Wednesday, October 13, 2010

A note on Azer

In the unlikely event that you've heard of Azer, a northern dialect of Soninke formerly spoken in the now Arabic-speaking region of Tichit and Walata in southeastern Mauritania, you may well have formed the impression - as I did initially - that it was heavily influenced by Berber, like the Northern Songhay languages are. If you know anything about Berber, a look at Monteil's article on Azer is sufficient to dispel this idea. If you don't, then chapter 3 of Long's thesis on Northern Mande, which I just came across, clarifies the issue nicely. This rather highlights the Northern Songhay problem: if centuries of close contact with Berber left Azer so little changed, why is Northern Songhay so full of Berber words?

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Reporting language "discovery"

Turning on the BBC yesterday, I was surprised to hear a descriptive linguistics story, about the "discovery" by linguists on the Enduring Voices project of a previously unknown Tibeto-Burman language called Koro in Arunachal Pradesh: Indian language is new to science. Insofar as one can judge from the report, it sounds like Koro is clearly distinct from its neighbours rather than being an ambiguous dialect-continuum case, so this should be interesting for comparative Tibeto-Burman.

What struck my attention most is that this made it into the news! There have been a couple of discoveries of new languages in Africa over the past decade or so - Baka, for example, and Tondi Songhay Kiini. And the belated realisation that Bangime is a clear isolate, rather than a dialect of "Dogon", actually reshapes our picture of West African linguistic history much more than finding any of these languages has. Where was the news coverage of these? Have media attitudes towards the newsworthiness of "new" languages changed? Is it because they're in Africa? Or did the linguists in question simply not issue any handy press releases? Publicity is a hassle, frankly, and no one wants to sound like they're playing Indiana Jones. But stories like these are a big part of what gets people interested in linguistics in the first place, and the general public who fund most linguistic work, whether through taxes or donations, need to know what they're getting for their money.