Mauritania deserves some attention this week. On the rare occasions when it makes Western headlines, it's generally for slavery or famine, but this week it's distinguishing itself in a rather nobler fashion: holding its first free presidential elections. This is all the more remarkable because it comes some months after a military coup deposing the dictator who ruled Mauritania for 21 years, Maaouya Ould Taya; is it possible that a coup leader actually wants to step down in favour of an elected government? One can but hope that the appearance corresponds to the reality...
Anyway, in commemmoration of this event, I will talk a little about Zenaga this week. Zenaga is the nearly-extinct Berber language of Mauritania. Until about five hundred years ago it was spoken throughout most of the country; its ancestor would have been the language of the Almoravids. However, after the main Berber tribe, the Lamtuna, was defeated by the Arab Beni Ma`qil, most tribes gradually shifted to Hassaniya Arabic, which itself came to contain numerous Zenaga loanwords. The "marabout" tribes, those specialising in Islamic religious learning, retained Zenaga longest, and to this day it continues to be used, at least by the elderly, in a few areas near the southern Atlantic coast. It is remarkably divergent from other Berber varieties, due partly to a number of sound shifts (x > k, l > dj) and partly to a rather different vocabulary, incorporating words rare elsewhere in Berber along with Wolof and Pulaar loanwords. In addition to influencing Hassaniya Arabic, it has also contributed a number of loanwords to the Azer dialect of Soninke, and several words - notably the words for three of the five prayer times, and some religious holidays - to Wolof. Catherine Taine-Cheikh has been doing some documentation of it.
At least one of the few books on this language is available online: Le Zénaga des tribus sénégalaises, by General Faidherbe - although, chillingly, the author dedicates it to the genocidal mass murderer King Leopold II.
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