Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Getting from "Hey you!" to "If only"

A well-known Algerian proverb has it that:
لي عندهٌ مية يقول يا ميتين
li `andu mya yqul ya mitin
who has hundred says oh two.hundred
He who has a hundred says "If only it were two hundred!" (literally: "Oh two hundred!")

The ya here is not a general-purpose interjection. Unlike English "oh", it's normally used as a vocative, followed by the name of the person you're addressing. That's its primary function in Classical Arabic too. But in Classical Arabic, you can't use it on its own to mean "if only..."; in fact, that usage isn't very common in Algerian Arabic either. Yet the same extension of function from vocative to wish-marker is found in Algerian Berber. In an 18th century Kabyle poem recorded by Mouloud Mammeri in his Poèmes kabyles anciens (p. 132), an aspiring poet, Muh At Lemsaawd, begs the better-established Yusef u Qasi to accept him as an apprentice:

Ul-iw fellak d amaalal
A wi k-isâan d ccix is

My heart is sick for you
If only I had you as my teacher (literally: "Oh he who has you as his teacher!")

You can't do this in Classical Arabic, nor in English: a vocative followed by a noun phrase is going to be interpreted as an act of addressing, not of wishing. But in Arabic you do find an otherwise unexpected vocative particle showing up in some wish constructions, notably يا ليت yaa layta "if only". And in (slightly archaic) English you have a very similar construction with an infinitive in "to" or a prepositional phrase in "for", instead of with a noun phrase: "Oh to be young again!", "Oh for a thousand tongues to sing!" That suggests that the connection between vocative and wishing reflects some general feature of human cognition, or at least of a rather large culture area.

The obvious connection would be through requests. One reason to address someone is to ask them to bring you something. It's not such a big step from "Hey kid, get me a glass of water" to "Hey, a glass of water!", with the addressee and the verb erased, and the vocative particle effectively serving as much to mark the wish as to get the addressee's attention. But that doesn't really predict forms like the Kabyle one, where the state wished for takes the form of a relative clause, nor even the old-fashioned English constructions discussed, so I'm not really happy with this explanation. Any ideas? And can you think of any parallels in other languages?


Benjamin Geer said...

In يا ميتين I wonder if ميتين is personified. "Hey two hundred, come here!"

Other interesting colloquial uses of يا that come to mind:

يا سلام (wow!)
يا خسارة (what a pity!)

And classical ones:

يا للعجب (what a marvel!)
يا له من مغفّل (what a fool he is!)

In Egyptian Arabic, يا can also mean "either...or", as in:

يا النهاردا يا بكرة (either today or tomorrow)

"Oh" in English can express various emotions such as surprise or pain, so perhaps it's not related to anything vocative in "Oh to be young again!"

Alexander said...

In Persian کاش kaash ("I wish", "if only") is frequently prefixed by the vocative particle ای ey (giving us ای کاش ey kaash) so that it perfectly mirrors the Arabic يا ليت . Come to think of it, I would not be surprised at all if the Persian construction were calqued from the Arabic, like so many other Persian phrases. Urdu and Turkish borrow کاش from Persian in the form of کاش که kaash ke "were that", which has become a single word keşke in Turkish, but unlike Persian, neither Urdu nor Turkish ever use it with the vocative to my knowledge.

Abu Ilyás said...

As for Classical Arabic, maybe you should consider what grammarians call نداء التعجب or المنادى المتعجب منه, which somehow departs from the pure vocative function (e.g. يا طرب).

Abu Ilyás said...

This "deviating" يا reminds me of Spanish 'quién' (usually an interrogative pronoun: who) introducing expressions of wish: "¡Quién fuera millonario!" (If only I was millionaire!).

Lameen Souag الأمين سواق said...

Thanks for the comments, everyone!

Benjamin: The semantics of يا do seem to be complicated... The "either... or" use of يا - also found in Algerian Arabic - is probably a borrowing from Persian (via Turkish?), in which يا is the normal word for "or".

Alexander: Interesting parallel.

Abu Ilyas: That usage of quién does rather bring to mind Kabyle a wi.