Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Naguib Mahfouz dies

Nobel Prize-winning Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz has died at the age of 94. Literature will be the poorer without him. His best-known work is the Cairo Trilogy, recounting three generations of life in a middle-class Cairo family as the social and political changes of the early twentieth century swirl around them. The final volume's humanist Marxist message seems outdated now - and, indeed, Mahfouz would move towards mysticism in later works, ironically attracting much more hostility. However, the Cairo Trilogy tells a more timeless story as well, portraying the slow development of the characters' very different personalities as they all move away from the cheerful but self-serving hypocrisy of the first generation, taking risks and making sacrifices for national independence or personal fulfillment, for Marxism or the Muslim Brotherhood, for idealism or stupid desires, that would have been unthinkable to their (grand)father Sayyid Ahmad Abd-el-Jawad, secure in his status and unworried by the contradiction between the strict religiosity he imposed on his house and the relaxed hedonism he indulged in outside of it.

And what has this to do with linguistics, you may well ask? Well, Edward Said's efforts to persuade a New York publishing house to risk translating the Cairo Trilogy back before Mahfouz won the Nobel Prize prompted the memorably stupid response "that Arabic was a controversial language".

What? Still not linguisticky enough? Then I'll throw in the etymology of his name, نجيب محفوظ. najiib (nagiib in Egyptian dialect) literally means "noble, learned", from the root نجب njb "be noble, be excellent". maHfuuZ is a passive participle meaning "protected", from the root حفظ HfZ "guard, protect, keep, memorise", from which the word HaafiZ "a person who has memorised the Qur'an" derives.

Now go and read some Arabic literature :)

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Myths about Darja (Algerian Arabic): 1 "Darja has no rules."

In light of the interest attracted by the previous post, and of several discussions I've had about this topic in real life lately, I'll be posting regularly (?) on a few of the several myths widely believed in Algeria about Algerian Arabic, and often elsewhere about other Arabic dialects.

1. "Darja has no rules."

Every language has rules. You can see some of these rules in action by examining the effects of changing word order: for example خالد شاف روحو (khaled shaf RuHu - Khaled saw himself) is perfectly fine, but خالد روحو شاف (khaled RuHu shaf - Khaled himself saw) is totally bizarre. This is not because of some inevitable law of human thought: in Japanese, "Khaled himself saw" would be the correct order. Likewise, ما شفْتْشْ الطّونوبيل (ma sheftsh eTTunubil - I didn't see the car) is fine; شفتش ما الطونوبيل (sheftsh ma TTunubil) or ما شفت الطونوبيلش (ma sheft eTTunubilsh) are ridiculous. أنا راني نكتب (ana Rani nekteb - I'm writing) is fine; حنا راني نكتب (Hna Rani nekteb) or حنا رانا نكتب (Hna Rana nekteb) are absurd. If you speak Darja, you'll be able to see this instantly, even though no one ever taught you that one was right and the other wrong, and even though all of them would be wrong in FuSHa. The difference between Darja and FuSHa is not that FuSHa has rules and Darja breaks them; rather, Darja has different rules, and, whereas the rules of FuSHa are usually learned at great effort from teachers who learned them from grammar books written hundreds of years ago by people like Sibawayh who themselves had to go and spend hours in the desert with the few Bedouins who still spoke "proper" FuSHa, the rules of Darja are usually learned unconsciously from your own parents and relatives and followed effortlessly from the moment you're old enough to talk - as those of FuSHa were back in the 7th century when some people still spoke it as a mother tongue.

Monday, August 21, 2006

Al Jazeera and Reuters discover Algerian Arabic

Reuters and Al Jazeera English are both carrying a story about Algerian Arabic, apparently written by Algeria's El Khabar journalist Lamine Chikhi. I suppose I should be glad to see anything at all about this in the media, but unfortunately it confirms the first law of linguistics in the media: linguistics reporting is always shaky on the linguistics.
"Unlike neighbours in Morocco and Tunisia, Algerians speak a dense patois, a mixture of Arabic, Berber, French and sometimes Turkish, that most Arabs cannot fathom."

First of all, Algerian Arabic is still overwhelmingly Arabic; but reporters rarely seem to grasp the difference between true mixed languages like Michif and extensive loanwords like English or Algerian Arabic. More importantly, what do you mean unlike? Moroccan Arabic has more Berber than Algerian, and Tunisian more Turkish; how much French is in any of those three very much depends on class, cultural/political orientation, and region.

