Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Too strong to get out

At four, my nephew speaks English (his dominant language) very well. He still shows some interesting divergences from the standard of those around him, though. Some are influenced by German (a close second): he uses "mine" as a determiner in English (like German "mein") rather than "my", saying things like "mine house". Others seem to result from language-internal overgeneralization, as when he said:
  • If I push the Lego box then the carpet will destroy. [intended meaning: be destroyed]
Presumably, he's interpreted "destroy" as a labile verb, like "open" or "burn".

At first blush, I thought the following sentence was another example of overgeneralization:

  • I'm too strong to get out, so you can't. [intended meaning: I'm too strong for anyone to get me out]
However, reflection suggests that this ought to be perfectly grammatical in English, since "get out" is already labile. "This stump is too heavy to pull out" works fine, so why not "I'm too strong to get out"? Yet, for me at least, the clause immediately receives a pragmatically absurd interpretation with "I" as the subject of "get out", and the obviously intended interpretation is barely accessible even when I've consciously concluded that it should be grammatically acceptable.

In terms of the classic Chomskyan analysis of control, the two interpretations correspond to different unpronounced pronouns PRO:

  1. Ii'm too strong [PROi to get out]
  2. Ii'm too strong [PROarb to get PROi out]
A lot of linguists really dislike the idea of an unpronounced pronoun. Whatever its psychological merits, though, this analysis has the advantage of suggesting why the first interpretation comes more easily than the second here: it only involves one empty pronoun, whereas the desired interpretation needs two. So if anything is going wrong in this sentence, it's not so much the syntax as the pragmatics: an adult speaker might be more aware that listeners could have trouble processing a clause of this form, and avoid it in favour of something less ambiguous. That would need empirical checking though.

Thursday, December 08, 2016

How Tunisia ruined its PISA performance

PISA 2015 is an OECD-run survey intended to evaluate education systems worldwide by giving the same test to (almost) all students of the same grade across a large number of countries and comparing the results. This years' results have gotten a lot of coverage, notably for the dismal perfomance of all the Arabic-speaking countries participating. The UAE did least badly in terms of combined scores, managing 48th place out of 70; it was trailed by Qatar (59th), Jordan (61st), Lebanon (65th), Tunisia (66th), and, most ignominiously, Algeria at 69th place, barely beating the Dominican Republic.

Laudably, PISA have made their science tests publicly available online in many languages, including four Arabic versions labelled Israel, Qatar, Tunisia, and the UAE - don't ask me what happened to Algeria, Jordan, and Lebanon. Browsing through these, one immediately notices that the Tunisian translation (unlike the Gulf ones) has a remarkable number of grammatical errors, typos, and phrasings so awkward as to be barely comprehensible. For instance:

  • Bird Migration 1: "يستعملون العدّ الذي يقوم به المتطوّعين" - wrong case: should be المتطوّعون
  • Bird Migration 1: extremely awkward phrasing: "هجرة الطيور هي حركة موسمية كبيرة، يتنقل أثناءها الطيور نحو أماكن تكاثرها أو هي تعود منها." ("Bird migration is a great seasonal movement, during which birds move to the places of their reproduction and they come back from them.") Contrast the clearer phrasing in the Qatar version: "هجرة الطيور الموسمية هي انتقال واسع النطاق للطيور من وإلى مناطق تكاثرها. وفي كل عام يتولى متطوعون إحصاء عدد الطيور المهاجرة في مواقع محددة."
  • Bird Migration 3: the bird's name is "الزقزوق الذهبي" in the text, but in the question it turns into "الزقزاق الذهبي".
  • Running in Hot Weather 1: Garden path title: anyone looking at "العدو في الطقس الحار" is going to read it as "the enemy in hot weather", at least until the context is established. Contrast the Qatari translation "الجري في الجو الحار", using a better known, graphically unambiguous term for "running".
  • Running in Hot Weather 1: Grammatical error in "يدل على ذلك {كمية العرق | ضياع الماء | درجة حرارة الجسم} العداء بعد ساعة من السباق": for the sentence to make sense (even in dialectal Arabic!), none of the alternatives should contain the definite article, since they form part of an idafa genitive. Contrast the Qatari version, which avoids the problem by putting "للعداء".
  • Running in Hot Weather 2: Garden path sentence: "شرب الماء خلال السباق يمكن أن يكون له تأثير على حصول تجفّف وضربة حرارة بالنسبة إلى العداء. أيّهما؟ " Anyone reading this will start by reading the first word as šariba "he drank", giving "he drank water during the race, it can have an effect..." and only after the fifth word will they be in a position to read it, as intended, as "Drinking water during the race can have an effect on the occurrence of dehydration and heatstroke for the runner. Which of the two?" Having gotten that far, they'll still be given pause by the need to decide the intended referents of "Which of the two?" Contrast, yet again, the much easier to read Qatari version: " ماهو تأثير شرب المياه خلال الجري على تعرض العداء للجفاف وضربة الشمس ؟ " (What is the effect of drinking water during the race on the runner's exposure to dehydration and heatstroke?")

