Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Endangered Languages Week

It's half-over already, but I really ought to mention: Endangered Languages Week is happening at SOAS this week, and may be of interest to readers in London.

Also, a interesting news story, a reminder that many countries still have legal restrictions on what language you can speak where: A prominent Kurdish lawmaker gave a speech in his native Kurdish in Turkey’s Parliament on Tuesday, breaking taboos and also the law in Turkey.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

`baskundza igwạḍən!

I don't suppose there are more than about two or three people on earth who care, but I just figured out an etymology that's been puzzling me for a while. In Kwaṛandzyəy, the word for "genie" is agwəḍ, plural igwạḍən. It looks Berber for its form alone, but I had never found it in any dictionary - until now, going through Taine-Cheikh's new Zenaga dictionary, when I came across ugṛuđ̣an (original singular *ugṛuḍ) "démons, diables (plus dangereux, plus forts que les autres)". It turns out to have been borrowed into Hassaniya too - īgṛäwṭən. The loss of is more or less regular in Kwarandzyey (usually it's restricted to intervocalic positions, but there are a few other examples like this); so is the shortening of a long vowel to ə in a final closed syllable, with a w remaining to indicate its former quality. Quite possibly the next commenter will tell me that actually this word is well-known in Kabylie or Morocco or something, but for now it's another piece of evidence for my claim that Kwarandzyey includes a number of loanwords specifically from the Zenaga branch of Berber.

UPDATE: see comments - it wasn't the next commented, but the third one who established that this word is attested in southern Morocco too, which makes sense both since that region is also fairly close to Tabelbala and since it tends to be easier to find Zenaga cognates there than further north or east.

Friday, February 20, 2009

The Tyranny of Morphology

Coming out of an airport, you have to pick one of two exits: "Goods to Declare" or "Nothing to Declare". You have to go through one to get out; but (at least in Customs' eyes), by going through either exit, you state whether or not the contents of your luggage are legally subject to import duties. If you feel so scrupulously honest and so intensely secretive that you decide you have to leave that question unanswered - your only option is to stay inside.

Often your language does that too (Whorf said it first.) Just like the airports, the trick is to set things up in such a way that trying not to answer the question is either unacceptable (ungrammatical) or automatically interpreted as implying a particular answer. If you're talking about a friend in English, you don't have to indicate whether the friend is male or female until you refer back to the friend with "he" or "she"; in Arabic or Spanish, you have to state which it is from the start; and in Chinese or Songhay you can get away with never saying it at all. If you believe something definitely happens at some point, but don't want to say whether it's already happened or not yet, there's no simple way to say that. At best, you end up having to use cumbersome disjunctions like, if you're into apocalyptic prophecies, "The Antichrist either will be born some day or already has been"; and disjunctions like that will always be interpreted as meaning that you don't know which, not that you know but don't feel it's relevant.

In Korean (according to a talk by Peter Sells I heard today), a special verbal affix -si- (one among many, many politeness indicators) is used to indicate that the human subject of the verb (loosely speaking - it may also be a possessor of the subject, or a topic) is notionally of higher social status than the speaker. Thus:

sensayng-nim-i ka-si-ess-ta
"The teacher went."


koyangi-i ka-ess-ta
"The cat went."

The thing is, this means you can't be neutral about the subject. If you don't use this suffix with a subject that would normally take it, like "teacher" or "pastor", your listener will assume that you don't respect them so highly. You can't even get away with being ambiguous - I'm told that a disjunction of politeness levels, like *"The teacher went(honorific) or went(unmarked) away", is totally unacceptable. There are genres, such as academic writing or journalism, where politeness morphology is not normally used, allowing you to be neutral on this; but in a face-to-face conversation, as far as I understand, no such solution is available. (Any Korean readers should feel free to correct me!)

No language is likely to be able to stop you from saying what you want to say, if you try hard enough. But things like this can make it a lot harder to avoid saying what you don't necessarily want to say.

"Written in Islamic"

I don't usually do current events posts, but this one was cute enough to warrant a micro-post: egregious ex-Senator Rick Santorum declares that Muslims think that “The Quran is perfect just the way it is, that’s why it is only written in Islamic.” In most speeches, a sentence like that would be a major embarrassment; in this one, it's merely his only linguistics-related blooper.