Let's try this: A car hit Mohamed, who was taken to hospital. In Algerian patois: Mohamed darbattou tonobile, dattou direct el sbitar. In this example, the verb is in Algerian dialect, the word car is in a kind of French, sbitar is Turkish, and the intonation is taken from the Berber Kabyle language.

sbitar is quite obviously Romance (Lingua Franca?) in origin - it might have come in via Turkish, but I'd like to see evidence for that. dda "took" (I assume that's the verb he had in mind) is not just Algerian but pan-Maghreb (certainly Moroccan, anyway), and has classical Arabic roots (أَدَّى) although its meaning has shifted significantly. Claiming that "the intonation is taken from the Berber Kabyle language" is a total cop-out; some elements of Algerian Arabic intonation may well derive from Berber, but there are noticeable differences as well, with Kabyle intonation tending to have a higher pitch range (from what I recall of Chaker's analysis, anyway.)

But more to the point, when will reporters (and indeed politicians) figure out the basic issue here? Language change is normal, and not unique to Algeria; borrowing foreign words is normal, and not unique to Algeria; having a substantial difference between the literary and spoken languages is common to the whole Arab world, and not unique to Algeria; a Syrian would have as much trouble understanding Moroccans or Tunisians as they would Algerians; and having been occupied by "Phoenicians, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Turks and French" is common to half the Mediterranean! A real story would focus on what is unique to Algerian Arabic, or at least Maghreb Arabic, and provide an account of how it got that way that wasn't limited to an indiscriminate recital of the country's history; it would at least mention the noteworthy pre-Hilali/Hilali dialect distinction, the elements shared with Andalusi Arabic, the first person singular n- shibboleth, the retention of classical words lost in the east (such as Haanuut "shop"), the Lingua Franca influence, the two or three Roman loanwords, the widely differing degree of Berber influence... I mean, why not consult an academic text first?

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Hail native Language - clothe my thoughts

I recently came across a forgotten poem by Milton addressing his mother tongue (as you do!), written to open the English section of a day of speeches at College after the Latin one was completed. English then, of course, was far from being the global lingua franca it is now: it hadn't even had a significant literary output for all that long (Shakespeare had only died in Milton's childhood), and the nascent "Anglosphere" was a few scattered coastal settlements here and there. A poem in this vein now would surely be far more boastful, and contain repeated allusions to, come to think of it, Shakespeare and Milton; but the absence of such allusions here lends it a certain universality that a modern version would lack.

Hail native Language, that by sinews weak
Didst move my first endeavouring tongue to speak,
And mad'st imperfect words with childish tripps,
Half unpronounc't, slide through my infant-lipps,
Driving dum silence from the portal dore,
Where he had mutely sate two years before:
I have some naked thoughts that rove about
And loudly knock to have their passage out;
And wearie of their place do only stay
Till thou hast deck't them in thy best aray;
That so they may without suspect or fears
Fly swiftly to this fair Assembly's ears...

The metaphor of language as a clothing for thought contrasts interestingly with the well-known "conduit metaphor" (IDEAS ARE OBJECTS, LANGUAGE IS A CONTAINER), even though clothes technically do contain their wearer. A container and its archetypal contents are equally non-sentient, and the container's primary purpose is to allow the transport and storage of its contents; clothes, on the other hand, archetypally adorn and protect a sentient being, who is likely to choose clothes that somehow reflect how they wish to be perceived. On the conduit metaphor, the bare idea is mere substance; on the clothing metaphor, the bare idea is a personality in its own right, a sort of homunculus getting ready to go out and meet the world. On the conduit metaphor, an idea is successfully transmitted if what it provokes in the listener accords with the author's intent; on the clothing metaphor, one can envisage the idea as having a life of its own, perhaps misunderstood by the author as well as the hearer. (And what are the thoughts to the thinker/author in this metaphor - his/her children, or servants, or perhaps even constituents?)

Friday, August 18, 2006

Quechua hits The Economist

The Economist reports on a Peruvian Congresswoman trying to raise the social status of Quechua by only speaking Quechua to Congress, forcing them to hire translators.

