Thursday, June 23, 2005

Beja and beyond

Some interesting news this week from the Beja, an ethnic group of the Red Sea coast of Sudan and Egypt. It's unclear whether this rebellion is representative of the Beja's general feelings or just a figleaf for Eritrean intervention (or both), but it's a story to watch - and an excuse to bring up a cool language.

Beja is Afro-Asiatic* - either part of Cushitic or a separate branch, depending on who you ask - and happens to be among the most obviously similar languages to Semitic and to Berber. The noun morphology is already fairly suggestive:




Beja definite articleArabic noun endingsKabyle obligatory prefix
Masculine nominative singularu:--uw-
Masculine accusative singularo--aa-
Feminine nominative singulartu:--atut-
Feminine accusative singularto--atata-


And the pronominal object suffixes add credence:

BejaArabicKabyle
me-i, -o-ni:-iyi
you-ok-ka-ik
us-on-na:-aγ
you (pl.)-okn-kum-kən


(Beja, apparently, has no third person suffixes.) However, what really clinches it is the verbal system. Beja has two principal classes of verbs: one that often takes prefixes, and one that usually just takes suffixes. In Semitic, the prefixes are used for the imperfect, and the suffixes developed from a stative (still to be seen in Akkadian) into a perfect; Berber mostly retains the prefixes, whereas only minor traces of the suffixes remain. The prefixes are especially telling:

BejaArabicKabyle
Ia-'a-
you (m.)ti- -ata-t- -ḍ
you (f.)ti- -ita- -i:t- -ḍ
hei-ya-i-
sheti-ta-t-
wen-na-n-
you (pl.)ti- -nata- -u:nat- -m
theyi- -naya- -u:na-n


while the suffixes are best exemplified in Beja in the conditional mood:


BejaArabicDahalo general non-past (Cushitic)
I-i-tu-o
you (m.)-tia-ta-to
you (f.)-tii-ti-to
he-i-a-:i
she-ti-at-to
we-ni-na:-no
you (pl.)-tina-tum-ten
they-ina-u:-en, -ammi


Just for good measure, in the prefix verbs you also have a feature found in Akkadian (among other Semitic languages) and Berber but lost in Arabic: a present tense formed by doubling the middle radical (in Berber and Akkadian) or adding n before the middle radical (in Beja). Compare:

  • Beja aktim ("I arrived") > akanti:m ("I arrive")
  • Akkadian almad ("I learned") > alammad ("I am learning")*
  • Tamasheq əlmədǎγ ("I learn", irrealis) > lammǎdǎγ ("I am learning", realis)


It's really remarkable, considering all this, that Afro-Asiatic research isn't more advanced. There are two etymological dictionaries out there, admittedly - Ehret's and Orel and Stolbova's - but, though valuable, they frequently disagree with each other, and neither has attained general acceptance.

* Some people think Afro-Asiatic is not proved. I can't think why. Omotic's membership is not entirely clear, but all the rest is just plain obvious.

* Previously misquoted forms corrected, thanks to Matthew Loran.

5 comments:

Lameen Souag said...

Does anyone have any idea how I can fix the formatting on this? The tables seem to mess everything up, unfortunately.

pat said...

Interesting language, I agree :)

As for the formatting, you seem to have a bunch of <br /> tags scattered amongst your tables. I suspect that this has to do with Blogger's option to convert newlines to breaks. If If this is in fact the problem (not having used Blogger in a while but rather Wordpress, I'm not sure), then you can turn it off, but then you'll have to insert <p> tags manually for other posts...

Lameen Souag said...

Thanks! That seems to have been the problem; just deleting all the line breaks in the tables solves it...

David Marjanović said...

If there's any point in adding a comment eight years afterwards, I'd like to mention that this

Just for good measure, in the prefix verbs you also have a feature found in Akkadian (among other Semitic languages) and Berber but lost in Arabic: a present tense formed by doubling the middle radical (in Berber and Akkadian) or adding n before the middle radical (in Beja). Compare:

might point way beyond. What comes to mind are the Indo-European n-presents: Sanskrit has a suffix -n-, Latin has an infix -n- before the second consonant of the root, and in Germanic it depends on the ablaut stage: zero grade of the original *-neh2- results in a suffix -n-, while e-grade results in a lengthening ("doubling") of the second consonant of the root by Kluge's controversial law.

David Marjanović said...

Oh. I seem to have simplified things somewhat. But read the talk page, too.