Wednesday, December 20, 2006

The earliest recorded pidgin - Maridi Arabic?

Some years ago, browsing in a bookstore, I came across a mention of a Mauritanian Arabic-based pidgin recorded by the medieval geographer Al-Bakri. For years since, I have been regretting not having written down the details; even reading through a copy of Al Bakri's description of North Africa brought no joy. Today, I finally found the mention again, and managed to track down the original reference - and understand why I didn't find it before...

Al-Bakri (1014-1097) was a noted geographer and less noted writer from Huelva in modern-day Spain. His description of North Africa was the most detailed since Roman times, and his descriptions of West Africa are among the earliest surviving - despite the fact that he himself never seems to have left Spain, relying instead on travellers' descriptions. Only some twelve manuscripts of his greatest work, al-Masālik wal-Mamālik, survive, none complete. The passage containing the pidgin text, unfortunately, is absent from most printed editions of al-Bakri, including every edition that I could find at SOAS: according to Thomason and Elgibali, "we have found our text only in a printed copy of al-Bakrī located in the national library of Egypt in Cairo; this copy is dated 1943, but we do not know who compiled it or - more importantly - what its manuscript source was."

Without further ado, here is the text, as given by Thomason and Elgibali, who apparently found it somewhere in a section describing Aswan and other Egyptian towns:

Someone told me that a dignitary from the people of Aswan used to travel a lot. One day he reached a small town called Maridi. Upon his return, he said to the prince of the believers: 'Sir, may God give you plenty of good and honour your face, here is my case! Its goal is to preserve and spread the word of God. The Blacks have mutilated our beautiful language and spoiled its eloquency [sic] with their twisted tongues. During my visit, Sir - may God protect you - only God's guidance helped me escape the dangers and understand their miserable Arabic. Sometimes, and may God forgive me if I did wrong, I could only laugh at what they called Arabic; and may God forgive me if I call what they uttered Arabic. Listen, Sir:

[and here I add my entirely conjectural vocalisation; for the original, see below] bī waħid yūm rādūl, Dūmā lū 'isim. damal lū 'ū wa bin lū 'ū. 'umnī dī rūħ 'a`adnī bī maħall. kīk lū 'ūl "ħaram, 'inta barbar, bin mū rūħ, 'inta barbar; 'a`adū!" 'umnī damal fū' 'ū, kīk lū 'ūl "ħaram, 'inta barbar, bin 'a`ad, dūmā rūħ." kīk lū 'ūl ħaram 'inta barbar. Dūmā 'ūl: "kīk mū diyyid mū muhī."

One day there was a man whose name was Jumu`a. He had a camel and a son. They were going to stay in a place. People(?) said to him, "Shame! You are a barbarian! Your son should not walk, you barbarian; seat him!" They were on the camel. People(?) said to him, "Shame! You are a barbarian!" The son sat and Jumu`a walked. ̂People(?) said to him, "Shame! You are a barbarian!" Jumu`a said "People(?) are neither good nor important."

The prince of the believers ordered that his need be met.

The chances of copyists having mangled this bizarre passage are high; the chances that the printers mangled it (or left out whatever vocalisation might have been present) makes the situation even worse. (Certainly De Slane's edition shows instances of both; thus his īħan Yākūš, given as Berber for "God is one", is almost certainly a mistake for ījan Yākūš, by the omission of a dot.) However, it shows some striking features.

The near-absence of morphology, the apparent presence of tense particles, and the simplification of the phonology are all suggestive of a pidgin, and a pidgin is exactly what one would expect given the nature of the trans-Sahara trade. Phonetically, the substitution of ' for qāf is characteristic of lower Egypt and the Levant, but also of several city dialects in the Maghreb and of Maltese; the substitution of d for j is widespread in upper Egypt, but I know of no modern dialect that has both features. The word kīk scarcely looks like Arabic; Thomason & Elgibali suggest a possible interpretation, based on two etymons reportedly widespread in Nilo-Saharan (koi "person", -k "plural"), as "people".

Where was this pidgin spoken? Unfortunately, the text is thoroughly vague on this point, and Maradi's location is unknown. The paragraph after it is a condensed version of a passage elsewhere in al-Bakri describing the Lamtūna tribe of Mauritania, so Thomason and Elgibali suggest that it was spoken in Mauritania; however, Owens notes that both the phonetics of the text and the attribution to a person from Aswan (not to mention the possible presence of a Nilo-Saharan word) suggest a location somewhere in modern-day Sudan.

Of course, until someone finds the manuscript containing this passage, I will be unable to banish a slight suspicion that this whole passage might be an obscure joke by the printers (whoever they might be - the book in Cairo in question does not appear in Thomason and Elgibali's bibliography) on linguists worldwide... However, if authentic (and it scarcely seems likely that the printers would have made it up), this may well be the earliest attested passage in a pidgin, and certainly the earliest Arabic-based pidgin reported. It also provides an illustration of several rather common responses to pidgins and creoles: the half-shocked half-amused contempt for its differences from the lexifier language, the idea that the pidgin itself constitutes an obstacle to learning that needs to be overcome by education in the lexifier language, and the idea that this latter task is the state's responsibility.

PS (23 Dec): In Arabic, this story is more usually told of Juha; it occurs to me that دوما (Dūmā) may well be a misreading/miscopying of دوها (Dūhā), which would be a plausible rendition of Juha, rather than of the rather unusual name Jumu`a.

Arabic: (unfortunately, the portion given starts at "Sir, may God give you plenty of good"; the typeface is also extraordinarily blurry. I have taken the liberty of adding some punctuation.)
مولاي الخليفة جزاك الله خيرا وأكرم وجهك، إليك قضيتي ومحتواها حفظ كلمة الله ونشرها... فإن السود قد قطعوا اوصال لغتنا الجميلة تقطيعا وأفسدوا بيانها بشرير ألسنتهم المعوجة، فأثناء زيارتي (حفظك الله) كان إلهام الله ووحيه المعينين الوحيدين للنجاة من الأخطار وفهم ما أرادوا قوله لي بعربيتهم المزرية، فأحيانا يا مولاي (وسامحني الله إن أخطئت) كنت لا أملك الضحك على عربيتهم - وليسامحني: الله إن أطلقت على ما نطقوا بها اسم العربية، فاسمع يا سيدي:
بي وحد يوم رادول دوما لو اسم دمل لو او وبن لو او امني دي روح اعدي بي محل كيك لو لوب حرم انت بربر بن مو روح انت بربر لو اعدو امني دمل فوء او كيك لو اول حرم انت بربر بن اعد دوما روح كيك لو اول حرم انت بربر دوما اول كيك مو ديد مو مهي

  • Al-Bakri, Description de l'Afrique septentrionale, M. G. De Slane, trans. (Alger, 1913).
  • Jonathan Owens. "Arabic-based Pidgins and Creoles", in Contact languages: a wider perspective, ed. Sarah G. Thomason. Amsterdam: John Benjamins 1996.
  • Sarah G. Thomason and Alaa Elgibali. "Before the Lingua Franca: Pidginized Arabic in the Eleventh Century A.D.". Lingua 68 (1986) 317-349.

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