Saturday, September 13, 2014

Zombie hypotheses and the Zeitgeist

Everything I've been saying for the past 3 posts is basic textbook stuff, reflecting a stable consensus among Semitic historical linguists over, oh, the past two centuries or so. Why, then, is this zombie hypothesis that Levantine Arabic comes from Aramaic still popular in parts of the Levant? That's no great mystery: it comes from a more general movement to emphasise Levantine (and especially Lebanese) culture's continuity with the pre-Islamic Levant, and downplay the influence of Arabs. (Similar efforts have been made in North Africa, notably Abdou Elimam). As far as I can tell, the unstated reasoning goes something like this:
  1. Levantines are descended from the Aramaic-speaking natives of the land, not from Arab immigrants.
  2. Levantines' language contains a lot that sounds like Aramaic.
  3. Therefore, Levantine is a continuation of Aramaic, not of Arabic.

Step 3, of course, does not follow from Steps 1 and 2. Step 1 is irrelevant to the whole question; the language of your ancestors is very often not the ancestor of your language (ask any Irishman, or any Egyptian). Step 2 is necessary but insufficient for getting to Step 3, since the statement is just as true of Classical Arabic - or of Akkadian, or Ethiopic - as it is of Levantine; we've already seen that deciding linguistic ancestry requires a more sophisticated toolkit.

Nevertheless, this impulse to emphasise continuity and downplay movement deserves more attention. In the Arabic-speaking world, the conspicuous problems with the existing political and economic order, and the humiliating contrasts between the ideals of pan-Arabism and the reality of closed borders and unchallenged occupations, provide an obvious local motivation to downplay Arab identity, and language is so central to pan-Arab identity that it could hardly be left unchallenged. But the impulse is not unique to the region; in some respects, it faithfully reflects wider intellectual trends of the late 20th/early 21st century.

During this era, immediately following some of the largest migrations and invasions in human history, many archeologists and historians have come to feel more and more uncomfortable with the very idea of either. Changes in material culture previously seen as the result of migration were re-explained as diffusion or independent innovation, and reports of barbarian invasions were reinterpreted or dismissed. In some ways, this has been a useful corrective to a previous era's overemphasis on migration; it has arguably made linguists more conscious of the familiar fact that language shift does not necessarily imply invasion, much less population replacement. In others, its influence has been rather less helpful. Linguists reached the late 20th century with a well-tested toolkit for studying the origins of basic vocabulary and morphology, its predictions spectacularly confirmed by such discoveries as laryngeals in Hittite and labiovelars in Mycenaean Greek. Applying this to most Old World languages, and many American or Australian ones, yields a story of discontinuity (be it through language shift or population replacement) that would be familiar to any 19th-century philologist, but that grates somewhat on postmodern ears. Of course, the same toolkit often allows us to detect substrata - elements left over from the population's previous language after they shifted to another one - but that's not enough to satisfy everybody.

A few linguists have responded by trying to change the rules of the game, insisting that the origins of a language should be determined not by vocabulary and morphology, as is normally done, but by purely structural features. This is an important component of Wexler's generally rejected claims that Yiddish is non-Germanic (and that Modern Hebrew is non-Semitic), and is the very essence of Lefebvre's somewhat more popular claims that Haitian Creole is just relexified Fongbe (and almost anything else with "relexification" in the title.) This approach runs into severe problems almost instantly - establishing the history of syntactic or semantic patterns is far more difficult than establishing the history of vocabulary or morphology, simply because the former are far less arbitrary and are chosen from a far smaller set of possibilities. To make matters worse, we also find major discontinuities in such patterns in cases where both the population and the vocabulary were relatively stable, such as the transition from Old English to Modern English. Johanna Nichols' efforts point towards the possibility of getting around this by identifying highly time-stable typological features, but the results, at their best, are not nearly fine-grained enough to support narratives of continuity in any specific location. "Continuitarians" in the Arab world apparently haven't gotten around to adopting this approach yet, except occasionally in Morocco, where academic linguistics is unusually advanced for the region; they surely will, however, when they realise that it could be extended to cases like Egypt, rather than being limited to the Fertile Crescent.

