Saturday, June 13, 2009

Open to interpretation

Songhay's lexical economy - the way it keeps its lexicon rather smaller than its neighbours' by using a single word to fulfill the functions of what in most languages would be several different words - has attracted the attention of several of those who have written about the language from the 1850s onwards. While Kwarandzyey (Korandje) is so full of Berber and Arabic loanwords that the size issue probably no longer applies, it still has many striking examples of polysemy. Take "open", for example.

fya (from Songhay *feeri) is best translated as "open" (its commonest sense). Of course, to open one's mouth can be to start eating - hence the frozen compound fya-mmi "open-mouth" means "breakfast". But opening is also what you do to release something from an enclosed space; hence to "open water (for something)" (fya iri), or just "open", is to irrigate, and to "open for an animal or person" is to release them. Likewise, to "open a rope (for something)" is to untie it. To release something from your grasp is to let it fall - hence to "open for something" is also to drop it. And for a man to release his wife from her obligations towards him is to end the marriage - hence to "open for a woman" is to divorce her.

We can map the connections between these easily enough, making it clear that they form a coherent network of meaning:

breakfast untie
\ / \
open - release
\ / \
irrigate divorce

But not only will any single English translation applied literally and consistently yield ludicrous results for at least some of these cases - translating it differently in different circumstances will force you to choose a single meaning in cases where the text is ambiguous. "He opened for the woman" probably means he divorced her, but in principle it could mean he released her (eg from prison), or untied her, or (literally) dropped her; in fact, since Songhay has no gender distinctions in pronouns, it should even be able to mean "It (eg an automatic door) opened for her". And of course, this kind of ambiguity can be deliberately exploited for effect, as in puns.

In Kwarandzyey, this is never likely to cause serious ambiguity - the language is almost never written down, and it's a small enough community that the context is usually known to everyone anyway. But imagine worrying about this kind of thing in a millennia-old text in a language that no one today speaks natively, and you can really see why even the most literal translation of such a text is unavoidably an act of interpretation.


Jim said...

This reminds me of the short look I had at Yup'ik. What was the most fun was the way there were very few roots and yet the language could formulate almost anything without recourse to some heinous amount of lexicalization, and do it fairly econiomically.

Is the term oligosynthesis all ridiculed and out of fashion, or is it still acceptable?

David Marjanović said...

Last time I read the relevant Wikipedia articles, all natural languages that had at one time or another claimed to be oligosynthetic turned out not to be, but that's all I know. Obviously, I bet it depends on the definition -- as do many comparable claims: how polysynthetic is modern colloquial French?

Lameen Souag said...

Oligosynthesis is clearly not a fashionable term; I can't say much more than that without having read the relevant Whorf paper and seen the original definition. But in any case, if we assume that the number of morphemes in southern Songhay is small enough to fit, it would have to be termed oligoisolating.

Ehret's reconstruction of Proto-Semitic makes it look a bit oligosynthetic, but I'm not at all sure it is reliable.

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Jim said...

"Oligosynthesis is clearly not a fashionable term;"

Yeah, I thought not. I has kind of a nineteenth-century sound to it. (I know Whorf is twentieth century; the term still sounds old.)

I guess "oligosynthetic" can't very well apply to an isilolating language, but what you are describing sounds like a synthesis on the semantic if not the morphological level.

गिरिधर | giridhar | గిరిధర్ said...

Read your excellent review of Harrison's When Languages Die, and came here to your interesting blog.

In Hindi too "to open" has a rich semantic field. Here's a sampling of the senses of kholanaa (tr.) and khulanaa (intr.):

- to set free (a horse)
- to open, undo (a knot, turban, door)
- to cut open (a wound)
- to spread out (a bed)
- to unsew or unseam
- to remove or take off (a shirt)
- to disassemble (a sitar)
- to start (a boat)
- to open or establish (a shop)
- to permit entry or passage (a road, a tap)
- to break a fast
- to switch on (a radio)
- to declare open (a meeting)
- to explain (a verse)
- to reveal (a secret)
- to voice (one's thoughts)

The adjective khulaa yields some rich idioms:

- open weather = good, clear weather
- an open hand, heart = generous
- an open disposition (tabiiyat) = hearty
- an opened treasure, an open market, or an open field = openly, publicly; unhesitatingly

No breakfast or divorce among the senses though!

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