Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Shakespeare was a hobbit...

or, anyway, that was my reaction to the reconstructed pronunciation of a Shakespearean accent provided by the BBC. Apparently, the Globe is planning to stage Troilus and Cressida in its original pronunciation soon - thus bringing a little life back into Shakespeare's dreadful puns! I suggest that for their next challenge they should try reconstructing Fluellen's pronunciation - Elizabethan English with a thick Elizabethan Welsh accent, presumably.

Monday, July 11, 2005

The American Language

I've been reading Mencken's The American Language (Supplement I, 1945), and find it tremendously entertaining in small doses:
Since the earliest days the two Houses have devoted immense amounts of time and wind to pursuing such wicked men and things as Bourbons, slavocrats, embargoroons, gold-bugs, plutocrats, nullifiers, war-hawks, embalmed beef, ..., economic royalists, princes of pelf, land-grabbers, land-sharks, mossbacks, the open shop, the closed shop, and labor and other racketeers. Even Washington made a contribution to the menagerie with his foreign entanglements; as for Jefferson, he produced two of the best bugaboos of all time in his war-hawks and monocrats. From 1875 onward until the late 80s waving the bloody shirt was the chief industry of Republican congressmen, and from the early 90s onward the crime of '73 engaged the Democrats.

It's also genuinely informative at times, providing, for instance, an extensive list of words of Algonquian origins, and revealing that the term African-American (whose modern popularity, of course, came long after the book was written) is not a pure neologism, but has roots in a term that was popular around 1835, Africo-American, and one from 1880, Afro-American. (In a footnote to that section, he quotes a Liberian diplomat as noting that "Liberians consider the term Americo-Liberian opprobious as reflecting upon their [ancestors'] condition of servitude in the United States. Hence they prefer to be called civilized or Monrovian Liberians to distinguish them from the natives of the hinterland..." Diplomatic speech does change!)

In his discussion of social attitudes towards the emerging American dialect, he gives an 1820 quote from a British reviewer, Sydney Smith, that, apparently, "rankled in American bosoms for many years":
In the four quarters of the globe, who reads an American book? or goes to an American play? or looks at an American picture or statue? What does the world yet owe to American physicians or surgeons? What new substances have their chemists discovered? or what old ones have they advanced? What new constellations have been discovered by the telescopes of Americans? Who drinks out of American glasses? or eats from American plates? or wears American coats or gowns? or sleeps in American blankets? Finally, under which of the old tyrannical governments of Europe is every sixth man a slave, whom his fellow-creatures may buy and sell and torture?"

What an embarrassment for the poor fellow - to have been significant enough to give such offence, yet to be remembered two hundred years later principally for the shortsighted arrogance of his sneering asides! Even his last sentence, a justified blow at the time, would soon be made obsolete by a titanic effort. Let the Kilroy-Silks of our own day take note.

Saturday, July 09, 2005

Claim of responsibility for the London murders

Language Log has recently posted twice on the bizarre name of the organization claiming to have carried out the attack. An apparently accurate screenshot of the claim can be found on Wikipedia.

The first interesting thing about this statement is the bizarre phrasing of its opening: والصلاة والسلام على الضحوك القتال سيدنا محمد صلى الله عليه وسلم. The Guardian renders this as "may peace be upon the cheerful one and undaunted fighter, Prophet Muhammad, God's peace be upon him." The doubling of "peace be upon him" (a formula added to the prophet's name as a matter of course) is unusual [because of its redundancy] and stylistically flawed, suggesting an imperfect command of Arabic literary style. The phrase الضحوك القتال (ad-Ḍaḥûk al-Qattâl), rendered by the Guardian as "the cheerful one and undaunted fighter", is composed of two words in apposition which Hans Wehr's dictionary renders as "frequently, or constantly, laughing; laugher" and "murderous, deadly, lethal". This extremely unusual epithet is so weird that at first sight I assumed it must be some kind of prank; it may potentially provide some clues to the identity of the killers.