For much of the world, especially Europe, a complete lack of ancient written documentation makes another response available: simply argue that the language currently spoken there must have been spoken far earlier than previously assumed, and hence got there not through invasion but through some more peaceful process. This yields the various Paleolithic Continuity Hypotheses. The main problem with this for linguists is that it forces us to postulate a much lower rate of linguistic change for the past than is observed for languages with a long written history, or even for unwritten languages that happen to have been recorded as long intervals; as a result, these hypotheses have remained fairly unpopular. For the Middle East, however, the point is moot: writing has a longer history there than anywhere else on the planet, and that history reveals regular episodes of language extinction, language shift, invasion, migration, exile, and everything else that we're supposed to be de-emphasising.

So if you really want to emphasise your languages' continuity with your ancestors', these are two more promising ways to do it. But I would suggest that there's no reason to bother. If your current identity isn't working out for you, and you don't think you can reform it, why not work on creating a genuinely new one, rather than perpetuating the obsession with heritage by digging around in history for an even older one? It worked out pretty well for America, after all.


David Boxenhorn said...

I don't disagree with anything you've said here. Nevertheless, I think that the emphasis on ancestor-daughter relationships in historical linguistics is somewhat arbitrary. It's true that it's (usually) the easiest to establish, but this is something like the joke about the guy who lost his keys and looks for them under the light, rather than where he dropped them. There are huge language groupings, like Altaic, that are not based on ancestor-daughter relationships. I think they're important!

Nassoim Tolib of Amiown said...

Good point David, but it is actually worse. He is ruling out that IF my Aramaic ancestors said X for, say, door, and Arabic also said X that it comes from Arabic. Severely flawed. It violates all rules of scientific inference. I drew a map about the right way to do it.
It seems to if 90% of the words I use have shifts & sounds similar to Aramaic, that it is Arabic.

Anonymous Nassoim Tolib of Amiown said...

I meant: It seems to if 90% of the words I use have shifts & sounds similar to Aramaic, that the prior is that it is not Arabic unless proved.

David Marjanović said...

the language of your ancestors is very often not the ancestor of your language

Such a great way to put it! "How stupid of me not to have thought of this myself!"

There are huge language groupings, like Altaic, that are not based on ancestor-daughter relationships. I think they're important!

Whether Altaic is descended from a common ancestor is highly controversial! Bad example. :-) But I think you're thinking of this phenomenon, which is important.

David Boxenhorn said...

Nassim, Lameen excludes words that are shared by both Arabic and Aramaic in his analysis, but he includes hard-to-copy features such as Arabic broken plurals, which Aramaic doesn't have. It's much easier to imagine Aramaic words being imported to Arabic than Arabic broken plurals being imported to Aramaic!

David Boxenhorn said...

David Marjanović, exactly. Altaic is a real, important language grouping *not* based on by-descent relationships.

John Cowan said...

From The Romulan Way (1987), by conlinguist and sf novelist Diane Duane:

Peace, S'task [the Vulcan founder of the Romulan Way] said, was not the way to deal with the universe that now awaited Vulcan. The only way to meet other species, obviously barbaric, was in power to match their own — power blatantly exhibited, and violently, if necessary. [...]

S'task went into seclusion, hunting solutions. He loved his master [Surak, the founder of the Vulcan peace/logic/emotional control movement that dominates modern Vulcan culture], though he had come to hate his reasoning: and he well saw that their disagreement would destroy any chance Vulcan would ever have of facing as a unified entity the powers watching it from outside. [...]

The problem was a thorny one. S'task was no fool: though he was sure he was right, he knew that Surak felt that way too, and one side or the other was bound to be tragically right rather than triumphantly so. One side or the other would eventually win the argument, but the price of the victory would be centuries of bloodshed, and a planet never wholly at one with itself.

Once again the ancient pattern [of pre-Surak Vulcan internecine war] would reassert itself, and S'task's vision of Vulcan as one proud, strong world among many would degenerate into just one more thing to have a war over: the goal itself would be forgotten in the grudges that its partisans would spawn in others and nurture in themselves for hundreds of years.

