Saturday, May 18, 2024

Three Mubi proverbs via YouTube

In an episode of "Chadian Wisdom and Proverbs", Yaqub Muhammad Musa discusses three Mubi proverbs, providing the Mubi versions along with translation and extensive commentary in Arabic. Mubi is comparatively well-documented as East Chadic languages go, thanks primarily to Jungraithmayr's excellent 2013 monograph; but even this miniscule corpus reveals some aspects of the language that I was unable to find there.

Proverb 1:

"If a person has no elder, s/he will fall into a well."
الما عنده كبير، يقع في البير

Every element of this proverb is attested in Jungraithmayr, but the phonology contains some surprises: I hear a secondary gemination after the preposition which is not discussed, and in ùfáad we observe that regular final devoicing fails to hold, presumably due to the following vowel. Moreover, mà is glossed there as "et, puis" (and, then), which is clearly not the intended sense here.

Proverb 2:

"If your brother is sweet, don't lick him a lot"
أخوك كان بقي عسل، ما تلحسه زيادة

Based on the Arabic version of the proverb, I assume báagì is a loan from Arabic, corresponding to classical bāqī "remaining", and functioning as a sort of copula; it's not in Jungraithmayr. ísì is not there either; in fact, J doesn't discuss the formation of negative imperatives at all that I can see. But it matches well with the attested verb íisí "to refuse", and presumably reflects grammaticalisation from that (cf. Latin noli). So this gives us a new construction.

Proverb 3:

"Even if your eye itches you, don't scratch it"
عينك دي كان قاعدة تاكلك دا ما تحكّه

Here, máar is just a guess informed by context; no such form is found in J. But we find a second instance of the prohibitive construction, as well as an otherwise unattested verb sùsúm "itch". Note the OV-S construction, which alternates with SV-O under circumstances which seem to remain a mystery.

The fact that new things can be discovered about Mubi from a recording this short illustrates just how much remains to be done in terms of describing this morphologically fascinatingly complex language. At the same time, it tends to confirm the high accuracy of J's transcriptions. I hope further study will be possible.

Tuesday, February 20, 2024

Loanwords examined via Pozdniakov's Proto-Fula-Sereer

I recently finished Pozdniakov's Proto-Fula-Sereer, freely available through Language Science Press. This is obviously a very welcome and valuable contribution to West African historical linguistics, an area where much remains to be done. I have little experience of Atlantic languages as such, and therefore not much useful to say about most of the book (though it made me want to also read Merrill's work, with which much of it is in dialogue.) However, while proto-Fula-Sereer is dated by the author to 2000 years ago or more, some of the comparisons are relevant for studying contact with other regional families. Two forms are particularly interesting to me for exploring contact with Berber:

  • *xiris "slay (vb)": Sereer xiris 'couper le cou, décapiter, égorger' (Merrill: 'slit the throat') ~ Fula hirsa 'égorger; sacrifier (un animal, pour en rendre licite la consommation)' [p. 63]
    Sereer x- : Fula h- is a very well represented regular correspondence; however, Fula -r- in -rC- would normally be lost in Sereer (p. 173), and no regular pattern of vowel elision is given in the book. The word also looks like Soninke xùrùsi "to kill by cutting the jugular vein", yet the vowel correspondence is difficult there as well. The explanation is to be found in their common source as a loanword from widespread (non-Zenaga!) Berber əɣrəs, with the same meaning. The religious importance of slaughtering an animal for meat in this precise manner is sufficient to motivate the borrowing, which would thus have spread with Islam - presumably through northern Saharan travellers rather than Zenaga scholars, given the form.
  • *Guf "foam": Sereer kuf 'gonfler, écumer en bouillant', kuf / kuf a... ak 'écume de la mer, à la marée montante' ~ Fula ngufo / (n)gufooji 'mousse, écume' (cf. Fula ƴufa 'mousser, écumer (trans.)', ƴufo 'mousse, écume) (Laala kuuɓ 'mousse', Nyun Gubaher gʊ-gʊfʊri 'mousse', Nyun Guñamolo tɪ-gʊf / tɪ-gʊf-ɔŋ 'écume, mousse', Joola Fonyi ka-gʊf 'bave, écume de mer, mousse du savon'). [p. 102]
    The correspondence of Sereer k to Fula ŋg (let alone ƴ) is completely irregular, with no other examples cited. A comparison to Berber forms such as Tamasheq tə-kuffe, Tamazight a-kuffi, Zenaga tu-ʔffukkaʔ-n "froth" is thus not ruled out, although the other Atlantic forms make it more likely that the resemblance is coincidental. Cp. also Zarma kùfú "écumer" and related forms in Songhay, which probably do derive from Berber.

