Monday, April 20, 2015

Archaic and innovative Islamic prayer names around the Sahara, finally out

Just a quick alert: my article about Islamic prayer time names that I discussed here almost two years ago (post) is finally out! If your institution has a subscription, you can view it at the following link:
Archaic and innovative Islamic prayer names around the Sahara
Or you could email to ask me for a copy.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Dreams and tales in Siwa and Ouargla

Valentina Schiattarella, who recently finished her PhD thesis on some aspects of Siwi grammar, has gathered the first serious collection of Siwi folk tales recorded in Siwi (forthcoming from Köppe some time soon). Like most languages, Siwi has opening and closing formulae to mark the beginning and end of a tale. The commonest closing formula in the stories she's recorded seems to be:
ħattuta ħattuta qaṣṣaṛ ʕṃəṛha, akəṃṃus n xer i ənšni, akəṃṃus n šaṛ i ntnən
Hattuta hattuta its span has shortened[Ar], bundle of good for us, bundle of bad for them
The first part of this is in Arabic, and is not too different from what you might hear elsewhere in Egypt: ħattuta ħattuta is a corruption of حدوتة ħadduta, Egyptian Arabic for "story". (For similar formulae in Palestinian tales, such as tūtū tūtū faraɣat il-ħaddūtu, see Sirhan 2014.) The second part is in Berber, and hence presumably has an older history within Siwi; it is precisely paralleled in an opening formula used at Ouargla (Algeria):
Ṛəbbi yəttamən f lxiṛ ụhụ f ššəṛṛ, lxiṛ nn-iw, ššəṛṛ nn-əs, ini yiwi-tən gaɛ
God believes(?) in good not in bad; the good for me, the bad for him, or may He take them both
Basset (1920:107) places this formula in a wider context; throughout the Berber world, opening or closing formulae commonly take the form of "propitiatory formulae or formulae for the expulsion of evil", which he takes to indicate that the act of storytelling must have been viewed as potentially dangerous. Alongside Ouargla, he cites Kabyle examples blessing the group and cursing the jackal, and Shilha ones wishing the teller the meat and the others the tripes. The Siwi formula, however, is far closer to the Ouargla one than to anything else Basset mentions. And whereas the Kabyle formula invokes an animal whose importance in Berber folklore and mythology is obvious, and the Shilha one remians close to everyday life, all the key words of the Ouargli and Siwi formulae are specifically Arabic and religious (Rabbī "my Lord", khayr "good", sharr "bad"). This suggests that, while the idea may be Berber, the formulation itself might be taken from Arabic.

As it happens, the early Islamic period furnishes us with just such a formula in Arabic, in a similar but curiously different context. The still widely used Interpretation of Dreams, attributed to Ibn Sirin, explains in its introduction that a dream interpreter who does not want to reveal his interpretation to his client should instead tell him the following: "May good be for you and bad be for your enemies; may you receive good and avoid bad" (خير لك وشر لأعدائك، خير تؤتاه وشر تتوقاه), or, if the interpretation concerns the interpreter too: "May the good be for us and the bad be for our enemies (etc.)" This expression is also found in an unmistakeably related context in some dubious hadiths reporting Umar ibn al-Khattab as saying "Learn to read the Qur'an in Arabic, and the interpretation of dreams, and say: May good (khayr) be for us and bad (sharr) for our enemy", and: "If one sees a vision and recounts it to one's brother, let him say: May good be for us and bad for our enemy".

The obvious interpretation is that, at some point in the early history of these Saharan oases, the act of telling tales was locally assimilated to the act of recounting dreams, allowing the Arabic formula for the latter to be adopted for the former. It would be interesting to know why this happened; was the idea that a tale, no less than a dream, somehow contained cryptic clues about the future? Or did Saharan Berbers in late antiquity make a habit of recounting dreams to one another on winter evenings, as well as folktales? Unfortunately, we'll probably never know for sure, but it can be interesting to speculate...

Saturday, April 04, 2015

Improving language?

In a natural segue from Ibn Khaldun, I've been reading Ernest Gellner - specifically, Words and Things, his attack on Linguistic Philosophy (that is, on Wittgenstein and his followers at Oxford). As he presents it, Linguistic Philosophy amounted to, essentially, the descriptive study of lexicography and semantics. Since meaning is defined by usage, any statement that would be accepted as true in ordinary language is ipso facto true, and any philosophical argument suggesting otherwise can only be the result of some semantic misunderstanding; a philosopher's only legitimate goal is to figure out how words are used in ordinary language to prevent such misunderstandings. The key weak point of this view, for Gellner, is its underlying assumption that ordinary language is unimprovable:
To "observe how we use words" is to make statements, in ordinary language, about the role, function, effects, and context of expressions. But in doing this, the concepts and presuppositions of that ordinary language are taken for granted and insinuated as the only possible view [...] It is true that certain things may be said in favour of ordinary language. It would not be in use, and it would not have survived were it not wholly without merit. But this argument, as in politics where it is often used to buttress conservatism, proves fairly little. Very silly and undesirable things often survive, and neither society nor language is such a tightly integrated whole as would disastrously suffer from alteration of some one part. (pp. 195-197)
For Gellner, contra Wittgenstein, ordinary language can be improved upon by the very activity of reflecting on it, leaving a positive role for philosophy after all:
[T]here are many language games which become unworkable when properly understood: where self-consciousness not merely does not "leave everything as it is" but simply necessitates change. Many "conceptual systems", in primitive societies and in advanced ones, contain confusions and absurdities which are essential for their functioning. To lay them bare is to make such a framework unworkable. (p. 206)
The notion of improving language (my paraphrase) would need a lot more working out than I see in this book, but presumably means something like "make the concepts and presuppositions underlying language use more internally coherent and in better accord with non-linguistic experience."

Such a standard would not necessarily imply that one language can be superior to another. For one thing, while such concepts and presuppositions certainly play a role in language use, they don't seem to be critical to the definition of a language; you can change them and leave the language sufficiently intact to be mostly understood by speakers who have retained the old ones. A single language has room for many different kinds of language use.

However, it would suggest a potentially interesting alternative to a purely descriptive approach to linguistics. If Linguistic Philosophy was the effort to identify ways in which attention to ordinary native speakers' usage might correct misunderstandings embedded in philosophical thought, would Philosophical Linguistics be the effort to identify ways in which attention to philosophical thought might correct misunderstandings embedded in ordinary native speakers' usage?