Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Mubi plurals from Arabic

Mubi, an East Chadic language spoken in the Guera Mountains of eastern Chad, stands out even in Chadic for the sheer complexity of its plural system, and all the more so for its extensive use of internal vowel changes. This seems likely to give it particular relevance for the reconstruction of Afroasiatic. However, Mubi is also profoundly influenced by Chadian Arabic, to a greater degree than even an Arabic-speaker might suppose at first sight. How much of Mubi's plural system reflects Arabic influence?

Looking through Jungraithmayr's (2013) La Langue Mubireview, I find 14 plurals of the form BaCaaDi(i)F (e.g. àbàlány "patas monkey", pl. àbàalîny) and 5 of the form BaCaaDo/u (e.g. móngò "monkey sp." > mánáagò). Of these, 9 and 4 respectively are found in Jullien de Pommerol's (1999) Dictionnaire arabe tchadien-français (including, to my surprise, both the previous examples), and many of the remainder seem semantically likely to be features of some more localized Arabic variety (e.g. mánjàl "village chief" pl. mànáajìl, various ethnonyms). It seems rather clear that these two plural types are borrowed from Arabic; but there is no strong evidence that they have been extended to inherited vocabulary.

For the closely related plural form BaCaaDiFe, we find 3 examples, of which only one is definitely of Arabic origin: shàddáarì "shaman" (i.e. "herbalist", based on Chadian Arabic šadar < šajar), pl. shàdáadìrè. Suffixation of -e is not otherwise typical of Mubi plurals, and matches perfectly with the Arabic plural in BaCāDiF-ah; it thus seems reasonable to consider this plural type as a borrowing from Arabic as well. If so, it provides us with one good candidate for an extension to inherited vocabulary. Mubi érìny "scorpion", pl. àráarínyè is comparable to other East Chadic forms in its singular, eg Dangaleat ɛ́rîndílɛ̀ pl. ɛ́ríndílnà, Toram irindeeɗà pl. irindeɗ, Kajakse ʔàràari pl. ʔàràaràk (Fedry 1971, Alio 2004), but disagrees strikingly with them in its plural.

At first sight, one is tempted to go further and conclude that the plural types BuCooDuF and BiCeeDiF are also adaptations of the Arabic iambic plural. But the evidence in those cases is not so clearcut. BiCeeDiF is only attested for a single word with no Arabic counterpart that I've been able to find (dólgúm "a type of basket", pl. díléegìm.) BuCooDuF is far more frequent than BaCaaDi(i)F and seems to contain a much greater proportion of inherited vocabulary, although some Chadian Arabic loans are found as well (e.g. àngúmbùl "calabash", pl. àngùnóobùl, corresponding to Chadian Arabic amgunbul pl. amganâbil). Moreover, it can plausibly be unified with another plural schema with no possible Arabic counterpart, BuCoDFuG, e.g. áránjálà "kidney", pl. ùrònjúl. For the time being, it seems prudent to withhold judgement on the explanation for why these two plural types are so strikingly reminiscent of the Arabic iambic plural.

Other Arabic plurals borrowed only for the corresponding Arabic nouns include BuCuuD (e.g. tês "billy-goat", pl. túyúùs), BiCiDaan (e.g. jédì "dorcas fawn", pl. jídíyáàn), and the sound masculine plural suffix -iin (e.g. máanì "strong", pl. màanìʔíìn). In the case of the sound feminine plural suffix -a(a)t, only two of the four examples in Jungraithmayr are clearly of Arabic origin (àntàháarà "mantis", pl. àntàhàarât; ràbàʔíyè "young woman", pl. ràbàʔìyáàt.) The other two look suggestively Arabic, however (ìrèedíyè "small granary", pl. ìrèedìyât; ròomìyè "crushing-stone", pl. ròomìyáàt), and this plural type too probably consists entirely of Arabic loans.

So far, it looks like in Mubi, as in Berber, Arabic influence has had the effect of further complicating an already very complex plural system. But Mubi is spoken in a far more multilingual context than most Berber varieties; one wonders whether some of the complexity here might be due to contact with regional languages other than Arabic as well...

Friday, January 17, 2020

Animal speech in the Songhay world: from orality to manuscript

Whether animals can talk is, above all, a question of definition. There are obviously important differences between human language and animal vocalizations; modern linguists and biologists find it useful to emphasise these by reserving words like "talk" for humans. There are, however, also important similarities which can be used to justify a common term for both - above all the fact that both often seem to be used for communication.

