Thursday, December 31, 2009

Siwi and Kabyle: same language family, but not same language

Just back from a nice evening with the Siwi community of Qatar. A Kabyle friend came along (hello if you're reading this!), giving me a chance to see first-hand to what extent Siwi and Kabyle are mutually comprehensible. The answer is: very little indeed. Looking through basic vocabulary it's not hard to find cognates; but when it comes to even short sentences, mystified expressions on both sides were the order of the day. The Berber languages of Algeria and Morocco may shade into one another to some extent, even across sub-family boundaries - there seem to be dialects for which it is difficult to decide whether they should be called Kabyle or Chaoui, for example. But by the time you get to Siwa, it's quite clear that you're dealing with a different language, even by Arabic speakers' rather generous standards. Further confirmation, if any was needed, that Berber is a language family, not a language.

8 comments:

Dave said...

Interesting. We occasionally have a Moroccan visiting scholar at KU who is working on Moroccan Berber, Amazigh, as an endangered language. (I guess Amazigh is the preferred name, since Berber is actually related to the word 'Barbarian.'

Anonymous said...

Dear Ameen, what happens if you as for ex. Kabyle read a textin Siwi Amazigh/Berber?
I'm from south-morocco the short texts i read where very clear for me. Maybe hearing it is different :-)

Lameen Souag said...

Texts are usually a lot easier than speech - I can understand written Spanish easily, but I really struggle to get anything out of a radio broadcast. Here's a way to test though: try listening to this Siwi story http://www.tawalt.com/sound_library_display.cfm?lg=_TZ&id=22&mStartRow=1 . Tell me what you make of it!

Anonymous said...

At least i understand 50-60% when i listen the first time.

There are clear sentcences : ghurs tlata n..

I din't had the time to finish the story, but i will these coming days :-). It sounds like a sahel accent which H'assani and Tamazchek also zenaga phone people have.

Michael Collins Dunn said...

I must ask: how big is the Siwi community in Qatar?

Lameen Souag said...

Oh, 20-odd people.

Arezqi said...

Hi Lameen,
Your last statement is obvious to the specialist but there is a wide belief - especially among berber activists - that the Berbers are one people with one language and the only reason they don't make one today is down to the many invaders, most notably the Arabs...yet when you study the languages, the cultures, you look at the lifestyles (sedentary/nomad/semi-nomad), physical appearances... it becomes clear (at least to me) that the division into sub-ethnic groups may have already happened in early antiquity and that's before any invader; what do you think?

Lameen Souag said...

I think that is probably correct. Even the Romans distinguished "Gaetulians" from "Mauri" and "Numidians" and so forth; and certainly by al-Bakri's time the veiled Senhaja of the southern Sahara were living a very different lifestyle than, say, the Ghomara of northern Morocco. I would also say, however, that to understand North African history we have to take into account not just Arab and Roman expansionism, but also the expansion of different Berber groups. For example, there is evidence that some Tuareg tribes originally spoke a quite different Berber language closer to Zenaga.