Wednesday, May 04, 2016

Some thoughts on racism in Algeria

(Regular readers be warned: this post has nothing to do with linguistics; it's justified only by a tenuous link to my fieldwork.)

New York Times readers today had the dubious privilege of an editorial by Kamel Daoud on racism in Algeria. The topic certainly needs attention, even if the New York Times is hardly the most effective place to address it in. Unfortunately, he addresses it with the same broad-brush, narrative-forcing, emotional vagueness that usually characterises his editorials (with bits of outright distortion: Echourouk "Islamist"? Algerians who won't "shake hands with blacks"?). He claims that Algerians are racist on the basis of religion rather than colour, then belatedly notices that there have been conflicts with Muslim black migrants too, and "explains" this by suggesting that they are seen as insufficiently Muslim. We get quotes from a few Algerian racists, but no migrants' voices, and no sign at all of the group most obviously relevant to a framing in racial terms: black Algerians.

In many Saharan oases - including Tabelbala, where I did most of my PhD fieldwork - black people are in the majority. Even in the north, you find small villages of black people, and of course larger communities in the big cities. Kamel Daoud mentions anti-migrant riots in Ouargla and Bechar: both those Saharan towns have massive Algerian black communities. Contrary to Kamel Daoud's analysis, such groups certainly do experience racism, though in a much milder form. In the south, people assume their ancestors were slaves, in a region where people routinely claim status and allies based on genealogy. In the north, their colour makes them visible outsiders, in a context where people regularly blame social decay on "outsiders" immigrating from ten or twenty kilometres away. Unlike in America, however, they are not particularly stereotyped as criminal (though black immigrants sometimes are). In the north they tend to be stereotyped as stupid, but in the south their conspicuous relative educational success makes that image hard to maintain. Socialism and Islam, however, are equally vehement in their condemnation of such racism, and after independence the Algerian state took this issue seriously, stamping out the remnants of slavery and emphasising universal equality; everyone today at least knows they're not supposed to be racist, though that doesn't necessarily stop them.

Of course, race is in the eye of the beholder. In Tabelbala, almost everyone is black by the standards of other parts of Algeria. By their own standards, however, the situation is a bit different: anyone with the slightest tinge of known Arab or Berber ancestry counts as white, leaving only a few families to be considered as black. Until the 20th century, the former were landowners, while the latter were sharecroppers or slaves. The indistinguishability of their skin colours does not stop the former from being viciously racist about the latter when annoyed with them.

I don't claim to understand the riots in Ouargla and Bechar in any detail, but two points are noteworthy. The first is that they did not attack Algerian black people: they attacked black immigrants. To an Algerian, that may seem almost too obvious to mention - but the NYT's audience is not particularly Algerian, and has rather different baseline assumptions. The second is that they happened in a wider context of rising tensions in the Sahara over the past five years or so, including especially the ever-worsening cycle of sectarian riots in Ghardaia. It would be very useful to have a serious analysis of what's driving this rising intolerance, in the one part of Algeria that largely escaped violence throughout the 1990s. But for that, the NYT would have to call in a real journalist.

Sunday, May 01, 2016

Yuck: a borrowing from Arabic into Berber?

One of my son's first words is [x:::], "yuck!" - his attempt to pronounce the Algerian Arabic baby-talk item kəxx(i) كخّ "yuck". I was surprised to learn recently that this word goes back well over a millennium: a hadith in Sahih Muslim records its use in addressing Ali's son Hasan, then a child:
أخذ الحسن بن علي تمرة من تمر الصدقة فجعلها في فيه فقال رسول الله صلى الله عليه وسلم : كخ كخ ارم بها أما علمت أنا لا نأكل الصدقة (link)
Al-Hasan son of Ali took a charity date and put it in his mouth. So the Messenger of God, peace be upon him, said: "Kax, kax, throw it away; don't you know that we do not eat alms?"

