Tuesday, September 14, 2021

Lemurian Arabic

In the western ports of the continent of Lemuria, on the old trade route to Uqbar and thence to Atlantis, a dialect of Arabic has been spoken since probably the 6th century AD or so. Its longstanding isolation from other Arabic dialects, and its speakers' bilingualism in neighbouring Lemurian languages, has allowed it to develop some rather unusual features. Like all Arabic dialects, it has lost the final short vowels preserved in Classical Arabic; but, unlike any other surviving dialect, it has largely preserved case and mood marking, thanks to extensive final-syllable ablaut.

For example, the noun "book" is conjugated as follows:


One thus says royt ilkitaab "I saw the book", sagatʼ ilkitoob "the book fell", deexil ilkiteeb "inside the book". The resulting system is rather reminiscent of Old Irish, among other languages of our own timeline.

Sadly, a full documentation of this fascinating dialect will forever be wanting, due to the difficulty of travelling to fictional destinations and of getting recording equipment to work properly in fantasy universes. However, I trust that the available data is sufficient to establish that phonetic changes such as the loss of final short vowels need not automatically imply the loss of morphological information that the lost phonemes had encoded.

Tuesday, August 31, 2021

A new Songhay alphabet

In 2019, a new alphabet was invented for Songhay, joining a long list of West African script creation efforts from the 19th century onwards. It may sink without a trace like Garay, or (less probably) it may enjoy a success comparable to that of N'Ko; even in the former case, however, it may be of interest as a case study in script creation. I will therefore summarize what little I know about it below.

According to this page, the script was invented by Ibn Achour Ousmane Touré in 2019, based on livestock marks used by Songhay villages, towns, and regions. He intended it to allow Songhay speakers to write in their own language rather than in French or Arabic, and thus to enable them to continue and progress, following in the footsteps of the Songhay Empire, which he supposes must have had its own writing system at some point. (Songhay is, of course, sometimes written - officially in a Latin-based orthography, unofficially also in Ajami Arabic - but is frequently not thought of as a written language; the primary target of education is literacy in French and/or Arabic, and most locally available printed materials are in one of these languages.) A volunteer committee was set up to promote the script, including the inventor himself, Dr. Imirana Seydou Maiga (secretary), M. Housseiny Ibrahima Maiga (expert advisor), and M. Faissal Kada Maiga (general coordinator and secretary of information). This group seems to use Arabic as their primary language of wider communication, and consists at least in part of Songhay diaspora in the Arab world; the secretary and coordinator seem to have spent time in Saudi Arabia, and the latter is reported to be based in Libya. One might speculate that the script offered them a "third way" to get past the French-Arabic binary.

The alphabet is as follows:

A series of YouTube videos, and posts on Afkaar.Online, clarify the orthography. The writing direction is right to left, and the alphabetic order is obviously inspired in large part by Arabic; there is no capitalization. The diacritics are explained here (titled Hantum maasayan "adding diacritics to writing"):

Vowel length is marked with a macron over the vowel, and vowel nasalization by a tilde (both betraying the influence of a Latin-based transcription); if placed over a consonant rather than a vowel, these respectively indicate that the consonant should be followed by aa or ã. (In this sense, if not in the more usual one, the script has a default vowel a.) In principle, all other vowels are marked plene (though short a occasionally seems to be omitted). Consonant gemination is indicated by a circle over the consonant. The dot under the letter n is dropped when it assimilates to a following consonant (Arabic ikhfā'), a feature inspired by Quranic orthography. (The text above gives an example of final dotless n with a tilde over it at the end of maasayan; this combination is not explained as far as I can see.) Besides this, dots distinguish affricates (dot above) from palatoalveolar sibilants (dot below), and d and g (no dot) from z and ŋ (dot above). The letter for ñ is close to being a graphic hybrid of ŋ and j, appropriately enough.

The system is completed by a set of numerals, using place notation (titled Soŋay-k(a)buyaŋo "Songhay counting"):

Punctuation evidently includes hyphens, used somewhat inconsistently at morpheme boundaries (thus the nominalizing suffix -yan/-yaŋ is not hyphenated in the two previous examples, but is hyphenated in denden-yaŋ "learning"), but fairly consistently in compounds (e.g., in the same post, Soŋay-senni m(a) duuma "may the Songhay language last"). Until examples of longer texts are available, little else can be said about punctuation.

If further data becomes available, I will update this post; if you know of any, comments are welcome! Particular thanks to "Oudi" for indispensable clarifications.

Friday, July 23, 2021

The *Bugzu of Bagzan?

