Sunday, May 01, 2016

Yuck: a borrowing from Arabic into Berber?

One of my son's first words is [x:::], "yuck!" - his attempt to pronounce the Algerian Arabic baby-talk item kəxx(i) كخّ "yuck". I was surprised to learn recently that this word goes back well over a millennium: a hadith in Sahih Muslim records its use in addressing Ali's son Hasan, then a child:
أخذ الحسن بن علي تمرة من تمر الصدقة فجعلها في فيه فقال رسول الله صلى الله عليه وسلم : كخ كخ ارم بها أما علمت أنا لا نأكل الصدقة (link)
Al-Hasan son of Ali took a charity date and put it in his mouth. So the Messenger of God, peace be upon him, said: "Kax, kax, throw it away; don't you know that we do not eat alms?"

Variants of this word (kxx, kexx, kexxa, kəxx) are very widespread in North Africa, not just in Arabic but in Berber too, as you can see from the Barefoot Linguist's Baby Talk database: it's used in Siwi, in Kabyle, in Tarifiyt, and in Senhaja. In Europe, on the other hand, it's far from universal; in fact, I don't know that it's even attested. That suggests that independent parallel innovation is unlikely. /x/ is a perfectly normal phoneme within Arabic, but in Berber it's rare in inherited roots and unlikely to be reconstructible for proto-Berber; all of the Berber languages listed there as having this word are intensely influenced by Arabic. That makes it unlikely that it's a common retention from proto-Afro-Asiatic. The most obvious conclusion is that kəxx has been borrowed from Arabic into Berber. Other cases of the borrowing of baby-talk is certainly attested, but this example seems particularly striking for the word's sheer frequency.

9 comments:

John Cowan said...

You make me wonder about the origin of English yech, yecch [jəx] (spelling pronunciation [jɛx]), of which yuk, yuck is evidently a nativized form. We don't see either word in print until about 1960. Could it have been borrowed too, maybe from Yiddish? The dictionaries just say "imitative", and paralinguistic sounds do have phones not otherwise present in a language, but I think it might just have come from a language where /x/ is commonplace.

MnarviDZ said...

x is indeed rare in Kabyle but does it mean it's a "borrowed" phoneme? I can think of a few words such axxam, etc...

Oh and little ones use xixi more than kexx where I live :)

PhoeniX said...

While I do not contest your etymology, I don't think the rarity of a sound in sound symbolic words like this is a very strong argument.

In every language, including Dutch, sound symbolic language has more sounds than the strict phonemic system.

Dutch baby talk has bah bah. For normal Dutch gatver, getver, gatverdamme or getverdemme is the usual expression of disgust. This is a deformation of godverdomme (God damn me), but you couldn't use the non-deformed in this meaning.

Impressionistically I get the sense that everybody, even dialect speakers that have a velar fricative for g, would pronounce this word with a uvular fricative, but I'm going to have to test that some time.

Anonymous said...

Proto-World: (k)axx, subhanallah.

Peter Norman said...

Nothing to do with this post, but don't know how otherwise to send this. I came across this article in our local paper today about the Zenaga language and a project at the local university investigating its relationship to local place names here (Canaries) etc.

Hope it's of some interest, if you're not already aware of it.

http://www.laopinion.es/sociedad/2016/05/03/herencia-lengua-zenaga/672611.html

Lameen Souag الأمين سواق said...

John: Good question! Surprised to hear "yuck" is so recent.

Mnarvi: axxam is a difficult case, yes; one possibility is that it derives from Arabic خيمة (in Moroccan Shilha you get axyam "tent"), but that's not certain. I wonder if xixi is the original Berber baby talk word, and kexxi an Arabic substitute (like you hear people saying both nenni and dodo in Arabic).

PhoeniX: Can't argue with that; I think the presence of the initial k- is stronger evidence than the rarity of x in this case.

Anonymous: I wouldn't be too confident of that...

Peter: I heard a bit about that. It sounds interesting in principle, but last I checked they didn't seem to have any linguists involved who would be likely to manage to write a grammar of Zenaga.

Peter Norman said...

It's a three-year project, but yes, it's a bit hard to tell whether it's a serious linguistic enterprise or merely folkloristic. Do you want me to delve a bit locally (amateurly, as it's way outside my field)?

L.H said...

I think it can be a common retention from proto-Afro-Asiatic, since in both Tamazight and Tachelhit, we find "ixxan" (excrement) and "axna" (bottom).

Moroccan Arabic doesn't use "kexxi"... the most common word is "ix".

petre said...

Sounds like cack to me.