Variants of this word (kxx, kexx, kexxa, kəxx) are very widespread in North Africa, not just in Arabic but in Berber too, as you can see from the Barefoot Linguist's Baby Talk database: it's used in Siwi, in Kabyle, in Tarifiyt, and in Senhaja. In Europe, on the other hand, it's far from universal; in fact, I don't know that it's even attested. That suggests that independent parallel innovation is unlikely. /x/ is a perfectly normal phoneme within Arabic, but in Berber it's rare in inherited roots and unlikely to be reconstructible for proto-Berber; all of the Berber languages listed there as having this word are intensely influenced by Arabic. That makes it unlikely that it's a common retention from proto-Afro-Asiatic. The most obvious conclusion is that kəxx has been borrowed from Arabic into Berber. Other cases of the borrowing of baby-talk is certainly attested, but this example seems particularly striking for the word's sheer frequency.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Arabic substrate etymologies as urban legends

In Arabic as in English, social networks have a constantly flowing undercurrent of poorly sourced, manipulative stories being shared and reshared by people who vaguely think they sound right. Over the past, say, five years, I've noticed the emergence of a linguistically interesting new subgenre within this miasma of lies and half-truths: etymological tables purporting to prove the massive contribution of Berber, or Syriac, or (more rarely) Coptic, or perhaps some other pre-Arab substrate to the local Arabic dialect. These tables, in my experience, never cite an academic source, and rarely cite anything at all; closer examination generally reveals a farrago of correct etymologies and bad guesses. For example (from the preceding links):
  • Tunisian məlɣiɣa ملغيغة "fontanelle" really is from Berber tamelɣiɣt, a word widely attested in Berber and with no obvious Classical Arabic counterpart...
  • but Tunisian gdər قدر "pot" is of course from the Classical Arabic qidr قِدْرٌ, which ought to be familiar even to elementary school students; the Berber cognates cited are borrowings from Arabic.
  • Tunisian bəkkuš بكّوش "dumb, mute" is slightly less obvious, but again from Arabic: it's an irregular expressive formation from 'abkam أَبْكَمُ, substituting the dialectally rather productive suffix -uš. The suffix might be from Berber, but the root is not.
  • Syrian (and Algerian) dālye دالية "grape-vine" may well be from Aramaic; the word is attested in Syriac with the right meaning (dālī-ṯ-ā "vine-branch, vine"), and belongs to a semantic field where Aramaic borrowings are to be expected from a very early period. Within Arabic, this word was already noted as a regional synonym of karmah in the 10th century by the Palestinian geographer al-Maqdisi.
  • However, Syrian mnīħ منيح "good" has nothing to do with Aramaic; it's a local version of widespread dialectal Arabic malīħ مليح, with nasality assimilation. This adjective exists both in Classical Arabic (malīħ) and in Syriac (malīħ-ā) with the meaning of "salty"; in an era where salt was more expensive than now, this naturally tended to imply "tasty". There is no reason to assume either language borrowed this word from the other, since the root is proto-Semitic and the template is productive in both languages. However, only in dialectal Arabic did it go on to develop the sense of "good", which it now has in a wide variety of dialects including North Africa.
  • More problematic is Syrian wāwā, a baby-talk word for "pain" used (as far as I can see) neither in Syriac nor in Classical Arabic. Syriac does have wāy "woe!", but so does Coptic - and, if it comes to it, English "waaah!" is closer than either. Onomatopeia is a better explanation than borrowing or inheritance in this case.

The optimistic take on this is that it shows that there's a real public demand in the Arabic-speaking world for information on etymology and on substrate influence. The pessimistic take is that people just want "information" confirming what they want to believe - in this case, that they're not really that Arab after all. (The converse case also exists, of course - recall Othmane Saadi - but I haven't seen as much of it circulating on social media, though that may just reflect my own bubble.) The reality is probably somewhere in the middle.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Diglossia politics and the Algerian novel

For decades, Algeria has been characterised by a divide between "Arabophone" and "Francophone" intellectuals. The divide is drawn primarily according to which language they feel more comfortable writing in, but correlates rather well with political and cultural positions. Of these two, it has almost always been Francophones who have attempted to attack diglossia and elevate Algerian Arabic (Darja) to the status of a language rather than a dialect. The best-publicised recent case is the columnist (and now novelist) Kamel Daoud, who wrote a typically hyperbolic "manifesto" calling Arabic a dead colonial language (warning: popup-infested link):
In Algeria, the essential part speaks Algerian: the people, the money, the ads, love and anger. The rest, then, is artificial: ENTV, Bouteflika, the regime, the imams, the "assimilated", the Islamists. All those who want Algeria to prosper, to love itself, or to get through, speak Algerian. All those who want to possess it, to steal it, to destroy it, to deny it, speak Classical Arabic. They are a dominant minority. Algerian is a dominated majority. For the moment. When they tell you it's a dialect, what they're saying is that you're not a citizen. That you're plebs, not a people.
This stirring passage, like everything else Kamel Daoud has ever published, is written in French. His prize-winning first novel, Meursault : un contre-enquête - a rejoinder to Camus' L'étranger set entirely in Algeria - contains precisely one line in Darja, quoted from a rai song: Malou khouya, malou majache. El b'har eddah âliya rah ou ma wellache. ("What's wrong with my brother, what's wrong with him that he hasn't come? The sea has taken him from me, he's gone and hasn't returned.") Apparently, as much as Kamel Daoud may want to challenge the view of Darja as a dialect, he has little interest in challenging what, in most Algerians' eyes, makes it a dialect: the fact that it isn't written. It is almost unnecessary to say that Darja is equally absent from the works of most other Algerian Francophone novelists, few of whom have ventured to defend Darja in such terms. The one exception is Kateb Yacine, who, after Independence, went from writing novels in French to writing plays in Darja; but, as far as I know, even he did not venture to incorporate Darja passages into French novels, much less attempt Darja novels.