I could keep going, and no doubt more fluent Arabic speakers can find problems I haven't even noticed, but the pattern is clear: Compared to Qatari students, to say nothing of Western ones, Tunisian students were systematically disadvantaged in the PISA 2015 science tests by bad translation.

Whose fault is this? Clearly there was a failure at the level of PISA's international verification, which should have eliminated such problems. But the translations themselves are carried out at the national level (PISA2012 Technical Report Ch. 5). In other words, this mess was produced by Tunisian translators under the direction of the Tunisian government.

How is that possible? Simple: in Tunisia, appallingly enough, science is taught in French from the start of secondary school onwards. Science teachers have little need to keep up their Standard Arabic proficiency. Which raises the question of why this test, targeted at 15-year-olds, was administered in Arabic there to begin with.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Siwi vocabulary for addressing animals

Probably every language has a certain number of forms used especially for addressing animals, especially domestic animals. In response to a recent query by Mark Dingemanse, I gathered together all the ones I happened to have recorded for Siwi - the list below is definitely not exhaustive, but should at least be suggestive. Note the sounds used - clicks do not usually form part of Siwi phonology!

To chicks:
didididididi: eat!

To cats:
ərrrr: come!
ǀǀǀǀǀ: come!
pss: move!

To dogs:
ʘʘʘʘʘʘʘ: follow me!

To goats:
əšš: go!
ħəww: go!
xətt: go!
kškškškškš: eat!

To donkeys:
ǁǁǁǁ: giddy-ap! (?)

The interesting question here is: to what extent are these arbitrary, reflecting an emergent cross-species convention just as most human lexemes do, versus to what extent do they reflect innate properties of animal perception and communication? How do they compare to those you've encountered, if any?

Tuesday, November 08, 2016

Some Dellys etymologies via Andalus

Looking through Corriente's etymological dictionary of Andalusi Arabic, I keep coming across explanations for obscure Dellys words whose origins had been a mystery to me. Corriente's etymologies are not always to be trusted - I've found several errors, most egregiously the attribution of kurānah كُرانة "frog" to Romance rather than to Berber - but the work remains very valuable. Here are a few etymologies that struck me.

  • l-ənjbaṛ لنجبار "maize" was originally anjibār أنجبار "snake-weed" (Persicaria bistorta), whose flowers looks vaguely similar. This in turn comes from Persian angbār انگبار, which Corriente seems to derive from rang-bār رنگبار "many-coloured".
  • skənjbir سكنجبير "ginger" derives from some sort of popular confusion between two Arabic words: zanjabīl زنجبيل "ginger" and sakanjabīn سكنجبين "oxymel" (a mixture of honey and vinegar used medicinally). I assume the connection is that both are good for colds, but a quick search didn't turn up any actual evidence that oxymel was used for that purpose. Sakanjabīn is apparently from Persian سرکه انگبین serke angabin (Corriente gives the form sik angubēn) "vinegar honey", while zanjabīl is apparently, again via Persian, from Sanskrit शृङ्गवेर ‎śṛṅgavera.
  • fərnəħ فرنح "smile, laugh (of a baby)": cp. Andalusi farnas فرنس, Moroccan fərnəs فرنس; possibly, Corriente suggests, from Greek euphrosynē εὐφροσύνη "joy".
  • bu-mnir بومنير "seal" was very hard to elicit, since they've been locally extinct for decades (they've nearly disappeared from the entire Mediterranean, in fact). However, it turns out to be correct after all: cf. Andalusi bul marīn بل مرين "sea lion", Maltese bumerin "seal". Corriente seems to take this as Romance *pollo marino "sea-chicken", but the first part of that at least is clearly implausible in light of the comparative evidence as well as of common sense; the second might be tenable, but I'm not sure.

On a not entirely unrelated note: for anyone who wants to explore the maritime terminology of Dellys in greater depth than I've ever been able to elicit, El-Bahri.net is a wonderful and unexpected resource.

Friday, November 04, 2016

Lingua Franca and Sabir in "Four Months in Algeria" (1859)

I recently finished reading Four Months in Algeria, a travel diary by the English Rev. J. W. Blakesley published in 1859. It's mostly rather superficial - he couldn't speak Arabic, and spent most of his time with French soldiers and German settlers - but enlivened by occasional insights. It contains little content of linguistic interest, but it does contain two brief passages in the pidgin still used for communication between North Africans and Europeans when neither spoke the other's language - call it Lingua Franca, or Sabir. Since it would take a brave creolist to plough through the whole thing just in the slender hopes of finding such material, I reproduce them here.

