Friday, March 31, 2006

Naxi in Qatar

Yesterday I watched an excellent Chinese documentary called E-Ya Village at the Al-Jazeera TV Production Festival in Doha. It covered aspects of this isolated Sichuan Naxi mountain village's daily life, but focused mainly on their religion, covering what they did for naming, coming of age, mourning, New Year, various sacrifices...

The film was full of (subtitled) Naxi dialog, but what I found most linguistically interesting was the writing system. As everybody should know :), Naxi has a complex pictographic writing system of some antiquity, called Dongba after the priests of their religion. In the film, no secular books or newspapers featured, and the few signs (at the clinic's entrance) were written in Chinese; but Dongba was used several times, always in a religious context. In particular, its most obvious "practical" use was for prayer flags put up in mourning contexts: whenever these flap in the wind, the wind is said to carry the words written on them, sections of the Naxi holy book, to the realm of the dead. It suggests a functional interpretation of the Dongba writing system as one intended essentially, not for communication with the living, but for communication with the spirit world. This has suggestive if not exact parallels - consider Mandaic's traditional functions, for instance. But obviously one would want to see more than just a film to analyze the issue!

The festival, incidentally, was very international, with numerous Persian, Chinese, Latin American, and French films as well as the Arabic ones. Unfortunately, they were let down by insufficient subtitling: non-Arabic films were subtitled only in English, if at all, while Arabic films were not subtitled, substantially restricting the audience for both. Hopefully next year they'll try to remedy this.

Monday, March 27, 2006

Crow language

I was Googling for an essay I'm planning to write on reduplication in Siouan languages the other day, so I typed in "Crow language". I was somewhat surprised to come across an article on the vocalizations of the American crow as my second hit, so I thought I'd share it. Apparently, 27 different vocalizations have been noted in the scientific literature (with names like "scolding call", "distress call", "courtship vocalizations", and "pre-mortality call"), and many remain undeciphered, so to speak. It would certainly be interesting to get a really good idea of the communication system of an animal as intelligent as the crow; bees are all very well, but perhaps a little too alien to compare sensibly with human language.

I never did find anything very helpful online on the Crow language, but John Boyle's Siouan Languages Bibliography will certainly come in handy, and this sketch of Omaha-Ponca seems good, though of limited use for what I'm researching.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

The Quran on linguistic diversity

In these times of widespread language extinction and of "religious" tensions, I thought some readers might be interested to hear what the Quran has to say about linguistic diversity. The most important text is, of course, 30:22:
And one of His [God's] signs is the creation of the heavens and the earth and the diversity of your tongues and colors; most surely there are signs in this for the learned.

As the context makes clear, this is part of a more general Qur'anic pattern in which this universe itself - the normal, everyday events that we look at as just the way things are - is identified as a sign from God; the Creator's nature is reflected in His creation. So the thrust of the verse is that linguistic diversity is a part of nature, and as such a part of God's plan for the world.

Another relevant verse, which, in light of 10:47 ("for every nation there is a messenger"), puts the idea that the Quran being written in Arabic makes Arabic the best of all languages into perspective, is 14:4:
And We [God] did not send any messenger but with the language of his people, so that he might explain to them clearly; then God makes whom He pleases err and He guides whom He pleases and He is the Mighty, the Wise.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Libyan Berber and a remarkable Laghouat archaism

In case you ever wondered where in Libya Berber languages are spoken, check out this map at Tawalt. Note at least two oases that don't get any mention in the Ethnologue - Ubari and al-Fogaha.

I was talking to a guy from Laghouat the other day, and it turns out that in that area people say `ma عما rather than more widespread Maghreb Arabic m`a معا for "with". This is rather interesting, in the light of Aramaic `am and Hebrew `im... wonder whether it's a coincidence, or a Syriac borrowing somehow picked up by an Arab tribe en route to Algeria? Anyone heard of another Arabic dialect where this happens?