Thursday, December 26, 2013

Does Arabic have the most words? Don't believe the hype.

For some time, I've been hearing rumours (from Arabs, of course) that Arabic has the largest number of words of any language. Recently I found one vector for this rumour: Comparison of the Number of Words in Languages of the World, a poster put together by Azzam Aldakhil which has the merit of at least giving the sources for its figures, namely Muʕjam ʕAjā'ib al-Lughah by Shawqī Ḥamādah, 2000. (In a follow-up comment he gives the page numbers, 83-84.) This poster claims that "Arabic has 25 times as many words as English".

Unfortunately for this claim, if you go to the book cited, what you actually find is a calculation of the number of possible roots in Arabic, without regard to whether or not the root actually has a meaning. Such a count includes huge numbers of unused roots such as بزح bzḥ or قذب qḏb, while at the same time lumping together all words derived from the same root; كتاب book, كاتب writer, and مكتب office are three words, but only one root. The result of such a calculation might tell us something about the potential for expanding Arabic, but absolutely nothing about the state of the Arabic language. And since in practice both Arabic and the languages it is being compared to on that poster allow arbitrary long words without real roots, if only in loanwords, it doesn't even tell us much about its potential.

Both the number of Classical Arabic roots with actual meanings and the number of words can be estimated from the classic dictionaries: according to Sakhr's statistics, there seem to be around 10,000 roots, and up to 200,000 distinct words. Roots don't play such a major role in the lexicography of most non-Semitic languages, so it's difficult to compare the number of roots cross-linguistically. But in terms of words, that would be slightly fewer than English (250,000 in the OED, although the poster cites 600,000) and slightly higher than French (over 100,000 excluding proper nouns, according to the Académie Française).

However, such comparisons can hardly fail to be misleading. For one thing, English is much more hospitable towards dialectal and colloquial usages than Arabic is – the OED is full of words marked as Scottish or Northern or slang or whatnot, the equivalents of which would never be accepted by an Arabic dictionary. For another thing, the whole enterprise of counting words across languages runs into apparently insuperable problems, especially when it comes to compounds, which Arabic dictionaries do not normally treat as words. If you include compounds, then compound-friendly languages like German or Turkish or Inuktitut are automatically going to beat all the rest – and all the available statistics that I've seen for, say, English happen to include compounds.

So the best answer is that we don't really know, and that word count, even if we could measure it better, is not a very good measure of a language's expressive power anyway. Some missing words make a genuine difference, as I've discussed here before. But is English really missing out by not having distinct words for male camels (جمل) vs. female camels (ناقة)? Is Arabic really missing out by not having a special word for cornpone, or for scones?

Wednesday, December 11, 2013


Tadaksahak, a heavily Berber-influenced Northern Songhay language spoken in northern Mali and Niger and closely related to Korandjé, is a remarkable example of how far language mixture can go. While the core grammar remains Songhay, causatives and passives can only be formed using Berber morphology attached to Berber stems, so every non-Berber verb in the language has a suppletive causative and passive (there are only a couple of hundred of those left, though, so it's not that impossible to learn.) I recently finally finished a review of Regula Christiansen-Bolli's Grammar of Tadaksahak (you can read the review here). For various reasons, I ended up taking the opportunity to write an overview of the general problem of how the language came into being. I don't have a final answer, but I did find that it was even more complicated than it looks.

You see, Tadaksahak speakers are currently mostly bilingual in Tuareg, and well integrated into Tuareg culture. Most of the Berber loanwords in Tadaksahak are from one or another Tuareg variety. But quite a few – including some of those irregular causatives and most numerals up to 20 - are demonstrably not from Tuareg, but from some other Berber language, closely related to Tetserrét (Niger). Today, Tetserrét is nearly extinct, and nobody speaks it as a second language; obviously things must have been different in the past. It looks like most Tadaksahak speakers are visibly of Berber descent, so probably they shifted from Tetserrét to Northern Songhay and then came under Tuareg influence. But why would anyone want to adopt Northern Songhay, currently barely hanging on in one or two remote towns of northern Niger, as a first language? Again, obviously things must have been different, but it's not easy to see how. My best guess for the moment is that they did so in order to reinforce their identity as religious specialists (ineslemen, "marabouts"), since Songhay was the language of the urban centres where advanced religious studies could be pursued, but there are a lot of question marks over that. To confuse matters further, their neighbours like to claim that Tadaksahak speakers are of Jewish descent - probably just to undermine their religious specialist status, but possibly reflecting some more complex history.

Oral tradition isn't much help; there is no firm consensus within the group on their history, and such genealogies as have been circulated, by themselves or by their neighbours, look very much like efforts to push self-serving agendas. About the only common theme across them is that they came from the west. Genetic testing might give firmer data, but the results could be politically sensitive. More lexical data, both for Tadaksahak and for other minority languages of the region, would certainly help, but the problem is ultimately cross-disciplinary - historians, archeologists, anthropologists, etc. take note! Any ideas?

Monday, December 09, 2013

wləd/wlid- "boy, son": An irregular development

There's a curious feature I recently noticed about the Arabic of Dellys in Algeria (I can't imagine what took me so long, since it's in my own idiolect as well!). In Morocco and western Algeria "boy" and "son" are both ولْد wəld, corresponding regularly to Classical Arabic وَلَد walad. In Dellys, "boy" is ولد wləd, again corresponding regularly (in Morocco, CaLaC and CaLC, where C is any consonant and L is a sonorant, both end up as CəLC; in central Algeria, the former becomes CLəC, the latter CəLC). But with a possessor – ie, in the sense of "son" – is not wləd, but وليد wlid. You can say وليد خويا wlid xu-ya "my brother's son" or وليدك wlid-ək "your son", but not *wləd xuya or *wəld-ək. It's not obvious how to explain this historically; on the face of it, it looks like a completely irregular development. There are a few other nouns derived from the pattern CaCaC – for instance حنش ħnəš "snake", حبق ħbəq "basil" – but I can't think of any cases offhand which frequently occur in the construct state (that is, with a possessor directly following them). It might be compared to the diminutive, but in present-day Dellys Arabic anyway, the diminutive is وليّد wliyyəd, not wlid.

Has anyone come across a similar phenomenon in any other Arabic variety?

Saturday, December 07, 2013

19th c. Songhay sources from Tanzania and the US

A while ago, I posted about the earliest European source for Songhay. Shuichiro Nakao, who's been doing some interesting work on the 19th-century development of Arabic-based creoles, recently sent me a link to an early record of Songhay from an even more surprising source: the journal Tanganyika Notes and Records. The article in question is a summary autobiography of Adrien Atiman, who spent most of his life working as a Catholic missionary in central Africa. Apparently, as a child he was taken (sold or kidnapped? he would never know which) as a slave from Tindirma (modern Mali) and brought north to Metlili, where he was "ransomed" by a Catholic priest in 1876, converted, trained for priesthood, and finally sent off to a completely different part of Africa to be a missionary. He gives a few words, the only ones he could still remember of his native language after so many years: ""Coro" meaning lion, "Boro" man, "Elham" meat, "Bri" bone, and "Kunduhari" beer." These are easily recognisable as the Koyra Chiini forms (after Heath 2005): kooro hyena, boro person, ham meat (crossed here with Algerian Arabic lħəm "meat"), biri bone, and kundu "bourgou grass" + hari "water" (a syrup is traditionally made from bourgou grass). But it is striking that, even for these last holdouts, the meanings are not remembered exactly. Your first language is not necessarily the language you are most fluent in!

As it happens, another Songhay-speaking slave also left us his biography, from slightly earlier in the nineteenth century (1854): Mahommah Gardo Baquaqua. A native of Djougou (modern Benin), he was taken prisoner while visiting a different town and sold south to the coast, ending up as a slave in Brazil, but eventually managed to escape while passing through New York, which had already abolished slavery. He gives the numbers from one to a thousand in Dendi, as well as a few vocabulary items scattered throughout the book. (Not all the latter are Dendi – some are Hausa, eg "cofa" (properly ƙofa) for "gate".)

I've managed to trace a few Songhay loanwords in North Africa, but as far as I know no one has ever reported a Songhay loanword in the Americas. That is probably to be expected, since most slaves there would have come from regions closer to the sea – but it would be interesting to look more closely...

Friday, December 06, 2013

Propaganda and grammatical gender

I try my best to avoid reading products of the propaganda wars currently raging in the Middle East, but today I found that they had managed to leak into the usually apolitical world of linguistics blogging. In a recent post about the way grammatical gender affects how we imagine anthropomorphic characters, Asya Pereltsvaig alludes to a fatwa supposedly arguing that "the word for ‘sea’ is grammatically masculine in Arabic, and so when a woman goes swimming and “the water touches the woman’s private parts, she becomes an ‘adulteress’ and should be punished”." This is sourced to an article in India Today, based on Al Masry Al Youm, which in turn cites a report by Dr. Sayyid Zayed of Al-Azhar titled "The Errant Fatwas of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis" (الفتوى الضالة عن الإخوان والسلفيين). This report is not online, and none of the links identify the author of the fatwa in question, but Google provides an answer - an article from 17 September 2012 gives a screenshot of a Tweet allegedly posted on 11/5/2011 by @AliAlirabieeii saying "It is one of the greatest sins for a woman to go down into the sea, even covered, since the sea is masculine, and when the water goes into her private parts she thus becomes an adulterer and liable to the stipulated punishment." There is in fact a Dr. Ali Al-Rabiei, a vocal Saudi imam, and he does have a Twitter account - @DrAliAlrabieei. On this Twitter account, he tweeted on 28 May 2012 that "The Shia are counterfeiting a sixth fake account in my name - @AliAlirabieeii - to display smears and fakery; we call upon you to inform about it and get it closed."