Ahlam Mostaghanemi, one of Algeria's most widely read Arabic novelists, has rather less to say for Darja than Kamel Daoud. I am not aware that she's taken any public position on the dialect as such, but she's on record as favouring the diglossic status quo: she described the Minister of Education's recent proposal to teach in Darja for the first two years of primary school as a "new scandal" intended to "destroy the national character". On the basis of stated ideologies alone, one would expect her work to contain less Darja than Kamel Daoud's. The contrary, however, is true. Alongside much more numerous Darja quotes from songs, she casually throws in dialogue in Darja as well, eg (ذاكرة الجسد, p. 354, Darja sections italicised in the translation):

I politely ask him:
How are you, Si Mustapha?
Without preambles, he starts complaining:
We're drowning in troubles... you know!
At that point, randomly, a saying of De Gaulle crosses my mind: [...]
I keep it to myself, and say
Yeah... I know...
أسأله مجاملة:
- واش راك سي مصطفى؟
فيبدأ دون مقدمات بالكشوى:
- رانا غارقين في المشاكل ... على بالك!
تحضرني وقتها، مصادفة، مقولة لديفول: [...]
أحتفظ بها لنفسي وأقول:
- إيه... على بالي...

Granted, more-Arab-than-thou types have been known to criticise her for these brief concessions to reality, as in this fine example of self-hatred by Mouloud Ben Zadi (whose targets also include Naguib Mahfouz):

Are we to fill our writings with our complicated colloquial dialects spread in our Arab lands, easy and difficult, and count what we have written as Arabic literature? Has the Arab intellectual not yet realised that these colloquial languages are only languages that divide and do not unite, that lower and do not raise, that hurt and do not benefit? If Fusha could speak, it would wash its hands of us and of the literature distorted by blind dialect that we record under its name and attribute to it, whose benefit, by my life, is little, and which has no relationship to Fusha!
Nevertheless, Mostaghanemi's practice is not isolated: similar passages can easily be cited from Waciny Laaredj. Why the difference?

One obvious explanation comes to mind: the audience. Any Algerian novelist can hardly avoid hoping - forlornly or otherwise - to become popular abroad; they certainly aren't ever likely to be able to live on the proceeds of selling their book in Algeria alone. French speakers, by and large, can make no sense of dialogue in Darja at all. Arabic speakers, on the other hand, can at worst understand a good deal of Darja just by looking for cognates, and a good third of them can be assumed to speak a very similar dialect already; even for Middle Easterners, a Darja passage may be no harder to read than a particularly flowery Fusha passage. Passages like the above did not stop Ahlam Mostaghanemi from becoming a bestseller in other Arab countries; their equivalent in French would give the average reader pause, at the very least.

The other difference is, precisely, diglossia! French, for its speakers, is a language of daily conversation. Translating a Darja dialogue into French doesn't make it any more formal; if you want to explicitly mark it as informal, there are plenty of contractions and prescriptively ungrammatical forms that you can use ("J'sais pas"). Translating the same dialogue into Standard Arabic makes it a good deal more formal, verging on schoolmarmish - not because of any intrinsic limitations of Arabic, but because Standard Arabic is normally only used in formal contexts. A novelist who wants to render the mood and context of a conversation correctly, rather than just the content, will thus be hard-pressed to avoid at least a few concessions to the colloquial. It's probably no coincidence that Ahlam Mostaghanemi and Waciny Laaredj have sold better than Mouloud Ben Zadi.

