Wednesday, March 02, 2011

From hatred to singing in two easy steps

In Kabyle, the word for "sing" is šnu. No other Berber language is known to have a similar word for sing (see Nait-Zerrad, s.v. CN), and both the verbal noun and its plural are formed on an Arabic pattern (ššna, pl. ššnawi); so one is almost forced to look to Arabic for its origins. But ask the average Arabic-speaker in modern-day Algeria, and they'll tell you they've never heard any such word.

In Classical Arabic, there is a fairly rare verb šani'a شنئ, meaning "to hate", probably best-known from the third verse of Surat al-Kawthar: 'inna šāni'aka huwa l-'abtar "For he who hateth thee, he will be cut off (from Future Hope)". (Cognate words are found elsewhere in Semitic, for example Hebrew śānē', Syriac snā "hate".) This has barely survived in spoken Arabic, but (according to de Prémare) the causative šənnā is still used in Tangier (Morocco), meaning "to taunt someone by showing him something he wants that you won't give him."

Phonetically, šani'a is a perfect match for šnu (the glottal stop/hamza becomes y in colloquials, and Arabic final-y verbs normally end up in Kabyle as final-u, for reasons I won't go into) - but semantically, surely this is absurd?

So I would have thought, until, idly browsing through a glossary of the rather conservative Bedouin Arabic dialect of the Nefzaoua area in southern Tunisia (Boris 1951), I found the following entry:
شنى šnệ... inacc. yẹ́šni...; noms d'act. šänyân et šạ́ni: 1) "critiquer en vers, faire la satire"... 2) "détester".

شنى šnē... impf. yašnī...; verbal nouns šanyān and šany: 1) to criticise in verse, to satirise... 2) to hate
"Hate" to "criticise in verse" is a credible change, and so is "criticise in verse" to "sing". Suddenly, a connection that looked impossible becomes almost obvious.

In this case, as in many others, Kabyle has preserved an Arabic word that almost every Arabic dialect in North Africa has lost - but to make sense of the connection you have to look at a wide range of Arabic dialects, not just checking Classical Arabic and stopping there. The converse also applies: when looking into Berber loans into an Arabic dialect, it's not enough to look just at the Berber spoken next door. People move around, and words that were familiar in one generation may be forgotten in the next one.

Of course, if the Nefzaoua data weren't available, there's no way you could accept a comparison like this - and, if several thousand years had passed since the word was borrowed, instead of less than 1500, that intermediate step probably would not have survived. In other words, semantic change can rather easily erase connections beyond any reasonable hope of retrieval. This is one of the main difficulties in long-range historical linguistics - the further back you go, the more cases like this.


John Cowan said...

Very plausible indeed. Early Irish law shows that poets' use of satire had to be regulated so that it would not drive honest men to despair and suicide, but satire was itself a kind of legal punishment, especially applied to the rich who were above most other kinds. The six words of warning gave notice of an intention to satirize someone: gromfa gromfa glamfa glamfa aerfa aerfa, all meaning 'I will satirize' using three different roots. Glam is a noun meaning 'curse', and aerfa is the usual word for 'satirize' (in the future indicative), but exactly what grom means is very unclear.

Abu Ilyás said...

Cf. شنآن (šānā'ān) in Le dictionnaire COLIN d'arabe dialectal marocain, 1994, IV, p. 992: "Discussion, dispute, discorde, querelle; haine, ressentiment."

Lameen Souag said...

Good find, but with its vowels and glottal stop, šānā'ān has got to be a re-borrowing from Classical rather than an inherited cognate.

Moubarik Belkasim said...

In Tarifit Berber we have the widely used werb "cna" which means approximately: to be beautiful / to look good / to behave nicely.

So, for example, we have the conjugations:

- Netta wer yecni = he doesn't look good / he looks silly.

- Nettat tecna = she is beautiful / she looks good.

- Iḥenjiren nnes cnan = His / her kids are cute.

Jim said...

John, wasn't there a big council in the sixth or seventh century soemwhere up near Ulster where all the kings and nobles got together to restrict the use of satire?

Abu Ilyás said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Abu Ilyás said...

