Monday, March 19, 2018

English spelling traces in Algerian placenames

Going east of Algiers along the coast, the names of two little port towns stand out. Their inhabitants know them as جنّات /d͡ʒənnat/ (sometimes جنّاد /d͡ʒənnad/) and دلّس /dalləs/ (or الدّلّس /ddalləs/). Those names would normally be transcribed in French as *Djennat (if not *Djennette) and *Delless. Yet in French - and hence, given the region's colonial history, in most Western languages - they are in fact written as Djinet and Dellys; the latter at least is very often even (mis)pronounced accordingly as /dɛlis/. French i and y are both normally pronounced /i/; why on earth would Frenchmen write the schwa /ə/ of these names in this way, when French has a schwa and normally writes it as e?

The most likely answer is that they didn't. Rather, they adopted or adapted these placenames' spelling from English - specifically, from the widely translated work of Thomas Shaw, an English reverend and Oxford fellow who spent several years in Algeria in the early 1700s, a century before France occupied Algiers. He spelt the two towns' names as Jinnett and Dellys respectively - a spelling which, in English, yields the almost exactly correct pronunciations /d͡ʒɪnɛt/ and /dɛlɪs/.

Shaw's book was translated into French by 1743, and the translator retained the English spellings of both names. In a later edition no doubt prompted by the French invasion (1830), Jinnett got amended to Djinnett - someone had finally got around to noticing that English j is pronounced like French dj, not like French j. The doubled letters, useful for indicating vowel quality in English but serving no purpose in French, were lost within a decade, as seen in Eyriès (1839). But the i of Djinet, and the y of Dellys, remained to testify to a period when French geographers relied on an English traveller to tell them about Algeria - and to confirm most colonists' lack of interest in how the locals pronounced these names.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Good speaking is not good writing

There's an article by Nathan Robinson that's been going around recently titled "Jordan Peterson: The Intellectual We Deserve". After pages of apparently reasonable criticisms of his subject, the author delivers what he seems to think is his coup de grâce:
Even now, however, I am being too generous to Jordan Peterson’s intellect. I have been presenting him at his most comprehensible and polished. I have not been giving you the full experience of actually listening to him talk. Sitting through a Jordan Peterson lecture is very different to watching a rapid-fire television interview. Below, please find a fully-transcribed portion of 17 minutes of Peterson’s speech.[...] (NOTE: UNDER NO CIRCUMSTANCES ATTEMPT TO READ THE ENTIRETY OF THE FOLLOWING PASSAGE. READ AS MUCH AS YOU CAN BEFORE YOU BEGIN TO FEEL WEARY, THEN SCROLL QUICKLY TO THE END.)
Just to stack the scales a bit further, the transcription features no paragraphing. Nevertheless, I did read it - much quicker than watching some random video for 17 minutes! -and, rather anticlimactically, found a perfectly coherent and reasonably entertaining (if very likely unfair) parenting anecdote, obviously intended to illustrate the importance of setting boundaries. I rubbed my eyes and thought "How is it that an intelligent, well-educated native speaker of English can apparently not only see this transcript as an incoherent mess but also assume all his readers will? Am I crazy, or is he?"

The answer is simple: good speaking is not the same thing as good writing. Take a great talk, one that keeps a non-academic audience riveted, and transcribe it verbatim; it will almost always look rambling and repetitive on the page, unless you're already accustomed to reading such transcripts (part of the job for a descriptive linguist, but a rare experience for most people). That's simply the nature of the medium, and adequately explains the expected audience reaction. Maybe it even explains the author's reaction, if the only context he ever encounters long talks in is academia.

One of the author's main points - a valid one, I think - is that academics need to communicate better with the public for everyone's sake:

[...] he is popular partly because academia and the left have failed spectacularly at helping make the world intelligible to ordinary people, and giving them a clear and compelling political vision.
If so, the first step is to learn appropriate discourse strategies. You don't talk to confused young people on YouTube as if you were addressing a learned seminar, much less writing a article. Nathan Robinson surely realises this himself - but, by going for cheap laughs at the expense of a perfectly ordinary example of spoken language, he's not only weakening his main point but encouraging the very blindness to orality that makes it difficult for many academics to communicate with the public. Academics can surely do better - let a thousand learned YouTube channels bloom! - but not without (re)learning how to talk to the people they want to talk to.

Monday, March 12, 2018

Qaswarah revisited: a Qur'anic hapax in Modern South Arabian

A long time ago, I posted some rather speculative musings on the minor mystery of the allegedly Ethiopic word qaswarah قسورة in the Qur'ān, usually considered to mean "lion". An anonymous commenter years later came up with a much better but still rather speculative idea:
Research substantiates that both “lion” and “hunter” are plausible according to analyses of Proto-Highland Eastern Cushitic wherein “kas” is to stab, pierce or cut and the suffix of “wara” creates “agent nouns”. In modern “Ethiopic” languages such as Tigrinya and Ge’ez (as well as in some other African languages) the word “Wagatwara” means “hunter” and in earlier etymons of this word the “g” is rendered a “q” and the “t” is rendered an “s”.

But just now, looking through a Hobyot vocabulary (Nakano 2013:215), I came across an entry that makes all this discussion unnecessary. In Hobyot, "panther" is ḳáyṣ̂ər, with a plural ḳaṣ̂áwrət - clearly related to the term used in the Qur'ān, and clearly (given the ṣ̂) not borrowed from Arabic. The meaning corresponds closely enough to most commentators' consensus on qaṣwarah, while the location - in the extreme south of Arabia - helps explain why the term might have been associated in their minds with Ethiopia. In fact, the irregular correspondence of Hobyot ṣ̂ to Arabic s would suggest a loan into Arabic, rather than common inheritance, even if we didn't know how much this word puzzled the commentators.

Incidentally, the minority interpretation "archers" is presumably based on Persian, where -var added to a noun means "possessor of" - presumably, Arabic qaus "bow" + Persian -var would yield "bowman", and the feminine suffix -ah would form the plural as so often with nouns of profession. In light of the Hobyot form, it also should be clear that the majority of commentators were right to reject this interpretation.