Other forms are interesting to examine in the context of Songhay and Mande:

  • *bon "bad (svb)": Sereer bon 'être mauvais, être méchant, être maigre', ponu l / ponu k "le mal [la chose mauvaise]' ~ Fula bona 'être mauvais, être mal; être méchant', mbonki / bonkiji 'méchanceté ; malfaisance ; perversité' (widespread root in Atlantic and Mel) [p. 86]
    Also widespread well beyond; looks originally Atlantic, but the suffixed vowel in Bambara bɔ̀nɛ and Zarma bòné betrays a borrowing path via Soninke rather than directly from Fula.
  • *bul "blue (svb)": Sereer bule 'bleu' ~ Fula bula 'rincer au bleu (du linge blanc); passer au bleu de lessive; colorer en bleu pâle' (The root *bulu is common for Atlantic and Mel languages. It is not a European borrowing). [p. 86]
    If so, then this is also the source for Bambara búla and Zarma búlà "blue", and other forms across the region. But this is a widespread Wanderwort, and one wonders how a European source was ruled out.
  • *mbedd "road, path": Sereer mbed k 'petit chemin laissé entre deux champs à l'hivernage, ruelle, rue, allée" ~ Fula mbedda / mbeddaaji 'grand route' (Wolof mbedd 'rue', Jaad mbɛdɛ 'grand route'; Manjaku umbɛra 'chemin carrossable, route'). May be an ancient Soninke borrowing: < béddè 'rue principale, route'. [p. 87]
    Gao Songhay has albedda / mbedda, with an interesting prefix alternation; Heath very tentatively suggests a link to Arabic blṭ, but that probably doesn't work.
  • *Birq (mb-/w-) "manure": Sereer mbiqi n 'fumier, tas de fumier' ~ Fula wirga 'labourer le sol en éparpillant la terre (en luttant au sol ou pour la mélanger ou encore pour brouiller des traces...); disperser du fumier (sur un champ)' [p. 88]
    The correspondence mb:w is not regular, arguably reflecting differences in consonant mutation; only four examples are found, although they look like plausible retentions. The loss of r in Sereer would be regular (p. 173). The correspondence of q to g does not appear regular either (p. 192), unless this is related to the preceding r; one would expect q:kk. It's just as well that the correspondence is irregular, since the Fula term is clearly at least in part a borrowing from Songhay, not vice versa: it reflects a merger of two tonally distinct verbs, found in Zarma as bírjí "fumer le sol; fumier" and bìrjí "mélanger, embrouiller", used in the expression laabu birji "mélanger la terre". Conceivably the "spread manure" sense could be original to Fula, with only the "mix" sense being borrowed; but it strains credulity to imagine Zarma borrowing the same verb but giving it two different tonal patterns depending on the intended meaning. Soninke boroko "manure" is suspiciously similar, but the vowels rule it out as an intermediary.
  • *gaw "hunt (vb); throw (vb)": Sereer xaƴ 'lancer, envoyer un projectile, tirer une arme à feu; lancer un dard, pêcher au harpon', nGawlax n / qawlax k ~ nGaƴlax n / qaƴlax k 'la chasse [gibier]' ~ Fula gawoo 'chasser, être chasseur (professionel)'. [p. 111; poorly justified correspondences - 5 words for x:g]
    The Fula term is certainly the same root as (Songhay) Zarma găw "hunter", gáwáy "hunt (v.)". The term doesn't seem to be used in Mande, from a quick look. If the Sereer form is related to the Fula one, then the direction of borrowing must be Fula to Songhay. However, the correspondence looks rather poorly justified. For x-:g-, only 5 correspondances are given, including such eminently borrowable words as "indigo" and "okra". For -ƴ:-w, the expected regular correspondence is rather ƴ:ƴ (p. 192), cf. "limp" (p. 180), "lick" (p. 174). The question of borrowing direction thus remains open.

