Sunday, September 09, 2007

(Non-)universal quantifiers

Many readers will recall Everett's argument that Pirahã had no universal quantifier because statements featuring what he had originally translated as "all" would generally be considered true even if a small part of the original had to be excepted. I'm not sure the conclusion follows (universal quantification could still be its prototypical meaning, for example), but if it does, then it could equally well be argued to be true of Darja; a lot of statements about "all" that I hear made here are ones which the speaker is perfectly aware (and accepting) of the existence of exceptions to, and it took me a while to go against my mathematical training and realise that when they said "all", they didn't mean it in the logicians' sense. Actually, I suspect the same is true of many idiolects of English. This was brought to mind by a little example I heard yesterday: hađa ybi` kŭll ħaja, bəṣṣəħħ əlfṭayəs ma ybi`š هذا يبيع كُلّ حاجة، بصّح الفطايس ما يبيعش "This guy sells everything, but hammers he doesn't sell."


I went to Tizi-Ouzou today, where I bought a few Kabyle-related books. The smallest, a tiny little handbook entitled Cahier d'écriture de l'alphabet tifinagh, or Attafttar, from Editions Baghdadi, Algiers (no date of publication or author given), provided a bit of a surprise. I thought I had seen every variation of Neo-Tifinagh there was to see, but I was wrong; this illustrated children's book presents yet another one. It's essentially Chaker's Neo-Neo-Tifinagh, but with one or two forms from the Academie Berbere alphabet (b, s) plus at least one sign, Arabic ع with the curves straightened out into right angles, that I've never seen anywhere else. You know, I'm not enormously in favour of Neo-Tifinagh to begin with, but the proliferation of variant forms that you find is just ridiculous; in a sufficiently Algerian mood, I could easily believe many of them are put together by anonymous opponents of Tifinagh seeking to weaken it by spreading confusion.

Impersonal vs. personal "you"

In English, "you" is equally used in a literal sense (referring to the addressee) or in an impersonal sense (referring to an arbitrary imagined experiencer.) In Darja, at first sight, it looks the same way - and for speakers of any one gender, this is true. However, looking at speakers of both genders allows you to realise that the distinction is grammaticalised. Addressee "you" agrees in gender with the addressee; impersonal "you" does not agree in gender with the addressee, but with the speaker. Thus a woman speaking to a man will say tṛuħ "you go" when "you" refers to the man addressed, but tṛuħi when it refers to an arbitrary person, like "When you go by bus, it takes a while."

Bits of Darja morphology

I heard a great word today: tməhbəl تمهبل "behave like a crazy person", a verb derived by consonant extraction from the noun/adjective məhbul مهبول "crazy", itself a passive participle (of a form familiar from Fusha, with a prefix m- plus an infix) from the verb hbəl هبل "go crazy". A similar process, whose intermediate stages do not however survive in Darja, brought about tməsxər تمسخر "kid, joke"; cf. Fusha saxira سخر "mock, laugh at".

Regular diminutives are formed with an infixed i, optionally with a feminine ending added. In Dellys, nouns normally form them either by simple infixation or (for three-letter roots) infixation with an added y after the infix, but adjectives add an extra consonant after the i - either a copy of the second root consonant (eg kħiħəl كحيحل "a little black", from kħəl كحل "black"), or a w (ṣġiwəṛ صغيور "tiny" from ṣġiṛ صغير "small"). "One", unlike other numbers, agrees in gender with its referent, a property of adjectives; thus it is perhaps unsurprising to learn that it can take the adjective-style diminutive wħiħda "a little one."

The English "substrate" in my Darja shows through most clearly, I suspect, in noun agreement. Gender for inanimate objects has always given me trouble; the gender of a noun is almost always obvious from its form, yet if I don't concentrate I still tend to revert to some kind of default gender when the noun in question is unmentioned or is in a different sentence. Number is a lot easier; but even there there are a few points I need to focus on. For one thing, I tend to give words like səṛwal سروال "trousers", which take plural agreement in English, plural agreement when they should be singular. (I am not alone in this kind of error; talking to a friend born and raised in a largely Kabyle area of the Casbah in Algiers, I heard that in his neighbourhood they consistently say things like əlma bardin الما باردين "The water is cold (pl.)", because "water", aman, happens to take plural agreement in Kabyle.) But there is a large class of nouns in Arabic in general where the unmarked form is essentially a mass noun but is used in most contexts where English speakers use plurals, and the singular (or rather the singulative) is formed from it by adding a feminine marker. For example, if you want to say "I bought some figs today", or "I made some fig jelly", or "I see a fig tree", for any of these you would use the unmarked bəxsis بخسيس "figs"; for "I ate a fig" or "This fig is tasty", you would add the feminine ending to get bəxsisa بخسيسة; if you said something like "There are three figs on the table", where the figs are individuated but there's more than one of them, you would pluralise the singulative (feminine) form and say bəxsisat بخسيسات. So in most contexts, the English plural "figs" gets rendered by the mass noun bəxsis. The difficulty that arises is that, as a result, I tend to think of words like bəxsis as plural, and give them plural agreement, when in fact I should be giving them singular agreement like any other mass noun.