In traditional Songhay discourse, as in many other places, it's perfectly reasonable to say that animals talk. A "Kaado" text by Adama Seydou, recorded at the heart of the Songhay world in northwestern Niger near Dolbel by Ducroz and Charles (1982:55), expresses this attitude concisely:

Dábbèy, ì gó ǹd ŋ̀gêy wón héenó kâŋ ì ǵ té, kâŋ sénní nô, sénníyóŋ mó nô kâŋ, mán t́ bórà kúl nàŋ ǵ má r à. Amá bòryóŋ gò nô kâŋ ǵ nê, ŋ̀gêy ǵ má, wó kâŋ círôw fìláanà gó k̀ nê, wàl wó kâŋ háw fíláan gó k̀ hẽ́ k̀ nê, wàl wó kâŋ bèrì fìláanà, à gó k̀ hẽ́ k̀ nê.
Animals, they have their own cries that they do, which are speech/language; those too are speech/language, which no one can understand. But some people say they understand, what a certain bird is saying, or what a certain cow is saying with its cry, or what a certain horse is saying with its cry.

Some years ago in Tabelbala, the northernmost (Korandje) Songhay-speaking settlement, I recorded a similar attitude towards animal vocalizations, by Mr. Mohamed Larbi Ayachi (tabelbala2010-1-035). After he explained the idea, implicit in animal tales across North Africa, that long ago all the animals used to talk, I asked him why that stopped; he replied:

Aṛṛə̣yyəd, ala wạlu. Ala əytsa lħəywan ba təndzi abdzyəy. Lħəywan. Mħal išənyu, mħal ə ɣuna. Išənyu ndza nbạṛṛaḅḅạna gạka, uɣudz abnnas nɣayu, gundz ə iššəmm an ərriħəts amgẉa anna tsiwktsyu, maʕ maʕ. Itsa abdzyəy.
Did it stop? No, no way. No; look, animals still talk. Animals. Like goats, like uh whatsit. Goats, if you've raised them in the house, the one who gives them food, when they smell his smell they start crying out, maa! maa! So they talk!

How did the precolonial spread of literacy combine with these attitudes? An unpublished Arabic manuscript recently posted by Endangered Libraries In Timbuktu - Kitāb fīhi Kalām al-Bahā’im wa al-Ṭuyūr [A Book Containing the Speech of the Animals and the Birds] (from the Essayouti Library, early 19th c.) - strikingly mirrors Adama Seydou's discourse above, while integrating a specifically religious spin. This apocryphal text, probably composed locally to judge by the occasional gender agreement errors, portrays ten Jewish religious scholars challenging the Caliph Umar with a bunch of difficult questions, including:

وأخبرنا عن الفرس وما يقول في صهيله وعن الإبل وما يقول في رخائه وعن البقر وما يقول في نهاره وعن الحمار وما يقول في نهاقه وعن الريح وما يقول في هبوبه وعن العصفور ما يقول في صرصرته وعن الشاة وما يقول في صياحها وعن الكلب وما يقول في نباحه وعن الثعلب وما يقول في ترنيه
"Tell us about the horse and what it says in its neighing, and the camel and what it says in its grunting, and the cow and what it says in its mooing, and the donkey and what it says in its braying, and the wind and what it says in in its blowing, and the sparrow and what it says in its chirping, and the sheep and what it says in its bleating, and the dog and what it says in its barking, and the fox and what it says in its crying..."

Umar forwards the questions to (his future successor) Ali ibn Abi Talib, who replies:

وأما كلام البهائم والطيور فإن الفرس يقول في صهيله اللهم اغفر للمؤمنين واحزن الكافرين واما الابل فانه يقول يا رب كيف يستطيع السكوت من يفهم القنوت واما البقر فإنها تقول يا غافل انت في شاغل يا غافل انت عن القريب راحل يا غافل ما حدثت ما انت فاعل واما الشاة فانها تقول يا موت ما افجاك يا موت ما انشاك يا ××× ما اغفلك واما الحمار فانه يقول اللهم لعن المكا××××××××× الكلب فانه يقول اللهم اني محروم وانت الرحمن ××××××××× واما الثعلب فانه يقول يا رب ا...
As for the speech of animals and birds: The horse says in his neighing "O God, forgive the believers (al-muʔminīn) and sadden the disbelievers (al-kāfirīn". The camel says "Lord, how can one remain silent (sukūt) who understands supplication (qunūt)?". The cow says "Neglectful one (yā ġāfil), you are in distraction (šāġil); neglectful one (yā ġāfil), you are soon to depart (rāħil); neglectful one (yā ġāfil), what have you made new and what are you doing (fāʕil)?" The sheep says "O Death, how surprising you are (mā ʔafjaʔak); O Death, how established you are (mā ʔanšaʔak); [...], how neglectful you are (mā ʔaġfalak)!" The donkey says "O God, curse the [...]". The dog says "O God, I am deprived (maħrūm), and you are the merci[...]". The fox says "Lord, [...]".

