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!