Monday, October 12, 2015

Lyrics and language preservation?

The Berber-speaking oasis of Siwa in western Egypt, where I did doctoral fieldwork, has a rather extensive poetic tradition embodied in song lyrics. Practically every Siwi I spoke to quoted me some lyrics at some point, and songs in Siwi apparently remain a key element of parties. I included a few of these in my book about Siwi, among them four nicely arranged lines referring to Shali, the main town of Siwa:

Quṛ, ya lmendi, quṛ!Dry, O wheat, dry!
Baba nnek yexsa Cali.Your owner misses Shali.
Nan edderb n Cali,People of the Shali road,
Sellemm-i af elɣali.Give the beloved my greetings.

It wasn't until later that I finally received a copy of Bricchetti-Robetti's (1889) article "Sul dialetto di Siuwah", and not until this month that I finally got around to reading it carefully. When I did, I was surprised to find this poem transcribed practically word for word:

qor aimindi qorقور ايمند قور
babenik jiksa - scialiببنك يخس - شالى
nani derbj enscialiتندرب انشالى
salamuet - afelrhaliسلموت افلغالى

Apparently, these lyrics have been passed on orally for more than 120 years, with only minor changes.

There are many ways in which Siwa is different from Tabelbala, the Algerian oasis where I did the other half of my doctoral fieldwork. Linguistically, one that struck me early on was the variability of Tabelbala's language, Korandje, compared to Siwi. In Siwa, there was some interesting variation even within the speech of single individuals (1st sg. -ɣ- vs. -ʕ-, negative copula qačči/'ačči/ɣačči), but it hardly seemed possible to speak of dialects. In Tabelbala, not only did different villages take pains to distinguish themselves by different ways of speaking, but neighbours and cousins often showed substantial differences in pronunciation and even sometimes vocabulary. And whereas Siwis rarely seemed at a loss for words, in Tabelbala even the oldest speakers routinely had trouble finding a word, or disagreed on its meaning once they had remembered it.

Another striking difference is the low profile of Korandje poetry, if it exists at all. Whereas in Siwa I could hardly stop people from telling me lyrics, in Tabelbala my utmost efforts barely dredged up a few ditties which the speakers themselves considered absurdly simple. The poetry that men cared about and appreciated was in dialectal Arabic, and even that was far less prominent than in Siwa. (Some older women reportedly sing Korandje poetry in honour of the Prophet at regular Sufi gatherings, but I was unable to hear any of that; given its subject matter, I suspect the language used would be heavily influenced by Arabic.)

One possibility I'm tempted to consider is that these two facts are causally linked. In Siwa, songs are heard and sung in groups, and the best lyrics are widely circulated and - apparently - remembered for many decades; their rhythm and rhyme makes major rewording impractical. Logically, this should keep less frequently used vocabulary in circulation in much the same way as a written literary tradition, or a national broadcasting service. Without songs, for instance, would Siwi have kept a Berber word for "gazelle" (izem), an animal rarely if ever seen in the oasis today, but to which the beloved is constantly compared? In Korandje, on the other hand, the standardising force of songs and poetry is practically absent, and it's not obvious that anything else in their verbal arts (already sadly atrophied by television) compensates for it.

Does this reflect your experience, or contradict it? How do poetic traditions (or lack of them) in societies you're familiar with seem to affect the prospects for their languages?


mark said...

Interesting! I blogged about an almost perfectly parallel experience in Siwu a few years back: "Refinding the oldest specimen of Siwu". This went the other way round: I knew about the verbal art writted down by Plehn 1889, but I had not been able to verify or fully translate it, until I found a recent version transcribed in an obscure MA thesis in musicology that was gathering dust on the library shelves in Legon. I spoke to Agudze, the author, two years back and he told me that some of these songs are still in use.

Relatedly, I have written about the enduring popularity of funeral dirges here; indeed one of the ways in which the community made me repay my social debts to them was by enlisting me as their recording assistant for a large collection of these, which then went on to become much played at funerals.

John Cowan said...

Though literate cultures are in general more likely to preserve their languages than purely oral ones, cultures in which there are standard works preserved in spoken form and passed between generations count as literate for some purposes, although this kind of literacy is obviously more brittle than ordinary literacy-on-paper.

Jeremy B said...

