Thursday, July 20, 2006

Polysemy vs. homonymy: some Algerian Arabic examples

I'm recently back from Algeria (hence the blog gap), so I thought I'd post some more meditations on Algerian Arabic...

Q: Which of the following words from Algerian Arabic are cases of polysemy (different meanings with a shared conceptual core) and which of homonymy (different meanings coincidentally identical in phonetic shape)?

`ṛuṣa عروصة - bride; daughter-in-law
ħjəṛ حجر - stone; lap
bakuṛ باكور - early-ripening figs; young bonito fish

A: `ṛuṣa, from Classical Arabic `aruusah عروسة, is a case of polysemy; a new bride traditionally goes to live in her husband's family house together with her new parents-in-law, so the extension is natural.

ħjəṛ is a case of homonymy: "stone" comes from Classical ħajar حجر, and "lap" from Classical ħijr حجر. Though it would be amusing to try and find a common conceptual core, I can't see any plausible one.

bakuṛ is etymologically a case of polysemy: both derive from Classical baakuur باكور, "coming early, early; premature; precocious" (Wehr). But synchronically, given the two independent restrictions of its meaning - it isn't used to mean first fruits in general, or young fish in general - I can only take it to be a case of homonymy.


Anonymous said...

Welcome back, Lameen :o)

language said...

I agree with your analysis, and welcome back!

John Emerson said...

Chinese philosophy often finds enormous significance in polysemy, and from time to time homonyms get dragged in too.

Anonymous said...

Been thinking about it a bit and I have to admit I don't understand this bit:

But synchronically, given the two independent restrictions of its meaning - it isn't used to mean first fruits in general, or young fish in general - I can only take it to be a case of homonymy.

First of all, if we were to consider the whole polysemy vs. homonymy issue only synchronically, would we really speak of two separate phenomena? If we were to disregard all diachronical issues, it would seem that only the concept
Secondly, I would closely investigate the origin of the current meaning of the word "bakur" before making any judgement. In my experience, one must be careful when tracing the history of a word back to Classical Arabic. I would suspect (without much base, except maybe a similar word from my native dialect Slovak) that the "early ripening figs" meaning was the original one and "young fish" came second, first as an extension, then - in some regions - replacing the original one . But in any case, the key lies in your definitions, Lameen: "different meanings coincidentally identical". The meanings are not as different as the previous example, nor would I say there is anything incidental about their phonetic shape.

Lameen Souag الأمين سواق said...

I think the English example of "sole" is a good analogy. The "sole" of a foot and the "sole" (a fish) are both flat, and both derive from the same etymology (Latin solea, "sandal, bottom of a shoe"); but the connection is synchronically no longer transparent to an English speaker (at least not to this English speaker!), because the connecting meaning, "sandal" (soles are apparently vaguely sandal-shaped), has been lost. Likewise, if bakur could still mean "early ripening fruits" in general, or even "young fish" in general, there would be a clear connecting link; but neither meaning is attested, so synchronically there isn't any clear path from one meaning ("early-ripening figs") to the other ("young bonito fish").

Incidentally, I just realised what the English cognate for bakur is: albacore! Like bonito, it's a type of tuna fish. This suggests one of two things: either this etymology is rubbish (I suspect it is, given that, while baqara does mean "cow", there is no Arabic word "buko"), or bakur the fish is actually itself a Portuguese loanword (but the Portuguese word begins with al-, so it probably is Arabic...)

MMcM said...

Does that imply that which obtains depends on one's knowledge of the history of the language, if the key is the transparency of the connection?

Or of history in general? Is "lead", the word for sticks of graphite in pencils, the same as "lead", a poison in older paints?

Could there be a series of sense pairs, each of whose connection to the next is clear enough, but whose endpoints were obscure? So that the extent of one's synchronic knowledge, including perhaps technical vocabulary, was the determiner?

Lameen Souag الأمين سواق said...

I dunno about the first question, but the answer to your second question "Could there be a series of sense pairs, each of whose connection to the next is clear enough, but whose endpoints were obscure?" is yes! Have a look at Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things sometime - it gives a nice account of the issue.

Anonymous said...

but the connection is synchronically no longer transparent to an English speaker
So the key is transparency? Why?
And why should the connecting link be clear? The word could have undergone a shift of meaning before splitting into two meanings it has now. Such specialty words often have complicated histories.
Basically, I do not see a difference between عروسة and باكور - the basic meaning is there and there phonetic shape can be traced back to one source. Hence polysemy.

Lameen Souag الأمين سواق said...

So would you describe "sole" and "sole" as polysemy? To my mind, polysemy isn't about etymology; it's about whether an unbroken connecting chain of meanings exists or not. `rusa can even be given a unified definition: the new woman in the paternal household. Knowing that `rusa means "bride", that brides generally move to their parents-in-law's house, and that brides are usually too young to be confused with their mothers-in-law, you could predict that the "bride" of an older married person would probably mean their son's bride even if you didn't know the extension. But there's absolutely no way that you could predict from knowing the "fig" meaning that a sea bakur was a type of tuna (rather than, say, a young sea urchin, or a fish that came early in the year), or that a land bakur was an early-ripening fig (not, say, a young fig, or an early-ripening apricot).

Incidentally, what's the Slovak word you mention?

Anonymous said...

