Sunday, September 07, 2014

Why "Levantine" is Arabic, not Aramaic: Part 1

Following in a long tradition of people imagining that knowing a few languages or a bit of mathematics implies they already know linguistics better than any self-styled specialist, the quasi-celebrity author Nassim Nicholas Taleb recently decided to claim that "Levantine is modernized Aramaic". (Let's not comment further on the attached table, whose attempt at Standard Arabic is painfully bad, and which omits the whole Aramaic column except for the title. Also, let's not confuse it with the separate question of how distant Levantine is from Standard Arabic.) The ensuing Twitter "debate", while of little value in itself, nicely illustrates a number of common misconceptions, some of them worth responding to in a less cramped medium. I'll start with the most explicitly political one, since it's bound to colour responses to any purely academic argument:

You just call it Arabic because Arabic is used for "high" functions in the region; If we were diglossic Levantine/Aramaic instead of Levantine/Arabic you would say the same.

Less than 90 km from NNT's hometown is a village where they do in fact still speak Aramaic, while of course still being diglossic in Arabic: Maaloula, in Syria. Despite heavy Arabic influence, this village's language has never once been mistaken for Arabic; its own people call it siryêni, and European Semitists recognised it as Aramaic as soon as even simple wordlists became available. If you happen to be Levantine, try listening to some of it (eg here) - how much of that do you understand? The same is true of other relict Semitic languages within the Arabic-speaking world, such as Mehri or Jibbali or Soqotri or Neo-Mandaic. I have more than one book in which Soqotri or Jibbali speakers attempt to prove that their languages are really Arabic, for much the same reasons that NNT wants his language not to be Arabic - but, notwithstanding the speakers' desires, Semitists had no trouble proving that these languages were not descended from Arabic. Conversely, the "high" languages of Malta have always been English and Italian, yet, despite Maltese nationalists' best efforts to show that Maltese was really Punic, European Semitists had no difficulty in identifying it as descended from Arabic. So, no, Semitic historical linguists do not base their decisions on what kind of diglossia happens to be around, nor were all those 19th-century German Orientalists secret agents sent back in time by the Baath Party. To the contrary, almost all Semitists I've known would be far more excited to discover that some undocumented variety was a new Semitic language than to find out that it was "just" another dialect of Arabic.

"Proving" Levantine comes from Arabic rather than Aramaic like "proving" Spanish comes from Italian, not latin.

How do linguists know that Spanish is descended directly from Latin, not from Italian? Simple: we look for cases in which Italian has made a change - innovated - and Spanish hasn't. Such cases are easy to find: for example, in Italian original *fl has become *fi (thus fiore "flower") and original long *e in open syllables has become i (thus di "of"), whereas in Spanish original *fl remains fl, and *e e (thus flor, de). If Spanish were descended from Italian, then these changes would all have had to have happened and then reversed themselves in Spain, which is very unlikely. We can know which form was original not just because in this case we have copious ancient data, but also by using comparative-historical reconstruction. The full toolkit would take too long to explain here (my favourite textbook is Lyle Campbell's Historical Linguistics), but basically, we:

  • establish sets of sounds corresponding systematically to one another;
  • figure out whether these correspondence sets systematically occur only in certain environments, and, if so, see whether there are any other correspondence sets occurring only in non-overlapping environments that they can be unified with.
This procedure allows us to prove that the ancestor language must have distinguished at least as many phonemes as members of the resulting set of correspondence sets, and - combined with a large body of knowledge about likely and unlikely sound changes - gives us a good chance of determining what the actual sound of those phonemes were. This technique was, of course, developed mainly for reconstructing unattested languages, but way back in the 1950s, Charles Hall decided to test it by applying it to Romance. The result was, as you might hope, Vulgar Latin.

Now, let us apply this to Levantine, Arabic, and Aramaic. Reconstructing the common ancestor of Aramaic and Arabic (see eg here or even just here) shows that Aramaic features a number of innovations not shared with Arabic; conveniently, many of these are mergers. In particular, in Aramaic *`, *ʁ (gh), and *ɬʼ (lh) all merge to ` (ayin); *x (kh) and *ħ merge to ħ (heth); initial *w and *y merge to *y. In Arabic, all of these distinctions are maintained. Now, the nice thing about mergers is that they can't be reversed; once two formerly distinct word classes feature the same phoneme, there's no way for the ordinary speaker to recover the distinction. A monolingual Aramaic speaker has no way of telling that the ` in 'ar`ā "earth" (< *'arɬʼ- + -ā) used to be pronounced differently from the ` in ṭar`ā "door", or in `aynā "eye". In Levantine, all of these distinctions are normally maintained, just as they are in Arabic; أرض has none of the consonants of عين. QED. (In fact, historical linguists have also succeeded in identifying some Aramaic loans into Levantine Arabic by finding the small minority of words in which these distinctions were lost.) In fact, you don't even need to look at phonology to figure this out; the grammar provides plenty of clues. In Aramaic, for example, almost every noun ends in , except in a few specific contexts. This is an innovation specific to Aramaic, accomplished by gluing a former demonstrative on to the end of the noun, and preserved in every modern spoken Aramaic variety. In Arabic, it never happened - nor, obviously, in Levantine.

Of course, NNT shows no signs of even being aware of the relevance of regular sound correspondences, mergers, or any of the other elements in a historical linguist's toolkit, much less of accepting them as definitive criteria for language classification. At one point, however, he vaguely expresses the criterion he thinks should be definitive:

To prove that Levantine derives from Arabic WITHOUT Aramaic route you need to finds ratio of content ⊂ Arabic & ⊄ Aramaic. Not done.

Now that we've seen a little bit of how linguists determine what comes from Arabic and what comes from Aramaic, we're ready to look at the results of this criterion in the next post. You should be able to guess the answer already...


John Cowan said...

Mark Liberman, mild-mannered reporter for a great metropolitan blog, let off a blast of steam about this sort of thing more than ten years ago that I have cherished ever since:

"I hate this role of correcting elementary errors of linguistic analysis, or questioning unthinking prescriptions that are logically incoherent, factually wrong and promptly disobeyed by the prescriber. Historians aren't constantly confronted with people who carry on self-confidently about the rule against adultery in the sixth amendment to the Declamation of Independence, as written by Benjamin Hamilton. Computer scientists aren't always having to correct people who make bold assertions about the value of Objectivist Programming, as examplified in the HCNL entities stored in Relaxational Databases. The trouble is, most people are much more ignorant about language than they are about history or computer science, but they reckon that because they can talk and read and write, their opinions about talking and reading and writing are as well informed as anybody's. And since I have DNA, I'm entitled to carry on at length about genetics without bothering to learn anything about it. Not."

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Lameen, for saying what hardly needs to be said. Nice post, as always.

David Marjanović said...

"Lots of people believe they're experts on language – after all, they speak one."
– Justin B. Rye, quoted from memory

Lameen Souag الأمين سواق said...

Thanks - some good quotes. It does get tiresome sometimes to watch these zombie ideas lurching around decades - or, in this case, centuries - after getting buried...

David Marjanović said...

Point Refuted A Thousand Times

Heathcliff al-Huxtable said...

So has Nassim Taleb blocked you on twitter yet?

I once exchanged some words with him on twitter about morality when he said that the US and EU should ban Saudis from entering due to Saudi government treatment of Christians, so he blocked me.

And now I'm forever deprived of his angry rants on twitter towards all who disagree with him. I've never seen someone who poses as an intellectual behave so childishly and rudely in social media. He's completely unable to filter himself when someone disagrees. He actually called Arabs towel-heads once.