See also F. Corriente, A Dictionary of Andalusi Arabic, 1997, p. 291: "{ŠN' }: VA [Vocabulista in arabico] našna' šana't šanū'ah / šanān šānī mašnū' k to hate".

Sohel said...

Excellent blog.
I am still learning arabic, i checked one grammatical reference of Quran, it shows "Shaania" in sur-e-kauthar as a noun and not verb. From that extra alif also its structure looks more like a noun rather than verb. Can you please direct to some reference (authoritarian source of arabic grammar) to use in such cases.

Lameen Souag said...

AI: Another good find! Didn't realise AA preserved the hamza.

Sohel: Your reference was quite correct: shāni' ("hater") is a noun derived from the verb šani'a ("hate".)

Abu Ilyás said...

Well, as you probably know, the Vocabulista in arabico, which is thought to have been composed in the context of the 13th- and 14th-century Dominican studia linguarum, must be handled carefully as a source for AA. Some classical words may have been included for the sake of completeness (however, it is interesting to note that شنان appears both in the Arabic-Latin and in the Latin-Arabic part).

On hamza in AA, see F. Corriente, A Grammatical Sketch of the Spanish Arabic Dialect Bundle (Madrid, 1977, 58-60).

Anonymous said...


šnu : š+nu/s+nu > root: NU/NW/NY "to sing"

Its cognate exists in tamachek: NY (Prasse, Ritter)
- anaya/aneya :: chant
- anaya :: melodie, poetischer rhytmus [in german]

a related word in Tashelhiyt could be tananayt = model verse


[i]Toutes ces langues partagent un lien intime dans leur système grammatical et dans leur système phonétique, cependant, comme je l’ai dit, il n’y a pas beaucoup de similitudes dans le vocabulaire entre les différentes branches. Il y a environs 300 mots du tamazight qui peuvent être encore retrouvés dans les autres branches du chamito-sémitique, en arabe par exemple.[/i]
Interview avec l’amazighizant le professeur Karl-G Prasse
Traduit de l'anglais par: Ali Amaniss

KSN/KNS could be a better candidate when discussing verbs for hatred in afro-asiatic pool.
This indicates and as Lameen partly showed that these verbs can not be called a arabic loan.
The example from Tangier can also be a punic verb or other.

Lameen Souag said...

The anaya connection is an interesting suggestion, but it would leave the š unexplained (it can't be from k, since this is Kabyle, not Zenati; and it can't be from s, since there's no š in the root.) It would also leave the form of the verbal noun and its plural unexplained - Arabic-style verbal nouns from words of Berber origin are very rare in Kabyle. On top of that, if the final radical was y you would expect the Kabyle form to be šni, not šnu. So it's extremely unlikely that šnu is cognate with Tuarag anaya; that simply wouldn't explain its form.

However, it is possible that the shift of šnu's meaning, both in Tunisia and in Kabylie, was influenced by its originally accidental similarity to a form like anaya. In that sense, the word might well have a double etymology.

Lameen Souag said...

Moubarik: I finally tracked down the Tuareg word I was trying to remember that's cognate to Tarifit yecna: əkən (p. ikna), whose meanings include "to be perfect". Incidentally, knowing that that's present in Tarifit helps with an etymology in Kwarandzyey that I had been worrying about, so thanks for bringing it up. Obviously, it's not cognate to the Kabyle word (the Kabyle reflex of this ought to be *ken.)

sawal-tachelhit said...

ohhh notre linguiste comment Aucune autre langue berbère est connu pour avoir un mot similaire pour chanter ?
en tachelhit il y a le verbe ( irir)
aoriste= irir ( chanter)
aoriste intensif =ttirir
nom d'agent = amarir ( chanteur)
urarn; sing_ urarn_pl ( chansons)

Anonymous said...

In Laghouat and surrounding areas, we say sheen/a to mean ugly and hateful (very common word).

Lameen Souag said...

irir n'a aucun ressemblance à cnu. C'est peut-être le mot originale.

They say sheen/-a in Bechar and Tabelbala too. I'm not sure if it's connected though, because the y is before the n instead of after.

Anonymous said...

one could also argue that it may have been related, (as a loan word or inherited from a common afro-asiatqie root) to the semtic ghna or rhna (to sing).
gh->q->g->ch: apossible derivation route