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."