Thursday, February 23, 2006

Chechnya Day

Apparently, it's Chechnya Day today - commemmorating Stalin's expulsion in 1944 of the entire Chechen people from their homeland to Central Asia (along with a number of other minority groups, such as the Kalmyks). Something like half the population died en route. The survivors were not permitted to return for more than ten years.

So, marking the occasion, here are some Chechen language links:

Like most Caucasian languages, it's quite interesting, with no known relatives outside the Caucasus, a complex gender system, and a remarkably large set of phonemes. Its language family, Northeast Caucasian, may be the closest living relative of two long-extinct languages once written in cuneiform north of the Fertile Crescent, Hurrian and Urartian.

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Classical Kanembu

I went to a very interesting seminar on classical Kanembu this week. It's a highly conservative form of Kanembu/Kanuri, written in the Arabic script, used mainly (exclusively?) for commentary on (and translation of) Arabic religious texts. The earliest dated example is a bilingual Quran from 1669, currently being studied here at SOAS. I don't want to comment in too much detail, because I'm not sure how much they've published on it yet, but a couple of things particularly struck me:
  • Classical Kanembu is still used and written by Islamic scholars of the area - although, apparently, Western scholars only became aware of this fact quite recently.
  • It has substantially more cases than modern Kanuri, and possibly an even more complicated verb morphology.
  • Most strikingly, since vowel length is non-phonemic in Kanuri, it seems to use vowel length to indicate high tone instead; thus, for example Arabic al-'aakhirah "the afterlife" has been borrowed as laxíra, and thus gets spelled as لاخِيرَ. As far as I know, this would make it the only Arabic orthography to mark tone. (Actually, Dmitri Bondarev, who observed this, prefers for the moment the more conservative interpretation that the vowel length commonly corresponds to a modern Kanuri high tone, not ruling out the possibility that such vowels were actually long in the Kanembu of the seventeenth century.)

This already constitutes some of the oldest documentation of any West African language, and quite apart from its implications for the reconstruction of Proto-Saharan, it really makes one wonder what other valuable historical data on other African languages linguists might be missing out on by not studying Arabic/Ajami use. So keep your eyes peeled, and tell me if you spot anything!

Monday, February 13, 2006

Where have you been? - a semantic change in progress?

Just a random observation...

Good sentences: I've been to Finland, I'll have been to Finland five times, he's never been to Finland...

Terrible sentences: *I am to Finland, *I will be to Finland, *I was to Finland, **he never is to Finland...

It seems that "been", in some cases, can act as an alternative past participle for "go", replacing "gone". A linking environment is provided by sentences with a bare locative adverb: I've been there / I am there / I will be there are all fine. Presumably, since "I've been there" normally implies "I've gone there" (unless you've been locked up there since birth or something), the "been" was reinterpreted as an even more irregular past participle of "go".

"I'll be there" equally implies "I'll go there", so it's odd that this wasn't extended similarly to allow "*I'll be to Finland" - or so I thought, before checking Google. Google does reveal a couple of instances: "I'll be to bed in a minute", "I'll be to work way early, and perhaps most strikingly, "I've been to more than half of the counties, and in the next six weeks, I'll be to the other half of the counties". So it seems we have a change in progress. Does this depend on the region? Will it culminate in a complete merger of "go" and "be"? Are there any parallels to this outside English? What do you think?

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

In Languages We Live

Just watched an interesting new film last night, called In Languages We Live/In Sproget Jeg Er (I don't vouch for the second title's accuracy.) It's a film about linguistic diversity, essentially, with cameos from a number of communities including Mla'bri, Totonaco, and Pitjantjatjara, as well as larger languages, such as a rather fun Arabic Hamlet (with Claudius as an Arab dictator, of course), a newscaster who speaks a dialect of Mandarin (Xiang, I think) natively but wants to bring up her kids only speaking Standard Mandarin, and "sheng", the Swahili-English-other street slang of Nairobi teenagers - not to mention, of course, the English and Danish of the narrators. It also had a brief meeting with the last(?) native speaker of Livonian - who apparently has more people to talk to than you might think, what with the steady stream of Finnicists beating a path to his door! But the most memorable bit was the brief narration, in the original language (Arrernte? I'd have to rewatch the film), of the Australian government's 1950's policy of forcibly separating Aboriginal kids from their parents, as witnessed by one of the parents: parents trying to physically hold on to their kids as the police tore them away; parents running with their kids to hide in local ravines, and being tracked down by the police; children crying as they were driven away... It would be hard to believe that such a policy was being practiced just fifty years ago, if the twentieth century weren't already full of such cases.