(Via Angry Arab.)

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Fusha: the Straussian choice?

I came across a review of a book called Why are the Arabs not Free? The Politics of Writing, by an Egyptian psychoanalyst. I haven't read it (nor Adonis, whom he discusses below) but the quote presents an interesting perspective on Arabic diglossia:
My understanding of the political significance of this divorce between political and demotic Arabic and the key place of writing in the perpetuation of despotism crystallised when I read the work of our great poet Adonis, entitled The Book. It is one of the most revolutionary books I've read in Arabic literature. Apart from its provocative title, it lays bare the truth of our political history as having been a series of assassinations in a struggle for power. But it's written in such a high style that it's a difficult text even for the educated, without taking into account the vast majority of illiterate folk. So, it's no wonder that The Book has remained a 'dead letter'. I may say that I once heard Adonis declare that he won't ever write except in 'grammatical' Arabic because he prefers writing in a 'dead language'. One may wonder if his choice doesn't also represent his method for dealing with the condition [the German-born American political philosopher] Leo Strauss describes in his Persecution and the Art of Writing. The authorities are happy to ignore such books because in the unlikely event that they themselves have understood them, they know that their message will only reach a very limited number of people.
A tempting hypothesis in some ways, this idea that Fusha acts to insulate the majority of the population from the debates of intellectuals, keeping the powers that be safer from ideologically-inspired opposition and the intellectuals themselves safer (in the short term!) from popular reactions to their speculations. But is the issue really that people have trouble with the language, or just don't read much? Both are true to some degree, but in an era where TV shows and news programs in standard Arabic command large audiences across the Arab world, it's not plausible to blame everything on the difficulty of the language.

Elsewhere in the article he is said to imply that giving the colloquial greater status will "reduce any feeling of powerlessness as a result of a lack of formal linguistic expertise". That seems harder to argue with, given that many (probably most) people who can understand standard Arabic fine can't put together more than a sentence or two without mistakes, and certainly can't sound as eloquent or clear or at ease in it as in their colloquial language. But then again, what power does speaking standard Arabic well actually entail, when plenty of ministers and millionaires can't? Only the power to take part in debates that seem to have remarkably little effect on the society around them?

Friday, February 13, 2009

Why do historical linguistics?

Unraveling the details of a given language family's history is painstaking, detail-oriented work - comparing hundreds or thousands of words to each other, looking through different languages' grammars, coming up with hypotheses to explain what you see and hoping the next language you look at doesn't disprove them... Why do it?

Well, for one thing, you end up showing interesting things about the history of the relevant part of the world, often things it would be hard or impossible to show any other way - that Madagascar was settled by people from Borneo, for example, or that Ijo slaves from Nigeria ended up on the Berbice River in Guyana, or that Persians and Swedes (along with a lot of other people!) ultimately both got their language from a common source. But that depends on your being interested in a particular region; why would a person working on the historical linguistics of (say) the Sahara care about the historical linguistics of New Guinea, or Alaska, or even Europe?

It's because people are pretty similar everywhere - we all have roughly the same mouths and the same brains, and as a result we all tend to make roughly the same kinds of changes. Looking at changes in the languages of Europe, and at which direction they went, turns out to give you a pretty good idea of what kind of changes to expect in New Guinea - and vice versa; wherever you go, k is much more likely to change to g than to n, and a word meaning "want" is much more likely to become a future tense marker than a word meaning "jump".

That means that all these individual small-scale studies are so many pieces fitting together to form a map of how language works. Describing a language (no mean challenge in itself) shows you one set of possibilities; typology tells you the possible states of a language; but historical linguistics relates them to one another, showing you which states are closely linked and which are not. You can't predict what will happen to a language, but you can see in advance what kind of changes are likely and what kind are unlikely.

For sounds, this map of changes - this network linking different states of a language to one another - will seem familiar; it corresponds closely to articulatory and/or auditory similarity. You can mostly account for it by knowing how different sounds are made (with the lips, the tongue, etc...) and which sounds are hardest to distinguish. The key test for a theory of syntax (as far as I'm concerned) is whether it can account similarly for the attested map of syntactic change.