In some ways, this brief odyssey through the sad world of Twitter warfare was superfluous. The slightest knowledge of Middle Eastern politics should be enough to tell anyone that a story run by Al Masry Al Youm, or a report by Al Azhar, published not long after the ouster of Morsy and explaining how the Brotherhood are completely crazy, might need to be taken with a pinch of salt. In the current political battles of the Middle East, attributing horrifying fake quotes to leaders from the other side has become a rather popular tactic. I don't know what the background is for the Iraqi fatwa cited later in the same post (a slightly different account is sourced by the Daily Telegraph to the observations of a Sunni leader from Anbar), but common sense tells us it's more likely to be hostile propaganda than to be anybody's actual belief, no matter how crazy. Salafis are known for being especially strict about the need to separate men and women; whoever was behind these stories must have decided that the idea of extending this to separating grammatically masculine things from feminine things would be just plausible enough to fool ordinary people while at the same time ridiculous enough to horrify them. Apparently, he was right.

[Addendum: Looking at this post again, it occurs to me that it's missing the human dimension; you can probably reconstruct it from the facts, but just in case, here are the basics. The Twitter accounts were very likely intended as satire, notwithstanding Alrabieei's furious response – and he may well have deserved satire, if his positions on the Shia are as extremist as they seem to be. The fact that a number of sketchy Arabic news sources picked it up as if it were real might be an honest mistake, but much more likely was simply because they were looking for any opportunity, honest or dishonest, to embarrass someone on the opposite side of the current culture wars. The Egyptian media then picked it up because what they wanted to do was paint opponents of the current government as insane fanatics, but left out his name and identity because he's Saudi, and the Saudi government is strongly on the side of the current Egyptian government. That's dishonesty any way you spin it.]

Tuesday, November 05, 2013

APiCS online, ASJP

Any readers interested in pidgins, creoles, or mixed languages (one of those things is not like the others!) will want to know that the data for the Atlas of Pidgin and Creole Languages, APiCS, is finally online and publicly browsable. Think of it as WALS for pidgins and creoles, basically – lots of pretty maps, with the nice bonus that language-internal variation in features like word order can be represented proportionally by a pie graph instead of having to choose a single value per language.

Also released lately is the data underlying the ASJP (Automated Similarity Judgement Program). The program's results itself remain thoroughly unreliable as a guide to classification – as of the latest version, it auto-classifies Songhay with Masa (Chadic), Berber with East Chadic, Kanuri with various Biu-Mandara (Chadic) languages (and not with Teda-Daza), Turkic with some New Guinea language named Kuot, and Hebrew with Tigre and Tigrinya against the rest of Semitic. For low-level subgroupings they aren't always too bad, though – their Berber tree has become surprisingly plausible. In any event, having the data, you can analyse it yourself, or try running your own algorithms if you feel up to it...

Saturday, November 02, 2013

Lingua franca / Sabir

Mi star trovato un bonu libro sopra il sabir: Dictionnaire de la langue franque ou petit mauresque. Avanti l'attaca del Fransis, l'Algerino parlar con il Rumi ne in esbagnol ne in italiano ne in fransis, ma in questa lingua, una miscolantza dell'italiano e dell'esbagnol, muchu facile anche per un muchachu. Il mariniero parlar il sabir non solo in Algieri ma in tutto portao straniero. Ma doppo 1830, il genti star imparato fransis, presto scordato il sabir. Ellu star lasciato giusto qualche parola in l'arab del mariniero, come in Dellys "timpu" (il tempo bello). Per ancora imparar, andar a A Glossary of Lingua Franca, di Alan Corré.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

CORVAM, Ghomara recording

I was happy to learn of a new, if still rather small, corpus of audio files for North Africa: CORVAM. There is a good deal of Moroccan Arabic and a little Tunisian and Libyan Arabic, but the most exciting recording from my perspective is a short one of Ghomara Berber (a variety spoken in northern Morocco, very interesting both for Berber historical linguistics and for general language contact, previously discussed here: Berber words in Roman times, and Ghomara Berber material). It makes a nice complement to the much older SemArch, for Semitic languages.

Of course, these days you can find a surprising range of recordings just from YouTube. For example, several interviews in the Berber variety of the Blida Atlas south of Algiers; a rap song in Tunisian Berber; an interview in Libyan Berber (Yefren). But those don't come with transcriptions, much less translations...

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Language policy and Islam: what should have been said?

Following up on my last post, what should a chapter on "Language policy and Islam" have looked like? It's not exactly my field, but here are a few basic notes – a more complete version would have to cite specific rulings from the major madhhabs, and discuss more extensively the realisation of these ideas in everyday practice, but this should give a general idea.

First of all, insofar as we can speak of Islam as having a formal language policy at all, that policy would be defined by the extensive body of jurisprudence on which languages may or must be used in particular religious contexts. Ṣalāt, ritual prayer, has to be in Arabic (Mawdudi 1957 notes a few arguable exceptions to this). Duʕā', asking favours of God, may be in any language. The adhān, the call to prayer, has to be in Arabic according to most scholars, although Atatürk briefly forced Turkish mosques to make it in Turkish (Atalay 2012). For the khuṭbah, the Friday sermon, scholars' opinions differ – to keep on the safe side, it's common for the imam to deliver a sermon in the congregation's language followed by a much shorter sermon in Arabic. The Qur'ān may be translated, and since early times frequently has been, but no translation of it can be considered authoritative, or substituted for the original in ritual contexts; in fact, such translations are viewed more as commentaries than as versions of the original. Everyday religious formulae – bismillah (in the name of God), alhamdulillah (thank God), inshallah (if God wills), etc – are ordinarily in Arabic, though I don't know what the jurists have to say about that.

As a result, the ordinary believer is commonly exposed to Arabic in religious contexts, and is individually required to memorise a certain number of formulae and chapters of the Qur'ān in Arabic. Quite frequently, the latter in particular are learnt by heart early with only cursory explanation of their meaning, since reciting them verbatim is a precondition for proper prayer, but understanding them is only really vital at a more advanced stage. What does need to be understood immediately – the basic religious obligations, creed, etc – is explained in a language the student understands. However, the further a student advances, the more important it becomes to have direct access to the original source texts; thus learning Classical Arabic is a basic prerequisite for becoming a serious religious scholar, although the vast majority of Muslims never get that far, and indeed a majority of Muslims do not speak Arabic. Regionally, other languages may also come to assume a secondary position in religious education – for example, Urdu in Pakistan, even though most students there have a different first language. A remarkable example of this is to be found in northeastern Nigeria, where advanced religious education requires mastering not just Classical Arabic but also Classical Kanembu, an extremely archaic variety of Kanembu currently used only for explaining Classical Arabic texts (Bondarev & Tijani 2013).

Interpreting the notion of "language policy" more broadly, one might also talk about the influence of Islam on attitudes to language. In this connection, the obvious point to discuss would be the (very weakly supported) claim commonly heard that "Arabic is the language of Paradise", and the even more obviously fabricated claim sometimes heard east of Iraq that "Arabic and Persian are the languages of Paradise". Yet the weakness of the religious evidence for both assertions is a strong indication that the causality is the other way around: religious positions on language, in Islam as elsewhere, have often been influenced by extra-religious prejudices. The universal consensus that some Islamic rituals must be performed in Arabic make it difficult for any Islamic society to assert strongly negative attitudes to Arabic, but beyond that minimum, language attitudes are determined more by social and political factors than by Islam specifically.

Friday, October 18, 2013

How not to write about "Islam and Qur'anic Arabic"

(Attention conservation notice: This post is probably only of interest if you're reading The Cambridge Handbook of Language Policy.)

A title like The Cambridge Handbook of Language Policy carries a reassuring message of solid reliability. The first chapter I happened to open it to, however, rather belies this reputation: "Language policy and religion", by Christina Bratt Paulston and Jonathan M. Watt. I'm sure its authors have plenty of expertise in, respectively, sociolinguistics and Biblical Studies. Unfortunately, they decided to pick a case study to which their expertise very clearly does not extend: "Islam and Qur'anic Arabic". This produced some rather serious misapprehensions, of which I'll explain the worst here for the benefit of any readers of the article.

"Presumably the existence of Allah and Jehovah are considered mutually exclusive by their believers" (p. 340) is self-evidently absurd. Muslims necessarily believe that they worship the God worshipped by Abraham and Moses, and that there is no other God. The Qur'an instructs Muslims to tell Christians that "our God and your God is one", and Arabic-language Bibles or Torahs call "Jehovah" Allah. (Malaysia's bizarre and unjust recent court decision to ban non-Muslims there from calling God "Allah" might suggest otherwise, but as far as I can tell, no one involved is claiming that Jehovah is a different entity from Allah; rather – as far as I can reconstruct their tortured reasoning from the brief sound-bites in the news – they're claiming that, at least in Malay, the word "Allah" ought to be exclusive to Muslims.)

"The insistence that the sacred book was transmitted from heaven in this language, and none other, appears never to have been challenged from within this religion" (p. 341). Obviously, the Qur'ān got here in the language that it's written in (unless you subscribe to the philologically untenable fantasies of Luxenberg). But the Qur'ān is not the only book which Islam acknowledges as a divine revelation - just the last, and the only one considered to have been preserved in its original form up to the present. And the Qur'an is rather explicit regarding the language of previous prophets: "We have not sent any Messenger except with the language of his people so he can make things clear to them". As the great 11th-century jurist and writer Ibn Ḥazm put it: "This means that Allah’s words and revelations were sent down in every language. He sent the Torah, the Gospel, and the Psalms. He spoke to Moses in Hebrew. He sent the Scrolls to Abraham in Syriac. Therefore, languages are equal in this regard."

"[The Qur'an] is an unflinching sequence of pronouncements, blessings, commendations, condemnations and exhortations: absent are narrative tales, devotional songs and meandering reflections" (p. 346). I can't see how this sentence could have been written by anyone who had actually read the Qur'ān, which is full of narrative tales and includes a good deal of reflection. (Not singing, of course, but anyone who has heard the Qur'ān recited will understand how it might take the place of "devotional songs".)

"The very name of Islam's book means 'that which is recited' or 'the collected things', and, as Cooper (1985: 55) notes, it shows a preference for the Qurayish (sic) tribal dialect" (p. 342): Qur'an could be rendered as "recitation", but has nothing to do with "the collected things", much less with the dialect of Quraysh.

