Wednesday, July 15, 2015

How Berber is the Arabic of the Chaamba?

As unfortunately foreshadowed by my last post, violence broke out again in Ghardaia recently between Chaamba and Mozabites. At least 22 were killed, most of them Mozabite. As far as I can tell, not one newspaper has ventured to report what specifically triggered this episode of violence - which probably means that the details are thought to be embarrassing or inflammatory. (I suspect that this vicious yet incompetent piece of anti-Mozabite propaganda provides an explanation in reverse - that a rumour circulated among the Chaamba that the Mozabites were celebrating the assassination of Ali or something like that - but that's only a guess.) Instead, they're presenting a flurry of supposedly deeper explanations, vaguely alluding to drug trading, smuggling, religious extremism, and foreign meddling.

One news item that recently made waves came from a Facebook post by Ahmed Ben Naoum, a professor of sociology at the University of Perpignan, who, as reported by El Watan, insists that the Chaamba (properly šʕanba) are not Arabs but rather Zenati Berbers. The ancestry of the Chaamba is not something I can comment on professionally - if that mattered, which it shouldn't, a look at their Y-chromosomes would be the way to go. Nor can I say much on their historical self-identification, though at present it's extremely clear that the Chaamba consider themselves Arab (more specifically, a branch of Banu Sulaym). However, the article also touches on their language:

«Les Cha’anba font partie de la majorité zénète de ce pays. Ils n’ont aucun mythe fondateur les rattachant aux ‘‘Arabes’’ ! Eux-mêmes ont été arabisés comme l’ont été les autres Zénètes, sauf à dire qu’ils expriment leur culture dans une des langues arabes qu’ils ont largement ‘‘zénétisée’’ dans la morphologie et la syntaxe.»
[The Sha'anba are part of the Zenati majority of this country. They have no foundation myth attaching them to the "Arabs"! They themselves have been Arabised like the other Zenatis, but that is only to say that they express their culture in one of the Arabic languages which they have extensively "Zenatified" in morphology and syntax.]

This is not correct. The dialect of the Chaamba is one of the few dialects of the Algerian Sahara for which a grammatical description has been published (Grand'Henry 1976), and its morphology, at least, is pretty well studied. Judging by this material, there is no discernible Zenata (or other Berber) influence on the morphology or syntax of the dialect at all. In this respect, it agrees with Algerian Arabic more generally. Very few dialects of Algerian Arabic show significant morphological influence from Berber; only a few areas, such as Jijel or Adrar, even have Berber plurals for nouns borrowed from Berber, and no dialect anywhere is reported to has borrowed Berber verbal morphology. Many dialects have a few abstract nouns in ta-...-t - usually with negative meanings - but this formation is hardly productive. Syntactic influence is plausible a priori, but has not been adequately demonstrated anywhere in Algerian Arabic (except Jijel), much less for the dialect of the Chaamba.

A better place to look for Berber influence in Algerian dialects, generally speaking, is phonology and vocabulary. In phonology, the phoneme and the merger of the short vowels can both plausibly - although not certainly - be attributed to Berber influence; however, it is unclear from Grand'Henry's rather poor description of the phonology whether even these apply in the Chaamba dialect. The vocabulary listed by Grand'Henry includes very few Berber loans, and most of the latter are pan-Algerian, eg həžžala "widow", atay "tea" (the latter ultimately from Chinese); the only rarer ones noted are two types of date, taqərbŭšt and tantmŭšt, which would naturally be easily borrowed from Berber-speaking oasis dwellers. On the basis of the available data, it's safe to say that the Zenati influence in the dialect of the Chaamba, like the Zenati influence in most Algerian dialects whether spoken by people of Berber ancestry or not, is very limited. It would be very interesting to study the extent of Berber influence in the Arabic spoken in different regions of Algeria, and how it varies. But such a study should not be expected to provide proof that Algerians in general, or any specific group of Algerians in particular, are of Amazigh ancestry. If for some reason you want to know about ancestry, ask a geneticist, not a linguist (nor, I would suggest, a sociologist).

Friday, July 03, 2015

Nasheed in Tumzabt

In honour of the month - and of the harmonious coexistence in Algeria of different branches of Islam, threatened in recent years - here's a rather well-produced bilingual Ramadan nasheed in Arabic and Tumẓabt, the Berber language of the Mzab region far to the south of Algiers:

Apart from its linguistic interest, it's rather interesting semiotically. The first half, in Arabic, presents life in a Saharan oasis as idealised by an oasis-dweller rather than a tourist - no dunes, not much picturesque architecture, just well-watered, well-shaded palm groves, traditional picnic blankets, and lots of happy children. The second half, in Tumzabt with Arabic subtitles, focuses more on religious life - mosques and prayer at odd hours and pages of the Qur'an. Someone put a lot of money into this clip; I don't know anything about its background, but I get the impression that it was intended not just to edify fellow speakers of Tumẓabt but also to show the best possible image of the Mzab to outsiders - perhaps a precautionary PR effort in case of further problems in the region?

