Friday, May 22, 2015

Old Arabic in Greek letters, in 3rd/4th century Jordan

An article published this year (Al-Jallad and Al-Manaser 2015) reveals the oldest known fully vocalised Arabic inscription by far - written in Greek letters in northeastern Jordan, probably in the 3rd or 4th century AD. Here it is: New Epigraphica from Jordan I: a pre-Islamic Arabic inscription in Greek letters and a Greek inscription from north-eastern Jordan. The inscription's author describes himself as "al-'Idāmī" - probably to be interpreted as "the Edomite" - a nisba featuring the definite article al-, unique within Semitic to Arabic.

There are a fair number of Arabic names transcribed in Greek at this period in various sources, but this seems to be the only known attempt to write Arabic text in Greek letters until much later. Most contemporary Arabic inscriptions were instead written in the Safaitic script, which does not indicate vowels. A text like this thus enables us to see much more clearly how the Arabic of the nomads of 3rd/4th century Jordan was pronounced. It confirms two crucial points. In Arabic, case is usually indicated only by final vowel choice; in this inscription, accusative case (-a) is clearly marked, but the Classical nominative and genitive (-u, -i) are not transcribed, suggesting that this dialect had dropped final short high vowels and thus developed a case system like that of Geez. Also reminiscent of Geez is the fact that intervocalic semivowels elided in Classical Arabic were unambiguously pronounced - thus 'atawa rather than 'atā for "he came". There may well be more material like this out there in the deserts on the Syrian-Jordanian border; let's hope research on the Syrian side becomes possible again soon...

Incidentally, next week I'll be at Bucharest for AIDA - if you're there, come to my talk on Wednesday!

Sunday, May 10, 2015

How to remember numerals better

In all the debate around "Whorfian" effects of language on cognition, one relatively well-known case has received oddly little attention among linguists, despite being widely discussed by psychologists and popularised by Malcolm Gladwell: the effect of word length on short-term memory (Baddeley et al. 1975). Basically, all other things being equal, it's easier to remember a sequence of short words than a sequence of long words. This suggests that our short-term memory for words (what psychologists confusingly call phonological memory) has a capacity limited by length - specifically, the amount that can be pronounced in about 2 seconds (Schweickert & Boruff 1987). That should suggest, in particular, that numbers presented orally will be easier to remember in a language with short numerals than in one with long numerals. (Note that this affects, among other things, IQ test results, since IQ tests typically include tests of numeral recall.)

Psychologists followed up on this by attempting to test this hypothesis with a number of language pairs (for an overview, see Baddeley (1997). Disclaimer: I'm not a psycholinguist, and the following references are certainly not exhaustive). The best-tested and most consistent result concerns Chinese. Mandarin and Cantonese numerals take shorter to say than English ones, and a number of psychologists have accordingly confirmed that Chinese speakers can remember longer numerals than English speakers (Stigler, Lee, & Stevenson (1986), Hoosain & Salili (1987)), even at 4 years old Chen and Stevenson (1988)), and that this applies even when bilinguals are tested across their two languages (Hoosain 1979). It goes further than that, in fact: Chincotta & Underwood (1997) find that, out of Cantonese, English, Greek, Finnish, Swedish, and Spanish, only Cantonese speakers remember significantly more digits than speakers of other languages - and that this difference disappeared if the subjects were prevented from rehearsing the numbers auditorily by being asked to keep repeating "la-la" while being tested, proving its linguistic nature. The difference ranges around 2 digits, with the exact figure depending on the experiment.

Data for other languages is less clearcut. Welsh numerals take longer to say in isolation than English ones, and Ellis & Hennelly (1986) accordingly found that English-Welsh bilinguals can on average remember longer numerals in English than Welsh. Naveh-Benjamin & Ayres (1986) simultaneously tested the hypothesis for university students in Israel speaking English, Spanish, Arabic, and Hebrew natively (but excluding the digits "seven" and "zero"). They found that the average number of digits recalled was highest in English (7.21), followed by Hebrew (6.51), then Spanish (6.37), and lowest in Arabic (5.77); the ordering by average number of syllables per digit, or by average time taken to read a digit, was English, Spanish, Hebrew, Arabic. However, the difference in number of digits recalled was smaller than predicted by the time taken to read a digit in each language, suggesting that other factors were also relevant.

