Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Algerian Sign Language

According to Glottolog, the least documented language in Algeria is neither Korandje nor some Berber variety, but rather one that might not immediately leap to mind: Algerian Sign Language. If you have some idea of what to look for, though, there turns out to be a lot more available than might be expected; here's a brief bibliography gleaned from online:
  • Boutaleb, Djamila. 1987. Les enfants sourds en Algérie : Problèmes d'acquisition de la langue écrite [Deaf children in Algeria: Problems of written language acquisition]. Thèse de doctorat 3e cycle, Université Sorbonne Paris. 408pp. [Abstract: This thesis deals with the problems of deafness in Algeria, more particularly in schools where an attempt is made to pin down the causes of failure in the learning of language by deaf children. In order to understand the difficulties, it had seemed appropriate to examine the problem of deafness itself and its consequences on schooling and social life. This will be the subject of the first part. The emphasis will be on this "difference" which affects primarily the development of language and which may cause schooling delays and create psychoaffective problems and social problems. The current conflict of methods, oralism sign language, makes it possible to reconsider the status of deaf children thanks to the findings of linguistics and the works of psycholinguists and sociolinguists, of whom some current ideas will be presented in this work. In the second part, the deaf community in Algeria will be illustrated with some historical and socio-educational characteristics, for, to know the past and present living conditions of the deaf gives us the means to understand their actual level in the practice of the written language, which will be examined in the third part. The observed difficulties lie at the syntactic level, as well as the lexical, grammatical, and orthographic levels. The choice of deaf francophones, deaf arabophones, and hearing pupils benefits our analysis. This study is made in a pedagogical prospect but is integrated in a set of psycho-sociolinguistic views.]
  • مديرية النشاط الإجتماعي (الجزائر) [Direction des Affaires Sociales (Algérie)]. n.d. قاموسي الأول في لغة الإشارة : الجزء الاول [My First Dictionary of Sign Language: Volume 1]. Algiers. 50pp.
  • Djama, Amal. 2016. Les points communs entre la Langue des Signes Algérienne (LSA) - dialecte de Laghouat, Sud de l’Algérie - et la Langue des Signes Française (LSF) [Commonalities between Algerian Sign Language (LSA) - dialect of Laghouat, southern Algeria - and French Sign Language (LSF)]. Dossier, licence SCL « Acquisition et dysfonctionnement » (SCL F14), Licence 3, AMU, Faculté ALLSHS d’Aix-en-Provence. 5pp. [Comparison of 25 signs].
  • Guiroub, Mustapha. 2010-09-27. «La langue des signes algérienne est une revendication des sourds» [Algerian Sign Language is a demand of the deaf]. El Watan. [Notes that Algerian Sign Language is descended from French Sign Language (LSF), but that about 50% of the vocabulary is different; that there are many differences within Algeria between the North and the South; and that efforts at standardization are being undertaken.]
  • Lakhfif, Abdelaziz. 2009. Un Environnement de Traduction Automatique du Texte Arabe vers la Langue des Signes Algérienne (LSA) [An Automatic Translation Environment from Arabic Text to Algerian Sign Language (LSA)]. Mémoire de Magistèr en Informatique, Université Badji Mokhtar - Annaba. 134pp. [The only specific information about Algerian Sign Language given is a brief discussion of its legal status, pp. 16-17; as far as I can see, the author seems to have no contact with Algerian signers.]
  • Mansour, Mohamed Seghier. 2007. Langage et surdité, Description de la langue des signes des sourds oranais [Language and Deafness. Description of Oranais Sign Language]. Mémoire de magistère, Université d'Oran Es-Sénia. 124pp. [An analysis of sign formation in Algerian Sign Language as spoken in Oran, with a brief discussion of syntax, and some background on the language's history taken mainly from Boutaleb (1987).]
  • Ministère de la Solidarité nationale, de la Famille et de la Condition féminine (Algérie). 2017. Dictionnaire de la langue des signes algérienne : 1560 mots signés les plus usités. Trilingue Arabe - français - langue des signes. 29 thèmes de la vie quotidienne / قاموس لغة الإشارة الجزائرية : 1560 كلمة الأكثر استعمالا. ثلاثي اللغة : عربي - فرنسي - لغة الإشارة. 29 موضواعا من الحياة اليومية [Dictionary of Algerian Sign Language: 1560 most used signs. Trilingual Arabic-French-Sign language. 29 themes from daily life].
  • Ministère de la Solidarité Nationale (Algérie). 2008. Langue des signes algerienne : Guide de recherche et de recueil des signes [Algerian Sign Language: Guide for research and sign collection]. Algiers. 50pp.
  • Ministère de la Solidarité Nationale (Algérie). 2008. La langue des signes [Sign language]. Algiers. 14pp.
And - perhaps more usefully - a brief videography: Let's round this off with a school: Of course, one obvious question remains open: is there really just one sign language in Algeria?

