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?).

Monday, August 19, 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.