Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Libyco-Berber (ancient Tifinagh) at MNAMON

Libyco-Berber is the writing system used in pre-Roman and Roman times to write an apparently Berber language in North Africa – especially inland in Numidia (northeastern Algeria and northwestern Tunisia), where the large majority of surviving inscriptions have been found. We can read the letters, thanks to a few bilingual inscriptions, but only a small number of words are known, because most of the inscriptions are very short (usually gravestones) and have no translations. It seems to have disappeared in the Maghreb by the end of the Classical period (there are no known Christian Libyco-Berber inscriptions, much less Muslim ones), but a variant of it, called Tifinagh, has survived among the Tuareg of the Sahara up to the present day – and, since the late 20th century, an adaptation of that called Neo-Tifinagh has been revived in Algeria and Morocco.

Last week MNAMON published pages by me on the Libyco-Berber (or ancient Tifinagh) script and language, which may be of interest to readers. I gave a talk at the Scuola Normale in Pisa for the occasion, giving an overview of what we know and discussing the language's position within the Berber family; I understand the video may appear online soon. A notable conclusion is that the glottal stop, recently reconstructed for Proto-Berber, had probably already been lost in the language of these inscriptions.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Meaningless morphemes from Malta to Matrouh

A while back, Bulbul pointed out to me that in Maltese (the Arabic-derived language spoken in the EU member state of Malta) the plural of "guru" (guru) is "guruwijiet" (where "j"=y.) Obviously, the stem is "guru". The plural suffix is -iet, which is one of the commonest Maltese plurals, and derives from Arabic -āt; compare saltn-a "kingdom" > saltn-iet. But in that case what is the -ij- (ie -iyy-) doing there, and in other cases like omm "mother" > omm-ij-iet? On the face of it it looks like a morpheme without a function.

Oddly enough, as I discussed in my PhD thesis, you get the same phenomenon in Siwi Berber. It happens with Arabic external plurals, eg lə-kdew-a "squash" > lə-kdew-iyy-at, but also with Berber ones, eg ta-ngugəs-t "wagtail bird" > ti-ngugs-iyy-en, baṭaṭəs "potatoes" > baṭaṭs-iyy-ən (the usual plural suffixes are feminine -en and masculine -ən.) You seem to get it occasionally in western Libyan Arabic too (eg žnarāl "general" > žnarāl-iyy-a.)

In both Maltese and Siwi, it appears to be used mainly on nouns whose form is unusual - ones with syllable structures and vowel patterns that are unusual for nouns in the language. The -iyy- suffix looks just like the suffix used to derive nouns indicating origin from a place (eg Sīwi(yy) < Sīw-a); most plural markers in Arabic are specific to nouns of a particular shape, but this suffix can be attached to nouns of any shape. In a sense, it serves as a bridge to reformat the input (the singular) into a form acceptable to the plural function. It thus has a functional value within the context of the morphology. However, it fairly clearly has no meaning at all - which seems fairly remarkable to me. I suppose you could compare the -iss- that shows up in some forms of French -ir verbs (fin-ir "to finish" > nous fin-iss-ons "we finish"), but historically that seems to be part of the stem rather than just an originally meaningless add-on as here.

Can you think of another morpheme (suffix/prefix/whatever) that has to be there in some contexts, but that has no meaning?

Friday, November 25, 2011

South Arabian languages on YouTube

In eastern Yemen and western Oman, there are spoken several South Arabian languages - Semitic, but more distantly related to Arabic than Arabic is to Aramaic or Hebrew. The largest of these is Mehri. If you speak Arabic and want to learn how to form questions in Mehri (or just want to hear what this language sounds like), there's a recording on YouTube for you: اللغة المهرية - محب اللغة المهرية وليد التميمي. For its rather smaller relative Jibbali, there's some poetry. Someone has even attempted to put up recordings of all the major dialects of Yemen (mainly Arabic.)

A longstanding rumour claims that these languages are mutually comprehensible with Berber. As some listeners will be able to see, this is not correct.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Improbable regular cognates

In Zenaga (the Berber language of Mauritania), the word for "slave" is oʔḅḅäy.

In the "Shelha" Berber spoken near Touggourt, the word for "black" is aɣəggal. (In Tamasheq - Malian Tuareg - ɣǎggal means "to be brown".)

As you've probably guessed from the title, these are originally the same word. The semantic shift is sadly predictable, given Saharan history, but how can the consonants be related? Well:

Zenaga ʔ regularly corresponds to pan-Berber ɣ, eg iʔf "head" = iɣəf, iʔy "arm" = iɣil, iʔssi "bone" = iɣəs.

Proto-Berber *ww becomes bb in Zenaga and gg(ʷ) almost everywhere else in Berber, eg "year": Zenaga äššäbbaš = pan-Berber asəgg(ʷ)as.

Pan-Berber l becomes Zenaga y word-finally, eg ađ̣abbäy "male in-law" = pan-Berber aḍəgg(ʷ)al. But if you add the feminine ending -t, the resulting cluster lt becomes L. Sure enough, "slave (f.)" in Zenaga is toʔḅḅäL.

So if you're tired of repeating Armenian "erku" = English "two" every time you need an example of a non-trivial sound change, consider opting for a Berber example.

(All Zenaga data from Taine-Cheikh 2010; Tamasheq data from Heath 2006; Touggourt (specifically Tala n Aʕməṛ) data courtesy of a friend. The correspondences in question are discussed in more detail in Kossmann 1999.)

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Marzouki's Tunisian language policy proposals: once more against code-switching

Following up on the previous post, my wife just sent me a link to Moncef Marzouki, the head of the centrist party that came second in the Tunisian elections, talking (in Arabic) about the language issue in Tunisia: "What language will the Arabs speak next century?" It's well worth a look for anyone wondering what democratic Tunisia's language policy will look like; his position is not far from Ghannouchi's in this regard, but he gives a lot more detail.

Marzouki warns that the language used in Facebook postings and private stations, with its undigested French loans or even phrases, freedom from prescriptive grammar, and Latin transcriptions, is a foretaste of what future Arabic may look like if we're not careful. The solution, in his view, is a Society for the Defense of the Arabic Language in Tunisia - but "will the authorities license this, when most of the parties are using dialect in their political advertising" and the state used a slogan in dialect ('وقيت باش تقيّد') to advertise the elections? If we're not careful our children may end up speaking "a language like Creole, dominant in the islands of the Caribbean and the Pacific - a strange mixture of European and African languages" and a Tunisian will need an interpreter to talk to a Yemeni (many might already!) He blasts the station-owning promoters of code-mixing as "Westernised counter-revolutionary forces who dread Islamists' and Arabists' victory and support Westernisation and separation from the Arabo-Islamic world through a narrow isolationism."

So far so familiar, you may well say. I'm not impressed with his rather authoritarian desire to restrict what language private broadcasts can use - he specifically states that he wants laws on broadcasting requiring "the exclusive use of Fusha and refined Darja" and "banning this Creole language - we don't think that the BBC would allow pub talk, or French TV teen slang." (He's definitely wrong there!) I was also surprised by the way he seems to set up dialectal Arabic as the enemy of Standard Arabic (Fusha), when in fact Fusha has stayed alive only through dialectal Arabic speakers' attachment to it; but he later clarifies that his opposition is to the use of dialect in inappropriate contexts and not to the dialect itself, which he deems worthy of "preservation and development".

