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of this verb can still be seen in other Berber languages, such as Tamasheq: GET LOST (a meaning which in Tashelhiyt has been replaced by what's probably a borrowing from Arabic جلا.)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:

Gao Songhaykaaderekoy

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.

Saturday, July 13, 2019

Berber-Arabic macaronic verse

I recently came across a poem in praise of the oasis of Awjila in eastern Libya, attributed to its patron saint, the 15th-century Moroccan traveller Abu'l-`Abbas Ahmad ibn `Isa al-Fasi "al-Zarruq". The poem is in Arabic, but its first few verses stand out for including bits of the Berber language of Awjila:
أواجلة قوم يسوقون عيرهم The Awjilis are a people who drive their caravans
إلى مصر والسودان في طلب التبر To Egypt and Sudan in search of gold.
كلامهم "سوقات" في كل موطن Their speech is suq-at (drive!) in every country,
"أكا وكاقني" على أمد الدهر Akka (here it is!) and mag-nni (where is it?) all the time;
و"ييد وقيم ديلا" ألفاظ كلها And yid (come) and qim dila (sit here) are the words of all of them
و"أزل فيسا" لغاهم على الأثر And azzel fisa (run quickly!) is their accustomed utterance.

I can't vouch for the attribution, but it so happens that Morocco did have a tradition of Berber-Arabic macaronic verse, whose best-known exemplar is al-Rasmuki's 17th-century comic poem Qawm `ijāf ("A starved people"); the latter begins:

بسم الإله في الكلام إيزوار "In the name of the God" in speech izwar (comes first)
وهو على عون العبد إيزضار For He to help a person iẓḍar (is able),
وهو الذي له توليغتين And He is the one to whom belong tulɣiwin (praises),
وهو المجير عبده من تومريتين And He is the protector of his servant from tumritin (trials);
وبعده على النبي تازاليت And after that, upon the Prophet be taẓallit (prayer),
أعظم بها أجرا ولو تاموليت Great in reward, even if only tamullit (one time).
سافرت دھرا ووصیفي وینزار I set off one day with my servant Winzar,
في سنة قد قل فیھا ءانزار In a year where there was little anẓar (rain).
والقصد في السفر جوب تیمیزار The purpose of the journey was to reach timizar (lands),
والسیر في خیامھا وإیكیدار And travel in their tents and igidar (fortresses).
حتى حللت بعد سير أوسان Until I stayed, after a trip of ussan (days),
في قرية يدعونها بأورفان In a village that they call Urfan...

Given that the phenomenon is attested from both ends of the Berber world, it would be interesting to explore how widespread such poetry was, and whether it can be considered as constituting a genre in its own right.

Monday, April 08, 2019

Insults slipping through the diglossia filter

I recently came across a video, apparently from the little town of Souani near Tlemcen, of a poet, one Mohamed Tlemceni, performing a public satire of various Algerian establishment figures: كلمة في حق العصابة من إعداد شاعر الحراك تلمساني محمد. The poem itself is in Standard Arabic (Fusha), the normal language for formal public performance, but he intersperses elements from Algerian Arabic (Darja, italicised), as in:
أنتم تعيشون ببركات فخامته
فانحنوا له طاعة وامتثالا
خسئت يا من عرفناك رخيسا
شياتا للفساد طبّالا

"You all live thanks to His Excellency's blessings,
So bow down to him in obedience and compliance" -
Be off with you, you whom we know of old for a cheap bootlicker (lit. shoe-polisher),
a cheerleader (lit. drum-beater) for corruption!
or (in a reference to Ali Haddad):
جمعت ما يفوق الثلاثين مليار دولار بعرق جبيني
ولم أكن يوما محتالا
أول حرّاڨ بعد الحراك المبارك
فبعد أن كان ميليارديرا صار بطّالا

"I amassed more than 30 billion dollars by the sweat of my brow,
and was never once a crook."
The first harrag (illegal emigrant) after the blessed Hirak (protest movement) -
After being a billionaire, he became unemployed!