The following cases may be only coincidentally similar, but perhaps they reflect contact at a much earlier period in prehistory, related to the spread of the practice of milking:

  • *Gang "chest": Sereer ngang n / kang k ~ Fula gannde / ganndeeje (Fula < gang-nde?) [p. 103; irregular initial correspondence with only two other examples found)
    Cp. Zarma gàndè "chest".
  • *gand "nipple": Sereer hand 'être pleine (femelle), être en gestation, porter [femelle]', hand l / qand a...ak 'mamelle (des animaux), pis', and l / and a...ak 'mamelle (des animaux), pis, téton, tétine' (to note a variety of Sereer forms: h-,q-,Ø-) ~ Fula ʔenndu ~ ʔenɗi 'sein, mamelle; pis, trayon'
    Cp. Zarma gánì "udder".

The Fulani abstract noun formative -(aa)ku is analysed (p. 231) as an "extension suffix" -aa- plus a class suffix -ku explained as a taboo-motivated allomorph of -ngu, citing Koval 2000:230 (a source in Russian). This requires further investigation; it certainly cannot be unrelated to Soninke -aaxu with the same function, but what was the direction of borrowing?

Efforts to exclude Arabic loanwords were largely successful, but even so, one crept in: Fula waabiliire "pluie d'orage" is from Arabic waabil rather than proto-Fula-Sereer *(b)waam/b (p. 79). On the other hand, Sereer tuɓaaɓ and Fula tuubako "European, white man" are derived from nonexistent Arabic *tubaab (pp. 115-116), following a long if poorly evidenced tradition connecting this to the real Arabic word ṭabiib "doctor".

"Punching up/down" in comedy: dating a lexical innovation in English

Any educated English speaker nowadays is likely to be familiar with the idea that comedy should punch up, not punch down: i.e., that it's okay to make fun of people more powerful than yourself, but not of people less powerful. But I remember being struck by the novelty of this expression when I first encountered it, well into adulthood. Notwithstanding the recency illusion, a bit of research suggests that my impression was correct. The earliest attestations I've been able to track down online go back to July 2012, in connection with a controversy about rape jokes made by some comedian named Daniel Tosh:

"Kilstein trots out the old trope that all comics are victims who have been bullied and that’s why we’re doing standup. Total bullshit, of course, but he uses the tired cliche to glorify himself and others– who are “punching up”– and characterizes Tosh and others as tyrants or bully comics who are now punching down." (Brian McKim & Traci Skene, Tosh.Opus, 16 July 2012)
"The answer is that in both cases, the comedians were “punching down.”
Punching down is a concept in which you’re assumed to have a measurable level of power and you’re looking for a fight. Now, you can either go after the big guy who might hurt you, or go after the little guy who has absolutely no shot. Either way, you’ve picked a fight, but one fight is remarkably more noble and worthwhile than the other. Going after the big guy, punching up, is an act of nobility. Going after the little guy, punching down, is an act of bullying." (the pseudonymous "Kaoru Negisa", Punching Up, 19 July 2012)

All three writers are, naturally, American, and at least two of them are standup comedians themselves. Presumably the expression would already have been in use in some circles - perhaps backstage in standup comedy - for some years before that. But internal evidence suggests that it was still not assumed to be familiar to a general audience; both sources feel the need to put it between quotation marks on first use, and one even provides a definition, treating it as a metaphorical extension of a meaning used in the context of fights rather than as a familiar term in the context of comedy. (As further evidence, one may point to its complete absence from this 2012 Jezebel article about the same controversy; had it been written a few years later, it would seem unthinkable not to use the term "punching down" in expressing these ideas.) The term's use on MSNBC (as mentioned in the first source) would have been a good first step towards making the term familiar to a wider audience. By 2014, it was already appearing in The Atlantic (""We like standing up for the little guy, we like punching up," Bolton said."). On Google Books, however, the earliest hits in the relevant sense show up only in 2016, at which time the "'punching up' vs. 'punching down' dichotomy" could still be described as a way in which this tension has "recently been encoded" (Taboo Comedy.) Before that date, the object of "punching down" mostly seems to have been bread dough.

Can anyone find an attestation predating July 2012? And does this new terminology represent a new concept of comedians' moral duties, or just relabel an older one? If the latter, what did earlier American comedians call it?