"formal public readers of the Qur'an are clerics, never laymen" (p. 343): actually, in Islam there's no hard and fast dividing line between "clerics" and "laymen" in the first place. Any Muslim can and often does lead public prayers (which include the recitation of parts of the Qur'ān). Admittedly, the more public the setting, the stronger the preference for people who have memorised the whole book and studied its meaning and pronunciation in detail – I suppose you might call them "clerics", if you want to ignore the fact that they don't necessarily have any formal role at the mosque, and as likely as not have day jobs.

The presence of such errors, and more pervasively of strange gaps and perspective problems, become more understandable when you take a look at the references. In the whole section, only six works are cited on Islam and Qur'anic Arabic, apart from translations of the Qur'ān: Abdalati 1975 (Islam in Focus, an introduction to Islam for the general reader); Cooper 1985 (Ishmael My Brother, an elementary introduction to Islam for Christians); W. M. Watt 1968 (What is Islam?, an academic introduction to Islam); Ibn Warraq 1995 (Why I Am Not A Muslim); Rippin and Knappert 1990 (Textual Sources for the Study of Islam); and Speight 1989 (God is One, another introduction to Islam for Christians). That makes four beginners' introductions, one polemic, and one scholarly sourcebook. This is a reference list fit for a first-year undergrad's essay, not a published academic article.

If you haven't read this article, you're not missing anything. But if you find it on a reading list, consider forwarding this to whoever assigned you it.

Monday, October 14, 2013

A little mystery: an unidentified Indic language in the Genizah collection

In 1896, Cambridge bought a huge archive of documents from a synagogue in Cairo, starting as early as the 11th century: the Genizah collection. Most of them are in Arabic in the Hebrew script - or just in Hebrew - but the rest cover a wide variety of languages. One of them should be an interesting puzzle for any readers familiar with South Asian languages: the fragment below is obviously in Devanagari or some derivative, but so far no one has been able to determine what language it is written in or what it says. Given the trade connections revealed by the letters, it would probably have come from Kerala, or maybe later on Bombay, but there are no guarantees...

The image is from T-S AS 159.248, T-S AS 159.247: an unidentified Indian language; see there for two other similar fragments.

Any ideas?

Friday, September 27, 2013

Minkaohan - a Chinese word Algerians need

I read a fascinating and depressing article recently (The Strangers) - in which a linguist plays a lead role - about the worsening situation in Xinjiang. The author makes comparisons to Algeria at one point, but not for the following, which will surely strike a chord in anyone familiar with North African educational policy:
"Among the Uighur, however, the policy has created two distinct groups: the minkaohan, minorities educated in Mandarin, and the minkaomin, educated in their own language. Minkaomin education is not taken seriously by non-Uighur employers, and not speaking Mandarin shuts minkaomin graduates out of jobs. In turn, they often resent minkaohan students as opportunistic and unfaithful to their own heritage."
There seems to be a fair amount of scholarship on this issue, judging from a quick skim. The minkaohan have been analysed as a "hybrid identity", sometimes feeling a "sense of shame regarding their ethnic background" and often seen by their minkaomin peers as irreligious or potentially disloyal - but, of course, ambitious parents who want their children to be middle-class often see minkaohan education as the only way forward. Chinese is required for university, although 82% of Uyghur adults can't read Chinese, and students often have difficulty adjusting to the Chinese-speaking world of the university.

Sounds like a remarkably effective way to exacerbate social tensions, right? The irony is that, in North Africa, both governments and employers expanded or even created a very similar system after independence!

It hasn't escaped the Chinese government's notice that this is problematic, so they're addressing the problem by cutting way down on Uyghur teaching, in the hope of eventually making everyone "minkaohan": "'bilingual' classes in many areas have already developed from using Mandarin to teach math, physics, and chemistry to the new model of using Mandarin for all classes except for mother-tongue [language arts] classes." North Africa hasn't quite reached that second stage for Arabic, I'm glad to say - although that's actually the best it's ever managed for Berber - but that "solution" does have some proponents.

It's often been noted that Chinese has contributed surprisingly few loans to English. I think I'd nominate "minkaomin" and "minkaohan" for borrowing: they have no commonly used English equivalent, and are relevant to describing post-colonial situations in many countries.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Adposition borrowing at SLE 2013

The Societas Linguistica Europae's annual conference finished today. The plethora of parallel sessions forced me to miss a lot of potentially interesting talks, but here are some highlights from the workshop I was participating in: adposition borrowing. This workshop was organised around a generalisation proposed by Edith Moravcsik 25 years ago, which has held up remarkably well (better than probably any other structure-based generalisation proposed about language contact):
"A lexical item that is of the 'grammatical' type (which type includes at least conjunctions and adpositions) cannot be included in the set of properties borrowed from a language unless the rule that determines its linear order with respect to its head is also borrowed." (source)
Eitan Grossman presented a number of apparent counterexamples – in fact, he reported that fully one-third of his sample of languages with borrowed adpositions displayed counterexamples. His effort to systematically test the hypothesis is laudable. However, the results cannot be taken at face value. Many examples, on closer examination, turn out to be amenable to one of three alternative explanations:
  1. The adposition was originally borrowed as a preposition, and turned into a postposition in the course of a more general typological realignment of the language. (This applies to Sri Lanka Malay dative nang, ultimately from a Javanese preposition; Authier et al. presented a new example, an apudlocative preposition possibly borrowed from Tatic into Georgian: Tatic (b)-tan N > old Georgian tan-a N > modern Georgian N-tan.)
  2. The source language order is not necessarily as postulated. (Thus the Khorasan Turkish postposition is assumed to be from Persian, in which it is a preposition, but could also derive from neighbouring Mazanderani, in which it is a postposition.)
  3. The "adposition" is also used without a complement in the source language (eg as a noun or adverb), and hence was not necessarily borrowed as an adposition. (This applies, for instance, to the Brahui postposition savā "without", connected at some remove to Persian سوا sevā "separate, other", or to the Manambu postposition wantaim "with", from Tok Pisin wantaim "together (adv.) / with (prep.)". In some cases the adverb is unambiguously the source, for instance Turkish raǧmen "despite", from the Arabic adverb raghman رغما rather than the preposition raghma رغم.)
1 and 2 merely illustrate the need for in-depth historical linguistic investigation of each case, which should go without saying. 3, however, is more interesting in principle. If an adposition can readily occur as a noun or adverb, are we justified in classing it as "of the 'grammatical' type"? The answer I gave in my presentation, before discussing the borrowing of adpositions in Northern Songhay, was: no. Not all adpositions are functional, as various authors have been pointing out since at least 1990, and we should not expect the generalisation to apply to lexical adpositions. In fact, we need at least a three-way distinction (cp. Littlefield 2005): purely functional adpositions such as of, in, to; purely lexical items used in complex adpositions such as front, back, middle (Svenonius's (2010) "axial parts"); and mixed items which simultaneously express the meanings of both a nominal/adverbial stem and a functional adposition governing it, such as beside (by the side of), inside (on the inside of). Functional adpositions should be subject to Moravcsik's generalisation; mixed items should be able to go both ways; and lexical items should be subject to the recipient language grammar alone. This proposal appears to eliminate all the few genuine exceptions to Moravcsik's generalisation so far proposed; however, it remains to be seen whether this criterion can be defined unambiguously for all adpositions in all languages.

Petros Karatsareas gave a nice summary of the situation in Cappadocian Greek (cf. Dawkins 1916), which has taken advantage of Greek's word order flexibility to move a long way towards developing postpositions; relational nouns which in Medieval Greek normally preceded their complement came to obligatorily follow it, yielding circumpositions (governing the genitive) whose prepositional component then became optional. This strategy was in turn used for borrowing Turkish adpositions.

Riho Grünthal pointed out the striking rarity of borrowed prepositions on Finno-Ugric, even in languages such as Finnish or Saami that (as a result of contact) have developed prepositions. This seems to confirm a point that I had also made in regard to Northern Songhay: that it's much easier to borrow adpositions when they have the same syntax in the source and target languages. He did find one or two cases, though, notably Livonian pa, from Latvian. Brigitte Pakendorf showed that Even borrows a fair number of Yakut postpositions (with varying degrees of acceptance among speakers), but no Russian prepositions, which at first sight seems to confirm the role of congruence even more. However, it's also true that Yakut has influenced Even much longer than Russian has.

Edith Moravcsik herself finally gave a summing-up address, in the form of an outline of relevant factors that need to be considered in the typology of adposition/case marker borrowing, with allusions to the talks given; she didn't focus particularly on her original generalisation, and she gave the impression of seeing it as being only statistically true in light of the proposed counterexamples.

I won't go into detail on the contributions that did not directly address Moravcsik's generalisation here, since this is already getting too long for a blog post, but some were also very interesting. Notably, Bakker and Hekking revealed that, whereas Quechua and Guarani make little use of Spanish adpositions, Otomí has massively adopted them – probably because Otomí, unlike the other two, had no morphemes serving such a function before contact, leaving it to context.

Much work remains to be done on the topic. Do you know any prepositions that have been borrowed as postpositions, or vice versa?

Friday, September 13, 2013

Anachronistic Arabic in Algeria

In general, I tend to think that conflating Modern Standard Arabic with Classical Arabic is fairly harmless, since they differ far less from each other than from any spoken dialect. However, occasionally that conflation can lead people really badly astray. The following sentence, which I was shocked to read in "The Language Planning Situation in Algeria" (Benrabah, 2007, in Language Planning and Policy in Africa), is a perfect example:
"For example, [in Algerian Arabic] common Arabic words such as mekteb ("office"), tawila ("table"), mistara ("ruler"), and siyara ("car") were replaced by their French counterpart pronounced [biro], [tabla], [rigla], [tomobil] respectively." (p. 49)
The automobile was invented in 1886, 56 years after the French conquered Algiers - and the word sayyārah سيارة wasn't proposed to describe it until 1892, by the Egyptian Ahmad Zaki Pasha. There was no pre-existing Arabic word in Algeria for ṭumubil to replace. A quick look at a dictionary of Algerian Arabic from 1838 reveals that the word ṭabla طابلة was already being used for (tall) tables then, so there's no reason to assume it came from French rather than some other Romance language (it's attested in Andalusi Arabic as ṭablah طبلة "table"). More to the point, Standard Arabic ṭāwilah طاولة is not to be found in pre-modern Arabic dictionaries, and in fact is a later borrowing into Egyptian Arabic of Italian tavolo. There is no reason to suppose that it ever existed in the Arabic of Algeria. Only the other two are real cases of replacement, and not precisely from the Modern Standard Arabic forms either: the 1838 dictionary gives "m'sèteur" مسطر for "ruler", and "makhzenn" مخزن for "office".