The first passage (p. 340) comes from the author's description of his journey from El Aria to a place called Embadis, both in the east of Algeria, during the month of Ramadan; it shows a curious combination of French, Arabic, and "classic" Lingua Franca:

The poor muleteers had not tasted food during the whole day ; and as soon as ever the sun dipped, they produced one or two flat cakes, and ate them with avidity, not however without first offering me a sahre. I of course declined to diminish their scanty store, and reminded them that I had breakfasted at El Aria. "Toi makasch tiene carême ; toujours mangiaria," said one of the poor fellows, in the polyglot dialect which is growing up out of the intercourse between the natives and the illiterate European settlers of the interior.*
* There are a few Arabic words which the European children habitually make use of at Guelma, even when playing with each other. Makasch, no, shuiya, gently, I found invariably took the place of the corresponding French terms. On the other hand the Arabs constantly use the words ora, hour, and buono or bueno, good, to one another. Iauh, yes, a Kabyle word, pronounced exactly like the German affirmation, is also very common among the lower orders of Europeans.

In this passage, "toi" (you), "carême" (fast), and "toujours" (still) are French, while "tiene" (have) is Spanish, and "mangiaria" (eat, or perhaps food?) is Lingua Franca (from Italian), and "makasch", being used as a simple negator, is Algerian Arabic makaš ماكاش "there is no" (I discuss the latter's history here). Despite the diversity of the lexical sources drawn on, however, the grammar - simple SVO with no subject-verb agreement - matches better with Lingua Franca than with any of the lexifiers.

The second (p. 419), from a country as yet unconquered by the French, shows no such admixture, corresponding perfectly to earlier descriptions of Lingua Franca in which it often appears as little more than Italian minus the morphology:

More than once have I found in Algeria the conventional civility of the Arab to an European change into an unmistakeable expression of goodwill, when it appeared that I was an Englishman ; and in Tunis a notification of the fact at once drew forth a "Buono Inglese ; non buono Francese," from the mouth of a native.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Two funny adjectives (?) in Algerian Arabic

In Algerian Arabic, as in any other Arabic variety, adjectives follow the noun. However, there is one exception to this rule: invariant quja قوجا or qŭjna قُجنا, "a huge". Thus we say ṛajəl kbir راجل كبير "a big man", but quja ṛajəl قوجا راجل "a great big man". Not only does this "adjective" precede the noun it modifies, it requires it to be made indefinite: you can say šrit quja ktab شريت قوجا كتاب "I bought a huge book", but if you want to say "I bought the huge book", there's nothing you can do but use a different adjective. *šrit quja l-ktab or *šrit əl-quja ktab or *šrit əl-quja l-ktab are all impossible. You can make quja قوجا follow the noun, but you have to use a different construction, equally unique to this "adjective": ṛajəl quja mən huwwa راجل قوجا من هو "a great big man", daṛ quja mən hiyya دار قوجا من هي "a huge house". The origin of quja قوجا is clear: it comes from Turkish koca "large; husband", which in turn is apparently an early adaptation of Persian xɑje خواجه "master, gentleman". In Turkish, all adjectives are prenominal, so one could take that to explain its position in Algerian Arabic; but a quick search suggests that Turkish koca has no problem combining with the indefinite (one finds phrases like bu koca dünya "this huge world"). However, it looks like Algerian quja has followed a trajectory very similar to Iraqi and Khaliji xôš خوش. It is not obvious to me why obligatorily indefinite prenominal adjectives should even be possible in a language that otherwise strictly requires adjectives to be postposed, much less why they should have to be indefinite in order to stay prenominal - but that's what it looks like....

The word məskin مسكين "poor (pitiable)" is not so unusual, lexically speaking; it's just about pan-Arabic. It combines just fine with definite nouns, and takes normal agreement (f. məskina مسكينة, pl. msakən مساكن.) However, it has almost the opposite idiosyncrasy: it doesn't take the definite article, which would be obligatory with any normal adjective whose head is definite (and, if it comes to that, with a noun in apposition to a definite phrase as well). Thus we say bwəʕlam məskin maqdərš yji بوعلام مسكين ماقدرش يجي "poor Boualem couldn't come", even though we would say bwəʕlam əṭ-ṭwil بوعلام الطويل for "tall Boualem" (Boualem the-tall). Why? No idea. Suggestions are welcome!