He has some good proposals on language policy too, though. We need more translation into Arabic, more digitisation of Arabic books, and more use of Arabic in science; "no community has flourished in the language of another" (absolutely right, but how to pay for these?) The single-foreign-language policy that makes the Maghrib Francophone and the Mashriq Anglophone needs to be replaced by a policy of teaching different foreign languages to different pupils (this I agree with 100%, although again the cost of training is a formidable obstacle), including those of Asia and even Africa. He also takes a progressive line on minority languages, calling it "obligatory" for the state to support languages like Berber in Algeria and Morocco or Pulaar in Mauritania, and even teach them to Arabic speakers - although he doesn't have anything to say on what's left of Berber in Tunisia... And despite my reservations about the heavy-handedness of his prescriptivism, I was pleasantly surprised by his ability to summarise the opposing position; he devotes a lot of the article to answering potential challenges to his positions:
  • Isn't linguistic cross-fertilisation a longstanding phenomenon? Have our people ever spoken an unmixed language? Isn't it natural for languages to change and develop? Doesn't our dialect contain hundreds of French and Italian words anyway? (He doesn't really try to answer these.)
  • Couldn't Arabic develop into multiple literary languages just as Latin did? (But we see the opposite: more and more people are using Arabic thanks to broadcasting, education, and Islam, and the dialects are now getting closer to the standard language. "As long as the Qur'an remains, Arabic will continue to develop and to accumulate around it dialects close to it, like planets circling around the sun.")
  • Doesn't this position discriminate against the less-educated in favour of an elite? Shouldn't the revolution restore the freedom to speak the language of the masses? (Arabic was discriminated against under the dictatorship, being excluded from administration, higher education, and research; and talk of "the dialect" camouflages discrimination against regional ones. "What we hear in broadcasting is not the dialect of the northwest or the south (which are nearly Fusha) but the dialect of a few posh neighbourhoods in the capital who count it as a mark of backwardness to utter a sentence without stuffing it with French expressions, even when out of place. Franco-Arabic is the language of some bourgeois, Westernised sections who despise the public and call them 'beggars'." - Needless to say, this is a tu quoque reply: while more or less correct, it doesn't really address the question.)
The picture he paints suggests some much broader questions: do laissez-faire language policies simply amount to letting the rich impose their language preferences on the rest of us? And do democratic language policies simply amount to letting the majority force their language preferences on the minority? How can we avoid such traps, especially given the requirement of universal education?

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Ghannouchi vs. French-Arabic code-switching

A few posts ago, we saw Francophone objections to North African code-switching via Wikileaks. Now a story has come up illustrating Arabophone objections to the same phenomenon - on the grounds not on economics but of identity.

Following Ennahda's plurality in the recent Tunisian elections, its leader Rashed Ghannouchi commented that "We are Arabs and our language is Arabic... We have become Franco-Arab; this is linguistic pollution. We encourage the learning of all languages, especially the most alive ones, without losing our identity. He who is not proud of his language cannot be proud of his country." (AFP, can't find the original quote on Express FM) A party activist clarified that "We have no problem with French - many of our activists speak it perfectly. The problem is with mixing it with Arabic." (Slate Afrique)

The Slate article quotes a source identifying this as an implicit attack on the Francophone elite of Tunisia, "notably those who did their studies in France and are most at ease in French both in private and in public." While identity politics has its dangers, such statements should not be surprising: a core constituency for Ennahda, like its Turkish counterparts, is people who want to succeed and become middle class without having to reject their own principles and origins to adopt the highly Westernised identity of the elites that emerged in the early 20th century, and defending Arabic amounts to defending that choice. In any Francophone country, teaching English is an obvious long-term strategy for connecting the country to the wider world while bypassing the Francophone elite (and possibly creating a new one?); "all languages, especially the most alive ones" is obviously intended to refer mainly to English. This seems to have caused some concern among supporters of French even in France (it is remarkable that Google turns up the press release on the French Department of Defense website!)

Linguistically rather than politically speaking, though, does this make sense? Well, up to a point:
  • "our language is Arabic" is true, and truer of Tunisia than of any other country in North Africa: barely half a dozen small villages in the entire country speak Berber, and many of them are abandoning it (for much the same reasons that impel the elites towards French.) But, in the context of a very large difference between Classical/Standard Arabic (fusha) and Tunisian dialect(s), it also slides over the question of what kinds of Arabic count as "our language".
  • "Linguistic pollution" combines a factual statement with a value judgement: it is true that French words show up commonly in Arabic contexts to the point that people have trouble thinking of a corresponding Arabic word, and calling that "pollution" just amounts to saying that this is bad.
  • He's quite right to link language to identity: in the words of Andrée Tabouret-Keller, "The language spoken by somebody and his or her identity as a speaker of this language are inseparable: This is surely a piece of knowledge as old as human speech itself." Tunisian identity would not be lost even if every Tunisian shifted to French - but it would be profoundly changed.
  • "He who is not proud of his language cannot be proud of his country" is not correct: of course you can be proud of your country in the abstract without even liking its language (I don't know about Tunisia, but there are, sadly, plenty of vehemently patriotic Algerians who have nothing positive to say about the Algerian dialect!) However, it's obviously intended less as a factual statement than as a call for Tunisians to be proud of their language - a call I would enthusiastically endorse.

Monday, November 07, 2011


Sorosoro have just put up a webpage by me, giving a general picture of the language of Tabelbala: Korandje. It's also available in French and Spanish.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Berber dictionary online

A link I've been meaning to post for a while: Amawal n Tiddukla Tadelsant Imedyazen. The guy behind it, Omar Mouffok, deserves credit for his efforts to document Kabyle dialects outside of the mainstream, like the one spoken near Blida; many entries indicate which regions the word is used in, though unfortunately a fairly impenetrable system of abbreviations is used. Translations into French, Spanish, and Arabic are given for some words, but many are only given definitions in Kabyle.

Monday, October 03, 2011

Songhay online

The Northern Songhay family is of some general interest, both for the study of language contact - all its members are astonishingly strongly influenced by Berber and/or Arabic, to the point that only a few hundred Songhay words survive and much of the grammar has been replaced - and for understanding the history of the Sahara (they suggest both that the spread of Songhay predates the Songhay Empire and that a Berber language different from Tuareg used to be spoken in much of Mali and Niger.) I've recently put together a sort of homepage for Northern Songhay linguistics: Northern Songhay. It includes a more or less complete bibliography.

Anyone interested in that will also be interested in a site I recently came across:, offering lexicographical data, lessons, software, and some references focused mainly on the Songhay of Gao (Koyraboro Senni.) I particularly appreciated the pictorial dictionaries under "Encyclopédie".

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Wikileaks and Algeria's "language crisis"

Among the newly released Wikileaks US diplomatic cables is one from Algiers that presents a fairly uncritical review of Algerians' own worst stereotypes about the way they talk, with a notable Francophone slant coming from its sources: TRILINGUAL ILLITERATES: ALGERIA'S LANGUAGE CRISIS. The report paints an alarming picture: "Decades of government-imposed Arabization have produced an under-40 population that, in the words of frustrated Algerian business leaders, 'is not fluent in anything' and therefore handicapped in the job market and more vulnerable to extremist influence... The 20-40 age group now competing for jobs speaks a confusing mixture of French, Arabic and Berber that one business leader called 'useless,' as they cannot make themselves fully understood by anyone but themselves." But there are some serious problems with this.

