Journal of Linguistics

Research Article

Contact as catalyst: The case for Coptic influence in the development of Arabic negation1


a1 University of Cambridge


This article discusses similar developments in the expression of negation in the histories of Egyptian-Coptic and Arabic and explores the evidence for these respective developments being related by language contact. Both Coptic and Arabic have undergone a development known as Jespersen's Cycle (JC), whereby an original negative marker is joined by some new element to form a bipartite negative construction. The original marker then becomes optional while the new element becomes the primary negator. We present the results of a corpus study of negation in late Coptic, showing that, at the time when Arabic speakers began to settle in Egypt, the bipartite negative construction still predominated. This being the case, we argue that native speakers of Coptic learning Arabic as a second language played a key role in the genesis of the Arabic bipartite negative construction. More generally, we give reasons to doubt the a priori preference for internal explanations of syntactic change over those involving contact, as well as the assumption that the two are mutually exclusive. Rather, we suggest that not only purely internal but also (partially) contact-induced change can profitably be accounted for in terms of child language acquisition leading to a change in the grammars of individual speakers.

(Received May 15 2008)

(Revised June 09 2009)

(Online publication November 17 2009)


[1] Parts of this paper were presented in Nijmegen, Milan and Leipzig in 2008. We would like to thank the two anonymous JL referees, as well as David Willis and Johan van der Auwera, for their detailed and insightful comments on earlier, inferior, drafts. We would also like to thank Ariel Shisha-Halevy for the initial suggestion that the issue investigated here was worth investigating. This work was funded by a Ph.D. studentship from the Arts and Humanties Research Council and an Overseas Research Studentship award from the University of Cambridge.

Lists of abbreviations used in example glosses and example source annotations can be found in the appendix.