Sunday, November 25, 2007

Update from Tabelbala

I've gotten a clearer idea of the linguistic situation here. Apart from Kwarandjie, which, as I've said, is the main language of three of the four villages (and used to be the lingua franca of the oasis), and of course Arabic, there are a few families here (in Ifrenyu and el-Karti) speaking Tamazight - specifically, the dialects of the Ayt Khebbach and Ayt Atta tribes of southern Morocco. They seem to have traditionally been nomads in the general vicinity who settled down here in the seventies or so, although much outnumbered by the (Hassaniya Arabic speaking) Rgaybat who constitute what little population there is in the desert surrounding Tabelbala. I've been doing a little fieldwork with them, focusing on vocabulary that might be relevant to Kwarandjie etymologies, and have been struck by how rarely they seem to provide the source for Kwarandjie's Berber vocabulary - even when the word is quite common in Berber (as it often is not), like adra for "mountain", they seem to use a different one (in this case, tawrirt). The speakers I've spoken to have a rather impressively large vocabulary, but often seem quite embarrassed to speak the language at all - one at first quoted me a local proverb "Esshelha ma hi klam, weddhen ma hu lidam" - Shelha isn't language like ghee isn't (some sort of highly valued medicinal fat product.)"

The list of tense/aspect/mood particles continue to grow - a particularly impressive example I encountered yesterday was `a-s-a`a-m-k-dri (1S-neg-prox.fut.-subj.-yet-go), meaning something like "I've totally stopped going." (ma tlitsh nruh kamel). Actually, -s-a`a-m is a contraction that probably deserves a single lexical entry, but never mind. Note the `ayns in historic Songhay vocabulary here, deriving from original gh.

The phonological issues I mentioned last turn out to derive historically from deletion of an emphatic r, not from any significant difference in the consonants themselves. Not sure yet how to deal with them synchronically, though...

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Brief update

Today I'm in Bechar, with a somewhat more effective net connection; I apologise for the poor appearance of the previous one, which I sent by email. I am currently sitting with Omar Yahiaoui (who asked me to mention this); I've been hanging out mainly with the Yahiaoui extended family of Kwara, one of the three villages that speak the language, although I'll have to balance this soon with some extended staying in Ifrenyu, the other main village with which there is a certain amount of mostly but not totally friendly rivalry. The phonology keeps getting bigger and richer - never mind all the emphatics and labiovelarised consonants and affricates, there are a few contrasts involving h and gw that have clear effects on surrounding vowels but that I simply can't seem to hear. I've made a few more recordings, and done a bit more sightseeing, going into the erg a little - sand dunes and not much else from Tabelbala all the way to Ougarta.

PS: should have written Shelha, not "Shelhiyya", in my previous Bechar post.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Fieldwork post I

Hello everybody! I am alive and well in Tabelbala, speaking "Korandje" ([kwɑ́:ṛɑ-n-dʒji], probably /kwaṛa-n-dzyəy/) on a regular basis and writing down vast numbers of obscure words enthusiastically volunteered by the more fluent older generation of speakers, while trying to figure out grammatical issues from natural speech overheard or addressed to me and from occasional elicitation when I can find someone who will put up with it. I've filled a notebook of more than two hundred pages with notes already, but I've done only a very small amount of recording, which has so far proven harder to negotiate.

The people here are incredibly hospitable, and the area remarkable for its beauty - an oasis of gardens (ləmbyu) and irrigation canals (tsirgyanən) between the mountain (aḍṛa) and the erg (amrər). However, it is remarkably isolated, connected to the outside world (and the nearest towns are a very long way away) by only a single road and a single telephone line, which has not been conducive to job creation; there is talk of a second road to Adrar, which might help. Its inherent touristic potential, which some here are keen on expanding, is difficult to realise in the absence of any hotels.

The language is clearly endangered. People from about 30 and up speak it routinely (though all speakers appear to speak dialectal Arabic to native standard), but most younger speakers seem to have a primarily passive knowledge of the language, always answering in Arabic or struggling to find even basic vocabulary, though this is more true of some families than others. Most people I've spent time talking with have been keen on the idea of reviving its fortunes, or even teaching it in school "like Kabyle", but some have been rather more negative, dismissing it as not a proper language and of no use.

There's some very interesting stuff going on in the language, including what I take to be a sound shift in progress of affricated [kç] (the sound that Cancel wrote as <χ>) to affricated [ts] (of which speakers are well aware.) Cancel's <th>, incidentally, is itself [ts]. The tense/aspect/mood system has been reworked much more radically than existing materials indicated, with a past copula (also used for what I so far interpret as a past progressive) ga showing up before personal agreement rather than, like aspect and mood markers, after. The phonology is complex: tone and most vowel contrasts have definitely been lost, but a lot of emphatics have been gained, including such unusual sounds as affricated [ṭṣ]. Vowels reduced to schwa, and lost coda r's, reappear in verbs when you add a 3rd person direct object pronoun "clitic" (but not when you add a 3rd person indirect object one.) The language has a specialised focus marker, which interacts interestingly with subject person/number markers. The vocabulary is of major interest in its own right for what it has to say about the history of this part of the Sahara. It defies any simple effort to pin down the immediate source of the agricultural technologies that have allowed the Belbalis to survive and flourish here: "palm" is Songhay kungu, but "date" Berber tsini; a foggara is Songhay bəng-bini as long as it stays underground, but Berber tsargya once it emerges.