Thursday, March 19, 2009

Beni-Snous: Two unrelated phonetic forms for every noun?

I got flabberghasted recently by a casual statement in Destaing (1907:212)'s grammar of the Berber dialect of Beni Snous in western Algeria (near Tlemcen). I nearly missed it as I skimmed it; see if you can spot it. (The translation is mine, as are the bits in brackets.) All the numerals above 1 are from Arabic here, but that's nothing surprising - the same is true in Tarifit, and few Berber varieties have retained the numbers above 3.
"The numbers from 2 to 9 inclusive are followed by the Berber noun in the plural [eg]:

two men ..... θnāịẹ́n ịírgǟzĕn
six women ... sttá n tsénnạ̄n
[...]

From "10" to "19" inclusive, the number is followed by the Arabic singular substantive:

eleven women ... aḥdăɛâš ĕrmra (Algerian Arabic mṛa "woman" مرة; contrast Beni Snous Berber θä́mĕṭṭūθ "woman")
fifteen cows ... ḫamstaɛâš ĕrbégra (Algerian Arabic bəgṛa "cow" بڨرة)
sixteen mares ... sttɛâš ĕrɛấuda (Algerian Arabic `əwda "mare" عودة; contrast Beni Snous Berber θáimārθ "mare")

After the number nouns "twenty, thirty, forty" etc., one uses the Arabic substantive[...]

twenty women ... ɛašrîn ĕmra
fifty mules ... ḫamsîn beγla (Algerian Arabic bəγla بغلة "mule")

a thousand rams: âlĕf kebš (Algerian Arabic kəbš كبش "ram"; contrast Beni Snous Berber išérri "ram")"

If I thought it were remotely possible for Destaing's claim to be true of counting every noun in the language - rather than, say, just the six nouns he gives appropriate examples for - I would be putting together an application to head out to Tlemcen instead of making this posting. (I might still do that anyway some time, mind you.) But for rather a lot of minority languages, all or nearly all speakers are bilingual. And if all speakers are bilingual, what in principle is there to prevent the grammar from containing a rule like this?

So I ask: have you ever come across anything similar elsewhere?

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Scanned Multi-Alphabet Arabic Manuscript Online

The Princeton Digital Library of Islamic Manuscripts has put a large number of Arabic, Persian, and Turkish scanned manuscripts online. Plenty of interesting stuff there, but one that particularly stood out for me was the untitled Treatise on ancient, alchemical and magical alphabets. Behold the Omniglot of its day! (Well, it's apparently only from the 1700s, but probably a copy of an older work.) It gives tables for the supposed alphabets of each prophet, with the letter names on one page and the letter forms on the next. I'll just point you to a few of the highlights:

Knowing my readers, I suspect I'll have identifications of several of the alphabets I didn't recognise coming soon - although many, perhaps most, of them are certainly made up. Extra points for anyone who can come up with a picture of a magic bowl or something actually using one of the made-up alphabets.

Two other Arabic manuscripts there of potential interest: The conquest of Africa, from Qayrawan to Zab; Book of the Roman months.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

išni: a Berber ovine, or a Songhay goat?

In Kwarandzyey (Tabelbala), the non-specific word for a sheep or goat is išni. It looks kind of Berber, and the words for different ages or sexes of sheep and goat are definitely from Berber, so I had assumed it must be Berber. But I've never found a term like it in any Berber dictionary. Maybe some reader will tell me that the word is familiar from his/her own hometown, but I just realised that there's an alternative explanation...

The word for "(female) goat" across Songhay may be reconstructed as *hìnčìnì (Nicolai 1981 gives *hìnkìnì, but in all the Songhay languages he cites except Kwarandzyey, original *k and *č both turn into the same sound before front vowels.) Nicolai 1981 gives amkkən "male goat" as the Kwarandzyey reflex of this word, but in fact (as Kossmann first pointed out to me) that turns out to be another one of the Berber etymologies that only Zenaga seems to explain: ämkän "jeune bête (tout animal de pâturage)" (Taine-Cheikh 2008). Instead, I'd like to propose that išni is the Kwarandzyey reflex.

*n is occasionally lost in Kwarandzyey (eg gwa "see" < *guna); I don't know any rule for this so far, but here it might be motivated by dissimilation. Initial *h is lost fairly commonly (at least "water", "man", "two", "three", "hunger"), so that's not necessarily a problem. Short vowels, most commonly (but not always) *i and *u, are frequently deleted, according to a rule whose conditioning I've been investigating lately. *č regularly becomes ts, but when immediately followed by a consonant regularly simplifies to s for all but some of the most conservative speakers. And s and š are not phonologically distinct (except for younger speakers, under heavy Arabic influence); the consistent use of š here would be explained by the i's flanking it. So that would yield *hìnčìnì > *inčni > *itsni > isni = išni.

Of course, if išni is attested in Berber then all this reasoning may have to be rethought - so if you speak Berber and have heard the word before, please tell me now!

