Sunday, December 28, 2008

Siwa and its significance for Arabic dialectology

Hope all my readers are having/have had a great holiday.

A paper of mine, "Siwa and its significance for Arabic dialectology", should (inshallah) be appearing in ZAL soon-ish. Basically, there's a whole lot of Arabic influence on Siwi, including things you wouldn't expect to be borrowed, like Arabic's rather unusual method of forming comparatives from adjectives. However, this influence shows clear signs of deriving, not from any dialect currently used in or even particularly near Siwa, but rather from a more archaic one, with some resemblance to the dialects of other Egyptian oases quite distant from it and some features not attested in any other Arabic dialect of Egypt or Libya. In the 1100s, according to al-Idrisi, Siwa was inhabited both by Berbers and by sedentary Arabs; I suspect that the Arabs got assimilated into the larger Berber community and that much of the Arabic element of Siwi derives from their now-extinct dialect. If this sort of thing interests you, have a look (you can download it from the link at the beginning of this paragraph) and please feel free to comment on it here or by email.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Tifinagh at Leiden

There were two more talks at Leiden that I should have mentioned, on a subject I've always been interested in - Berber writing systems.

Ramada Elghamis is working on a thesis about Tuareg writing systems, and described the purpose of "ligatures" (a more appropriate term would be "conjuncts") in the Tifinagh of the Air region of Niger. Tuareg Tifinagh allows a number of letter pairs (rt, zt, nk...) to be combined into a single letter. It turns out that this is not artistic license, but an essential feature of the script. In traditional Tifinagh, no vowels are written - but if two letters are combined into a ligature, that means that there is no vowel between them, thus resolving a lot of ambiguities. For example (from memory, so details may be wrong), t-m-r-t is read "tamarit", a woman who is loved, whereas t-m-rt is read "tamart", beard; in unvocalised Arabic script, or in traditional Tifinagh minus the ligatures, there would be no way to distinguish the two.

Robert Kerr came up with a nice argument that Libyco-Berber, the pre-Roman script from which Tifinagh is descended, was adapted specifically from the Punic (early Carthaginian) variant of the Phoenician script, not the original Lebanese one and not the later Neo-Punic one. Basically, Old Phoenician marks no vowels at all; Punic marks a few vowels, almost always final ones; and Neo-Punic marks most vowels in all positions. Libyco-Berber (and traditional Tifinagh) also marks vowels only in final position; this rather odd idiosyncrasy is best interpreted as having been adopted from Punic rather than independently innovated.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Berberologie colloquium at Leiden

I've spent the past couple of days at the Berberologie colloquium in Leiden, and it's been great fun. There were plenty of very interesting speakers, but for me two languages stole the show: Tetserrét and Ghomara.

Tetserrét (discussed by Cécile Lux) is spoken by a Tuareg tribe, the Ayt-Tawari, in Niger. But it's not linguistically Tuareg at all - its closest relative is Zenaga, the Berber of Mauritania (not northern Berber, contrary to Wikipedia), and Tuaregs can't even understand it. It seems to be an isolated survival of the Berber language spoken in the region before the Tuareg got there. It's not in Ethnologue either. (Taine-Cheikh's new Zenaga dictionary is out, by the way, and was selling as fast as a book reasonably can in a conference of twenty people.)

But Ghomara, in northern Morocco, is something else. Across Berber, borrowed Arabic nouns typically behave like in Arabic (keeping their Arabic plurals, and not changing for case.) In Ghomara (discussed by Jamal El Hannouche), Arabic adjectives take Arabic rather than Berber agreement marking - and even some Arabic verbs get conjugated fully in Arabic, not in chance code-switching but regularly by all speakers, and up to and including pronominal object suffixes. It's not quite unprecedented worldwide, but that level of contact influence is pretty darn rare.

I didn't put Tadaksahak in the first paragraph because it's much less unfamiliar to me, but Regula Christiansen's paper on that had some interesting implications. Basically, Tadaksahak has all but lost the Songhay method of forming attributive adjectives; instead, it's substituted a simplified version of the Tuareg one (suffixing -an), which has become productive for Songhay adjectives too. The funny part is this: Songhay has a lot of CVC adjectives (stative verbs). Tuareg doesn't really do CVC adjectives; it prefers longer words. So when you add the -an to these, you typically reduplicate the adjective. For example, kan "be sweet" > kankanan "sweet". This comes worryingly close to invalidating a conjecture I had made on the borrowability of templatic morphology (but not quite!)

My own paper established that much of the Berber element of Kwarandzyey derives from an extinct close relative of Zenaga. In effect, the "Western Berber" genetic subgroup of Berber has four members: Zenaga itself (finally with a decent dictionary), Tetserrét (awaiting further publications), the large Berber element of Hassaniya, and part of the proportionally larger Berber element of Kwarandzyey.

