Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Albanian Clitics: Cracking the Code

Nearly all adjectives (and genitive nouns) in Albanian are accompanied by a small proclitic particle, which varies in form for gender, number, case, and definiteness of the head noun. There are only four possible realizations of this particle, but their distribution across these four axes is far from obvious. A few examples of how this looks in practice:

një qen i mirë "a good dog" (nominative, masculine)
macen e mirë "the good cat" (accusative, feminine)
një qeni të mirë "to a good dog" (dative, masculine)
prej maces së mirë "from the good cat" (ablative, feminine)

These Albanian adjectival clitics have bewildered me for years; I have had very little success in synthesizing the profusion of slightly differing forms. Cheered, however, by my recent discovery of a paper laying out Albanian stress rules to a point of nearly full predictability, I decided today to try to formulate a Grand Theory of Albanian Clitics that reduces some of the complexity.

First of all, the data. Here is the form of the clitic in all the aforementioned environments; note that the row labeled "DAT" corresponds to the three cases genitive, dative and ablative, which have experienced syncretism in most areas of Modern Albanian:





My immediate reaction to this table is that it was clearly laid out by a conlanger who either had sadistic tendencies, a flair for randomness, or who was fairly inexperienced with reasonable linguistic expectations. After a few hours of analysis, though, it turns out that all of this can be summarized in a few bullet points, to wit:

• Masculine nominative singular indefinite is i, feminine is e; other than this, all indefinites are for all genders, cases and numbers.

• Accusative for all genders and numbers is always when indefinite and e when definite.

• Dative is for all genders, numbers and definiteness EXCEPT feminine singular definite which has . Note that the nouns to which these clitics apply have the unique ending -ës, which is highly mnemonic.

• Definite nominative for all genders and numbers is e EXCEPT for masculine singular, which is i.

Internalizing these rules to the point that I could produce them on the fly is a whole other kettle of monkeys, of course, but nonetheless I'm very pleased that the wall of intimidatingly bizarre Albanian grammar has been lowered by a few notches.