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.