Saturday, October 04, 2008

Translating from linguists' English to normal English

Machine translation between languages is hard, obviously. There are all sorts of reasons why just looking words up and constructing syntactic trees and changing orders appropriately isn't enough to produce a good output - mainly, the fact that to disambiguate ambiguities you often need real world knowledge, and different vocabularies are not always organised in the same way. How much that matters is really emphasised by thinking about a slightly different problem: translation from a technical vocabulary to a non-technical one within the same language.

Take the following sentences, pulled at random from a grammar on my shelf (Stroomer's Grammar of Boraana Oromo):
"Nouns ending in -ni (mostly -aani) have ultimate or penultimate stress in free variation."

"Verbs with the verb extension -ad'd'-, -at- have an -ád'd'i, -ád'd'u and a -atín(n)i, see 10.10." (p. 72)

If you are, say, a foreign worker about to be posted to northern Kenya, or a second-generation emigrant Oromo planning to go back and visit, you may well want to try and learn some Oromo from this book. But the odds are you will not know what either of these English sentences means, and that applies to quite a lot of the book.

How could you translate these sentences into terms a wider audience would understand? If you can assume a certain amount of basic knowledge (traditional parts of speech, consonants and vowels) then that makes things easier:
"Nouns ending in -ni (mostly -aani) get stressed on the last or second-to-last vowel, it doesn't matter which."

"Verbs with -ad'd'-, -at- added at the end have an imperative singular: -ád'd'i, -ád'd'u and a negative imperative singular: -atín(n)i, see 10.10."
Realistically, you can't assume that level of knowledge, certainly not in Britain at any rate (I still can't believe that what little grammar gets taught in schools here only ever seems to get taught in foreign language classes, not in English ones; that no doubt explains part of the country's comparatively low foreign language skills.) So what does that leave you with? Something like:
"When you say a word that refers to a person, place, or thing* and ends in -ni (mostly -aani), you put the emphasis at the end or just before the end, it doesn't matter which."

"If you have a word that means doing something* that has -ad'd'-, -at- added at the end, then to order one person to do that you add -ád'd'i, -ád'd'u, and to order them not to do that you add -atín(n)i, see 10.10."
(*Yes, I know that syntactic tests like whether they can be the object of a preposition yield more accurate definitions, but in practice these are a good first approximation, and the former does work even on gerunds: "Killing is a bad thing", so "killing" is a noun, but *"Kill is a bad thing", so "kill" isn't.)

Could this be done algorithmically? A simple substitution table would certainly not be enough. Just try it with any set of definitions you can think of:
"Words referring to a person, place, or thing ending in -ni (mostly -aani) have final or pre-final emphasis such that it doesn't matter which."

"Words that mean doing something with the words that mean doing something extension -ad'd'-, -at- have an agreeing order-giving one-entity: -ád'd'i, -ád'd'u and a denying order-giving one-entity: -atín(n)i, see 10.10." (p. 72)
Not terribly helpful, I think you'll agree... To come up with something a little more helpful (and I'm sure my renditions could be improved on) we had to change the whole structure of the sentence. Even then, at some point it's probably going to be more effective to just teach the person the grammatical notions and let them go forward from there than to keep giving brief explanations of the same notion over and over again.

The problem is certainly not unique to linguistics. Medicine, law, ecology - most fields have technical vocabularies that pose an obstacle to non-specialists, who will often have good reason to be interested in trying to make sense of them. Is there any role for algorithms in this (apart from obvious things like hyperlinking technical terms to dictionary entries)? It's well outside my usual field, but it would be interesting to hear of any attempts.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Overheard from the code-switching department...

...from an Algerian here in London:

kanu supplying-lna

You have a non-finite English form ("supplying") in a past continuous form, in accordance with the English construction but contrary to the Algerian Arabic one, which would require a finite form ("they supply"). You have an Algerian Arabic clitic pronoun - a form that can't stand on its own, but has to be attached to the end of something else - being stuck onto a totally unadapted verb in another language; code-switching in the middle of a phonological word! The facility with which some Algerian long-term residents of the UK combine their two languages is really rather remarkable, and would merit further study.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Fieldwork and address books

Linguistics, with its regular sound shifts, unidirectional grammaticalisation processes, and tree diagrams, is perhaps the most satisfyingly scientific of the social sciences. But today I found myself reminded that it is still emphatically social, particularly when you want to actually gather new data about undocumented languages. Mobile phones have become ubiquitous even in such far-flung corners of the Sahara as Tabelbala and Siwa, used even by illiterate people - making it possible to keep asking people about the language well after you've gotten back to the university. So over the past months of fieldwork my phone has accumulated quite a lot of numbers, which I backed up to my computer today. The final count? At least 84 phone numbers from Tabelbala and 43 from Siwa. To put this in perspective, there are only about 3000 Kwarandzyey speakers, so I can call something like 3% of the population.