Hi, I'm a fellow linguist with a background in Arabic. I'm starting to dive into Berber and I don't plan to specialize in one dialect, so anything that could help gasp what's pan Berber would be great. Do you have a bibliography of resources you could recommend? Thanks for your time.

PhoeniX said...

Dear Jeremy B, a really good general introduction (in English!) that was published recently is the description by Maarten Kossmann in "The Afroasiatic Languages".

Another book I could recommend is Kossmann's recent publication on the arabic influence on Northern-Berber:

That is, if you're interested in such contact phenomena.

If you're willing to read French, a more in-depth (but decidedly Tashelhiyt-focussed) book is the excellent recent publication by Galand:

Galand, Lionel : Regards sur le berbère, Milan, Centro Studi Camito-Semitici, 2010. ISBN 978-88-901537-2-3.

For a light-weight introduction to the grammar of a single Berber variety which will also give you a solid foundation to examine other dialects there's the excellent description of the Middle Atlas Berber variety of the Ayt Ndhir written by Thomas Penchoen:

The term "Pan-Berber" is just a term berberologists use to refer to linguistic phenomena which are found in most of the Berber-speaking world.

It's different from, say, "Proto-Berber", in that it is agnostic whether this feature is the result of post-Proto-Berber inter-berber contact or actually an inherited feature from Proto-Berber. In many cases of Pan-Berber features, it is almost impossible to make a call between those two, and that's why it's useful to have the term Pan-Berber. Moreover, many researchers within Berber are agnostic about - if not non-believers of - the existence of a "Proto-Berber" as a linguistic entity.

I hope that helps!

David Marjanović said...

My dialect of German has no poetic register, no tradition of poetry, no poetry that is generally known, and if a word wasn't in my grandparents' active vocabulary, chances are very, very good I simply don't know it. Spontaneous, unassimilated one-off borrowings from Standard German are pretty common.

I'd love to know if that holds true for Carinthia on the other side of the Alps, where (the stereotype goes) if you get any three people together, they can sing in three voices.

David Marjanović said...

:-o Searching YouTube for Kärntnerlied brings up 2970 results. That's amazing.

Guillaume Jacques said...

Dans les régions tibétanisées du Sichuan que je connais (où l'on parle les langues rgyalrong (japhug, situ, tshobdun), le pumi, le muya, le guiqiong etc), les chansons en langue locale (et d'ailleurs tout embryon d'usage littéraire de ces langues) sont très limitées. En japhug, j'ai juste trouvé une chanson de mariage, quasiment sans verbe conjugué, et une invocation au dieu de la montagne, très tibétanisée. Traditionnellement les gens chantaient dans une version locale du tibétain, non-intelligible avec un dialecte existant, et de façon intéressante, le tibétain des chansons est presque du tibétain ancien, conservant les groupes de consonnes mieux que l'amdo ou même le balti (NB: très peu de gens dans la région connaissent le tibétain, écrit ou parlé, la langue véhiculaire étant le chinois). Et de fait, les rgyalrongois sont rarement attachés à leur langue.

Lameen Souag الأمين سواق said...

Mark: A nice parallel indeed! I'd have been glad to do something similar for Siwi, but they seem already to be recording and passing around their songs without help from me...

Jeremy: To PhoeniX's excellent recommendations I would add Jeffrey Heath's Grammar of Tamashek and Karl Prasse's Tuareg Elementary Course. The former is the most complete grammar of a Berber language yet written, though the terminology is often eccentric. The latter is a nice short introduction to Tamahaq, one of the most conservative Berber varieties. Both, unusually for Berber studies, are in English.

David: So does that mean the Carinthian dialect has preserved a richer non-standard vocabulary?

Guillaume: Très intéressant - cela me rappelle un peu les chansons andalousis en Afrique du Nord, qui utilise un parler (andalousi je suppose) éloigné à la fois de l'arabe maghrébin et de l'arabe classique. Est-ce que tu as pensé à décrire le tibétain de ces chansons ?

David Marjanović said...

David: So does that mean the Carinthian dialect has preserved a richer non-standard vocabulary?

As I said, I'd love to know. I think it's likely.

John Cowan said...

I thought it was three Carinthians, five voices. Which is like the joke about the two Jews stranded on the desert island who build three synagogues. When rescued, one explains: "I go to mine, he goes to his, and we both boycott that son-of-a-bitch up on the hill."