Sunday, November 30, 2014

Good prescriptivism?

People tend to enter their first linguistics classes with a vague but strongly felt idea, instilled by English teachers or by society at large, that some ways of speaking are bad, illogical, sloppy, rule-breaking, etc. One of our first tasks is thus to explain to them that, actually, such ways of speaking are just as logical and law-governed as standard English, they're simply obeying a different set of rules. Not infrequently, we follow that up by telling them everything that's wrong with the prescriptive rules of Standard English, based ironically on a very similar set of tropes: they're illogical (stop splitting infinitives because you can't do that in Latin), they're historically inaccurate (don't use singular they even though the King James Bible does), they're incompatible with the rules of modern spoken English (eg "it is I") to the point of confusing them into gross solecisms ("they gave it to John and I"). Unless we're careful, the students end up walking away from all that with the impression that linguists think prescriptivism is bad, full stop. That, however, would be a mistake. As irritating as these problems and misconceptions are, they don't affect the case for having a prescriptive standard language - just the extent of its ambitions and the details of its usage.

Prescriptivism, of course, is all about power: who gets to talk how where, and who gets to say how they should talk. As good libertarians, our first reflex might be to say that this is all unnecessary: let everyone decide for themselves! That has two different problems. The first is that, when people decide for themselves, what they end up with is in fact a set of implicit rules for what's appropriate in which circumstances, and if you want to make life easier for visitors from other cultures, the least you can do is make those rules explicit somewhere. The other is that, in the event of any clashes, it's the more powerful individual that gets to decide, which is a particular problem in the case of public services. You want a driver's license, and you only speak English? Sorry, our local transport officials aren't really comfortable with English, so you'd better brush up on your Russian.

The latter example may sound like fantasy to American or English readers (not so much to the Irish or Welsh), but it's rather close to reality in a lot of the world. If you understand Arabic, have a look at this video of Moncef Marzouki, one of the two current presidential candidates in Tunisia, having a go at his Tunisian interviewer for using too many French words: "Respect the Arabic language! Plutôt, what does plutôt mean? You say plutôt, what's that? My sister in Douz won't understand plutôt. [...] [Interviewer: It's a chance for her to learn...] No, she needn't learn - you learn the language of Tunisians!"

It's populism, of course - but, like a lot of populism, it makes a good point. Why the heck should the average citizen have to speak a foreign language to deal with officials and other elites in his/her own country? (Especially in one as close to monolingual as Tunisia?) In such a situation, if the populace doesn't prescriptively impose their language preferences through concerted action, the bureaucracy will simply impose their own in one-to-one interactions.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Berber subclassification: Reading Nait-Zerrad

Kamal Nait-Zerrad's 2001 article "Esquisse d'une classification linguistique des parlers berbères" presents a good deal of useful data, but does so in a manner that I find makes it rather difficult to figure out what's going on without plenty of pencil work. In case anyone else has the same experience, here's my take on it. I will not focus on, or even necessarily present, his interpretation here - read the article for that; rather, I'm more interested in figuring out the implications of the data he presents in the light of other work before and since, and in the light of accepted principles of historical-comparative linguistics.

First, he looks at a number of morphological and phonetic isoglosses:

1. The 3rd person singular preterite of CC verbs: yərra vs. yərru. Following Kossmann (2001), we now know that these are actually CC+glottal stop, so the data exemplifies two different sound changes: the relatively trivial *-aʔ > -a, and and the more surprising *-aʔ > o > u. The former is the commonest outcome; the latter is exemplified by: Ait Seghrouchen, Figuig, Beni Snous, Bissa, Timimoun, Mzab, Ouargla, Nefusa. (Ghadames still has o).

2. The proximal demonstrative suffix: -a vs. -u. Again, -a is the default, but -u appears in the same set of varieties as seen in 1, plus one more: Iznasen.

3. The 3rd person singular aorist of CCV verbs: ad yəbḍu vs. ad yəbḍa. Here, -u is the default, and is closer to the original, while -a has spread from the preterite. This applies to the same set of varieties as 2 (excluding Nefusi), plus several more: Rif, Metmata, Chaoui, Jerba.

4. Initial vowel dropping: a- vs. 0-. A number of *(t)a-CV-initial nouns drop the original vowel of the prefix in the same set of varieties as 3, plus Nefusi, Chenoua, and Siwa.

5. Velar softening: in many varieties, in many words, what would elsewhere be k/kk/g/gg corresponds to c/čč/j/ǧǧ. The latter outcome is observed in the same set of varieties as 4, minus Nefusi.

6. Final *-əv: this is retained as such in Ghadames and Awjila, and as constrative length in Zenaga. Otherwise, it becomes -u in most varieties, but -i in the same varieties as listed in 4, plus El-Fogaha (with a few question marks where the author had insufficient data). Cf. Kossmann (1995).