Let's break it up into individual claims:

1. Arabisation of the educational system has led to a lack of fluency

It takes some ingenuity to reconstruct the reasoning behind this claim, since the cable doesn't give much of it. Its main basis seems to be statements like this: "Ameziane Ait Ahcene, Northrup Grumman's deputy director for Algeria, complained that he had to recruit in francophone Europe to find skilled accountants and engineers who were fluent in spoken and written French. Mohamed Hakem, marketing and communications director for the ETRHB Haddad group, shared the same sentiment, adding that the process of providing language training in French or English to new recruits was often prohibitively expensive and added too much time to the recruitment process." In other words, what they really mean is that Arabisation of the educational system has led to a lack of fluency in French - the (very real) problem of non-fluency in Standard Arabic is not really on the radar here, perhaps understandably for the business leaders given that most of Algeria's foreign trade is with non-Arabic-speaking countries. But correlation is not causation. The educated people over 40 whose passing they're lamenting certainly were more fluent in French; but they were also a minority within their own generation, and the state had a lot more money per capita to spend on educating them than it did in the 1980s or 1990s, the era of low oil prices and regular shortages. Keeping French as the language of education might have increased the number of those most fluent in French; but, given the difficulty of studying in a language totally unrelated to the one spoken in daily life, it would certainly have decreased the number of educated people (as well as alienating them even more from their own heritage.) The flip side of this question is: why, almost 50 years after independence and 20 years after Arabisation of secondary school, do so many Algerian jobs that don't involve any contact with foreign countries at all - notably in the civil service - still demand fluency in French? Why do many Algerian government websites, as I've noted previously, not even provide Arabic versions?

However, our anonymous embassy official makes a telling mistake about the extent of Arabisation. He claims that "University subjects are also taught in Arabic -- without exception since former Prime Minister Abdelaziz Belkhadem refused to allow scientific and technical subjects to revert to French-language instruction", and that "The Algerian school system now produces graduates who must first take the time and money after university to re-learn subjects like engineering, science and commerce in French in order to compete for jobs in Algeria and abroad." But any Algerian university student can tell you that scientific and technical subjects are still consistently taught in French, except for a few quasi-experimental English-language courses. In fact, a quick Google search reveals a 2009 paper, Pratiques langagières d'étudiants en médecine de la Faculté d'Alger, whose abstract complains about this: "In Algeria, although school leavers accede to higher education with all their secondary education in Arabic, they pursue medical studies in French. This language, ill mastered by the majority in spite the fact that they were strictly short listed when they enrolled, is felt as a setback in their studies."

2. Lack of fluency has handicapped youth in the job market: "several Algerian business representatives lamented what they called the "lost generation" of Algerian workers, who are left out largely because of their inability to function at a professional level in any single language." "You are trilingual illiterates."

No argument there. White-collar jobs almost by definition require fluency in written, prescriptively defined standard languages, and most Algerian youth aren't fluent enough in any such language; it's a scandal, and the educational system needs to be fixed, and the kids need to study harder. However, these kids do have at least one linguistic asset that tends to be ignored. The primary everyday language of Algeria - at home, on the street, in the shops - is Algerian Arabic (Darja), Arabic in origin but so far removed from Standard Arabic that Middle Easterners can barely understand it. No one would dream of listing fluency in Darja as an asset; but just try living in Algeria without it! And if you think it's easy, try learning it from scratch.

3. Lack of fluency has made youth vulnerable to extremism.

Hmm... hard to figure out the reasoning here (I addressed a more extreme similar claim a while ago.) It might simply mean that lack of fluency leads to poor economic prospects, which lead to extremism - though whether poverty in fact leads to extremism is arguable. It might be code for "Now that the kids speak Arabic better than French, they're more influenced by Middle Eastern preachers instead of by French movies" - which is sort of true, but is still a gross oversimplification (part of the causality even runs the other way - the availability of satellite channels since the early 1990s seems to have had a positive impact on kids' abilities in both languages.) Or perhaps the idea is that fluency in a literary language gives a person the confidence to argue against ideas being advanced by authority figures? There might be something in that, but I'd say Algerians are fairly argumentative without it...

4. We now face "an entire generation fluent only in a linguistic collage known as 'Algerian'", which is "useless." "Diplomats coming to Algeria after serving elsewhere in the region are amazed that Algerians rarely finish a sentence in the same language they started it in."

The idea that Darja is "useless" I already addressed above: how can the primary language you need for everyday life almost everywhere in the country be dismissed as "useless"! Darja itself, in general, is not a particularly mixed language: it's a coherent Arabic dialect with an unusual number of words taken from French, but with its grammar essentially unchanged from the dialect of Arabic already spoken in Algeria before the French arrived. If it's a "linguistic collage", what are we to say of English, more than half of whose vocabulary derives from French or Latin?

However, there are some parts of Algeria - mainly Algiers and its surroundings - where many people commonly practise code-switching and code-mixing, ie the incorporation of whole phrases and sentences from French into a conversation whose main language is Darja. I personally find this practice irritating, and inconsiderate when directed towards strangers: you can usually take it for granted that another Algerian will be fluent in Darja, but many Algerians speak French haltingly or not at all, and peppering your speech with French phrases tends to make them feel unwelcome. But it's certainly not "useless" from an educational perspective; to the contrary, it causes Algerois who would otherwise have little occasion to use French to maintain a fairly high level of conversational fluency in it, and keeps them in practice. Nor is it "useless" from a practical perspective: being able to comprehend this mix is a fairly essential skill in Algiers, as important in commercial contexts as in social encounters. And, in my experience, the most persistent language-mixers aren't the uneducated at all: they're the ones who speak the best French, and either find it easier to express some thoughts in French or want to make very sure you don't take them for country bumpkins. It's also worth emphasising that code-switching isn't some kind of uniquely Algerian pathology: it happens in almost every genuinely bilingual society, all over the world.

5. English is the way out of this mess: "We hear at all levels that this problem has led to a tremendous appetite for English -- a neutral, global language unburdened by Algerian history -- as the best way forward... As the director of cooperation at the Ministry of Higher Education recently told us, Algeria 'needs a Marshall Plan for the English language.'"

Algeria emphatically does need more graduates fluent in English (and I'm glad to say this is slowly happening - check out E-DZ); given the current dominance of English in global research and business, this is a far higher priority than increasing fluency in French. But that's yet another challenge for the educational system, not a solution for its ills. Algeria has far more fluent French- and Arabic-speakers to draw on than English speakers, yet it still ends up with high school graduates who can't write a letter in any language without numerous mistakes. If English teaching is expanded without otherwise reforming the educational system, then all that Algeria will get is more "trilingual illiterates".

Thursday, September 08, 2011

Why German is strange

Following up on comments to the previous post, some readers may be interested in the following list of the top ten rarest typological features of Northwestern European languages (on WALS), ordered from most to least unusual:
  1. Polar Questions - coded through word order (Did he? He did.); very unusual outside Europe.
  2. Uvular Consonants - continuants only (French/German/Dutch "r"); usually languages with uvulars have a uvular stop.
  3. The Perfect - coded with a word meaning "have" (I have done it); unparalleled outside Europe.
  4. Coding of Evidentiality - using a modal verb; unusual outside Europe
  5. Demonstratives - no distance contrast (German); rare worldwide.
  6. Negative Indefinite Pronouns - used without a predicate negator (I saw nothing, instead of I ain't seen nothing); very rare outside Europe.
  7. Front Rounded Vowels - high and mid (ü, ö); unusual outside northern Eurasia
  8. Relativization on Subjects - using a relative pronoun; most of the world's language use non-pronominal strategies.
  9. Weight-Sensitive Stress - Right-oriented, antepenultimate involved; unusual.
  10. Order of Object and Verb - alternates depending on clause type (German, Dutch); most languages keep this fixed irrespective of clause type.
This is from: Cysouw, Michael. 2011. Quantitative explorations of the world-wide distribution of rare characteristics, or: the exceptionality of northwestern European languages. In: Horst Simon & Heike Wiese (Eds.) Expecting the Unexpected. Berlin: De Gruyter Mouton. 411-431.