The field linguistics courses at SOAS lay a commendable emphasis on teaching the practicalities of fieldwork - what microphone, what recorder, what software... But there's a gap in the course: managing contacts. Going through these I found a few casual contacts I could barely or even not at all remember, and some people I could remember but not easily remember the relationships between. There's some information in my field notebooks, but it's scattered and not always detailed. I should have been making concise but informative notes about all these people somewhere as I took their numbers - not something you can do easily with my already somewhat antiquated mobile, but that might be a reason in itself to take a more sophisticated one along, or even to use a paper address book, if you have space in your pocket for one alongside your field notebook. If you plan to do any fieldwork, bear this in mind!

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Desert lizards

If you're an Arabic speaker from the right part of southwestern Algeria, you probably call the smooth-skinned sand-burrowing lizard referred to in English as "skink" šəṛšmala شرشمالة. I recently found the original form of this word in Al-Hilali's Berber-Arabic lexicon from 1665: asmrkal or asrmkal أسرمكال, a word composed from asrm "worm" and akal "earth". In many Berber varieties (the so-called Zenati ones), akal becomes šal, and in some Arabic dialects if there's one š ش in a word any s's س have to become ش, so you'd get شرمشال, and by metathesis شرشمال.

Are any readers familiar with skinks? What would you call them?

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Triliterals in strange places

In a grammar I was looking at lately, I came across the following sentences:

"Nouns may be verbalized, or verbs nominalized, simply by bringing the stem into a suitable rhythmic form... Most of the rhythmic patterns call for a tri-consonantal stem. If a stem is di-consonantal in its primary form, a consonant (usually the glottal stop) is added to give it the proper structure... Often in the course of forming derivatives, stems that are too long are forced into one or the other of the regular patterns. They are cut down by the loss of quantity or of vowels or consonants as may be necessary."

Was this a Semitic language, or perhaps some less well known Afro-Asiatic cousin? No: this was Sierra Miwok, the pre-conquest language spoken by the Native Americans of central California inland from the Bay. (See map.) The "rhythmic patterns" only involve changes in quantity and CV>VC metathesis, not insertion of specific vowels as in Semitic, but the parallel is striking. Here are a few examples:

leppa- "to finish", with a CVCVCC pattern imposed, becomes lepa''- (gaining a glottal stop).
ṯolookošu- "three", with a CVCCV pattern imposed, becomes ṯolko- (losing the š).

Compare Arabic:
'ab- "father", with a 'aCCaaC plural template imposed, becomes 'aabaa'- "fathers", gaining a glottal stop (historically a semivowel, but never mind that)
`ankabuut- "spider", with a CaCaaCiC plural template imposed, becomes `anaakib- "spiders", losing the t.

Freeland, L. S. 1951. Language of the Sierra Miwok. Baltimore: Waverley Press.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Nepal's language riots

Qatar is of course one of the most multicultural places on earth - citizens are only a small minority of the population, and even they include a lot of pre-oil era immigrants from Asia and Africa. Among the largest national groups here in recent years is Nepalis, so it's no wonder that the papers here in Doha have been full of a language controversy that readers elsewhere may not have noticed - the anti-Hindi riots in Nepal.

Apparently, the people of the plains in southern Nepal have ethnic ties to India. They don't speak Hindi natively, but commonly use it as a lingua franca between them. The new vice-president Parmanand Jha comes from this region, and decided to take his oath of office in Hindi (although his native tongue is Maithili). Highlanders took this as a deliberate snub to the official language Nepali, the worse for having not even been in his own language but rather in one primarily associated with India - and a week or so of riots, in which at least 10 people were injured, followed. He issued a sort of apology that calmed things down, but apparently now there are fresh protests from a plains group without Indian ties, the Tharu.

Those who prefer a jargon-filled angle on all this can regard this as an interesting case study in the symbolic weight of language choice in a multilingual context. In this case, they seem to have at least two different diglossias going on: Nepali vs. others in the hills, Hindi vs. others in northern India, and both languages effectively trying to claim the role of the high-prestige language in the plains in between, through competing political parties. Kind of reminds me of North Africa, actually... (And that's without even getting into the role of English.)