All of 1-6 pick out Zenati varieties, but the exact set differs: 1-2 pick out a core Zenati consisting almost entirely of northern Saharan varieties, while 3-6 pick out a broader Zenati including the semi-arid mountainous lands stretching from the Rif to southern Tunisia, and vary in their inclusion of varieties further east (Nefusi, El-Fogaha, Siwi). Chaker (1972) cites 1-2 and 5 as possibly justifying a Zenati subgrouping, while Kossmann (1999) defines Zenati in terms of 3, 4, and one other morphological innovation, and then cites 5 and 6 as common phonological innovations.

7. Negative intensive theme: retention/loss. The negative intensive is retained in northwestern Morocco (Rif, Iznasen, Senhaja, Ait Seghrouchen, Figuig); in Bissa; in Tuareg and in the nearby oases of Mzab, Ouargla, and Ghadames; and in Jerba. Its loss everywhere else (according to his data, which should be re-checked) shows no prominent genetic patterning, and hence is probably relatively recent.

Then, he moves on to vocabulary, examining 11 lexical variables which I would summarise as follows:

Several forms appear specifically Zenati: irəḍ in the sense of "be dressed" (though it is more widespread in other senses), igur for "go", əɣs for "want", azəgrar for "long", anilti for "shepherd". Of these, El-Fogaha and Siwa share only əɣs for "want", whereas Nefusi shares all except "go in". adəf "go in" is Zenati-specific in the west, but more confusing in the east, being attested in Ghadames and (as an alternative to əggəz) in Air Tuareg.

Several forms appear specifically Tuareg: răgăz for "go", amaḍan for "shepherd", əggəz in the sense of "go in" (elsewhere "go down"), zəgrət (with the extra t) for "long".

One form unites southern/central Morocco with Kabyle: awtul "hare" (vs. pan-Berber a-yərẓiẓ.)

A couple of forms unite Libyan varieties with Tuareg, contrasting with Algerian and Moroccan varieties, in defiance of any plausible genetic classification, reminding us that a tree does not tell the whole story here:

  • iziḍ "donkey" (Tuareg, Ghadames, Nefusi, Siwa, Awjila) vs. aɣyul (everywhere else except El-Fogaha)
  • tufat/tifut/tafyi "tomorrow" (Tuareg, El-Fogaha, Siwa respectively) vs. azəkka (everywhere else except El-Fogaha, Awjila, and Zenaga)

Based somehow on all this, he proposes the following very odd tree:

  1. Group 1
    1. Senhaja, Middle Atlas, Shilha, Kabyle, Zenaga
    2. Tuareg
    3. El-Fogaha
    4. Awjila
    5. Siwa
  2. Nefusa
  3. Ghadames
  4. Group 4 ("Zenati")
    1. Ait Seghrouchen, Beni-Snous, Timimoun, Figuig, Bissa, Mzab, Ouargla
    2. Iznasen, Jerba
    3. Rif, Metmata, Aures
    4. Chenoua

Apparently, to get this he operated by successively applying at each stage the criterion from his list that divided the data into the lowest number of groups possible, without attempting to distinguish innovations from retentions, much less judge the relative likelihood of independent innovation. The fact that even such a crude method was still able to produce a recognisable Zenati subgroup either says something about the robustness of this distinction or about the selection of features. What this data set actually tells us, bearing in mind that shared retentions have no implications for subgrouping and that Zenaga fails to participate in a number of innovations that otherwise seem pan-Berber or nearly pan-Berber, is something quite different:

  • There is definitely a Zenati subgroup, as has been known at least since Destaing (1915), but its boundaries are a bit fuzzy. (If this reminds you of the situation of "Hilalian" g-dialects, that's probably not a coincidence.)
    • Western Zenati:
      • Core (mainly Northern Saharan): Ait Seghrouchen, Figuig, Beni Snous, Bissa, Timimoun, Mzab, Ouargla
      • Transitional (the High Plateau and its edges): Rif, Metmata, Chaoui, Jerba
      • Peripheral:
        • Chenoua (north-central Algeria)
        • Nefusi (northwestern Libya)
    • Eastern Zenati (Libya/Egypt): El-Fogaha, Siwa
  • There is definitely a Tuareg subgroup, as has always been known: Ahaggar, Iwellemmeden, Air, Taneslemt.
  • There just might be a subgroup combining Kabyle with Senhaja, Central Morocco and Shilha: they share the innovation *-əv > -u, and the word awtul "hare". The evidence for it is very weak, though, especially since *-əv > -u is also found in some Tuareg varieties.

