1.1 Introduction

Tunisian, known to its speakers as la leigge tenèsiane or ls tenèsiais, is one of the two official languages of the Tunisian Republic, alongside Arabic. It is the first language of approximately 8.3 million people, or about 77% of the population of Tunisia, and is understood by 95% of Tunisia's 10.7 million inhabitants. Descended ultimately from the Latin dialects of the Roman province of Africa, it is often considered the only Romance language indigenous to the African continent and one of only two indigenous Indo-European languages, alongside Afrikaans (a descendant of colonial Dutch) in South Africa.

1.2 Tunisia

The Tunisian Republic (Tunisian il Republicce Tenèsiane, Arabic الجمهورية التونسية) is a nation of 10.7 million people on the African coast of the Mediterranean Sea (il Má Mèditraní). At just 64,000 square miles (165,000 square kilometers) in area, it is by far the smallest country in North Africa. The vast majority of its population hugs the Mediterranean coastline and the valleys formed by the northeastern end of the Atlas Mountains (il Gibál Atlas). Most of the southern half of the country, which extends into the Sahara Desert (la Sħahre), is sparesely inhabited apart from some nomadic tribes.

The capital and largest city is Tunis (Tenès), located in the northeast of the country on the coast. Historically the city is perhaps most famous as the original location of Carthage, the center of the Carthaginian Empire which battled against the early Roman Republic. Though the city has changed hands many times across history, it has always remained one of the largest Mediterranean seaports, engaging in active trade both with Europe and the Islamic world. Tunis today is a city of 2.4 million people known for its distinctive blend of European and Islamic culture.

Modern Tunisia is very much a multiethnic country. It is officially bilingual, with both Tunisian and Arabic having official recognition. Both languages are taught in schools and appear widely in the media, and official signage is required to appear in both languages. However, in practice, Tunisian is widely considered to be more prestigious, as there are far more practically-monolingual Tunisian speakers than Arabic speakers. Especially in more remote areas, it is also not unusual for Arabic speakers to only be familiar with Derja (Tunisian Arabic), with only a very basic understanding of the very different Modern Standard Arabic that has official status. Tunisian is the dominant day-to-day language in most of the coastal regions of the country as well as the inland center, with Arabic dominating in the inland north. There is also a Berber-speaking minority in a few scattered villages in the northwest, southeast, and on some of the Tunisian Mediterranean islands.

1.3 The Tunisian Language

Tunisian is a member of the Italic branch of the Indo-European language family. It is one of the Romance languages, the group of languages descended from the Vulgar Latin once spoken throughout the Roman Empire, and is the only surviving Romance language to have emerged on the African continent; other Romance languages, in particular French and Portuguese, are also spoken in parts of Africa, but they were only introduced during the colonial era.

The height of the Roman Empire brought Latin throughout Western Europe, the Balkans, North Africa, and the Levant. This great territorial expanse naturally led to the division of the language into a number of regional dialects, already beginning to be observed in the later days of the Roman Empire. Three major dialect groups emerged, today known as Western Romance, Eastern Romance, and Southern Romance. Western Romance (or more accurately, Italo-Western) are marked by such features as the original reduction of Latin's ten vowels to the seven /a e ɛ i o ɔ u/ and (generally) deriving plurals from the accusative plural form of Latin; this group includes modern French, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, and a number of other languages of Western Europe. Eastern Romance were marked by the reduction of Latin vowels to the six /a e ɛ i o u/ and the derivation of plurals from the nominative plural of Latin; Romanian is the only modern-day Eastern Romance language with official status, though at one point there were certainly other languages spoken throughout the Balkan region. The Southern Romance languages collapsed the Latin vowel system to just five vowels /a e i o u/. Tunisian is the most widely-spoken Southern Romance language, followed by Sardinian.