For a few links, try:
Hindustan Times

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Some surprising language links

Sorry about the infrequent posting, everyone - I've been burying myself in transcribing a few of my field recordings. There's plenty of interesting stuff on them: what to sing to encourage locusts to go away, how to make tea the proper Saharan way, tickling rhymes for kids... So naturally today I'll post a potentially linguistically interesting audio link: Library of Congress: American Memory Sound Recordings. This has a bunch of interviews with ex-slaves from the 1930s, which I understand from reading John McWhorter's Defining Creole have revolutionised Creolists' ideas about the history of African-American English. A popular theory had argued that during the era of slavery African-Americans spoke a creole English much like the ones in the Caribbean; these recordings, which show a speech not too different from today, turned out to pose a severe challenge to this view. It also has an Omaha pow-wow and late 1930's Californian folk music in a surprising number of languages, including Armenian, Finnish, and Gaelic. Look around.

Friday, July 11, 2008

How not to make an official Amazigh webpage

As I just learned from a comment on Awal nu Shawi, Algeria's High Commission for Amazighity, the government body set up in 1995 in response to the demands of Amazigh (Berber) activists for cultural recognition, finally has a webpage. I wish I could even manage to be surprised that the site is written exclusively in French - the only Tamazight present is in the title, and they don't have even a single word in Arabic - or that the content is meager and largely bureaucratic. How is it that our next door neighbour Morocco - with a rather less militant Amazigh movement and a rather smaller budget - can manage a beautiful, trilingual, fairly content-rich website like IRCAM for its equivalent body (and put the page up much earlier, at that), while Algeria's own HCA can't even be bothered to translate its website into a single Algerian language? Can you imagine going to the Academy of the Arabic Language site, say, and finding the whole page in French? A site like this makes it seem like its producers are interested neither in promoting the development of Tamazight nor in communicating with the majority of Algerians who read Arabic better than French. The Amazigh movement in Algeria is frequently accused of being just a Trojan horse for the promotion of French language and culture; you would think the HCA would take more trouble to avoid seeming to confirm this accusation.

Monday, July 07, 2008

One word, two masters: demonstrative agreement with addressee

In Qur'anic Arabic (this is hardly ever applied in Modern Standard), at least in presentative contexts, the word "that" agrees in number and gender not only with the noun it refers to, but also with the addressee. (A YouTube video lecture on this by some shaykh is available for Arabic-speakers.) "That" is morphologically composed of two elements. The first bit agrees with the referent:

đā-li-masculine singular
ti-l-feminine singular
đāni-masculine dual
tāni-feminine dual
'ulā'i-masculine/feminine animate plural

The second bit agrees with the addressee:
-kamasculine/feminine singular
-kumāmasculine/feminine dual
-kummasculine plural
-kunnafeminine animate plural

(In modern standard Arabic, only -ka is normally used here; even in Qur'anic contexts, the other forms' usage seems to be limited.)

Thus in Surat Yusuf, verse 32, Pharaoh's wife, addressing her women friends, says:
فَذَلِكُنَّ الَّذِي لُمْتُنَّنِي فِيهِ
fa-đālikunna llađī lumtunnanī fīhi
That is the man about whom you blamed me!

Then in verse 37, Yūsuf/Joseph, addressing his two cellmates, says:
ذَلِكُمَا مِمَّا عَلَّمَنِي رَبِّي
đālikumā mimmā `allamanī rabbī
That is (part) of what my Lord has taught me.

Likewise, in Surat al-A`rāf 22, God tells Adam and Eve:
أَلَمْ أَنْهَكُمَا عَن تِلْكُمَا الشَّجَرَةِ
'a-lam 'anhākumā `an tilkumā ššajarati?
Did I not forbid you from that tree?

It's not hard to come up with a story for how this grammatical phenomenon could have emerged: li in Arabic means "to" or "for", and the endings it takes are (with one exception) the same as those above, so it could easily have either conveyed a presentative meaning (compare English expressions like "That's London for you!") or, less probably in this case, indicated proximity to the addressee ("Get me that book next to you"). But I have a question for all you wonderful readers who have gotten this far: do you know of any other language that does something like this?

Friday, July 04, 2008

The Berbers of southern Egypt

Checking through the 11th-century geographer al-Bakri for information on the linguistic history of Siwa, I was not surprised to see that he says the Siwans were Berber, and not very surprised to see that the people of Bahariya at the time were Arabs and Copts, and those of Farafra Copts alone. I was a bit more surprised, though, when a little further down the page he says that some of the people of Dakhla and Kharja, in southern Egypt (map), were Lawāta Berbers:

وهذا واح الداخلة كثير الأنهار والعمارات... ومن هذا الواح إلى الواحين الخارجين ثلاث مراحل وهو آخر بلاد الإسلام... وفي بغض الواحات قبائل من لواتة

It kind of fits with an observation made by several Nubian specialists (I read it in an article by Bechhaus-Gerst) that Nubian - specifically Nobiin, in fact, not the Nubian languages of Kordofan or Darfur - seems to contain Berber loanwords; the easiest to remember, and most convincing, of these is "water", aman (which in other Nubian languages is something completely different, along the lines of essi.) If a dictionary of the Arabic dialects of these oases ever comes out, it would be very interesting to check it for Berber loanwords.

