A different path to [f]: labiodentalization in Faifi Arabic

  • Stuart Davis
  • Abdullah Alfaifi


This paper documents historical labiodentalization to [f] in one subvariety of Faifi Arabic (FA), which has not been previously detailed. In this subvariety, spoken in southwestern Saudi Arabia, the sound cognate with the Classical Arabic voiced emphatic (i.e. pharyngealized) dental stop *dˤ (typically realized as [ðˤ] in many Saudi varieties) has the voiceless labiodental reflex [f], but only in root-initial position. Crucial to the understanding of this labiodentalization is that in areas adjacent to where FA is spoken, the pronunciation of historic /dˤ/ is a voiced emphatic lateral fricative [ɮˤ]. We posit that in older FA, *dˤ was pronounced as [ɮˤ]. A general dialect-specific root-initial devoicing (and depharyngealization) process then transformed [ɮˤ] to voiceless [ɬ], which was subsequently perceived as [f] by FA speakers due to perceptual similarity. This misperception of voiceless [ɬ] as [f] is made plausible by the fact that a voiceless lateral fricative was not part of the FA phoneme inventory, and, because of depharyngealization, it was susceptible to being reanalyzed as an allophone of a phoneme that was not pharyngealized. Referencing Honeybone (2016), we maintain that FA labiodentalization instantiates an endogenous (i.e. internally-motivated) regular (i.e. non-sporadic) sound change specific to root-initial position resulting from misperception.