Monday, August 15, 2016

Microvariation in Dellys Arabic

There are plenty of factors that one naturally expects to condition linguistic variation: age, sex, location, class, ethnicity, religion - in short, any variable such that people are more likely to talk with those who match their value for it than with those who don't. Dellys offers clear examples of several of these:
  • Age: There's an obvious gap between the generation born before Independence and those born since then, the latter having had much greater freedom of movement and access to media as well as education. Within my extended family, my father's generation all negate verbs indifferently with ma... ši ما...شي or ma... š ما...ش, whereas their children and grandchildren uniformly use only the latter. Similarly, the older generation use mazəlt مازلْت for "I am still...", conjugating it as a verb, while the younger ones consistently use mazalni مازالني; many of the older generation use -ayən ـاين for the dual (eg يوماين yumayən "two days"), while the younger generation all use -in ـين.
  • Sex: Only women use the exclamation a məħħənti أ محّنتي "oh my goodness!"; only men, as far as I've noticed, use the quasi-expletive jədd جدّ "grandfather" (eg nəħħi jəddu نحّي جدّهُ, approximately "remove the damn thing"). In less integrated French loans, women of my generation or younger use a uvular R, whereas almost all men (and older women) substitute a trill ; this sex differentiation is acquired well before the age of ten.
  • Location: The most salient distinction at a local level is classic in Maghreb dialectology: urban (more or less pre-Hilalian) vs. rural (Hilalian). People from Dellys proper say qal قال "he said" and ṣab "he found"; people from the villages and small towns around it instead say gal and lga.
Such variation is easily understood. But a lot of variation I'm noticing seems to show no such patterning. Out of three brothers, fairly close together in age and all currently working in the same family business:
  • Two have baš باش for "so that"; the third - unlike anyone else I know - uses li baš لي باش.
  • All use lukan لوكان for "if (hypothetical)", but one also uses lakun لاكون and the other yakun ياكون.
Maybe this is somehow explained by their earlier backgrounds - the one who uses li baš لي باش and yakun ياكون had more education, perhaps he picked it up where he went to school, or where he used to work when he was younger? But there are many other variables like this. I similarly don't see any pattern to the choice between bəṛk برْك and kan كان for "only", or yəsħaq and yəsħaj يسحاج for "he needs", or yʊɣləq يُغلق and yəʕləq يعلق for "he closes", or (at least for older speakers)yəqdər يقدر and yənjəm ينجم for "he can". People of the same age and gender, living all their lives less than a kilometer from each other and sometimes even in the same household, consistently use one or the other. Presumably something must explain the difference, but it looks like it would require a pretty intensive social network analysis to find out...

This is actually fairly similar to what Nancy Dorian found for the Scots Gaelic of East Sutherland fisherfolk: "Surprises in Sutherland: Linguistic Variability amidst Social Uniformity". She observes that this kind of variation usually tends to be ignored: "Oftedal, my immediate predecessor in Gaelic dialect studies, noted that the Gaelic of his single source and that of the man’s wife differed in a number of respects, despite the fact that the two had grown up as next-door neighbors; but after noting the existence of such differences in an early footnote, he never referred to the wife’s Gaelic again." While Algerian Arabic is far from endangered, the two situations are not as different as you might think: in both cases, small towns were substantially expanded over the 19th century by rural refugees fleeing land confiscations and wider upheavals, and left to sort out the resulting mess of dialect variation among themselves without that much pressure towards standardization. Perhaps such variables would have correlated more clearly with speakers' background a century ago, and have been left today as relics too scattered by later changes to be assigned a social meaning any longer.

Do these examples of variation seem familiar to you? What kind of individual-level variation have you noticed between friends and family?

Friday, August 12, 2016

Berber feminine nouns in Dellys Arabic: an update

In Dellys, Berber nouns borrowed into Arabic are not very common, and ones that preserve the Berber nominal affixes are even rarer, so I'm always on the lookout for them. A few days ago, listening to my eldest aunt, I heard one that was completely new to me, in an old idiom:
xəlləṭ tazalt u bəḷḷuṭ
خلّط تازالْت وبلّوط
mix up tazalt and oak/acorns (ie mix good with bad)
Tazalt was described as a vine with white flowers; probably the reference is to Cistus (rockrose), whose Kabyle name is tuzzalt, "little iron". Why that would be particularly easy to confuse with an oak tree is beyond me. There are a few other plant and animal names retaining the Berber feminine circumfix t(a)-...-(t), including tirẓəẓt تيرززت (a kind of small wasp), tubrint توبرينْت (a kind of seaweed), taɣanim تاغانيم (a variety of fig, from Berber taɣanimt "small reed"), and originally plural timəlwin تيملْوين (another variety of fig). Otherwise, this circumfix seems to be almost exclusively reserved for abstract nouns referring to negatively judged character traits (see previous posts): eg taɣənnant تاغنّانْت "stubbornness", taklufit تاكلوفيت "meddling", tayhudit تايهوديت "malice", tastutit تاستوتيت "malicious trickiness". An amusing variant on this theme came up recently: taṭnuhist تاطنوهيست "open-mouthed stupidity", presumably a blend of unrecorded *taṭnuhit تاطنوهيست and French -iste. (This in turn derives from ṭnəh "mooring-post", as in "dumb as a post".)