Arabic (and Berber?) loanwords in southern Italy

Just came across a little monograph on Arabic and Berber loanwords in the dialects of the Basilicata (southern Italy): Sopravvivenze lessicali arabe e berbere in un'area dell'Italia meridionale, la Basilicata by Luigi Serra. Most of the loans listed are from Arabic, some quite obvious (eg taūt "coffin" < تابوت, źir "a copper or terracotta container for liquids" < زير, zammîl "big pannier with which various goods are transported on a beast of burden's back" < زنبيل), others rather less clear-cut.

Only three loans (and one placename) are claimed as from Berber. Two of them look acceptable, but all of them seem questionable, and they all refer to objects that there would have been no obvious reason to borrow terms for. It's possible that Berber influence can be found in southern Italian dialects, but this doesn't present a terribly convincing argument. Still, here they are:
  • źembr / źimbr / zimr / źimmr "billy-goat" (caprone, becco) < pan-Berber izimmər "ram", p. 39. (Looks good, but why the shift in species? - Also, see comments for an alternative Greek etymology.)
  • aččáta "big meal" (scorpacciata, mangiata, spanciata) < pan-Berber əčč "eat", p. 11. (The semantic and phonetic match are great, but the word is so short that coincidence seems hard to rule out.)
  • šéḍḍa "wing" (ala) < Zenati Berber "bird", eg Siwi ašṭiṭ, p. 26. The author mentions an alternative possibility - deriving it from Italian ascella "armpit" - that seems much more plausible.
  • Zaza (placename) < Berber azəzzu "thorny broom (plant sp.)" - not discussed in any detail (author cites Renisio), p. 41.

Saturday, March 07, 2009

Tawalt closing down

Tawalt is a nine-year-old Libya-focused Amazigh/Berber website with a remarkable collection of audio recordings, sketch grammars, vocabularies, and resources for some of the least well documented Berber languages - those of Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt. It is thus rather a shame that Tawalt is shutting down - updates stopping immediately, and site to go down by the end of the year. Sure, the Wayback Machine should preserve all the texts on it - but not its remarkable audio archives (which have already disappeared from the main page.) Their plans are probably related to political problems - the site's political postings had gotten rather outspoken. If you have any interest in Berber linguistics, I suggest looking around now before it disappears...

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

No, Berber isn't descended from Arabic

A few days ago I got lent a copy of a recent book in Arabic by Othmane Saadi: Dictionary of the Arabic Roots of Amazigh (Berber) Words معجم الجذور العربية للكلمات الأمازيغية (البربرية) (Tripoli: Academy of Arabic Language 2007.) My reaction, in brief, is that it's unscientific jingoistic claptrap. But I happen to have friends (not linguists, of course) who take it seriously; and I am told that the author, a proud member of the Chaoui Berber Nememcha (Nmamša) tribe, genuinely believes his own theory. I will therefore try to explain as simply as possible where the book goes wrong.

His starting point is noting the existence of strong similarities between Arabic and Berber in the vocabulary and grammar (p. C: “90% of Amazigh Berber words are pure or Arabised Arabic, and the grammar of Berber agrees with the grammar of Arabic.”) This is substantially correct, and has been known for a long time (see, for example, Igor Diakonoff's Afrasian Languages, Moscow: Nauka 1988, or at a more basic level one of my first posts), except that 90% is a substantial exaggeration – many of the comparisons he puts forward are at best questionable, as will be seen below. But he claims that the explanation for these similarities is that Berber descends from Arabic. Not just Berber either, as he says on p. B: “The term Arabitic عروبية means the ancient Arabic languages which are wrongly called the Semitic languages and which branched out from the source language Arabic thousands of years ago, such as Babylonian, and Assyrian, and Akkadian, and Phoenician Canaanite, and Aramaic, and Himyaritic, and Sabaean, and Thamudic, and Lihyanite, and Ma'inic, and ancient Egyptian, and Berber, and others.” Linguists subscribe to a rather different explanation for the observed similarities: that Berber and Arabic (and all the other languages he listed, and many he doesn't list such as Hausa and Somali) are all descended from a single language, called for convenience Proto-Afroasiatic (Greenberg 1950), which was different (and probably about equally different) from any of them.

How would you choose between these two hypotheses? Well, if the original language was different from Arabic, then you would expect some original forms to have been lost in Arabic but kept in other languages. Oddly enough, Saadi himself gives evidence for exactly that: he links the Berber ur “not” to Akkadian ul (p. 12), and the Berber -as “to him/her” to Akkadian -šu (p. 12), and the Berber nəkk “I” to Ancient Egyptian ink and Akkadian 'anāku, none of which are attested in Arabic. Unless you believe that Akkadian and Berber each independently invented the same new forms, or that they are more closely related to each other than to Arabic – which Saadi (correctly) does not claim – you have to conclude that the common ancestor of Arabic and Berber included words like ur/ul for “not”, and 'anāku for “I”, and so on, and hence was different from what we know as Arabic, just as it was different from Berber.