In brief: Writing in French encourages the desire to identify with Darja and treat it as a distinct language, but makes actually writing in it feel difficult and superfluous. Writing in Arabic reinforces the idea of Darja as just a provincial dialect of Arabic, but makes writing in Darja feel easy and, in some contexts, almost unavoidable. Writing novels in Darja is not a serious option, for the moment. But if it develops gradually, I suspect its development will be driven by Arabophone writers rather than by Francophone ones.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Lexical gaps in diglossia: When you can't write what you know

"Write what you know" is what they tell aspiring writers. If you're an English speaker who made it through high school, you should be able to do just that, on any topic that you know anything about (although the spelling might need work.) In Algeria (as in other Arabic-speaking countries) diglossia makes it a little more complicated. You may have mastered the grammar perfectly, and gotten a great score on your high school exams. You may be an excellent plumber, or a great fisherman, or an expert carpenter - and you certainly have no problem talking about any of these things in Darja (dialectal Arabic). But try to write about any of those fields, and you're almost guaranteed to run into the limits of your Fusha vocabulary (standard Arabic).

You don't even have to get all that specialised to run into difficulties. If you're Algerian, all of the items listed below should be familiar to you from daily life - some of the words might be different in your region, but you almost certainly still know a Darja word with the appropriate meaning. But how many of them can you name in Fusha? (No fair using a dictionary, especially since you're unlikely to have a Darja-Fusha dictionary.)

  • تورنيفيس (screwdriver)
  • لومبرياج (clutch of a car)
  • زربوط (top)
  • حرّايق (nettle)
  • مشيمشة (loquat)
  • بلاّرج (stork)
  • أكليل، أزير (rosemary)
  • رعف (to have a nosebleed)
  • زبر (to prune)
  • ددّش (to toddle)
  • هترف (to sleep-talk)
In the very unlikely event that you did know all of these in Fusha, ask yourself for each one: if you used this word in an article, how many readers do you think would understand? Granted, a couple of them are trick questions - cases where the Fusha word is basically the same as the Darja one. But the main point stands even in those cases: you probably didn't know that before checking it, and for at least one of those words, I can confirm from personal experience that there are professors teaching in Arabic, and journalists working in Arabic, who didn't know that either. In Algeria (though not necessarily in other countries, like Egypt), the default assumption is always that a Darja word is wrong until proven otherwise.

It's understandable that Algerians (and quite likely other Arabic speakers) tend not to know these words in Fusha. How often do any of them come up in journalism, or religion, or poetry, or any of the other contexts in which people are most frequently exposed to Fusha? But what it means is that even well-educated Algerians don't know enough Fusha to adequately describe their daily life, much less to write all they know. In effect, compared to their Darja abilities, they're suffering from a Fusha-specific language deficiency that limits what they can write about. If you agree with me that it would be nice to see more good Algerian novels, or even more Algerian DIY handbooks, then that's a problem.

Friday, March 18, 2016

School in a language you don't speak

When I was six years old, I started first grade in a small Algerian city, right after having done kindergarten in the US and forgotten most of the Arabic I had previously known. It was by far the most painful institutional transition I've ever had to make. At home, I was devouring National Geographics and starting to tackle The Lord of the Rings - but at school, I'm pretty sure the teacher thought I was retarded. In the classroom, I spent a lot of that year completely tuned out, playing with pens or bits of bread and waiting for the boredom to stop. By the end of second grade I had formed some idea of what the teacher was talking about - her vivid descriptions of hellfire and torture remain particularly memorable - though I still had no idea that there might be actual principles determining whether my writing was judged as correct or incorrect. At that point, however, my parents decided that enough was enough, and we started homeschooling, mostly in the language I spoke best - English. It felt like being released from jail.

My experience of starting school in a language I didn't know is not exactly typical, of course. I was a lot luckier than most. Sure, I was failing at school, but I could already read English just fine, so even at six I could see that that school wasn't the only game around. For most children who start school in a language they don't know, the choices are starker: master the new language, or give up on education altogether.

Plenty of Algerian children have faced precisely that situation, as I saw doing fieldwork in the southwest - and not just during the colonial era. It's what has led the people of Tabelbala and Igli to start speaking Arabic to their children rather than Korandje or Berber. For that matter, so have plenty of American children - Native Americans during the era of forced boarding schools come to mind. It's a problem faced by linguistic minorities all over the world, and, unless they manage to force the schools to make concessions, it often ends in language extinction, as the next generation of parents try to spare their children the trauma they themselves had experienced.