Tuesday, August 09, 2016

Phonics and whole word teaching in Algeria

Just about every parent I've spoken to in Dellys is concerned one way or another about the direction the educational system has been going – over-complex curricula, excessively heavy backpacks, extramural tutoring, discipline, class sizes... How children are taught to read and write looms relatively small among these concerns, except for parents who find their own child having serious difficulties. The more I've learned about this issue, though, the more worrying it seems.

During my brief, unpleasant experience with Algerian education in the late 1980s, reading and writing were taught in much the same way as in my American home school. We learned how to build up letters into words and break down words into letters – in brief, a variant of phonics. Arabic spelling is almost perfectly regular, so this stage is actually significantly easier in Arabic than in English (although this advantage is no doubt more than offset later on by diglossia). Today's Algerian children, however, are taught to memorise words and texts as wholes, and are only exposed to individual letters well after having memorised words containing them – in other words, a rather extreme version of the whole language method. This change of method – imposed not by the controversial current Minister of Education, but by her well-connected predecessor – is enforced by teaching inspectors, who are empowered to penalize efforts to teach in the older way.

This would be all very well if the whole language method were more effective. Unfortunately, as far as I can tell from a quick literature meta-review (and notwithstanding some conspicuous sketchy political exploitation of the issue), the evidence seems to be pretty clear-cut (eg [1], [2], [3]) that including phonics makes reading instruction more effective even in a language as irregularly spelled as English, and tends to favour a primary (if not exclusive) focus on phonic methods in early teaching. In other words, Benbouzid's "modernizing" educational reforms seem likely to have deprived Algerian children of one of the very few advantages they enjoyed over English-speaking children.

A question especially for any readers with a wider background in education: do you know of any good studies of the effectiveness of different methods of teaching Arabic early literacy, preferably carried out within Arabic-speaking countries?

Tuesday, August 02, 2016

More Darja notes: oath complementisers, free choice indefinites, kids' morphology, finger rhymes

Oath complementisers

In North Africa, the oath wəḷḷah والله, literally "by God", is used so frequently to emphasize statements - religious scruples notwithstanding - that a more appropriate synchronic translation might be "seriously". (It can even be used with imperatives, which can hardly be read as committing the speaker to the truth of any given statement.) Perhaps as a result of their high frequency, constructions with wəḷḷah have a number of unique morphosyntactic characteristics. Negation after wəḷḷah uses ma ما alone, whereas in most other contexts negation is bipartite ma... š(i) ما... شي. Positive sentences after wəḷḷah are introduced by what seems to be a complementiser, ɣir غير or la لا, which in other contexts mean "just, only". What struck me this time is that in certain syntactic contexts this complementiser systematically shows up twice, once right after the oath and once at the start of the main clause proper; I've come across this in topics:

wəḷḷah la lyum la sxana والله لا اليوم لا سخانة
by.God just today just heat
By God, today, it's hot.

wəḷḷah ɣir anaya ɣir dərt-ha والله غير أنايا غير درتها
by.God just I.EMPH just did.1sgPf-3FSgAcc
By God, me, I did it.

and in conditionals with the condition preposed:
wəḷḷah ɣir lukan t-dir-ha ɣir nə-ʕṭi-k ṭṛayħa والله غير لوكان تديرها غير نعطيك طرايحة
by.God just if 2Sg-do-3FSgAcc just 1Sg-give-2SgAcc beating
By God, if you do that I'll give you a beating.
In generative grammar, it is generally supposed that sentences are complementiser phrases. The complementiser is unpronounced in normal declarative sentences here, as in many languages, but is pronounced overtly in specific circumstances such as, here, oaths. A popular hypothesis in the cartographic approach to generative grammar proposes that the complementizer phrase needs to be split into a more fine-grained set of projections: Force > Topic > Focus > Topic > Finiteness, following Rizzi 1997. Prima facie, this complementiser-doubling data suggests otherwise: it looks very much as though right-adjunction of both topics and conditions is being handled by embedding the CP within another CP.

