Sunday, February 25, 2007

Arabic threatened in Qatar?

In a development that doesn't surprise me but will probably surprise anyone who hasn't been following developments in the Gulf, an educationalist is warning that Arabic is threatened in Qatar, and some Arab children are growing up not speaking it. Recall that Qataris are a rather small minority in Qatar, outnumbered by guest workers from all over the world, mainly from South Asia (especially Kerala), the Arab world, and the Philippines. English has become very much a lingua franca there, and much of the population speaks it far better than Arabic, if they speak Arabic at all.

Qatari children's exposure to English often begins soon after birth, with the hiring of a nanny who is unlikely to speak much if any Arabic, and certain not to speak the Gulf dialect - or as Ms. Al Misnad put it, "the education of the children is left to foreign housemaids, who teach their own language and customs." It continues at school, where about two-thirds of their fellow students are non-Qatari (in practice probably less, due to many expat kids attending expat schools); English is a mandatory subject from first grade up, and the many American universities opening campuses in Qatar are commonly English-medium (for instance, CMU.) In short, it's easy to lead a fairly full life in Qatar with little Arabic, and easy to envision Qatari kids of this generation acquiring English natively.

However, apart from other issues like not giving any statistics or details, the article suffers from the common conflation of classical and colloquial Arabic. "In addition, parents would rather talk to their children in the dialect of their country of origin rather than in classical Arabic, a factor which is also contributing to a general decline in the understanding of the classical language" - as if parents have ever talked to their children in classical Arabic for the past millennium, or as if it were desirable that the children should grow up not speaking their own dialects!

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Frananglais in Cameroon - but what exactly is it?

The BBC has recently reported that "Teachers in Cameroon are concerned that the new language frananglais - a mixture of French, English and Creole - is affecting the way students speak and write the country's two official languages." An interesting language contact story, in a remarkably multilingual country none of whose own languages are used for official purposes; shame you can read straight through the article without being any the clearer on whether Frananglais is a system in its own right or just what they choose to call the local brand of code-switching between the two. Many of their examples suggest a French syntactic frame with English vocabulary inserted ("Tu as go au school", "Tu play le damba tous les jours?") - raising the possibility that certain English words consistently replace their French counterparts, while others remain in French - but other examples suggest plain old code-switching, ie shifting from one language to another in mid-sentence ("Tout le monde hate me, wey I no know", "je ne suis pas sure about this"). The one other example of frananglais I could find online is very much in line with it having a French frame with English words (and at least one Italian one) inserted, but there simply isn't enough data to see whether the replacement is systematic or ad hoc. I wonder if anyone can tell me :)
Quand je tellais aux djo de came put leur hand dans la marmite ici ,les djo me tellait que je ne suis pas reglo,que sam est un reglo,l'autre que france foot ne prenait pas en consideration de tels votes,et l'autre que je devais plutot appuyer ma petite au lieu de stay ici un saturday afternoon a game come les muna.(au fait moi je l'ai appuyé hier).Je remercie tous les toileurs qui ont sensibilisé le peuple et qui continue a do leur work reglo.Un seul mot....................jusqu'à ce que notre muna soit en haut sur tous les yahoo de ce web.Je vous en prie camez ici sur yahoo italie,la situation se fait inquietante,que les djo des state là quando tout le monde ici en europe nang deja began a do ce qu'ils Know.C'est notre arme segrete,la force du muna c'est le jour,et nous les grands continuons a work meme la nuit grace aux djo des state.J'ai began a speach avec notre frananglais parceque les djo tell qu'ils y'a des Mazembe ici qui boblé nos tactiques et vont les appliquer pour eux memes.Alors il faut qu'on leur show qu'on peut speach sans qu'il ne yah rien..... - Saittout, le 26/10/2006 à 15:33, Lions Indomptables

UPDATE: Language Log has a helpful post on this, citing some literature. See comments also - apparently it is very much a system rather than code-switching.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Semitic snake spells pop up in Pyramids

Prof. Richard Steiner claims to have deciphered a previously incomprehensible section of an ancient Egyptian inscription as a spell against snakes written in a Semitic language. Dating from 2400 BC, this spell, engraved on the pyramid of King Unas, would be the oldest attested West Semitic inscriptions (apparently in the dialect of Byblos), and nearly as old as the oldest Akkadian inscriptions. The idea of Semitic speakers being seen in ancient Egypt as specialists in snake magic is strangely reminiscent of the story of Moses.

