Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Learn Tamezret Berber with cartoons

For such a small place, the Berber-speaking village of Tamezret in southern Tunisia has some talented amateur linguists. For years now Ben Mammou's site has been the best existing reference for the town's Berber language, revealing some interesting features not documented elsewhere. I now learn that two sites can be added to the list: the blog Ekhsa Tamourthiw (I love my land), including some audio and some cute (if impressionistically transcribed) cartoons for learners; and the online Cours de Tmazighth, featuring lessons by Alia Labbouz, Nizar Ben Romdhane, and Larbi Ben Mammou. If you happen to be in Tunis, you can even physically attend the course. Good to see people taking advantage of Tunisia's new freedoms to do something productive! As far as I know, nothing similar exists for other Tunisian Berber villages, although for Douiret, there is a small vocabulary on (not to mention Gabsi's thesis).

Saturday, February 23, 2013

"Ya-chü-lo" (Kufa) and other confusing transcriptions

Translators of Chinese histories generally have a very inconvenient habit of transcribing foreign names according to the modern Mandarin pronunciation of the characters used. Mandarin is almost the least suitable of all the modern Chinese topolects for this purpose, since it's lost all the final stops, turned final m to n, and palatalised initial velars. Cantonese or Hakka forms would at least be more helpful; but reconstructions exist now, and those could be given directly.

A brief passage in Tongdian, a Tang dynasty encyclopedia, reports a Chinese soldier's impressions of life in early Abbasid Iraq (where he found himself captive after the Battle of Talas): Tongdian, chapter 193. A translation, taken from Hoyland (1997), is available online: T'ung tien. Unlike many of the other foreign accounts of early Islamic history that Hoyland gathers, which tend towards the bitter, this text is in parts rather charming, particularly where based on first-hand observation. However, the transliterations are as unhelpful as usual. Here are the appropriate Middle Chinese forms, based for convenience on Starostin's database, with y substituted for j:

T'a-shih: 大食 thầyźik, a reasonable transcription of Persian Tājīk, itself originally from Arabic Ṭā'ī (member of the tribe of Ṭayy) - see Language Hat)

mo-shou: 摩首 mwâśǝ́w – no idea what this alleged title of the caliphs might be; probably not Arabic, so maybe Persian? Any ideas?

Po-ssu: 波斯 pwâsye "Persia", presumably from Pārs.

Fulin: 拂菻 phütlim "Byzantium", apparently somehow from Armenian Rhôm (ie "Rome").

Ya chü-lo: 亞俱羅 ʔạ̀külâ "Kūfah", a pretty good transcription of the town's Syriac name, ʕAqūlā.

mumen: 暮門 mòmon (given as a title of the caliph), ie Arabic mu'min "believer"; the vowel choice in the second syllable is interesting, suggesting that the short i was already pronounced in a rather schwa-like way.

Shan: 苫, ie Arabic šām "Syria, the Levant, Damascus". This character isn't in Starostin's list, but its Korean and Vietnamese readings make it clear that the final letter was m, not n (CJKV-English dictionary).

Friday, February 22, 2013

Explaining Korandjé; Darja etymologies

Some readers may be interested in a paper of mine that should be coming sometime soon in the Journal of Pidgin and Creole Linguistics: Explaining Korandjé: Language contact, plantations, and the trans-Saharan trade. It's an attempt to explain how a Songhay language ended up being spoken so far north, in a location so isolated from all its relatives, and when it got there. This is a pre-review version; the one that will actually be published contains a number of improvements. However, your comments are welcome!

French-speaking readers may also be interested in a post I recently made on my other blog, responding to an unusually error-ridden article about the Berber elements of Darja: Les Algériens qui ont oublié les dictionnaires de leurs ancêtres. My initial response was somewhat irritated, as you see, but on reflection there's something fascinating about it as well: how is it that there are dozens of words in daily use in Algerian Arabic that can easily be found in any sufficiently big Classical dictionary, but that are so rare in the Modern Standard Arabic of Algeria that literate people are capable of assuming they must be from some other language? If Modern Standard and Classical are both Fusha - which is how Algerians tend to think of them - then why are these words so systematically avoided by Algerians when they try to write Fusha?

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Kabyle vocab 1: Verbs of motion

I've been taking advantage of being in Paris to attend some Kabyle classes. However, the classes are in French - as are all the textbooks - and I find that I memorise vocabulary more easily when English equivalents are presented. So I'm going to experiment with writing up vocabulary lists and posting them online periodically, on the theory that these might be useful to Anglophone learners other than myself, and that putting them together will be good for my memory. For today, the theme will be verbs of motion. I find that knowing facts about a word's wider connections makes me more likely to remember it, but that may just be me, so if you don't, feel free to ignore them...

Go: ṛuḥ "go!", yeţṛuḥ(u) "he goes", iṛuḥ "he went". This verb, obviously, is borrowed from colloquial Arabic ṛuḥ (like its Siwi counterpart ṛuḥ, iteṛṛaḥ, iṛaḥ); it is quite commonly used, but there is a more purist alternative:

Go: ddu "go!", iṯeddu "he goes", yedda "he went". This verb is also used with the same meaning in Tashelhiyt; it's probably related to Tamasheq idaw, itidaw, ǎddew "accompany, go with". Example: Tom yebɣa ad yeddu ɣer Japun.