A proviso is necessary: some recent work, without disputing the differences observed, has made a strong case that they relate not simply to length ( Lovatt, Avons, & Masterson 2000), but crucially to phonological factors (Service 2010, Lethbridge, Hinton & Nimmo 2002). This has been argued for Welsh numerals vs. English ones by Murray & Jones (2002), who find that Welsh digits take longer to say in isolation but actually take less time to say in connnected speech than English ones, and that changes of place of articulation at word boundaries negatively affect memory.

The research is curiously selective in terms of languages examined, and many of the experiments don't control for all possible confounding factors, such as diglossia and social status in the case of Welsh or Arabic. Nevertheless, it does at least seem well-established that speaking Chinese gives a short-term digit memory advantage over speaking major European or Semitic languages. So, if for some reason you regularly need to remember long numerals, and your preferred language doesn't happen to be Chinese, how do you compensate for this handicap?

There are two obvious ways to get around this (assuming you care enough about remembering numerals to want to, which depends very much on your tastes and circumstances). One is to remember the number visually (as a sequence of written digits) or even kinesthetically (as a sequence of typing actions), in which case this particular constraint no longer applies (cf. eg Olsthoorn, Andriga, & Hulstijn 2012). This only helps, however, if you remember numerals better visually or kinesthetically than auditorily, and my impression is that most people don't.

A probably more helpful alternative is to establish a code that lets you turn long numerals into much shorter words by identifying digits with single letters or single phonemes. This solution has a very long history in Arabic and Hebrew, in which each letter of the alphabet can be used to represent a digit: 'a is 1, b is 2, etc. (the first 9 digits are units, the second 10 are tens, and the rest are hundreds). Since short vowels are not letters, the resulting word can be given whatever vowels the user sees fit to give it. A common game of later poets using the Arabic script was to encode the date of their poem within the poem as a chronogram; more practically, Moroccan schoolchildren used to memorise the multiplication tables as a series of meaningless words formed by this encoding (Meakin 1905). Chronograms have been formed using Roman numerals, but for memorisation, at least, they are rather ill-adapted to such a system - think how much padding would be required to turn a number like MDCCCLXXXIII into words.

However, the spread of Hebrew studies in Western Europe following the Renaissance, and the increasing importance of memorising statistics there, encouraged European mnemonists to look for ways of emulating this encoding without having to learn a Semitic language. Doing so at a time when place notation was widely used, they introduced a crucial improvement: each consonant represented a digit in a place notation system, rather than a number in an additive notation system. After various cumulative efforts at improvement, this culminated in the early 19th century with the so-called Major system: 0=s/z, 1=t/d, 2=n, 3=m, 4=r, 5=l, 6=š/ž/č/j, 7=k/g, 8=f/v, 9=p/b, with vowels, semivowels, and laryngeals ignored. To remember 94801 (LACITO's zip code), for example, one would turn it into "professed". This system apparently remains in use among professional mnemonists to this day, despite being virtually unknown to wider society.

Perhaps this is why linguists haven't paid more attention to the word-length effect in the context of the Whorfian debate: it's a clear-cut effect of language on cognition, but not a very profound one, in that it should be fixable by some very simple hacks (or even just by borrowing some one else's numerals). But I'm not aware of any experimental work testing the effect of this particular hack on digit recall...

Monday, May 04, 2015

Foucauld's Tuareg (Tamahaq) dictionary on Wikisource

A reader of this blog, Julian Jarosch, wrote in to announce a collaborative project that will very likely interest some other readers:
The purpose of writing to you is to ‘promote’ a project I started some years ago: digitizing Charles de Foucauld’s Dictionnaire touareg – français on Wikisource. You probably already know that Wikisource, like Wikipedia, is an open and collaborative project. So far, I’m working on this alone. I’ve transcribed 13% of the text, almost all of which is not yet proofread. Wikisource provides quality management tools, so each page is marked and colour-coded for proofreading status.
The digital text has some cross-references as links; more could be added once it is complete. All Berber words and phrases are marked as such in the html code. I’ve appended an ebook version of the digital text, generated automatically from the online version, to demonstrate just one derived usage. Deriving a print edition or an enriched structured XML version should be feasible as well. I also experimented with automatically ‘updating’ Foucauld’s mode of transcription, but this proved to be too complicated, due to the ambiguities in his use of 〈i〉 and 〈ou〉.
I hope you find this useful and solid work. In principle, I’d like to spread word about this project in Berber linguistics; I just hardly get around to it, since I pursue this in my spare time.

For anyone who wants to help with this project, the link is: Livre:Foucauld, Dictionnaire touareg.djvu.