In form, these loosely reflect the actual sounds of the animals: each of the phrases attributed to the animals have a rhyme in Arabic that recalls the animal's stereotypical sound (the horse in -īn, the camel in -ūt, the sheep in -aʔak/-alak.) In meaning, on the other hand, they reflect not any actual intentions that the animals might reasonably be seen to have, but rather their species' role within human society: horses used for war, sheep bred to be killed, dogs relegated to a lowly position.

The real purpose of this invention is obviously devotional and mnemonic: it creates a memorable association between an animal's cry and a sort of mini-sermon, ideally making every animal's cry trigger dhikr (remembrance of God) in its human readers.

On the surface, this text not only admits the possibility of animals speaking but gives it a stamp of religious authority. Yet the specific interpretations it gives make it impossible to read such speech as contextually relevant in any specific here and now, or as relating in any way to the animal's desires or circumstances. The animals are not so much being anthropomorphized as being "angelized" - turned into messengers of an abstract cause, like Smokey the Bear. In fact, the pretense of translating the language of animals here, as so often around the world, actually deprives them of the voice that less "sophisticated" approaches like Adama Seydou's acknowledge.

The ideal people to ask about this topic, in some respects, are neither farmers nor scholars, but hunters and herdsmen (not that those categories are mutually exclusive!) Unfortunately, I'm not aware offhand of any work on Songhay-speaking hunters' attitude to animal communication; it would make a very interesting counterpoint to statements like these.


This little foray into linguistic anthropology was partly inspired by discussions with James Costa. My thanks to him, to Mohamed Larbi Ayachi, and to the ELIT team.

Thursday, January 02, 2020

Kabyle-Arabic phraseological convergence

Kabyle Berber and (especially north-central) Algerian Arabic show the marks of massive convergence, often reflected in the use of phraseology that translates literally with identical meaning. A nice example I came across recently (p. 186, Poèmes kabyles anciens, Mammeri 1980/2009) is the following sentence:
Ur as zmireɣ, ur iffiɣ felli.
NEG 3SG.DAT be.able.NEG.PFV-1SG, NEG 3MSG-go.out.NEG.PFV on-1SG
Literally:
I can't handle it, it doesn't suit me.

This translates perfectly into (north-central) Algerian Arabic:

ما قدرتلو، ما خرج عليّا.
Ma qdertlu, ma xrej 3liyya.
NEG be.able.PFV-1SG-3SG.DAT, NEG 3MSG-go.out.PFV on-1SG
Literally: I can't to it, it doesn't go out on me.
I can't handle it, it doesn't suit me.

In languages further removed from the area, however, a literal translation would be comically nonsensical:

  • EN: *I can't to it, it doesn't go out on me.
  • FR: *Je ne lui peux, il ne sort pas sur moi.

Another case was highlighted on Twitter by Noureddine Chikh: the use in both languages of "where do I know?" for "how would I know?" The latter proved to have some near-parallels elsewhere (with "Whence do I know?"), but no perfect ones were reported. How about this one? Can you think of any other idiomatic phrases that translate literally across the two languages?

Tuesday, December 03, 2019

Scattered etymological notes

I'm posting these mostly so I don't forget them...

Algerian Arabic jəḥmum جحموم "blackbird", and its Kabyle counterpart ajeḥmum, derive from Classical Arabic yaḥmūm يحموم "soot-black". This otherwise very irregular change y- > j- is perfectly paralleled in another animal name of the form yaCCūC: jəṛbuʕ جربوع "jerboa" from yarbūʕ يربوع. Could this be the regular outcome of this particular template? We need to check if any other yaCCūC animal names have survived.

The Korandje word for "vulva", imən, looks phonologically like an obvious match for Berber iman "soul, self". However, I could never see any sufficiently clear connection between the two semantically. The missing link is provided by Colin's (1918:118) description of the Moroccan Arabic dialect of Taza: there, rōḥ is glossed as a euphemistic term for "vulve de la jument ou de la vache". Is this attested in Berber itself anywhere, I wonder?