Unfortunately, the talk in which he announced this is only available in Hebrew ("Proto-Semitic Spells in the Pyramid Texts") - he is apparently writing up a publishable work on the subject in English - but the link contains the texts themselves (p. 7) and their transcriptions (pp. 3-4) - the bold bits are those claimed to be Semitic, while the rest is regular Egyptian. He also has up a response in English to criticisms of his claim, which apparently were not long in coming. My Hebrew is not nearly good enough to understand most of the translations he gives, but here's a couple of bits I think I got:

236: ''kbbh iti itii bitii'' = Chant: Come, come, to my house!
281: ''mmin inw 333 twb ś if w-inw hnw'' = Who am I? Rir-Rir - sweet of smell in my nose - I am they. (there just has to be a translation error in this one - probably made by me)

From these, you can see a number of recognisable Semitic words - ''iti'' for "come" (Arabic أتى 'atā, Syriac 'atā), ''bit'' for "house" (Arabic بيت bayt, Hebrew bayit, Syriac bayt-ā), ''mmin'' for "who?" (Arabic من man, Hebrew mîn, Syriac man), ''twb'' for "good" (Arabic طيب ṭayyib, Hebrew ṭôb, Syriac ṭāb)... Specifically Canaanite features, if any, are less conspicuous; the assimilation of Proto-Semitic ''n'' to a following consonant presumably found in ''if'' "nose" (Arabic أنف 'anf, Hebrew 'āp) is found in Canaanite, but also in Akkadian.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Manly numbers in Tashelhiyt Berber

I've been looking at how and why Arabic numbers have been so widely borrowed into Berber, and came across a rather illuminating quote:
"Also, for the numbers 3-29 one frequently chooses the Arabic terms (ie. those in §171.) The women and small children of the Tazĕrwalt-Shlûḥ by preference count (as far as possible) with the Berber numbers, the men by preference (from 10 up) with the Arabic ones. Therefore the Shlûḥ call the Berber numbers laḥsâb (الحساب) ntimġârin, and the Arabic ones laḥsâb niirgâzĕn - ie women's counting* vs. men's counting."

("Auch für die Zahlen von 3-29 wählt man häufig die arabischen Bezeichnungen (s. diese in §171). Die Frauen und kleinen Kinder der Tazĕrwalt-Schlûḥ zählen lieber (soweit es angeht) mit den berberischen Zahlen, die Männer lieber (von 10 an) mit den arabischen. Deshalb bezeichnen diese Schlûḥ die berberische Zählweise als laḥsâb (الحساب) ntimġârin, die arabische aber als laḥsâb niirgâzĕn - also als die Frauenzählweise, bezw. Männerzählweise." - Stumme 1899:102)

If you're interested, and in the vicinity of Cambridge in March, I'll be talking about this issue at CamLing.

* Shurely "old women's counting"?

Stumme, Hans. 1899. Handbuch des Schilhischen von Tazerwalt. Leipzig: J. C. Hinrichs.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Black = free: a nice case of polysemy in Songhay, and its converse

Looking through Jeffrey Heath's 1998 dictionary of Koyra Chiini, the Songhay language spoken in and around Timbuktu, I was struck by the following entry:
bibi * a) [intr] be black, dark [cf bii 2] [INTENS: tirik! T, fi! N] * be freeborn, noble (not a slave) * LOCUT: bañña nda bibi slave and freeman alike * [final in compounds involving sorcery, => čiini-bibi * b) [adj] black, dark * c. [n] soot, burnt residue.

It contrasts satisfyingly with the sort of polysemy you tend to get for "black" on the other shore of the Sahara, as in this Kabyle entry from Dallet 1982:
akli (wa), aklan (wa) || Negro. || Slave, servant. || Butcher; profession reserved for the inferior class of aklan (slaughterer and wholesale and retail vendor in the market.) || Male first name often given to a Kabyle child as a prophylactic measure (against envious gazes and the evil eye.) Antonym: aḥerri [free].
It would be interesting to examine the connotations of "black" in more languages...