Via @sanddorn on Twitter and Matt Farthing, a 2011 attestation - once again by a stand-up comedian, but from England this time.

"And a lot of comedians do jokes that I think aren’t funny enough to justify what they are about, and there’s plenty of ways you can be offensive without ‘punching downwards’. When FB does jokes about Palestine or black people there’s much more of a point behind it really. But it’s difficult because that’s his job, that’s how he sees himself – as this comedian who’ll say anything and make jokes about anything." (Richard Herring, 18 January 2011, )

And using this, I find that Ben Zimmer managed to discover an even earlier attestation, in a good discussion of this term's origins: a blogpost, also by Richard Herring, in December 2010. Note that, in these earliest attestations, it appears as part of a broader metaphor of likening satire to punching rather than as a preset cliché: "the weak punching the strong, rather than the strong bullying the weak", "Though there are no rules, comedy, I feel, should be siding with the weak and the oppressed and punching either inwards (at the comedian him or herself) or upwards (at the powerful or the oppressors)."

The metaphor derives, as Zimmer notes, from the world of boxing: "If you’re punching up, you’re taking on an opponent who might be taller or perhaps in a higher weight class, while punching down would be for an opponent who’s shorter or in a lower weight class." But its transfer to comedy doesn't appear to have been direct: the earliest relevant metaphorical uses found by Zimmer reflect power differentials in the contexts of British football (2002), then American politics (2006).

Saturday, February 10, 2024

Abu'l-Atahiya in Korandje

A friend in Tabelbala just posted a translation of some lines from Abu'l-Atahiya into Korandje. Given the general unreliability of Facebook, I think this deserves to be recorded elsewhere, and re-translated into English:
آغَمْفْ بَا قُوُخْ * نَمْڨَآنَا لَكْوَانْكَا
الْكَاسْفْ نِيرْ بَا يَّا نَوْ * نَمْنِينَانَا اَيْصْفَا
مَسْفْكَا اَيْضِيقْ * مْبَاڨُّوكَا نَنْفُونِي
وَلاَّ تَمْزْڨِيدَافْ بَايَعْزَرْ * آطَّرَّف بَيْكاَ
نَمْتْيُوَ آكَا الْقُرْءَانْ * اْمْبَا سَّنَّدْ السَّراْيَتْكَا
نَمْفَكَّرْ أُغُوڎِي اَدْرِى * نْڎَا الْقُرُونْڎِي اَيفُوتْ
أَبَّغْ السَّاعَاتڎِي اِيفُوتْ نِيكَا * اْمْبَا يْعِيشْ ڨَآ بَيَيْكَا
إِڎْ بَكَّا لَخْبَآڎْ امْبَنْضَا * نَمْطَوْ نْڎَانَا أُورْكُورْكَا
أَيْتَا عَلاَّوْصَايَتَ اَغُوڎِي * آبْتْبَآ نْڎِيسْ عَلْحَالَتْ
ءَاسَعْدْ أُغْ مَّاوَانَا * غَارْ إِڎَ اَمَّوْ أَمْطَاسِي
وَامَّوْ أُغْسْ ءآيْشْفَقْ اْنْڎِيكَا * ءآمَّآ أَبُو الْعَتَاهِيَةْ
aɣəm=fʷ ba-qqux * nə-m-ɣ-ana ləkwan=ka
əlkas=fʷ n-ir ba-yyanəw * nə-m-nin-ana a-yəṣfa
mməs=fʷ=ka a-yḍiq * n-ba-ggʷạ=a-ka nə-n=funi
wəlla taməzgida-fʷ ba-yəʕzər * a-ṭṭəṛṛəf bạ=y=ka
nə-m-tyuw=a-ka lqurʔan * ən-ba-ssənnəd əssaryət=ka
nə-m-fəkkəṛ uɣudzi a-dri * ndza lqṛun=dzi a-yfut
a-bbəɣ əssaʕat-dzi i-yfut=nika * ən-ba-yʕiš gạ bya=y=ka
idz ba-kka ləxbạ=dz ən=bənḍạ * nə-m-ṭəw ndz-ana ur=kʷər=ka
əyta ʕə-n=ləwṣayət a-ɣudzi * a-b-tbạ=ndzi-s ʕə-n=lħalət
a saʕd uɣ mmạw-ana * ɣar idz a-mmə̣w a-m-ṭ=a-si
wə-mmə̣w uɣ=s a-yəšfəq əndzi-ka * a-n=ma abu lʕatahiya
"A dry piece of bread * you eat in a corner,
A glass of cool water * you drink pure,
In a room that's narrow, * in which you sit alone;
Or an isolated mosque, * remote from people,
In which you read the Quran, * leaning on a column
As you remember what is gone * and centuries that have passed -
It's better than those hours that passed for you * living in great houses.
What came after that stuff, * you'd burn for it in a hot fire.
Look, this is my advice, * which shows you your situation;
Happy is he that hears it * what he hears will be enough for him.
Listen to one who pities you, * whose name is Abu'l-Atahiya."