So maybe this common ancestor was Arabic in a different sense: Saadi argues that it was originally spoken in Arabia, so Arabic would be the one language that stayed at home, and presumably got less affected by foreign influence. Unfortunately, he doesn't have much of a case. His first argument (p. 1) is frankly risible: “Europe and North Africa were covered with ice before [18000 BC], whereas the Arabian peninsula enjoyed a climate similar to that of southern Europe now. The ice melted in the former and drought hit the latter, so mankind left the Arabian peninsula and settled North Africa and southern Europe.” The quote he cites on this actually says nothing about North Africa, and for good reason: even at the last glacial maximum North Africa was never covered by ice (see map), and was if anything more habitable before 18000 BC than it is now. He also notes (p. 2) that Berber princes have long claimed Yemenite origins. Such claims are questionable for many reasons (the desire for prestige, the originally matrilineal traditions of many Berber tribes, and no pre-Islamic attestations) – but even if true, it would prove nothing about the language: people change their language all the time without changing their ancestry, as any emigrant can tell you. The rest of his argument is a hotchpotch of miscellaneous quotes which at best claim that various early North African peoples or languages or cultures originated in the Middle East; in a particularly ludicrous case, he blithely quotes Bousquet (1957) to the effect that the Berber language “came from Asia Minor” [Turkey!] None of these quotes so much as mention the Arabian peninsula.

In fact, the linguistic evidence means that Proto-Semitic may well have been spoken in Arabia and certainly was spoken in the Middle East, but the common ancestor of Berber, Egyptian, and Semitic was most likely located in Africa. You see, as noted above, these three language families are also quite closely related to Chadic (spoken mainly in Nigeria and Chad) and Cushitic (spoken around the Horn of Africa) – which means that 4 out of 5 branches of this family are native to Africa. It is more likely that one branch left Africa than that 4 branches each separately followed the same narrow path across Sinai or crossed the Red Sea. (For theoretical background, see Campbell 2004.)

In other words: whether the similarities this book gathers between Arabic and Berber are valid or not, they don't do anything to support the author's claim that Berber descends from Arabic. Do they at least have the merit of being valid comparisons? Sometimes, but not with any consistency. Many of his comparisons look rather far-fetched, eg on p. D:

taməṭṭuṯ “woman” < Ar. ṭāmiṯ طامث “menstruator”
argaz “man” < Ar. rakīza(tu l-'usrā) ركيزة الأسرى “pillar (of the family)”
ixəf “head” < Ar. xf' خفأ “appear”, because the head stands out
tadaγt “armpit” < Ar. daγdaγah دغدغة “tickling”
alγəm “camel” < Ar. luγām لغام “the foam that comes out of camels' mouths”

Many others are clearly genuine loanwords, often featuring sounds that cannot be reconstructed for Proto-Berber, though I don't think many of these are original suggestions, eg:

(p. D) axərraz “cobbler” < Ar. xaraza خرز “to sew leather”
(p. H) abrid “road” < Ar. barīd بريد (confirmed by the Tuareg pronunciation of this word, abărid)
(p. 38) ləbṣəl “onion” < Ar. baṣal بصل (Siwi happens to preserve an older word for "onion": afəllu)
(p. 78) taħzamt “belt” < Ar. ħizām حزام

A couple are known Phoenician loanwords:

(p. 57) agadir, ažadir "wall" - Ar. jidār جدار

A few are well-known Afroasiatic cognates, and scattered among them may be other valid cognates:

(p. 250) iləs “tongue” - Ar. lisān لسان
(p. 110) iđammən “blood” - Ar. dam دم
(p. 292) tiqqad “burning” - Ar. wqd وقد

But the book makes no attempt to distinguish between words taken from Arabic comparatively recently and words inherited from the common ancestor of Berber and Arabic, and seems to assume that any word found in both dialectal Arabic (Darja) and Berber must automatically be originally Arabic, rather than possibly being a borrowing from Berber into Arabic. There is a well-known technique for sorting out inherited cognates from loanwords from coincidental similarities: sound correspondences. Sounds don't usually change at random: they change systematically, just as all j's in Egyptian Arabic become g. You establish which Berber sounds normally correspond to which Arabic ones under what circumstances, based on looking at what happens in the clearest cases; that gives you a standard by which to judge the doubtful ones. Saadi has made no effort to do this, and the unfortunate result is that in his comparisons the chaff far outweighs the wheat.

Berber and Arabic both descend from the same language, but that language was neither Berber nor Arabic, and probably didn't come from Arabia - and if you want to know about that common source, then you'll learn more from the works of Diakonoff or Greenberg, or even from more problematic sources like Orel and Stolbova 1999 or Militarev's online database, than from Saadi 2007.