For a list of some linguistic features common in Europe more generally but rare outside it, see Haspelmath 2001 (summarised here.)

Sunday, September 04, 2011

Forthcoming talk: the history of Kwarandzyey viewed in areal context

Some readers may be interested in a talk I'll be giving at the end of this month in Paris, at LACITO on 30 September in a colloquium called Journée d'étude : Aires linguistiques. The title is "Du Sahel au Maghreb : essai d'une histoire linguistique du korandjé, langue songhay loin de son aire d'origine". (Yes, I'm going to try to deliver it in French - a foolhardy decision, given that I've only ever studied two years of it, but there you are.)

Basically, Kwarandzyey - the language of Tabelbala in SW Algeria - is a Songhay language, brought originally from at least a thousand kilometres to the south in the Niger valley. The Songhay family typologically fits reasonably well into West Africa - for Güldemann, it is a peripheral member of the Macro-Sudanic area - and shares some features widespread throughout sub-Saharan Africa and rare north of the Sahara (such as Noun-Numeral order). In particular, Songhay shows strikingly close structural similarities to the Mande languages (eg S-Aux-O-V order); these similarities for the most part appear likely to reflect early Mande influence on Songhay, rather than a common genetic origin. The languages of Northwestern Africa - Arabic and Berber varieties alike - share a number of characteristics which contrast sharply with Songhay and with the West African languages around it: some of these reflect common inheritance (eg a two-gender system), others reflect convergence, having been absent from both proto-Berber and early Arabic (eg a vowel system consisting of a i u, plus neutral ə restricted to closed syllables.) Over the past millennium, Kwarandzyey has changed a lot; most of these changes (lexical, grammatical, and phonological) have brought it closer to the Arabic and Berber varieties spoken around its current location. But the changes do not derive from a single language; the lexicon lets us discern influence at least three different branches of Berber (Western, Atlas, and Zenati) and two rather different Arabic dialects (Western Maghrebi and Hassaniya). One way to view this phenomenon is to say that Kwarandzyey, having been isolated from the Macro-Sudanic area to which its ancestor belonged, has been getting integrated into a Northwest African linguistic (and indeed cultural) area. But is this a helpful way of viewing things, or does it misleadingly present an essentially local phenomenon as a product of a wider region? We'll have to see...

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Siwi and Nafusi, mutually comprehensible

The Libyan conflict which currently appears to be winding down has had some interesting side effects. One of the more linguistically interesting ones is the emergence of something completely taboo to Qaddafi: broadcasts in Libyan Berber - specifically, in the language of the Nafusa Mountains near the Tunisian border, whose people have played an important role in taking Tripoli. For a long time Berber languages have been mainly oral - visible or essential in particular regions scattered across North Africa, but not used in the national stage defined by major cities, schooling, and the mass media (apart from radio.) Since the 1990s this has changed somewhat in Algeria and Morocco, but in Libya this remains a very novel step.

For Siwis, the Berber-speaking people of Siwa in western Egypt, this is of some interest. They have occasionally been tuning into Moroccan or Algerian Berber-language satellite broadcasting ever since it started, without understanding more than occasional words here and there. But they tell me that in the Libyan broadcasts they can understand practically everything - the first time they've seen TV broadcasts in something approximating their own language, and the first time most of them have heard Libyan Berber at all.

I'm not surprised that Moroccan and Algerian Berber should be incomprehensible to Siwis - but I do find it remarkable that Libyan (Nafusi) Berber, spoken more than a a thousand kilometres away from Siwa, should be so easy for them to understand. It further confirms a longstanding observation that I've tried to back up recently by identifying shared innovations: that Siwi seems most like the Berber languages of western Libya, not of eastern Libya (where Berber is still barely spoken at the oasis of Awjila), contrary to what common sense and geography would initially suggest.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Status update

I am happy to announce (to any readers who may still be checking this) that I am blogging again, and happier to announce that I've gotten married during the hiatus.

I'm starting a three-year British Academy post-doc based at SOAS next month, focusing on the historical development and synchronic typology of agreement in Berber, particularly indirect object agreement. (Basically: why do people commonly say nniɣ-as i Muḥend "I said-to-him to Mohand" rather than nniɣ i Muḥend "I said to Mohand", and why is this more or less obligatory in some areas but rare or absent in others? Similar phenomena can be observed in Spanish and some dialects of Maghrebi Arabic - probably as a result of areal contact - but Berber is the only family I know of to exhibit the full range of possibilities.)

On a non-academic note: if any readers have leads on reasonably cheap 2-pièce flats in Paris, I would love to hear from you!

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

An atom's weight of philology

One of the oldest motivations for studying the history of language is to better study the fixed texts of holy books or classics. We try to learn from such texts, but without an understanding of philology we misread them - because, while the words have remained the same, their content has changed. Ibn Quraysh is one case in point; Ruskin offers another:
"[I]n languages so mongrel of breed as the English, there is a fatal power of equivocation put into men's hands, almost whether they will or no, in being able to use Greek or Latin words for an idea when they want it to be awful [ie impressive]; and Saxon or otherwise common words when they want it to be vulgar… [C]onsider what effect has been produced on the English vulgar mind by the use of the sonorous Latin form "damn", in translating the Greek katakrínō, when people charitably wish to make it forcible; and the substitution of the temperate "condemn" for it, when they choose to keep it gentle; and what notable sermons have been preached by illiterate clergymen on - "He that believeth not shall be damned"; though they would shrink in horror from translating Heb. xi. 7, "The saving of his house, by which he damned the world"… "
Standard Arabic has no layer of prestige loanwords corresponding to Greek and Latin words in English - all the classics of the Arab world are themselves in Arabic, and great efforts have been expended to keep the grammar of Standard Arabic roughly constant since the pre-Islamic era. But, thanks to the many new meanings conferred upon old terms during episodes of massive translation - both in the modern era and the Abbasid era - it is fairly susceptible to another of Ruskin's complaints: misinterpreting the words of old texts thanks to their modern meanings.

Once a medical student at Cambridge told me in all seriousness that the Qur'ān anticipated modern science by centuries in mentioning the "atom" (فمن يعمل مثقال ذرة خيرا يره, "for he who does an atom's weight of good shall see it")! Of course, every modern educated Arab knows that a ذرة dharrah is an atom. But looking at a pre-modern dictionary, such as Lisān al-`Arab, gives a rather different picture: a dharrah then was a type of small red ant, a weight equivalent to 1/100 of a barley grain, or a mote of dust (as seen in sunbeams), not an elementary particle of which all matter is composed. In parts of Sudan the first of those meanings is still in regular use: dirr there means a type of ant. But elsewhere they all seem to have faded from away from popular speech.

