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.