Sunday, December 30, 2007

Climate change, etymology, and speaker population

A quick Google search turns up a number of theories on the etymology of the name Tabelbala, none of which correspond to the one that old men here tell me, which appears to me to be much the most plausible. The oasis' name is Tsawerbets in Kwarandzie, Tabelbalt in local Tamazight, and Belbala in local Arabic; they derive it from a tree called awerbel in Kwarandjie and belbal in local Arabic, that used to be common but (presumably due to the lower water table) no longer grows here. [e=schwa] It turns out that belbal is fairly widespread in North African Arabic, and refers to a type of pine; it's also attested in Taznatit, as abelbal. The normal Berber diminutive gives tabelbalt, and the usual Kwarandjie shift of l>r and t>ts would give tsaberbelts; intervocalic b>w is irregular, but I have heard it in other contexts, and final clusters tend to be simplified, which would give tsawerbets. Berber diminutive morphology is not productive in Kwarandjie, so it's hard to imagine this being a folk etymology. If this is correct, the very name of the oasis, like its many acres of ruins and its hundreds of dried-up foggaras, is a mute testimony to a time not too long ago when it was much greener and wetter.

At the moment, Kwarandjie turns out to have roughly on the order of 3000 speakers, adding up the populations of the three villages as given to me by a local official (himself a speaker) and assuming the minority that doesn't speak it at all is made up for by all the emigrant speakers in Tindouf and Bechar. This represents about half the population of the oasis; the other half is in el-Kartsi (le Quartier), the newer town centre. Despite the endangerment discussed in the previous post, this is larger than it's been at any point since 1908, when Cancel counted barely 500 or so speakers. But even in Cancel's time most of the foggaras were dry, and a few centuries earlier refugees had fled the area for places like Mlouka and Ktaoua; in earlier periods the number of speakers may have been significantly larger, judging by the ruins of their houses, which seem to cover an area rather larger than the present settlements do. That former climate might help explain why the oasis not only kept a language that has remained practically nowhere else in the thousand kilometers between it and Timbuktu, but also kept much more Songhay vocabulary than the other northern Songhay languages - even words like hawi "cow", referring to items currently totally absent from the oasis, or tsyu "read" and genga "pray", referring to concepts strongly associated with Arabic. The historic decline in the oasis's population and prosperity has surely itself had its effect on the language, letting words associated with particular specialties (perhaps silverwork, for example) to vanish for lack of customers to sustain them, or ones for species to vanish with their referents (as the word asiyed, "ostrich", has nearly finished doing - I've only found one speaker who knew it, although Champault confirms it). But is there any way to prove the existence of such an effect, or measure it?

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Is this normal in language shift?

When I first got here, I thought I was seeing a textbook language shift situation. But I gradually realised something that I don't remember encountering mention of in my textbooks: there's a whole generation of fluent speakers here (most speakers under 25, actually) who only learned it in their early teen or preteen years. Most parents since the eighties speak only Arabic to their children, but the language is in wide use in situations like football games and farm work, and the younger ones seem to have picked it up there; in fact, it seems possible that the process is continuing with the even younger kids. Does anyone know of a similar case, or am I right in thinking this is a little unexpected?

Monday, December 24, 2007

Eid Mubarak / Happy Holidays!

Sahha Eidkoum, Eid Mubarak, and `agbwa lgabel to everybody out there! And to the rest of you, hope you're having a great holiday and a well-deserved break. Eid here in Tabelbala was good - plenty of mutton, couscous, and maqq, a dish made with boiled dates and bread which tastes rather good. And as a nice seasonal bonus, ADSL has arrived: it looks rather unreliable, but no more so than the phone system. The language is still getting more interesting every time I look at it, and I've started making some rather extensive recordings; just the day before yesterday Hadj Berrouk gave me a rather detailed explanation of astronomy. Mind you, all the star names are (dialectal) Arabic, but nonetheless interesting (and the two planet names are Kwarandzie, as are terms like "eclipse", "crescent moon", and "falling star".)

My friend Smail, who works at the local school, has just started a new blog (with some help from me): you can go read it at

Saturday, December 08, 2007

More from Tabelbala

“əl`əyš ṭazu, əlma iri العيش طازو، الماء إيري
əlləṛḍ gəndza, ssma bini.” الأرض قندا، السما بيني

“Couscous is ṭazu, water iri,
earth is gəndza, sky bini.”

- A locally widely known ditty summarising Kwarandjie. Its antiquity is shown by the second line: across Songhay ganda and beene mean “earth” and “sky”, but in Kwarandjie their cognates have been restricted to “down” and “up”, with “earth” and “sky” normally expressed by dzəw and igərwən respectively - and the latter, while Berber, appears from the absence of an a before the w to have been borrowed not from Middle Atlas Tamazight nor Tabeldit (“ksours sud-oranien”) nor but from a language similar to Zenaga, which has not been spoken around here since the Reguibat's ancestors reached the area some five hundred plus years ago. Readers who know a little Berber may assume the r is a typo, as I at first did on reading Cancel, but it is not: I take it to be the product of dissimilation (n...n > l...n) plus the common Kwarandjie sound shift l > r. On the other hand, for the rhyme (such as it is) to work, the sound changes –e > -i and –a- > -e- [and thence to > i] / _r, at least, must already have happened.

The work continues. I've filled up five notebooks and made another few recordings, some quite interesting; my sketch grammar has reached 30 pages. I've gotten to know quite a large number of faces, something I find far more difficult than memorising words - although the latter is made easier by the habit of many people in this town of testing my knowledge of every noun they can think of on the spur of the moment.

Kwaṛa-n-dyəy, like many non-Arabic languages of the region, has a coded register in which Arabic loanwords or other expressions likely to be comprehensible to an outsider listener are replaced with other expressions. This register is quite extensive, and is known to many though not all speakers in all three towns. Since all numbers above 3 are Arabic borrowings, and hiding numbers is often particularly useful in trade, it perforce uses a base-5 counting system based on kembi "hand", a situation with parallels in several other Saharan oases which has led some to the probably mistaken idea that proto-Berber was base 5.

I have an open request from several interested citizens of Tabelbala for a competent archeologist, geologist, paleontologist, or other specialist in disciplines relevant to understanding and preserving the area's heritage to come and study. If you know or are such a person, please take note: you will find ample assistance and encouragement, and be welcomed hospitably. (Relevant bibliographical references would also be great.) The ruins of several medieval if not older towns are buried under the sands here, and some people at least would like to see them studied. You would be expected to make whatever information you find available to the town's citizens, and to help lobby for a local museum to put them in.

Qriqesh just came in, and requests that I put his nickname online for all to see: so here it is. (His real name is Abdallah Yahiaoui.)