So would you describe "sole" and "sole" as polysemy?
Yes. The basic criterion I use is the absence of any etymological relation, which would indicate that the phonetic shape is incidental.

But there's absolutely no way that you could predict from knowing the "fig" meaning that a sea bakur was a type of tuna or that a land bakur was an early-ripening fig
That's true. But I believe it's not about predicting, it's about tracing. I can very well imagine the development of one into another. Needless to say, I cannot prove it :o)

The word I mentioned is "skorka" (noun, f.), derived from "skori / skorý" = 'early'. I heard it (from my grandmother) referring to both sheep born early and early-ripening apples and potatoes. That is what I would consider polysemy.
Incidentally (and I am ashamed to admit that it was my mother who pointed this out :o), the word "skorka" is also the diminutive form of "skora", which is a dialect word for 'skin' (the standard term being "koža"). As there appears to be no etymological connection whatsoever, I would consider this homonymy.

Anonymous said...

In a dictionary they group words etymologically - or at least the OED does -, in order to trace the history and relationships between senses. So fair 'market' is definitely one headword and fair 'blonde; just; mediocre' all come under one other.

But for a native speaker etymology deosn't (normally) come into their knowledge. The I-language, the actual physical presence in the brain and which can be studied, has semantic relationships that mean something to the speaker.

Anonymous said...

The Algerian equivalent for the Arabic word hajar (stone) is hjar and the corresponding word for hijr (lap) is hjer. So it is not exactly a case of polysemy. We say for example hjer yemma (my mother's lap) and el hjar taa' yemma (my mother’s stones). The same slight difference in pronunciation exists between essar (frostbite) and esser (charm).

Lameen Souag الأمين سواق said...

I don't think there's a difference between "lap" and "stone" in my pronunciation, but it sounds like for you "stone" has ṛ (راء مفخم), and "lap" has r (راء مرقق), which would make sense. Are you talking about the same sort of difference as there is between hdart "I spoke" and dert "I did"? Where in Algeria are you from, by the way?

Anonymous said...

That's it. You can also compare dert (I did) and dart (I turned). As for the word serr, it means secret and charm; this is a case of polysemy. The word hjar (stone)is an uncountable noun. In certain regions (S'tif, for example), they use hjaar for the plural. We say hejraat which is the plural of hajra . I am from Algiers.

Anonymous said...

i think your confusion has its origin in the fact that in Standard Arabic, the two words have the same transcription: ha jeem ra.

There are a few other examples of couples that would have the same transcription in MSA:

ā is pronounced as in the English 'far'
a is pronounced as in the English 'cat'

dār [he turned] [a house]
dar [he did]

rāb el hlib [the milk turned sour]
rab el hit [the wall collapsed]

hlib rāyeb [sour milk]
hit rayeb [a collapsed wall]

rāh [he went away]
el lhem rah [the meat became stinky]

ghār [a hole]
ghar [he was jealous]

wash rāki? [how are you?]
meshmash raki [rotten apricots]

brā [he recovered (from an illness)]
bra [a needle]

Interesting, isn't it?

Lameen Souag الأمين سواق said...

True, and that's a great set of examples. But the a's are pronounced differently because of the basic difference between the two different knds of r: consider the difference between the r's of Rba` ربع "a quarter" vs. rbaH ربح "he won", where there's no a next to the r but there's still a difference.

Anonymous said...

My question to you is the following: using the Arabic alphabet and the two words being exactly the same in writing, how would the reader know the correct pronunciation? from the context? (I am not a linguist).

Lameen Souag الأمين سواق said...

That's a problem! Either you use the same letter for both and rely on context (the same way that English "th" can be read as ث or ذ), or you invent a new letter for one of them. The way I do it personally when I'm writing Darja sentences is I write the r of rba` as plain ر and the r of rfed as ر with a dot underneath.

By the way, if you want to continue this discussion by email, mine is my first name at gmail dot com.

Anonymous said...

Thanks! I'll you send an e-mail soon.

Kamaldziri said...

Lameen, thanks for contributing to making Algerian Arabic better understood and for dissecting its particularities. I have read with great interest the various -- and often opposite -- facets of the debate. Some were fascinating, while others were totally off-the-mark, particularly when the contributor(s) attempted to diverge the discussion onto the sensitive path of "foreign" and/or "political" influences and away from a purely linguistic exchange. I have been a student of linguistics for a few decades now and graduated from a great US school. I am new to the forum and would like to make a brief comment relating to the Polysemy vs. homonymy issue in Algerian Arabic, specifically relating to "'arusa" and "hjer". I would venture that the former is based on "'ars", meaning "celebration" and would give "'arress", as in "he celebrated". "'arusa", therefore, would mean "she who was celebrated or feted". "'arrass" would be translated as "he who celebrates or organizes celebrations". As to the latter, "hjer" does indeed mean "lap", but "hjar" is the plural form of "hajra". Keep up the good work.

Lameen Souag الأمين سواق said...

If two people independently agree on the pronunciation, then I guess I was mistaken about ħjəṛ حجر being homonymous - it's actually two words differing in the last consonant, ħjəṛ "stone" and ħjər "lap". As for `ṛuṣa, I think you're right in principle, but not in the timing; Classical Arabic has `aruusah, and Algerian Arabic has no productive process forming passive participles with -uu- (*DRub, *jbud, etc.), so the word was probably formed from this root in or before pre-classical Arabic.