The early history of the Southern Romance languages is generally marked by a fairly conservative phonology and innovative morphosyntax. Proto-Southern-Romance does not appear to have had any major vowel quality changes as in the rest of Romance, with the only major development being the simple loss of vowel length with no quality change. Southern Romance languages also resisted the palatalization of the Latin velars seen in the rest of Romance: the Sardinian word for “hundred”, kentu, still preserves the original /k/ of Latin centum, as opposed to the /s/ or /tʃ/ of forms such as Spanish ciento or Italian cento; Tunisian did eventually undergo a palatalization, but at a much later date and only before stressed front vowels (compare çeic “five” from Latin quinque to dec “ten” from Latin decem, cf. Spanish diez, French dix). On the other hand, it appears that speakers of Proto-Southern-Romance may have been among the first to lose the Latin case system.

The later development of Tunisian is far less conservative. The language came under heavy influence from non-Indo-European languages: first Punic, then Berber, then Arabic. In addition to the readily-apparent lexical influence, centuries of contact have had a great impact on the language's phonological and morphosyntactic history as well.

Tunisian-speaking areas in modern-day Tunisia
Map of modern Tunisia and its largest cities. Areas where Tunisian is the primary day-to-day language are shaded.

1.4 History of Tunisian

The history of the Tunisian language begins with the Roman conquest of Carthage in 146 BC. Centuries of Phoenician rule over northern Africa was abruptly ended. The Romans began to colonize the African coastline. Carthage was rebuilt during the rule of Julius Caesar in the mid first century BC as a Roman city, and quickly became one of the largest cities in the Empire and capital of the province of Africa (from which the continent of Africa got its name). Due in large part to its agricultural output, Africa become one of the richest areas of the Roman Empire, leading to massive immigration from other regions. The prestige and wealth of Rome also encouraged many of the local peoples, primarily Berbers and Punic descendents of the original Carthaginians, to assimilate and romanize. Consequently, the Latin of this region started to become marked by Punic and Berber loanwords and syntactic phenomena imported from these speakers' first languages.

While Classical Latin was the language of education and the Roman aristocracy, the vast majority of the population spoke an African dialect of Vulgar Latin. We know very little about the historical distribution of this particular African accent; the only historical references to it and modern day descendents of it are found in Tunisia and on the island of Sardinia; all other African Romance dialects died out during the Islamic era with virtually no trace. By the end of the Roman Empire, African Vulgar Latin had already diverged quite radically from Classical Latin, with the complete loss of the Latin case system in nouns and a major shift in favor of analytic constructions rather than synthetic ones. Most evidence of Vulgar Latin from this era is gleaned through misspellings, graffiti, and in various literary works where educated authors comment on regional pronunciation or frequent 'improper' forms.

The collapse of the Western Empire in the fifth century AD led to the almost complete disappearance of Classical Latin from Africa outside of churches and monasteries. In 439 AD Carthage fell to the Germanic Vandals, a transfer of power than may have been aided by a growing distrust of Africans toward Rome. Vandal rule lasted until 534 AD. The established Roman-African culture of the region appears to have largely survived this period intact, although a small number of Germanic loanwords entered the vernacular Romance speech.

In 534 AD the Vandals were expelled by Byzantine forces under Emperor Justinian I. The region was incorporated into the Byzantine Empire first as the Praetorian Prefecture of Africa, and then in 590 as the Exarchate of Africa. Although nominally ruled from Constantinople, in practice Africa was generally left to itself, with the Byzantines generally unable to provide much support to the region. The use of African Romance began to decline steadily during this time period, with much of the periphery of the original province of Africa being tenuously held and falling to local Berber peoples. While Latin had once been spoken throughout northern Africa, by the mid 7th century it appears that vibrant Romance usage was largely confined to the territory of modern-day Tunisia, northeast Algeria, and western Libya, and even then primarily only in the cities and surrounding countryside.