Come: as "come!", yeţţas "he comes", yusa "he came". This nearly pan-Berber verb is usually combined with the particle -d "hither (towards here)"; in Siwi, that particle has fused with the stem, yielding héd, itased, yused. Example: Yusa-d ɣer Japun asmi ay yella d agrud.

Pass: ɛeddi "pass!", yeţɛeddi / yeţɛedday "he passes", iɛedda "he passed". This verb, widespread in both Berber and dialectal Arabic, is from Arabic عدا "he passed", as the generally un-Berber ɛ betrays. Siwi retains fel, iteffal, yefla "pass / depart"; the rarer cognate verb (fel, yeffal, ifel) in Kabyle means "go over". Example: ɛeddaɣ fell-as deg wezniq.

Arrive: aweḍ "arrive!", yeţţaweḍ "he arrives", yebbʷeḍ (yuweḍ) "he arrived". Siwi instead uses an Arabic loan mraq, imerraq, yemraq; but it retains a causative of the original root, siweṭ. Example: aql-ik tuwḍeḍ-d zik.

Go up: ali "go up!", yeţţali "he goes up", yuli "he went up". The similarity to Arabic على is probably just a coincidence, since the Tashelhiyt equivalent is eɣli. Siwi uses an equally Berber but unrelated form wen, itewwan, yuna, also found in Tashelhiyt (awen); Kabyle retains a causative of this root, ssiwen "go up (eg road)", and a commoner noun, asawen "(up) a rising slope". Example: La ttalyeɣ isunan.

Go down: aḏer "go down!", yeţţaḏer "he goes down", yuḏer "he went down". Siwi again uses an equally Berber but unrelated form ggez, iteggez, yeggez, also found in Tashelhiyt (ggʷez). Example: La ttadreɣ isunan.

Go in: ḵcem "go in!", iḵeččem "he goes in", yeḵcem "he went in". The same verb is used in Tashelhiyt; Siwi uses a cognate form kim, itekkam, ikim. Example: Ttxil-k, kcem-d.

Go out: ffeɣ "go out!", iṯeffeɣ "he goes out", yeffeɣ "he went out". The same verb is used in Tashelhiyt. and (with a trivial regular vowel change) in Siwi f̣f̣eɣ, itef̣f̣aɣ, yef̣f̣aɣ. Example: Zemreɣ ad ffɣeɣ ad urareɣ?

Or, in a form more suitable for quick self-testing:

go upali
go downaḏer
go inḵcem
go outffeɣ

Comments and suggestions welcome, especially if you speak Kabyle!

Wednesday, February 06, 2013

The wider context of “Teach Yourself Songhay” in Timbuktu

We’ve seen the “Teach Yourself Songhay” poem. What does it tell us, besides the meanings of a few words in Koyra Chiini?

The writer didn’t tell us anything about himself, but we can deduce some points anyway. The shift of *b > m in Kimsi “Id al-Adha” < *kibsi (< Arabic kabš “ram”) is recorded by Heath as a dialect feature specific to the town of Niafounké, 150 km upstream from Timbuktu at the opposite end of the Koyra Chiini-speaking region; the Timbuktu form is cipsi / ciwsi. The same irregular shift is found in Dedem “Muharram” < *dedeb, for which no Niafounké form is recorded by Heath, contrasting with Timbuktu dedew, Goundam dedeb; Hacquard and Dupuis (1897) already record dédo, so the Timbuktu form is at least a century old. (Why “rest of the holidays”? Because feer-mee, which he’s already given, also means “Id al-Fitr”.)

Now, whereas the rural population surrounding Timbuktu is mainly Tuareg, that around Niafounké is mainly Fulani. When the author lists ethnic groups, he starts with the Fulani, and he consistently uses a third person plural “they” to refer to Songhay speakers. This suggests that he himself is probably a Fulani from around Niafounké, rather than a native citizen of Timbuktu. Fulani speakers have an unusually strong tradition of writing their own language in Arabic script, as illustrated by the other two manuscripts mentioned, so this might make sense.

But what was he doing writing this anyway? Obviously he didn’t need it... but others did. In fact, we can safely say that this poem was actually used by at least one student - the version seen is clearly not the original, since it contains a copying error. Surgu "Tuareg" is written شرع, with the wrong dots, as if the copyist mistook it for the Arabic word "he began". This is explained by the circumstances in which it was written.

At the advanced level, the schools of Timbuktu attracted students from as far away as Algeria or southern Mali. For it to be worthwhile to go there at all, they would have to have already spent years studying Classical Arabic – and much of their study would have taken the form of memorising didactic poems, such as the Ājurrūmiyyah or Alfiyyat Ibn Mālik for grammar. But if their studies took place outside the Songhay region, they would arrive not knowing the dominant language of the town. This poem is tailored for such students. I’ve heard reports of similar poems at Kabyle zaouias intended to help Arabic-speaking students attracted by the zaouia’s reputation to learn Kabyle, though I can’t track the reference down at the moment; so, in a sense, this can be considered part of a much wider genre. At the least, it represents an obvious solution to a problem recurring in higher-level schools all over North and West Africa.