Thursday, September 06, 2018

Baghrir as a battleground

I really don't have the time to post these days, but I couldn't resist letting you all know about a strong contender for the most ridiculous language-related controversy I've ever seen: the Moroccan baghrir scandal. "Baghrir" بغرير, as North Africans will know, is a kind of delicious pancake typically served with honey. A recent Moroccan primary school textbook incorporates (presumably for the first time) a picture of this regional delicacy, captioned with its name: الْبَغْرِيرُ. Pretty banal, right?
Image result for ‫بغرير دراسية‬‎

Apparently not. A furore erupted on social and traditional media, as ordinary people and self-styled experts lined up to lambast the Ministry of Education for this shocking betrayal of the Arabic language. Fouad Bouali of the National Coalition for the Arabic Language fulminated: "Citizens don't need "baghrir" or "slou" in their school texts... "The use of folk expressions in school texts caps the tendency towards dialectalization". Prof. Mohamed Nabil Esrifi of Ibn Tofail University wrote a letter to the head of government:
In shock, a shock whose bitterness I share with millions of Moroccan citizens, at the insertion of "popular Darija" expressions in approved school texts, which has spoiled our appetite for our favourite dishes such as "briwat" and "baghrir" and "ghribia", and raised our blood pressure and body temperature... I address you this letter to put an end to the rise in idleness and neglect of the career of a whole generation, the dissolution of educational content, and the stultification of the act of education."
Naturally, some took a more sensible view, such as Dr. Mohsen Akramine:
"We cannot reject a group of names that we commonly use in our social life on a regular basis, such as "briwat bellouz" and "baghrir" and "ghribia". so what problem does the term "baghrir" create in nurturing learning in class?... We cannot restrict the Arabic language to the language of "the lion and the blade" [two archaic terms are used, but English is rather poor in synonyms for "lion"]; the Arabic language cannot remain stuck in the classroom and the lecture hall, completely isolated from our daily business."
As far as I can see, none of the shocked citizens complaining about this has ventured to suggest an acceptable Standard Arabic synonym for "baghrir".  Nor have they ever objected to the word's routine presence in cookbooks - which, along with schoolbooks and religious texts, are basically what keep most North African bookshops alive.  So is the idea simply that this impure term must be kept out of the sacred space of the classroom, or what?  My mind is boggled - or, as they say in Algeria, مُخّك يحبس.

Sunday, August 19, 2018

Bilingual suppletion comes from selection conflicts: Supporting evidence from Pichi

