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.