So what's going on here? The first part of the performance is satirical: for each person mentioned, he gives one or two vainglorious lines sarcastically put in the mouth of the target (often alluding to real quotes), then two or three tearing him down (then he throws the target's picture in the bin). In the second, he praises the Algerian people and urges it to ever greater achievements. Every single Darja element he uses is in the satirical part; various insults (shiyyat "bootlicker", Tebbal "cheerleader", HeRRag "illegal emigrant", HeRki "traitor") and one direct quote (mocked immediately aftewards). The unironic praise is pure Fusha.

This is not a particularly representative sample of the protests, as the small audience and the rural setting should suggest; in its theatrical, rather bombastic style, it harks back to the public speaking of the 1960s or 1970s more than to any contemporary mainstream. The theatricality is obviously to some extent deliberate and even prized; it almost inevitably accompanies the polished use of a language learned at school and never spoken in ordinary conversation. But it also undermines the force of emotional epithets, making them seem a bit recherché. Shifting into Darja for insults helps to restore their immediacy, while adding a bit of comic effect to a moment clearly intended to provoke laughter (at, not with). But it seems the poet is not yet ready to allow that kind of everyday realism into moments of hope; for dreaming of a bright future, only artfully selected, formal words will do. By relegating the Darja words exclusively to the context of mockery, he strengthens the principle of Fusha as the appropriate language for proper speech even as he violates it by letting them into the poem at all. It's a long way from something like Anes Tina's equally contemporary El Cha3be Yourid, where diglossia is hardly even felt as a relevant constraint.

Sunday, March 31, 2019

Final r-cluster metathesis in one child's French

My favourite 4-year-old is doing something very interesting these days with final consonant clusters in his French. Many word-final consonant clusters starting with R get metathesised: parle (speaks) becomes [palʀ] (yet parler "to speak" remains [paʀle]), tourne (turn) becomes [tunʀ], herbe (grass) becomes [ebʀ], ferme (close) becomes [femʀ]. On the other hand, "porte" (door) remains [pɔʀt]; regarde (look!) [ʀəgaʀd]; "force" (strength) [fɔʀs]; "mars" (March) [maʀs], "parc" (park) [paʀk]. Presumably the phenomenon is related to sonority: {l, n, m, b} metathesise, {t, d, s, k} do not. But French allows word-final consonant clusters with falling or rising sonority, and he has no trouble with words like "monstre" (monster) [mõstʀ]. Any idea if this is typical in French first language acquisition?

Nothing of the sort happens in his English or his Arabic. Then again, his English is non-rhotic anyway for some reason, and in Arabic he pronounces /r/ as [ʕ]; French is the only one of his languages where he's got the pronunciation of rhotics more or less sorted.

Thursday, March 28, 2019

Ga3 c'est que ga3!

Among the many responses to recent events in Algeria circulating on Facebook, a particularly linguistically interesting one caught my eye:
His Excellency the People
"Throw 'em all out!"
That means all!
Million Man March of Friday 29 March
Peaceful, Popular, National, Civilised

The first two lines and the last two are in Fusha (Standard Arabic); the two middle lines are very much in Darja ("dialectal" Algerian Arabic). The clash of registers produces an amusing effect. But even more striking is the first word of the fourth line: سيك sik. You'll search for it in vain in Arabic dictionaries, or even in Algerian Arabic dictionaries (they do exist) printed before, oh, 2000 or so; it's a word from French - well, in French it's three words - c'est que, literally "it is that..." In French, this structure is used to mark sentence focus. You can find examples of it being used that way in Algerian Arabic too, eg in Lotfi DK's "Aar alikoum": "المشكلة فهذ البشر سيك في راسهم كاين لحجر" [The problem with these people is that there are rocks in their heads]. But that's obviously not quite what's going on here, though. I haven't come across this construction often enough to have a good sense of all its uses, but it seems to be gaining new functions as it becomes integrated into the wider system of information structure marking in Darja.