Such an opening has been used at least once before in Europe: the assassin of Theo van Gogh left a note on the body opening after the standard invocation of God's name, with Vrede en zegeningen op de Emir van de Mujahideen, de lachende doder Mohammed Rasoeloe Allah (Sala Allaho alaihie wa Sallam), ie "Peace and Blessings from on the Amir of the Mujahidin, the laughing killer Mohammed the Prophet of God (God's peace be upon him)", which is almost identical, right down to the doubled "peace be upon him". A similar but less repetitive formula was used by Zarqawi in a purported claim of responsibility for the killing of the governor of Nineveh last year on CNN, and a Google search suggests that (again without the repetition) it occurs in other Iraqi insurgent notices. The term itself is probably copied from the 14th-century Hanbali writer Ibn Taymiyya's as-Siyasa ash-Shar'iyya, whose author, living at the height of the Mongol threat, spent much of his time urging people to fight; it does not seem to occur in any of the accepted hadith books.

The third really weird thing about the message is the phrase ابشرى با أمة الاسلام ابشرى يا امة العروبة : "Rejoice oh community of Islam, rejoice oh community of Arabdom". This collocation itself appears to be well-established, if rare - the phrase "community of Arabdom" (ummat al-`Urûbah) gets only 37 google hits, but many are collocations of one sort or another with "community of Islam", and come from speeches or interviews by well-known politicians. However, it does not seem to form any part of the standard rhetoric of so-called "jihadists".

Finally, it's worth noting that the Qur'anic quote at the end (47:7) contains a typo, if an easy one to make: it has لله lillâh "to God" for الله Allâh "God", omitting an alif. (I looked again, and the alif is there; it's just thinner than the adjacent letters, so my eye processed it as part of the subsequent lam. Oops!)

PS: Juan Cole explores, among other things, the implications of the "Arabdom" phrase.

PPS: Shibli Zaman also examines the linguistics of the issue; his summary of the "urubah" issue is more detailed than mine.

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Negative convergence

Among the many shared characteristics that make the Maghreb proper (Algeria, Tunisia, and Morocco north of the Atlas Mountains) a linguistic area, in my view (albeit a somewhat trivial one, given that only two fully separate languages are involved) is that of double negation: like French, most languages of the area have a negative particle both before and after the verb.

In Algerian Arabic, this is ma ... sh(i), which derives transparently from Arabic ma:, "not (past)" and shay', "thing" (as in constructions like ma: ra'aytu shay'an, "I didn't see a thing".) In Kabyle, the corresponding construction is ur ... ara, which is purely Berber but exactly parallel; ur or ul meaning "not" is found throughout the family, and ara comes from a root meaning "thing" or, as in Tuareg, "child". By contrast, Tuareg and Tachelhit, south of the Maghreb proper, both use negations based on cognates of ul alone, without any postverbal element. So when I came across the Chenoua negative - u ... sh - I naturally assumed this must be a rather interesting Arabic-Berber hybrid, with the Berber preposed negative and the Arabic postposed one. The Tamezret negative is similar, ul ... sh, and seems to fit the idea nicely.

However, it turns out that, despite appearances, this may not be the best explanation. Tarifit uses war ... sha, and Middle Atlas Tamazight optionally uses ur ... (sha). At first sight these seem to work, but the vowel seems odd if they derive from Maghreb Arabic shi. However, kra happens to be a well-attested Berber word meaning "thing", found also in Kabyle, and its expected form in Zenati dialects like Tarifit, Tamezret, and Chenoua would be *shra (this may be a real form, though I haven't come across it.) And what more natural environment to simplify a consonant cluster than in an unstressed grammaticalized particle?

The issue is examined from a rather different, syntactic, perspective in a paper by Ouali online, which ironically reveals an alternative construction in Tarifit which does seem to be half-borrowed from Arabic: ur ... shi. However, its data seem somewhat at odds with those I've found in other sources; there is substantial dialectal diversity within Tarifit, which may explain this.