Research NWO. I wish to thank Abderrahmane Assini for his invaluable help. I also
wish to thank Utz Maas for many inspiring discussions about Berber and Arabic
grammar, and for involving me in the project and making my stays in Graz possible.
I also wish to thank Maarten Mous for his comments on an earlier version of this
paper. I greatly profited from the discussion at the Journe dtude internationale :
Le berbre dans une perspective typologique (Paris, October 26, 2012). All mistakes
and wrong interpretations are of course to be blamed on me.

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