Wednesday, March 04, 2009

No, Berber isn't descended from Arabic

A few days ago I got lent a copy of a recent book in Arabic by Othmane Saadi: Dictionary of the Arabic Roots of Amazigh (Berber) Words معجم الجذور العربية للكلمات الأمازيغية (البربرية) (Tripoli: Academy of Arabic Language 2007.) My reaction, in brief, is that it's unscientific jingoistic claptrap. But I happen to have friends (not linguists, of course) who take it seriously; and I am told that the author, a proud member of the Chaoui Berber Nememcha (Nmamša) tribe, genuinely believes his own theory. I will therefore try to explain as simply as possible where the book goes wrong.

His starting point is noting the existence of strong similarities between Arabic and Berber in the vocabulary and grammar (p. C: “90% of Amazigh Berber words are pure or Arabised Arabic, and the grammar of Berber agrees with the grammar of Arabic.”) This is substantially correct, and has been known for a long time (see, for example, Igor Diakonoff's Afrasian Languages, Moscow: Nauka 1988, or at a more basic level one of my first posts), except that 90% is a substantial exaggeration – many of the comparisons he puts forward are at best questionable, as will be seen below. But he claims that the explanation for these similarities is that Berber descends from Arabic. Not just Berber either, as he says on p. B: “The term Arabitic عروبية means the ancient Arabic languages which are wrongly called the Semitic languages and which branched out from the source language Arabic thousands of years ago, such as Babylonian, and Assyrian, and Akkadian, and Phoenician Canaanite, and Aramaic, and Himyaritic, and Sabaean, and Thamudic, and Lihyanite, and Ma'inic, and ancient Egyptian, and Berber, and others.” Linguists subscribe to a rather different explanation for the observed similarities: that Berber and Arabic (and all the other languages he listed, and many he doesn't list such as Hausa and Somali) are all descended from a single language, called for convenience Proto-Afroasiatic (Greenberg 1950), which was different (and probably about equally different) from any of them.

How would you choose between these two hypotheses? Well, if the original language was different from Arabic, then you would expect some original forms to have been lost in Arabic but kept in other languages. Oddly enough, Saadi himself gives evidence for exactly that: he links the Berber ur “not” to Akkadian ul (p. 12), and the Berber -as “to him/her” to Akkadian -šu (p. 12), and the Berber nəkk “I” to Ancient Egyptian ink and Akkadian 'anāku, none of which are attested in Arabic. Unless you believe that Akkadian and Berber each independently invented the same new forms, or that they are more closely related to each other than to Arabic – which Saadi (correctly) does not claim – you have to conclude that the common ancestor of Arabic and Berber included words like ur/ul for “not”, and 'anāku for “I”, and so on, and hence was different from what we know as Arabic, just as it was different from Berber.

So maybe this common ancestor was Arabic in a different sense: Saadi argues that it was originally spoken in Arabia, so Arabic would be the one language that stayed at home, and presumably got less affected by foreign influence. Unfortunately, he doesn't have much of a case. His first argument (p. 1) is frankly risible: “Europe and North Africa were covered with ice before [18000 BC], whereas the Arabian peninsula enjoyed a climate similar to that of southern Europe now. The ice melted in the former and drought hit the latter, so mankind left the Arabian peninsula and settled North Africa and southern Europe.” The quote he cites on this actually says nothing about North Africa, and for good reason: even at the last glacial maximum North Africa was never covered by ice (see map), and was if anything more habitable before 18000 BC than it is now. He also notes (p. 2) that Berber princes have long claimed Yemenite origins. Such claims are questionable for many reasons (the desire for prestige, the originally matrilineal traditions of many Berber tribes, and no pre-Islamic attestations) – but even if true, it would prove nothing about the language: people change their language all the time without changing their ancestry, as any emigrant can tell you. The rest of his argument is a hotchpotch of miscellaneous quotes which at best claim that various early North African peoples or languages or cultures originated in the Middle East; in a particularly ludicrous case, he blithely quotes Bousquet (1957) to the effect that the Berber language “came from Asia Minor” [Turkey!] None of these quotes so much as mention the Arabian peninsula.

In fact, the linguistic evidence means that Proto-Semitic may well have been spoken in Arabia and certainly was spoken in the Middle East, but the common ancestor of Berber, Egyptian, and Semitic was most likely located in Africa. You see, as noted above, these three language families are also quite closely related to Chadic (spoken mainly in Nigeria and Chad) and Cushitic (spoken around the Horn of Africa) – which means that 4 out of 5 branches of this family are native to Africa. It is more likely that one branch left Africa than that 4 branches each separately followed the same narrow path across Sinai or crossed the Red Sea. (For theoretical background, see Campbell 2004.)

