Friday, August 31, 2007

Leiden conference on African languages and linguistics

I'm just back from a conference at Leiden, and heading off to take a holiday in Algeria very soon; here's my interim report to tide my readers (to whom I apologise for the interruption in service:) over.

Leiden turns out to be a very nice little town, clean, quiet, full of canals, and practically empty. I imagine all that changes when the students get there! The conference was good - I got to talk to several other people working on Berber and Songhay, and heard some interesting talks. To name a few, Jeffrey Heath discussed the remarkable ways in which syntax affects tone in Jamsay Dogon; Maarten Kossmann argued (and I am inclined to agree) that the Mande influence discernible in southern but not northern Songhay, and especially strong in "Inner", or Eastern, Songhay, is particularly to be linked to Soninke, and is not a feature of proto-Songhay; Alain Bassene presented a paper on topicalisation and focus in a Jola variety where both proved to behave in a manner almost completely identical to their behaviour in Algerian Arabic; and Mary Pearce presented in impressive detail what turned out to be a clear ongoing sound change (a shift from phonemic tone to phonemic voicing) in the Chadic language Kera. My own paper was perhaps a little too esoteric even for a conference like this - I'm not sure that more than two or three people in the audience actually cared about sound shifts in Songhay - but I heard corroborating evidence for one of my statements immediately afterwards, which was satisfying.

I also picked up a pleasing number of free language/linguistics books, including review copies (look for them on Afrikanistik sometime in the indefinite future) of a new dialectological atlas of the Moroccan Rif and of a book by Pichler on the history of Tifinagh which (I'm not sure whether to be amused or annoyed) briefly quotes me verbatim regarding Neo-Tifinagh without attribution or even quotation marks.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Phrasebook fiction

The bewilderingly odd and sometimes strangely evocative phrases that some phrasebook compilers apparently expect to be useful have caught the attention of many people besides me, although I do think the Andamanese one I found a year or two back takes the cake. However, until a few days ago, I had not come across phrasebook-based fiction. I can now report that there is at least one example of such a genre: Gene Wolfe's "Useful Phrases" (a short story in Strange Travellers):
Even so, many of the phrases thus translated struck me as peculiar. Who would wish to say "You no longer recognize her," "Mine is a similar address," or "I will tell the trees to be quiet"? I studied all these phrases diligently, however, so much so that I sometimes found myself murmuring in my bath, Pava pacch, tîsh ùtra. Neéve sort dufji. "How like a ghost are the fountain's waters! The flood carries away my riches." The paper is marvelously thin, and yet completely opaque; the print sharp-edged even when viewed through my best magnifying glass...

I addressed to him the phrase I had so often rehearsed: Semphonississima techsodeliphindera lafiondalindu tuk yiscav kriishhalôné! "How delightful to discover in the shrinking sea a crystal blossom of home!"

He dropped my advertisement and ran from the shop.
There would be no point in summarising the story - it's not about plot so much as mood. If it has a moral, it must be that you should keep phrase books of unknown origin for unidentifiable languages only if you want your life to become more exciting and dangerous.

A coming reanalysis in Arabic and Berber

In historical linguistics, when a word or string of words is reinterpreted as consisting of a different set of words (for example, when "an ewte", which is what people used to say in Middle English, becomes "a newt"), they call it reanalysis. Here are two somewhat parallel examples.

In classical Arabic, one word for "he came" is jā'a. "With" is bi-. "He came with X" is jā'a bi-X, and can usually be translated as "he brought X". In some parts of the paradigm, the two words remain more or less adjacent* - eg ya-jī'u bi- "he comes with"; in others, they are separated by an agreement morpheme - eg jā'-at bi- "she came with", ji'-nā bi- "we came with". In all modern dialects, the glottal stop is lost, and so are the final short vowels, which would regularly yield jā b(i)-, yijī b(i)-, jā-t b(i)-, etc. But in fact, this common construction was reanalysed as a single word, so you get forms along the lines of jāb, yijīb, jāb-it, jib-nā...

In Proto-Berber, as across most Berber languages, the word for "come" was something like as (perfect form y-usa, habitual yə-ttas, etc.) However, Proto-Berber also had a very productive system of "extensions", particles near the verb marking the direction in which the verb's action took place: towards (d) or away from (n) the speaker. Naturally, "come" normally featured the d extension. In many common forms, it was adjacent to the stem (eg y-usa d "he came", nə-ttas d "we come", etc.); in others, it was not (eg ad-d as-əγ "I will come", usa-n d "they came", etc.) In at least one variety - the dialect of the Beni Snous near Tlemcen, in western Algeria - this d was reinterpreted as part of the word "come"; so there (with voicing assimilation of s to z when next to d) you get forms like yusəd, nəttasəd, ad azd-əγ, uzd-ən.