Some linguistic features of interest include:

  • The Latin loanword i-bekkaḍ-en "sins", from peccatum;
  • The non-borrowed Berber word Yuc "God";
  • The curious metathesis in dessat < s dat "before, in front of" (I have no explanation for the gemination here either);
  • The coinage ɣiṛu, based on the inherited root "call", for the time before dawn when the first call to prayer is traditionally made, about an hour before the actual time of prayer (thanks to Banouh Nouh-Mefnoune for the details). Similar forms are paralleled sporadically in a number of Berber varieties, but which prayer they refer to depends on the region;
  • The varying forms of the 1st person plural object clitic (if indeed it can still be called a clitic): -aɣen when placed before the verb, as in the first line, but -aneɣ when placed after it;
  • The addition of meaningless -i at the end of the line to make it fit the metre, paralleled in Tashelhiyt. (see comments)

Here's my best effort to transcribe it, minus some of the repetition; corrections welcome.

Yus-ed yur n uẓumi, a-ɣen yerr f etcetmi; [corrected following comments]
The month of fasting has come, let it take us away from sin;
Eṛbeḥ-ed si-s a memmi arrazen n etzeɛmi.
Win from it, my son, the reward of goodness.
Eččer-t fissaɛ ɣiṛu, dessat ma ɣad yedden,
Get up quick before dawn, before the call to prayer,
Esserr n elxiṛ eğrew, a-c reẓmen ibriden;
Gather secret good deeds, roads will open for you;
Yus-əd yur n uẓumi.
The month of fasting has come.

Yus-ed yur n uẓumi, a-ɣen yerr f etcetmi;
The month of fasting has come, let it take us away from sin;
Eṛbeḥ-ed si-s a memmi arrazen n etzeɛmi.
Win from it, my son, the reward of goodness.
S tala-s seṛwa ul-eč, tfarrid-t s ibekkaḍen, [corrected following comments]
Fill your heart from its fount, purify it from sins,
Ezdey i tawwat-eč; a-c yexs Yuc ed midden,
Reconcile with your relatives, God and people will love you;
Yus-əd yur n uẓumi.
The month of fasting has come.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Anomalous gender agreement in Algerian Arabic

In Algerian Arabic (here, Dellys dialect), the feminine singular form of an adjective is formed just by adding a suffix -a, with almost no exceptions. In two of the exceptions, a full look at the paradigm suggests that it's really the masculine form rather than the feminine which is irregular (though the situation is less clear-cut in other dialects - in traditional Algiers, for example, the plural of "beautiful" is شبّان šəbban):
m. sg.f. sg.pl.
beautifulشباب šbabشابّة šabbaشابّين šabbin
otherآخُر axŭṛأُخرى ŭxṛaأُخرين ŭxṛin

A third case is rather different. "Such-and-such (a person), so-and-so" is expressed by the noun m. sg. فلان flan, f. sg. فلانة flana, with no known plural. (This originally Arabic form is rather widely borrowed; you may be familiar with it from Spanish fulano). From this we can derive an adjective "such-and-such a" by adding a nisba suffix -i: m. sg. فلاني flani, but f. sg. فلانتية flantiyya. To make matters worse, we suddenly find ourselves with a gender distinction in the plural, something otherwise absent from adjectival agreement in this dialect: m. pl. فلانيين flaniyyin, f. pl. فلانتيين flantiyyin.

What's going on, though anomalous, is pretty clear (recall that feminine -a regularly becomes -t in the construct state): this adjective is displaying double agreement, gender agreement alone on the nominal root flan, and normal gender+number agreement on the adjectival derivational suffix -i. Can you think of any comparable cases elsewhere?