Azeb Amha recently directed my attention to a very interesting passage in Kofi Yakpo's grammar of Pichi, the English-based creole spoken in Equatorial Guinea. In this language, English-based numerals are used up to seven (and known in theory by some speakers up to ten), while Spanish numerals are familiar to all speakers and are used consistently above seven. The English numerals are followed by singulars (plural marking in Pichi is handled with postposed dɛ̀n, and occasionally the suffix -s):
Soàdɔngɛttrinacionalidaddiswɔl.
so1SG.SBJPRFgetthreenationalityLOCthisworld
‘So I have three nationalities in this world.’ [fr03ft 102]
When Spanish numerals are used, however (p. 545), we get "bilingual suppletion" (Matras 2012) - i.e., a grammatical rule of one language that seems to require switching into another one:
The attributive use of Spanish numerals goes along with the insertion of Spanish head nouns – there is no instance of a mixed combination of a Spanish numeral and a Pichi noun:
Lɛf=ànmekèrichalosquinzeaños.
leave=3SG.OBJSBJV3SG.SBJreachtothe.PLfifteenyears
‘Leave her, let her reach [the age of] fifteen years.’ [ab03ay 138]

In Spanish, of course, numerals other than 1 select for plural nouns.

Now I would prefer to see a wider range of examples before reaching any firm conclusions, because counters like "years" are inherently more likely to cause borrowing of numeral+noun units. But, as described, this language precisely fits the explanation proposed for bilingual suppletion in Souag & Kherbache (2016), based on Myers-Scotton's Embedded Language Island Hypothesis:

[W]here bilingual suppletion in numeral+noun combinations emerges, it will occur only following borrowed numerals whose noun selectional requirements in the source language differ from those in the recipient language.
I was, of course, unaware that Pichi displayed bilingual suppletion when I proposed this generalization, so I take this as corroborating evidence. I would be interested to hear of any further examples.

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Yaqṭīn as substratum vocabulary?

A strong contender for the most obviously ridiculous etymology in Jeffery's The Foreign Vocabulary of The Quran is his attempt to derive yaqṭīn "gourd" from a "garbled form" of Hebrew qîqāyôn (p. 309). Is it possible to do better?

Like ḍarīʕ, yaqṭīn is barely attested in early Islamic-era literature apart from Qur'ānic allusions and botanical texts. However, in this case the grammarians also take an interest, due to the word's slightly unusual form. Sībawayh (d. 796) notes it as one of two nouns of the form yaCCīC(the similar pattern yaCCūC, mainly for animal names, is more productive), along with a yellow-flowered desert plant called yaʕḍīd (Launaea mucronata). The latter word is well-attested in modern Arabic dialects, eg Najdi ʕaḍīd - and has passed into Korandje, the Songhay language of an oasis in southwestern Algeria, as yaʕḍud; I first heard it there, in a chant from a children's story:

aɣ a išən kadda, I'm a little goat,
aɣ a nɣa tantərama, I eat tantərama,
aɣ a nɣa lyaʕḍud, I eat Launaea.

Now, yaʕḍīd is presumably derived from the root ʕḍd, "support" (etc.); despite its scrawniness, the plant holds itself well above the ground. A Hebrew or Aramaic origin is obviously out of the question, given the ḍ. Ibn Durayd (d. 933) cites a third word of this form whose origin is clearer: yaʕqīd "thickened (crystallized?) honey", related to 'aʕqada "thicken (a liquid)" (ويَعْقيد: عسل يُعقد حتى يَخْثُر). By analogy, one would expect yaqṭīn to be derived from the root qṭn, and this is exactly what al-Zamakhsharī (d. 1144) not unreasonably proposes:

واليقطين: كل ما ينسدح على وجه الأرض ولا يقوم على ساق كشجر البطيخ والقثاء والحنظل، وهو يفعيل من قطن بالمكان إذا قام به. وقيل هو: الدباء.
Yaqṭīn is anything that sprawls on the surface of the earth and does not stand on a stalk, like the melon and the snake cucumber and the colocynth. It is (of the form) yaCCīC, from qṭn, "it dwells/settles" in a place if it comes up there. It is also said to be the gourd.

However, the fact that Arabic has only three words of this form - two of them plant names, and one related to honey extraction - should arouse our suspicions. If a language has a small class of morphologically anomalous nouns all relating to wild food-gathering activities, the hypothesis that should immediately spring to mind is: this is substratum vocabulary. In other words, these three words - especially yaqṭīn and yaʕḍīd - should be suspected of being borrowings, not from some garbled Hebrew source, but from the indigenous Semitic languages spoken in the Arabian peninsula before the spread of Arabic. If so, Western Qur'ān studies' excessive focus on written sources seems more likely to obscure linguistic history than to reveal it.

