Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Why would "qaswarah" be claimed to be Ethiopic?

In the Qur'ān, 74:51, an interesting word occurs:

{ كَأَنَّهُمْ حُمُرٌ مُّسْتَنفِرَةٌ } * { فَرَّتْ مِن قَسْوَرَةٍ }
ka'annahum ħumurun mustanfirah * farrat min qaswarah
As if they were wild donkeys. Fleeing from a Qaswarah.

This tends to be rendered as "lion" in English, but the early commentators indicate that that is only one of several possible meanings of the word. al-Ṭabari (d. 310 AH), gives four (all supported by chains of transmitters whose reliability I am not competent to judge): الرماة archers, القُنَّاص hunters, جماعة الرجال a group of men, الأسد a lion. The point of interest here is that two of these explanations are supported by allusions to Ethiopic:
حدثنا هناد بن السريّ، قال: ثنا أبو الأحوص، عن سِماك، عن عكرِمة، في قوله: { فَرَّتْ مِنْ قَسْوَرَةٍ } قال: القسورة: الرماة، فقال رجل لعكرِمة: هو الأسد بلسان الحبشة، فقال عكرِمة: اسم الأسد بلسان الحبشة عنبسة.

...[`Ikrimah] said: "al-qaswarah is archers." Then a man told `Ikrimah: "It is 'lion' in the language of the Ḥabashah (Ethiopians)." Ikrimah said: "The name of the lion in the language of the Ḥabashah is `anbasah."

حدثني محمد بن خالد بن خداش، قال ثني سلم بن قتيبة، قال: ثنا حماد بن سلمة، عن عليّ بن زيد، عن يوسف بن مهران عن ابن عباس أنه سُئل عن قوله: { فَرَّتْ مِنْ قَسْوَرَةٍ } قال: هو بالعربية: الأسد، وبالفارسية: شار، وبالنبطية: أريا، وبالحبشية: قسورة.

...[Ibn `Abbās] said: It is 'asad (lion) in Arabic, and in Persian šēr (شير), and in Nabataean 'aryā (ܐܪܝܐ), and in Ethiopic: qaswarah.
The thing is, it looks like `Ikrimah was right: in Ethiopic, "lion" is indeed `anbasā (ዐንበባ), and no Ethiopic word qaswarah has been found. Qaswarah is most likely an originally Arabic word. But these were intelligent people, and the saying attributed to Ibn `Abbās above is obviously right about Persian and Nabataean; why would they say that qaswarah was the Ethiopic word for "lion" if it wasn't? One obvious possibility is that they were referring to another language of the Ethiopia region. This cannot be ruled out, since many languages of the area have no doubt gone extinct without documentation since then; but it looks as though the words for "lion" in Somali, Oromo, Beja, Agaw, Sidamo, Nubian, Nara, and Kunama are rather different. One might momentarily be tempted to think of Berber, cp. Nafusi war, but that's certainly not long enough.

Could the idea that qaswarah is "lion" in Ethiopic have derived from a misreading of `anbasa at some point? That certainly wouldn't be plausible in Arabic. It doesn't look all that plausible in Ethiopic either: ዐንበባ doesn't look all that similar to ቀስወራ. But there is another alphabet that might conceivably have been involved: the musnad, the Old South Arabian letters that continued to be used in Yemen into the Islamic period. In this alphabet, ` ع is quite similar to q ق, and n to s. The other two letters are rather less similar, but I can imagine b plus the right side of s being miscopied as w, and the remainder of s being reinterpreted as r. Here's roughly how the two words (qswr on the left, `nbs on the right) would have looked (ignoring the possibility of a final feminine -t):


Suppose this is right. Why then would someone at the time have learned an Ethiopic word from a text written in the musnad, rather than by asking an Ethiopian? Histories and travelogues are both genres attested in the Middle East of the time, and might have found occasion to mention in passing the Ethiopian word for "lion", given its cultural importance (it is a common theme in Aksumite art, and in later Ethiopia was adopted as a royal title.) Some Yemeni scholar who's never been to Ethiopia reads a miscopied version of such a history, thinks: ah, this must be the same word as in the Qur'ān, and goes on to tell everyone he knows, including (if the attribution is correct) Ibn `Abbās.

But there's a difficulty here: all that's ever been discovered in the musnad is stone inscriptions and occasional letters. No books have survived at all, much less histories or travelogues. And if there were books, you would think they would be written in the cursive script used in the letters, rather than the monumental script of the inscriptions - which reduces the similarity of the two words even more (see the table on p. 13 of History of the Arabic Script for cursive forms.)

