Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Andamanese Phrasebook

Some time ago, I found a copy of perhaps the only five-language phrasebook for the Andaman Islands. The Andaman Islands are a remote island group south of Burma belonging to India. Up to the 19th century, they were inhabited by a number of tribes with Stone Age technology, no significant contact with the outside world, and languages extremely different from any spoken anywhere else. Some of their descendants remain there today, but are a tiny minority except in a couple of areas in the south, and most of their languages are extinct. This phrasebook was written by one A. J. Portman in 1887, when the islands had been turned into a British penal colony, for the use of government officials. Some of the entries paint an interesting picture of life in the colony; for economy's sake, I have given only the Aka-Bea equivalents.

"That woman is wearing his skull." Kát apáil lá ót chetta ngāūrók-ké.

"Some convicts have escaped, you must search for them." Jó chāōga lá kájré, áb átaká."

"This village is very dirty." Ká báraij lót láda-da.

"You will be bitten by sandflies and mosquitoes." Nyípá, ól bédig téil ngáb chá-pinga.

"Don't sing, or there will be a storm." Ngódá rámitóyo-ngayábada, élér-wulké.

"He is a boy, and may not eat turtle." Kát áká kádekada, óda yádi mék-nga yábada.

"Do you eat grubs alive?" Án wai ngó butu ligátí mék?"

"You must bring them in by force." Ngó ítár pórawa.

And finally:

"Is there anyone here who understands his language?" Tén kárin míjólá áká teggí gádí-áté?"

They just don't make phrasebooks like this any more...

Friday, November 25, 2005

Oldest African dictionaries

Some time ago, I came across a web page characterizing a dictionary of Kenzi Nubian dating from 1635 as "the oldest dictionary of an African language". Much as I appreciate their work in getting this very interesting material online, that claim is out by at least 500 years, if not 1000.

The oldest arguable dictionary of an African language that I am aware of so far is the Greek-Coptic Glossary of Dioscorus of Aphrodito, which apparently* dates back to the 6th century. Ibn al-'Assal's Arabic-Coptic sullam muqaffa, written in the 1200s, can quite unhesitatingly be described as a dictionary; following a then-current Arabic tradition, it was arranged alphabetically from the last letter of the word backwards (so, for instance, "apple" would be close to "people" but far from "apricot".) This arrangement was meant to aid in the composition of rhymed prose and verse. Other examples, many arranged semantically, are given by the Encyclopedia of Islam article Sullam (literally "ladder"). In Ethiopia, traditional Geez-Amharic lexicons are titled Sawasew, or "ladders"; I thus assume they are of Coptic inspiration, though I haven't been able to find any detail about when they started to be written.

After Coptic, the next oldest is an Arabic-Berber lexicon written in 1145, containing some two thousand words. Its writer, Abu Abdallah Muhammad ibn Ja'far al-Qaysi, better known as Ibn Tunart, was born in Qalaat Bani Hammad (modern Algeria) and wrote the work in Fez (Morocco) - a second little-known Algerian medieval linguist to add to my list after Ibn Quraysh! The book contains some paradigms and verbs, but consists principally of a list of Arabic nouns with Berber equivalents or glosses, arranged by semantic field; it inspired several later Moroccan lexica. Nico van den Boogert is working on republishing it.

What other African dictionaries predate Carradori's? I don't know, but I can hazard some guesses - Geez, Swahili, Kanuri, and Nubian itself would certainly be worth checking.

* According to Adel Y. Sidarus, “Coptic Lexicography in the Middle Age, The Coptic Arabic Scalae,” in The Future of Coptic Studies ed. R. McL. Wilson (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1978), 123

Thursday, November 10, 2005

A comparative linguist of the 10th century

Yehudah ibn Quraysh was a rabbi of the late ninth/early tenth century from Tahert (modern Tiaret, in Algeria.) Shocked to hear that the Jews of Fez in Morocco were neglecting the study of the Targum (an Aramaic translation of the Bible), he wrote a letter to them intended to establish that they could not and should not get by on the Hebrew alone - because other languages, especially Aramaic and Arabic, are essential in elucidating the Hebrew. In the process, he casually noted most of the correct sound correspondences between Hebrew and Arabic, and ended up writing what amounts to an extensive comparative dictionary of the three languages, even throwing in 9 Berber comparisons and 5 Latin ones at the end. He definitely hedges his bets on the cause of this obvious similarity between the three languages, but seems to come surprisingly close to the correct explanation - common descent - at times... something to bear in mind next time you read about Sir William Jones having founded comparative linguistics in 1798.