Algerians often assume a dialectal word is non-Arabic when in reality it's easily found in the classical dictionaries, simply because it's fallen into disuse in Modern Standard Arabic (for an egregious example, see my post Les Algériens qui ont oublié les dictionnaires de leurs ancêtres). Cases like this one illustrate that the converse is also true: we tend to assume that at some ill-defined point in the past Algerians were speaking to each other in the Arabic we learned at school , and forget that Modern Standard Arabic includes many words and expressions that were invented within the past century.

Friday, September 06, 2013

Y-chromosomes and language shift in North Africa

The other day I finally came across an easy-to-follow comparative presentation of North African genetic data, on Wikipedia of all things: Y-DNA haplogroups by populations of North Africa. I'm no geneticist, and welcome input from better-informed readers, but here's what that data looks like at first glance to a historical linguist.

As you might know, a man gets his Y-chromosome exclusively from his father (his mother doesn't have one). In North Africa, your ethnic/tribal/familial/etc identity – an important predictor of your language – is likewise traditionally supposed to be inherited from your father, not your mother. So it's illuminating to compare them.

A haplotype called E-M81 (or E1b1b, E3b) is frequent in Northwest Africa, and is held by large majorities of the Berber-speaking populations examined in Morocco or in the western/central Sahara; it is much less frequent in the Middle East. It seems reasonable to associate this haplotype with the spread of Berber. By contrast, haplotype J1 is very frequent in the Arabian Peninsula, but gets rarer and rarer as you go west; it seems reasonable to associate this haplotype with the Arab expansion. (Neither Berbers nor Arabs were ever completely homogeneous, so other, less frequent haplotypes may also be associated with one or the other of these events.)

The table gives four Algerian populations: Oran, Algiers, Tizi-Ouzou (Kabyle), and Mozabites. Mozabites, as might be expected, have a really high frequency of E-M81 (87%) and a really low frequency of J1 (1.5%). The other three, however, all have about 45% E-M81 (45%, 43%, 47% respectively) – in terms of the frequency of this presumably Berber marker, there is almost no difference between the Arabic speakers of Algiers and Oran and the Berber speakers of Tizi-Ouzou. In terms of the frequency of the originally Arab J1, the difference is hardly greater – 23% in Oran and Algiers vs. 16% in Tizi-Ouzou. Since we aren't sure about the historical interpretation of the rest of the haplotypes found, it may be more useful to consider the ratios of "Berber" E-M81 to "Arab" J1: 2:1 for Oran and Algiers vs. 3:1 for Tizi-Ouzou (and 29:1 for Mozabites).

What this tentatively tells us, in brief, is that:

  • In Algeria, plenty of Berber fathers adopted Arabic; if you are an Arabic speaker, you're very likely patrilineally Berber. (No surprise there!)
  • In Kabylie, a fair number of Arab fathers adopted Berber; if you are a Kabyle speaker, you may well nonetheless be patrilineally Arab. (Many readers will be surprised by this, but they shouldn't be: read about the history of the Sebaou valley in and after the Turkish period sometime, for example, let alone the more controversial example of the maraboutic families.)
  • Arabic was more likely to be adopted where more Arabs had come in, even though genetically, Arabs remained a minority. (In other words, Arabisation wasn't just about language shift.)
  • It's really rare for an outsider man to become Mozabite. (No surprise there either.)
A slightly different language shift situation is indicated by the comparison of Arab and Berber groups on Djerba (southern Tunisia). They do indeed differ on the frequency of J1 – the "Arabs" have it at 8.7%, while the Berbers have none at all. The Arabic speakers of Djerba appear to be genetically less Arab than the Kabyle speakers of Tizi-Ouzou! But, more importantly, we have what looks like a classic case of elite-led language shift: in this case, unlike Kabylie, the groups that incorporated Arab men simply ended up considering themselves Arab, while the ones that didn't stayed Berber. (I almost said kept speaking Berber, but actually, many Berber speakers of Djerba have been shifting to Arabic.)

Finally, one Berber-speaking population stands out radically in this table: Siwa. There is no significant presence of E-M81 there, and not much J1 either. The haplotypes best represented there are R1b – usually associated with Western Europe and, for some reason, with Chadic speakers – and B2a1a, usually associated with central and eastern sub-Saharan Africa. R1b has a reasonable frequency in Kabylie and Niger Tuareg, and to a lesser extent in Egypt, so we might suppose that it reflects the oasis' Berber roots, or that it reflects immigration from the east; we'd need non-Tuareg Libyan Berber genetic data to test that hypothesis. B, however, isn't common anywhere else in North Africa; does it derive from the slave trade, or from some older population of the region? Again, I think more data from Libya will be needed to make sense of this.

Friday, August 30, 2013

A new earliest European record of Songhay

In 1713, the memorably named Jezreel Jones wrote a letter describing the Shilha Berber language of southern Morocco, giving an extensive vocabulary, which was published in John Chamberlayne's Oratio dominica in diversas omnium fere gentium linguas versa et propriis cujusque linguae characteribus expressa (1715). The Shilha vocabulary in this letter has already been analysed in detail by Stroomer (2001), and need not detain us here. However, one passage – not hitherto discussed – gives two phrases in quite a different language:
Nigri ex Regnô Tombotoo in Barbariam venientes intellegunt aliarum Nigritianae partium incolas ut Ni-mootii Gooma est quomodo vales frater : & say-borokoy, est in bonâ sâlute, gratias ago tibi: (source)
Stroomer renders this (with his suggestions in square brackets) as:
Black people coming to Barbaria from the kingdom of Tombutoo [Tomboctoo] can understand the inhabitants of other parts of Nigritia. E.g. nimotii gooma [T? nnɛmat i gʷma "well-being to my brother" (?)] means something like "How are you, brother?" and say-borokoy means "(I am) in good health, thank you".
Stroomer's Shilha suggestion for the former phrase is evidently unsatisfactory even to himself, and he ventures no suggestion for the second one. Given the context, we would expect this phrase to be not in Shilha, but in a language spoken at Timbuktu.

In Timbuktu Songhay (or Koyra Chiini, as its speakers call it), mote means "how?" specifically in greetings, while ni is "you (sg.)" (Heath 1998). The greeting ni mote, literally "you how?" is recorded verbatim in Hacquard & Dupuis (1897:92), and the appropriate reply is given as saabu Yerkoy, "thank God". Obviously this is the content of the phrases above. I'm not sure how to interpret "gooma" – possibly it was a switch into Shilha (gʷma); the Timbuktu Songhay word for "brother" is rather harme.

The earliest credible European vocabulary previously known for any Songhay variety is Denham & Clapperton (1826). Lyon (1821:153) gives, as the "Language of Tembuctoo", a menagerie of Tuareg words and unidentifiable forms with only a handful of Songhay terms scattered among them: the latter, oddly enough, often appear closer to Gao or Zarma than to Timbuktu Songhay. These include Meat – Taasoo (taasu "grain"), Small – Katch (Gao kačč-u), Flesh – Hamo (Gao ham-oo), Come – Ka (kaa), Nipples – Foffi (Gao faf-ey "breasts", Zarma fòfè), Go – Dodi (Timbuktu doodi "there"). The Narrative of Robert Adams (1816) gives a purported vocabulary of "the language of Tombuctoo" with at most one Songhay word (if "Gold – Or" is taken to reflect Songhay wuraa rather than French or); it seems to be a farrago of Arabic and half-understood Manding, understandably given the circumstances of his arrival. Jezreel Jones' two phrases predate these sources by more than a century, making them probably the first European record of Songhay.

However, while for many African languages that would be synonymous with "the first record of it", in Songhay's case that is far from true: the earliest attested words of Songhay are to be found in Arabic tomb inscriptions of the 13th century (Moraes Farias 2004), and occasional Songhay expressions are scattered through the Tārīkh al-Fattāsh and other pre-colonial local works. Nevertheless, particularly pending study of the Timbuktu manuscripts in Songhay, sources like these cast a welcome light on the language's history. Timbuktu Songhay is strictly SVO, whereas the mainstream Songhay varieties spoken downriver are all SOV. The expression saabu Yerkoy, with verb-object order, demonstrates that this divergence predates 1713.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Prescriptivism and scientists

Back in high school, my physics teacher once told us that people who touched an ordinary strip of metal and called it "cold", as almost everyone would, were making a big mistake. In reality, that strip was at room temperature; it only feels cold because, since metal is a good heat conductor, it conducts heat away from our fingers when we touch it. I was already enough of a linguist (or pedant) to retort that this was fallacious: if everyone except physicists uses the word "cold" in reference to things that feel cold when you touch them, then that's what "cold" means. Undaunted, he responded that such people would also expect a thermometer to show a lower temperature when placed on the metal than when placed on, say, an adjacent piece of wood – which it would not.

The latter mistake has nothing to do with language. In general, things that feel cold have lower temperatures, and things that feel hot have higher ones; unless you carry a thermometer around everywhere, it's easy to assume that the correlation is perfect, and anything that feels colder has a lower temperature. But in the former, prescriptivist fallacy, language plays a crucial role. This fallacy consists of redefining a well-known popular term for scientific purposes and then declaring its original meaning wrong, forgetting that its original meaning was based on quite different principles. A similar example which I came across recently is the notion that the Bible was mistaken in listing the bat as a bird, or rather the ʕǎṭallēp as a ʕôp (via); it should be obvious that if everyone was calling bats birds, then "bird" (or rather ʕôp) did not mean "member of the clade Avialae" at the time! In this case, however, the new meaning has gained enough popular acceptance in English to have driven out the old one almost entirely, thereby making Bible translators' lives harder but biology teachers' lives easier. (I covered a similar Qur'ānic misunderstanding involving "atom" a while back.)

