Monday, October 17, 2005

Mpre

A tantalizingly brief note of 1931 in the Gold Coast Review describes an ethnic group called the Mpre, found only in the village of Butie in central Ghana (8° 52' N, 1° 15' W) near the confluence of the White and Black Voltas, apart from a few emigrants in Debre. According to the author's description, the Mpre people, once more widespread, were reduced to a single village in the course of comparatively recent wars with the Asante. Noting that their language was “different to that of the surrounding tribes”, he lists 106 words of Mpre. This short vocabulary appears to be the only existing record of the language, which is believed to be extinct. The gap is all the more unfortunate because Mpre turns out to be of some taxonomic significance. It is not closely related to any of its neighbors, and Heine and Nurse (2000) treat it as unclassified. A friend of mine's paper dealing partly with this will be appearing sometime soonish, but I won't spoil the surprise...

You might think, given all this, that it was impossible to retrieve any information on its grammar. However, you would be wrong! Fellow language geeks may find it an interesting exercise to try their hand at extracting grammar information from the wordlist, which Blench gives a copy of, before reading on...



The wordlist strongly suggests a noun class prefix system still at least partially productive. The highly lopsided initial letter statistics would alone suggest this: 31 entries begin with e-, 21 with a-, and 12 with n-, together accounting for the majority of the wordlist. This speculation is confirmed by distributional analysis for the e- which appears in the numbers 1-5, but disappears in 11-13 and 20-30; it is presumably to be identified with the Ga prefix é- observable in the same numbers. (The change of ekpe “one” to mpe in “11” is noteworthy, if it is not a typo.) Likewise, comparison of kelafa “100” with lefanyo “200” reveals a prefix ke- - with precise analogues in Ch./Kr. kʌ́-, Na. gʌ́-, and Go. ká- in the same numbers. Of the 21 entries with a- (corresponding to 19, or possibly 18, distinct words), five are glossed as plural in English, while another four are glossed as collective nouns; no entries not beginning with a- are glossed as plural. I therefore conclude that a- is a marker of plurality - suggesting that ado (the formative element in “20”, “30”, ...) is the plural of edu “ten”. This jibes nicely with other languages of the area: a plural prefix a- is found in Gonja, Twi, Lejana, Akpafu, and Avatime, for example.

Identifiable compounds include zingilzi-nogha “bush cow” (cf. zingelza “bush”, nogha “cow”), sunko kawuseggi “earth owner or tindana” (cf. sunko “earth”), nkemnzui “son” (cf. nzui “child”), lefanyo “200” (cf. enyo “2”, kelafa “100”), eputo nasi “foot” (cf. eputo “leg”) ; all suggest a word order type Modifier-Modified. “Lion” (jikpajikpakoseggi) must surely be a compound, in which I would identify the final koseggi with kawuseggi “owner (?)” above? Also, ataza “finger” and atazai “toe” are clearly related, but it is unclear whether one is a compound form or whether both are simply different transcriptions of the same word.

One short sentence is given - agbem aba “it rains” (cf. agbem “God”). Assuming that this is of the form SV, this could be taken to suggest verb agreement in gender (or at least number) with the subject; however, this is by no means certain.

5 comments:

language said...

Fascinating -- I knew nothing about this! (And I'm glad to see you're posting again.)

John Cowan said...

Another possibility is that these apparent noun prefixes are unrecognized or no longer functional determiners of some sort. To a first approximation, all count nouns in the various French creoles begin with "l" (< "le", "la") and all mass nouns begin with "d" (< "de", "du"), reflecting the loss of determiners during creole formation.

One might also compare the early English spellings Owhyhee, Otaheite for Hawaii, Tahiti, reflecting the Polynesian existential "'o" ("What is this country?" "'O Tahiti 'This is Tahiti'.") English still has the lexical items Otaheite apple and Otaheite gooseberry among others.

AnthroGal said...

This has nothing to do with this post, but the guestbook on your website is full and I just wanted to say...

Thanks for having the website on Algerian darja. It was extremely interesting, and helpful for a project I might do in class. It also gave my husband hours of upcoming entertainment (i gave him fuel by butchering his Algiers dialect beyond recognition.)

SaHa.

Lameen Souag said...

To John Cowan: true. In fact, it's not clear that there is any principled distinction between gender systems where gender is obligatorily marked by a determiner and noun class systems. However, comparison to surrounding languages makes me pretty sure these are noun class markers.

To AnthroGal: glad to have helped! I've been very busy with Darja this week, so I'll see if I can't scrape together a post on it. Among other things, I finally know the etymology of luggi...

Baraka said...

Salaams Lameen,

Just wanted to check in & say Eid mubarik!

Warmly,
B