Mt. Băgzăn, at the heart of the predominantly Tuareg-speaking Air massif in Niger, bears a not very Tuareg-looking name. The only Berber meaning for the root BGZ found in Nait-Zerrad is a word used by the neighbouring Iwellemmedan, taken from Alojaly's dictionary: ebăgez, pl. ibəgzan "vessel for dogs or for rubbish"; this corresponds regularly to Tahaggart ebăǵăh, pl. ibəǵhan "crude vase or plate (used for giving dogs their food and for gathering rubbish)", with a feminine tebăǵăht, pl. tibəǵhin "flat, slightly concave instrument used as a dustpan" (Foucauld). Not a root one would want to reconstruct very far back in Berber, nor an obvious source for the name of a mountain.

Hausa provides a surely related form that may shed light on the term's history: the ethnonym būzu < *bugzu (by Klingenheben's Law, as shown by the pl. bugā̀jē) "serf of the Azben [Air] people" (Bargery). The term refers to ex-slaves, iklan, what in Mali would be called Bella. It presumably does not share an etymology with būzu pl. būzā̀yē "undressed skin mat, loin-cloth", with no *g, for which Skinner (1996) gathers plausible cognates elsewhere in Chadic.

Combining the two, we get what looks like a brief glimpse of morphology: the homeland of the *Bugzu is *Bagzan (perhaps their manufactures included crude plates). From a Tuareg perspective, -ăn looks like a masculine plural ending; but the specific vowel alternation would be hard to explain Tuareg-internally, though Tuareg has a-ablaut in other plural types. From a Chadic perspective, one is reminded of the -n plurals of Bade and Ngizim, e.g. Bade zawa-n pl. zawa-n-ən "stick" (Schuh ms), Ngizim gâzbə́r̃ pl. gázbàarín "tall" (Schuh ms, 1972); Ngizim even offers parallels for the vowel alternation, and a-ablaut plurals are widespread in Chadic more generally. The Bade-Ngizim subgroup includes geographically the closest Chadic varieties spoken to the Air besides Hausa, located almost due south of the Air, so it seems a promising point of comparison; could the *Bugzu have spoken a since lost West Chadic B.1 language? But of course, nothing guarantees that Bagzan should be an old plural; perhaps -ăn was a locative suffix, or something else entirely.

I wouldn't be surprised if some early 20th century work proposes this connection, but I haven't come across it in the literature so far; if you have, let me know.

Wednesday, July 21, 2021

Clitic doubling in Arabia: An update

Back in 2017, I published an article on "Clitic Doubling and Contact in Arabic" (ZAL 66, pp. 45-70), arguing that the various cases of clitic doubling reported across Arabic dialects in different regions - NW Africa, Malta, the Levant, Cyprus, Central Asia, Dhofar - differ in their behaviour, do not share a common origin, and in each case reflect substratum influence. The case of Dhofar turned out to be particularly tricky in that the only available evidence for clitic doubling in local Arabic and in its Modern South Arabian substratum came from the same speaker in each case - Mhammed bin Selim El-Kathiri, a bilingual speaker of Jibbali and Dhofari Arabic who worked with a team of Austrian linguists about a century ago. He used the same clitic doubling construction across both his languages (definite DO/IO/PrepO, no marker); but no such construction appears in more recent work on either language. I tentatively concluded that:
Only further data can determine whether this is a general feature of some particular Dhofari dialect (perhaps the second language dialect of Arabic spoken by Shihri speakers?) or just an unusual feature of El-Kathiri's idiolect. However, if this construction was not simply idiolectal, its origins seem more likely to lie in Jibbali than in Dhofari Arabic, since no parallels have been found in any Arabic dialect of the Arabian Peninsula.
A forthcoming article I recently came across, Pronominalization and Clitic Doubling in Syrian and Omani Arabic, changes the picture for this region. In a paper primarily focused on the generative syntax of clitic doubling rather than on its history, Peter Hallman and Rashid Al-Balushi demonstrate for the first time that the Arabic variety of al-Batinah in the north of Oman has productive clitic doubling, and that its distribution (definite/specific DO/IO/PrepO/Poss, no marker) largely matches El-Kathiri's usage a century earlier. Clitic doubling of this type thus a widespread Omani feature, not a Dhofar-specific one, and certainly not a merely idiolectal one.