Usually, prescriptivism involves declaring that a new (or allegedly new) meaning or usage is wrong. Scientists' prescriptivism is rather the inverse, in that it consists of declaring an old, previously generally accepted meaning or usage wrong. At its best, this can be an effort to popularise knowledge: everyone ought to know that bats are more closely related to humans than to sparrows, and if we can just persuade them to stop calling bats birds, they'll remember. But, fundamentally, this is also a power grab: we're the experts on this field, so we're the ones who get to say what the word means, not you. Giving old terms new definitions can be useful, but we should never forget that that's what we're doing.

Have you come across any examples of the scientists' prescriptivist fallacy lately?

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Why having "no word for X" can matter

The nice thing about French, from an English speaker's perspective, is that its lexical structure is so much like that of English that you can often translate a sentence without having to think much about what it means. Let's try this sentence, for example:

"Process and Reality presents a system of speculative philosophy which is based on a categorical scheme of investigation designed to explain how concrete aspects of human experience can provide a foundation for our understanding of reality."

Without seriously contemplating whatever it is that the author of this sentence is trying to say, I can render this in French as:

"Procès et Réalité présente un système de philosophie spéculative qui est fondé s'appuie sur un plan catégorique d'investigation destiné qui vise à expliquer comment des aspects concrets de l'expérience humaine peuvent fournir une base pour notre compréhension de la réalité."

No doubt there are some issues with this translation – my French has a long way to go. (fixed) But producing it was a relatively easy, almost mechanical task. Translating it into Standard Arabic I have to think a good deal more about the sense of each word (and also have less confidence in the results since I don't own a philosophy-focused dictionary) but I can still readily make it nearly word-for-word:

"كتاب السيْر والواقع يقدم نظام فلسفة نظرية مبني على مشروع فحص تصنيفي معمول ليفسر كيف يمكن لبعض الجوانب الملموسة لتجربة الإنسان أن تعطينا أساسا لفهم الواقع.
("kitābu s-sayri wa-l-wāqiʕ yuqaddimu niđ̣āma falsafatin nađ̣ariyyatin mabniyyun ʕalā mašrūʕi faħṣin taṣnīfiyyin li-yufassira kayfa yumkinu li-baʕđ̣i l-jawānibi l-malmūsati li-tajribati l-'insāni 'an taʕṭiyanā 'asāsan li-fahmi l-wāqiʕi.")

Now suppose I want to translate this into Algerian Arabic. What am I going to do about words like "process", "reality", "speculative", "concrete"? Plenty of Algerians have studied such notions, but they've done so in French or in Standard Arabic. What I would normally do in such cases is simply substitute a Standard Arabic word wherever I can't think of one that would count as Algerian Arabic, yielding something like this:

"كتاب السير والواقع يقدّم واحد النظام تاع الفلسفة النظرية اللي مبنية على مشروع تصنيفي تاع الفحص، خدمُه باش يفسّر كيفاش الجوانب الملموسة نتاع تجربة الإنسان تقدر تعطيلنا أساس باش نفّهمو الواقع."
("ktab əs-sayr w-əl-wāqiʕ yqəddəm waħəd ən-niđ̣am taʕ əl-fəlsafa n-nađ̣aṛiyya lli məbniyya ʕla məšṛuʕ təṣnifi taʕ əl-fəḥṣ, xədmu baš yfəssər kifaš əl-jawanib əl-məlmusa ntaʕ təjribt-əl-'insan təqdər təʕṭi-lna 'asas baš nəffəhmu əl-wāqiʕ.")

On the other hand, what a lot of other educated Algerians would do is something more like this, filling in all the gaps from French:

"كتاب بروسي إي رياليتي يقدّم واحد السيستام تاع لا فيلوزوفي تيوريك اللي مبنية على أن پلان كاتيڤوريك دانفيستيڤاسيون خدمُه باش يفسّر كيفاش ليزاسپي كونكري نتاع ليكسبيريانس إيمان يقدرو يعطولنا إين باز باش نفّهمو لا رياليتي."
("ktab pRose e Reạlite yqəddəm waħəd əs-sistam taʕ lạ-filozofi teoRik əlli məbniyya ʕla ãn plõ kạtegoRik d-ãvestigasyõ xədmu baš yfəssər kifaš lizạspe konkRe ntaʕ l-ekspeRyõs üman yəqqədru yəʕṭu-lna ün bạz baš nəffəhmu lạ-Reạlite.")

Neither of these rather macaronic passages would be comprehensible to any monolingual speaker of Algerian Arabic; they're essentially parasitic on the speaker's knowledge of Standard Arabic or French. Granted, probably most Algerian Arabic speakers are not really monolingual; but even then, there is no guarantee that a speaker who understands one version will understand the other. If you really wanted to produce a consensus-friendly Algerian Arabic version, that a monolingual speaker would understand – then, basically, you need to completely rephrase the whole sentence to explain these notions in advance. And before I can do that, I need a clearer notion of what the writer means by things like "concrete aspects of human experience". My job has morphed into something that's not so much translation as totally rewriting, and frankly, for a sentence like this I'm not even willing to try it.

Now suppose you're dealing with a language none of whose speakers have ever studied academic philosophy, or for that matter gotten into high school. You can no longer expect to get away with the dodge of code-switching at appropriate moments. How much effort do you think it would take to translate this sentence, compared with the amount of effort it takes to translate it into French? What effect do you think this would have in practice on the cross-cultural transmission of such ideas?

That's one reason why having "no word for X" can matter. The absence of the word – or more precisely, of a fixed expression for it – impedes translation, and hence impedes the transmission of foreign ideas to monolingual speakers. And fixing the problem isn't just a matter of inventing or borrowing a word; to be able to do either, you need to have formulated the corresponding concept, and, in the case of abstract words like these, that presupposes putting a lot of speakers into an originally foreign system of education, with a lot of associated time and expense and all-round hassle.

(Chain of thought prompted by How would you say that in Derja?).

Tuesday, August 20, 2013


In Dellys a few years ago, local writer A. Chabani was kind enough to show me the following manuscript page, all that was left of a larger work:
The two-layered commentary struck me, of course – the red is the original text, the black is the commentary, and the margins seem to be commentary on the commentary – but what really got my attention was the curious word إيساغوجي īsāghūjī, prominently displayed in the middle right-hand side. It looked like a Greek word, but I had never heard it before – and what was a Greek word doing in an Arabic manuscript from a little town in Algeria, which could hardly be older than the 18th century?

A closer look at the page confirmed my guess about the word’s origin: it says:

إيساغوجي ...وهو لفظ يوناني علم على الكلمات الخمس التي هي الجنس والفصل والنوع والخاصة والعرض
Eisagōgē... is a Greek proper expression for the five words, which are: genus, difference, species, property, and accident.”
Actually, eisagōgē (Εἰσαγωγή) in Greek means "introduction". But those five words should ring a bell for any philosophers reading this; they relate to Aristotelian logic, which indeed appears to be the topic of the work from which this page is taken. So how is it that some religious scholar from pre-colonial Dellys came to be studying Aristotelian logic?

It turns out that around 270 AD, in the heyday of the Roman Empire, a Neoplatonist philosopher from Lebanon named Porphyry wrote, in Greek, a little introduction to Aristotelian logic, and gave it the title Eisagogē. This work became a standard textbook of logic both in the Middle East and (via Boethius' Latin translation) in Europe. It was translated into Syriac in the 5th century, and from Syriac into Arabic in the 9th. It thus became an important reference point for the study of logic among Arabic speakers; Averroës was only the most famous of dozens who wrote commentaries on it. In fact, the particular commentary in this picture is apparently not online, and I haven't been able to identify it; if some reader happens to be familiar with it, let me know!

The study of Aristotelian logic became part of the curriculum in Algeria, as elsewhere, and continued at least into the 20th century in the zaouias; its influence is obvious in such works as al-Sanūsī's creed. There was some controversy over its validity, however, as Ibn Khaldun points out.

Back in high school, a friend of mine once reflected that the history books he had read generally presented ancient Egyptian civilisation as a predecessor to Western civilisation; it had never occurred to him before that it might be regarded as a predecessor to, say, the civilisation of modern Egyptians. That cuts both ways. Arab-Islamic civilisation is less self-consciously modelled on the Greeks than Western civilisation, but it has been profoundly influenced by their legacy just as the West has.

Saturday, August 17, 2013


I was recently involved in an online discussion of the origins of the greeting "Azul", which over the past few decades has become very popular in Berberist circles, and may even be in the process of replacing "Axir" as the normal Kabyle greeting. Apparently it was probably taken from a Zenaga word for "peace", azol, recorded by Faidherbe, rather than being created out of thin air (as some had assumed), or based on Tuareg (as I had assumed.) Be that as it may, I found one of the last comments on the thread particularly telling:
azul ou aqzul kif kif,l essentiel on a un propre salut en tamazight
(Azul or Aqzul, whatever; the important point is to have a greeting specific to Tamazight)
This motivation is obvious in Berber activists' language planning efforts, sometimes to an almost painful degree; English speakers may be satisfied to have a mathematical vocabulary made up almost entirely of Latin and Greek loanwords, but a mathematical lexicon (Amawal n tusnakt) was one of the very first targets of the Kabyle language movement, published back in 1984. It is equally obvious in the activity of the various Arabic language academies, who, while frequently unable to agree on a single translation of a technical term, can generally at least agree that it must look nothing like the English or French equivalent. And it can be felt even at a much less organised popular level; in Tabelbala, when one speaker gave me an Arabic loan as Korandjé, another would frequently pipe up with "No, that's Arabic, not Korandjé" – even in the case of loans as securely established as the higher numerals. And, while it may not be so active in modern Germany or Finland, its after-effects can still be seen there...

