Monday, June 29, 2015

Anomalous gender agreement in Algerian Arabic

In Algerian Arabic (here, Dellys dialect), the feminine singular form of an adjective is formed just by adding a suffix -a, with almost no exceptions. In two of the exceptions, a full look at the paradigm suggests that it's really the masculine form rather than the feminine which is irregular (though the situation is less clear-cut in other dialects - in traditional Algiers, for example, the plural of "beautiful" is شبّان šəbban):
m. sg.f.
beautifulشباب šbabشابّة šabbaشابّين šabbin
otherآخُر axŭṛأُخرى ŭxṛaأُخرين ŭxṛin

A third case is rather different. "Such-and-such (a person), so-and-so" is expressed by the noun m. sg. فلان flan, f. sg. فلانة flana, with no known plural. (This originally Arabic form is rather widely borrowed; you may be familiar with it from Spanish fulano). From this we can derive an adjective "such-and-such a" by adding a nisba suffix -i: m. sg. فلاني flani, but f. sg. فلانتية flantiyya. To make matters worse, we suddenly find ourselves with a gender distinction in the plural, something otherwise absent from adjectival agreement in this dialect: m. pl. فلانيين flaniyyin, f. pl. فلانتيين flantiyyin.

What's going on, though anomalous, is pretty clear (recall that feminine -a regularly becomes -t in the construct state): this adjective is displaying double agreement, gender agreement alone on the nominal root flan, and normal gender+number agreement on the adjectival derivational suffix -i. Can you think of any comparable cases elsewhere?

Saturday, June 27, 2015

How Korandje made "with" agree it-with its subject

Korandje, the language of Tabelbala in southwestern Algeria, requires the comitative preposition "with" to agree in person and number, not with its object, but with its subject (strictly speaking, with its external argument):
ʕa-ddər ʕ-indza xaləd, I-went I-with Khaled.
nə-ddər n-indza xaləd, you-went you-with Khaled.
This seems to be vanishingly rare worldwide. The nearest parallels I have encountered are ones in which the comitative is expressed using a serial verb, but a closer look at the syntax and morphology of Korandje shows that indza is indeed a preposition, not a verb or a noun. Perhaps most strikingly, when you relativise on its object, you pied-pipe not only the preposition but the agreement marker on it too:
ʕan bạ-yu ʕ-indz uɣudz əgga ʕa-b-yəxdəm
my friend-s I-with whom PAST I-IMPF-work
"my friends with whom I was working"
Its historical source, proto-Songhay *ndá "with, and, if", was also a preposition, and did not display agreement. Comparative data makes it possible to reconstruct how this change took place: it developed out of a strategy, common in Berber and found in some Songhay languages, of expressing "I went with Khaled" as "I went, I and Khaled", which seems to be the result of reinterpretation of a postverbal subject as part of the adjacent comitative phrase. This development in turn provides the first attested way to reverse the well-known grammaticalisation chain "with" > "and". If you want to know more, read my article, which has just been published:

"How to make a comitative preposition agree it-with its external argument: Songhay and the typology of conjunction and agreement". In Paul Widmer, Jürg Fleischer, and Elisabeth Rieken (eds.), Agreement from a diachronic perspective, Berlin: De Gruyter, pp. 75-100, 2015. (offprints available on request - just email me.)

Here's the abstract:

This article describes two hitherto unreported comitative strategies exemplified in Songhay languages of West Africa – external agreement, and bipartite – and demonstrates their wider applicability. The former strategy provides the first clear-cut example of a previously unattested agreement target-controller pair. Based on comparative evidence, this article proposes a scenario for how these could have developed from the typologically unremarkable comitative and coordinative strategies reconstructible for proto-Songhay, in a process facilitated by contact with Berber. The grammaticalisation chain required to explain this has the unexpected effect of reversing a much better-known one previously claimed to be unidirectional, the development COMITATIVE > NP-AND.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Comparative Siouan Dictionary

A key document in Native American philology which has been circulating in samizdat form for decades is finally online and searchable: the multi-authored Comparative Siouan Dictionary (as noted by Guillaume Jacques). Named for the last of its speakers to resist colonization, the Sioux or Lakota, the Siouan family was spread over a vast section of North America, covering much of the Missouri and Mississippi valleys but with old outliers as far east as Tutelo in Virginia. The names of several Midwesternstates derive from Siouan languages, so they make a convenient starting point for exploring the database. Minnesota is from Dakota mni sota "cloudy water",both elements of whose history you can trace back here to proto-Siouan: *waRé• "lake, water" and *(a)só•tE "hazy, bluish, cloudy". *waRé• also yields Chiwere ñį, which in combination with the Chiwere reflex of *parás-ka "spread > flat (1)" yields the name of Nebraska. Dakota, from a name of the Sioux, has a less venerable history, being traceable only back to proto-Mississippi Valley Siouan *hkota/*hkoRa/*hkora "friend", with unexplained internal variation and similar forms in other families suggesting the possibility of a loan. (The la- element might have something to do with fire; see John Koontz's discussion.) Kansas, Arkansas, and Iowa also have names of Siouan origin, but I can't find them in here; much work remains to be done, after all... For the relevant correspondences, a good starting point is Rankin et al. 1997, available from the same site.