Free choice indefinites

In traditional Algerian Arabic, it seems pretty clear that the function of free choice indefinites ("anyone could do that", "take anything (you want)") isn't very strongly grammaticalised. In French, however, it's expressed using a relatively frequent, dedicated series of forms based on "no matter" plus the interrogative pronouns: n'importe qui/quoi/quel "anything, anyone, any..." Younger speakers of Algerian Arabic have borrowed the morpheme n'importe, but not the construction as a whole; instead, they simply prefix n'importe to existing indefinite nominals, in which interrogative pronouns play no role. Thus the phrase I heard today:

fə-z-zit wəlla f næ̃mpoṛt ħaja في الزيت ولا في نامبورت حاجة
in-the-oil or in any thing
in oil or in any thing

More children's morphology

Algerian Arabic has very few native bisyllabic words ending in the vowel u, but in loanwords it's not so unusual; for instance, it uses French triku تريكو (ie tricot) for "t-shirt". The first person singular possessive has two allomorphs: -i after consonants, -ya after vowels. I caught the younger of the two kids mentioned in the last post saying trikuww-i تريكوّي "my T-shirt" and trikuww-ək تريكوّك "your shirt"; his father (and everyone else, as far as I've noticed) says triku-ya تريكويَ and triku-k تريكوك. So it would seem that this kid has reanalysed the word as phonologically /trikuw/. Further inquiries are called for.

This little piggy...

I've encountered two finger rhymes in Algerian Arabic around Dellys; compare them to a Kabyle version below from Hamid Oubagha:

Dellys A Dellys B Kabyle
hađa ʕaẓẓi məskin
هاذا عزّي مسكين
This one is a robin, poor thing
hađa sɣiṛ u ʕaqəl
هاذا سغير وعاقل
This one is small and gentle
Wa meẓẓiy, meẓẓiy meskin !
This one is small, poor thing!
u hađa ṣbəʕ əssəkkin
وهاذا صبع السكّين
And this one is the knife-finger
u hađa ləbbas əlxwatəm
وهاذا لبّاس الخواتم
And this one is the ring-wearer
Wa d Ɛebḍella bu sekkin !
This one is Abdallah of the Knife!
u hađa ṭwil bla xəsla
وهاذا طويل بلا خسلة
And this one is long without function
u hađa ṭwil u məhbul
وهاذا طويل ومهبول
And this one is tall and crazy
Wa meqqer, meqqer bezzaf !
This one is big, very big!
u hađa ləħħas əlgəṣʕa
وهاذا لحّاس القصعة
And this one is the dish-licker
u hađa ləħħas ləqdur
وهاذا لحّاس القدور
And this is one is the licker of pots
Wa d ameccaḥ n teṛbut !
This one is the dish-licker!
u hađa dəbbuz əlgəmla
وهاذا دبّوز القملة
And this one is the louse-club
u hađa dəbbuz ənnəmla
وهاذا دبّوز النملة
And this one is the ant-club
Wa d adebbuz n telkin !
And this one is the lice-club
u yəmma tqul: mʕizati, mʕizati, mʕizati!
ويمّا تقول: معيزاتي، معيزاتي، معيزاتي
And mother says: my little goats, my little goats, my little goats!
dəbb əđđib, dəbb ənnəmla, dəbb əđđib, dəbb ənnəmla...
دبّ الذّيب، دبّ النملة، دبّ الذّيب، دبّ النملة...
Debb the wolf, Debb the ant, Debb the wolf, Debb the ant...

All three clearly share a common background. Obviously, Dellys B has been deliberately made more posh - ants substituted for lice, pots (with urban q) for dishes (with villagers' g), ring-finger for knife-finger... Dellys A remains defiantly unrefined, but shows at least one sign suggesting an original in Kabyle: ʕaẓẓi məskin "a robin, poor thing" makes a lot less sense for referring to the little finger than meẓẓi meskin "small, poor thing", but sounds almost the same. On the other hand, Dellys A shows a near-rhyme between verses 3, 4, and 5 which doesn't work at all in the attested Kabyle version. It would be interesting to compare more versions in both languages

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Sara, sara

With only 30,000-odd inhabitants, and fairly poor road connections, Dellys is a reasonably small and out-of-the-way place. In summer it briefly fills up with the unfamiliar faces of other Algerians looking for a quiet beach holiday, but I've never seen, for instance, a Chinese person here, even though there are plenty in Algiers. Nevertheless, the problems of the Sahel have made themselves felt even here: this year, for the first time, a couple of families from Niger seem to have made it to Dellys. As I was browsing in a little bookshop, a little girl came in, holding up a bowl and saying "Sara, sara". She said the same word to each of us in turn, then left to proceed along her route. Shortly after she left, I belatedly realised what she was saying. In Zarma (the main language of western Niger), historic intervocalic d became r, and intervocalic velars were lost. Arabic ṣadaqah "alms" (Hausa sadaka) is thus reduced to sara. She can't have been here long, or surely she would have found a more effective expression to use; I imagine everyone else was assuming that she was simply repeating her own name.

