Tuesday, August 22, 2017

What's wrong with the obvious analysis of waš bih واش بيه?

In the Algerian Arabic dialect I grew up speaking, "what's wrong with him?" is waš bi-h? واش بيه. (Further west, in Oran and in Morocco, it's the more classical sounding ma-leh? ما له.) When the object is a pronoun, as it usually is, waš bi-h? can readily be understood as waš "what?" and bi-, the form of "with" (otherwise b) used before pronominal suffixes (in this case, -h "him"). But substitute a noun, and this historically correct interpretation becomes synchronically untenable: we say waš bi jedd-ek? "what's wrong with you (lit. your grandfather)?" واش بي جدّك, whereas "with your grandfather" would be b-jedd-ek بجدّك. Nor can we cleft it with the relative/focus marker lli اللي: *waš lli bi jedd-ek? (*"what is it that's wrong with you?") is totally ungrammatical, while *waš lli b-jedd-ek? does not have the appropriate meaning (in fact, out of context, it makes no sense at all). This tells us that, whatever its origins, waš bi- can no longer be analysed as "what?" plus a preposition "with"; it has to be treated as a morphosyntactic unit in its own right. In particular, this bi- cannot be used to form an adverbial - it only forms a predicate - so it can hardly be treated as a preposition. Nevertheless, it continues to take the prepositional pronominal suffixes: "what's wrong with me?" is waš bi-yya? واش بيَّ, not *waš bi-ni.

The independent unity of waš bi-? becomes a lot clearer when the construction is borrowed into another language, as has happened in the Berber variety of Tamezret in southern Tunisia. The stories recorded there by Hans Stumme shortly before 1900 are a bit hard to read, but provide probably the single most extensive published corpus of material in Tunisian Berber. These texts furnish many examples of aš bi-, although Tamezret Berber neither has to mean "what?" (that would be matta) nor bi- to mean "with" (that would be s). Many of these look just like Arabic: aš bi-k "what's wrong with you? (m.)" (p. 14, l. 11); aš bi-kum "what's wrong with you (pl.)?" (p. 27, l. 26), aš bi-h "what's wrong with him?" (p. 14, l. 3); and even, with a noun, aš bi iryazen "what's wrong with men?" (p. 41, l. 5). But the similarity is somewhat deceptive; in some cases, this construction takes Berber rather than Arabic pronominal suffixes, as illustrated by aš bi-ṯ "what's wrong with her?" (p. 25, l. 21) instead of Arabic aš bi-ha, aš bi-m "what's wrong with you (f.)?" (p. 10, l. 5). Unfortunately, the texts do not provide a complete paradigm - further documentation is needed! But judging by the available data, all cells but 3m.sg. match well with the Berber paradigm:

Algerian ArabicTamezretTamezret, direct objectsTamezret, objects of prepositions
2m.sg.waš bi-kaš bi-k-ak-k
2f.sg.waš bi-kaš bi-m-am-m
2m.pl.waš bi-kumaš bi-kum-akum / -awem-kum
3m.sg.waš bi-haš bi-h-ṯ-s
3f.sg.waš bi-haaš bi-ṯ-ṯ-s

The 2m.sg. and 2m.pl. suffixes are quasi-identical between Tamezret Berber and Arabic, facilitating the borrowing; for the second person, neither language clearly distinguishes direct object forms from objects of prepositions. The third person, however, distinguishes the two in Berber but not in Arabic, and 3f.sg. suggests that the object in this construction is treated as a direct object, not as the object of a preposition, contrary to the situation seen for Arabic. This fits Berber-internal patterns; throughout Berber, nonverbal predicators (Aikhenvald's "semi-verbs") typically take the direct object pronominal paradigm, and assign absolutive case to their arguments. The perfect agreement of the most frequently used cells in this paradigm between Arabic and Berber surely facilitated the borrowing of this item, but within Berber the paradigm got rebuilt on a largely Berber basis. In morphology, etymology is not destiny!


Abu Ilyás said...

I cannot say about Oran, but in Morocco you would rather hear "ma lu", not "ma-leh". By the way, how would you say "what's wrong with your grandmother"?

Hans said...

Are the identical pronoun forms (-k, -kum) loans from Arabic or cognates?

Lameen Souag الأمين سواق said...

