Monday, May 28, 2007

Talk at SOAS: The typology of number borrowing in Berber

Just a quick note for London readers: I'm going to be giving a talk on Wednesday in room B111 at SOAS, on "The typology of number borrowing in Berber" - basically the same talk I gave in Cambridge, expanded a bit (for example, I've added a section on Northern Songhay.)

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Why people say silly things about historical linguistics

I recently realised that a lot of popular misconceptions about language evolution derive from uncritical use of the "family" metaphor. In families, a person has kids and then stays around, alongside the kids, for many years... they may live to see their great-grandchildren. The parent and the child may show a family resemblance, but will certainly be separate individuals. If you're told that languages come in "families", and "descend" from past languages, then it seems perfectly reasonable to imagine those ancestor languages lingering on alongside their descendants, and to imagine that the minor changes occurring daily within the language you speak are completely different from the sharp discontinuities that would have to occur for a new language to emerge.

But languages don't work that way at all: a language's "descendants" are (with rare exceptions) simply the various results of its own changes in the mouths of various communities. It's usually meaningless to talk about one living language being the "ancestor" of another one; in such cases, both are descendants of the same ancestor, even if (as infrequently happens) one has changed significantly less than the other. (Revived languages, like Sanskrit, are arguably an exception.) The same mistake is frequently made in popular understandings of biology, for the same reason; people imagine that chimpanzees (say) are humans' ancestors, when in reality the very fact that chimpanzees exist alongside humans proves that, while both species share a common ancestor, that ancestor was neither of them (or, looking at it another way, has equal right to be described as either of them.)

Friday, May 25, 2007

Songhay materials

Songhay is a close-knit family of languages in West Africa, spread by the medieval Songhay Empire, that happens to be rather relevant to my PhD. It has no close relatives; the best guess is that it's Nilo-Saharan, but if it were spoken in the Americas, it would undoubtedly be classed as having no relatives whatsoever, and the resemblance to other languages is not strong. It has some rather interesting syntactic patterns. Throughout the family, NPs are organised as follows: possessor - head - adjective - determiner - plural marker, eg Kwarandzie adra kedda gh yu (mountain small this pl) "these small mountains", Sidi L`arbi n iz yu n targa (Sidi Larbi 's child pl 's canal) "Sidi Larbi's children's canal". While at least one other West African family, Mande, has this NP order, the only case I am aware of offhand outside Africa is Ulwa in Nicaragua. Even rarer worldwide is a feature found in a number of centrally located Songhay varieties: having two distinct classes of verb, one - the vast majority - requiring SOV word order (ie preverbal objects), and the other (including such verbs as "follow", "marry", "want", "see", "fear", "bring", at least in Gao) requiring SVO order (ie postverbal objects.)

Anyway, for me this has been a great week for finding materials on Songhay. Jeffrey Heath has updated his webpage, adding work in progress on the nearly undocumented dialect of Humburi as well as several others (I will find the Tadaksahak wordlist especially useful; aside from Songhay, readers may also want to check out his Dogon materials.) On a missionary website (though I strongly disapprove of such work, it does have useful byproducts), I found a good hour of fairly comprehensible audio in Tadaksahak, an inadequately documented Northern Songhay language important for my purposes; and SOAS library just informed me that the copy of Ousseina Alidou's unpublished dissertation on Tasawaq, an even more important language for comparisons to Kwarandzie, has at long last arrived from Hamburg. Above all, I got an email from a kind contact from Tabelbala, with some more Kwarandzie audio files.

For other Songhay materials, try Relative Clauses in Tadaksahak, Some Verb Morphology Features of Tadaksahak, Northern Songhay Languages in Mali and Niger, Southern Songhay Speech Varieties in Niger, The Zarma Website, Zarma Dictionary, Notions élémentaires pour apprendre le Zarma, La dénomination en Zarma, Lexique kaado-français...

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Prenominal adjective borrowed into Arabic from Persian?

A major interest of mine lately is the way in which lexical borrowings can affect syntax, dragging bits of the source language's word order with them. I came across what looks like a nice example of this in a book on Gulf Arabic. In Kuwaiti dialect, as in all dialects of Arabic, adjectives normally follow the noun. However:
The (Persian) adjective kooš precedes the noun it qualifies. It does not occur in association with defined nouns. It is not inflected for gender or number. Thus:
    kooš walad, bint    a good boy, girl
(T. M. Johnstone, Eastern Arabian Dialect Studies, London: Oxford University Press 1967, p. 147.)
Only trouble is, my Persian grammar doesn't say anything about the Persian adjective in question being pre-nominal, and virtually all adjectives in Persian are post-nominal. Does anyone know more about this?

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Learn Oneida!

Came across a great new site, the Oneida Language Revitalisation Program, consisting mainly of an extensive audio phrasebook of Oneida, the Iroquoian language native to upstate New York. There's also a teaching grammar and dictionary at Oneida Language Tools, and some video at Tracy Williams' site. It's great to see this much material online for a language with less than two hundred speakers; this should make it a lot easier for would-be speakers to make a good start at learning it.

Translation and propaganda

Horrifying news from Palestine - a Hamas Mickey Mouse is telling Palestinian kids to "annihilate Jews"! Or not. In fact - after running on a wide range of media, few of whom I suspect will bother to correct their story - this story was independently quickly exposed by several sources, such as Angry Arab, Ali Alarabi, and Brian Whitaker; MEMRI (the Israeli secret services-linked outlet that provided it) made the mistake of providing a video allowing any Arabic-speaker to confirm their mistranslations. With just a bit of spin, the kids' show in question was turned from merely propagandistic to verging on Bond-villain-esque:
* nqāwim, "we will resist", is rendered as "we will fight";
* biṭuxxūnā l-yahūd "the Jews shoot us", is rendered as "we will kill the Jews" (!);
* 'astašhid "I will be a martyr" as "I will commit martyrdom" (I don't think that's even an English expression, but never mind);
* 'ustāđiyyat al-`ālam, literally "professorship of the world" (in context, they clearly mean being at the intellectual forefront of the world), is rendered as "masters of the world".

When challenged on the translation of "biṭuxxūna l-yahūd", the ex-colonel in Israeli military intelligence who runs MEMRI, Yigal Carmon, apparently resorted to insisting that because "yahūd" (Jews) comes at the end, it must somehow be the object! ("Even someone who doesn't know Arabic would listen to the tape and would hear the word 'Jews' is at the end, and also it means it is something to be done to the Jews, not by the Jews.") It is rather difficult to imagine someone running an organisation dedicated to translating Arabic being unaware that subjects in Arabic commonly follow the verb (especially when a pronominal object suffix (-nā "us") is present, as here).

The moral in all this for English-language media is clear: when some helpful organisation sends you a free translation of some foreign-language article or program, do look a gift horse in the mouth, and check the translation with an independent source first. As for readers/viewers of the media in any language - caveat lector! But you no doubt already knew that.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007


I'm a bit busy getting my core chapter ready to hand in, so just a quick post on an English word I spotted lately: agflation. The term confirms the ever-increasing productivity of "-flation" as a suffix; the phenomenon is rather alarming.