On a more romantic note, al-Bakri also warns those travelling into the desolate lands west of these oases that they will find "great sands... full of palm trees and springs, with no civilisation nor companions, where the murmuring of the jinn is heard unceasingly."

Friday, June 13, 2008

This Post is a Sin to Read

I imagine pretty much all English speakers agree on the grammaticality of the following sentence:
* It is a sin to eat pork.

But looking around online recently, I was struck by the following construction:
* Pork is a sin to eat
* Soon it will say in the bible that Speghetti is a sin to eat.
* I don` t think any kind of food is a sin to eat

To me, this construction seems rather odd, and the extreme rarity of such constructions on Google suggests that I'm with the majority of English speakers on this point. Do people who do find this normal allow it with other verbs, I wonder? Can they say "This post is a sin to read?" or "Wine is a sin to drink?" Or, indeed, "Tea is a pleasure to drink?" Has anyone else heard constructions along these lines? Presumably, these speakers were influenced by the analogy of sentences like "A mind is a terrible thing to waste" or "Tea is a good thing to drink"; but if I ever figure out why the former seem so weird and the latter are perfectly grammatical, I'll make sure to tell you...

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Baby talk across the centuries

Most languages probably have a few words used especially for addressing babies. However, Siwi seems to have a lot more than I know from English or Arabic (I've recorded something like 40). One of these (already noted in Laoust 1931) is mbuwwa "water" (the normal Siwi word is aman). mbuwwa, meaning "water" or "drink", turns out to be rather widespread: they use it in baby talk in Syria, Lebanon, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, Malta, Sicily, and probably a few other places for which I haven't found sources. The remarkable part is that Ferguson managed to track down a historical source for this word. Varro, a Roman grammarian of the first century BC, gives bua as the nursery word for "drink" (presumably to be related to bibere, the adult verb for "drink".) (Unfortunately, I haven't managed to find the relevant work online.) If the connection is correct, then this word (possibly along with some others, like pappa for "bread" or "food") has persisted in Mediterranean baby talk for at least 2000 years, apparently without ever passing into adult speech.

So what special words do you use in your language when talking to babies?

Sunday, June 01, 2008

Kant's Sparrow and the Wolf Girl

I remember coming back to Algeria after a year or so in America at the age of six. I had completely forgotten the Arabic I had known, and relearning it was an incredibly difficult process that took years, made no easier by my frequent preference for books over playmates. Over the past seven months, I've found learning Siwi and Korandje far, far easier than learning Arabic was then, and I'm pretty sure I speak both of them, if not fluently, at least far better than I spoke Arabic after my first four months back. Yet the nativist theory of language acquisition that I remember from my linguistics courses says that kids should learn languages much more easily than adults. I don't expect anybody to pick theories based on anecdotal evidence from my childhood memories, but this has made me wonder again whether kids usually learning languages faster and better is due to a pre-programmed critical period for language learning, or simply to the big difference between the social contexts of adults and children. Coincidentally (being back in London), I found two works vaguely relevant to that question this weekend; neither offers an answer, but they are interesting background.

Kant's Sparrow confirms a claim originally reported by Kant - that sparrows brought up by canaries learn to sing like canaries. Apparently, they do - but not completely. Not only do their canary songs feature a detectable accent (they differ in several ways, notably in repeating the same syllable fewer times in a row), but their repertoire includes some song types ("two-voice syllables") which they rarely or never heard from the canaries raising them, and which the author attributes to sparrows' innate repertoire ( In other words, sparrow song, like human communication, combines innate and learned (arbitrary, if you like) elements.

Wolf Child and Human Child, by Arnold Gesell, is a short, not very helpful work on a very interesting case, apparently described more fully in Diary of the Wolf Children of Midnapore, by Rev. J. A. L. Singh - two children, later named Kamala and Amala, who were adopted into a wolf family, and raised for years alongside the mother wolf's own cubs. In 1920, in response to locals' reports of a "man-ghost", a party of men dug into the wolf's den, killed the mother wolf when it tried to fight back, and brought the two children back to be taken to an orphanage (and the two wolf cubs they lived with to be sold at a fair.) Kamala was about eight, and Amala substantially younger; however, Amala died only a year later Unsurprisingly, Kamala found language rather difficult to acquire; even without the wolf factor, I imagine losing your entire family and then your entire step-family before the age of nine might have a negative effect. At any rate, apparently, she spoke her first word two years after being captured, and her first two-word sentence after three and a half years. For later years the information gets a lot sparser, but it is claimed that by the time the poor kid died (from illness) nine years later, at the estimated age of seventeen, she "talked freely with full sense of words used." The report that after several years "her formerly rigid countenance took on more expression" suggests a similar gradual development in her body language. However, while at eight years old she knew little or nothing of how humans communicate, she seems to have learned at least some wolf methods - for months at the orphanage, she would howl every night, at 10 pm, 1 am, and 3 am, and when approached by someone she did not trust she would show her teeth. Unfortunately, the lack of detail makes it hard to say what this says about first language acquisition - how well could she really speak before she died? Perhaps Rev. Singh's diary offers some quotes.