Another Korandje word, tasənɣəyt, refers to a type of rock; after Paleolithic discoveries near Tabelbala, paleoarcheologists ended up giving its name to an Acheulian cleaver type, the "Tachenghit" cleaver. This seems to match Jijel Arabic ašənɣud "pierre lisse (pour broyer)" (Marçais 1954:333), although Hassaniya Arabic may offer a more direct point of comparison. I don't remember seeing this in any Berber dictionary so far; is that attested?

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Getting lost in the NW Sahara

Two languages of the northwestern Sahara, spoken reasonably close to each other, have basic motion verbs derived from a word that originally meant GET LOST. Let's see if we can figure out how that happened.

For COME, practically all Berber languages consistently use reflexes of the proto-Berber word *asəʔ. In the largest Berber variety, however - Tashelhiyt, in southern Morocco - this root has been lost, and a quite different verb is used: ašk (ⴰⵛⴽ). The original meaning of this verb can still be seen in other Berber languages, such as Tamasheq: GET LOST (a meaning which in Tashelhiyt has been replaced by what's probably a borrowing from Arabic جلا.) Presumably, GET LOST came to mean WANDER, and WANDER (over) came to mean COME.

In Songhay, GET LOST is *dere(y), preserved as such in most varieties. In Korandje in western Algeria, however - uniquely within the family - this root's reflex has undergone a very similar shift in meaning: dri now means GO. (Songhay speakers might assume this comes from dira WALK, but this word, from Proto-Songhay *dida, rather corresponds to Korandje zda WALK.) Meanwhile, Berber *aškəʔ GET LOST has itself been borrowed - probably from Tamasheq - as wuška GET LOST (the vowels reflect the Berber perfective form.)

In summary:

COMEGET LOSTGO
Tashelhiytaškžluddu
Tamasheqasaškăkk
Gao Songhaykaaderekoy
Korandjekawuškadri

Both changes can be summarized as GET LOST > BASIC-MOTION-VERB. Lexically, Korandje shows heavy influence from southern Moroccan Berber, much of which seems to match Tashelhiyt better than it does the Southern Tamazight varieties currently spoken closest to Tabelbala. That makes it rather tempting to seek a contact explanation. But if Korandje was copying a Tashelhiyt pattern, why would it replace GO rather than COME?

To make sense of what happened, I think we have to envision an intermediate earlier stage where WANDER (from GET LOST) was getting used as a generic verb of motion irrespective of direction in some (perhaps expressive) contexts. Both Tashelhiyt and Korandje require direction towards (and sometimes away from) the speaker to be expressed with a directional morpheme outside the verb root proper, so no ambiguity would necessarily result. From this situation, WANDER could end up replacing either COME or GO, while still maintaining the existing (seemingly superfluous) lexical distinction between the two by keeping the other root.

Now I think about it, British English offers a possible parallel for the initial stages of such a development, with particles substituting for the directionals of Berber and Songhay. In phrases like "he wandered over" ("he came over"), "he wandered off" ("he went away"), the original implication of aimlessness has faded away in informal usage to the point of being virtually absent. Should we expect some peripheral English dialect to replace "come" or "go" with "wander" altogether? Check back in a few centuries to find out...

Sunday, September 08, 2019

C. S. Lewis' criterion for prescriptivism

Prescriptivism - it's what linguists love to hate, and not without reason. So much of it is just a thin veil stretched over social prejudices. But could we have socially impartial, language-internal criteria for good and bad language change? C. S. Lewis, in Studies in Words (1960:6), proposes one:
This implies that I have a good idea of what is good and bad language. I have. Language is an instrument for communication. The language which can with the greatest ease make the finest and most numerous distinctions of meaning is the best. It is better to have like and love than to have aimer for both.

In the book, he makes some effort to use this to judge various changes in English lexical semantics: he deplores the loss of the old senses of "liberal" and "conservative" caused by their adoption as party political labels replacing Whig and Tory, but regards the change of "wit" from "genius" to its modern meaning as having happily made it a useful word.

What would his reaction have been to some of the changes in English that have occurred since? Applying his criterion strictly, he should have welcomed words like "vape" or "twerk" - new forms expressing previously unlexicalized meanings. (His probable reaction to their referents is another story!) "Irregardless" should have left him unmoved - a new (actually not that new) word for a meaning already expressed by "regardless" has no impact on the ease of making "the finest and most numerous distinctions of meaning" (and may make it easier for poets to fit their thoughts to the metre). The use of "literally" as a general intensifier, on the other hand, should have driven him up the wall - he specifically complains about "verbicide" through inflation, citing the comparable case of "awfully". In brief, whatever the merits of this criterion, it cannot consistently be used as a general-purpose attack on novelties; it forces the prescriptivist to consider them on a case-by-case basis.