As a town, Dellys is not particularly fond of strangers, though it leaves them alone; coincidentally, the owner of the bookshop had just been complaining to me about how all the post-independence immigrants into town - from villages a few kilometres away - had made a mess of the place. Absorbing Nigerien immigrants may take some work. But I expect more will arrive; right now, Niger has the fastest growing population in the world, with a birthrate last seen in Algeria in the 1970s, and in the industrialised world during the 19th century. Many Algerian young people dream of escaping the country's sclerotic economy, sometimes illegally by boat from Dellys - there used to be a graffiti near the lighthouse alluding to the early Muslims' flight to Abyssinia: "I shall go to Spain, for it is ruled by a king who does not oppress anyone." But compared to Niger, Algeria might as well be the US.

Monday, July 25, 2016

Darja notes: Elms and kids' morphology

I'm back in Algeria, and, as usual on such trips, finding matters of linguistic interest all around. Here are a couple, with more to follow if time permits...

A morphological innovation continues

Regular readers will recall that, just about a year ago, I found two young cousins using an innovative strategy to prevent consonant clusters in feminine nouns when vowel-initial possessive suffixes are added. I predicted that “Most probably, the next time I go to Dellys I'll find these two children using the normal forms and denying they ever spoke this way”. It turns out I was wrong: for the time being, at least, both of them are still using it, as confirmed by spontaneous data (quww-at-ək قوّاتك “your strength”, sənsl-at-ək سنسلاتك “your chain” rather than everyone else's quww-t-ək, sənsəl-t-ək.)

Elms between Europe and Arabia

A new word I learned lately is nəšma نشمة (pl. nšəm نشم) “elm tree”. Knowing that most of Arabia is desert, you might assume that this would be a prime candidate for a substratum word to borrow from Berber. In reality, however, it reflects Classical Arabic našamah نَشَمَة, a word used by the pre-Islamic poet 'Imru' ul-Qays and defined in the first Arabic dictionary, Kitab al-`Ayn, as “a tree from which bows are made” (even though the Modern Standard term appears to be dardār دَرْدَار). Clearly it would be a mistake to imagine the pre-Islamic Arabs as uniformly living in an isolated desert environment. At first sight, this word looks nothing like English elm, Latin ulmus, or Kabyle ulmu. However, in general Arabic š corresponds to Proto-Semitic *ɬ, so the original form would have been *naɬam-, which looks rather more similar. The mountains of the northern Middle East where the elm grows have been a zone of contact between Semitic and Indo-European for a long time, and given the tree's distribution, a borrowing into Semitic from IE would seem plausible a priori, especially since it doesn't seem to have cognates in Syriac or Hebrew; but the etymology would require more investigation than I can undertake on holiday. Within Indo-European, the form in question seems to be limited to European branches (Slavic, Germanic, Italic, Celtic), so how it would have reached Arabic is not obvious; coincidence is not to be excluded.

Friday, June 17, 2016

Language Contact in the Sahara: An overview

I am very happy to announce the publication of my freely accessible overview of Language Contact in the Sahara, written for the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Linguistics. Apart from being the first introduction to this topic to cover both sides of the Sahara, it encapsulates a good deal of my research program over the past few years, and gives some idea of what remains to be done in this domain. Here's the abstract; if it sounds interesting, go read it!
As might be expected from the difficulty of traversing it, the Sahara Desert has been a fairly effective barrier to direct contact between its two edges; trans-Saharan language contact is limited to the borrowing of non-core vocabulary, minimal from south to north and mostly mediated by education from north to south. Its own inhabitants, however, are necessarily accustomed to travelling desert spaces, and contact between languages within the Sahara has often accordingly had a much greater impact. Several peripheral Arabic varieties of the Sahara retain morphology as well as vocabulary from the languages spoken by their speakers’ ancestors, in particular Berber in the southwest and Beja in the southeast; the same is true of at least one Saharan Hausa variety. The Berber languages of the northern Sahara have in turn been deeply affected by centuries of bilingualism in Arabic, borrowing core vocabulary and some aspects of morphology and syntax. The Northern Songhay languages of the central Sahara have been even more profoundly affected by a history of multilingualism and language shift involving Tuareg, Songhay, Arabic, and other Berber languages, much of which remains to be unraveled. These languages have borrowed so extensively that they retain barely a few hundred core words of Songhay vocabulary; those loans have not only introduced new morphology but in some cases replaced old morphology entirely. In the southeast, the spread of Arabic westward from the Nile Valley has created a spectrum of varieties with varying degrees of local influence; the Saharan ones remain almost entirely undescribed. Much work remains to be done throughout the region, not only on identifying and analyzing contact effects but even simply on describing the languages its inhabitants speak.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

When I say "I", I mean "you": public service hortatives in French

A lot of languages - Indonesian, for instance - make a rather useful distinction between two 1st person plural pronouns: "we (including you)" and "we (excluding you)". A few languages, such as Nivkh, extend this distinction to the singular, sort of, having a dual 1st person inclusive pronoun "I and you" alongside a singular 1st person exclusive pronoun "I" (and no other duals). But a 1st person singular inclusive pronoun, strictly speaking, is a contradiction in terms: it would have to be a pronoun referring to only one person which included both the speaker and the addressee.