Saturday, June 27, 2015

How Korandje made "with" agree it-with its subject

Korandje, the language of Tabelbala in southwestern Algeria, requires the comitative preposition "with" to agree in person and number, not with its object, but with its subject (strictly speaking, with its external argument):
ʕa-ddər ʕ-indza xaləd, I-went I-with Khaled.
nə-ddər n-indza xaləd, you-went you-with Khaled.
This seems to be vanishingly rare worldwide. The nearest parallels I have encountered are ones in which the comitative is expressed using a serial verb, but a closer look at the syntax and morphology of Korandje shows that indza is indeed a preposition, not a verb or a noun. Perhaps most strikingly, when you relativise on its object, you pied-pipe not only the preposition but the agreement marker on it too:
ʕan bạ-yu ʕ-indz uɣudz əgga ʕa-b-yəxdəm
my friend-s I-with whom PAST I-IMPF-work
"my friends with whom I was working"
Its historical source, proto-Songhay *ndá "with, and, if", was also a preposition, and did not display agreement. Comparative data makes it possible to reconstruct how this change took place: it developed out of a strategy, common in Berber and found in some Songhay languages, of expressing "I went with Khaled" as "I went, I and Khaled", which seems to be the result of reinterpretation of a postverbal subject as part of the adjacent comitative phrase. This development in turn provides the first attested way to reverse the well-known grammaticalisation chain "with" > "and". If you want to know more, read my article, which has just been published:

"How to make a comitative preposition agree it-with its external argument: Songhay and the typology of conjunction and agreement". In Paul Widmer, Jürg Fleischer, and Elisabeth Rieken (eds.), Agreement from a diachronic perspective, Berlin: De Gruyter, pp. 75-100, 2015. (offprints available on request - just email me.)

Here's the abstract:

This article describes two hitherto unreported comitative strategies exemplified in Songhay languages of West Africa – external agreement, and bipartite – and demonstrates their wider applicability. The former strategy provides the first clear-cut example of a previously unattested agreement target-controller pair. Based on comparative evidence, this article proposes a scenario for how these could have developed from the typologically unremarkable comitative and coordinative strategies reconstructible for proto-Songhay, in a process facilitated by contact with Berber. The grammaticalisation chain required to explain this has the unexpected effect of reversing a much better-known one previously claimed to be unidirectional, the development COMITATIVE > NP-AND.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Comparative Siouan Dictionary

A key document in Native American philology which has been circulating in samizdat form for decades is finally online and searchable: the multi-authored Comparative Siouan Dictionary (as noted by Guillaume Jacques). Named for the last of its speakers to resist colonization, the Sioux or Lakota, the Siouan family was spread over a vast section of North America, covering much of the Missouri and Mississippi valleys but with old outliers as far east as Tutelo in Virginia. The names of several Midwesternstates derive from Siouan languages, so they make a convenient starting point for exploring the database. Minnesota is from Dakota mni sota "cloudy water",both elements of whose history you can trace back here to proto-Siouan: *waRé• "lake, water" and *(a)só•tE "hazy, bluish, cloudy". *waRé• also yields Chiwere ñį, which in combination with the Chiwere reflex of *parás-ka "spread > flat (1)" yields the name of Nebraska. Dakota, from a name of the Sioux, has a less venerable history, being traceable only back to proto-Mississippi Valley Siouan *hkota/*hkoRa/*hkora "friend", with unexplained internal variation and similar forms in other families suggesting the possibility of a loan. (The la- element might have something to do with fire; see John Koontz's discussion.) Kansas, Arkansas, and Iowa also have names of Siouan origin, but I can't find them in here; much work remains to be done, after all... For the relevant correspondences, a good starting point is Rankin et al. 1997, available from the same site.

The more adventurous may note that there are good prospects for going beyond proto-Siouan. It is generally accepted that Catawban is Siouan's nearest relative, and the database sometimes includes Catawba cognates (as under "lake, water" above), but makes no attempt at Proto-Siouan-Catawban reconstructions. (Work on Catawba continues, but some older materials are available online, eg Lieber 1858, Gatschet 1900). Beyond that, some work suggests that Siouan-Catawban is in turn related to what would otherwise be an isolate language - Yuchi, originally spoken in Tennessee and later forcibly relocated to Oklahoma. Efforts to find etymologies at that level have barely gotten off the ground (cf. eg Rudes 1974), but there are some promising ones, notably proto-Siouan *isá•pE "black" vs. Yuchi ispí (Elmendorf 1964). Even more implausible proposals, like the idea of a special relationship with the small Yukian family of California (Elmendorf 1963), could at any rate be reexamined in the light of this work.