Here is what he had to say about it, as far as I can translate it:

I then resolved to put together this book for people with understanding, so that they should know that Syriac [Aramaic] expressions are scattered throughout the whole of the Holy Tongue in the Bible, and Arabic is mixed with it, and occasionally bits of Ajami [Latin] and Berber - and principally Arabic in particular, for in it we have found many of its strangest expressions to be pure Hebrew, to the point that there is no difference between the Hebrew and the Arabic except the interchange of ṣād and ḍād, and gīmel and jīm, and ṭet and đ̣ā', and `ay(i)n and ghayn, and ḥā' and khā', and zāy and dhāl. The reason for this similarity and the cause of this intermixture was their close neighboring in the land and their genealogical closeness, since Terah the father of Abraham was Syrian, and Laban was Syrian. Ishmael and Kedar were Arabized from the Time of Division, the time of the confounding [of tongues] at Babel, and Abraham and Isaac and Jacob (peace be upon them) retained the Holy Tongue from the original Adam. The language became similar through intermixture*, just as in every land adjoining a land of a different language we see intermixture of certain expressions between them and the spread of language from one to another; and this is the cause of the similarities we have found between Hebrew and Arabic...

The original was written in classical Arabic using the Hebrew script; I retranscribe it into Arabic script here:
فرأيت عند ذلك أن أؤلِّف هذا الكتاب لأهل الفطن وذوي الألباب، فيعلمو أن جميع לשון קדש (لغة القداسة: العبرانية) الحاصل في المقرأ (الكتب المقدسة) قد انتثرت فيه ألفاظ سريانية واختلطت به لغة عربية وتشذذت فيه حروف عجمية وبربرية ولا سيما العربية خاصة فإن فيها كثير من غريب ألفاظها وجدناه عبرانيا محضا، حتى لا يكون بين العبراني والعربي في ذلك من الاختلاف إلا ما بين ابتدال الصاد والضاد، والجيمل (حرف عبراني: ڱ) والجيم، والطِت (حرف عبراني: ط) والظاء، والعين والغين، والحاء والخاء، والزاي والذال. وإنما كانت العلة في هذا التشابه والسبب في هذا الامتزاج قرب المجاورة في البلاد والمقاربة في النسب لأن תֶרח (تِرَحْ) أبو אברהם (ابراهيم) كان سريانيا وלבן (لابان: حمو يعقوب) سريانيا. وكان ישמעאל (اسماعيل) وקדָר (قيدار) مستعرب من דוֹר הפלגה (زمان الاختلاف)، زمان البلبلة في בבל (بابل)، وאברהם (ابراهيم) وיצחק (إسحاق) وיעקב (يعقوب) عليهم السلام متمسكين بـלשון קדש (لغة القداسة: العبرانية) من אדם הראשון (آدم الأول). فتشابهت اللغة من قبل الممازجة، كما نشاهد في كل بلد مجاور لبلد مخالف للغته من امتزاج بعض الألفاظ بينهم واستعارة اللسان بعضهن من بعض، فهذا سبب ما وجدناه من تشابه العبراني بالعربي...

(Source: D. Becker, Ha-Risala shel Yehudah ben Quraysh, Tel Aviv University Press, Tel Aviv 1984.)

* I previously mistranslated this, having misread qibal as qabl.

Update:

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Curiosities of Semitic articles

As David Boxenhorn noted in his comment to the previous post, the definite articles of Hebrew and Arabic display two odd-seeming properties:
  • agreement: if a noun has a given article, so does any adjective modifying it. Thus "a short boy" in Arabic is walad-u-n qaSiir-u-n (where -n marks indefiniteness, and -u marks the nominative case), whereas "the short boy" is al-walad-u l-qaSiir-u. (The vowel of al- elides when preceded by another vowel.)
  • In direct compounds of two nouns (possessed-possessor, or more generally modifier-modified), the first noun cannot take any article. Thus in Arabic you can say yad-u l-walad-i "the boy's hand" or yad-u walad-i-n "a boy's hand" (-i marks the genitive case) but not *al-yad-u l-walad (intended to be "the hand of the boy") or *yadun al-walad (intended to be "a hand of the boy").

