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.


U-Savaw said...

According to some local sources, Timasin (Temasin) Tachelh'it (how it is called) is quite vigourous. Speakers are proud of their language, it bodes well for this dialect unlike the one in Gourara (and even Kabyle in the town of Tizi-Wezzu is on the wane too).

They should be more accurate sources because bilingualism is not always a threat for the Shelha in the oasis. Otherwise they'd get plenty of time to shift to another language.

Lameen Souag الأمين سواق said...

Well, I've heard contradictory eyewitness reports about the Tashelhiyt of Timasin / Tala n Amer; one person says it's doing fine, another says it's declining. To know for sure we'd need a detailed survey, not just individual perspectives. But the principle is correct: even if all the speakers are bilingual, the language can survive indefinitely as long as its speakers like speaking it.

Moroccan said...

Well, you might be write about some Berber-speaking areas being inflated on the Ethnologue maps of Algeria, Morocco, and Libya. But what about the "mother of all inflations"?! I mean the fact that they're assigning the empty vast deserts of Algeria, Morocco, Libya, and Tunisia to Arabic!! (in Libya's and Mauritania's maps they left some arbitrary blank space)

What gives them the right to claim that the default langauge of an uninhabited wasteland (resembling planet Mars) is Arabic?!

You could say the political reality (Arabic being everywhere official) is the reason. But that's a fallacy! Because then the map should show the presence of Arabic in the Berber-speaking areas too, as Arabic is used there in governments buildings, schools, police stations...etc!

This stupid habit of filling the "Arabic color" as the default color of the linguistic map of North Africa and then superimposing "Berber color" in some small (but heavily populated areas) makes the Berber language appear like it's some some kind of emergency (a recent arrival). This stupid habit is a colonial stupidity inherited from French ignoramuses. The solution is to assign a neutral color to uninhabited areas or a mix of the two colors of Berber and Arabic.

Lameen Souag الأمين سواق said...

It is a rather silly way to map the Sahara, but it's not just Arabic that benefits - Tuareg too ends up covering enormous impressive-looking areas of empty desert, in southern Algeria as well as Mali and Niger. I have seen a linguistic map of North Africa (at Bayreuth, I think) with the uninhabited areas left blank instead of being filled in, but it doesn't seem to be online.

Ray said...

Interesting article. It's easy to assume everyone just speaks Arabic across the Maghreb, but I find it fascinating that there are so many other languages there. Is much being done at a government level to preserve these languages or is everything being "Arabised"?

J. Mitchell said...

I agree with Ray - there are so many different languages all across Africa it would be a shame to see some of them die out and disappear. Here in Ireland our native language has all but vanished except for a in few isolated regions where it is still spoken.


R Bremner said...

Hi Joe

You're right, although the last time I was in Connemara there was still a lot of Gaelic being spoken, especially on the islands close to Galway. Hopefully in this digital age more will be done to keep these languages.