On the other hand - anyone have a better idea?

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Ibn Hazm again, and Cypriot Arabic

I just found a full translation online of the fifth chapter of Ibn Hazm's 11th-century work Iħkām fī Uṣūl al-Aħkām, discussed previously - a chapter remarkable for anticipating the ideas of a language instinct and of conlanging, and for clearly stating the relationship between Arabic, Hebrew, and Syriac. Enjoy! The Origins of Language: Divine Providence or Human Codification.

Not long before Ibn Hazm's time, some Arabic-speaking Maronites fled the Levant for Cyprus. In the village of Kormakiti, they have kept their language up to the present. YouTube being what it is, you can hear some on a program called Sanna (ie لساننا - our language) - go straight to 2:40, 5:00, 7:04 to hear the language itself. (Ignore the video's ill-informed claims that this is descended from Aramaic, by the way.) If you speak Greek, there are even lessons at Hki Fi Sanna. This is far more incomprehensible to me than any mainstream Arabic dialect I've ever heard, including the Levantine Arabic from which it presumably derives - a remarkable case study in how much isolation from related varieties speeds up language differentiation.

Monday, September 07, 2009

BBC Berber report

A couple of people have forwarded me this BBC article: Trail-blazing for Morocco's Berber speakers. It's a rare instance of Anglophone media noticing North African developments - in this case, the gradual establishment of Berber as a subject in Morocco's educational system. The phenomenon is rather interesting, and their efforts to create a common Tamazight "Fusha" would be a great subject for debate. But this article, sadly, is a pretty poor effort. Some of the errors of fact:

"previously oral-only language": Berber has been written, on and off, for 2500 years or more. The biggest single source of surviving Berber manuscripts (in the Arabic script) is southern Morocco. While Arabic has been - and still is - the main language of literacy for Berber speakers, Berber has not been "oral-only" in Morocco for millennia.

"an alphabet based partly on the mystical signs and symbols of the Tuareg found inscribed on tombs and monuments" - the Tifinagh characters of the Tuareg, on which Moroccan Neo-Tifinagh is based, are not "mystical signs and symbols", they're a perfectly normal consonantal alphabet, used mainly for graffiti and short letters.

"Berbers, until recently excluded from jobs in education and government": no. Their language has been excluded from both, but Berbers have held posts in both positions for as long as Morocco has existed. (The first prime minister of independent Morocco, Mbarek Bekkai, is one of many examples.) Negative attitudes towards Berber language and culture can disadvantage Berbers, but a statement like this one is frankly dishonest.

"young Moroccans either listen to Western music, or to rap in Amazigh" - I won't swear this is wrong, but that sure isn't the impression I got last time I was in Morocco. As far as I could tell, most popular Moroccan Berber music is not rap (thankfully), and certainly much (probably most) Moroccan popular music - including rap - is in Arabic.

Also, they quote Abdallah Aourik saying "Most Moroccans grow up speaking Berber" - this is possible, but is probably no longer true. Most recent-ish estimates on Berber speakers for Morocco (like within the past 50 years) hover around a third. (Wikipedia, for once giving reasonable references.)

For a more opinionated/less polite takedown, try Lounsbury. I guess the lesson is the usual one that the past decade has really drummed in: treat all reporting with scepticism.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Child language acquisition and constructions

A memorable line from a talk by Ewa Dabrowska that I went to recently:

"It is generally agreed that the representations assumed by generative theories cannot be learned from the input. For generative linguists, this fact is a fundamental premise of arguments for the innateness of at least some aspects of these representations: since they cannot have been learned from the input, they must be available a priori. An alternative conclusion, of course, is that we need a better theory - one that does not assume representations that are unlearnable."

Her answer is construction grammar: kids first learn individual low-level constructions like "What's ___ doing?" as unanalysed units, and only later come up with higher-level schemas of which these constructions are special cases (the next stage in this case would be "What's ___ ___ing?") Judging from the evidence she presented, showing that the vast majority of a 3 year old's utterances could be accounted for solely on the basis of simple substitutions within sentences they are known to have already heard, "children's [linguistic] creativity seems to involve superimposing and juxtaposing memorised chunks." This view of language more or less inverts the usual grammarian's perspective: the most general rules are developed only after specific cases have been learned, and the specific cases presumably continue to be stored independently. It strikes me as a rather promising way of thinking about historical syntax.