There are a couple of good Quechua sites out there: Runa Simi, for example, or

Saturday, August 12, 2006

Ayin-less in Gaza

Gaza, Arabic غزّة ghazzah, is another extremely old city of the eastern Mediterranean, having been in existence for at least three millennia. After a period of Egyptian rule, it became a member of the Philistine Pentapolis. Its name has been recorded in several forms over the years, including:

  • Hieroglyphic: q3d3ti, g3d3y, g3d3tw (says Wallis Budge);
  • Akkadian (Tell el-Amarna): Az-za-ti;
  • Akkadian (Assyrian): Kha-az-zu-tu;
  • Biblical Hebrew: `azzah;
  • Greek (Herodotus): Cadytis (probably Gaza, but some dispute)
  • Greek (Septuagint): Gaza (Γάζα)
  • Latin (Pliny): Gaza
Some sources derive the town's Hebrew name, `Azzah, from the root `zz "be strong". However, this is a folk etymology. The two proto-Semitic consonants *` (pharyngeal voiced fricative/approximant) and *gh (uvular voiced fricative) merged to ` in Biblical Hebrew as we know it; but `zz "be strong" had ` in proto-Semitic (compare Arabic عزّ `azza), whereas Gaza clearly had gh (note that Akkadian had no gh, so a null/kh alternation in transcribing it is expected.) As a matter of fact, the Septuagint provides evidence that some dialects of Hebrew retained the `/gh distinction well into the classical period; some instances of written `ayin are left untranscribed in the Septuagint's Greek (eg Yehoshua` = Ἰησοῦς; Bet-`Araba = Βαιθαραβα), while others are transcribed as gamma (`Amora = Γομορρα; `Azza = Γάζα), clearly suggesting that the pronunciation was still distinguished.

The interesting thing is that Arabic has preserved the gh in Gaza, which would be impossible if it had taken the word from 7th-century Aramaic, which has no gh either (Hebrew was almost surely extinct as a spoken language by the time Islam arrived.) Could it have been borrowed from Greek? Maybe; but, given that Herodotus notes that "Arabians" dominated the coast between Gaza and al-Arish even in his time, another obvious possibility is simply that the word Gaza entered Arabic from one Canaanite language or another well before the loss of the `/gh distinction, and didn't change.

As an interesting coda, the name Gaza may apparently be the source of the English word gauze.

Monday, August 07, 2006

Sumerian grammatical texts

Sumerian Grammatical Texts available online! The title is a misnomer - most of the texts given are early Sumerian-Akkadian lexica arranged by topic, or just plain Sumerian texts - but there are other interesting things, such as a phonetically organised syllabary (vowel order: u-a-i), and a series called "ana ittišu" (p. 30) with some rather paradigm-looking stuff, such as:

SumerianAkkadian, English
ùrsûnu, lap, bosom
ùr-bisûn-šu, his bosom
ùr-bi-šúana sûni-šu, upon his bosom
ùr-bi-šú in-garana sûni-šu iškun, he placed upon his bosom

which I guess offer a clue about the teaching methods used. These tablets were used to teach young Akkadian-speaking would-be scribes Sumerian, long after Sumerian itself had become extinct.

Friday, August 04, 2006

Kurdish giving way to Turkish in some areas?

Found a telling first-hand account of language shift. I had no idea the last decade or two had made such a difference.

until the end of 1980s the kurdish language was still preserved, because the kurds were still in their villages [...] most of them would not know one single word turkish and the women, in specific, did not know one single word turkish! [...] but at the beginning of 1990s, and since then going on, we have been losing the kurdish language [...] and it is mainly because around four or some say five thousand kurdish villages were forcibly evacuated, i should use "they were destroyed by the turkish army" instead. and more than three million people(kurds) were displaced! and of course it had its consequences! [...]

all the kurds started to go to school, where they would only speak turkish, and if, in any way someone were to speak kurdish s/he would punished for speaking kurdish and this way it would have a deterring effect on the other children(students) as well! kurdish students were despised and made fun of because of their accent so the families of those kurdish students thought that if they spoke only turkish at home it would help their children and they would be able to speak turkish better, and nobody would be able to fun of them. [...]

they only watched the turkish tv channels! and especially the mothers were very badly affected by this, because they wree the ones who would stay at home and when they did not have anything to do they would watch the tv and improve their turkish, but after a while they started to use turkish words while speaking kurdish, keep in mind that their children were not taught kurdish, so even if some of those children wanted to learn kurdish they would learn it wrong because their parents would not speak appropriate kurdish! i still cant believe that some kurds would say "qapi qepamiş bike" for "close the door" in kurdish: i have a very hard time understanding this, qepi originally is kapı(it is pronounced liek qepi in kurdish) "qepamiş" means nothing, it is supposed to mean "close", they combine turkish root of "to close" and add a kurdish suffix to it and make it kurdish. when i see people using those words, and killing kurdish it really hurts me very badly!

The extreme borrowing is an interesting point - and probably a universal of low-status languages. I can sympathise - excessively Frenchified Arabic really grates on my ears...