The Islamic conquest of Byzantine Africa began in the late 7th century. In 686 AD the Umayyads defeated the Byzantine army near modern Il Qarevá in northern Tunisia. Carthage finally fell in 698 AD and was destroyed, its population scattered. The new Islamic city of Tunis was founded on the ruins of Carthage.

Islamic rule in Tunisia resulted in the complete upheaval of Roman culture and social structure. The Christian Romance speakers (who at this point are now considered to be speaking Old Tunisian) suddenly found themselves in second-class standing, thrown out their position of power in favor of Muslims and Muslim converts, who generally used Arabic. Literacy in Latin plummeted, with Old Tunisian largely becoming a purely spoken language and consequently largely freed of much of the conservative pressure of Classical Latin being held up as a standard of proper speech. Once Islamic rule had become firmly established, the use of Old Tunisian fell largely along religious lines, with Christian communities generally using Old Tunisian in their day-to-day lives and Muslims using Arabic, with Arabic serving as the language of communication between these two groups.

By 1100 AD, the Old Tunisian-speaking Christian community was largely confined to the center of modern-day Tunisia. The cities of Capse and Tacap were the only sizable cities with a Christian majority, with a number of small Christian settlements scattered between them. Other cities, including Tunis itself, often retained Christian minorities; the Christian Quarter (Il Cretay Crestá) of modern Tunis was the center of the medieval Christian community of the city. Christians were barred from holding public offices, though some families managed to earn influence through merchant networks. When written, Old Tunisian from this era always appears in Arabic script.

During the Islamic era Tunisia passed through the hands of multiple dynasties. The city of Tunis itself grew quite wealthy, though most of this wealth was in Muslim hands. In the 11th and 12th centuries, however, domestic issues began to destabilize the region: Sunni Muslim populations led revolts against Shi'ite rulers, which then led to retribution against Sunni communities. Both Berbers and Christians often took part, with Berber tribes often taking advantage of the conflict to raid the countryside, and Christians often playing sides to attempt to gain political favor. Economic output was devasted, ultimately forcing both local and regional governments into debt and default. In 1135 AD, under the pretext of debt collection (though also at the request of wealthy Tunisian Christians and the general anti-Muslim sentiment sweeping Crusades-era Europe), Roger II of Sicily began the first European crusade against Tunisia, conquering the island of Djerba in western Tunisia. Over the coming decades, Norman crusaders captured a number of cities in modern Tunisia and Libya, reestablishing Christian control through a network of fortified coastal city-states. Inland Tunisia collapsed into a number of Christian, Muslim, and Berber chiefdoms, most of which either allied themselves with the Norman city-states or the more powerful Islamic dynasties in Algeria and Libya.

In the Norman-held cities of Tunisia, Middle Tunisian reemerged as the language of daily life and commerce, though Sicilian was the language of the court. Much of the Muslim population of the cities were expelled, and the Latin script was reintroduced to write the Tunisian language. By the late 13th century the Tunisian city states were de facto independent, with native Tunisians assuming most government positions. Several attempts by the Muslim kingdoms of north Africa to reconquer this territory met with little success. Tunis itself, still a major Mediterranean port city, flourished as the new center of a revived Christian Tunisian culture, with the Il Capsí royal family ruling over the city for most of its independent existence. During this time, as the Tunisian city states attempted to more actively incorporate themselves into the European cultural and political sphere, the language began to adopt an increasing number of medieval French and Italian vocabulary.

In the 16th century, turmoil once again hit the region as the ruling dynasties of Islamic north Africa were toppled one by one by the advancing Ottoman armies. An alliance of necessity brought together the Hafsids controlling Muslim Tunisia and the Spanish who had acquired a number of cities on the African coastline with the intention of continuing the Reconquista southward. The Ottoman expansion was successfully checked; however, the Hafsid state was severely weakened and bankrupt, and soon collapsed in the face of internal rebellions. Seizing the opportunity and the Ottomans' preoccupation with issues in the Balkans, King Mateo II il Capsí of Tunis led the unification (l-Uniá) of Tunisia, bringing all of the Tunisian city-states as well as the Muslim hinterland under his rule. The year 1581, the end of the wars of unification, are often seen as the beginning of the modern Tunisian state.