If I were interested in an English word, I could easily look it up in the OED and find a complete history of its different meanings and the dates at which they were attested. But for Arabic no such dictionary exists; to figure out when and how dharrah came to mean "atom" in the modern sense, I would have to look through a bunch of pre-modern works, or find an article on the subject. It's a gap that would be well worth filling.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Why *h1 and *h2 were not valid onsets in late proto-Berber

I've been working on my hopefully-forthcoming book about Siwi and thinking more about Berber laryngeals (see also Phoenix's recent post), two tasks that intermesh rather handily. Now Siwi has a wide range of strategies for forming the intensive (ie, in Siwi, the realis imperfective) of verbs, not obviously related to one another. But it is usually possible to predict which will be used from the form of the root. Basically, to recap the relevant page of my thesis, ignoring the fəl verbs discussed in the previous post and some other synchronic irregularities (U=consonant or full vowel; either count as a unit of the root):

Prefix t-:
- to geminate-initial roots
- to roots with the mediopassive prefix ən-
- to vowel-initial roots
- to vowel-medial (CVC) roots
Geminate U2:
- when U1 and U2 are distinct consonants, and U2/U3 is final
Put -a- after consonantal U3, changing any previous full vowels to a:
- when the last two units are distinct consonants (unless geminate-U2 / prefix-t applies), or
- when U2 is a full vowel (in which case prefix-t also applies)
Suffix -u:
- to geminate-final roots

Can we further simplify these conditions? In particular, what do the rather disparate environments to which t- is prefixed have in common?

Well, Siwi, like most Berber languages, shows the so-called “mobile schwa” phenomenon – ie, the position of schwa is mostly predictable solely from the consonants and long vowels of the word. (Basically, you put a schwa between any two adjacent consonants followed by a consonant or word boundary, starting from the left cyclically.) This also means that the coda/onset status of a given consonant in a stem is predictable, and depends on the affixes – for example, the k is a coda in əktər “bring!”, but an onset in kətr-ax “I brought”. However, there are a few exceptions to this principle – clusters that cannot be broken up by schwa, or, equivalently, codas that do not become onsets. These include:
- geminates: geminates cannot be broken up by schwa, and the first element of a geminate is always a coda.
- mediopassive ən-: the cluster ən+C that it forms cannot be broken up by schwa, and the n is always a coda (except before the borrowed voiced pharyngeal ʕ.)

Full vowels are by definition not onsets (semivowels behave quite differently from full vowels in Siwi.) So we can reduce the first three conditions for t- to a single one: t- is used when the first element of the root is not an acceptable onset. The fourth condition seems to be separate.

The use of t-/tt- under two of three of the conditions we have unified is reconstructible for proto-Berber (mediopassive ən-, or at least its syllabic structure, is a borrowing from Arabic), so it would be reasonable to reconstruct the No-Onset condition for proto-Berber too. Geminate-initial roots were clearly already geminate-initial in late proto-Berber (although Prasse, probably correctly, reconstructs them as *w-initial for pre-proto-Berber.) However, vowel-initial roots come from at least two sources: roots with vowel length (pre-proto-Berber h?) and roots with a glottal stop. The distinction is preserved in Zenaga, and t- shows up there in both cases. And, as it happens, Zenaga only allows the glottal stop in coda position. So it seems probable that late proto-Berber too allowed the glottal stop only in coda position.

Saturday, April 02, 2011

In search of the missing radical: a piece of Berber historical morphology

Berber normally has no glottal stops (ء = ʔ) – in fact, Chafik suggested that this was why North Africa favours the Warsh reading of the Qur'an, in which most glottal stops are omitted. However, it turns out* proto-Berber did have glottal stops - and you can still see their footprints on the verbal system.

Berber languages normally have three basic aspect/mood forms:
  • the “aorist” (or “simple imperfect”), used mainly for hypothetical events (“eat!”, “I will eat”, “I would eat”...);
  • the “preterite” (or “simple perfect”), used mainly for past events conceived of as wholes (“I ate”, “I have eaten”);
  • the “intensive” (or “intensive imperfect”), used for events ongoing at the time being referred to, irrespective of tense (“I eat”, “I am eating”, “I was eating”, “keep eating!”)
Usually, you can predict the preterite and intensive from the aorist. For three-consonant roots – eg lmd “learn”, a widespread Phoenician loanword – this is how it works in Tuareg (Tahaggart):
  • Aorist: ǎlməd “learn!”
  • Preterite: (y)-əlmǎd “(he) learned” (change the vowel pattern)
  • Intensive: (i-)lammǎd “he is learning” (double the middle consonant)
Tuareg has kept a distinction between two short vowels, ǎ and ə; but most varieties have just merged the two, so there is no difference in three-consonant roots between the aorist and preterite. So in Siwi, for example, you get:
  • Aorist: əlməd “learn!”
  • Preterite: (y)-əlməd “(he) learned”
  • Intensive: (i)-ləmməd “he is learning”
(Students of Akkadian/Assyrian/Babylonian will be getting a sense of déjà vu now...)

But some verbs have two consonants rather than three. Looking at Siwi I noticed that, if the verb had two consonants and no long vowels, there seemed to be two possibilities for the intensive, not just one; contrast:
  • Aorist: fəl “leave!”
  • Preterite: (y)-əfla “(he) left”
  • Intensive: (i)-təffal “he is leaving”
  • Aorist: ləs “wear!”
  • Preterite: (y)-əlsa “(he) wore”
  • Intensive: (i)-ləss “he is wearing”
So why the split?

Well, looking at the intensive forms, you see that in fəl you double the first consonant, while for ləs you double the second one. If you wanted to try to relate these to three-consonant verbs, you might think of something like:
- fəl < *Xfl
- ləs < *lsX

But if you look at Siwi on its own, there seem to be a lot of problems with this idea: in particular, why would the preterite of fəl end in -a?

Looking wider provides some answers. It turns out that in Tuareg – like Kabyle, and Tashelhiyt, and Ghadamsi, and a few other varieties – these verbs are distinct in the preterite too, and they are distinguished in exactly the way you'd expect from that little piece of internal reconstruction:
  • Aorist: əfəl “leave!”; əǵən “kneel!”
  • Preterite: (y)-fǎl “(he) left”; (y)-ǵǎn “(it) knelt”
  • Intensive: (y)-ffal “he is leaving”; (y)-ǵǵan “it is kneeling”
  • Aorist: ǎls “wear!”; əsəl "hear!"
  • Preterite: (y)-lsa “(he) wore”; (y)-sla "he heard"
  • Intensive: (y)-lass “he is wearing”; (y)-sall "he is hearing"
It's just that in Siwi – and Mzabi, and Chaoui, and Tarifit, and all the other Zenati Berber languages – the preterites of these two verb classes are merged, so they both end in -a. So our internal reconstruction is looking good... but what consonant might have been lost?

Zenaga, the Berber language of Mauritania, gives us part of the answer. In Zenaga, they look like this:
  • Aorist: ägun “kneel!”
  • Preterite: (y)-ugän “(it) knelt”
  • Intensive: (y)-uggan / (yə)-ttugun “it is kneeling”
  • Aorist: ätyši “wear!”, ätyšaʔ-m “wear! (to a group)”
  • Preterite: (y)-ityša “(he) wore; ityšäʔ-n “they wore”
  • Intensive: (yi)-yässä “he is wearing”; yässäʔ-n “they are wearing”
Notice that glottal stop ʔ that shows up when you add a consonant. That isn't automatic in Zenaga: contrast y-ugrah “he heard”, ugrān “they heard”. So it looks as though the original conjugation of “wear” was something like:
  • Aorist: *ǎlsəʔ “wear!”
  • Preterite: *(y)-əlsǎʔ “(he) wore”
  • Intensive: *(yə)-lassǎʔ “he is wearing”
We can also see that the missing first consonant in verbs like fəl, if they had one, was not ʔ – as far as I know, no Berber language has preserved evidence of what it may have been. (The t showing up in Siwi is probably not original, but rather borrowed from the intensive of vowel-initial roots.)