Note that the dialect of Al-Batinah, like that of Dhofar, is a dialect with q for historic qāf, representing the earliest stratum of Arabic to reach the region. One hypothesis could be that clitic doubling of this type is a Modern South Arabian (MSA) substratum feature, calqued into the first Arabic varieties to reach Oman but never reaching the g-dialects that first come to mind when one thinks of Arabian dialects. On the other hand, no further evidence has yet come to light for clitic doubling in MSA; based purely on the available data, it seems equally or more plausible that this type of clitic doubling arose spontaneously in Omani Arabic and was calqued into Jibbali by bilinguals such as El-Kathiri. Much more dialectological data is needed to decide the question; available descriptions are evidently far from complete. In either case, independent origin appears far likelier than any kind of historic connection with the rather different types of clitic doubling observed in other parts of the Arabic-speaking world.

Thursday, February 11, 2021

Review: "Inventing the Berbers"

I finally got a chance to read Ramzi Rouighi's Inventing the Berbers recently; much food for thought.

The book is primarily the history of a name: how did certain people in North Africa come to be called "Berbers", and how did the reference and connotations of this label change over time? Viewed as such, it has a good deal of useful material. He argues that, rather than being derived directly from Latin or Greek "barbari", the label was transferred from East Africa to Northwest Africa as the Arabs moved west; its original associations would be with slavery rather than with barbarism as such. (Traces of the original usage persist: in Nubia, as I first learned on a trip to Aswan, "Berber" is still understood to mean "Nubian"!) In the early medieval period, it was used primarily for rebels and enemies on the fringes; groups with a closer involvement tended to be referred to by more specific terms. Ibn Khaldun's usage is more complex, reflecting Andalusi practice as it emerged in the context of elite competition between Berber and Arab noble families, but shows clear traces of the older tendency to reserve it for "outsiders" to the ruling elite. The modern European usage of the term comes essentially from Ibn Khaldun as filtered through De Slane's essentialism (which turned Berbers into a "race") and subsequent academic and ideological debates, largely in the context of the French colonization of Algeria.

In the penultimate chapter, however, he lays his cards on the table, presenting the term Amazigh as a mere relabelling of the neo-Khaldunian concept of "Berber", constructed with insidious intent and making an already misleading discourse even more ahistorical:

In the early 1950s, a few specialists proposed to replace “Berber” with “Amazigh,” the name some people in northern Morocco had.... “Amazigh” could not fully conceal its colonial birthmark, however. Its rejection of Arab imperialism of centuries past, its search for an authentic indigenous category, and its reliance on the fruits of colonial historiography, epigraphy, and linguistics to do so are all telltale signs. Calling for name change could have led to the realization of the historicity of all names and from there to the historicity of Berberization. It did not... “Amazigh” (indigeneity) was the parting gift of a dying colonialism to the frail nationalisms it had never accepted. Pulling the rug from under “Algeria” and “Morocco,” which as the colons repeated were new and artificial, “Amazigh” dealt a blow to anticolonial nationalism.

The 2-page discussion of “Amazigh” is unacceptably simplistic, especially after multiple chapters of careful examination of the changing semantics of "Berber". The author would have been better off omitting the term entirely than giving it such a caricatural treatment, massively understating the geographic distribution of the term (not just northern Morocco but as far off as northwestern Libya...); his medieval focus cannot entirely excuse the omission, as this term is (less frequently) attested in the medieval period. A proper examination - and, yes, historicization - would have been all the more valuable given that the term was used as an endonym in many regions long before the emergence of the modern trans-national ideology, whereas "Berber" has not been adopted in ordinary Berber speech anywhere, remaining an exonym, and usually an exclusively learned one at that.

Reading as a linguist, I can appreciate the attention given to semantic shifts and to the arbitrariness not only of the sign but of the signified. But as a historical linguist, it feels rather at cross-purposes to the questions of interest to me. Fundamentally, I don't much care which ethnic label people identify or are identified with: for me, "Berber", like "Arabic", is primarily useful as a linguistic category. And its referent has a history starting far earlier than the earliest attestation of "Berber", "Tamazight", or any other label one might choose to apply to it. It is necessary and appropriate to historicize such labels - to be aware that Masinissa or Dihya or Fatma n'Soumer were not acting in the name of some kind of Amazigh nationalism, and may not even have been familiar with "Amazigh" as a name, let alone as an identity. But how this relatively close-knit language family spread, and retreated, remains a historical question, of interest to archeologists and population geneticists as well as linguists, which an exclusive focus on ethnic labels erases.