Assuming such a criterion is accepted, the next move is predictable: someone somewhere is going to want to compare the merits of different languages on its basis. The problems with that should be obvious. Suppose language A makes finer and more numerous distinctions of meaning in one semantic field than language B, but in another semantic field the reverse is true (as is usually the case). How do you weigh the importance of different semantic fields in an impartial way? To make matters worse, many of the relevant distinctions of meaning are only going to be familiar to a handful of domain-specific experts; can we really consider them as properties of the language as a whole (whatever that even means)? A criterion like this makes more sense as a standard for measuring individual changes than as a metric for comparing entire languages.

Sunday, August 04, 2019

On reading Poplack 2018

It was a frustrating experience reading Poplack's Borrowing: Loanwords in the Speech Community and in the Grammar. On the one hand, it’s intelligent, well-written, and packed with a wealth of precious sociolinguistic data on borrowing and to a lesser extent code-switching; on the other hand, it appears to be largely dedicated to hammering home a definition of the former that appears to me to be fundamentally untenable. The author ably demonstrates that three criteria that one might expect to be closely correlated are not: conventionalization, morphosyntactic integration, and phonological integration are all independent of one another. Of these three, she chooses to define borrowing exclusively in terms of morphosyntactic integration. For her (enormous, but not very numerous) preferred corpora, this apparently works just fine. But...

The notion of “borrowing” emerged from diachronic studies of the vocabulary used in monolingual discourse. As such, whatever necessary criteria we choose to use to delineate marginal cases, conventionalisation must remain a sufficient criterion for borrowing: if the whole speech community uses the form irrespective of individuals’ level of competence in its source language, it must be a borrowing, not a code-switch. Poplack rejects the criterion of conventionalization as essentially extra-linguistic, preferring the criterion of morphosyntactic integration; yet the latter invokes community conventions just as much as the former, the only difference being the type of conventions invoked (grammatical vs. lexical.) Finding that single words of foreign origin overwhelmingly display morphosyntactic integration and are thus by her definition nonce borrowings, she concludes (p. 213) that “loanwords do not originate as code-switches… the very first mention of a nonce form already features the full complement of morphosyntactic integration into [the recipient language]”. But this makes some problematic predictions.

First of all, if this is true, borrowings should never retain source morphosyntax. This is clearly not tenable. Borrowings retain source morphology all the time: Berber nouns in several Arabic dialects, and Arabic nouns throughout Berber, keep their plurals; Latin nouns in German keep their case markers; in a tiny scattering of languages around the Mediterranean, such as Ghomara Berber, borrowed verbs even keep their conjugation. Some categories of borrowings retain their syntax as well: larger borrowed numerals precede or follow the noun according to the rules of the source language, not of the recipient, in Korandje; borrowed primary adpositions and complementizers rather consistently place their complement as in the source language wherever they are found (cf. Moravcsik 1978). Poplack attempts to dispose of the latter with a short footnote (p. 50): “More wide-ranging proposals for borrowability hierarchies […] including prepositions, determiners, pronouns, clitics, and complementizers may be characteristics of certain extreme borrowing situations, such as pidginization or creolization, or, alternatively, the result of confounding code-switches […] and borrowing. The latter is so heavily restricted to content words that this is practically a defining characteristic.” But this really will not do. Turkish (which has borrowed the complementizer ki from Persian along with the associated word order) is hardly anyone’s idea of a pidgin or creole!

Second, such a claim (along with the book as a whole) seems to presuppose that borrowings are necessarily single lexical items. This is manifestly not the case. In English, borrowings that consist of multiple source language words (quid pro quo, per cent, hors d’oeuvres…) are sufficiently unanalysable to be considered as single lexical items in the recipient language; these need not pose a problem for Poplack. But in quite a few languages, including many Berber varieties, at least two classes of multi-word borrowings remain clearly analysable as multiple words, and productive, even for monolingual speakers: numerals, and numeral+measure noun combinations. Such borrowings must necessarily start out as code-switches in Poplack’s terms.

From these facts, I conclude that the process of conventionalization is even more independent of morphosyntactic integration than Poplack assumes. Morphosyntactic integration, as Myers-Scotton implies, is far stricter for structure than for semantics, and is strictly obligatory in neither case. And for function words, at least, syntactic integration only concerns relations up the tree, not down it. It follows that neither morphosyntactic nor phonological integration can be considered necessary or sufficient criteria for borrowing.