But there's still a problem here: why is *-ǎʔ reflected differently in the intensive vs. the preterite? A full answer for that would require a look at reflexes of the glottal stop in general, not just in the verbal system. But in several Berber languages, in fact, it's reflected identically. Compare, from opposite ends of the Berber world:

Tashelhiyt (southern Morocco):
  • Aorist: ls “wear!”
  • Preterite: (i)-lsa “(he) wore”
  • Intensive: (i)-lssa “he is wearing”
Awjila (eastern Libya):
  • Aorist: əsəl “hear!”
  • Preterite: (yə)-sla “(he) heard”
  • Intensive: (i)-səlla “he is hearing”
Clearly, Tashelhiyt and Awjila are not likely to form a subgroup! So my tentative interpretation would be that the form with -a is regular, and the form without -a found in Siwi, and Tuareg, and Kabyle, and almost every other Berber language between southern Morocco and Awjila is analogical – the intensive is always formed from the aorist, and it must have felt wrong to have one that looks as though it's based on the preterite. I've been looking at the always problematic subgrouping of Berber lately, and this would have interesting implications for that – it would suggest that Kabyle is more closely related to Zenati than to Moroccan Atlas Berber, since they share this innovation. But in Berber a lot of innovations seem to have spread areally, so it's scarcely conclusive.

* (All but the last bit of this post is an introductory summary of work by Prasse, Kossmann, and Taine-Cheikh that I've recently been digesting. It offers an interesting small-scale parallel to the story of Saussure's laryngeals.)

Friday, April 01, 2011

Tunisian Berber and language shift

It is not that easy to find information on Tunisian Berber, so I was quite happy to come across this PhD thesis free online: Berber ethnicity and language shift in Tunisia, by Hamza Belgacem. The author, himself from Douiret, estimates that only about 60,000 Tunisians still speak Berber, and the number is dropping as their children grow up speaking Arabic. He calls the surviving varieties Douiri, Cheninnaoui, Djerbi and Matmati, and argues that they together form a single Tunisian Berber "dialect" on a par with Kabyle or Tashelhiyt. (However, he offers no opinion on whether the extinct variety of Sened belongs with the rest, and forms this opinion on the basis of comparison to Kabyle and Moroccan varieties, but not Tumzabt or Chaoui or other geographically closer varieties.) This Berber community of southern Tunisia represent the remnants of a mostly Arabised tribal confederation, the Ouerghemma, which controlled much of southern Tunisia and parts of what became northwestern Libya until the French conquest.

He paints an interesting picture of a small minority language under the impact of modernity. Traditionally, the language was preserved by a number of factors tying the community together and excluding outsiders. The women of each community would marry only within it - not just among the Ibadis, but within the Maliki villages as well (as formerly in Siwa.) Some testimonies suggest that land was not sold to outsiders (a claim I also heard about Berber-speaking villages around Bechar.) Such ties are being loosened by modernity, as people emigrate and marry out and as the national state has taken on a more active role in the community with compulsory education and mass media. On the other hand, modernity, in the form of international media, also exposes the young to pan-Berber, or at least pro-Berber, ideologies, counteracting the low value placed on it in the national context.

Berber, and more specifically village, identity seems to have been maintained, with emigrants to Tunis maintaining close ties with other emigrants from the same village. But in terms of language, the balance seems to have tipped against Berber throughout Tunisia: "Some children of five years old could not utter a coherent sentence in TuB... Hardly any Tunisian Berbers under 30 speak TuB fluently but they may be able to utter a few words or understand what is said in Berber... hardly anyone under 10 years of age uses or knows TuB except for a few words or expressions", although there reportedly remain "certain clans, where the whole population still speak TuB, including all the children." There are a couple of pithy quotes from interviewees expressing why this happened: "Our language is excellent but it does not put bread on the table", "Our children are reluctant to speak our language outside the home because the other children of Arabophones laugh at them." The author suggests that Berber may survive in Tunisia if attitudes towards Berber continue to grow more positive, but that strikes me as a bit optimistic given his observations - which adds to the urgency of producing a decent description of the language.

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Linguistic diversity in Libya

The Interim Transitional National Council of Libya has a website up now, at which you can watch representatives of various towns declare their allegiance to the revolution and/or transitional government (and, in at least two cases, explicitly say they don't want foreign intervention.) These statements, as one might expect given the official context, are essentially in Standard Arabic with few dialectal features (although the numbers tend to be pronounced fairly dialectally.) But the first statement, from Nalut in the Nafusa mountains of the west, has a surprise at the end: it turns out to be bilingual, with a Nafusi Berber summary given at the end (from 1:29 on), opening with Azul fellaken Ilibiyen, "Greetings, Libyans." A nicely-balanced gesture, that - strongly reaffirming national unity by pledging allegiance to a government that currently isn't even geographically contiguous with it, while also implicitly saying, in the face of years of Qaddafi's nonsense: we have our own language as well as Arabic, and we think it's appropriate for addressing the nation, not just for talking to each other. That balance - neither suppression of minority identities for the sake of unity, nor self-absorbed pursuit of minority rights while ignoring oppression affecting the whole country - strikes me as a good omen for Libya's future, if only they manage to end this war fast enough.

A very large majority of Libyans have Arabic as their mother tongue - in fact, Western Eastern Libya was described by the colonial anthropologist Evans-Pritchard as the most Arab place on earth outside Arabia itself. However, the country also has a noteworthy Berber-speaking minority (about 5%, if you dare to trust Ethnologue; it's not as though anyone's ever counted them in the past several decades.) Most speakers are concentrated in the northwest, where they (traditionally, for once) call themselves Imazighen: the port of Zuwara, along with many towns of the Nafusa mountains, such as Yefren and Nalut. All of that region - Arabic-speaking towns as well as Berber-speaking ones - is currently reported to be free of Qaddafi; language, thankfully, does not appear to be acting as a dividing factor there. A quite distinctive Berber language is spoken in the desert oasis of Ghadames on the Algerian border. There is a Tuareg community in the southwest, around Ghat and Ubari. The isolated Berber-speaking communities of Awjila in the southeast and Sokna near the middle are shifting to Arabic (this process is almost complete in Sokna) - their languages are of extreme historical interest and are very inadequately documented. Other longstanding linguistic minorities (the Muslim Greeks of Sosa, the Teda of the far south, etc.) are much smaller, numbering in perhaps thousands each. But for decades, Libya has been practically terra incognita for descriptive linguistic research: even work on its Arabic dialects has been scarce, let alone on politically sensitive minority languages. When (inshallah) the Libyans establish a stable and free state, it would be well worth documenting its linguistic diversity, both for better interpreting North African history and for informing Libyan educational policy.

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

From hatred to singing in two easy steps

In Kabyle, the word for "sing" is šnu. No other Berber language is known to have a similar word for sing (see Nait-Zerrad, s.v. CN), and both the verbal noun and its plural are formed on an Arabic pattern (ššna, pl. ššnawi); so one is almost forced to look to Arabic for its origins. But ask the average Arabic-speaker in modern-day Algeria, and they'll tell you they've never heard any such word.

In Classical Arabic, there is a fairly rare verb šani'a شنئ, meaning "to hate", probably best-known from the third verse of Surat al-Kawthar: 'inna šāni'aka huwa l-'abtar "For he who hateth thee, he will be cut off (from Future Hope)". (Cognate words are found elsewhere in Semitic, for example Hebrew śānē', Syriac snā "hate".) This has barely survived in spoken Arabic, but (according to de Prémare) the causative šənnā is still used in Tangier (Morocco), meaning "to taunt someone by showing him something he wants that you won't give him."

