Tuesday, January 31, 2006


There is little information on Tonkawa, a language once spoken in southern Texas. The earliest data is a word list from 1829, but nothing else was recorded until 1876. The odd thing is that the words recorded from 1829 are either identical to the later ones or, very often, totally different; in the latter case, they are usually transparently derived from different words, usually verbal forms or compounds. No such rapid vocabulary turnover is observed in later work; between 1876 and 1928, nothing much changed. Why would something like this happen?

Apparently, the explanation is remarkably simple, if tragic. The Tonkawa, like many Native American and Australian groups, had a strong taboo against mentioning the name of a dead person, and, when a dead person's name resembled a word in common use, would replace that word. (To reduce this problem, they often gave their children Comanche names.) And, on October 24, 1862, 167 Tonkawas were massacred by an alliance of enemy tribes near Anadarko, Oklahoma. (Given the circumstances of the time, I wouldn't be surprised if this wasn't the only massacre between 1829 and 1876 either.) One side-effect was the sort of rapid vocabulary change that should normally be just about impossible. This is one reason why you don't want to rely on glottochronology too much.

(For more details, see Ives Goddard in ed. Campbell and Mithun, The Languages of Native America, University of Texas: Austin 1979, pp. 358-363.)

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Desertification in Algeria

Nothing much to do with linguistics, but... Apparently (the book I was reading cites Dresch 1986), the turning point in the desertification of the High Plateaus, the dry zone forming the northern boundary of the Sahara in Algeria and Tunisia, came with French colons' introduction of European-style farming methods. Traditional cultivation methods there left the land fallow one year out of every two, and used nothing sharper than a hoe, leaving numerous clods in the soil, thus keeping erosion to a minimum. The French methods, using a much deeper digging plough and completely weeding the soil, left the soil finely powdered and ready to disappear Dust Bowl-style in the event of any major windstorms, while their expropriation of the land pushed the Algerian farmers into more and more marginal areas, removing their plant cover and rendering them more vulnerable to erosion in turn. The US' Dust Bowl formed in a rather similar way - "sodbusters" removing the crust and vegetation cover that kept the land from blowing away - if on a far larger scale. The process has continued even since independence, due to the obvious short-term financial incentive to plant more land; the result has been "increasing sensitivity to wind erosion and a general degradation of the steppe ecosystem". Nothing so far about Boumedienne's "green line"; I wonder if it made any difference?

I find this interesting in general, but particularly telling given that I recently found some online would-be expert (I don't think I'll bother to link him) boasting that French contributions to Algeria included the "introduc[tion of] modern agriculture". It's amazing how you can put a good face on something just by picking the right words - and on that note, I think I've finally found a linguistics connection for this post.

Saturday, January 14, 2006


El-Fogaha (الفقهة, or to its own inhabitants el-Foqhat) is a small oasis in central Libya, southeast of Sokna between Waddan and Zwila, whose few hundred inhabitants speak (spoke?) a Berber language. It is not quite the easternmost outpost of Berber - Awjila and Siwa are both further east - but a case could be made that it is the most obscure one. Its vocabulary is heavily influenced by Arabic, but retains some archaic Berber words lost in most westerly dialects, such as isin "tooth", azal "day". Unlike the Ghadames dialect or Tamasheq, but like most Berber varieties, it has reduced proto-Berber *B (Tuareg h) to semivowels or null: aiyaḍ "night". A couple of the plurals end in -aw, whereas in more westernly varieties they would end in -a:

  • tamûrt "land" > tmu:râw (Contrast Kabyle tamurt > timura, Tumzabt tamuṛt > timuṛa; compare Ghadamsi tămmurt > tmuro)
  • tanâst "key" > tnisâu (Contrast Tumzabt tnast > tinisa; compare Ghadamsi tonest > təniso)
  • talîlt "terrace" > tli:lâu

The dropping of final semivowels in Northern Berber is well-known, but I had been wondering where the -o in the Ghadamsi plurals came from. I guess now I know. What I don't get yet is why this set of plurals ends in -a/aw/o in any case, rather than the regular feminine plural -in.

For more on this language, see Umberto Paradisi, "El-Fogaha, oasi berberofona del Fezzân", Roma:Bardi 1961.

PS: A belated Eid Mubarak to everyone!