For this reason alone S'task was unwilling to push the issue to its logical conclusion: civil war. But another question, that of ethic[s], concerned him: he was still Surak's pupil, and as such acknowledged that no cause or goal, however good, could bear a good fruit of so evil a beginning. "The structure of spacetime," Surak had said to him at their first meeting, "is more concerned with means than ends: beginnings must be clean to be of profit." S'task had taken this deeply to heart.

So he proposed a clean beginning, and the proposition made its way through the mindtrees and nets like lightning. If the world was not working, S'task said, then those Vulcans dissatisfied with it should make another. Let them take the technology that the [invading] aliens had inadvertently brought them, and add their own science to it, and go hunting another world, where what they loved would be preserved in the way they thought it should be. Let there be another Vulcan: or rather, the true Vulcan, Vulcan as it ought to be.

John Cowan said...


The arguments went on for fifty years, while the fartravel ships were being built, while more [alien] pirate attacks were beaten back, and the first radio signals from other species further out were decoded. Slowly the 80,000 [proto-Romulans] rallied around S'task, and on 12 Ahhahr 140005 the first ship, Rea's Helm, left orbit and drove outward into a great silence that was not to be broken for two millennia.

The last message from Helm, sent as it cut in its subdrivers, provoked much confusion. It was a single stave in the steheht mode. Like all other Vulcan poetry, its translation is never certain, but more translations of it have been attempted than of any verse except T'sahen's Stricture, and so the sense is fairly certain:

Enthrone your pasts:
  this done, fire and old blood
  will find you again:
better heart's breaking
than worlds'.

It was the Last Song, S'task's farewell to Vulcan, and the last poem he ever made: after it he cut the strings of his rryll and spoke no other song until he died. Some on Vulcan consider that a greater loss than the departure of the 80,000, or all the death that befell as they [the Romulans] returned to the counsels of the Worlds two thousand years later.

In their absence, under Surak's tutelage, Vulcan became one. The irony has been much commented on, that the aliens who presented the threat that almost destroyed Vulcan were eventually the instrument of its unification, and the world which had never not been at war became the exemplar of peace. It has been said that evil frequently triumphs over good unless good is very, very careful. This is true: but it should be added that good frequently has help that looks evil on the surface of it, and that "even God's enemies are in some way his own."

Surak spent his life, and eventually gave his life, for an idea whose time had come — an idea the accomplishment of which would fill other planets, in future times, with envy or longing. But the other side of the idea, the lost side, the incomplete, the failed side, was never out of his mind, or Vulcan's. Among his writings after he died was found this stave:

Dethrone the past:
  this done, day comes up new
  though empty-hearted
O the long silence
my son!

Lameen Souag الأمين سواق said...

David: The primary focus of my work is on contact relationships, so certainly I think they're important too! But you cannot study language contact without studying ancestor-daughter relationships at the same time, in order to be able to disentangle the one from the other.

Nassim: See my latest post. If you're really interested in this stuff, I suggest picking up a textbook - a good one for your needs would be Patrick Bennett's Comparative Semitic Linguistics: A Manual - or taking a course. "90%" is an extremely optimistic estimate in any case!

John: I'm hopeful that any new identities emerging from the Arab world won't be too Romulan, and quite confident that they won't be too Vulcan.

David Marjanović said...

Altaic is a real, important language grouping *not* based on by-descent relationships.

Why are you saying with such certainty that it's "*not* based on by-descent relationships"? Of course there's been a lot of contact between its branches, but why are you so sure that's the whole story?

Anonymous said...

Juste pour dire que je viens de découvrir ton blog en arabe algérien. C'est du très haut niveau, ça m'a fait vraiment plaisir que ce soit écrit en vernaculaire.
Bravo ! j'espère que tu vas continuer à alimenter le blog

Moroccan said...

But, do you accept that Levantine Arabic is heavily influenced by the phonology of Aramaic / Syriac? Can we say the same the thing about Aegyptian Arabic (by Coptic) and Maghrebian Arabic (by Berber)?

Lameen Souag الأمين سواق said...

Merci !

