Thursday, June 24, 2010

Why they thought the Berbers came from Yemen

A long-standing tradition in North Africa, convincingly rejected by Ibn Khaldūn but perpetuated by poets and curricula alike, claims that some major Berber tribes descend from Yemeni Arabs through semi-mythical pre-Islamic kings and their wholly mythical vast conquests. This idea has little to support it, and probably became popular because it allowed these tribes to claim prestigious connections in the context of a high culture dominated by Arab ideas; but why should the connection be specifically Yemeni, rather than, say, North Arabian or perhaps Persian? Linguistics suggests a possible answer.

In southern Arabia live several groups, most famously the Mehri tribe, whose languages, though Semitic, are only distantly related to Arabic, and quite incomprehensible to other Arabs. (You can hear recordings of it at SemArch.) Recently I borrowed a copy of the recently published Mehri Language of Oman, by Aaron Rubin; looking through it, I could see several points where Mehri resembles Berber but not Arabic that a traveller might seize on, notably:
  • -s ـس "her", -sən ـسن "their (f.)"; compare Siwi -nn-əs ـنّس "his/her", -n-sən ـنسن "their (m/f)". A 3rd person in -s was found in proto-Semitic, as shown by Akkadian, but was replaced in Arabic.
  • əl ال "not" (preverbal first element of negative); compare Tumzabt ul أُل. Again, this is found in Akkadian and hence must be proto-Semitic.
  • -ət ـت feminine singular; compare Siwi -ət ـت (feminine singular in Arabic borrowings.) Again, the connection is real, but dates back to proto-Semitic rather than indicating any special relationship between the two.
  • -tən ـتن feminine plural; compare Berber -tən ـتن (plural of some masculine nouns)
  • a- أَ used as a definite article for some nouns; compare Berber a- أَ(masculine singular noun prefix). A striking case is Mehri a-məsge:d أَمسجيد vs. Siwi a-məzdəg أمزدج "the mosque". However, in Mehri this indicates definiteness, and does not depend on gender; this is probably a coincidence.
  • tə-...-əm تـ...ـم second person plural imperfective, eg təkə́tbəm تكتبم "you (pl.) write"; compare Berber t-...-m تـ...ـم. The t- is cognate; not sure about the history of the -m offhand.
  • 'ār آر "except, but"; compare Tuareg ar.
  • ā آ "oh" (vocative); compare pan-Berber a أ. (This is actually found in Classical Arabic as well, أ, but is not widely used.)
None of these similarities in fact imply any close relationship between Berber and Mehri, of course; some are coincidental, while others can be traced back to proto-Semitic, and hence constitute evidence connecting Berber with Semitic, not specifically with Mehri. However, a medieval traveller between Yemen and North Africa would not have known that, and could easily have observed similarities like these and leapt to the seemingly plausible conclusion that Berber was connected to the language of these Yemeni tribes, who, like many Berbers, seemed to live just like Arabs yet speak totally differently.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

The Berber language of Sokna (Libya)

Thank you SOAS library - I finally got a copy of Il dialetto berbero di Sokna! Sokna (they even have a Facebook group) is a small oasis south of Sirt in Libya, whose dialect of Berber, along with that of nearby El-Fogaha, is Siwi's closest relative. There were several surprises inside, including unusual vocabulary like amerru "mountain" or imeγri "Dhuhr (the midday prayer)", and some striking features shared with Siwi; one of the main ones is an unexpected bit of allomorphy. Across Berber, the second person plural ("you guys") is expressed on the verb with t-...-m, except in the imperative; Sokna does the same, so for example "you have" is t-la-m. In the imperative, you have a suffix -t; Sokna again does the same, eg sag-it-ten iyi-leḥbes "(you guys,) take them to prison!" But if you add an indirect object pronoun ("to him" etc.) to the imperative, you replace this t with an m, like the m in the second half of the non-imperative forms: eḍbeḥ-im-as a-na-dd y-used "(you guys) tell him to come to us!" The same thing happens in Siwi, except that in Siwi the prefixed t- of the non-imperative forms has disappeared. I'm doing a paper on the development of indirect object agreement in Siwi for the Berberologie conference in July, and this is a useful pointer to its history. Amazigh readers - have you come across anything like this?

Sadly, Berber is probably no longer spoken in Sokna. When this article was written in 1911, the shaykh of the oasis reported that only 4 or 5 Isuknan could still speak it, although many more could understand a bit. I don't know whether the people of Sokna today regret the loss of their language or are glad of it - but its disappearance destroys a key not just to Sokna's history but to that of Libya, Egypt, and the whole of North Africa, leaving only this article's fairly short wordlist (and a few even shorter older sources) as evidence for migrations between central Libya and Siwa and early contact with vanished pre-Sulaymi Arabic dialects.

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Religious origins of the "Welsh Not"?

A well-known weapon in the arsenal deployed by educational systems the world over against local languages was what in the UK used to be called the Welsh Not - a piece of wood hung around the neck of a student caught speaking their own language, and passed on through the day to anyone that student heard speaking their language, so that whoever was wearing it at the end of the day would be punished. At a talk yesterday I heard that the same idea was implemented in Japan (against Ryukyuan languages) and Sudan (against Nubian.) Coincidentally, I just came across an account that gives interesting insight into the origins of this oppressive practice:
"With a general consent of all our company, it was ordained that there should be a palmer or ferula which should be in the keeping of him who was taken with an oath; and that he who had the palmer should give to every one that he took swearing, a palmada with it and the ferula; and whosoever at the time of evening or morning prayer was found to have the palmer, should have three blows given him by the captain or the master; and that he should still be bound to free himself by taking another, or else to run in danger of continuing the penalty, which, being executed a few days, reformed the vice, so that in three days together was not one oath heard to be sworn."The Observations of Sir Richard Hawkins, Knt in his voyage into the South Sea in the year 1593
Hard to imagine a ship full of sailors submitting to such a practice! But was this the original purpose of the Welsh Not? It would be interesting to find out. If anyone has an older citation to compare, I'd love to see it.