Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Triliterals in strange places

In a grammar I was looking at lately, I came across the following sentences:

"Nouns may be verbalized, or verbs nominalized, simply by bringing the stem into a suitable rhythmic form... Most of the rhythmic patterns call for a tri-consonantal stem. If a stem is di-consonantal in its primary form, a consonant (usually the glottal stop) is added to give it the proper structure... Often in the course of forming derivatives, stems that are too long are forced into one or the other of the regular patterns. They are cut down by the loss of quantity or of vowels or consonants as may be necessary."

Was this a Semitic language, or perhaps some less well known Afro-Asiatic cousin? No: this was Sierra Miwok, the pre-conquest language spoken by the Native Americans of central California inland from the Bay. (See map.) The "rhythmic patterns" only involve changes in quantity and CV>VC metathesis, not insertion of specific vowels as in Semitic, but the parallel is striking. Here are a few examples:

leppa- "to finish", with a CVCVCC pattern imposed, becomes lepa''- (gaining a glottal stop).
ṯolookošu- "three", with a CVCCV pattern imposed, becomes ṯolko- (losing the š).

Compare Arabic:
'ab- "father", with a 'aCCaaC plural template imposed, becomes 'aabaa'- "fathers", gaining a glottal stop (historically a semivowel, but never mind that)
`ankabuut- "spider", with a CaCaaCiC plural template imposed, becomes `anaakib- "spiders", losing the t.

Freeland, L. S. 1951. Language of the Sierra Miwok. Baltimore: Waverley Press.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Nepal's language riots

Qatar is of course one of the most multicultural places on earth - citizens are only a small minority of the population, and even they include a lot of pre-oil era immigrants from Asia and Africa. Among the largest national groups here in recent years is Nepalis, so it's no wonder that the papers here in Doha have been full of a language controversy that readers elsewhere may not have noticed - the anti-Hindi riots in Nepal.

Apparently, the people of the plains in southern Nepal have ethnic ties to India. They don't speak Hindi natively, but commonly use it as a lingua franca between them. The new vice-president Parmanand Jha comes from this region, and decided to take his oath of office in Hindi (although his native tongue is Maithili). Highlanders took this as a deliberate snub to the official language Nepali, the worse for having not even been in his own language but rather in one primarily associated with India - and a week or so of riots, in which at least 10 people were injured, followed. He issued a sort of apology that calmed things down, but apparently now there are fresh protests from a plains group without Indian ties, the Tharu.

Those who prefer a jargon-filled angle on all this can regard this as an interesting case study in the symbolic weight of language choice in a multilingual context. In this case, they seem to have at least two different diglossias going on: Nepali vs. others in the hills, Hindi vs. others in northern India, and both languages effectively trying to claim the role of the high-prestige language in the plains in between, through competing political parties. Kind of reminds me of North Africa, actually... (And that's without even getting into the role of English.)

For a few links, try:
Hindustan Times