Wednesday, July 15, 2015

How Berber is the Arabic of the Chaamba?

As unfortunately foreshadowed by my last post, violence broke out again in Ghardaia recently between Chaamba and Mozabites. At least 22 were killed, most of them Mozabite. As far as I can tell, not one newspaper has ventured to report what specifically triggered this episode of violence - which probably means that the details are thought to be embarrassing or inflammatory. (I suspect that this vicious yet incompetent piece of anti-Mozabite propaganda provides an explanation in reverse - that a rumour circulated among the Chaamba that the Mozabites were celebrating the assassination of Ali or something like that - but that's only a guess.) Instead, they're presenting a flurry of supposedly deeper explanations, vaguely alluding to drug trading, smuggling, religious extremism, and foreign meddling.

One news item that recently made waves came from a Facebook post by Ahmed Ben Naoum, a professor of sociology at the University of Perpignan, who, as reported by El Watan, insists that the Chaamba (properly šʕanba) are not Arabs but rather Zenati Berbers. The ancestry of the Chaamba is not something I can comment on professionally - if that mattered, which it shouldn't, a look at their Y-chromosomes would be the way to go. Nor can I say much on their historical self-identification, though at present it's extremely clear that the Chaamba consider themselves Arab (more specifically, a branch of Banu Sulaym). However, the article also touches on their language:

«Les Cha’anba font partie de la majorité zénète de ce pays. Ils n’ont aucun mythe fondateur les rattachant aux ‘‘Arabes’’ ! Eux-mêmes ont été arabisés comme l’ont été les autres Zénètes, sauf à dire qu’ils expriment leur culture dans une des langues arabes qu’ils ont largement ‘‘zénétisée’’ dans la morphologie et la syntaxe.»
[The Sha'anba are part of the Zenati majority of this country. They have no foundation myth attaching them to the "Arabs"! They themselves have been Arabised like the other Zenatis, but that is only to say that they express their culture in one of the Arabic languages which they have extensively "Zenatified" in morphology and syntax.]

This is not correct. The dialect of the Chaamba is one of the few dialects of the Algerian Sahara for which a grammatical description has been published (Grand'Henry 1976), and its morphology, at least, is pretty well studied. Judging by this material, there is no discernible Zenata (or other Berber) influence on the morphology or syntax of the dialect at all. In this respect, it agrees with Algerian Arabic more generally. Very few dialects of Algerian Arabic show significant morphological influence from Berber; only a few areas, such as Jijel or Adrar, even have Berber plurals for nouns borrowed from Berber, and no dialect anywhere is reported to has borrowed Berber verbal morphology. Many dialects have a few abstract nouns in ta-...-t - usually with negative meanings - but this formation is hardly productive. Syntactic influence is plausible a priori, but has not been adequately demonstrated anywhere in Algerian Arabic (except Jijel), much less for the dialect of the Chaamba.

A better place to look for Berber influence in Algerian dialects, generally speaking, is phonology and vocabulary. In phonology, the phoneme and the merger of the short vowels can both plausibly - although not certainly - be attributed to Berber influence; however, it is unclear from Grand'Henry's rather poor description of the phonology whether even these apply in the Chaamba dialect. The vocabulary listed by Grand'Henry includes very few Berber loans, and most of the latter are pan-Algerian, eg həžžala "widow", atay "tea" (the latter ultimately from Chinese); the only rarer ones noted are two types of date, taqərbŭšt and tantmŭšt, which would naturally be easily borrowed from Berber-speaking oasis dwellers. On the basis of the available data, it's safe to say that the Zenati influence in the dialect of the Chaamba, like the Zenati influence in most Algerian dialects whether spoken by people of Berber ancestry or not, is very limited. It would be very interesting to study the extent of Berber influence in the Arabic spoken in different regions of Algeria, and how it varies. But such a study should not be expected to provide proof that Algerians in general, or any specific group of Algerians in particular, are of Amazigh ancestry. If for some reason you want to know about ancestry, ask a geneticist, not a linguist (nor, I would suggest, a sociologist).

Friday, July 03, 2015

Nasheed in Tumzabt

In honour of the month - and of the harmonious coexistence in Algeria of different branches of Islam, threatened in recent years - here's a rather well-produced bilingual Ramadan nasheed in Arabic and Tumẓabt, the Berber language of the Mzab region far to the south of Algiers:

Apart from its linguistic interest, it's rather interesting semiotically. The first half, in Arabic, presents life in a Saharan oasis as idealised by an oasis-dweller rather than a tourist - no dunes, not much picturesque architecture, just well-watered, well-shaded palm groves, traditional picnic blankets, and lots of happy children. The second half, in Tumzabt with Arabic subtitles, focuses more on religious life - mosques and prayer at odd hours and pages of the Qur'an. Someone put a lot of money into this clip; I don't know anything about its background, but I get the impression that it was intended not just to edify fellow speakers of Tumẓabt but also to show the best possible image of the Mzab to outsiders - perhaps a precautionary PR effort in case of further problems in the region?

Some linguistic features of interest include:

  • The Latin loanword i-bekkaḍ-en "sins", from peccatum;
  • The non-borrowed Berber word Yuc "God";
  • The curious metathesis in dessat < s dat "before, in front of" (I have no explanation for the gemination here either);
  • The coinage ɣiṛu, based on the inherited root "call", for the time before dawn when the first call to prayer is traditionally made, about an hour before the actual time of prayer (thanks to Banouh Nouh-Mefnoune for the details). Similar forms are paralleled sporadically in a number of Berber varieties, but which prayer they refer to depends on the region;
  • The varying forms of the 1st person plural object clitic (if indeed it can still be called a clitic): -aɣen when placed before the verb, as in the first line, but -aneɣ when placed after it;
  • The addition of meaningless -i at the end of the line to make it fit the metre, paralleled in Tashelhiyt. (see comments)

Here's my best effort to transcribe it, minus some of the repetition; corrections welcome.

Yus-ed yur n uẓumi, a-ɣen yerr f etcetmi; [corrected following comments]
The month of fasting has come, let it take us away from sin;
Eṛbeḥ-ed si-s a memmi arrazen n etzeɛmi.
Win from it, my son, the reward of goodness.
Eččer-t fissaɛ ɣiṛu, dessat ma ɣad yedden,
Get up quick before dawn, before the call to prayer,
Esserr n elxiṛ eğrew, a-c reẓmen ibriden;
Gather secret good deeds, roads will open for you;
Yus-əd yur n uẓumi.
The month of fasting has come.

Yus-ed yur n uẓumi, a-ɣen yerr f etcetmi;
The month of fasting has come, let it take us away from sin;
Eṛbeḥ-ed si-s a memmi arrazen n etzeɛmi.
Win from it, my son, the reward of goodness.
S tala-s seṛwa ul-eč, tfarrid-t s ibekkaḍen, [corrected following comments]
Fill your heart from its fount, purify it from sins,
Ezdey i tawwat-eč; a-c yexs Yuc ed midden,
Reconcile with your relatives, God and people will love you;
Yus-əd yur n uẓumi.
The month of fasting has come.