Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Language endangerment: thoughts from Igli

I recently found a forum for the town of Igli, about 150 km north of Tabelbala as the crow flies. Igli's traditional language is a Berber variety called "Tabeldit", or in Arabic "Shelha" شلحة, reasonably close to the better-documented dialect of Figuig across the border but with significant differences (such as the first person singular in -ɛ rather than -γ.) In Igli, it is at least as endangered as Kwarandzyey, and is likely to disappear in another couple of generations - although I was told that it is doing better in the small neighbouring town of Mazzer. I think the reason, as in Tabelbala, is that parents started speaking only Arabic to their kids in the hope of giving them a head start in school, but all I know about Igli I heard from Glaouis in other towns. In situations like this, speakers inevitably see their language's disappearance with mixed feelings, and the following pair of posts forms a microcosm of the global language preservation debate:
The "Xiṭ Azugar" Project (posted by Shayma)

"Tabeldit Shelha is part of the fragrance of the Saoura region... a treasure inherited from our ancestors. Shall we preserve it, or let it disappear before our eyes?.... A secret weapon that saved some of us from death. How long will we remain with our hands tied as our language disappears before our eyes? Until when, until when?

I hope that these words have awakened your sleeping hearts and moved your sentiments. Therefore I present to you today this project, consisting of the establishment of an "Arabic-Shelha" dictionary to preserve our language. Therefore I ask the director and administrators and even the members to study this project; if you accept the idea, then let's start to lay down precise plans to overcome difficulties... and if you don't accept the suggestion, then we will do our ancestors an injustice... I urge you to take the matter seriously. To the administration, and all the members, let us put hand in hand. No more lamentation over Shelha, that doesn't help. What helps is effective work.

Forgive me for my harsh words, and I hope you accept the idea. The project is called "Xiṭ azugar" for historical reasons, because these words have saved a person from certain death.
This suggestion was acclaimed and adopted, and there is now a small Arabic-Shelha Dictionary forum. However, there was also some scepticism - the following post started a vigorous debate:
What would we lose if Shelha becomes extinct? (posted by igliab)

Following the increased concern with the local dialect "Shelha" from the brother members, for which thanks are due, I decided to pose the following question: What would we lose if this dialect became extinct?

It's not a language of civilisation, nor a language of science. And supposing we are able to make an "Arabic-Shelha" dictionary and lay down the rules for this language, will our sons agree to learn it? What would the motive be? It's not used at home, nor in public places. Or do we want to put it in museums and say we have "saved" it?

Moreover, by my reckoning those who speak it today are:
90% old men - 8% middle-aged men - 1.5% youths - 0.5% children. Admittedly I haven't made a study to come up with these figures but it could be worse than I anticipate, so it can be said that Shelha has no future in Igli.

I also told myself that if everyone thought the way I think then they would put down their pens and wait for the demise of Shelha, the way an ill man who has despaired of his state waits for death. But I rethought the issue, this time positively, and realised the need to put together a plan for its preservation. But what is the point of solutions if there is no logical, powerful reason, so the first question we have to answer is: why should we preserve Shelha? I urge the brothers to think deeply about this issue and put sentiments aside.
What would your thoughts be? Have you had a parallel experience?

Monday, January 11, 2010

Ajami in Boston

The Boston Globe has an article today about Ajami, the tradition of transcribing African languages in the Arabic script. It focuses particularly on the efforts of Fallou Ngom, whose work has been mainly on Wolof Ajami in Senegal, the subject of one of my first posts here. In the article he emphasises the potential historical significance of such work in opening up neglected sources on African history. While most African manuscripts are in Arabic, some historically rather interesting Ajami sources are known; for Mandinka, published historical manuscripts include the Pakao Book and the Bijini manuscript, the latter outlining regional history over the past 500 years. There are undoubtedly more out there that have gone uninvestigated simply for lack of enough historians who can read them. My work on Ajami has focused more on issues of orthography, however: most African languages have rather different sound systems to Arabic, and it's quite interesting to see what kind of devices they developed to make the alphabet fit better.

Saturday, January 09, 2010

Earliest Kwarandzyey source online (also Tarifit of Arzew)

It turns out that the earliest and most extensive published source on Kwarandzyey (Korandje), the language of Tabelbala in southwestern Algeria which I am studying, is downloadable online:

* Cancel, Lt. 1908. "Etude sur le dialecte de Tabelbala". Revue Africaine 52.

Readers may also be interested in Biarnay's study of the probably extinct Tarifit dialect that was then spoken at Arzew, in volumes 54 and 55 of the same publication.

Saturday, January 02, 2010

Siwi Scarborough Fair

Over the dinner mentioned in the last post I was also shown a Siwi poem sent as a text message - it's a rather below average example of the genre, but interesting as an representative illustration of Siwis' orthographic preferences.
كان تازمرت تجبد تيني
كان تفكت تعمار تازيري
كان اتغت تيرو اغي
كان امان نلبحورا يسقلبن اخي
كان الغم ينسخط ايزي
بردو شك غوري (غالي)
Or in Latin Berber orthography:
Kan tazemmurt tejbed tayni
Kan tfukt teɛmaṛ taziri
Kan tγatt tiṛew aγi,
Kan aman n lebḥuṛa yesqelben axi,
Kan alγem yensxeṭ izi,
Beṛdu cek γuṛi "γali".

So I decided to render it into English, taking a few liberties to reproduce the rhyme (for added faithfulness, change "flea" to "fly", and eliminate "someday" and "or three"):

If dates can come from an olive tree,
If the sun someday a moon shall be,
If a goat gives birth to a calf or three,
If milk fills the waters of every sea,
If a camel can turn itself into a flea -
Then only will you be dear to me.