It should, however, help to provoke reflection on the appropriate choice of label for this language family. "Berber", neutral though it undoubtedly is in English or French, does have a problematic history; the derivation from "barbarian" may be inaccurate, but this book really underscores the extent to which its usage in Arabic has been overwhelmingly negative and "othering" for most of the region's history. "Amazigh" does not have this problem, but is strongly associated with a projection of shared ethnicity into the past which risks distorting our picture of language spread. In an ideal world, one might prefer a purely geographical label ("Northwest African"?), or, better yet, a purely linguistic one (iles-languages, after the usual word for "tongue"?) In practice, however - here as elsewhere - it seems preferable to live with the occasional misunderstandings caused by the use of a well-known "ethnic" term than to confuse the public with a completely novel one.

Tuesday, September 29, 2020

A fable written in Korandje

Yesterday, H. Yahiaoui posted what might be the first continuous story written down in Korandje by a 1st-language speaker (translated from a cynical little fable in Arabic): The Donkey, the Lion, and the Tiger. In this text, we clearly see the "consecutive aorist" used after imperatives but not after perfectives: contrast n-as abəqqạ nə-m-t-as "giveimperative him a slap and tellirrealis him" with a-hh-ana a-tt-asi lit. "he askedperfective and said to himperfective". More crucial among this text's points of interest, however, is the placement of spaces. Word boundaries are surprisingly tricky to determine in Korandje. Plenty of elements could be analysed as bound forms or just as free forms with a somewhat restricted syntactic distribution, and it's hard to decide which is which. A text like this provides suggestive (though certainly not conclusive) data on where speakers perceive them. A few generalizations quickly emerge. In the verb word:
  • Subject markers are written as prefixes to the verb or MAN marker (2Sg n, 3Sg a, etc.)
  • The aspectual auxiliary ba, which turns perfective into perfect and imperfective into progressive, is written as a separate word - but only in contexts where the b is preserved; contrast ənnmər ba bə-kkạ-γ "the tiger is hitting me" with a-(a)-b-kkạ-γəy "he is hitting me".
  • Otherwise, mood, aspect, and negation (MAN) markers are written as prefixes to the verb (Neg s, Prosp (b)aʕam, etc.)
  • Directionals (ti "hither" are written as suffixes to the verb.
  • Object pronouns (2Sg ni, 3Sg ana, etc.) are written as suffixes to the verb.
  • Oblique pronouns (2SgDat nisi, 3SgDat asi, etc.) are usually written as suffixes to the verb word, but in one case (kəs γəys "leave to me") as an independent word, plausibly reflecting its less closely bound status.

In the noun phrase:

  • Genitive n is written as a prefix to the head noun.
  • Possessive pronouns are written as prefixes to the head noun (1Sg ʕan, etc.)
  • The indefinite article (or numeral) fu "a, one" is written as a suffix to the noun it quantifies.
  • "Other" (fyạṭən), despite historically containing "one", is written as a separate word.
  • Demonstratives are written as suffixes to the noun phrase (γu "this", etc.)
  • Dative si and locative ka are written as suffixes to their objects.
  • The focus marker a is written as a suffix to its noun phrase.
  • The identificational copula (aγu "this is", etc.) is written as an independent word, despite historically incorporating the focus marker.

Pending more data, the following cases seem sui generis:

  • səndza-n-a (Neg.Cop-2Sg-Foc) "it's not you who..."
  • mu-kunna-ni (what.Rhet-find-2Sg) "what's wrong with you?"
  • ku-xəd (each-when) "whenever"

For those who can't read the original, here's a transcription of the fable:

  1. Fəṛka a-ddər izmmi-s a-yzʕəf a-hh-ana, a-tt-asi: "Maγạ səndza-n-a lγabət n-uγ bya?"
  2. Izmmi a-tt-asi: "Iyyah… mu-kunna-ni, tuγ ba yzra?"
  3. Fəṛka a-tt-asi: "Nnmər ba bə-kkạ-γ ʕam-mu-ka ku-xəd a-ggwa-γəy, a-m-ti 'Maγạ nə-ss-aʕam-ḍəb taššəyt?', maγạ a-(a)-b-kkạ-γəy kʷəl ana?? Aha tuγa taššəyt-γ ʕamḍəb kʷəl aγəy?"
  4. Izəmmi attasi: "Kəs γəys ləxbạ-γu, nə-s-bə-zzu lhəmm haya."
  5. Aywa ləxʷəddzi(d) izəmmi a-kbʷəy ənnmər a-hh-ana "Tuγ-a taššəyt-γ n-ləxbạ?"
  6. Nnmər a-tt-asi: "ʕa-b-talla γar əssəbbət ndzuγ ʕa-b-kkạṛ-ana wəxḷaṣ.."
  7. Izəmmi a-t ənnmər-si: "Təlla ssəbbət fyạṭən-ka, a-a-ybən… T-as a-m-zu-t-nis əttəffaħ-fu ndzuγ, ndza a-zzu-t-a-nis yạṛạ, n-as abəqqạ nə-m-t-as 'Maγạ nə-ss-aʕam-zu-t-ana tirəy?' Ndza a-zzu-t-a-nis tirəy, n-as abəqqạ nə-m-t-as 'Maγạ nə-ss-aʕam-zu-t-ana yạṛạ?'"
  8. Nnmər a-žžawb-ana a-tt-asi "Lfikrət-f hannu aγu."
  9. Am-bibya ənnmər a-kbʷəy fəṛka a-tt-asi: "Zu-t-γis əttəffaħ-fu."
  10. Fəṛka a-nnəg-aka mliħ a-hh-ana a-tt-asi "Waš ʕa-m-zu-t-ana tirəy wəlla yạṛạ???"
  11. Nnmər a-ttəmtəm an-nin n-tiri a-tti "Tirəy yạṛạ…"
  12. A-ħħərrəm an-kambi ạ-kkạ fəṛka ndza abqa-fu, a-tt-as "Maγạ nə-ss-aʕam-ḍəb taššəyt???"
  13. *** Uγ ba b-iḍləm a-ss-a-bə-ttəlla əssəbbət ndzuγ a-b-yəḍləm.
In English:
  1. The donkey went to the lion angry and asked him: "Hey, aren't you the chief of the forest?"
  2. The lion told him "Yes... what's wrong with you, what has happened?"
  3. The donkey told him "The tiger is hitting me on my face every time he sees me, saying 'Why won't you wear a cap?' Why is he hitting me?? And what cap would I wear anyhow?"
  4. The lion told him "Leave this affair to me, don't worry about it at all."
  5. So when the lion met the tiger, he asked him "What's the issue of this cap?"
  6. The tiger told him "I'm just looking for an excuse to hit him, that's all."
  7. The lion told the tiger: "Look for another excuse, it's (too) obvious... Tell him to bring you an apple so that, if he brings it to you yellow, give him a slap and tell him 'Why won't you bring it red?' If he brings it to you red, give him a slap and tell him 'Why won't you bring it yellow?'"
  8. The tiger replied "This is a good idea".
  9. The next day the tiger met the donkey and told him "Bring me an apple."
  10. The donkey looked hard at him and asked him "Should I bring it red or yellow?"
  11. The tiger mumbled under his breath "Red, yellow..."
  12. He lifted up his hand and slapped the donkey and said "Why won't you wear a cap?"
  13. *** An oppressor doesn't need an excuse to oppress.

Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Nəskibən: "You don't appear any more"

"Nə-s-k-ibən" (2SG-NEG-anymore-appear) "You don't appear any more!"

I heard this sentence several times during my fieldwork in the Saharan oasis of Tabelbala. Parsing it was easy enough, but making sense of it took more flexibility: at first I thought I must have misheard. I've never heard anyone in England or America or France say anything like "You don't appear any more!"; yet there it turned out to be a stock phrase.

It makes sense once you unpack the presuppositions. A man should appear in public regularly - in town, at the market, at the mosque, en route to other places. But, in that slow-paced small town, doing so is an act of socializing, not just a stage in an errand: you don't just pass someone you know by without at least stopping a minute to say hi and share news. Not appearing in public for some time is an event noteworthy in itself, and people can and will criticize you for it if you don't have a valid excuse like illness.

That's not really how it works in Paris or London. You might be obliged to "appear" at your office, but not for strictly social reasons. They might notice your absence at your regular pub or your clubhouse or something, but certainly not on the street. Even in such cities, though, we normally spend much of our day before the gaze of others - if not exchanging greetings and gossip, at least seeing and being seen.

But now things have changed. On Facebook, a friend in Tabelbala recently made a post to urge social distancing, translating the message "Stay at home!" into Korandje: gwạ nən gạ ka! The first response was chaffing from a more frivolous friend, telling him that he's been social distancing so much that "nə-s-k-ibən"!

I imagine the lockdown in Tabelbala is less rigidly enforced than it could be - surrounded by 100 km or more of empty desert in every direction, it is impressively isolated without it. But otherwise, we're all in the same boat now: we don't appear any more. Except online.

What kind of expectations and presuppositions will that create, over weeks that may stretch into months? When we all emerge from our hideouts, will we find it worthy of comment if people don't appear in their usual social media sites or chat forums?