Sunday, August 09, 2015

Can two kids change Algerian Arabic? (Probably not, but let's see.)

In central Algerian Arabic, feminine nouns are usually marked by a suffix -a, which becomes -ət when possessed. Pronominal possessors are indicated by suffixes, eg -i "my", -u "his". The lax vowel ə cannot occur in open syllables; when the suffix starts with a vowel, this is resolved by dropping it. If doing so would result in a three-consonant cluster, then, in certain cases, the latter is broken up by inserting a new schwa after the first consonant in the cluster, and geminating that consonant: thus jəfn-a جفنة "big bowl" becomes jəffən-t-i جفّنتي "my big bowl". I've been trying to figure out when exactly this happens in the dialect of Dellys, and finding a good deal of variation, especially in the treatment of sonorants: some people (especially but not exclusively the older ones) say səlʕ-t-i سلْعتي "my goods", leaving the cluster intact, while others say səlləʕ-t-i سلّعتي. I was surprised, however, to find two children, 8 and 10-year-old siblings, using a strategy not, as far as I know, used by adults for nouns at all: changing the problematic ə into a. This was confirmed not just by elicitation (zənq-at-i زنقاتي "my alley", ʕənb-at-i عنباتي "my grape", səlʕ-at-i سلعاتي "my goods") but also by sentences produced; thus for bəlɣ-a بلغة "pair of flip-flops":
ənta ʕəndək bəlɣ-at-ək w ana ʕəndi bəlɣ-at-i انتا عندك بلغاتك وانا عندي بلغاتي
"You have your flip-flops and I have my flip-flops."
and for xədm-a خدماتك "work", completely unprompted:
kəmmli xədm-at-ək كمّلي خدماتك
"Finish your work."
which his older brother actually corrected to kəmmli xəddəm-t-ək كمّلي خدّمتك.

Adults' speech furnishes one plausible model for this strategy - not in nouns but in participles. The active feminine participle takes direct object pronoun suffixes, identical to the genitive ones except in the 1st person singular. In such forms, -ət becomes -at before a vowel, rather than dropping the ə: šayf-a شايفة "having seen (f.)", šayf-at-u شايفاتهُ "having seen him (f. subject)". But its extension to nouns is something quite new; neither their parents nor their elder brother nor any adult I've met use such forms.

Most probably, the next time I go to Dellys I'll find these two children using the normal forms and denying they ever spoke this way. Even now, they already use the normal form for body parts which almost always occur possessed: rəqb-a رقبة "neck" becomes rəqqəb-t-i رقّبتي "my neck". But what if this innovation instead spreads among their peers? Most likely it won't: there seems to be little evidence for children initiating language change, notwithstanding the idea's widespread adoption by generative historical linguists, and adults' innovations are much more likely to be maintained or copied (cf. Luraghi 2013, Foulkes and Vihman fc; for a potential counterexample, see Moyna 2009). For that very reason, however, it will be worth keeping an eye on them; potential counterexamples are always interesting.

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