Sunday, November 11, 2007

Fieldwork post I

Hello everybody! I am alive and well in Tabelbala, speaking "Korandje" ([kwɑ́:ṛɑ-n-dʒji], probably /kwaṛa-n-dzyəy/) on a regular basis and writing down vast numbers of obscure words enthusiastically volunteered by the more fluent older generation of speakers, while trying to figure out grammatical issues from natural speech overheard or addressed to me and from occasional elicitation when I can find someone who will put up with it. I've filled a notebook of more than two hundred pages with notes already, but I've done only a very small amount of recording, which has so far proven harder to negotiate.

The people here are incredibly hospitable, and the area remarkable for its beauty - an oasis of gardens (ləmbyu) and irrigation canals (tsirgyanən) between the mountain (aḍṛa) and the erg (amrər). However, it is remarkably isolated, connected to the outside world (and the nearest towns are a very long way away) by only a single road and a single telephone line, which has not been conducive to job creation; there is talk of a second road to Adrar, which might help. Its inherent touristic potential, which some here are keen on expanding, is difficult to realise in the absence of any hotels.

The language is clearly endangered. People from about 30 and up speak it routinely (though all speakers appear to speak dialectal Arabic to native standard), but most younger speakers seem to have a primarily passive knowledge of the language, always answering in Arabic or struggling to find even basic vocabulary, though this is more true of some families than others. Most people I've spent time talking with have been keen on the idea of reviving its fortunes, or even teaching it in school "like Kabyle", but some have been rather more negative, dismissing it as not a proper language and of no use.

There's some very interesting stuff going on in the language, including what I take to be a sound shift in progress of affricated [kç] (the sound that Cancel wrote as <χ>) to affricated [ts] (of which speakers are well aware.) Cancel's <th>, incidentally, is itself [ts]. The tense/aspect/mood system has been reworked much more radically than existing materials indicated, with a past copula (also used for what I so far interpret as a past progressive) ga showing up before personal agreement rather than, like aspect and mood markers, after. The phonology is complex: tone and most vowel contrasts have definitely been lost, but a lot of emphatics have been gained, including such unusual sounds as affricated [ṭṣ]. Vowels reduced to schwa, and lost coda r's, reappear in verbs when you add a 3rd person direct object pronoun "clitic" (but not when you add a 3rd person indirect object one.) The language has a specialised focus marker, which interacts interestingly with subject person/number markers. The vocabulary is of major interest in its own right for what it has to say about the history of this part of the Sahara. It defies any simple effort to pin down the immediate source of the agricultural technologies that have allowed the Belbalis to survive and flourish here: "palm" is Songhay kungu, but "date" Berber tsini; a foggara is Songhay bəng-bini as long as it stays underground, but Berber tsargya once it emerges.

7 comments:

El Micko said...

What are you using for your internet connection? Did you book time on the phone line?

"However, it is remarkably isolated, connected to the outside world
(and the nearest towns are a very long way away) by only a single road
and a single telephone line..."

Language said...

How I envy you! Enjoy your fieldwork, and thanks for keeping us posted even under the trying circumstances.

David Marjanović said...

Fascinating!

bulbul said...

I second hat's motion. What would I give...
Please keep us posted, we hang on your every post :)

David Marjanović said...

I second hat's motion. What would I give...

To be honest, I'm glad it's not me who's doing that fieldwork. The emphatics would drive me crazy. A non-emphatic alveolar trill is already difficult enough to pronounce for me! I prefer reading about the results, thank you very much :o)

bulbul said...

To each his, David, to each his own :) Me, I'd take crazy emphatics over wordcounts and cost estimates and Excel sheets any day :)

David Marjanović said...

Me, I'd take crazy emphatics over wordcounts and cost estimates and Excel sheets any day :)

Eh, that goes without saying.