The more adventurous may note that there are good prospects for going beyond proto-Siouan. It is generally accepted that Catawban is Siouan's nearest relative, and the database sometimes includes Catawba cognates (as under "lake, water" above), but makes no attempt at Proto-Siouan-Catawban reconstructions. (Work on Catawba continues, but some older materials are available online, eg Lieber 1858, Gatschet 1900). Beyond that, some work suggests that Siouan-Catawban is in turn related to what would otherwise be an isolate language - Yuchi, originally spoken in Tennessee and later forcibly relocated to Oklahoma. Efforts to find etymologies at that level have barely gotten off the ground (cf. eg Rudes 1974), but there are some promising ones, notably proto-Siouan *isá•pE "black" vs. Yuchi ispí (Elmendorf 1964). Even more implausible proposals, like the idea of a special relationship with the small Yukian family of California (Elmendorf 1963), could at any rate be reexamined in the light of this work.

Tuesday, June 02, 2015

The irrelevance of the standard in Algeria

I recently came across a nice little study of language attitudes among Kabyles in Oran, inheriting Kabyle from their parents and kin but living in an overwhelmingly Arabic-speaking context: Ait Habbouche 2013. The results will not come as a huge surprise to anyone familiar with Algeria, but they stand in stark contrast to a curiously widespread idea about Berber language endangerment: the notion that Berber is under threat from the government-imposed hegemony of Standard Arabic. What the survey answers reveal, time after time, is in fact the utter failure of government policies to create any meaningful space for Standard Arabic in daily life. It is no surprise to see that Standard Arabic is used by 0% of respondents with other Kabyles in the cafe or at home. But seeing that only 4% speak it even at work, and 0% in university, should be a shock to anyone who still imagines that Standard Arabic occupies a position analogous to, say, Standard German. The taboo on speaking Standard Arabic in any but the most formal quasi-academic conversation remains nearly absolute; 73% rated it as the language they used least. The only topics surveyed for which this option was selected by any significant number were religion and politics, and actual usage in both cases would probably reveal a mix of Standard words into a basically dialectal matrix. There are absolutely no signs that this group is shifting to Standard Arabic, or even sees this as a viable possibility. The language that has attained a large usage among these speakers, even with other Kabyles, is not Standard Arabic but Algerian Arabic - a language with no official status taught in no school, which was the least likely (2%) of any of the available languages to be rated as most beautiful or richest, and was rated by 42% as the language they liked least (nearly tied with Standard Arabic). Yet this little-loved language, dismissed as much by its speakers as by their rulers, is not only the main language they use with non-Kabyles but is extensively used even with fellow Kabyles (42% with their own siblings).

The utterly marginal status of Standard Arabic in conversation within this group (and elsewhere in Algeria) contrasts sharply with that of French. 22% of the sample claimed to address Kabyle strangers in French, and 26% to speak it with their friends. More tellingly, 38% chose it as the language they spoke in at work, and no less than 68% for speaking about science. It's interesting to find an official language that doesn't dominate even in contexts like that! In short, while Standard Arabic is taboo for conversation, French is not. There are of course circumstances where it could be inappropriate, but there is no blanket ban as with Standard Arabic.

What does this imply for language policy? I'm no policy analyst, but here are my thoughts...

As far as the linguistic majority goes, only a spoken language can hope to displace French from the spoken domain, and long-standing efforts to break the taboo on speaking Standard Arabic have been utterly futile. Maybe it's time for those who want Arabic to be official in practice and not just in theory to acknowledge and support the existing complementary distribution of functions between Standard and Algerian Arabic, rather than treating the latter as some kind of unfortunate necessity. Demanding that officials consistently speak to the public in Standard Arabic instead of French is not always realistic, but demanding that they speak in a high register of Algerian Arabic could be. But that will only happen if people learn to value the language they speak, rather than dismissing it.

For the minority, it suggests that the main threat to Berber comes not from school, but rather from daily life in non-Berber-speaking environments. If so, solutions should focus less on making sure that Berbers can study Berber at school (though that is certainly desirable for other reasons), and more on getting non-Berbers in linguistically mixed contexts to study Berber and use it in conversation - almost the opposite of existing policy.