NB: see comments; apparently there is serious doubt about the veracity of this account. Looks like I should have Googled first.. The original diary also turns out to be online.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

African influence on native Nicaraguan languages!

...and I bet that got your attention, if you're the sort of person who reads this blog.

Ulwa is a language native to the eastern highlands of central Nicaragua, and now spoken mainly in Karawala on the Atlantic coast. It belongs to the small Misumalpan language family, along with Miskito; an interesting characteristic of this family is the position of nominal possessive affixes, which may be suffixed or infixed depending on the word's syllable structure. The Miskito kingdom had a longstanding relationship with the British, as a result of which English Creole is widely spoken on Nicaragua's Atlantic coast; both Miskito and English have influenced Ulwa, as has Spanish of course. You can find a nice dictionary and a brief grammar at the Ulwa Language Home Page.

Anyway, the Ulwa word for "east" turns out to be mâsara. I'm sure some readers will already be thinking of Maghrebi Arabic/Berber mâṣəṛ (from Arabic مِصْر), with reflexes in a variety of West African languages along the lines of masara - meaning Egypt! Unfortunately, a second glance reveals that "west" is mâ âwai, suggesting that maybe mâsara is some kind of compound with . , sure enough, turns out to mean "sun", while sara means "origin". So much for that idea; but what a good example of how a coincidental lookalike can emerge. I can't find any similar way to explain the word for "God", though - which is Alah...

So what about that African loanword I promised? There really is at least one, but it is somewhat less exciting. "Peanut", in Ulwa, is pinda. This word, referring to a post by Polyglot Vegetarian, appears to derive from Kikongo m-pinda, and was borrowed into English as pindar (various spellings) before being ousted by peanut. So this word may have been mediated by English, but is of clear Kikongo origin - sensibly enough, given that peanuts themselves come from Africa. If you want more African loanwords into Caribbean Native American languages, try Garifuna - where the word for "man" is a Bantu loanword.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Ode to repression II

In response to mild popular demand, here's the original of the poem I translated in the last post, in Kabyle orthography for convenience, although this orthography doesn't fit Siwi perfectly - just remember that "ay" (or "a y", or "a i") is to be pronounced like French é. (For those not familiar with this system: "e" is a short schwa, "c" is sh, "ɛ" is Arabic `ayn.) Two points that may help for speakers of other Berber languages: in Siwi the negative is la (not ur), and the future is marked with ga (not ad).

kell ma qedṛaṭ kmec elbed,
la tac-as esserr i ḥedd
γayr belɛ-a netta la ikemmed
kan jebdaṭ-t af cal ga yebṛem
amra wenn ga iṣaṛ-ak ektem,
ejj-a γayr ṛebbwi ga yaɛlem

كلّ ما قدراط اكمش البد
لا تاشاس السّرّ إي حدّ
غير بلعا نتّا لا يكمّد
كان جبدات آف شال گا يبرم
آمرا ونّ گا يصاراك اكتم
اجّا غير ربي گا يعلم

In a village society where everyone knows everyone else and will still be neighbours with everyone else thirty or fifty years on, particularly one that puts a high value on keeping up appearances and presenting a good face to the world, there will always be a lot of thoughts and memories that are best kept to oneself for the sake of keeping one's relations with others good and one's public image unblemished - personal disagreements or dislikes, unfulfillable desires, actions that run counter to the social code... what Ernest Gellner used to call the tyranny of cousins rather than the tyranny of kings. That's what this poem is about: you may be in love with someone unavailable, or you may have reason to hate someone you're supposed to respect, or whatever, but you can't talk about it because of the scandal it would create and the negative impact that would have on yourself and your family. I suspect that if you've ever lived in such a place, you'll get the poem, and if you're born and bred in the city, you probably won't even with this explanation; but tell me if I'm wrong.