Now axir, while of Arabic origin (خير "good"), is not actually used on its own as a greeting in Arabic, and has a purely Berber prefix a- attached for good measure. The only reason that it can plausibly be targeted by activists for replacement is the fact that most Kabyle speakers know enough Arabic to spot the etymology. No one is clamoring to replace Punic loans (like agusim "walnut") with purely Berber terms – any more than Arabic academies are trying to replace Turkish loans like جمارك or Persian loans like جزر with purely Arabic terms.

In that sense, puristic replacement is just as much a product of language contact as borrowing itself is. If you find a language in which loanwords are being selectively targeted for replacement by neologisms, the one thing you can be almost sure of is that a significant number of speakers know the language those loanwords come from. Widespread bilingualism tends to make lexicon boundaries a bit fuzzy anyway – is such and such a rare word really part of language A, or just of language B? – and when people try to reaffirm the boundaries, they don't always agree on where to draw the lines.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Siwi political slogans

If there's one genre I was convinced would never develop in Siwi, it's political slogans. All my previous experience with the oasis had left me convinced that they would remain withdrawn from national-level political activity as they always have, cautiously attempting to court whoever wins – a sensible policy, perhaps, for a peripheral oasis with no political power and highly vulnerable to changes in policy. However, this year's events in Egypt have apparently brought even Siwa to the point of mounting a couple of demonstrations. Egyptians have displayed a seemingly inexhaustible facility for coming up with rhyming couplets for use as slogans in demonstrations, and I woke up this morning and saw an example of the same genre in Siwi:
فل اسيسى فل نشنى نمل لا جندول
fəl a Sisi fəl • nišni nəṃṃəl la ga-nədwəl
Go, Sisi, go! • We have said we won't go back
I asked a few Siwis about the issue, and apart from general points, one reason they gave for supporting Morsi particularly struck me. Since long before the revolution, the Egyptian security forces have viewed the border populations – Bedouins in Matrouh and Sinai, as well as Siwis – with great suspicion; many army/police jobs are closed to them simply for where they come from. As far as the core state is concerned, they're not thought of as real Egyptians, but as clannish minorities under Egyptian control, with undesirable cross-border ties and a predilection for going places the state doesn't want them to be in. Many Siwis felt that Morsi was reversing this situation, attempting to develop the border regions and treating their inhabitants as fellow Egyptians; a resurgence of military rule obviously threatens those gains. The long-term prospects remain to be seen; I can only hope that whatever government emerges from the current situation tries to address the problem of exclusion of border dwellers.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

La diversité des noms de prières islamiques et ses origines

(English translation)

Presque chaque musulman, quelque soit sa confession ou sa langue, et chaque arabe, donne aux cinq prières quotidiennes de l'Islam des variantes des même noms : Fajr / Ṣubḥ avant l'aube, Ḍhuhr à midi, `Aṣr à l'après-midi, Maghrib au coucher du soleil, et `Ichā’ au soir. Mais à partir de l'ouest de l'Egypte, la situation est tout autre, et on trouve des noms totalement différents pour les cinq prières. Par exemple, comparez les noms bien connus donnés ci-dessus avec ceux qui sont utilisés dans la plus grande langue berbère, le tachelhit (sud Marocain): ṣṣbaḥ, tizwarn, takʷẓin, tiwutch, et tin-yiḍs. Sauf le premier, ils semblent être sans relation.

Or, les noms des prières au Moyen-Orient n'ont pas toujours été aussi standardisés que maintenant. Al-Boukhārī nous donne le hadith suivant (#516):

“... Sayyâr ben Salama a dit : "J'entrai avec mon père chez Aboû-Barza. Mon père lui demanda comment l'Envoyé de Dieu faisait la prière canonique. “Il faisait, répondit-il, al-hajīr, que vous appelez al-’ūlā, aussitôt que le soleil déclinait ; puis, quand le soleil avait baissé, il faisait al-‘aṣr et, celle-ci finie, on avait le temps de retourner à sa demeure située à l'extrémité de Médine (pendant que le soleil était encore bien vivant)." J'ai oublié ce qu'il a dit d'al-maghrib. "Et il préférait de retarder al-‘ishā’, que vous appelez al-‘atama ; il n'aimait pas dormir avant cette prière, ni causer après elle. Il retournait d'al-ghadāt au moment où on y voyait de façon à reconnaître son voisin de prière, et il y récitait de soixante à cent versets du Coran.””
En siwi, la langue berbère de l'Egypte, on utilise encore une série de noms qui pourraient avoir été pris presque directement de ce hadith : ils appellent les cinq prières sra (le matin), luli, la`ṣaṛ, mməghrəb, et l`ətmət. On trouve des traces de ces noms même plus loin ; au songhay (une langue de Mali et Niger), Dhuhr s'appelle aluula.

Ce même hadith explique le nom tachelhit du Dhuhr : tizwarn veut dire littéralement "les premières", une traduction littérale de l'arabe al-’ūlā. Ce terme n'est pas seulement répandu en berbère ; il est également, grâce au zénaga, la source du mot wolof (Sénégal), tisbaar. En soninké, la langue de l'empire médiéval de Ghana entre la Mauritanie et le Mali, une autre traduction littérale nous donne sállì-fànà (“prière-premier”), qu'a emprunté le bambara et beaucoup d'autres langues ouest-africaines.

Un autre hadith, moins bien attesté (Maṣḥaf `Abd al-Razzāq 2067) explique également le nom tachelhit de l'Icha:

“De Yaḥyā ben al-‘Alā’, d'al-A‘mash, d'Abū Wā’il qui a dit : J'ai demandé Ḥuḏayfa, et il m'a dit : Pourquoi m'as-tu demandé ? J'ai dit : Pour la conversation. Il a dit : “‘Umar ben al-Khaṭṭāb, que Dieu l'agrée, nous mettait en garde contre la conversation après ṣalāt al-nawm (la prière du sommeil).”
En comparant avec d'autres versions du même hadith, on voit que la prière en question est l'Icha. Et en fait, tin-yiḍs en tachelhit veut dire littéralement "celle du sommeil". Cette forme est répandu en berbère, et elle a été traduite littéralement en soninké comme sákhú-fó (sákhú "sommeil", fó "chose"). Cette forme à son tour est introduite en songhay (saafoo) et quelques autres langues de la région.

Cela implique que :

  • La terminologie islamique du berbère a été créé très tôt dans l'histoire de l'Islam, avant que ces formes variantes n'ont disparus de l'usage arabe ;
  • Les soninké et les wolof ont appris l'Islam en grande mesure des berbères, et pas directement des arabes ;
  • Les soninké ont joué un rôle important dans la propagation de l'Islam à des autres groupes ethniques en Mali et Niger.
Il implique aussi, plus généralement, qu'il ne faut pas trop vite traiter les traditions islamiques spécifiques à une région particulière comme des innovations.

(Ce billet résume une article à moi qui sera publié au Bulletin of SOAS, titrée "Archaic and innovative Islamic prayer names around the Sahara" [Noms archaïques et innovatifs des prières islamiques autour du Sahara].)

Friday, July 12, 2013

Diversity in Islamic prayer names and its roots

(Traduction en français)

Practically all Muslims whatever their sect or language, and all Arabs, refer to the five daily prayers of Islam by versions of the same names: Fajr / Ṣubḥ before sunrise, Ḍhuhr at noon, `Aṣr in the afternoon, Maghrib at sunset, and `Ishā’ in the evening. West of Egypt, however, things look very different: there we often find quite different names for the five prayers. For example, contrast the familiar names above with those used in the largest Berber language, Shilha (southern Morocco): ṣṣbaḥ, tizwarn, takʷẓin, tiwutsh, and tin-yiḍs. Except for the first, there seems to be no relation.

However, Middle Eastern Islamic prayer names haven't always been so uniform. Al-Bukhārī reports the following hadith (#516):

“... from Sayyār b. Salamah: “My father and I entered into the presence of Abū Barzah al-’Aslamī. My father asked him: “How did the Messenger of God, blessings and peace be upon him, pray the prescribed (prayers)?” He replied: “He used to pray al-hajīr, which you (pl.) call al-’ūlā, when the sun declines (from the meridian), and pray al-‘aṣr such that one of us could return to his home at the far end of Medina while the sun was still lively.” I forget what he said about al-maghrib. “And he used to prefer to delay al-‘ishā’, which you (pl.) call al-‘atamah, and he used to hate sleeping before it or speaking after it. And he used to return from the ghadāt prayer when a person could recognise the one sitting next to him, and read sixty to a hundred (verses.)””
Siwi, the Berber language of Egypt, still uses a series of mostly Arabic-derived prayer names that might as well be taken straight from this hadith: they call the five prayers sra (morning), luli, la`ṣaṛ, mməghrəb, and l`ətmət. Traces of these names are found further afield too: in Songhay (Mali/Niger), Dhuhr is referred to as aluula.

It turns out that this hadith also explains the Shilha name for Dhuhr: tizwarn literally means "the first ones (f.)", a literal translation of Arabic al-’ūlā. This form is not just widespread in Berber, but is also (via Zenaga) the source for Wolof tisbaar. In Soninké, the language of the medieval Ghana Empire between Mauritania and Mali, another literal translation yields sállì-fànà (“prayer-first”), which has been borrowed into Bambara and many other West African languages.

A similar, much less well-sourced hadith (Maṣḥaf `Abd al-Razzāq 2067) likewise explains the Shilha name for Isha:

“From Yaḥyā b. al-‘Alā’, from al-A‘mash, from Abū Wā’il who said: I asked for Ḥuḏayfa, and he said: Why have you asked for me? I said: For conversation. He said: “‘Umar b. al-Khaṭṭāb, may God be pleased with him, used to warn against conversation after ṣalāt al-nawm (the sleep prayer).”
Comparison to other versions makes it clear that the prayer being referred to is Isha. As it happens, Shilha tin-yiḍs means, literally "that (f.) of sleep". This form is widespread in Berber, and was literally translated into Soninke as sákhú-fó (sákhú "sleep", fó "thing"). The resulting form was borrowed into Songhay (saafoo) and several other regional languages.

