Thursday, February 01, 2007

Black = free: a nice case of polysemy in Songhay, and its converse

Looking through Jeffrey Heath's 1998 dictionary of Koyra Chiini, the Songhay language spoken in and around Timbuktu, I was struck by the following entry:
bibi * a) [intr] be black, dark [cf bii 2] [INTENS: tirik! T, fi! N] * be freeborn, noble (not a slave) * LOCUT: bañña nda bibi slave and freeman alike * [final in compounds involving sorcery, => čiini-bibi * b) [adj] black, dark * c. [n] soot, burnt residue.

It contrasts satisfyingly with the sort of polysemy you tend to get for "black" on the other shore of the Sahara, as in this Kabyle entry from Dallet 1982:
akli (wa), aklan (wa) || Negro. || Slave, servant. || Butcher; profession reserved for the inferior class of aklan (slaughterer and wholesale and retail vendor in the market.) || Male first name often given to a Kabyle child as a prophylactic measure (against envious gazes and the evil eye.) Antonym: aḥerri [free].
It would be interesting to examine the connotations of "black" in more languages...

8 comments:

John Cowan said...

Far away in China, there are the Black Yi and the White Yi; the Blacks are the original Yi, the Whites the descendants of their slaves. I don't know that this is full-bore polysemy, but obviously "black" must have at least some superior connotation; there is no distinction of skin color as far as I know.

Lameen Souag said...

Interesting example. Somehow it brings to mind the rival Turkmen tribal federations of the Kara Koyunlu (Black Sheep) and Ak Koyunlu (White Sheep).

André said...

Hello. I wanted to send you an email, but apparently it isn't public, so I'm leaving you this note. I'm a classical philologist studying modern standard arabic in the University of Lisbon, where I teach latin. I'm very excited about arabic language, but my classical background led me to one aspect in particular: greek and latin borrwings in arabic. Untill now I found قلم, قصر and قيصرية, from greek "kalamos" and latin "castrum" and "Caesar". Do you know where can I find more about this? I'm new in arabic linguistics, so I don't know the basic bibliography.

Lameen Souag said...

Sorry, I don't know any works focusing on that specific issue offhand. However, there's some interesting Latin etymologies in Federico Corriente's dictionary of Andalusi Arabic.

André said...

Thank you! That's an important information, I hope they have it i my university's Arabic Institute.

Baraka said...

This was really fascinating, Lameen!

Lameen Souag said...

Glad you liked it!

Jens said...

In Japanese, black seems to have negative connotations. The term black (kuro) is used to mean "guilty" whereas white (shiro) can mean "innocent"). What complicates this a bit is that black is the color of night, and I think that for human beings, night is frightening, and so the connotations probably come from that as well.