The big difference, though, is that in America, most children come to school speaking something pretty close to the language of their textbooks. In Algeria, and any other Arabic-speaking country, it's a little more complicated. Most children come to school speaking Algerian Arabic, and most teachers use Algerian Arabic with them to some extent, even though they're not supposed to. But the Standard Arabic that they're learning to read is as different from what they speak as the language of Chaucer from 21st-century American English. Even the most divergent Appalachian or inner city dialects are closer to standard English than the home language of the most highly educated middle-class Algerians is to standard Arabic.

Don't get me wrong: it's much easier than starting school in a completely different language. Even before independence, when TV was an unaffordable luxury and 90% of Algerians were illiterate in any language, a sufficiently motivated Arabic speaker could learn to read well enough to do it for fun, without ever passing through anything the colonial government considered to count as a school; that's what my own father did. And now that most children are watching cartoons in Standard Arabic from a young age, the gap is narrower than it used to be. Nevertheless, the difficulties it poses seem conspicuous to anyone lucky enough to have studied in their own language: how many children would be willing to read Chaucer in the original for fun?

You might suppose that the solution is obvious: speak "properly" to your kids! Or, alternatively: Make the spoken dialect into a written language! However, both ideas are almost equally taboo. The idea of teaching dialect at school seems as ridiculous to the average Algerian as it does to the average English speaker: we send them to school to learn stuff they don't know, not the language of the street! But, whereas many English speakers actively try to speak "correct" English, with their children and with everyone else, an Algerian who tried to speak Standard Arabic to everyone would be shunned; you can't seriously expect to be part of Algerian society without speaking the dialect. Of course, English speakers don't react well either when someone tries to speak too formally in an informal situation. But in most English-speaking social circles, it is possible - by the judicious avoidance of words like "judicious" and "avoidance" - to speak English in a way that is simultaneously informal enough to be friendly and prescriptively correct enough to be written down in an essay. That is not possible in Arabic, irrespective of social class: you have to choose one or the other. For me, that lack of a middle ground is what's really distinctive about the situation. For the foreseeable future, this means that most Algerian children will continue to be expected to learn both Algerian Arabic and Standard Arabic (not to mention French and English and sometimes Tamazight too), while having practically no opportunities to hold a conversation in Standard Arabic.

What's the best way to achieve that goal, and what evidence bears on that question? I've been reading around that a bit lately, but if you have any recommendations, please feel free to post them below!

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Translating a pseudo-Welsh accent into French (or, over-explaining a joke)

Recently I came across Accros du Roc, a French translation by Patrick Couton of Terry Pratchett's comic fantasy Soul Music. In the original, Imp y Celyn ("Bud of the Holly" in Welsh) is a young musician from Llamedos, a small country full of druids and stone circles and harps where it rains all the time. He has a conspicuous Llamedos accent, which seems to consist mainly of doubling all his l's: "Not ellvish at allll, honestlly". For British readers, it's fairly obvious what's going on here: Welsh makes extensive use of the letter combination ll (transcribing a lateral fricative not found in English), so doubling the l's gives it a vaguely Welsh look without actually attempting the difficult task of representing a Welsh accent using an orthography as phonetically inexact as English's. Not a terribly funny joke, really, but it plays some small part in establishing our expectations for this character. But how could it be translated into French, or for that matter any other language?

Conveniently enough, France does have a sort of equivalent to Wales, a rainy, mountainous, coastal region with its own Celtic language and a lot of stone circles: Brittany. Breton does not make much use of the combination ll, but it does have a few characteristics that appear equally exotic to French speakers - in particular, the combination c'h (transcribing the velar fricative /x/) and the frequent use of the letter k (for /k/, reasonably enough). So Kreskenn Kelenn (one guess as to the name's meaning in Breton) talks like this:

Je vois un homme ki tient une hac'he de jet !

So in this case, it works out quite well - though I imagine the joke is lost on readers from, say, Quebec.

I gather that Soul Music has been translated into quite a few languages, but I don't think Arabic is one of them. What on earth would a translator do in this case? It would be kind of tempting to go for equating Celts with Berbers - there are a few stone circles in North Africa - and have Imp substitute ث ذ for ت د. But I don't think any Arab reader east of Algeria would get the allusion, and I doubt that the Middle East contains any ethnic group that can be satisfactorily thought of as playing the role for the Arabs that the Welsh do for the English. Then again, if I were an Arabic translator asked to take on Soul Music, I would give up immediately - any of the few Arabic speakers capable of getting enough of the rock music history allusions to be entertained by the book would be more comfortable reading it in English or French anyway. But that objection is not insuperable: after all, The Wasteland and Finnegan's Wake have been translated into Arabic (for some reason). Perhaps some day a genius will come along sufficiently reckless to give it a try...