Thursday, December 31, 2015

10 years on

This year marks the end of Jabal al-Lughat's first decade. Hard to believe I've been doing this for ten years - when I wrote my first post (on N'Ko) in 2005, I formally hadn't even begun to study linguistics! It's been a great way to explore ideas not yet ready for writing up, to record observations or resources, and, sometimes, to get in touch with interesting people. This date seems as good an excuse as any to thank you all for your comments and support, and to wish you all a happy 2016.

It's been interesting to observe the changes in blogging over the years. When I started in 2005, the "blogosphere" was still new enough to be vaguely trendy. The term had apparently caught on in 2002, and that's also when linguistics blogging started to be a thing; Language Hat was started in 2002, and Language Log in 2003. Blogs tended to link to each other a lot, and you could follow the links back to see who was discussing what you had posted and in what context. However, that gradually changed sometime around 2011 or so, as Twitter and Facebook took over (a phenomenon that very much struck Hossein Derakhshan upon his release). For a long time now, most of my inbound links that aren't Google searches have been those shortened URLs habitually used by Twitter, or Facebook pages accessible only to somebody and their friends. Blogs are probably more numerous than ever, but I'm barely seeing a blogosphere any more, in the sense of an ecosystem of blogs interacting with one another; rather, most of it seems to be feeding into two big private aggregators, and a lot of the conversation is taking place there directly, with no blogs involved.

In case you were wondering: the pageview records only go back to 2010, but over the past five years, my top ten most popular posts have apparently been:

  1. Does Arabic have the most words? Don't believe the hype (2013 - almost 3 times as many views as the next one)
  2. Kabyle dialect geography and the Kutama-Zwawa divide (2006)
  3. How different are Egyptian and Algerian Arabic, really? (2013)
  4. Gaddafi Jr's speech (2011)
  5. Who has more than 40 words for camels? (2007)
  6. No, Berber isn't descended from Arabic (2009)
  7. A little mystery: an unidentified Indic language in the Genizah collection (2013)
  8. Wikileaks and Algeria's "language crisis" (2011)
  9. Language use in Tunisian politics (2011)
  10. Beni-Snous: Two unrelated phonetic forms for every noun? (2009)

All but two of these posts feature Arabic; apparently, rather more Internet users are interested in Arabic than in Berber or Songhay, understandably I suppose. Most of them wouldn't be anywhere near my own top ten; indeed, two of them are just quick and dirty passing comments on current events, with no further relevance. However, the Beni-Snous one seemed important enough to me that I gradually ended up developing it into an article: Syntactically obligatory code-switching? The syntax of numerals in Beni-Snous Berber. Of wider interest are several posts addressing popular conceptions and misconceptions: No, Berber isn't descended from Arabic and Does Arabic have the most words? Don't believe the hype remain fairly accessible debunkings of myths that unfortunately remain popular, while How different are Egyptian and Algerian Arabic, really? takes a step towards quantifying a question usually discussed much more impressionistically. Wikileaks and Algeria's "language crisis" also kind of fits this category, addressing misconceptions about Algerian sociolinguistics that seem to affect quite a few decision-makers.

So if I wanted to make this blog more popular, it seems that the way to do it would be to start posting regularly about popular myths about Arabic as reflected in current news stories. Needless to say, that's not in my plans - as long as I have anything to say about it, most postings here will continue to be esoteric, eclectic, sporadic, and of limited interest.

Monday, December 28, 2015

Raisins from Carthage to Siwa

Most Berber varieties have borrowed the word for "raisin" from Arabic, eg Kabyle azbib, or use a compound "dried grapes", eg Shilha aḍil aqurar. However, in Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt the situation is rather different, as this Facebook post illustrates:
Location Word for "raisin" In Arabic script
Djerba izummucen
Jadu iz/ẓemmuken ايزموكن
Nalut ijemmusen ايجموسن
Zuwara ijemmucen ايجموشن
Yefren, El-Qalaa ijummucen, ijemmac ايجمّوشن, ايجوموشن, اجماش
Siwa ijeṃṃusen إجموسن

The variation in the consonants is not completely regular, but note that there is a regular correspondences between k in Jadu and š in Yefren and Siwa (from palatal *ḱ), and that sibilant harmony is a fairly productive process in Berber.