Tuesday, June 02, 2015

The irrelevance of the standard in Algeria

I recently came across a nice little study of language attitudes among Kabyles in Oran, inheriting Kabyle from their parents and kin but living in an overwhelmingly Arabic-speaking context: Ait Habbouche 2013. The results will not come as a huge surprise to anyone familiar with Algeria, but they stand in stark contrast to a curiously widespread idea about Berber language endangerment: the notion that Berber is under threat from the government-imposed hegemony of Standard Arabic. What the survey answers reveal, time after time, is in fact the utter failure of government policies to create any meaningful space for Standard Arabic in daily life. It is no surprise to see that Standard Arabic is used by 0% of respondents with other Kabyles in the cafe or at home. But seeing that only 4% speak it even at work, and 0% in university, should be a shock to anyone who still imagines that Standard Arabic occupies a position analogous to, say, Standard German. The taboo on speaking Standard Arabic in any but the most formal quasi-academic conversation remains nearly absolute; 73% rated it as the language they used least. The only topics surveyed for which this option was selected by any significant number were religion and politics, and actual usage in both cases would probably reveal a mix of Standard words into a basically dialectal matrix. There are absolutely no signs that this group is shifting to Standard Arabic, or even sees this as a viable possibility. The language that has attained a large usage among these speakers, even with other Kabyles, is not Standard Arabic but Algerian Arabic - a language with no official status taught in no school, which was the least likely (2%) of any of the available languages to be rated as most beautiful or richest, and was rated by 42% as the language they liked least (nearly tied with Standard Arabic). Yet this little-loved language, dismissed as much by its speakers as by their rulers, is not only the main language they use with non-Kabyles but is extensively used even with fellow Kabyles (42% with their own siblings).

The utterly marginal status of Standard Arabic in conversation within this group (and elsewhere in Algeria) contrasts sharply with that of French. 22% of the sample claimed to address Kabyle strangers in French, and 26% to speak it with their friends. More tellingly, 38% chose it as the language they spoke in at work, and no less than 68% for speaking about science. It's interesting to find an official language that doesn't dominate even in contexts like that! In short, while Standard Arabic is taboo for conversation, French is not. There are of course circumstances where it could be inappropriate, but there is no blanket ban as with Standard Arabic.

What does this imply for language policy? I'm no policy analyst, but here are my thoughts...

As far as the linguistic majority goes, only a spoken language can hope to displace French from the spoken domain, and long-standing efforts to break the taboo on speaking Standard Arabic have been utterly futile. Maybe it's time for those who want Arabic to be official in practice and not just in theory to acknowledge and support the existing complementary distribution of functions between Standard and Algerian Arabic, rather than treating the latter as some kind of unfortunate necessity. Demanding that officials consistently speak to the public in Standard Arabic instead of French is not always realistic, but demanding that they speak in a high register of Algerian Arabic could be. But that will only happen if people learn to value the language they speak, rather than dismissing it.

For the minority, it suggests that the main threat to Berber comes not from school, but rather from daily life in non-Berber-speaking environments. If so, solutions should focus less on making sure that Berbers can study Berber at school (though that is certainly desirable for other reasons), and more on getting non-Berbers in linguistically mixed contexts to study Berber and use it in conversation - almost the opposite of existing policy.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Old Arabic in Greek letters, in 3rd/4th century Jordan

An article published this year (Al-Jallad and Al-Manaser 2015) reveals the oldest known fully vocalised Arabic inscription by far - written in Greek letters in northeastern Jordan, probably in the 3rd or 4th century AD. Here it is: New Epigraphica from Jordan I: a pre-Islamic Arabic inscription in Greek letters and a Greek inscription from north-eastern Jordan. The inscription's author describes himself as "al-'Idāmī" - probably to be interpreted as "the Edomite" - a nisba featuring the definite article al-, unique within Semitic to Arabic.

There are a fair number of Arabic names transcribed in Greek at this period in various sources, but this seems to be the only known attempt to write Arabic text in Greek letters until much later. Most contemporary Arabic inscriptions were instead written in the Safaitic script, which does not indicate vowels. A text like this thus enables us to see much more clearly how the Arabic of the nomads of 3rd/4th century Jordan was pronounced. It confirms two crucial points. In Arabic, case is usually indicated only by final vowel choice; in this inscription, accusative case (-a) is clearly marked, but the Classical nominative and genitive (-u, -i) are not transcribed, suggesting that this dialect had dropped final short high vowels and thus developed a case system like that of Geez. Also reminiscent of Geez is the fact that intervocalic semivowels elided in Classical Arabic were unambiguously pronounced - thus 'atawa rather than 'atā for "he came". There may well be more material like this out there in the deserts on the Syrian-Jordanian border; let's hope research on the Syrian side becomes possible again soon...

Incidentally, next week I'll be at Bucharest for AIDA - if you're there, come to my talk on Wednesday!