Dellys news

Under the circumstances, a little non-linguistic posting seems to be called for. Some criminal exploded a bomb here in Dellys yesterday, down by the port just east of the centre. Neither I nor anybody I know was hurt, but the hospital was kept very busy. I haven't heard much clear news yet, but I understand there have been some 30 deaths, mostly young Army conscripts along with a couple of port workers standing nearby. Everyone here is shocked (of course) and angry - an attack on such a scale around here is unprecedented - but continuing with business as usual (apart from the port of course, which is closed last I checked.)

That story you can follow in the news easily, and, here on the scene though I am, I am probably worse informed about it than someone reading all the press releases; I haven't been down to the port since I got here. So I'll talk a bit about the environmental situation instead. On the part of the beach just east of sid-əl-məjni سيدي المجني, things get a bit depressing. After a couple of years of being free or sewage (zigu, from French (le)s égouts), the nearby stream (wad-əl-gəṭṭaṛ) is once again flowing a nice greyish-black colour. Only now, since the 2003 earthquake (əz-zənzla), the sea it used to flow into is a good deal lower (technically, the land is higher), so the black stuff just accumulates along the shallows to its west, and the stream's delta, coated with nitrate-loving vegetation, is poking out a good ten metres into what used to be the sea. The ecological effects are interesting; little river trees and bushes are appearing all along the shoreline of the black spot in what used to be sand, and swifts (xŭṭṭayəf) are swooping all over the area eating up the bugs it nourishes. At this rate, the whole bit between the stream and Sid-el-Medjni will probably not be a beach at all for much longer; it'll turn into some kind of swamp. I'm told the effects are visible further out to sea as well; off that part you only see one species of seaweed, and practically no sea urchins (lŭggi). A recent week-long heat wave got forest fires breaking out all over the country, to the point that the sea water was coloured with ashes. And don't get me started on the problem of sand theft (sand is needed for building, and nonstop, if slow, building is happening everywhere all the time), which has turned what used to be the widest sand beaches in the area, at Takdempt and Sahel, into thin strips disappearing into the sea, and led to the collapse of at least one house that I'm told had once been a good hundred metres from the beach, at whose windows seawater now laps. People say environmental issues aren't relevant in Algeria; personally, I find they tend to be a lot more conspicuous here than in the UK.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Speech errors and phonology; borrowing basic vocabulary; and a correction

A child's speech error I heard reported the other day provides a great illustration of the psychological reality both of allophones and of the skeletal tier in phonology: /twəħħəš-t توحّشْت / [twæħ'ħɛʃt] "I missed" (in the emotional sense), became /twəššəħ-t / [twɪʃ'ʃæħt]. The ħ and š are permuted without affecting the (in this case grammatically determined) position of the length; and the phonemic realisations of the schwas between them change to match their new neighbours. (ħ makes an adjacent schwa more a-like; š and w both do not affect the value of neighbouring schwas, and in the absence of any external influence, the default phonetic value of a schwa is roughly [ɪ].)

While counterexamples to the naive idea that basic family terms like "father" and "mother" are unborrowable are easy to come by, Algeria presents a particularly striking case; so many of the people who addressed their own fathers as baba are raising their own children to address them by the Fusha term 'abi, or even the French papa. (And baba itself may be a Berber borrowing, though the evidence is far from compelling.)

Contrary to what I wrote in my MA thesis, and to the intuitions of the native speakers I asked, negated nouns can certainly occur without ħətta, "any"; I heard a good four or five examples today, including waħda ma yxəlli (he won't leave a single one), ma ysərbi lħaja đ̣ukka "it serves no purpose now", xəlq ma kayən "there's not a soul". Something for me to investigate when I get back to that.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

The Straw Road

Every time I come to Dellys, in between all the visiting and swimming, I find myself marvelling at the full linguistic resources of colloquial Algerian Arabic, and learning new words and constructions; this time is no exception. I've been typing some of these up, and plan to post them on my sporadic Internet visits.

One of my aunts taught me a new Darja term the other night - triq əttbən طريق التبن, the Milky Way, literally the Road of Straw. In the old days before there were clocks, people used to tell a prayer time by it: when it first became visible in the sky, they would go pray `Isha. That test may not work so well in modern city environments, but Dellys is still dark enough at night that you would probably get it about right. She also mentioned nəjmət əl`iša نجمة العشاء and nəjmət əlməġrib مجمة المغرب (the `Isha and Maghrib stars), which would presumably be Venus and Mercury respectively. I'll have to look into the rest of the astronomical terminology sometime, if I can find anyone who knows it.