(Yes, you didn't misread that - epigraphic evidence suggests that Arabic expanded from northwestern Arabia into the rest of the peninsula within historic times. Ahmad Al-Jallad has been doing some interesting work on this issue, summarized briefly on this Twitter thread.)

Sunday, June 24, 2018

Yūnus/Jonah viewed through hapaxes

The Qur'ān is not intended as an account of events. Rather than being organised around narratives, it typically brings up apparently familiar narratives in support of points being made. Yūnus/Jonah, for example, is mentioned by name 4 times, and by epithet another 2 times. Two of these mentions give no details of his story at all (4:163, 6:86). 10:98, 21:87-88, and 67:48-49 only briefly summarise specific aspects of the story. 37:139-148 recounts the story as a whole, but in such an abbreviated form as to presuppose that at least part of the audience had already heard a fuller version. Can anything about that version be determined from the text of the Qur'ān?

Hapaxes - words that occur very rarely or only once in the text - offer an interesting window on the problem (see also previous posts: ضريع, قسورة). Apart from the name Yūnus (Jonah) itself, four words are attested in the Qur'ān only within accounts of Jonah. The oldest attested form of his name is Yônāh, which in Greek yields Iônas (ιωνας) in the nominative (the -s is a widespread Indo-European nominative singular suffix); the final s in Yūnus thus suggests that the audience's knowledge of Jonah came in part via Greek intermediaries at some remove. "Fish" is normally ḥūt حوت in the Qur'ān, including in accounts of Jonah (Standard Arabic samak سمك is unattested in the text), but in 21:87 Jonah is alluded to as ḏā n-nūn ذا النون "he of the fish", the only occurrence in the Qur'ān of the Aramaic loanword nūn. The fish swallowed (iltaqamat التقمت) Jonah in 37:142; the only other mention of swallowing in the Qur'ān uses a word much better attested in modern Arabic dialects, balaʕa بلع (11:44:3). After praying to God for release, he is then cast out onto the shore, for which both 37:145 and 68:49 use the more specific term ʕarā' عراء, ie barren land. Eventually God causes a gourd - yaqṭīn يقطين - to grow over his head; this is the only Qur'ānic mention of the plant in question.

Compare the relevant terms in various early Semitic versions of the Book of Jonah:

Jonahfishswallowland sp.plant sp.
ArabicYūnus يونسḥūt حوت / nūn نونiltaqama التقمʕarā' عراء (barren land)yaqṭīn يقطين (gourd)
HebrewYônāh יוֹנָהdāḡ דָּגbālaʕ בָּלַעyabbāšāh יַבָּשָׁה (dry land)qîqāyôn קִיקָיוֹן
Babylonian Jewish AramaicYônāh יוֹנָהnūnā נוּנָאblaʕ בְּלַעyabbeštā יַבֶּשׁתָּא (dry land)qîqāyôn קִיקָיוֹן
SyriacYawnān ܝܘܢܢnūnā ܢܘܢܐblaʕyaḇšā ܝܒܫܐ (dry land)qar'ā ܩܪܐܐ (gourd)
GeezYonas ዮናስʕanbari ዐንበሬ (whale)wəxṭä ውኅጠmədər ምድር (land)ḥamḥam ሐምሐም (gourd)

One immediately notices that none of them match the Qur'ān as a whole at all well. For "Jonah", only Geez (Ethiopic) offers a similar Greek-influenced term, contrasting with the obvious Aramaic source of nūn for "fish". For "swallow", the Hebrew and Aramaic/Syriac versions all use a word whose direct cognate - balaʕa - is attested elsewhere in the Qur'ān, and is very familiar in Arabic; why then does the more vivid term iltaqama (something like "take in as a morsel") appear? For the land onto which Jonah is cast, the Qur'ān twice uses a specific term incorporating a detail absent from any of these versions of the Book of Jonah, all of which use a generic term for "dry land" or even just "land"; why is this used rather than 'arḍ or even the cognate yābisah?