Abu Ilyás: In Oran, it really is ma-leh - one of the odder traits of western Algerian dialects. waš bi jedda-k would be "what's wrong with your grandmother?", but it takes some work to find a context where that way of putting it would be appropriate; usually in such a case "grandmother" would be topical, so you'd get jedda-k waš bi-ha?

Hans: -k is definitely cognate. -kum might be a borrowing from Arabic.

Abu Ilyás said...

I see. Actually I was wondering whether "waš bi jedd-ek?" could actually be some evolution from a topical "waš bih, jedd-ek?".

What I find interesting is "jedda-k" (your grandmother) instead of "jeddat-ek" or something like that. How would you say "my grandmother", then? "Jedda" alone? (I am thinking of 'bba', "my father", or 'imma', "my mother" in Moroccan.)

Hans said...


Imed Adel said...

Abu Ilyás: "jeddat-ek" sounds like "your grandmothers". "My grandmother" would be "jedda-ya", "ṃṃʷima", or weirdly "ŭmm-i yammi" (I hear it a lot in Tunis dialect).

You might also encounter "nana" (sounds archaic to me)

PS. These are used in Tunisia.

Abu Ilyás said...

Thanks a lot, Imed. You are right: actually, "jdat-ek" might have been a more accurate transcription. Anyway, final -a in "jedda" being not
treated as -at when followed by a pronominal possesor affix occurs in Moroccan too (cf. Heath, Jewish and Muslim Dialects of Moroccan
Arabic, 2002, p. 81, where he lists ždda, lalla, ʕziza, nanna, mamma, ḥanna...), just I didn't know this feature was common as well in Algeria and Tunisia (where I used to hear "mamät-ek").

Lameen Souag الأمين سواق said...

Abu Ilyás: In Dellys, "my grandmother" actually is jeddati, bizarrely enough, even though you have jeddak, jeddaha, etc. But people would more often say ṃṃʷani.

Imed Adel: You might be interested to know that I think "nana" is of Berber origin (but I haven't published the argument yet).

Imed Adel said...

Abu Ilyás: personally I say "ṃṃʷimt-ek", "mamät-ek" sounds more "Tunisois" and "jedda-k" can be heard anywhere. Some children are starting to use a newly adapted word; "jeddt-ek" [jettek] and "jeddt-i" [jetti]. The linguistic situation is indeed very complex, I might even say that all the features of the Moroccan dialects can be found in the Tunisian ones.

Lameen Souag: just to make sure, it is with an emphatic "n" (ṇaṇa), right? "dada" is another bizarre word, meaning "mom", with an unknown origin. More bizarrely, it is not only used by my father and my uncles to call their mother (named an even more bizarre name, Gŭṛṛiyya) but it is used by anyone who knows my grandmother as if it became her nickname. Weirdly, I never heard anyone else from any other place using the word "dada" for "mom". "dada-k" (your mom) is also used.

I know that "dada" means "father" in Berber.

Abu Ilyás said...

Thanks again, Lameen and Imed.

Heath assumes that 'nanna' (~ nana) is Berber and refers to Taifi's Dictionnaire Tamazight-Français (1991, p. 458), while adding that "Latin nonna may also be involved directly or as a source for Berber forms (G. Colin 1999:99)" (2002, p. 80).

David Marjanović said...

Weirdly, I never heard anyone else from any other place using the word "dada" for "mom".

"Georgian is notable for having its similar words 'backwards' compared to other languages: 'father' in Georgian is მამა (mama), while 'mother' is pronounced as დედა (deda). პაპა papa stands for 'grandfather'."

Mama ranges all the way to "Father of the Church".

Anonymous said...

I don't get it. What is the bottomline?

"Waš bih"/"aš bih" is, in both languages, a verbal construction, of unknown origin?

Is the direction of the loan certain?

Lameen Souag الأمين سواق said...

The origin is very clear: Arabic "what with?" My point is that, contrary to first impressions, it's developed into something else; it's now a unit, no longer a combination of interrogative pronoun + preposition.

Anonymous said...

OK, I see. Thanks!

petre said...

I'm not altogether convinced that "ma-leh? ما له." is altogether as pessimistic (in Oran) as you make it appear. I always just interptreted it as "how is/are".

Anonymous said...

never really heard anybody say "jedda-k" in the west,it's either "دادا" or "حنا" as far as i know