In other words: whether the similarities this book gathers between Arabic and Berber are valid or not, they don't do anything to support the author's claim that Berber descends from Arabic. Do they at least have the merit of being valid comparisons? Sometimes, but not with any consistency. Many of his comparisons look rather far-fetched, eg on p. D:

taməṭṭuṯ “woman” < Ar. ṭāmiṯ طامث “menstruator”
argaz “man” < Ar. rakīza(tu l-'usrā) ركيزة الأسرى “pillar (of the family)”
ixəf “head” < Ar. xf' خفأ “appear”, because the head stands out
tadaγt “armpit” < Ar. daγdaγah دغدغة “tickling”
alγəm “camel” < Ar. luγām لغام “the foam that comes out of camels' mouths”

Many others are clearly genuine loanwords, often featuring sounds that cannot be reconstructed for Proto-Berber, though I don't think many of these are original suggestions, eg:

(p. D) axərraz “cobbler” < Ar. xaraza خرز “to sew leather”
(p. H) abrid “road” < Ar. barīd بريد (confirmed by the Tuareg pronunciation of this word, abărid)
(p. 38) ləbṣəl “onion” < Ar. baṣal بصل (Siwi happens to preserve an older word for "onion": afəllu)
(p. 78) taħzamt “belt” < Ar. ħizām حزام

A couple are known Phoenician loanwords:

(p. 57) agadir, ažadir "wall" - Ar. jidār جدار

A few are well-known Afroasiatic cognates, and scattered among them may be other valid cognates:

(p. 250) iləs “tongue” - Ar. lisān لسان
(p. 110) iđammən “blood” - Ar. dam دم
(p. 292) tiqqad “burning” - Ar. wqd وقد

But the book makes no attempt to distinguish between words taken from Arabic comparatively recently and words inherited from the common ancestor of Berber and Arabic, and seems to assume that any word found in both dialectal Arabic (Darja) and Berber must automatically be originally Arabic, rather than possibly being a borrowing from Berber into Arabic. There is a well-known technique for sorting out inherited cognates from loanwords from coincidental similarities: sound correspondences. Sounds don't usually change at random: they change systematically, just as all j's in Egyptian Arabic become g. You establish which Berber sounds normally correspond to which Arabic ones under what circumstances, based on looking at what happens in the clearest cases; that gives you a standard by which to judge the doubtful ones. Saadi has made no effort to do this, and the unfortunate result is that in his comparisons the chaff far outweighs the wheat.

Berber and Arabic both descend from the same language, but that language was neither Berber nor Arabic, and probably didn't come from Arabia - and if you want to know about that common source, then you'll learn more from the works of Diakonoff or Greenberg, or even from more problematic sources like Orel and Stolbova 1999 or Militarev's online database, than from Saadi 2007.


Anonymous said...

It is pure political propaganda and noth sciencetifical research.

I want to comment on one word:
abrid “road” < Ar. barīd بريد (confirmed by the Tuareg pronunciation of this word, abărid)

Abrid/avrid is not a loandword it means road and exists even Spain as a wide path vereda if im not wrong.
The Arabic BARID is a loanword from ancient semitic languages it is a package animal to transport products. The animal was a mix between a horse or donkey.
The word for horse in dutch for example is PAARD

The explanations given by these propaganda publications are way to simplistic.

Lameen Souag الأمين سواق said...

Yes, barīd is an old (Umayyad or earlier) loanword into Arabic (as well as a post-horse, it also meant a unit of distance between post-houses). Nonetheless, it is more likely to be a loanword from early Arabic into Berber than directly from Latin into Berber, because the Latin form is veredus, and Tuareg distinguishes between i and é; if it had come into Berber from Latin, you would expect the Tuareg form to be abəréd, not abărid.

Anonymous said...

Personaly i think its a Amazigh word of a stock used in afro-asiatic branche lets say a common shared word. Medieval-manuscrits can shed more light upon this question.

The word ghasru in Libyan Tamazight (fortified village, fort, castle)for instance is not a loanword of Arabic [Qasr], even there is an other Amazigh word generaly used Ighrem. The latin word Castrum is a loanword into Arabic [roman period].

