Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Zenaga and Mauritania

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.

10 comments:

shawi said...

Some shawi communities are called Ait Zenaga or Zenega. I wonder if there is any connection?

John Cowan said...

At least one national founder wrapped up his rebellion against the colonial power, not by using his supreme military rank to seize power in the newly independent country, but by retiring to his own lands for six years while others ruled. He then came to power through peaceful and democratic means, held office for eight years, and voluntarily retired again, this time for the rest of his life, despite every prospect that he could have become de facto President-for-Life if he had wanted to.

Such men are rare but, fortunately for the world, not quite unknown.

Language said...

Wow, that Faidherbe book has the worst interface I've ever seen -- it restarts Adobe Acrobat for every single page. I gave up after a couple of pages. Who on earth designed it? It's as if you had to go back to the library and check a book out again every time you wanted to turn a page.

Now that I've gotten that out of my system: great post!

Lameen Souag said...

It is a horrible interface; for less frustration, try downloading it instead: http://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/bpt6k1035945.capture.

Shawi: there almost certainly is. Historically, "Zenaga" has much wider application than just Mauritania; it was one of the major Berber tribes, the one that in Arabic is called Sanhaja صنهاجة, and its branches are found not just in Mauritania but in northern Morocco and parts of Algeria too.

John: indeed, but not often.

David Marjanović said...

l > dj

Wow. Has this occurred anywhere else?

Lameen Souag said...

Yes, ll > dj in Tarifit (amellal "white" > amedjar, for example). Presumably the intermediate step was some kind of palatal ly.

Etienne said...

To David Marjanovic: l>dj does indeed look "exotic", but outside of Berber some Romance dialects (the best-known cases are in Southern Italy and Southwestern France) shift Latin intervolic /ll/ (and sometimes /l/ too, in some cases even when word-initial) to such sounds as /dj/, /tj/, retroflex /d/ (often geminated or affricated or both) or an interdental fricative (with different reflexes and/or conditioning factors from dialect to dialect).

Comparative data from neighboring dialects show that a palatalized realization of /ll/ or /l/ was indeed an intermediate stage of this sound change.

And today, in one Romance language, Spanish, one can see the change IN MEDIA RE, so to speak: the phoneme represented orthographically by LL is quite variable sociolinguistically, ranging from /lj/ (elevated) to /j/ (ordinary) to a palatal affricate (vulgar).

David Marjanović said...

Oh, OK. I see. Thanks!

I only knew the Argentinean realization of ll as [ʒ].

bulbul said...

Zenaga is the name of the largest ksar at Figuig in south-east Morocco on the Algerian border. Some say their speech is slightly different to the other ksars in the oasis. Could this be an outpost or rather refugia of the once more widespread Zenaga dialect? Love your blog....

Lameen Souag said...

It's not linguistically Zenaga, judging from Kossmann's description, but it's probably named after the same tribe.