Monday, January 16, 2012

Genetic and linguistic perspectives on Afroasiatic

Via GNXP, I hear there's been a new study on North African genetics: Genomic Ancestry of North Africans Supports Back-to-Africa Migrations. It provides an interesting cross-check on linguistic hypotheses.

In brief, the story these geneticists propose is: the main ancestors of modern North Africans, in particular Berbers, migrated into North Africa at least 12,000 and perhaps as much as 40,000 years ago; this "Maghrebi" component is close to Western Eurasian populations, and is dominant in most of their Moroccan and Algerian samples (and prominent in Libya). Arabs migrated in more recently starting 1,400 years ago, and Near Eastern influence is prominent throughout, especially in Libya, and dominant in Egypt. The Sub-Saharan African component seems to have arrived even later (~1,200 years ago in southern Morocco) and thus probably reflects the trans-Saharan slave trade; in Morocco it looks West African, while in Egypt it appears more diverse. Some European admixture is visible in Algeria and northern Morocco as well, but its nature is not clear. The data set is a bit small: a better coverage of Sahelian populations would be highly desirable, as would more Near Eastern populations, and one wonders where the ancient Egyptians fit in. However, the overall picture seems reasonable.

The more recent stages fit trivially with the detailed linguistic and historical data available (see my earlier post on linguistic traces of sub-Saharan immigration into North Africa), but the genetic divergence between Maghrebis and western Eurasian populations takes us into a realm where both fields offer much less certainty. Linguistically, we know that Berber, Semitic, and Egyptian are all distantly related to one another (and to Chadic and Cushitic, though that doesn't show up in the genetic data here); but we don't know when they split apart. There is no generally agreed upon method for dating linguistic divergences, and Swadesh's original "radioactive decay" glottochronological formula has proved too poor an approximation to be relied upon. However, a much-modified glottochronological formula was more recently proposed by Sergei Starostin in an attempt to fit a curve of attested data points. As it happens, two of his followers, George Starostin and Alexander Militarev, have ventured to offer estimates for Afroasiatic; for the split between Semitic and Berber, they respectively estimate 9,700 or 11,000 years ago. This seems strikingly close to the lower limit of the geneticists' estimate here. But even if this estimate is rejected, if the divergence date is anywhere near what the genetics is suggesting, then we have to conclude that genetic relationships older than 10,000 years can be discerned, contrary to some claims in the literature.

There is a way around this: one could propose a pre-Phoenician immigration that changed the language but had relatively little impact on the gene pool. In fact, such an event may have to be postulated for Afroasiatic's history in at least some areas anyway: speakers of one Chadic language are represented in this paper - Hausa - and their genes look nothing like North Africans or Near Easterners. However, it hardly seems like a parsimonious hypothesis in this case, given the split dates suggested. So... is this a corroboration of Starostin's method, or just a lucky guess?

Monday, January 09, 2012

Do you speak Tashelhit?

If you speak Tashelhit (or, indeed, another Berber language) and feel like helping me test a hypothesis, I would really appreciate it if you can send me a translation of these two slightly inane short stories (preferably by email). I'll be happy to explain later...

Abdallah had two sons, Brahim and Cherif. Brahim told Cherif: “I can run faster than you can.” Cherif told Brahim: “Let's have a race.” Brahim said: “All right.” They raced 100 metres. Cherif won. Cherif said: “You thought you could run faster than I can?” Brahim got angry. He told his father Abdallah: “Cherif is bad, he went running instead of doing his homework.” His father laughed and told Brahim: “Who was running with him?”

Khaled and Youcef were friends; they lived in a village. Khaled went on a long trip to the city with his son. A few days later Youcef went to the doctor, and the doctor told him: You need a medicine called such-and-such.” So Youcef called Khaled and asked him: “While you're in the city, can you get me this medicine?” Khaled was busy, so he told his son to find the medicine. His son went to the pharmacy; he said they didn't have it, but they might have it in another city nearby. So he went there and got the medicine. Then he came back and gave it to his father. When they got back his father gave it to Y.

Wednesday, January 04, 2012

Multilayered meanings in Dellys

In my hometown, the small port of Dellys in north-central Algeria (and probably elsewhere for all I know), older women traditionally throw water after a family member who is departing for a long voyage. When I asked my oldest aunt (who speaks no language but Arabic) about this recently, she said it was to bring them safety – Arabic 'amān – on the road. The Berber word for “water” is, precisely, aman. The action reveals itself as originally a pun rather than a mere superstition – but one that only makes sense in the light of both languages at once, not Arabic or Berber alone. A useful case to bear in mind in trying to understand North African culture...

When Emir Abdelkader came to Dellys in 1840 and inquired about its defences against the French (who would occupy it four years later), he was allegedly told that the town places its trust in its saints: Sidi Abdelkader by sea, Sidi Soussan by land. In the account of Bennaamane (2011:61, citing Daumas and Fabar 1847:197), Emir Abdelkader reacted in a very modern way: he got angry at their superstition and pointed out that Algiers had not been saved by its "patron saint" Sidi Abderrahmane. But somewhere along the transmission of this account, a bit of metonymy has been misunderstood. The tomb of the supposed saint Sidi Abdelkader was located at the tip of a 700-metre-long peninsula next to the town, from which you can see any incoming ship for at least 20 km (map). That of Sidi Soussan was located at the top of the hill on whose side Dellys stands, and was such an obvious location for defenses that the French turned it into a blockhaus soon after. The speaker was using religious language, but his trust was as much in the scouts posted there as in the saints buried there.

Dellys (dəlləs, medieval Tadallas), owes its name to a common plant used in net-making and thatching (Ampelodesmos mauretanicus), locally called dalis (better known in Algeria as dis.) The name is not attested before the 11th century, and does not resemble its earlier Latin name (Rusuccurium, from Phoenician rus “head, cape”.) However, Murcía (2011) points out that the plant name is a good deal more ancient: a 5th-century work, Ars sancti Augustini pro fratrum mediocritate breviata, states that non-Latin regional words are barbarous, ut si quis dicat in latino sermone dellas pro carice, quod utique punicum est (“like if someone says in Latin dellas, which is undoubtedly Punic, in place of carex (sedge)”). Murcía reasonably takes the word to be Berber rather than Punic in origin: as he points out, forms similar to adlis for this plant are found all across northern Berber. But as Bennaamane (2011:22) points out, there is a comparable classical Arabic form in Lisān al-`Arabdalas “the remains of plants and vegetables; land that bears plants after having been barren; plant that leafs after late summer” – so this could be an old Semitic loan into Berber too; more extensive comparative work is called for.

بن نعمان، اسماعيل. 2011. مدينة دلس (تدلس) : دراسة تاريخية وأثرية خلال العهد الإسلامي. تيزي وزو: دار الأمل للطباغة والنشر والتوزيع.
Daumas, M. et M. Fabar. 1847. La Grande Kabylie : études historiques. Paris: Hachette.
Murcía, Carles. 2011. Que sait-on de la langue des Maures? Distribution géographique et situation sociolinguistique des langues en Afrique Proconsulaire. In C. Ruiz Darasse et E. R. Luján (éd.) Contacts linguistiques dans l’Occident méditerranéen antique. Madrid: Collection de la Casa de Velázquez (126), pp. 103-126.