As for veredus its hard to say i remember the explenation by Tilmatin on African-Latin words, these are words used in North-Africa and the other side of the mediterranean shore. He gave examples see this link [the verbs used in Latin had no root or further usage in Latin language]

On the variations of Abrid in Tamazight see; Maarten Kossmann: Essai sur la phonologie du proto-berbère

I prefer the explenation by Karl-G. Prasse:
"There are about 300 Tamazight words that could be found again in the other branches of Hamito-Semitic, for instance in Arabic."

Anonymous said...

The word for horse in dutch for example is PAARD

This, and the German Pferd, come from Latin paraveredus "post-horse"... so you're saying barīd also comes from this word?

Lameen Souag الأمين سواق said...

DM: Exactly. Basically, barīd (primary meaning in modern standard Arabic: post) comes from Greek beredos "post-horse", which is from Latin veredus "post-horse". There is apparently a book on the etymology of this word - I may have a look if I get the chance: Zur Geschichte des Wortes barīd "Post". Google finds some people who have suggested that the term comes from a Semitic root like Hebrew pered "mule", which doesn't sound very convincing to me (why change p > v or even b when borrowing into a language with a p?) So the etymology would look something like:

(Latin) > (Med. Latin) > German
veredus > para-veredus > Pferd
beredos (Greek)
barīd (Arabic)
abrid (Berber)

The postal system (and the roads built to serve it) were crucial to the maintenance of empires, Roman or Islamic, and barīd, being a foreign institution, would have been a natural term to borrow into Berber (and there are plenty of other Berber roots for "road" or "path" that could represent retentions.)

For a medieval Arabic account of the barīd (unit of distance, type of horse, and mail system), see Yaqut

Anonymous said...

Saadi makes the glottochronologists sound mainstream. But I wouldn't expect much else from someone who heads "The Algerian Organization for the Defense of the Arabic Language"(! Unfortunately I do hear claims similar to that, even from PhDs in other fields on occasion. I might have actually read about Saadi a while back in an announcement about a colloquium in Cairo where he gave a talk about "The Arabic origins of the Egyptian language". Linguistics can be such a novel effort. Interesting stuff about barid.

Anonymous said...

See also the Oromo and cushutic examples, we shouldnt draw to fast any conslussions

Lameen Souag الأمين سواق said...

For Militarev's etymology to work, you'd need not just a metathesis but a complete reversal of the root, *darb > *barīd, plus an unexplained change in the vowels; that kind of thing doesn't happen very often. And Militarev himself says the Cushitic and South Arabian examples look like borrowings from Arabic, weakening the argument for reconstructing this back to Afroasiatic even further. Treating it as an Arabic (or even Latin) loan into Berber gives a much more straightforward etymology.

Anonymous said...

Thanks a lot, but the link to doesn't work.

Hebrew pered "mule"


Anonymous said...

Well, those Arab ideologues seem to have figured it it out:

- Amazigh, Egyptian, English and all the other languages come from one holy source: Arabic!

-The Arabs parachuted from paradise to Earth and created everything!

-All civilization and creation is Arab...!

I mean this Arabo-mania is reaching new cataclysmic lows every single day.

The danger of such lethal Arab propaganda is that it enjoys a lot of money support from totalitarian Arab regimes especially in Libya, and enjoys a lot of media attention from Arab brodcasters, putting ordinary Berber and Arab receivers under a kind of hypnosis pushing them to accept this Arab supremacy in language, civilization, and religion. We should not let lies triumph over the facts.

I got one question about the hypothesized latin-originated word "veredus". How did it land in Latin? is it homemade in southern Europe? or is there another possible origin of it?

Moubarik Belkasim

Anonymous said...

"In Holder's Altceltischer Sprachschatz LL. veredus "posthorse" is marked down as of Celtic origin. But the Romans derived the institution of the posts from Central Asia, specifically referred to by Herodotus as of Persian origin. (1) Indeed, Persian barid "veredus, courier, messenger, running footman, a measure of two parasangs of twelve miles," baridan "to send a messenger" is unquestionably older than Lat. veredus, for it is based on Assyr. paradu "to hasten, impetuous," puridu "messenger, posthaste," which are enormously older than Persian barid or Lat. veredus. (2) Our interest lies in the vicissitudes of veredus in Europe."

There are a lot of sources, Latin is not for sure, influences from the east sanskrit are known just like NOME NAME from sanskrit

Lameen Souag الأمين سواق said...