As far as I know, this word's etymology has not previously been investigated, so I was happy to discover it this morning quite by chance. It happens to be attested in an ostracon from about 2000 years ago (give or take), found at the site of Al Qusbat, on the Libyan coast east of Tripoli:

This line in Neo-Punic - that is, the later Phoenician dialect spoken in North Africa - starts ldn`ṭ' `sr kkr' ṣmq, rendered by Jongeling and Kerr (Late Punic Epigraphy, 2005:24) as "for Donatus, 10 talents of dried fruits". As usual for Phoenician, the interpretation relies mainly on its much better documented close relative Hebrew: in this case, the relevant comparison is to the ṣimmuq-îm צִמֻּקִים֙ "raisins", attested 4 times in the Hebrew Bible. In Hebrew, the root of this word, ṣmq, means "to dry up"; in Arabic, the same root yields the rare forms ṣāmiq "thirsty", ṣamaqah "milk that has gone off". The direction of borrowing is therefore clear: from Phoenician into eastern Berber.

Now most of the attestations of this form are in a region where intense Punic influence is completely unsurprising: the coast of Tripolitania and southern Tunisia. However, any Classicist will remind us that Phoenician rule stopped at the Arae Philaenorum: eastern Libya was in Greek hands, and Phoenician never had any significant presence there. What, then, is this word doing in Siwa? The answer is simple, as I discuss in the introduction to my book Berber and Arabic in Siwa (Egypt): modern Siwi seems to derive mainly from a Berber variety spoken much further west, which reached Siwa only during the Middle Ages. There very probably was a Berber language spoken in Siwa before that, but if so, it has left very few traces.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Austin in Augusta: how is it that non-performative non-assertions can be problematic?

Recently, a geography teacher in Augusta County, Virginia named Cheryl LaPorte set her students the following homework assignment:
"Calligraphy - the art of writing - is sacred to Muslims [sic]. It was born from the Arabic script of the Koran. [...] Here is the shahada, the Islamic statement of faith, written in Arabic. In the space below, try copying it by hand. This should give you an idea of the artistic complexity of calligraphy."
The shahada is the statement that "There is no god but God, and Muhammad is the Prophet of God". Predictably, this made some parents very angry. Less predictably, it ended up making the national news, rather than remaining a question for Augusta County to worry about. Concerned editorials presented the situation as either an example of creeping Islamic indoctrination or a symptom of reactionary Christian ignorance, while concurring in any case that we should all be deeply concerned about it. So many emails poured in, threatening protests and violence, that the county was scared into closing the schools temporarily.

How could asking students to copy out a short phrase have this effect? Well, we know the objections of one parent at least, Kimberly Herndon (WHSV):

"I am preparing to confront the county on this issue of the Muslim indoctrination taking place here in an Augusta County school. This evil has been cloked in the form of multiculturism. My child was given the creed of the Islam faith to copy. This creed that is translated: There is no god but Allah. Mohammed was Allah's messenger. This is recited during their pledge to the Islamic faith. This creed is connected to Jihad in that it is the chant that is shouted while beheading those of Christian faith, or people of the cross as being called by ISIS. [...] Also unknowingly they [the children] were instructed to denounce our Lord by copying this creed of Islam."
Apart from the ridiculous ISIS connection, the keywords here are "indoctrination" - the idea that this assignment constitutes an attempt to make students Muslim, or at least to make them believe a particular ideology - and "to denounce our Lord by copying this", the idea that copying the shahadah amounts to declaring that Jesus is not God. Of these, it's the latter that is fundamental: the former makes little sense unless taken as a corollary of the latter.

If this is indeed Ms. Herndon's understanding of the situation, she would be well-advised to read John Austin's How To Do Things With Words. Austin, an Oxford philosopher, became famous in linguistics for pointing out that many sentences that superficially look like statements of fact are, in fact, actions in their own right: "When I say, before the registrar or altar, &c., 'I do', I am not reporting on a marriage: I am indulging in it." These sentences he termed performatives. The shahada is a classic example of a performative sentence: by uttering those words under the appropriate circumstances, one becomes a Muslim. Such an outcome is clearly not desired by Ms. Herndon, and for the teacher to seek it would violate the US constitution.

