Sunday, October 12, 2008

Tifinagh at Leiden

There were two more talks at Leiden that I should have mentioned, on a subject I've always been interested in - Berber writing systems.

Ramada Elghamis is working on a thesis about Tuareg writing systems, and described the purpose of "ligatures" (a more appropriate term would be "conjuncts") in the Tifinagh of the Air region of Niger. Tuareg Tifinagh allows a number of letter pairs (rt, zt, nk...) to be combined into a single letter. It turns out that this is not artistic license, but an essential feature of the script. In traditional Tifinagh, no vowels are written - but if two letters are combined into a ligature, that means that there is no vowel between them, thus resolving a lot of ambiguities. For example (from memory, so details may be wrong), t-m-r-t is read "tamarit", a woman who is loved, whereas t-m-rt is read "tamart", beard; in unvocalised Arabic script, or in traditional Tifinagh minus the ligatures, there would be no way to distinguish the two.

Robert Kerr came up with a nice argument that Libyco-Berber, the pre-Roman script from which Tifinagh is descended, was adapted specifically from the Punic (early Carthaginian) variant of the Phoenician script, not the original Lebanese one and not the later Neo-Punic one. Basically, Old Phoenician marks no vowels at all; Punic marks a few vowels, almost always final ones; and Neo-Punic marks most vowels in all positions. Libyco-Berber (and traditional Tifinagh) also marks vowels only in final position; this rather odd idiosyncrasy is best interpreted as having been adopted from Punic rather than independently innovated.


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shaden said...

"tamarit", a woman who is loved

I'm guessing this is some sorta participle, I don't remeber Ayt Ndhir, the only Berber I'm familiar with, being so contracted.

I can't help but point out that this form is very similar to the native Egyptian word of the same meaning: temerit 'Fsg.beloved' -- meri 'to love'.

Salam from the Egyptian side.