The rest of the common features almost all look like shared retentions.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Out now: The development of dative agreement in Berber

After about two years in the pipeline, an article summarising the results of my British Academy research on agreement in Berber has just come out in Transactions of the Philological Society. If you have access to Wiley Online Library, you can read it online: The development of dative agreement in Berber: beyond nominal hierarchies. If you're interested but don't have access, email me to ask for a copy. Here's the abstract:

Diachronically, agreement commonly emerges from clitic doubling, which in turn derives from topic shift constructions (Givón 1976) – a grammaticalisation pathway termed the Agreement Cycle. For accusatives, at the intermediate stages of this development, doubling constitutes a form of Differential Object Marking, and passes towards agreement as the conditions for its use are relaxed to cover larger sections of the Definiteness and Animacy Scales. Berber, a subfamily of Afroasiatic spoken in North Africa, shows widespread dative doubling with substantial variation across languages in the conditioning factors, which in one case has developed into inflectional dative agreement. Examination of a corpus covering eighteen Berber varieties suggests that low Definiteness/Animacy datives are less likely to be doubled. However, since most datives are both definite and animate, these factors account for very little of the observed variation. Much more can be accounted for by an unexpected factor: the choice of verb. “Say” consistently shows much higher frequencies of doubling, usually nearly 100 per cent. This observation can be explained on the hypothesis that doubling derives from afterthoughts, not from topic dislocation.

Sunday, November 02, 2014

Linguistics for high schools: what would a syllabus look like?

Today, just for fun, I'd like to invite you to discuss a topic a little off the beaten track for this blog: how much linguistics should a high school graduate know? The question may seem bizarre - there have been occasional efforts to introduce linguistics courses into high schools (MIT, Milwaukee), but you don't expect to see "linguistics" on a high school curriculum. Still, let's not get confused by labels. Linguistics is inextricably woven into language teaching, and even the most resolutely monolingual curriculum includes at least the school's own language. (I recently happened to come across an 8th grade final exam from 1895 from Kansas; no foreign languages were featured, but no less than two out of the six subjects tested, Grammar and Orthography, rely heavily on linguistic concepts.)

One useful way of separating linguistic education from language education is to look at universality. Some of what you learn in English class is useful across practically all languages, like the idea of a verb or of a vowel. Some of it is much more parochial; the fact that the plural of "child" is "children" is a historical accident relevant only to English and, at best, its closest relatives. Such parochial facts can be vital, of course; if you're going to grow up in an English-speaking country, you'd better be able to form your English irregular plurals correctly. But the more general concepts have a deeper interest; they help you analyse what you're saying, and make it easier to learn new languages. Unfortunately, those concepts are precisely the ones that have suffered most in recent decades. In the UK, at least, my own experience suggests that most high school graduates can't even reliably tell a noun from a verb. In theory, the latest changes to the English syllabus should change that - but given that many of the teachers were hardly taught any grammar either, one wonders how successful the reform will be.

In any case, if I were designing a syllabus, here is what I would suggest to start with. I'd be interested to see what other linguistically oriented people think:

Phonetics has never been a focus of early education, apart from the minimum necessary for teaching a child to read and write (and even that gets de-emphasised in some approaches). This is a shame, because the younger you are, the easier it is to learn to hear and pronounce unfamiliar sounds. Why not learn:
- The IPA, or at least the most commonly used symbols in it; be able to pronounce and recognise them. This should include tone if at all possible.
- Basic articulatory phonetics: how the configuration of your vocal organs relates to the sound produced, and how to use this knowledge to pronounce unfamiliar sounds. (If your language uses Devanagari, you should have an advantage, as this is practically built in to the alphabet anyway; students of tajweed too will come across this issue at some point.)
- Phonology: the concepts of the phoneme and of conditioned allophones. That way when you learn another language you'll at least know why some sounds give you so much more trouble than others.
- Metric structure: syllable, foot, etc. (Yes, I know the concept of syllable is controversial, but you'll need this to be able to study poetry anyway.)

Morphology is a lot more language-specific than the other topics here, but one should at least know:
- How to decompose a word into its component morphemes (prefixes, suffixes, templates, roots...), and guess its meaning from them if necessary.

Syntax: Unlike phonology, this has traditionally been deliberately taught, and you should certainly know:
- The parts of speech: noun, verb, adjective, preposition, etc... and how to tell them apart.
- Argument structure and case: subject, direct object, nominative, accusative, etc.
- How to to break down a sentence into its phrase structure: what modifies what? What is a phrase, and what is its head? For best results, try being able to diagram it.

Unfortunately, it's not quite so simple: all three of those - especially the latter - are the subject of major controversies between different syntactic theories... (Two good Language Log posts on this issue: parts of speech and sentence diagramming.) If you teach whatever theory happens to be traditional where you're from, you may not make any friends in academia, and you risk perpetuating some old misconceptions; but you will certainly leave your students much better prepared to learn any more current theory - or any language - than if they had studied no grammar at all.

Historical linguistics and sociolinguistics: The language you speak most likely has relatives, and certainly contains words borrowed from other languages. You should understand:
- That there is normally variation inside a single language, which people often use to signal their social position and to identify the social position of others, and over which people's control is limited.
- That languages change over time as some variants become obsolete and others emerge, and in what ways they change - sound shift, semantic shift, borrowing, morphological and syntactic change...
- That different changes accumulating in different areas can split what used to be one language into several, and that people can abandon one language and start speaking another one instead.
- That sound shifts are usually regular, and that this regularity can be used to identify potential cognates (making it easier to learn languages related to ones you know.)

There should certainly also be some semantics and pragmatics in this list, but I'm not feeling especially inspired on either subject at the moment - any thoughts?