The conclusion seems obvious: none of these translations were at all prominent for the Arab audience to whom the Qur'ān was first addressed. Whatever its distant roots may have been, the account of Jonah they knew best was something orally transmitted in Arabic, and not directly based on any one of these.

Sunday, June 10, 2018

fatta: a loan from Chadic into Songhay?

The Proto-Chadic word for "go out" was reconstructed by Newman and Ma (1966) as *p-t-, with attested reflexes in all primary subgroups of the family; the best known of these is of course (West Chadic A.1) Hausa fìtā.  The vowels vary across languages, and there is often no final vowel.  Only one subgroup, as far as I can see on a quick check, shows the consistent vocalisation *patā: the Bole languages (West Chadic A.2), spoken in Nigeria's Yobe State along the boundary between Hausa and Kanuri.  Thus Bole pàtā, Ngamo hàtâ, Karekare fàtā.

Most Songhay varieties have reflexes of two near-synonyms for "go out": *hùnú and *fáttá.  Usually, the distinction seems to be roughly "leave (a place or event)" vs. "go out of (an enclosed or concealed space)".  In Northern Songhay - the subgroup most isolated from the rest for longest, spoken in the Sahara - only reflexes of *hùnú seem to be attested, covering both senses (eg Korandje hnu).  This could be interpreted as reflecting Northern Songhay's general tendency to reduce its inherited vocabulary by widening the usage of generic terms.  In light of the Chadic data, however, it is tempting to interpret it the other way around: did Northern Songhay preserve the original situation, while a West Chadic borrowing spread throughout the rest of the family via the Niger River?

Saturday, June 09, 2018

Songhay glosses in Djenne manuscripts

Djenne, in central Mali, is one of the oldest cities in West Africa; it also happens to be the westernmost Songhay-speaking town, isolated in a predominantly Bozo area.  As an old regional centre of Islamic learning, it has rather a lot of manuscripts, most still in the hands of local families rather than taken over by official heritage-keepers.  56 family collections of manuscripts in Djenne have recently been digitised and made available online, at the Djenne Manuscript Library Collection.  Searching through this amazing resource is a bit of an adventure, since a lot got lost in the translation of the metadata (for instance, this manuscript labelled as Intercession is actually a list of tribe names).  But doing so has potential rewards for the historical linguist as well as for the historian: scattered through the manuscripts are very occasional marginalia in local languages.

The first examples I've managed to find come from a late 19th or early 20th century manuscript of 8 pages, belonging to the family of Alphamoye Baber Djenepo, to which the cataloguers gave the title مكتوب في اللغة "writing on language" (which, after passing through a layer or two of translation, ended up in English as "Philology").  It's an obviously incomplete part of an alphabetical poem (unknown to Google) recounting the life of the Prophet, which gives for each letter of the Arabic alphabet in order a section rhyming in that letter.  The language is somewhat obscure, and is copiously annotated - mainly in Arabic, but every so often in Songhay.

On p. 8, for instance, we see the Arabic word تَعَوُّذِ "seeking God's protection" glossed with the Songhay word sumburku "holy formula, spell":

On p. 9 of the same, we see Arabic نَادِ "caller" glossed with Songhay kaati "call, shout":

This particular example is too recent to contribute much to Songhay philology, but it at least proves that Songhay was used to gloss manuscripts in Djenne, and suggests that it would be worth looking through the collection for other examples.


(Added after posting): On p. 5, we find Arabic تمساح "crocodile" glossed with Songhay kaarey "small crocodile sp.":

(PPS): And in this undated fragment of Maqamat al-Hariri, p. 4, we find another identifiable Songhay gloss (or at least a word found in Djenne Chiini): tangara for قضيب "rod, staff", followed by عجم "non-Arab" to make its status clearer: