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.

8 comments:

Abu Ilyás said...

If you can read Spanish, you may find this interesting (on مقهى instead of قهوة): http://anisdelmoro.blogspot.com.es/2012/01/in-caoua-veritas.html

Lameen Souag الأمين سواق said...

Yes, that's another good example!

lethargic-man said...

Slightly off-topic: Why would "table" be borrowed into Arabic with a ط and not a ت?

Lameen Souag الأمين سواق said...

In Arabic, unlike Hebrew, emphatics affect the pronunciation of the following vowel. /ṭabla/ ends up as [tˤɑ:blʌ], but /tabla/ would be pronounced more like [tæ:blʌ]. So making the consonant emphatic lets the speaker preserve the vowel quality.

Abu Ilyás said...

Then Spanish and Italian /t/ (provided they are in the origin of this loanword) are non-aspirated denti-alveolar consonants, closer from ط than from ت.

David Marjanović said...

So... is ت aspirated, or was it in historical times?

Because that would help explain a couple of disparate things...

Lameen Souag الأمين سواق said...

Yes, plain onset t is typically aspirated. But I think the vowel allophone is a more relevant factor here: contrast ṭabla with timpu < tiempo "good weather", or tuši < toucher "touch" (vs. ṣuṭi < sauter "jump".)

David Marjanović said...

Thanks!

One thing the aspiration might help explain is why PIE *b was so rare. :-)