Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Siwi and Nafusi, mutually comprehensible

The Libyan conflict which currently appears to be winding down has had some interesting side effects. One of the more linguistically interesting ones is the emergence of something completely taboo to Qaddafi: broadcasts in Libyan Berber - specifically, in the language of the Nafusa Mountains near the Tunisian border, whose people have played an important role in taking Tripoli. For a long time Berber languages have been mainly oral - visible or essential in particular regions scattered across North Africa, but not used in the national stage defined by major cities, schooling, and the mass media (apart from radio.) Since the 1990s this has changed somewhat in Algeria and Morocco, but in Libya this remains a very novel step.

For Siwis, the Berber-speaking people of Siwa in western Egypt, this is of some interest. They have occasionally been tuning into Moroccan or Algerian Berber-language satellite broadcasting ever since it started, without understanding more than occasional words here and there. But they tell me that in the Libyan broadcasts they can understand practically everything - the first time they've seen TV broadcasts in something approximating their own language, and the first time most of them have heard Libyan Berber at all.

I'm not surprised that Moroccan and Algerian Berber should be incomprehensible to Siwis - but I do find it remarkable that Libyan (Nafusi) Berber, spoken more than a a thousand kilometres away from Siwa, should be so easy for them to understand. It further confirms a longstanding observation that I've tried to back up recently by identifying shared innovations: that Siwi seems most like the Berber languages of western Libya, not of eastern Libya (where Berber is still barely spoken at the oasis of Awjila), contrary to what common sense and geography would initially suggest.


Anonymous said...

It's not quite as surprising as it seems: after all, Berber having lost ground to Arabic historically, there may well have once existed a Berber dialect continuum stretching through parts of Libya and Egypt, of which Nafusi and Siwi are the only survivors today (everything in between having been replaced by Arabic). I'm curious though: are these shared innovations you refer to exclusive to Nafusi and Siwi? Is the Arabic element in Nafusi derived from the same source as the Arabic element of Siwi? And if mutual intelligibility is this great, how long ago was Nafusi/Siwi unity lost?


Anonymous said...

Lameen Souag said...

Awjila is geographically between Siwi and Nafusi, though, and it doesn't fit into the continuum at all... The most exclusive shared innovations are in fact between Siwi and Sokna (now possibly extinct.) I'd need to get a clearer picture of how far mutual intelligibility really extends, but there are early Arabic loans shared between Siwi and Nafusi (or at least Tamezret), so I suspect rather less than 1500 years.

Zeus said...

i am really puzzled by your double standards regarding arabic and berber ,mr Souag sorry i mean dr souag (elf mebrouk bro'-;). you call arabic dialects dialects whereas the berber ones you term them as different languages. how did that happen?. is this the old arabistic strategy-albeit a sub-conscious one from your part-: divide theirs while unifying ours/ or you just quoting wikepedia on berber?
i speak algerian darja and standard arabic and i find middle-eastern arabic dialects inintelligible (especially the iraki and the gulf ones ), yet as a native chawi i understand fully all berber dialects apart from zennaga.
also as i came from the mountains i understand better kabylian of eastern kabylia than the chawi of the eastern plains. now how you classify my berber? a kabylian or a chawi language or rather a kabylo-chawi language? if we follow the logic of these pseudo-linguists who started this multi-berber nonsense-unfortunately some of our militants fell for it of course- we end up with a berber language for each berber tribe or village. a language is charaterized by the unity of its grammar and the relative unity of berber grammar is well established.

as to siwis who cannot understand algerian berber it depends on which variant of algerian berber you are talking about. most of the algerian tamazight tv programs are in kabylian of tiziouzzou and surroundings which is hard to understand even for eastern kabylians.
siwi and neffousi seem to form the eastern sub-group of the zenati group. as a chawi i could understand pretty well both siwi and neffousi.
like in other zenati variants the semi-spirants g' and k' are ponounced as sh and the zenati /exs/ for instance is used for 'to want'in both neffousi and siwi.

another thing: the siwi /da/ ''to let'' in your thesis may not come from arabic /da3/ but from zenati berber /hda/ ''to let''.
in chawi we say : /hda-t ad yekker/ or /da-t ad yekker/ ''let him leave''.
as you well know the spirant-pharynal /h/ is often silenced in tacawit hence the word /tameghart/ in some chawi sub-dialects is pronounced [hamgharth] and in some others /amgharth/.often we say /batent/ ''batna'' and /beskert/ ''biskra'' instead of /hbtent/ and /hbeskert/ respectively.

and of course you went all the way to Siwa not to study siwi berber for its sake but to fish for some lost arabic dialect . well, in Arabian londonsitan the petro-dollar talks-:)
according to the siwi local folklore, a chawi tribe took refuge in the oasis after the islamic invasions. i think there is some truth in that given that the national god of the numidians(the ancient chawis) was amon and siwa was the home of siwi berber may turn out to be a fusion of medieval tacawit and the old local native saharean berber spoken before the islamic conquests. and no one can deny arabic influences of course but not to an exagerating point as yours.
but allahu a3lem- and may allah forgive you bro':)
zeus at: Website:

Zeus said...

i have a sample in tanfust ,which any chawi or even kabylian will understand perfectly:

Anonymous said...

Tanemmirt a Zeus a yAmaziɣ aḥrur. Ula d nečč am akka i d-tenniḍ gziɣ ( fehmeɣ) tamaziɣt n yenfusen neɣ tin n Zewwara ( nečč ssawaleɣ-as Tazwawt n Libya). Tamaziɣt d tutlayt n imawalan-is ma d aɛeṛbub ad yeqqim d aɛeṛbub . Werǧin ad ibeddel.

Ziri ( n Youtube).

Anonymous said...

Tamawt : Nečč d azwaw ( d aqbayli) seg Tizi-weezzu. Fehmmeɣ ula d Tacawit n temɣrin .

Lameen Souag الأمين سواق said...

ZeusZenati: The petro-dollar, eh? Sadly, not a cent - but if you know any sheikhs who want to fund descriptive linguistic research, let me know!

The idea that Chaouis came to Siwa isn't "local folklore", it's a theory that the Siwi ex-shaykh Abu Bakr Rajih came up with after meeting an Algerian Chaoui visitor and noticing the similarity of the languages and names. I spoke to him myself. Of course Chaoui is closer to Siwi - and Mzabi should be even closer - but they don't show up on TV much.

As for da, that's actually an interesting suggestion - I've never been sure about that particle's origin. However, there is almost no chance that a Chaoui root /hda/ could be of Berber origin - read Kossmann's study of Berber historical phonology if you want to know why.