Friday, December 14, 2012

The subclassification of Songhay and its historical implications

Just about two years after its acceptance, my article The subclassification of Songhay and its historical implications has finally appeared, in Journal of African Languages and Linguistics 33:2. (If you don't have access to this journal, you can contact me for offprints.) The linguistic history of Songhay is not well-understood; in particular, although much ink has been spilled in speculation about its possible distant relationships, very little has been done to understand its internal classification and what that tells us about its recent history. This paper is an attempt to get to grips with the latter. The abstract is as follows:
This paper seeks to establish the first cladistic subgrouping of Songhay explicitly based on shared arbitrary innovations, a prerequisite both for distinguishing recent loans from valid extra-Songhay comparanda and for determining how Songhay spread. The results indicate that the Northern Songhay languages of the Sahara form a valid subfamily, even though no known historical records link Tabelbala to the others, and that Northern Songhay and Western Songhay (spoken around Timbuktu and Djenné) together form a valid subfamily, Northwestern Songhay. The speakers of Proto-Northern Songhay practised cultivation and permanent architecture, but were unfamiliar with date palms. Proto-Northwestern Songhay was already in contact with Berber and probably (perhaps indirectly) with Arabic, and was spoken along the Niger River. Proto-Songhay itself appears likely to have been in contact with Gur languages, confirming its relatively southerly location. This result is compatible with two scenarios for the northerly spread of Songhay. On Hypothesis A, Northern Songhay spread out from an oasis north-east of Gao, probably Tadmakkat or Takedda, and Northwestern Songhay had been spoken in areas west of Gao which now speak Eastern Songhay. On Hypothesis B, Northern Songhay spread out from the Timbuktu region, and Western Songhay derives from heavy “de-creolising” influence by Eastern Songhay on an originally Northern Songhay language. To choose between these hypotheses, further fieldwork will be required.
Actually, since writing that I've put together another paper that suggests a more specific explanation for the presence of Northern Songhay in Tabelbala – but that's still under review...

Nightmares in the desert

Sleep paralysis, more colourfully known as "old hag's syndrome", is a phenomenon that seems to have left traces in the folklore of just about every culture around the world; but it also seems to be commoner in some areas than others. In particular, while rare to the point of unfamiliarity in Britain or in my Algerian hometown of Dellys, it seems to be familiar to almost everybody in Tabelbala (and, similarly, within the US, it seems to be commoner among African-Americans than whites). The following Kwarandzyey text explains how it is experienced there, and as such might be of some medical interest:
ah, tsaddərts ndza askundzan ləxla aɣudzi. ndza aggwạ niš nn axnuq ka, e! asbạ uɣ bsəlləkni kʷəll, ləxla aɣudzi. nəmgwạ ɣaṛ nəmtqaqa. bəɣ sabmmə̣w niši. nəbʕəyyəṭ, nbəẓẓəgga ndza nən žžəhd... wara affu asmmə̣w niši ni ɣar nn haya si. nən kudzi, amgạ ttsən. attsən amgwạbzda ɣaṛ ndza bəssyas... nəbʕəyyəṭ, nəbẓəgga; wara affu issabmmə̣w niši. uɣu ibtsas tsaddərt. abgwạ niš adaɣ ka nn axnuq ka, amgwạ niši nən kəmbi ka ndza an tsiyu, amkạnika mʕad - ʕad nəmmiħəmda ṛəb si, həlla ʕad nəmfạktsi. xəd nəffạktsi nəmdza ufff! itsa adri.
Oh, sleep paralysis, if it gets hold of you, it's a terror. If it sits on you at your throat, he! there's no one to save you, it's a terror. You start just squawking. Nobody hears you. You're shouting, you're screaming with all your might... no one hears you, you're just on your own. Your blood runs slow. It's slow, it starts moving only slowly... You shout, you scream; no one hears you. This, they call "taddert". It sits on you here, at your throat, it sits on your hands with its feet, it hits at you until - once you praise God, only then do you wake up. When you wake up, you go "Phew!" It's gone.

Particularly if you speak Berber or Arabic, this text should pose an interesting challenge: how many words can you recognise? How much of it can you gloss?

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

Les déictiques en berbère oriental

Thanks to some filming at a recent conference, you can now listen to me butcher the French language while discussing the demonstrative systems of eastern Berber, in particular Siwi: Les déictiques en berbère oriental. It's not just Berber studies, although it has a good deal of Berber data. You see, it turns out that Siwi, like Qur'anic Arabic, has a typologically unusual feature called addressee agreement; so I attempt here to place this phenomenon within a wider typology of allocutivity, a phenomenon found in languages like Basque and Maithili too.