Saturday, June 24, 2006


I used to live in the Bay Area for a while, so naturally I tried to find out about its pre-colonial language group, Ohlone. This turned out to have been a set of fairly closely related dialects/languages stretching from San Francisco down beyond Monterey, plus the coast of the East Bay. Their only reasonably close relative is Miwok, another small language family spoken to its north and west, although wider relations with languages further north along the Pacific coast are likely. Among the more noteworthy features of Ohlone are regular metathesis processes - for example, the plural suffix can be either -mak or -kma, depending on whether it's preceded by a consonant or a vowel.

Dave Kaufman has just posted some interesting Ruminations on Rumsien, one of the southern dialects; or, if you speak Spanish, you can read a grammar of Mutsun, a southeastern dialect. Wikipedia has a map.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Tunisian Berber

Amazing things turn up at the University of Western Sydney: a complete thesis online offering An outline of the Shilha (Berber) vernacular of Douiret (Southern Tunisia). Check it out; the rather endangered Berber varieties of Tunisia are quite ill-documented.

Friday, June 16, 2006

North African language policy

MoorishGirl has an interesting post on an article on a round-table debate on Moroccan Arabic, or Darija, as "a medium of cultural expression". She comments:

I'm fully in favor of using Darija, because of the huge impact it would have on the creation of a reading culture. Imagine: All children's books right now are in Modern Standard Arabic, which is a language no one learns until first grade (i.e. age 6 or 7), by which time reading habits are already in place for many kids.

I think this is a crucial point. Developing a literature of sorts in Darja would allow kids to get into the habit of reading way earlier. A fair number of kids in the West are reading by the age of three; for an Algerian or Moroccan kid to even understand much of the language his/her books are written in at that age would be unheard of. With Darja literature for them to use, they could start reading before they ever started school; it might even lead to them acquiring literary Arabic faster. Moreover, an oral literary tradition already exists, best exemplified by the traditions of melhoun poetry and chaabi lyrics; the language used in these is recognizably a literary register, and all that would be needed would be to write it. My puristic instincts would also rejoice in a move with the potential to stem the tragic loss of inherited vocabulary, and overuse of French, now afflicting Darja. And after all, why should Arabic-speaking kids continue to be deprived of the chance to read in their native language now that Tamazight-speaking ones are finally getting that chance?

However, I would envision Darja as a supplement to literary Arabic, not a replacement. Arabic connects Algeria (and no doubt Morocco), not only to the Arab world but to its own past, not to mention allowing it to engage more fully with its religion. The language in which Amir Abdelkader and Ibn Khaldun wrote - and of which generations were deprived by French rule - should always be a crucial part of an Algerian education. Also - as the ongoing struggle to get adequate higher educational textbooks published even in literary Arabic reminds us - a written Darja would take centuries at least to build up a literature comparable to major languages.

As long as I'm pondering educational policy, what should be done with foreign languages is obvious: end the domination of French. Nothing wrong with French per se, but an all-French policy is a handicap in a global context, isolating Algeria in the ghetto of Francophony at a time when English is a prerequisite to serious scientific work even in Paris, and an embarrassment at home, where it remains a scandal in conservative eyes. From 3rd grade on, have a choice between French and English (and maybe even Spanish) as the second language, and raise a generation of educated North Africans that do not all share a single foreign language; only thus can the domination of French in North Africa, with all its attendant sociological divisions and economic problems, be ended. Of course, in an educational system that has a serious shortage of good teachers as it is, this is a distant dream... but dreaming can be useful.

Friday, June 09, 2006

"-gate" suffix reaches Arabic

Algerian football fans (that is to say, probably most of the population) are up in arms about not being able to watch the World Cup unless they subscribe to ART - a Saudi company which bought up the rights to World Cup footage for the MENA region and is selling it so expensively most terrestrial stations (including Algeria's) can't afford it. I don't particularly care myself, to be honest, but I was impressed to see the following headline in the newspaper Ech Chourouk:

الجزائر على أبواب فضيحة "آرتي-غايت"!

al-Jazaa'ir `alaa 'abwaab faḍiiħat "aartii-gaayt"!
(Algeria is on the verge of an ART-gate scandal!)

The development of "-gate" from a random morpheme at the end of a hotel name into a suffix indicating a political mess (Monicagate, Fostergate, etc.) is remarkable enough; that it should be borrowed into Arabic, even in the weird world of headline idiom, is incredible to me. I guess bound morphemes aren't necessarily as hard to borrow as one might think.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Nandi relatives and Arabic center-embedding

Two random interesting bits thrown up by my current research:

Nandi, a Nilotic language of Kenya with VSO order, would appear to allow you to relativize virtually any constituent of a sentence. I was particularly impressed by examples like:

nikò ce:pyó:sé:t ne â:-nken ci:tà ne kí:-ká:ci kitâ:pú:t
this woman Rel 1s-know person Rel Past-give book
"This is the woman that I know the person that gave [her] a book / that [she] gave a book to."

á-ké:r-é ci:tà ne pè:nt-í: àk la:kwe:-nyi: kâpsá:pit
1sg-see-impfv person Rel 3pl-go and child-his Kapsabet
"I see the person who [he] and his son are going to Kapsabet."

Take that, Subjacency Constraints! (Well, more seriously, I'm guessing ce/ne is probably not a fronted relative pronoun, especially since it agrees in case with the head noun and not with the position of the gap, so maybe no movement is involved - but that just raises other issues, like what does the gap consist of? Surely not pro? And what is ce/ne - a complementizer?)

And, in case you've ever wondered what an Arabic incomprehensibly double center-embedded sentence would look like, here's one:

رأى الولد الذي كتب الرجل الذي عينه الرئيس الرسالة إليه أخاه
ra'aa lwaladu lladhii kataba arrajulu lladhii `ayyanahu rra'iisu rrisaalata 'ilayhi 'axaahu
saw [the-boy [that wrote [the-man [that chose-him the president]] the letter to him]] brother-his.
“The boy the man the president chose wrote to saw his brother.”

Note that Arabic's VSO order renders it less vulnerable to subject- and object-relativization in this regard, but leaves it helpless against relativization of other positions - which is nonetheless permissible.

(Nandi examples from Creider & Creider 1989.)

Friday, June 02, 2006

A little Algerian Arabic folk poetry

I recently came across a nice book (in English for once!) on the Algerian folk poet Muhammad ben Tayeb el-Alili, The Graying of the Raven. It's titled after this stanza, from a poem about a drought:
məššərq ləlməɣrib
fiha lɣ°ṛab yšib
a `aləm əlɣib
wətħənn bəttisir

من الشرق للمغريب
فيها الغراب يشيب
ها عالم الغيب
وتحن بالتيسير

From the east to the west
The raven turns white
O Knower of the Unseen
Grant us respite

(I've substituted my slightly more literal translation.)

His works are not particularly famous, and, while worth a look, are not in the top rank of the genre - but I'll bet they're the only ones available in English. For a perhaps better example, consider Dahmane El Harrachi's famous song - I was going to try and translate the whole thing, but frankly it's not easy, so I'll just give a sampler:
šħal šəft əlbəldan əl`amrin wəlbərr əlxali
šħal ð̣iyyə`t əwqat wəšħal tzid mazal ətxəlli

اشحال شفت البلدان العامرين والبر الخالي
اشحال ضيعت اوقات واشحال تزيد مازال تخلي

How many crowded cities and empty wilds you've seen,
How much time you've wasted - and how much more will you waste?

Incidentally - yes, the pessimism of both examples is characteristic.