* Strictly speaking, even in this one they're separated by a short vowel marking mood.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

"The inadequacy of traditional Islamic languages"

A Pakistani physicist weighs in on the state of science in the Islamic world in Physics Today, a magazine I used to subscribe to during the very brief period when I was doing physics at university. The article's quality is variable; he makes some good points (like the alarming publication and patent statistics, and the way that authoritarian attitudes inhibit hypothesis forming), but also some poor ones (his Bourguiba-esque suggestion that fasting and prayer are incompatible with hard work, for example, is laughable.) Anyway, he throws in an observation on language worth discussing:
Second, the inadequacy of traditional Islamic languages—Arabic, Persian, Urdu—is an important contributory reason. About 80% of the world's scientific literature appears first in English, and few traditional languages in the developing world have adequately adapted to new linguistic demands.
In what sense can a language be inadequate for a purpose? What I take him to be referring to is the inadequacy of technical terminology. Specialists in any field have to learn a set of fairly complicated ideas to which they can refer concisely and unambiguously (phoneme, wh-movement, coronal, theta-role; integration, isomorphism, standard deviation...) Such terms often do not refer to anything normally noticed by people, and therefore have no equivalent in any language until one is created or borrowed. Various specialists or committees have undertaken to create such terms (in Arabic, at least, they generally eschew the idea of borrowing them.) But in many cases a chaos of alternative terms is spread. For "linguistics" alone, different Arabic dictionaries will suggest اللسانيات، الألسنيات، اللغويات، علم اللغة, and even other terms. I have three dictionaries of linguistic terminology in Arabic sitting on my shelf; randomly looking up "retroflex", for example, I find ارتدادي، التوائي، انقلابي all given as translations.

One might expect that the efforts of specialists to communicate with each other would end this problem, with the community of linguists (say) rapidly converging on a single term and abandoning the rest, just as such synonyms for "retroflex" as "cerebral" or "cacuminal" have largely disappeared in English. But there we have a vicious circle. At present, to be a good specialist in many fields, you need to have studied them in some Western language, and to be following a literature on them that's largely in a Western language, and to be communicating with colleagues who mostly speak that same language. In fact, given how little on average is spent on research in the Islamic world, in many such fields the odds are high that you won't even be able to find employment without going to or staying in the West, further reducing your opportunities to talk about, or teach, the subject in your own language - and if you do stay in your own country, you may find that specialist terminology dictionaries, especially those printed in other countries, are hard to find. So if ambiguities or misunderstandings come up, the easy thing to do is to switch to English or French or the like; the ideological incentive to use your own language is not supplemented by any significant material or practical incentive. And thus the language gets slowly pressured out of another domain. It's not inevitable, but to change it you'd have to create more incentives and more opportunities for people to stay and to teach in their own countries.

Of course, for Arabic in particular but to a lesser extent for Urdu and Persian, there is a second factor to be considered: diglossia, the wide gap between the language spoken in everyday conversation and the one considered suitable for writing or teaching in. This in itself has some negative implications for teaching science, although the obstacles it sets up to participation by the masses are far less than those that use of an unrelated foreign language like English or French does. But that is another topic for another time.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Miscellaneous linguistics news

I've been keeping busy lately, looking at some rather interesting grammatical facts about the Berber dialect of Ngousa (Ingusa) which I plan to talk about (among other things) at Paris in September. The vocabulary is also interesting; tiḥemẓin "couscous", for example, presumably somehow from timẓin "barley". However, a casual trawl of the news today revealed a surprising number of linguistics-related stories, which I thought I'd share:

Orangutans Play Charades When Misunderstood: For extra points, outline a scenario for the development of a fixed learned vocabulary from sufficiently frequent efforts in a small population to play this sort of charades.

Brain Responses in 4-Month-Old Infants Are Already Language Specific: 4-month-old German and French babies deal better with words stressed in accordance with the the laws of their soon-to-be-native language.

Parts, Wholes, and Context in Reading: A Triple Dissociation: "Do fast readers rely most on letter-by-letter decoding (i.e., recognition by parts), whole word shape, or sentence context? We manipulated the text to selectively knock out each source of information while sparing the others. Surprisingly, the effects of the knockouts on reading rate reveal a triple dissociation. Each reading process always contributes the same number of words per minute, regardless of whether the other processes are operating." I wonder whether this applies in other written languages or is a peculiarity of English.

And a little multimedia on an English regional dialect from the BBC: Pitmatic.