The second property isn't actually all that "exotic" - English does the same thing! You can say the man's hat, but never *the man's the hat or *the man's a hat; just as in Arabic or Hebrew, to make the full range of possible definiteness distinctions you have to resort to prepositions.

Definiteness agreement between nouns and adjectives is more unusual, but at least one Indo-European language has it: Norwegian. No question of substratum influence there, certainly... Anyone have another example?

However, in determining whether or not the article represents a shared innovation, the question is whether other relatives have it. I recall that Biblical/Imperial Aramaic did (later varieties lost it), but I'm not sure of the detailed behavior of its definite article. The Berber obligatory noun prefixes probably derive from an original article (see my post Beja and Beyond) but, though distinctly similar to the Beja definite article, don't seem directly comparable to the Arabic and Hebrew ones.

Monday, November 07, 2005

Demonstratives in Semitic and beyond

Rishon Rishon just posted a table comparing the words in my previous post to Hebrew. Most of them are correct; mo`ed and g'vul are not cognate, and SaH and loa` I'm not sure about. However, one is particularly interesting: ha- = 'al- "the". You often find this seeming cognate cited in works on Semitic: after all, ha- induces gemination of a subsequent non-guttural consonant - suggesting a lost consonant in the prefix assimilating to the subsequent letter - and Hebrew h- occasionally seems to soften to '- in Arabic (the causative measure hiph`iil corresponds to 'af`ala, for example.) Trouble is, the only letter in Hebrew that regularly assimilates to a following consonant is n (although l does admittedly assimilate in the verb laqaH), and the Safaitic inscriptions seem to reveal an early pre-Islamic northern dialect of Arabic which did have a definite article h- (hn- before gutturals, thus hn'lt for Al-Lat.) So are there any other possibilities?

I think so. ha- corresponds pretty well to Arabic haa "here is", which is also the obligatory prefix to the demonstrative "this" (haadhaa, haadhihi, haa'ula'). Compare also Syriac haanaa "this (m. sg.)" - which appears to reveal an added n which could explain the Hebrew doubling (and the Safaitic form) nicely. Conversely, 'al- corresponds well to Hebrew 'elleh, Arabic haa-'ulaa', Syriac haaleyn "these". The vowel doesn't correspond exactly, but then it doesn't in the certain cognate 'elleh = haa-'ulaa' either. This idea has probably already been put forward (or indeed knocked down) somewhere in the literature, for all I know, but there you go.

In either case, both definite articles would derive originally from unstressed demonstratives - a process so common it's barely worth commenting on. For example, all the Romance languages derive their definite articles from Latin demonstratives - usually illum/illa "that" (before the noun except in Romanian), but istum "that" in Sardinian. Likewise, the Coptic definite article pe- (m.)/te- (f.)/ne- (pl.) derives from the ancient Egyptian demonstrative pn (m.), tn (f.), nn (pl.) "this". Indeed, English "the" derives from the same old English word as "that". Come to think of it, I don't know of any definite articles offhand that don't derive from demonstratives; can you think of any?

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Eid Mubarak!

Eid Mubarak عيد مبارك, or, as they say in Algeria, Sahha Eidek صحّا عيدك to everybody!

Today is Eid al-Fitr, the day on which the Ramadan fast ends and the subsequent feasting begins. The Arabic term (`iid al-fiTr عيد الفطر) means "Festival of Fast-breaking"; the original meaning of the root fTr seems to be "cleave, cut open", from which it acquired the senses of "form, make" on the one hand and (in a metaphor somewhat similar to the English one) "break fast" on the other. In North Africa, it is more generally known as El Eid Es Sghir (l`id SSghiR العيد الصغير), "the small festival" (as opposed to Eid al-Adha, the "big festival").

PS: luggi turns out to come from a widely attested Berber word ileggwi, meaning a spiny plant (variously broom or needle-furze) - as Salem Chaker was the first to suggest.