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Ode to repression

No, not in the political sense, in the psychological one... Just thought I'd share a piece of an excellent Siwi poem that struck me as characteristically North African, with a theme reminding me strongly of Dahmane el Harrachi's song "Khabbi serrek yalghafel" (Hide your secret, neglectful one). Obviously, it doesn't work as well in my attempt at translation, but here goes:
Whatever you can, tie up and hide,
Don't give anyone a secret, on any side,
Just swallow it, it won't hurt inside.
If you let it out, it'll do the rounds.
Keep what happens to you underground,
By God alone to be finally found.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Update from Siwa

Hi everybody! I'm in Siwa, and things are going well. The oasis is so much bigger and more prosperous than Tabelbala it seems almost decadent by comparison; its lakes and its expanses of groves suggest some idea of what Tabelbala's environment might have been like at its peak. The language is in no immediate danger; while some words are disappearing due to the great change in lifestyle, not only do children all seem to speak Siwi as a first language, but a substantial portion of the Shihaybat Bedouin settled in the western edge of Siwa learn it as a second one. However, the declining popularity of music at weddings may to some degree be threatening the vigorous local tradition of Siwi-language poetry. As Vycichl noted, Siwi has grammatically conditioned stress; in fact, you could argue that case is marked in Siwi by stress shifts. Siwi is definitely not mutually comprehensible with Kabyle, by the way - I've now tested this in both directions - nor with any Moroccan variety, according to local watchers of Moroccan satellite channels. Gara is also an interesting place - a much poorer, smaller oasis a hundred-odd km off, inhabited by mainly black people speaking Siwi. I've been there, but unfortunately security regulations more or less preclude spending the night.

The Bedouin Arabic of western Egypt is also of some interest. It is remarkably conservative, though not as much so as the dialects of Najd - it has a fully productive dual, distinguishes masculine and feminine plurals (both for verbal and adjectival agreement), and still has most short vowels. Technically, it shares some of the defining innovations of Maghrebi Arabic, in particular the 1st person plural n-...-uu; but it sounds scarcely closer to Algerian than even Cairene Arabic. They write a lot of poetry, some of it rather good. Inconveniently but interestingly, it appears that most Arabic influence on Siwi derives neither from their dialect nor from Cairene.

On a final note, anyone interested in medieval Berber history (there must be someone...) will recall the rather large Huwwara tribe (from which Houari Boumedienne ultimately got his nom de guerre). It turns out they're still very much around in the western Delta and even Upper Egypt, although they all speak Arabic now, as they had already begun to do in Ibn Khaldun's time; I met a Huwwari just the other day.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

When language revitalisation reopens old wounds

Not everyone welcomes language revitalisation efforts. Apart from anything else, it often implies that a major decision taken by you or your parents - to speak to the children in a different language - was wrong, and, by increasing your exposure to the endangered language in question, puts you in a position where you can't help but notice that this decision's implications are nearly irreversible. (I have speculated that this might be one reason for the less than enthusiastic reaction of some of the first speakers to have brought up their kids as Arabic monolinguals to my arrival in Tabelbala.) The writer Ken MacLeod's recent attempt to come to grips with what annoys him about the proliferation of Gaelic-English bilingual roadsigns in Scotland nicely expresses this: guess is this: we regret not speaking Gaelic, and we resent the presumption that we should. We have done their best with the hard hand we were dealt. Some of us have left for the Central Belt or the ends of the earth. Others have made a living in the desolate, depopulated landscape, working on the shooting estates or digging the thin and sodden fields in the old days; in tourism, commerce and industry today. And in almost all cases, to do this meant forgetting the language, leaving it to dwindle in the Sunday-morning sermon and the ceilidh and the old folks' private talk. We had to learn English, and we were proud that we spoke a more standard English than the Lowland Scots.

And after all that has left us illiterate and inarticulate in the language of our ancestors, but sharp and cutting in the lingua franca of the modern world, you come back and mock the teuchter again, with your signs for Raon Gnìomhachais (Industrial Estate) and Pàirc Gnothachais (Business Park) and Snaidhm-Rathaid (Interchange) and Port-adhair (Airport) - bright green sticking-plasters across what we had thought were faded scars.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

The puzzle of the extra pronouns

Like most (all?) Songhay languages, Kwarandzie has two sets of 3rd person pronouns: in this case, they are a (sg.) / i (pl.) vs. ana / ini. In southern Songhay (eg Koyra Chiini, the longer set are used as logophors - that is, used to refer back to the speaker in reported speech. This is not the case in Kwarandzie, though.

ana/ini are obligatory in pre-sentential topic and focus position (including when followed by a preposition), while a/i are obligatory for possessors:

ana (*a) a e-kka. ghi "it's him that hit me."
ini (*i) i-bbey ibbagen "them, they know tales."
an (*anan) kembi "his hand"

But in normal object position, either set can occur:

e-ggwa / e-ggwana "he saw him"

After much checking, I still have no idea what factors drive the selection of one or the other in this position. These are not used, Algonquian-style, for tracking two distinct referents: ²e-gga.r.ana ²e-kka.r.a "I found him and hit him" can as easily refer to hitting the same person as to two different objects.