The organisation of the poem reflects that environment. Schools were, first and foremost, Islamic schools; thus the author opens not with the commonest vocabulary but with the basic concepts of religion, starting in the order of the Five Pillars of Islam – shahada, prayer, and fasting (but not zakat or pilgrimage, which would both be financially out of the reach of many students.) He continues with that theme, going through the motions of the prayer ritual in the appropriate order (ablution, saying “Allāhu akbar”, reading from the Qur’an, and finally greeting the angels and asking favours of God), and then starting with the meals associated with fasting before moving on to the meals of non-fasting times. Having covered the basic Islamic rituals that structured their day and their year, he only then moves on to other topics – specifically, ethnicity. For a new student from outside the area, travelling so far perhaps for the first time, the variety of ethnic groups represented in Timbuktu, a crossroads between the Sahel and the Sahara, must have been striking, and being foreign would have heightened his awareness of his own ethnic identity.

Note that the author nowhere uses the term “Songhay”. This is not at all surprising. In Timbuktu, Songhay (Soŋoy) traditionally refers primarily to the noble families of the Songhay Empire, in particular the Maïga family. These families had a reputation for sorcery which did not match well with the ethos of the schools, and were in any case only a small minority of the population speaking what is now called Songhay. The term he uses, Gaa-bibi, has a broader sense, being used for the ordinary Songhay-speaking farmers of the area; it literally means “black body” and thus corresponds almost exactly to the Arabic term “Sūdān” that he also uses. “Koyra Chiini” means “town language”, and as such does not correspond in particular to any one ethnic group.

Other points of linguistic interest: Laarab “Arab” is a conservative form compared to what Heath records – laarow (Timbuktu) / laaram (Niafunké, Goundam) – but this is perhaps natural, given than the author is a student of Arabic. Sete, glossed here as "guest", is rendered by Heath as "caravan"; visiting caravan members would stay as guests of particular families. Cirkose and cirkaarey are treated as synonyms for “lunch”; this is confirmed by the earliest dictionary of Koyra Chiini, Hacquard and Dupuis (1897), but at present they have distinct meanings, cirkaarey being “breakfast”. The forms jiŋgar “pray” < *gingar and jur “run” < *zuru illustrate the characteristic innovation of Koyra Chiini, *z and *g / _[+front] merging to j.

Tuesday, February 05, 2013

Teach Yourself Songhay: A Timbuktu manuscript poem

Of the non-Arabic content I mentioned earlier, a few images are online. One work partly in Koyra Chiini, the Songhay language of Timbuktu, is available on Aluka (subscribers only): A poem explaining several Songhay language phrases. The portion of the poem available online reads as follows:

بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم والصلاة والسلام على النبي الحبيب
يا سائلا عن لغة السودان * اسمع جوابا عند ذي التبيان
الله يركي ان غادي الرسول * صلاة جنقر صوم حومي
قالوا تيمم تيمما وضؤ الولا * بكيرة كبر على من صلا
قراءة ايسو كذا النداء * تسليم سلم غاراي دعاء
فطرة فرمي هكذا السحور * ايسحري عشاء قالوا هوري
ثم الغذاء عندهم ايسركسي * مع ايسركاري عند بعض جنس
قالوا فلن لجملة الفلان * اسماءهم غابب لاتوان
العرب لارب عندهم توارق * شرع كذا سيت كل ضيف
الرجل هر كذلك قلت ايحر * وامراة وي كذا جرى اجر
الوشطير جملة الصبيان * كمس ددم باقية العيدين

In the name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate,
and blessings and praise be on the beloved Prophet.
O asker about the language of the Sudan [Songhay],
Hear the answer from one who will explain.
God is Yerkoy, ŋga diya the Messenger;
Prayer is jiŋgar, fasting is haw-mee.
They say teymam for tayammum; wudu is alwalaa;
Takbir is kabbar for whoever prays;
Reading is ay cow and likewise calling;
Greeting is sallam, gaara yo is dua.
Breaking fast is feer-mee; likewise, suhoor
is sohore; dinner they say hawre;
then lunch for them is ay cirkose,
along with ay cirkaare for some people.
They say fulan for all the Fulanis;
Their names are gaabibi, and none other;
Arabs are laarab among them, and Tuareg
surgu, likewise sete is every guest.
A man is har, likewise I say is ay har;
A woman is woy, likewise he ran is a jur;
Alwaši-terey is all the youth;
Kimsi, dedem are the rest of the holidays.

The transcriptions are based on Heath's dictionary of Koyra Chiini, except where incompatible. The manuscript is undated, but the language is so close to present-day standards that it can hardly be more than a couple of centuries old at most (although, oddly, the author renders c as س). The poem is anonymous; it seems to be followed by the start of another work, by the Imam Abu Abdallah Muhammad al-Mahdi, in a different (and much more elegant) hand.

The Fulani materials scanned are a little more extensive: there's a poem praising the Prophet Muhammad and another by Uthman dan Fodio, if you care to give them a try.