Friday, June 17, 2016

Language Contact in the Sahara: An overview

I am very happy to announce the publication of my freely accessible overview of Language Contact in the Sahara, written for the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Linguistics. Apart from being the first introduction to this topic to cover both sides of the Sahara, it encapsulates a good deal of my research program over the past few years, and gives some idea of what remains to be done in this domain. Here's the abstract; if it sounds interesting, go read it!
As might be expected from the difficulty of traversing it, the Sahara Desert has been a fairly effective barrier to direct contact between its two edges; trans-Saharan language contact is limited to the borrowing of non-core vocabulary, minimal from south to north and mostly mediated by education from north to south. Its own inhabitants, however, are necessarily accustomed to travelling desert spaces, and contact between languages within the Sahara has often accordingly had a much greater impact. Several peripheral Arabic varieties of the Sahara retain morphology as well as vocabulary from the languages spoken by their speakers’ ancestors, in particular Berber in the southwest and Beja in the southeast; the same is true of at least one Saharan Hausa variety. The Berber languages of the northern Sahara have in turn been deeply affected by centuries of bilingualism in Arabic, borrowing core vocabulary and some aspects of morphology and syntax. The Northern Songhay languages of the central Sahara have been even more profoundly affected by a history of multilingualism and language shift involving Tuareg, Songhay, Arabic, and other Berber languages, much of which remains to be unraveled. These languages have borrowed so extensively that they retain barely a few hundred core words of Songhay vocabulary; those loans have not only introduced new morphology but in some cases replaced old morphology entirely. In the southeast, the spread of Arabic westward from the Nile Valley has created a spectrum of varieties with varying degrees of local influence; the Saharan ones remain almost entirely undescribed. Much work remains to be done throughout the region, not only on identifying and analyzing contact effects but even simply on describing the languages its inhabitants speak.


Y said...

Just to be contrary, are there any Saharan varieties showing little or no contact/shift influence, to the degree that they can say something distinctive about the dialects of the first Arabic settlers in the area?

John Cowan said...

Very interesting! Two questions/points:

1) How is it known that double negation is innovative in Berber? I thought there were no records of connected Berber text before Arabic influence.

2) I should think that səbbat is more likely the result of etymological nativization than a Greek or Latin intermediary. Arabic-speaking Jews surely knew all about the Hebrew š to Arabic s correspondence. In particular, I'm wondering if consonant gemination survived in spoken African Latin (it is otherwise preserved as such only in Italian): I can find no information on this.

David Marjanović said...


Lameen Souag الأمين سواق said...

Y: Probably the least shift-influenced Saharan dialect would be that of eastern Libya, but rather than representing the dialect of the very first Arabic speakers to arrive, it seems to show significant influence from more recent Arab arrivals.

John Cowan:
1) We don't have direct evidence, but the indirect evidence is pretty compelling. The second element of double negation in Berber is almost always transparently derived from "thing", and the least Arabic-influenced varieties don't have double negation at all. Moreover, the oldest Berber texts containing negation that we do have, from Ibadi communities of Libya, use single negation, even though that area's dialects today use double negation. Christopher Lucas' PhD thesis has a good discussion of this question.

2) Such toponymic evidence as I can think of suggests that consonant gemination did indeed survive: Chullu became al-Qull, and Thugga became Dugga. But that probably ought to be cross-checked against substandard forms in inscriptions and other such evidence.

John Cowan said...

Okay, so that lets the Latin and Greek possibilities back in, but I still think etymological nativization is a reasonable alternative contender.

I didn't understand that the double negation being discussed here was of the ne ... pas type; I was thinking of negation marked on every word that can handle it, as in Spanish No le dijo nada a nadie, cf. nonstandard English He didn't say nothing to nobody.

PhoeniX said...

Congrats on this wonderful new publication.

A bit off-topic, but Thugga is kind of a funny. In Libyco-Berber as well as in Punic the placename is written tbgg. Whatever Thugga represents, it seems like a buat representation of tbgg. Rössler suggests that it represents *tubgag, which may have been an historical spelling for an alreasy assimilated form *tuggag, where the final g was dropped because Latin doesn't have final g. I wonder if it's an indication that the b there was pronounced as a *β, as in Proto-Berber, where Punic had no trouble representing it with a b sign, because that was one (if not the only) realization of original *b, whereas in Latin it was simply represented by nothing.

It's pretty odd that Latin would write a geminate there though... I wonder what that means.

Lameen Souag الأمين سواق said...

Perhaps both the h and the gemination are attempts to represent a pronunciation along the lines of *Tuhgag. That would imply a rather early date for the shift *β > h, but not unreasonably so. Don't know why they didn't turn it into Thuggax then, though.

Etienne said...

Lameen: I just finished reading it. Congratulations! Very thorough, very clear, very informative: I've learned quite a lot.

John Cowan: while you are right that Italian is the only Romance variety which preserves consonant germination as such today, it is quite clear that consonant gemination must have been preserved in practically all Romance varieties spoken West of Italian for centuries after the fall of the Western Roman Empire: thus, I think that the default assumption for North African Romance should indeed be that it too had preserved geminate consonants when it first came into contact with Arabic.

niewiem said...

Hi! I just came by to say that I love your article! As a bachelor's degree assyriologist and absolute passionate about loanwords, your work just took my heart.