Phonetically, šani'a is a perfect match for šnu (the glottal stop/hamza becomes y in colloquials, and Arabic final-y verbs normally end up in Kabyle as final-u, for reasons I won't go into) - but semantically, surely this is absurd?

So I would have thought, until, idly browsing through a glossary of the rather conservative Bedouin Arabic dialect of the Nefzaoua area in southern Tunisia (Boris 1951), I found the following entry:
شنى šnệ... inacc. yẹ́šni...; noms d'act. šänyân et šạ́ni: 1) "critiquer en vers, faire la satire"... 2) "détester".

شنى šnē... impf. yašnī...; verbal nouns šanyān and šany: 1) to criticise in verse, to satirise... 2) to hate
"Hate" to "criticise in verse" is a credible change, and so is "criticise in verse" to "sing". Suddenly, a connection that looked impossible becomes almost obvious.

In this case, as in many others, Kabyle has preserved an Arabic word that almost every Arabic dialect in North Africa has lost - but to make sense of the connection you have to look at a wide range of Arabic dialects, not just checking Classical Arabic and stopping there. The converse also applies: when looking into Berber loans into an Arabic dialect, it's not enough to look just at the Berber spoken next door. People move around, and words that were familiar in one generation may be forgotten in the next one.

Of course, if the Nefzaoua data weren't available, there's no way you could accept a comparison like this - and, if several thousand years had passed since the word was borrowed, instead of less than 1500, that intermediate step probably would not have survived. In other words, semantic change can rather easily erase connections beyond any reasonable hope of retrieval. This is one of the main difficulties in long-range historical linguistics - the further back you go, the more cases like this.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Linguistic Survey of India recordings

The Digital South Asia Library at Chicago have just put online for the first time the gramophone recordings originally intended to supplement the Linguistic Survey of India, collected 1913-1929. Burma is also included. If you are interested in almost any South Asian language, this cannot be passed up: Gramophone Recordings from the Linguistic Survey of India. It brings back memories of my time at the Rosetta Project...

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Two poems of the Libyan Revolution

A poem from western Libya in honour of the new revolution - in Berber, I think the Zuwara dialect - that sums it up nicely:
Taẓiḍərt af akud
D asirm g timalt n agdud
D xa yəṛwa ala yəffud!

Patience for the time
And hope for the future of the people
And he who is thirsty shall drink his fill!
(Note some linguistically interesting features: the use of d "and" to link clauses rather than noun phrases is a calque of Arabic wa- - in other Berber languages d normally only links noun phrases; and the future prefix xa derives from a shortening of yə-xsa "he wants", just as English "will" comes from a full verb that meant "to want".)

Poking around on YouTube reveals a fair number of very angry Arab poets' responses to Qaddafi, some from as far afield as Kuwait, but it took some looking for me to find one in Libyan dialect (contrast it to Saif's speech yesterday); here it is, "Poem for the free men of Libya:
ينصر الله الشعب في كل أوطانه
ويسخط الظالم و جميع عوانه
يكفي سنين تحت الظلام حزانا
اليوم نسقوكم من كاس المرار اللي زمان سقانا
زال الظلام وعدى اليوم زمانا

yənṣəṛ əḷḷāh əššaʕb f kəll 'awṭānah
u yasxaṭ əđ̣đ̣āləm u žmīʕ ʕwānah
yəkfī snīn taħt əđ̣đ̣ḷām ħazānā
əlyōm nəsgūkam mən kās əlmṛāṛ əlli zmān səgānā
zāl əđ̣đ̣aḷām u ʕaddā lyōm zmānā

God grant the people victory in all their lands
And cursed be the oppressor and all his helping hands...
Enough years in the dark have we already suffered thus
Now we serve you the cup of gall that you used to serve us
The darkness now has ended and our time has come at last
(Linguistic notes: the 2nd person masculine plural [kʌm] (and 3mpl [hʌm]) are characteristic - they were one of the features that struck me most in the speech of Western Desert Bedouins. The [g] for Classical /q/ is of course a pan-Arab feature of Bedouin dialects. I took some minor liberties with the translation to get it to rhyme.)

Monday, February 21, 2011

Gaddafi Jr's speech

In his rather desperate speech today, Saif Al Islam Gaddafi opened with a sociolinguistically very interesting statement:

əlyōm saatakallam maʕākum... bidūn waraqa maktūba, 'aw xiṭāb maktūb. 'aw natakallam maʕakum bi... luɣa ħattā ʕarabiyya fuṣħa. əlyōm saatakallam maʕakum bilahža lībiyya. wa-sa'uxāṭibkum mubāšaratan, ka-fard min 'afrād hāða ššaʕb əllībi. wa-sa'akūn irtižāliyyan fī kalimatī. wa-ħattā l'afkār wa-nniqāṭ ɣeyr mujahhaza u-muʕadda musbaqan. liʔanna hāðā ħadīθ min alqalb wa-lʕaql.(YouTube - first minute; conspicuously dialectal bits bolded)

Today I will speak with you... without a written paper, or a written speech. (N)or even speak to you in the Classical (fuṣħā) Arabic language. Today I will speak with you in Libyan dialect, and address you directly, as an individual member of this Libyan people. And I will speak extempore. Even the ideas and the points are not prepared in advance. Because this is a speech from the heart and the mind.

Now the explicit association between dialect, extempore speech, and speaking as "one of us" is fairly obvious, if interesting. But the odd thing is that this paragraph, like the rest of the speech, isn't very dialectal at all; it seems far closer to Standard Arabic than to any dialect. Some dialectal features are present, but a lot of unambiguously Classical constructions are used; even something as basic as the first person singular oscillates between Libyan n- and Classical 'a-. What it looks more like is some sort of intermediate ground between dialect and standard - or, if you prefer, like the highest level of Arabic that he is capable of extemporising in at short notice.

Readers may recall that Ben Ali tried the same gambit in his last speech (though Mubarak never resorted to it.) An omen? Let's hope so.

Monday, February 14, 2011

What it's like learning Darja

What little spare time I have left over these days is mostly dedicated to figuring out the fantastic things going on in the Arab world. Two months ago I would have said it was impossible that two dictators could be brought down by peaceful popular uprisings in such a short time - now anything seems possible. Siwa, by the way, is fine - they seem to have remained quiet the whole time under their shaykhs' cautious leadership (although an oasis nearer the Nile Valley, Kharga, suffered brutally when they tried to march.) So don't expect too many postings unless I come up with a new linguistic angle on the political situation...

However, one thing that's not changing in the Arab world is diglossia - so, to tide you over, here's a nice personal account of Moroccans' seemingly schizophrenic attitudes towards their own language that I came across the other day: Back in the Day.... Most of it carries over seamlessly to Algeria.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Language use in Tunisian politics

Unless you've been stuck on an iceberg in the Antarctic, you probably know that the Tunisian people have earned themselves imperishable honour, no matter what happens next, by kicking out their thieving, torturing control freak of an ex-president Ben Ali. Mark Liberman (via LH) has already commented on his unusual choice of dialect in his last speech. Fortunately, he's yesterday's news, so I'm going to comment instead on the language being used by the newly significant figures jockeying for power. Due warning: the sociolinguistics of politics is not my specialty, and I don't have much prior experience of specifically Tunisian language use, so read on at your peril and feel free to correct me if you have a better idea. For non-Arabic speakers, the key point to remember is that in any one country Arabic has at least two basic levels - formal Fusha and dialectal Darja - which are different enough grammatically and lexically to be considered separate languages, but which can be combined in appropriate circumstances.