However, as Austin points out in great detail, performatives are effective ("felicitous") only when appropriate circumstances apply. These are determined by social consensus ("accepted procedure"), and, where relevant, by sincerity of intention. In this case, Muslim scholars have devoted a good deal of thought to the question of what count as the appropriate conditions for the shahadah to be felicitous from their perspective - for some English samples, try eg or Dr. Fouad - and copying out an untranslated phrase in a language you don't understand in order to complete your homework fails at the first hurdles: the student neither has knowledge of what is being said, nor certainty as to its correctness, nor sincerity in its assertion... In short, this exercise does not satisfy the conditions for performativity, and as such does not commit the student to the claim made in the shahadah. So there's nothing to worry about!

But surely Ms. Herndon would already agree that the children who copied this didn't actually "denounce our Lord", since they copied it "unknowingly"? If so, then her issue must lie elsewhere. "Indoctrination" is perhaps a relevant lead; the teacher presumably knew the meaning of the words, so, in Ms. Herndon's view, that presumably means that she was attempting to make them repeat words they wouldn't have repeated if they had known what they meant, which would be an abuse of authority. But that just leads us back to the original question: why wouldn't/shouldn't they have been willing to copy these words if they had known what they meant?

I'm not sure I have a philosophically sound answer, yet on that question I share the same intuition: I wouldn't sing or want my children to sing a song about Jesus being God, even though songs don't commit their singer to the statements they contain. It seems that statements felt as blasphemous, rather than merely false, continue to be felt as such even in contexts where they clearly can't be interpreted as assertions by the speaker. In that respect, they resemble swearwords, although with swearwords it goes even further - if you give an accurate quote of someone swearing, then you're swearing yourself, quotation marks be damned. In a Christian context, one might explain this by the commandment not to take the name of the Lord in vain. However, the fact that she didn't appeal to it, and the fact that this intuition is shared by non-Christians, suggests that that would merely be rationalisation.

This is not a domain I've worked on much, so let me open up the floor to any reader who's made it this far: what's going on here? Does anyone have a coherent and empathetic explanation for why some types of statements should be felt as problematic even when clearly not asserted?

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Lunja in Sicily, and more Lunja from Dellys

I've now read quite a few Lunja stories, enough to say that there is in fact a core Lunja story which is virtually identical in the mountains of Morocco and Kabylie, as well as a few more scattered stories about Lunja. But the biggest surprise for me was that a Lunja story virtually identical to the northern Moroccan ones is told in Sicily. You can read it online in Crane's (1885) translation, "Fair Angiola", and compare it with several obviously much less closely related stories from the rest of Europe. The name is interestingly distorted: I can only suppose that it represents an etymological hybrid of Lunja with Angela.

Its presence in Sicily should not be too surprising; Sicily was ruled by North African Muslims for several centuries, who are ancestral to many Sicilians today, and they even tell stories of the pan-Arab trickster Juha (baptised as Giufa). But comparison of the two versions is instructive. In North Africa, after they escape, the hero is carried away by a vulture, and Lunja has to disguise herself as a dog (in Morocco) or a slave (in Kabylie) in order to find a place in his parents' household while waiting for his return - a transparent metaphor for the situation of a new bride, who in this part of the world traditionally comes to live at her in-laws' house under the thumb of her mother-in-law. In Sicily, it's the witch she escaped from who curses her to become a dog, and she can't come to live with the hero's parents until the curse is lifted. I don't know what social reality that corresponds to in Sicily, if any, but the difference in the story does correspond to a difference in marriage customs: in Sicily and the rest of southern Italy, newlyweds traditionally started their own household ("neolocal"), rather than living with the groom's parents.

I've also managed to learn a little more about the Lunja story in Dellys - enough to confirm that, despite the substantial differences, it must be cognate. Apparently, at some point in the story, the hero comes and asks "waš ʕšatək əl-lila ya lunja, ya lunja?" ("What was your dinner tonight, Lundja, Lundja?") and she replies "ʕšati nŭxala, wə-mbati mʕa zzwayəl" ("My dinner is bran, and my sleep is with the livestock"), or words to that effect. This is immediately recognisable as what happens in the better-known versions of the story after they run away, while the hero is a captive. It also seems that the superhero team consists of her brothers, which suggests some possible leads. But more investigation is required...