So it's not logophoricity (much less reflexives), it's not an obviative or a switch-reference system, it's not related to politeness or gender... can anyone think of another possibility for me to check before I leave?

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Songhay words in El Jadida, Morocco

Bulbul sent me a link I just had to post about: the article describes, among other things, a secret language used by the Gnaoua, descendants of West Africans brought to Morocco as slaves in precolonial times, in El Jadida, Morocco (on the Atlantic coast.) The author makes no attempt to seek an etymology for the words recorded, but a lot of them are immediately obvious to me - as Songhay. Thus:

* sindi "sommeil": Songhay cindi "rest"
* kuy barkuy "on s'en va": Songhay koy "person", koy "go"
* katihari "...apporter de l'eau": Songhay kati hari "bring water!"
* noro "money": Songhay nooru
* dangi bamatcin "tais-toi": Songhay dangey "be silent", ciine "speak"

Significantly, these words do not display any characteristics that would link them with Kwarandzie. To the contrary - noro and hari are unambiguously Southern, not Northern, Songhay in form, and most of the other words haven't survived in Kwarandzie.

A few words are clearly non-Songhay, and as such harder for me to identify, but these include some Bambara words:
* sgho "viande" - Bambara sogo
* dominika "nourriture" - Bambara dumuni ke

Elsewhere, I've read of Hausa words showing up in Moroccan Gnaoua music (I don't have the reference handy here in Tabelbala). The various sources of the vocabulary attest to the wide geographical range from which slaves were brought, and it's interesting that the words were preserved at all. I look forward to finding out where the other words come from... any ideas?

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Metathesis everywhere

When two sounds exchange their positions (for example, clip > plik) we call it metathesis. In most languages, this doesn't seem particularly common, neither in historical changes nor in the grammar. Kwarandzie has no grammatically caused metathesis, but nonetheless is absolutely full of historically metathesised words, sometimes even coexisting with non-metathesised variants. Thus for palm spines, some speakers say taqaneft and others tanaqeft; "forget" is dnagh for some speakers, dghan for others; "irrigation channel" is variously qentret or qetrent... I've found tens of examples where either synchronic variation or transparent external comparison demonstrates metathesis (usually of non-adjacent consonants, though there are one or two cases with vowels, not counting standard North African schwa alternations), and hear new ones every couple of days. Does this remind anyone of anything they've seen, or is it just odd?

Saturday, January 05, 2008

Colour vision and language shift

In a brief Edge article (see LH), Lera Boroditsky makes the thought-provoking remark - regarding perception of colours - that “It turns out that languages meddle in very low-level aspects of perception, and without our knowledge or consent shape the very nuts and bolts of how we see the world.” If this is so, what happens when pretty much every speaker of a given language is also fluently bilingual in another one which divides up the spectrum (or indeed the world) differently - as has been the case here in Tabelbala for at least two generations? As it happens, some of my recent work here points to an answer.

I've recently been examining the colour system of Kwarandjie, trying out the second half of the Berlin and Kay tests (focus identification) with a number of speakers (well, 13 so far.) Of course, like all speakers of Kwarandjie, they are bilingual in Algerian Arabic; in fact, many of the speakers tested speak Arabic better than Kwarandjie. The colours they see turn out to be remarkably consistent, with more or less the same foci from speaker to speaker: black, white, red, yellow, green, and blue (as well as some secondary colours, most commonly pink (Arabic wəṛdi or, in reference to a darker shade, ħənnawi), that are less widely agreed on.) However, the words used to refer to “green” and “blue” show significant variation. For some speakers, zəgzəg means “blue” and “green” is (Arabic) xḍəṛ; for others, zəgzəg means “green”, and “blue” is (Arabic) ẓərrig!

It doesn't require too much speculation to think up a scenario to explain this. A few generations back, Kwarandjie must have had a five-colour system, featuring (like Japanese aoi, for example) a colour zəgzəg which covered both green and blue, whose focus was somewhere between the two. As speakers grew more fluent in Arabic, this focus split; they came to see both green and blue. Depending on whether they more frequently heard older speakers refer to, for example, plants or the sky as zəgzəg, they decided it meant one colour or the other, and gave the other colour an Arabic name; but different choices were made in different families. In the coming weeks I hope to gather more evidence on the issue - in particular, to learn whether even older speakers than those examined see a single colour grue or not.