Wednesday, February 26, 2014

18th century Zenaga poetry and language change

By far the most distant Berber variety from the rest – a separate language by even the most generous standards, as the lines quoted below will probably convince you – is Zenaga, the Berber of Mauritania. In an old article by Harry Norris (1969), "Znaga Islam during the 17th and 18th centuries", I recently came across an passage in a photograph of a page from a 20th-century Mauritanian manuscript called Dhāt alwāḥ wa-dusur, discussing a poem written in Zenaga by Wālid bin Khālunā al-Daymānī (d. 1797), and containing words already obsolete by the commenter's time. The article says this was to be published by James Bynon, but that doesn't appear to have happened. While I can make out much of it, especially with the help of two partial translations into Arabic quoted in the article, I cannot fully parse the few lines given there – perhaps some commenters will join in the fun of decipherment. The author also throws in some unexpectedly insightful observations on language change...

وأما الثانية فيعسر ضبطها جدا لأن الفاظها كلها عجمية ومع ذلك فتلك الالفاظ قد اندرست اليوم وعدم من يعرفها لأن اللغات تتبدّل فكل سنة تنسى كلمات ويوتى بآخر غير معهودة ولولا محافظة الناس على اللغة العربية في الدهر الذي نزل فيه الوحي تبدلت بالكلية حتى لا يوجد من يعرفها ويدلّ على ذلك ان العرب الاقاح في هذا الدهر الذي نحن فيه قد تغيرت السنتهم حتى لا يتكادون يفهمون العربية الاصلية الا ان يتعلموها وتسمى هذه الثانية بالمزروف ومطلعها:

اترگ نئك اراكلئذ * ايشذ ننتا شد اذچان
ايش اتؤچش اذ تنجگفئذ يسگذان اشرن يستغان

قوله اكلئد اي السلطان
وقوله اتؤجش اي وجوده
وقوله تنجگفئذ اي القدم
وقوله نِ اي انا اي القائم بنفسه

"As for the second [poem], it is very difficult to determine it, because its words are all non-Arabic, yet those words have become rare today and no one knows them any more – since languages change. Every year some words are forgotten, and others, little-known, are brought forth. If people had not preserved the Arabic language at the time when the revelation came down, it would have changed completely, to the point that no one would know it. This is shown by the fact that the tongues of the Arabs of our time have changed, until they can barely understand original Arabic unless they have studied it. This second [poem] is called "al-Mazrūfa", and it opens with:

əttäräg niʔk är ägälliʔḏ – äyš äḏ nəttä šd äḏžān
äyš ätuʔž-əš äḏ tənd'əgfiʔḏ – yässəgḏān āš ni yəstəġān

("I ask of the Sultan * He who is my owner
Whose existence is eternity without beginning * who is rich, who needs nothing")
  • His saying ägälliʔḏ means "Sultan".
  • His saying ätuʔž-əš means "his existence".
  • His saying tənd'ägfiʔḏ means "eternity without beginning".
  • His saying ni means "I" ie "the independent"."

From Taine-Cheikh (2007), we find that ättər is "ask", and əttär-äg therefore perfective "I ask"; niʔk is "I" (note the carefully written glottal stop!); and är is "from". Perhaps unsurprisingly given this passage, ägälliʔḏ has not made it into the modern era, so the vocalisation is conjectural, but it is obviously cognate with Tashelhiyt agllid "Sultan". äyš is a relative complementiser ("that") normally combined with a resumptive pronoun; äḏ is the copula ("is"); nəttä "he" is presumably the expected resumptive pronoun (the text actually clearly has two n's, but I'm assuming one of them is a typo). The rest of the line is a bit of a mystery; my best guess is that it involves the perfective participle of the verb "own", äyi(ʔ) in Taine-Cheikh (note that her y is often ž in other Zenaga varieties, from original *l), but then I would expect a glottal stop to be written. äyš "that" we have already seen, and -əš is "his/her/its". ätuʔž, explained as "existence", must be derived from the verb y-uʔy "exist", but the t is surprising. äḏ "is" we have already seen. We are given the meaning of tənd'ägfiʔḏ, but even its vocalisation is conjectural, and I can't find an appropriate root to relate it to. yässəgḏān (vocalisation conjectural again) must be a participle of the verb corresponding to Ould Hamidoun's eʔssəgḏīh "richesse", quoted by Taine-Cheikh (note that vowel length, phonemic in Zenaga, is transcribed accurately!). The rest is another blur, except that yəstəġān (?) may be from Arabic istaġnā "not to need".

If this isn't enough of a challenge, there's several other lines of Zenaga poetry quoted in that article...


Lyamin Benshrif said...

Sorry I can't help deciphering Zenaga but the term "Aguelid" caught my attention. I read an etymology of the term in the book of a 16th century Moroccan chronicler/historian. The author linked it to "Goliath" while arguing that Berbers were Philistines in origin, and therefore still call their kings Goliath/Aguellid.
Are you familiar with this etymology? is it plausible? or the term has another origin?

Lameen Souag الأمين سواق said...

That's an interesting suggestion, but not really plausible. If there were a connection, you would expect the word to end in t, not in d; but even in the pre-Roman Numidian inscriptions, we find it written GLD. Anyway, the first author to claim that Berbers were linked to Philistines (or Canaanites) was Procopius, and it looks very much as if he was just trying to fit them into a Biblical scheme of history; earlier Roman authors had given quite different accounts.

PhoeniX said...

I'm surprised that the word agellid has a glottal stop.

It would mean the word had four root consonants instead of 4, while I just wrote up a blogpost on plural formations where I want that word to be three consonants!


Of course evidence should always trump my ideas on how Proto-Berber should work... but It's odd.

I have some ideas on the origins of iʔḏ, but I don't have Taine-Cheikh's dictionary on my now so I can't really give forms.

I'm a little surprised that this word would be written with an initial kaf, while this writer seems to have a pretty developed script to write the different k-like sounds with. Any idea what that is happening?

Lameen Souag الأمين سواق said...

The word isn't in Taine-Cheikh, unfortunately - it would have been nice to know its plural. If it is directly retained from proto-Berber (rather than being a borrowing with a mysterious extra glottal stop, like "tea"), it also proves once more that - as I've said before - there's no glottal stop transcribed in Numidian.

It's written with plain kaf, I think, because the extensive array of extra characters used by this author hadn't been available in the poet's time, and, as he says, the word passed out of usage, so they too had to guess at its pronunciation.

PhoeniX said...

I didn't so much mean to find this specific work in Taine-Cheikh, but I was, doubting, perhaps the etymology of the word.

iʔḏ can also come from Berber *-itt, it seems. But really akellitt, of course doesn't really look like much, nor does it yield anything useful in Taine-Cheikh's dictionary. So I think I'll just have to accept the fact that there's a glottal stop in agəllid.

Anonymous said...

Also the shift L > Y is attested in certain Kabyle areas (especially in the Upper Agawa region), I am surprised to find it into an old Zenaga poetry.

Also Lameen, do you think that Korandje may have borrowed most its words from language similar to Zenaga but somehow closer to Tashelhit ?

Lameen Souag الأمين سواق said...

That shift l > y is normal in some varieties of Zenaga - other have l > ž instead.

It's hard to tell whether Korandjé got all these words from a language similar to Zenaga but a bit closer to Tashelhit, or whether it simply got some words from (something like) Zenaga and others from Tashelhit. Geographically, both seem possible, since Tashelhit is apparently spoken as far east as the Draa valley.