Thursday, January 04, 2024

Ngər "die out"

In Algerian Arabic, ngər نڨر means "to perish, to die out, to become extinct", used primarily of patrilineal families; nəgru نڨرو "they died out" typically means they died leaving no descendants bearing the family name. I've usually heard it in reference to small families that had no sons, but it can also be caused by mass killing, as recent events horribly remind us; expressions used in the news, alongside "wiped out", include the oddly bureaucratic formulation "erased from the civil registry".

This verb has no connection to Arabic نقر naqara "peck, hollow out, etc.", as its non-emphatic r betrays. It is a denominal verb formed within Arabic from the Amazigh (Berber) noun anəggaru "end, latter", derived from the verb gʷri "remain behind" (originally *ăgrəβ; forms cited are from Kabyle). Nevertheless, it has been been reborrowed from Arabic into a wide range of Amazigh languages, e.g. Kabyle ngər, glossed by Dallet as "die leaving behind neither descendants nor relatives; die out (family); be exterminated".

This concept, unambiguously expressed by a single word in most North African languages, doesn't seem to be lexicalised in English. Is it lexicalised elsewhere?

Tuesday, December 26, 2023

"The Sound of Music" across three languages

You may well be familiar with The Sound of Music, an American musical from the 1950s loosely based on the von Trapp family's memoirs. It features a neat little song for teaching musical notes, "Do, a Deer", which has been translated into a number of languages. Let's contrast three versions - English, Japanese, and Arabic - and see what they suggest.

Do, a deer, a female deer, ドはドーナツのド
Do is for "donut" (dōnatsu),
دو دروب ومعاني
Do is "paths" (durūb) and meanings,
Re, a drop of golden sun; レはレモンのレ
Re is for "lemon" (remon);
ري ربيع الأغنيات
Re is a "spring" (rabīʕ) of songs;
Mi, a name I call myself,ミはみんなのミ
Mi is for "everyone" (minna);
مي مـوسيقى وأغاني
Mi, "music" (mūsīqā) and songs;
Fa, a long long way to run; ファはファイトのファ
Fa is for "fight" (faito);
فا فـجر الذكريات
Fa, a "dawn" (fajr) of memories;
So, a needle pulling thread;ソは青い空
So is blue "sky" (sora);
صوتنا ملء الفضاء
Our "sound" (ṣawt) is a filling up of space;
La, a note to follow So; ラはラッパのラ
Ra is for "trumpet" (rappa);
لم يزل فينا الوفاء
In us is "still" (lam tazal) loyalty;
Ti, a drink with jam and bread; シは幸せよ
Si is "happiness" (shiawase)
سوف تبقى يا غناء
You, O song, "shall" (sawfa) remain;
That will bring us back to Do! さぁ歌いましょう
So let us sing!
لنغنّي نغنّي.. لحن الحياة
Let us sing, sing... the tune of life!

As should be obvious, the Arabic version is derived from the Japanese one (via a popular anime of the 1990s) rather than directly from the English one. However, it contrasts sharply with both in the choice of note-mnemonics. In English, each note name (well, except "la") is mapped directly to a near-homophonous monosyllabic word, taking advantage of English's relatively short minimal word length; most of these are widely familiar, high-frequency items. In Japanese, the word choices are necessarily longer and perhaps more obscure (the syllable fa is found only in relatively recent loanwords anyway), but in each case the note is mapped perfectly to the first syllable of a single word, usually referring to something readily visualisable. In Arabic, the note is again mapped (increasingly approximatively) to the first syllable, not of a word, but of a 2-4 word phrase; not a single one of these phrases refers to anything concrete enough to visualise. High-flown slogans replace the original's homely whimsy.

