Comparative grammar of the Semitic languages

Comparative grammar of the Semitic languages. By De Lacy O’Leary. (LINCOM orientalia 5.) Munich: LINCOM Europa, 2010. Pp. xv, 280. ISBN 9783895862410. $90.72.

Reviewed by Elly van Gelderen, Arizona State University

This is a reprint of the 1923 first edition, and there is no preface justifying reprinting it. Perhaps it is because De Lacy O’Leary was a well-known author of his day on a number topics including Arabic. He was an Irish priest who taught himself Arabic (as well as Gaelic) outside of academia (Harry Bracken p.c.).

The book consists of an introduction, five chapters on phonology (a little over 100 pages), three chapters on pronouns, one on the noun, one on the verb, and a last on particles. The introduction considers Semitic as consisting of five branches, Arabic, Abyssinian, Hebrew, Aramaic, and Assyrian, and Semitic itself as belonging to a larger Hamitic group (5). The phonological chapters are quite detailed and contain much diachronic information. There are chapters on the ‘temporary modification’ of consonants, vowels, and syllables. Assimilation and dissimilation of various kinds are described, as are metathesis, insertion, and elision.

I found the chapters on pronouns very readable and providing much diachronic insight. For instance, the absolute personal pronoun is used as emphatic and in the first and second person, it is often resumed by a demonstrative `an– similar to the Egyptian ‘in– (from which we get the forms ‘ink and ntk), which led to the loss of the enclitic pronouns in later Egyptian (139). The numerous particles that are involved in the demonstrative pronoun system are described and compared (da, di, ha, ‘ay, la, ka, na,ma, ta, ya, and aga), with a treatment of their combinations in the various languages. Unfortunately, the chapter on relatives and interrogatives is only three pages long, but it has interesting short hints on the use of the article al, the root sha, and the interrogative ma as relative pronouns.

While the chapter on the noun starts by inquiring into whether nouns or verbs are the older word class (175), O concedes that this will not ‘advance the practical work of philology’. It includes a discussion of roots, affixes, gender, number, and case. The last chapter but one discusses the verb’s valency alternations, tense, mood, and aspect, and the last chapter concerns prepositions, ‘Prepositions governing clauses’, and exclamatory, negative, interrogative, and conditional particles. Of the negatives, Arabic la, bal, ma, and ‘in are discussed with counterparts in the other languages, but (again unfortunately) this chapter is short (with only nine pages).

Although this book might serve as a useful introduction for a historical linguist, the reader should check the current literature on all topics. In short, this book is valuable for reminding us how the state of the art has changed in the past century.