The Renaissance brought a new wave of European influence into Tunisia. Educated Tunisians often were conversant in French or Italian as well as Tunisian, and formal study of Greek and Latin was commonplace. French and Italian loanwords poured into the language as these were perceived to be the languages of high culture, while learned Greek and Latin forms often were reintroduced into Tunisian parlence and influenced the pronunciation and spelling of Tunisian forms.

Official state support led to the stabilization of Tunisian's social position and ultimately of the language itself. The new Tunisian elite set about standardizing the language, creating the Royal Academy of Tunisia in the late 17th century to create a written standard. Foreign influence from this point on came overwhelmingly in the form of international vocabulary, forms originating in languages such as English or French that have spread to languages all around the world. The Academy has continued to monitor such words and prescribes standard forms, often opting to use nativized or partially nativized calques when possible, though usage amongst the general populace varies heavily.

Today Tunisian is a vibrant language, in stark contrast to a millennium ago when it appeared the language was on the verge of dying out completely in favor of Arabic. Although it is one of the principle Romance languages, it has very little presence outside of Tunisia proper, although there are some communities in Algeria that speak Tunisian without any official recognition. Foreign study of Tunisian is most common in southern Italy and Malta, which continue to have very close economic ties with Tunisia, as well as in Algeria and Libya among those who wish to do business in Tunisia, where Tunisian is generally held to be the language of commerce. There are also diaspora communities, with varying degrees of Tunisian proficiency, in Italy, France, the United States, and Canada.

1.5 Introduction to this Grammar

This grammar seeks to outline the basic principles of Standard Tunisian as is taught in schools and is expected to be used in formal and semiformal contexts in these regions. This will be followed by a descriptions of the various dialectal variations in the language in chapter 13.

This grammar begins with a description of the phonology and writing system of the language in order to provide a foundation for pronunciation and reading throughout the rest of the text. From here, morphology and word formation will be examined, with emphasis on structure rather than meaning. All of this information will then be combined in the chapters on syntax, which will detail the actual usage of all of these forms.

At the end of this grammar are a number of appendices explaining other features that did not fit anywhere else. Chapter 14 contains a detailed historical account of the development of modern Tunisian from a technical perspective, detailing the emergence of Tunisian phonology and morphology from Vulgar Latin.

Standard Tunisian orthography will be employed throughout this text, marked in italics. English translations always appear in double quotation marks: la leigge tenèsiane “the Tunisian language”. Basic spelling rules are outlined in Chapter 3. Since the pronunciation of a word is not always entirely predictable from the spelling, pronunciations will also occasionally be provided. Phonetic transcriptions will appear in [square brackets], while phonemic transcription appear in /forward slashes/, as per linguistic convention: /la ˈlej.gə tə.ˈne.sja.nə/ [lʌ ˈlej.gə tə.ˈne.sjʌnˠ]. All phonological transcriptions use the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA).

Once more of the morphology has been introduced and usage is being examined more in depth, interlinear glosses will be used alongside transcriptions and translations. These provide a morpheme-by-morpheme breakdown of a given Tunisian word or phrase. Multiple morphemes are separated by hyphens, while a morpheme conveying multiple meanings at once will have those meanings separated by a period. Non-lexical morphemes appear in smallcaps. For instance, Tunisian adjectives typically contrast masculine and feminine genders in the singular, so the feminine singular of the word “red” would be indicated Null morphemes are indicated with Ø; however, this is usually only done to draw attention to the fact that a particular morpheme has zero surface realization.

Hypothetical word forms, in particular reconstructed forms of a proto-language, will be preceded by a single *asterisk. Non-existent forms, used for instance to indicate an exception to a pattern, will be preceded by **two asterisks.