I have no way of proving it, but I believe this is symptomatic - certainly of the Arabic dubbing in the cartoons I used to watch in the early 1990s, and plausibly of Modern Standard Arabic discourse in general: an imagination based on recitation rather than visualization, preferring stirring abstractions to concrete details. After all, concrete details travel poorly in this diglossic context.

Saturday, December 02, 2023

Latin authors from Algeria

The modern borders of Algeria had no existence or meaning in the Roman era, but for any potential Algerian classicists, it may be interesting to consider which of the Latin texts that have come down to us were written by people born in Algeria. So far, I've found the following:

  • Suetonius, born in Hippo Regius (modern Annaba), ca. 70 AD; historian
  • Fronto, born in Cirta (modern Constantine), ca. 100 AD; grammarian
  • Apuleius, born in Madaura (modern M'daourouch), ca. 124 AD; author of Metamorphoses, a comic-mystical proto-novel, along with various philosophical and rhetorical works.
  • Lactantius, born perhaps in Cirta, ca. 250 AD; a Christian apologist
  • Nonius Marcellus, born in Thubursicum (modern Teboursouk), perhaps late 200s AD; a lexicographer
  • Augustine, born in Thagaste (modern Souk Ahras), ca. 354 AD; a Christian saint notable especially for his autobiographical Confessions
  • Martianus Capella, born in Madaura, late 300s AD; author of a formerly influential allegorical curriculum of the liberal arts, De nuptiis Philologiae et Mercurii
  • Cassius Felix, born in Cirta, late 300s AD; author of a medical handbook
  • Priscian, born in Caesarea (modern Cherchell), late 400s AD; Latin grammarian

Conspicuously, all but one of them were born in the east, in what was then Numidia, and all but three date to the late Roman Empire, after Roman citizenship had been extended to all free men under Roman rule but before the Vandals' arrival. It is no doubt misleading to treat such authors separately from their (probably more numerous) counterparts born just across the modern border in Tunisia.

Literary works, of course, are just a small subset of what was written in Latin. For a wider selection of much shorter texts written in Algeria, the Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum covers the area in Volume VIII. Even the Albertini Tablets, a set of legal documents found near Tebessa and mostly dating to 493-496 AD, are online now.

No doubt I'm missing a few authors; who else belongs on the list above?

Friday, October 20, 2023

Being "upon the truth"

It's not too hard to think of words that are characteristically used in English almost exclusively by Muslims - salat, namaz, wudu, shahada, masjid... There are even a few such words that aren't borrowings from Arabic or Urdu: circumambulation comes to mind. It is much more difficult, at least for me, to think of characteristics of "Islamic English" that go beyond the lexicon.

I was recently struck, however, by the expression "upon the truth". Searching for "upon the truth" yields plenty of mainstream English examples like "hit upon the truth", "lay hold upon the truth", "an essay upon the truth of the Christian religion"... However, searching for "be upon the truth", "are upon the truth", "is upon the truth", etc. yields a very different picture. Suddenly almost every single search result is specifically Islamic:

You get the idea. The rare exceptions, like "their ultimate dependence is upon the truth", reflect quite a different construction, as the inanimate subject shows. In English, referring to people or groups being "upon the truth" appears to be unique to Islamic discourse (perhaps even to some genres thereof; most of the hits seem to have a vaguely Salafi vibe).

While this construction uses only well-known English vocabulary, it literally translates the Arabic expression على الحق ʕalā l-ḥaqq "on the truth/right". Within Arabic, this expression has a bit of an archaic ring to it, but is familiar from a number of hadith, e.g:

فَجَاءَ عُمَرُ فَقَالَ أَلَسْنَا عَلَى الْحَقِّ وَهُمْ عَلَى الْبَاطِلِ
At that time `Umar came (to the Prophet) and said, "Aren't we on the right (path) and they (pagans) in the wrong?" (Bukhari 65.365)

Being "upon the truth" is thus a calque into Islamic English from Arabic. No doubt a wider investigation would reveal other such cases.