All of this tells us three things:

  • Berber Islamic terminology was created very early in Islamic history, before these variants disappeared from Arabic usage;
  • Soninké and Wolof speakers adopted Islam in large part from Berbers, not directly from Arabs;
  • Soninké speakers played an important role in the spread of Islam to other ethnic groups in Mali and Niger.
It also has a wider moral, though: that we shouldn't be too hasty to dismiss region-specific Islamic traditions as innovations.

(This post summarises about half of an article of mine which is forthcoming in the Bulletin of SOAS, under the title of "Archaic and innovative Islamic prayer names around the Sahara".)

Monday, July 01, 2013

So how different are Algerian and Egyptian Berber?

In the previous post, we looked at how hard Egyptian Arabic was for an Algerian to understand (answer: not that hard) and how it diverges from the rules of Algerian Arabic (answer: a lot). What if we try the same exercise for Berber – specifically, Kabyle vs. Siwi? Obviously, I don’t speak Kabyle fluently or even well; if you do, feel free to correct me or give me your own impressions. However, with a bit of help from a dictionary, I think it’s worth a try. There aren’t any Siwi stories recorded online at the moment, about Juha or otherwise, but here’s a short fable with a sad ending retranscribed and retranslated from Laoust’s grammar:
Azidi dilla g adrar, itessu aman. Tizmert ttella adday. Azidi yeṃṃ-as: “Itta xeḅḅecṭ-i aman nnew?” Tizmert teṃṃ-as: “Aman dillan g ɛali, iteggezen i gda!” Yeṃṃ-as: “Ɛam-nuwwel nic uṭnaxa, cemm edduqqaṭ ṭaren nnem!” Teṃṃ-as: “Nic n aseggasa!” Yeṃṃ-as: “Namma eṃṃa nnem namma axxa nnem!” Baɛdin yečč-ét.

There was a jackal on a mountain, drinking water. A ewe was below. The jackal said to her: “Why have you muddied my water?” The ewe said: “The water is above, and goes down to here!” He said: “The year before last when I was ill, you stamped your feet (disturbing him with the noise)!” She said: “I’m from (I was born in) this year!” He said “Or (it was) your mother, or your aunt!” Then he ate her.

Only seven words (out of 44) have no cognates in Kabyle as far as I know – in three cases, this is because one language or the other has borrowed an Arabic term:

  • azidi “jackal”: in Kabyle this would be uccen.
  • yeṃṃ-as “he told her”: in Kabyle this would be yenn-as.
  • itta “why”: in Kabyle this would be ayɣer. The Siwi form is from i “to, for” and -tta < tanta “what”, a local variant of widespread Berber matta, which Kabyle has replaced with the Arabic loan acu.
  • ɛali “above”, from Arabic: in Kabyle this would be asawen, but the Siwi form is easy to guess from Arabic.
  • iteggezen “they go down”: in Kabyle this would be trusun.
  • ɛam-nuwwel “year before last”, from Arabic: in Kabyle this would be sell-ilindi, but the Siwi form is easy enough to guess if you know Algerian Arabic.
  • namma “or”: the first syllable is cognate to Kabyle neɣ, but the word has changed enough to make guessing difficult.
  • axxa “aunt (mother’s sister)”: in Kabyle this would be xalti, from Arabic.
So in terms of vocabulary, the situation is pretty similar to what we saw between Algerian and Egyptian Arabic. However, as with the previous example, there are many more subtle differences – and those differences are of a more significant kind. If we look at grammatical differences alone and ignore phonetic or semantic ones, we notice that:
  • g adrar “in the mountain”: in Kabyle this would be g wedrar; Siwi has no “état d’annexion”.
  • dilla, ttella: “he is at, she is at”: Kabyle yella, tella, with no d- prefix. adday “below”: Kabyle does have a noun adda “below”, but it can only be used in combination with certain prepositions, not on its own as here.
  • xebbecṭ-i: Siwi marks the 2nd person singular (“you”) with just -(a)ṭ; Kabyle uses t-...-ḍ.
  • nnew “my”, nnem “your (f.)”: in Kabyle this would be inu, inem.
  • iteggezen: Siwi marks the 3rd person plural (“they”) with y-...-en; Kabyle, like all other Berber languages, uses -en alone.
  • i gda: in Kabyle, i is usually used just for the dative, but in Siwi it’s used for destinations in general; the g- in gda was originally the preposition “in”, but in Siwi it became part of the word for “here”.
  • uṭnaxa “I am/was ill”: the -a suffix is a Siwi verbal form marking the perfect, frequently used in subordinate clauses to mean “while”. Kabyle doesn’t have such an ending, and would just use uḍnaɣ.

This contrasts with what we saw between Algerian and Egyptian Arabic, where very few of the textual differences were strictly grammatical. Of course, a longer text would have revealed more grammatical differences between Algerian and Egyptian, for example in the formation of comparatives – and would reveal many more between Kabyle and Siwi. This makes sense; for many centuries, Siwi has been much more isolated from Kabyle than Algerian Arabic has been from Egyptian Arabic, and the expansion of Berber happened earlier than that of Arabic, so they’ve had longer to develop separately.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

How different are Egyptian and Algerian Arabic, really?

Recently, The Economist decided to introduce its readers to the extent of variation across Arabic, by comparing Algerian and Egyptian retellings of a Juha story from Reddit (via LL). Most Arab commenters felt that the post exaggerated the differences, since the stories were being retold in individuals' own words, not translated per se. So let’s try and figure out part of the question this raises here: To what extent can an Algerian understand the Egyptian version of this story, and to what extent does this ability stem from: a) his knowledge of his own dialect; b) his knowledge of Fusha (Standard Arabic); and c) his experience watching Egyptians on TV?

This is the Egyptian quote, in their own transcription (3 = ʕ, 7 = ħ, 2 = ’ [ʔ], 9 = ’ < q; listen):

fi youm min el ayem, kan go7a we'bno bey7addaro 7aget-hom 3ashan yeroo7o el balad elli gambohom. farekbo el etnein 7omarhom 3ashan yabtedo yesafro. we 3a'sekka marro 3ala balad soghayyara keddaho. ba7ala2o el nas feehom we 2alo:  ayoh! bo99o el nas el 2asya elli mabter7amshi rakbeen kollohom 3ala el 7omar.
The first obvious hurdle is pronunciation: an Algerian listener needs to convert Egyptian g back to j, Egyptian ’ back to q / g, and drop most of the short vowels. School won’t help with that – but most Algerians already know this much from watching Egyptians on TV, and even if they didn’t, it shouldn’t take too long to catch on.

What about vocabulary? Well, the good news is that only nine words in this passage are completely absent from Algerian Arabic. The bad news is that six of them won’t be familiar from Fusha either – and that that amounts to something like 15% of the passage.

  • b- in b-iħaḍḍaru “they prepare”, marking, loosely speaking, the present tense, has no Algerian equivalent, and no Fusha equivalent either. It is very common in the Middle East, though, so most Algerians will have encountered it on TV; we may not know exactly what it does, but we know to ignore it!
  • ʕašān “in order to” corresponds to Algerian bāš. Knowing Fusha won’t help much with this one; its Fusha root, ʕalā ša’n, means “on the affair of”. However, the form is so common in Middle Eastern broadcasts that most Algerians probably know it.
  • yibtadu “they start” corresponds to Algerian yəbdāw; both forms derive from the same root, but Algerian Arabic has lost the derived form with infixed -t-, which is also used in Fusha.
  • sikka “road” corresponds to Algerian ṭrīq. Both forms are used in Fusha, so a knowledge of Fusha will help here; even a lightly educated Algerian would probably recall as-sikka al-ħadīdiyya, the Fusha word for “railroad”.
  • marru “they passed” corresponds to Algerian jāzu. marra is preferred in Fusha in this sense, and would be familiar to any moderately educated Algerian.
  • kidahu: I couldn’t even guess what this meant, so I looked it up in my Egyptian Arabic dictionary... apparently it’s the same as kida “thus, like this”, which in Algerian would be hākđa, corresponding to Fusha (hā)kađā. The word itself is thus reasonably easy to identify. But I don’t understand why it’s being used here.
  • baħla’u: I assume from context that this means “stare” or something. Let me check... yes, it’s glossed as “to stare, be goggle-eyed”, so Algerian xuẓṛu. I can’t think of any Fusha form that would help you guess this.
  • ayyūh: I assumed from context that this was for expressing disgust, but my dictionary says it indicates “forceful intent” (and that it comes from Coptic). Either way, Algerians don’t say this; the best equivalent in context is probably the exclamation of disgust yəxxa. It’s not in Fusha either.
  • bu’’u buṣṣu “look” (I think) corresponds to Algerian Arabic šūfu. This word has no commonly used Fusha counterpart, so again a knowledge of Fusha won’t help.

So an Algerian can understand something like 85% of this passage just by figuring out sound changes, and probably more from context – so far, so good!