Certainly Maghrebi Arabic phonology has been significantly influenced by Berber. I'm less sure about the other two (and Coptic phonology is a little speculative anyway, since it hasn't survived), but there are certainly at least some Aramaic influences on Levantine Arabic phonology.

petre said...

I work in a very different area from you - Balkan languages - but I read your blog with great interest (though not always great understanding). I'm dismayed to learn that the "relexification" crowd have muscled in on your turf too. I think they were testing the water with Yiddish, and then picked on Romanian as the next soft target.

If they're turning their attention to Semitic languages now, they may well find they've bitten off more than they can chew. See them off, whether by countering their arguments point by point (tiresome) or simply laughing them out of court, that's for you to decide. They are boring attention-seekers who want to pretend they've come up with some "new" idea.

Aliza said...

wow, so interesting. Also the "language of ancestors often /= ancestor language". however re ""If your current identity isn't working out for you, and you don't think you can reform it, why not work on creating a genuinely new one, rather than perpetuating the obsession with heritage by digging around in history for an even older one? It worked out pretty well for America, after all." Did it? What does that even mean? What is an American identity? It isn't sectarian in its own ways? As an American, I am not sure what did or didn't work out well for America and why. But things often look less messy from the outside.
I think everyone needs to tell themselves imaginary origins stories to find a way to change, individuals groups etc. I am not a scientist but am not sure science itself is not about different ways of telling stories meant to get your mind to be capable of different ideas. The previous story was just a story too, anyway. People try on new stories when the old ones aren't working. So, why not?
(If the why not reason has anything to do with "but there is a great American example" of a different approach I am sorry but I am not so sure about the wisdom of said approach.) Mexican and a lot of Central American have some nice examples of mixed national identities however.. And of polyglot language situations too. Maybe they go together.
Now all that said.. if the why not issue (ie the political yuckiness of "We Levantine speak Aramaic not Arabic'") is the racism, sectarianism issue.. meh, I don't know, I think it is too much to ask people to pull themselves out of sectarianism without recourse to also sectarian ideas. Those are the ideas we have in our toolbox; its a toolbox we inherited for thousands of years for millennia. All the Pan-Xism ideas are also their own kind of sectarian, just different lines, different things get to be part of the golden history and different things excluded, different official languages and different things (And different people) go underground..
Anyway interesting post. This got me thinking about how it is wonderful that none of us are sure of who our ancestors are. Maybe it was the milkman, really. And let more and more learn that their ancestor was a so called undesirable, how wonderful.

Aliza said...

Also for the people that are excluded by the "American identity of America" (generally people who are not considered full humans in the history of american power) they do in fact go digging through their history for different sources of identity. Ever been to an Afro Caribbean cultural dance and song class or performance in NYC, you will hear people singing songs made of a language mishmsh that comes from African diaspora, you will find people creating new identities that (in their minds) empower (through culture) ancestors that (in their memory) got no humanity-status in the history of America. its a story and its powerful, to them. i think there is probably a similar impulse behind young assimilated jews getting closer to observant williamsburg jews.. get in touch with a new story on who you are. for the story to be meaningful to you, maybe you have to imagine a concrete aspect- these were my ancestors, this is my "true" language, etc. america is host to a million people and a million groups making new ancestor stories for themselves and holding onto or taking on new langauge.

sure when the story gets picked up by the state, when the story has guns behind it, its another story. but the story itself, the recourse to remaking history and molding your memory of yourself, i dont think ther'es anything wrong with it, or rather, i dont think theres anyway to get humans to get away from it- its part of what being a human being, existing as an individual and a member of a community and communities, is- a product of stories.

Heathcliff al-Huxtable said...

Lameen regarding Coptic, there's an old paper from the 1964 by Wilson Bishai of Harvard that you can read here:

He concludes that there are probably less than 100 Coptic words in modern Egyptian vernacular, and this leads him to make the now disproven claim that Egyptian Muslims must all be Arab immigrants.

But there is a similar movement in Egypt to have the vernacular recognized as its own language, and they even managed to have a wikipedia version for "Masri" created, see here:

We live in an age where being Arab is a stigma, so everyone is flocking away from it