The Prime Minister is Mohamed Ghannouchi. He first came to prominence on Saturday when he briefly declared himself acting President. This speech was entirely in Fusha - no efforts to add a personal touch here, simply officialese. The only dialectal features I notice are the pronunciation of jīm as ž, and of some short low vowels as ə. The delivery, however, is notably non-fluent - he's reading it slowly from a paper, pausing sometimes every three or four words, and he makes a mistake in case marking ('ad`ū kāffati 'abnā'i tūnəs "I call upon all the sons of Tunisia" - should have been kāffata.) Today, as Prime Minister he announced the new cabinet; his speech is a bit less halting (although still halting enough that you get several elision failures, like li al-ħayāti l`āmmah for lilħayāti l`āmmah), but as before it is entirely in Fusha and is being read out from a paper. The names, however, are pronounced in Darja, as they would be in conversation. Reminiscent of Chadli Bendjedid, this looks like the delivery of a politician who feels the need to speak Fusha for symbolic reasons but isn't actually fluent enough in it to do so impromptu - he was born in 1941, when Tunisia's educational system still operated largely in French. More tellingly, his delivery betrays the fact that he has never had the need to master rhetoric or appeal to a mass audience.

Moncef Marzouki, a secular leftist opposition figure calling for the old ruling party to get out, similarly sticks to Fusha throughout a recent interview with Aljazeera, avoiding dialect forms with remarkable persistence. His language use nonetheless contrasts strikingly with Mr. Ghannouchi's: Mr. Marzouki speaks quickly and fluently off the cuff, without consulting any visible notes, and without any conspicuous errors in delivery. Yet Mr. Marzouki is only 4 years younger than Mr. Ghannouchi, and, having studied medicine, undoubtedly did his university in French; has he simply been more motivated to learn to speak to a wide audience? The choice of consistent Fusha seems to reflect Aljazeera's pan-Arab audience; in an older video, aimed more at a Tunisian audience, he again speaks primarily in Fusha, but makes a number of shifts into Darja, for example evoking immediate reactions (eg, with Darja underlined: lākin anā lammā wužəht bihād əṭṭalab qult: āš nənžəm nḍīf 'anā? "But me, when I was faced with this request, I thought: "What can I add?") or quoting proverbs (eg sāl əlmužaṛṛab ma tsālš əṭṭbīb "Ask a person with experience, not a doctor") The effect, to me, is reminiscent of a classroom lecture.

The regime's favourite bogeyman for many years, the Islamist leader Rachid El Ghannouchi, has announced plans to return shortly, though not to run for office. In his speech of 2 days ago, he uses Fusha consistently and fluently, with an intonation reminiscent of a sermon, and shows only sporadic dialectal phonetic features (eg qámə` for qam` "repression"). Yet he shifts into Darja briefly (at about 4:50): after warning security forces that those who kill innocents will be damned to Hell, in the maximally formal language of a quotation from the Qur'an (wa-may͂ yaqtul mu'minan muta`ammidan, fa-žazā'uhu žahannamu xālidan fīhā, wa-ġaḍiba ḷḷāhu `alayhi wa-la`anahu wa-'a`adda lahu `ađāban 'alīmā "Whoso slayeth a believer of set purpose, his reward is hell for ever. Allah is wroth against him and He hath cursed him and prepared for him an awful doom"*), he suddenly caps it with a brief colloquial appeal to their common sense: əṭṭāġiya muš məš isədd a`līk "the tyrant isn't gonna save you". I can't hear any obvious traces of his southern origin (no g replacing q, for example), but I don't know Tunisian dialects well enough to spot subtler indications.

As for the protesters? Well, listen for yourself to one of the latest. Some slogans are definitely dialectal: Tūnəs, Tūnəs, ħəṛṛa ħəṛṛa, wa-t-tažammu` `ala baṛṛa "Tunisia free, RCD out!" Others are purely Fusha (though minus inconvenient case endings, as is common in less formal Fusha): yā tažammu` yā žabān, ša`b tūnəs lā yuhān "RCD you cowards: The people of Tunisia will not be belittled!"** Not hearing anything in French though, which is interesting given its prominent position in the Tunisian sociolinguistic environment: I suspect French would (rightly) be viewed as inappropriate for an appeal to the people of the nation, no matter how many people may speak it as a second language, whereas Fusha or Darja are equally suitable for demonstrations.

*: Stupid mistake corrected, and Pickthal translation of 4:93 substituted. It was getting late when I wrote that.
**: Looks like I misheard this one too! Corrected following Bilel's comments below. I guess transcribing YouTube videos is a risky business.

Saturday, January 08, 2011

Berber words in Roman times, and Ghomara Berber material

A couple of goodies for readers interested in North Africa / contact / the classical Mediterranean (if you fall into the first category, incidentally, you should also be following the major recent events in Algeria and Tunisia.):

Jamal El Hannouche, having finished his MA at Leiden, has recently put up Ghomara Berber: A Brief Grammatical Survey and Arabic Influence in Ghomara Berber. These are important reading for Berber philologists: despite its location in northern Morocco near the Rif, Ghomara Berber is not at all closely related to Tarifit, and shows some unusual features such as a feminine plural in -an. (The name of nearby Tétouan thus represents Ghomara Tiṭṭiwan, not Tiṭṭawin as other Berber-speakers might assume.) However, they are of even greater interest for contact phenomena: Ghomara Berber is one of very few languages (along with Agia Varvara Romani) to borrow fully conjugated verbs, from Arabic in this case. The only previous work on Ghomara Berber was a brief article in 1929 (and the Ethnologue has for some time been spreading the misconception that it is extinct); this is the first grammatical sketch of the language.

Carles Múrcia has recently completed his PhD at Barcelona, and put it up online: La llengua amaziga a l’antiguitat a partir de les fonts gregues i llatines. I'm afraid it's in Catalan, but if you can read French or Spanish you shouldn't have much difficulty (although it would be nice if he had translated more of the Greek quotations.) So far I've read the parts about Egypt and Cyrenaica. For Egypt, he points out there is no linguistic evidence that the Lebu / Libyans or Meshwesh, or any of the other Western Desert tribes recorded before the Mazices of the Byzantine era, spoke Berber, nor even that Siwa spoke Berber before the Byzantine era. This fits with my own observations that Siwi is simply too much like Western Libyan Berber to be the survival of an ancient Berber language of the Western Desert - although the activists who urge Imazighen to date their calendar from the "Amazigh" conquest of Egypt by the Libyans may not be happy with this cautious conclusion! For Cyrenaica, on the other hand, he shows that a number of words recorded in classical sources have convincing Berber etymologies, suggesting that Awjila may represent the continuation of a very early Berber-speaking population.

Interestingly, the words with Berber etymologies generally lack the characteristic Berber nominal prefix a-/ta-, which must still have been a separable word at that stage. For example, one Berber root that brought back memories of the Sahara is gelela, recorded by Cassius Felix as "coloquintidis interioris carnis" - the flesh of the inside of the colocynth, a bitter melon that grows wild in the Sahara and is commonly fed to goats. This corresponds to modern Tuareg tagăllăt, and to Kwarandzyey tsigərrəts, both meaning "colocynth" - but in those forms, the feminine prefix ta- (or ti-) has been added.