Interesting link (to get it minus the kooky stuff, try Google Books, p. 142.) It suggests that (like other postal terminology) barīd might be a borrowing into Arabic from Persian, rather than Greek - in which case the word for this key tool of government has been passed on from one empire to the next ever since the Akkadians. But I suspect there's a reason why this hypothesis is not generally adopted - barīd is found in Islamic-era Persian, but Pahlavi seems to use an unrelated word, bayaspānīg.

This also opens up the possibility of a direct comparison with Akkadian parādu, although the semantic match isn't that great and I'm not sure if Akk. p = Ber. b is regular.

"Name", by the way, doesn't come from Sanskrit (any more than iles comes from lisān); rather, they both come from a common source, proto-Indo-European.

Moubarik: Yes, this kind of fantasy and disrespect for the facts is where unchecked nationalism gets you. It's certainly a problem in Arab discourse, but not just there by any means - I've read Berberists who were equally eager to believe what they wanted to believe whether it had any basis or not. A key to solving the problems of North Africa (and everywhere else!) is for people to realise that being right is more important than being "ideologically correct".

Anonymous said...

How pathetic!

I'm not surprised, kaddafi, Saadi's idol thinks that Shakespeare is from the Arabic “cheikh zoubir” :) I rest my case!

Thanks lameen!

Anonymous said...

thought berber writing and arab looks completely different? i traveled and berber writing looks a bit similar to greek?? :p

Anonymous said...

It makes sense that it's published in Libya!

Great post, Lameen.

Panu said...

Shouldn't you translate your posting into Arabic (or French) too, for the benefit of those who don't speak English?

Regarding the book: it sounds very much the same as the saffron brigade, i.e. the fundamentalist Hindus who have their own ideas about Sanskrit. A thoroughly scary lot!

lahsen.Oulhadj said...

Azul fell-awen,

Very interesting discussion ! Sincerely ! I have been working on French/Amazigh dictionary for many years now. I want just to say that I found an explanation about AGADIR. You have to know that in Tamazight language >>Adir>> and <> or >>iggi>> is a preposition which means on, above, upstairs, uppers... In fact Agadir means simply the top of the mountain side. As I am from Souss region where this term is widely used, Agadir is always on the top of the mountain. But the word has many meanings : wall, hill, castle...!!!

For onions we have a word which is widely used : aZalim. With a strong Z. We use just this word not another one.

Best regards,

Lahsen Oulhadj

lahsen.Oulhadj said...

I made a little mistake in my last post. Adir and Ddir have this meaning in tamazight : the mountain side. And ag or iggi is a preposition which means on, above, upstairs...

Octavià Alexandre said...

"In Holder's Altceltischer Sprachschatz LL. veredus "posthorse" is marked down as of Celtic origin.

Yes, it's so. According to Delamarre (Dictionnaire de la langua gauloise), the Latin word is a loanword from Gaulish *ue-rēdos, cognate to Welsh gorwydd 'horse' < *uo-rēdos, from a Celtic verb *uo-reid- 'to travel fast', a compound from *uo- 'under' and *reid- 'to ride'.

Latin borrowed a lot of Celtic words relative to horses and horse-driven vehicles.

Anonymous said...

I have read that, of the Afro-Asiatic languages, Berber is closest to Semitic. Is this true?

Octavià Alexandre said...

IMHO, both German Pferd 'horse' and Late Latin burdus 'mule' are reflexes of a Wanderwort of Semitic origin *pVrd- (˜ *paradʕ/z-) 'an equid'

The resemblance with the word 'road' is a chance one.

Anonymous said...

can you do a post on berber loanwords from arabic?

Anonymous said...

Well to cut the discussion about "Horse", the word comes probably from Arabic Faras/Farasu, still used in Italian with the exact pronounciatio referring to the same animal,and'then'found its way to other european languages like Pferd "deutsch",pls note that P/F/Ph were used interchangebally in different dialects and languages. To the people claiming that Qasrun comes fro Castrum, well its the other way around, where the word in latin refers to a structure the word is a root that branches into a tree of words and related meaning where Qsr= fortified Palace or Qsr= to cut hence cissors and Csr in latin which also means cut. Where CT' in arabic = Cut in engglish. Other words in Latin coming from Arabic
Sratun= stratum
Thara= Terra
Gomma= Coma
Baal= Apollo
Al-Lat= Lati/Latis and mount Latium in Lazio
And many many others.

Unknown said...

Onion means Azalim in berber, wall means Aghwrab and road means Agharas. there is no similarity !