However, even if we convert the sound system and substitute these eight words, the result will still not be acceptable Algerian Arabic – it violates the language's rules. Most Algerians will tell you that Algerian Arabic has no rules, but that won’t stop them from looking at you funny if you try saying something like:

*f-yūm məl-l-əyyām, kān jħa w-əbn-u yħəđ̣đ̣ṛu ħājəthum bāš yṛūħū l-əl-blād əlli jənbhum, fā rəkbu l-əθnīn ħmāṛhum bāš yəbdāw ysāfru. u ʕla ṭṭriq, jāzu ʕlā blād ṣɣiṛa hākđa, xǔẓṛu n-nās fīhum u qālu: yəxxa! šūfu ənnās əlgāsya əlli mātəṛħəmši rākbīn kullhum ʕla lħmār.
The reason this doesn’t work is because there are a lot of other less obvious differences between Algerian and Egyptian Arabic. The most clear-cut are:
  • yōm: Algerians only use yum in əlyum “today” and in counting (xəms-iyyam); for other purposes, “day” is nhāṛ (“days”: nhāṛāt). You can’t say “f-yūm məl-l-əyyām”; the best equivalent would probably be wāħəd ən-nhāṛ (one day).
  • ibn-u: (Most) Algerians don’t use bən as an independent word; they only use it in compounds with the meaning “son of...”. In a context like this, you would have to say u-wlīd-u.
  • balad: In Algerian Arabic, blād is either broader than “village” (“country, region”) or more specific (“hometown”). A village is dəšṛa or duwwāṛ (or, let’s face it, vīlāž.)
  • ħagit-hum: While ħāja means “thing” in Algerian, as in Egyptian, Algerians don’t normally use it to mean “baggage”. The Algerian equivalent would be dūzān-hum.
  • ganbu-hum: In Algeria, this would mean literally “their side”. “Next to them” would be ħdā-hum or quddām-hum, depending on the region.
  • l-itnēn: In Algeria, this would be interpreted as “Monday”. “Both of them” is fī-zūj; θnīn is used as a number only in compounds, like “thirty-two” (θnīn u θlāθīn).
  • ’āsiya: While gāsi does mean “hard” in Algerian Arabic, you wouldn’t use it in the metaphorical sense of “cruel” as here. The feminine singular agreement with “people” would also be odd in much of Algeria, but some do use it.

So even an uneducated Egyptian could more or less make himself understood in Algeria (depending on how sharp the person he's speaking to is and how many Egyptian films they've watched), but to actually speak Algerian, he'd need to do a lot of learning and relearning. It's up to you to decide whether that makes them two quite similar languages or two very different dialects...

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Reconstructing metaphors?

One of the most exciting – and riskiest – applications of historical linguistics is for reconstructing aspects of the culture of a proto-language's speakers, and using that to figure out where they lived and identify their archeological remains. The usual way to do this is to reconstruct a word and its meaning, and take it from there (for example, if they had a word for "plough" they were probably farmers.) A while ago, I came across a different technique that I hadn't previously seen described, outlined in this paper: Using cognitive semantics to relate Mesa Verde archaeology to modern Pueblo languages.

Basically, the idea is that the favourite metaphors of a given culture will be reflected both in its language (notably by compounds, but also in semantic shifts) and in its arts. Thus, to quote one of his examples, in Tewa "roof" is literally "wooden coil-basket", although modern Tewa roofs do not look much like that, while the roofs of Mesa Grande kivas were built to resemble coil baskets. He takes both to exemplify a metaphor BUILDINGS ARE CONTAINERS, which he takes to be supported not only by this case but by a number of other features, such as the use of pottery design motifs on walls and the polysemy of a word meaning "lake", "ceremonial bowl", and "kiva".

I'm not sure how often this is likely to work in practice. For it to work, your metaphors have to be reflected in the kind of material culture that archeologists can dig up – buildings, pottery, baskets if you're lucky. It would seem to require, minimally, a strong tradition of more or less representational art. I would be hard-pressed to think of such cases in, say, North Africa, unless you go further back than we can reconstruct the languages. But where those preconditions are fulfilled, it does strike me as an interesting approach to try, because it targets the kinds of meaning that the speakers themselves would have considered important.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Ethnologue update comments

Ethnologue recently announced an update. Since, at least online, they are the easiest to find and hence most commonly cited authority on worldwide language distribution, this merits some comment. They've made some improvements in North Africa, including a much prettier map. However, there still remain a fair number of errors. This is perhaps natural given that SIL, which produces Ethnologue, is basically a Christian missionary organisation and as such is unwelcome in a number of countries. (Why is there no neutral source doing something comparable, one might ask? UNESCO has attempted a language endangerment atlas, but sadly that one is both less complete and far less reliable.) However, quite a few errors could have been avoided simply by closer attention to sources.

In Algeria, they've updated the Korandjé entry with my population estimate and endangerment classification, and corrected the Tashelhiyt one based on my thesis - although they apparently couldn't be bothered to cite the source of this estimate! They've reclassified the Berber dialects of the Southwest (Boussemghoun, Igli, etc.) as Taznatit, along with the Berber of Timimoun; in previous editions, the former were classed as part of Moroccan Tashelhiyt. The new classification is rather more tenable than the old one, at any rate; the former dialects are not called "Taznatit" by their speakers, but they are rather closely related to it, and are not at all closely related to Moroccan Tashelhiyt.

There are still a fair number of errors, though: the Tarifit of Arzew became extinct a century ago (and there is no such place as "Alteria"); "Tamazight de l’Atlas blidéen" is rather more like Kabyle than like Chenoua, and is missing from their map; the boundaries they give for Kabyle are rather inflated, annexing the Arabic-speaking areas of the Boumerdes coast to the west and half of Jijel in the east; the enormous circle they draw for Teggargarent contrasts oddly with the tiny ones they draw for Korandjé and Temacine Tamazight, which in reality occupy comparable areas (perhaps this was to take into account Ngouça, but the latter oasis is even smaller than Ouargla); Hassaniyya Arabic is still missing even though it's the primary language of Tindouf; and the curiously precise boundaries they give for "Saharan Arabic" leave me baffled as to what this "language" is supposed to be. The "Algerian Arabic" dialect of Jijel or Skikda is far more different from the Algiers koine than the "Algerian Saharan Arabic" I heard in Bechar or Timimoun or Abadla; perhaps the dialect further east is more different, but the boundaries shown are indefensible. They also seem to have misunderstood the constitutional amendment: it's Tamazight in general that is legally a national language now, although it's admittedly Kabyle that benefits the most in practice.

In Morocco, they've belatedly figured out that Ghomara and Senhaja are still spoken - for the past several editions they've been labelled extinct - but according to the entry French has no presence in the Moroccan linguistic landscape, unlike Algeria or Tunisia. For Egypt, their map ignores Gara (the other oasis where Siwi is spoken), and their population figures for Siwi are extremely optimistic. For Libya, their map (unlike their text) ignores Zuwara, while grossly inflating Ghadames and Sokna (especially in contrast to Siwi, which actually occupies a much larger oasis). For Mauritania, they still include the apocryphal Imraguen "language", whose reported existence Catherine Taine-Cheikh deconstructs in a forthcoming article, and their population figures of Zenaga are mutually inconsistent bad guesses which should have been updated based on the introduction to the latter's Dictionnaire zénaga-français.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Review: La question linguistique en Algérie

I just finished reading Benmayouf's (2009) La question linguistique en Algérie. It was... interesting.

The narrative this book presents is easy to summarise, although when stated baldly it verges on self-parody: By 1930 or so, Standard Arabic had practically vanished from Algerian life, apart from the Friday sermon. At independence, most literate Algerians were literate in French; but, tragically though inevitably, the revolutionary government opted to make Standard Arabic the official language, and tried to Arabise the educational system. The beleaguered Francophones found their job security threatened and their students demotivated, and the level of French spoken in the country dropped lower and lower. The new generation, having been deprived of the salutary effects of French culture and brought up to hate everything foreign, became Islamists and terrorists, leading to the civil war of the 1990s. "The individual produced by the Algerian school is a rigid being with no value but Islam, radically opposed to his open-minded father nourished by French school." (p. 76!) But after 1988, the government gradually woke up to the political and economic dangers of Arabisation, and started expanding the use of French; meanwhile, the satellite dish enabled millions of ordinary Algerians to watch French media. Apart from a few dangerous attacks on the position of French – such as the introduction of English as a third language in schools – the future is now bright, under the leadership of our "enlightened" president (p. 108). Eventually, she hopes (p. 118), Standard Arabic will be limited to the role of a liturgical language, while French comes to occupy an even more important place than it does today, and Algerian Arabic gets recognised as the language that binds the nation together. But it's French which is crucial: it not only "satisfies a need for modernity that none of the local languages can handle" but constitutes "a maquis in which resistance develops to every form of constraint, oppression or denial." (p. 98)

This view, of course, ignores a long history of Standard Arabic in Algeria – the zaouias' continued presence even after the French confiscated most of their land, the manuscripts and imported books of my grandfather's generation, the excellent work of Ben Badis and the Association of Ulema starting in 1931, the expanding ranks of Arabophone intellectuals and writers since independence (tellingly, she finds time to mention Jean Amrouche but not Ahlam Mostaganemi), and even the satellite dishes tuned to Arabic channels. If Francophone professors and officials have felt threatened by institutional Arabisation, their extremely successful efforts to hold it back in turn denied (and deny) positions to the much more numerous Arabophone graduates. The social tensions caused by this did help set the stage for the violence of the 1990s, but that can hardly be blamed on Arabic, let alone caricatured in the terms above.

As for her vision of the future, I would consider it close to a worst-case scenario. Her tactical and qualified support for Algerian Arabic does not entail actually using it for anything important; while rather hostile to Standard Arabic as a medium for university education, she takes it for granted that French is appropriate in that context, and indeed is the perfect vehicle for anything related to modernity. But, frankly, I do not want a French-language-mediated "transfer of modernity from the north shore to the south shore of the Mediterranean" (p. 118); I want an Algeria with the self-confidence and self-awareness to learn from a variety of examples and choose its own path, not mechanically follow in France's footsteps. Nor do I believe that relegating "modernity" to a foreign language is likely to help Algeria achieve it!

Nonetheless, I'm glad I read the book. It's fascinating – if sad – to discover that there exists an Algerian intellectual prepared to take a position this extreme in favour specifically of French; I don't believe I've ever met one. Could one find a corresponding phenomenon in France, I wonder – some professor eagerly advocating for more English in the bureaucracy and the universities, and condemning supporters of French as narrow-minded nationalists? It's difficult to imagine... But what this book mainly leaves me wondering, to be frank, is: why on earth does the author feel this way? And that points the way towards a more anthropologically oriented book that I really would like to see. A person's feelings towards a language are shaped by memories – a mother's voice or a teacher's scolding, a story you couldn't put down or a tedious manual, a group that you hung out with or couldn't stand. To really understand the wide variation in Algerian language attitudes, we need to go beyond the political history and into experiences of learning and living the languages.