Friday, December 04, 2015

Lundja daughter of - whom? Some of a myth's many guises

One of the classic characters of north African folklore is Lundja or Nuja, a girl who... well, a girl, anyway. The name is widespread, but the story is somewhat more variable. Vermondo Brugnatelli and Hamid Oubagha record practically identical versions from western Kabylie (with the heroine named Lunja and Nuja respectively), in which a prince raised in luxury and isolation ventures forth to seek out Lunja, daughter of the ogress; they fall in love and escape by virtue of Lunja's wits, but the prince is swallowed up by a vulture on the way back, and Lunja disguises herself as a slave and toils for the king's household, regularly visited by the prince's soul in the form of a bird, until they manage to bring him back by offering the vulture a fat cow. In his fascinating but speculative article, Brugnatelli argues, based on some rather stretched comparisons with a widespread North African rain-making custom (which I might discuss later), the Ugaritic myth of Aqhat, and the Greco-Levantine myth of Adonis, that the prince in this story was originally a rain god, and Lunja his bride.

However, there are many versions of the story of Lundja - perhaps even many stories featuring Lundja. For Figuig (SE Morocco), Sahli (2008) records one where the connection with weather on which Brugnatelli speculates is made positively blatant, but in a manner difficult to reconcile with his specific hypothesis. In this version, Lundja is an ordinary girl, tied by her hair to a lote-tree by jealous comrades, who escapes only to stumble into the ogress's house. The ogress makes her her servant, and among other things requires her to tend her baby son, to whom Lundja sings Mi teḍṣid teffeɣ-d tfuyt, mi tilled taɣ tbica "When you smile, the sun shines; when you cry, the rain falls". She assigns her impossible tasks, but the birds help her to accomplish them. Eventually, her cousin shows up to rescue her, and Lundja manages to outwit the ogress in ways strikingly similar to Brugnatelli's version. She escapes with the ogress's bags of wind, sun, rain, and axes (perhaps originally thunderbolts?), and throws them one by one to the ogress each time she's about to catch them, delaying the ogress long enough for them to escape safely - and they live happily ever after. In this version, even more than in the western Kabyle one, Lunja's boyfriend is just a sidekick, and the real action is between Lunja and the ogress.

In Dellys, just a few dozen kilometres north of where Brugnatelli recorded his version, no ogress even features. Instead, Lundja is the daughter (or captive?) of Drig the ogre (دريڨ الغول drig əl-ɣul), who ties her long, long hair to his teeth when he sleeps to stop her escaping. To rescue her, they assemble a veritable team of superheroes: ضرّاب السيف đ̣əṛṛab əs-sif, the Sword-Striker; سمّاع الندى səmmaʕ ən-nda, the Dew-Hearer (to hear the ogre's snores from miles away); ضرّاب خطّ الرّمل, đ̣əṛṛab xəṭṭ əṛ-ṛməl, the Geomancer; and سلاّك الحرير من السدرة səllak əl-ħrir mə-s-sədra, the Disentangler of Thread from the Lote-Tree (to disentangle her hair from his teeth). Unfortunately, no one I know remembers much of the actual plot - and I've never come across anything similar in books or online, although the last of these "superheroes" clearly echoes the opening of the Figuig version of this story.

Brugnatelli tries to connect Lundja's name to those of a rain-making custom once widespread in the Maghreb, in which children dress up a ladle (Berber aɣenja) in women's clothes and go through the streets with it chanting a prayer for rain, while passers-by pour water on it. Whatever the plausibility of that connection, the name of Drig points in a rather different direction. In the context of an old North African port which received many Andalusi refugees in its day, one can hardly fail to be reminded of Roderic/Ludharīq لذريق, the last Gothic king of Spain, depicted in later legend as a usurper who kidnapped the daughter of one of his own noblemen. Could this be an Andalusi, or Andalusianised, version of the same folktale? Any leads would be welcome!

Sahli, Ali. 2008. Muʕjam Amāzīγī-`Arabī (xāṣṣ bi-lahjat 'ahālī Fijīj) yaḍummu qawā`id hāđihi l-lahjah wa-jāniban min turāŧihā l-'adabī. Oujda: El Anouar El Maghribia.