Saturday, September 13, 2008

Overheard from the code-switching department...

...from an Algerian here in London:


kanu supplying-lna
they.were supplying-to.us


You have a non-finite English form ("supplying") in a past continuous form, in accordance with the English construction but contrary to the Algerian Arabic one, which would require a finite form ("they supply"). You have an Algerian Arabic clitic pronoun - a form that can't stand on its own, but has to be attached to the end of something else - being stuck onto a totally unadapted verb in another language; code-switching in the middle of a phonological word! The facility with which some Algerian long-term residents of the UK combine their two languages is really rather remarkable, and would merit further study.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Fieldwork and address books

Linguistics, with its regular sound shifts, unidirectional grammaticalisation processes, and tree diagrams, is perhaps the most satisfyingly scientific of the social sciences. But today I found myself reminded that it is still emphatically social, particularly when you want to actually gather new data about undocumented languages. Mobile phones have become ubiquitous even in such far-flung corners of the Sahara as Tabelbala and Siwa, used even by illiterate people - making it possible to keep asking people about the language well after you've gotten back to the university. So over the past months of fieldwork my phone has accumulated quite a lot of numbers, which I backed up to my computer today. The final count? At least 84 phone numbers from Tabelbala and 43 from Siwa. To put this in perspective, there are only about 3000 Kwarandzyey speakers, so I can call something like 3% of the population.

The field linguistics courses at SOAS lay a commendable emphasis on teaching the practicalities of fieldwork - what microphone, what recorder, what software... But there's a gap in the course: managing contacts. Going through these I found a few casual contacts I could barely or even not at all remember, and some people I could remember but not easily remember the relationships between. There's some information in my field notebooks, but it's scattered and not always detailed. I should have been making concise but informative notes about all these people somewhere as I took their numbers - not something you can do easily with my already somewhat antiquated mobile, but that might be a reason in itself to take a more sophisticated one along, or even to use a paper address book, if you have space in your pocket for one alongside your field notebook. If you plan to do any fieldwork, bear this in mind!

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Desert lizards


If you're an Arabic speaker from the right part of southwestern Algeria, you probably call the smooth-skinned sand-burrowing lizard referred to in English as "skink" šəṛšmala شرشمالة. I recently found the original form of this word in Al-Hilali's Berber-Arabic lexicon from 1665: asmrkal or asrmkal أسرمكال, a word composed from asrm "worm" and akal "earth". In many Berber varieties (the so-called Zenati ones), akal becomes šal, and in some Arabic dialects if there's one š ش in a word any s's س have to become ش, so you'd get شرمشال, and by metathesis شرشمال.

Are any readers familiar with skinks? What would you call them?