Or is it? There are a couple of ways in which this apparent contradiction could be resolved. The most obvious would be if you had a special pronoun used only when the speaker was also the addressee; but, as such a form would be used only in talking to oneself, it would be unlikely to catch on enough to become part of the language. Less obviously, however, you could have a singular pronoun being used in a sufficiently vague way to refer to both the speaker and the addressee (but not to an uninvolved third person.)

Soon after moving to France, I realised that, in public announcements, this is in fact what French does with its 1st person singular pronoun je. The realisation was prompted by a poster in a medical insurance office saying, in big letters, something like:

Je choisis le générique, je ne fais pas d'avance de frais.
(I choose generic drugs, I pay no advance.)

This was clearly not a piece of self-observation someone had put up; rather, it was intended to tell us "Choose generic drugs, and pay no advance". Over the following days, I noticed that concealed exhortations of this form were everywhere: Oui je vote (Yes I vote), En car comme en voiture, je boucle ma ceinture (In a coach as in a car, I buckle my seatbelt), ... All easily understandable as conveying the message is "I do this, and so should you". But in English, you consistently cast such messages in the imperative, with no "I" at all: "Please take a moment to cast your vote in this important election" or "Buckle up, it's the law", and so on. One obvious side effect is that the slogan "Je suis Charlie" has at least one reading directly accessible to French speakers but not to English speakers who understand it word for word: namely, "I am Charlie, and you'd better be Charlie too".

The difference between the two languages in this respect is at the level of pragmatics, for now. But if such hortatives become sufficiently common in French, one could well imagine the construction grammaticalising further and even eventually becoming distinct from ordinary 1st person marking. In that case, we might end up with a true 1st person singular inclusive pronoun: a pronoun that simultaneously means "I" and "you", while taking strict singular agreement. Give it another 500 years...

Are you familiar with another language that does this?

Wednesday, May 04, 2016

Some thoughts on racism in Algeria

(Regular readers be warned: this post has nothing to do with linguistics; it's justified only by a tenuous link to my fieldwork.)

New York Times readers today had the dubious privilege of an editorial by Kamel Daoud on racism in Algeria. The topic certainly needs attention, even if the New York Times is hardly the most effective place to address it in. Unfortunately, he addresses it with the same broad-brush, narrative-forcing, emotional vagueness that usually characterises his editorials (with bits of outright distortion: Echourouk "Islamist"? Algerians who won't "shake hands with blacks"?). He claims that Algerians are racist on the basis of religion rather than colour, then belatedly notices that there have been conflicts with Muslim black migrants too, and "explains" this by suggesting that they are seen as insufficiently Muslim. We get quotes from a few Algerian racists, but no migrants' voices, and no sign at all of the group most obviously relevant to a framing in racial terms: black Algerians.

In many Saharan oases - including Tabelbala, where I did most of my PhD fieldwork - black people are in the majority. Even in the north, you find small villages of black people, and of course larger communities in the big cities. Kamel Daoud mentions anti-migrant riots in Ouargla and Bechar: both those Saharan towns have massive Algerian black communities. Contrary to Kamel Daoud's analysis, such groups certainly do experience racism, though in a much milder form. In the south, people assume their ancestors were slaves, in a region where people routinely claim status and allies based on genealogy. In the north, their colour makes them visible outsiders, in a context where people regularly blame social decay on "outsiders" immigrating from ten or twenty kilometres away. Unlike in America, however, they are not particularly stereotyped as criminal (though black immigrants sometimes are). In the north they tend to be stereotyped as stupid, but in the south their conspicuous relative educational success makes that image hard to maintain. Socialism and Islam, however, are equally vehement in their condemnation of such racism, and after independence the Algerian state took this issue seriously, stamping out the remnants of slavery and emphasising universal equality; everyone today at least knows they're not supposed to be racist, though that doesn't necessarily stop them.

Of course, race is in the eye of the beholder. In Tabelbala, almost everyone is black by the standards of other parts of Algeria. By their own standards, however, the situation is a bit different: anyone with the slightest tinge of known Arab or Berber ancestry counts as white, leaving only a few families to be considered as black. Until the 20th century, the former were landowners, while the latter were sharecroppers or slaves. The indistinguishability of their skin colours does not stop the former from being viciously racist about the latter when annoyed with them.

I don't claim to understand the riots in Ouargla and Bechar in any detail, but two points are noteworthy. The first is that they did not attack Algerian black people: they attacked black immigrants. To an Algerian, that may seem almost too obvious to mention - but the NYT's audience is not particularly Algerian, and has rather different baseline assumptions. The second is that they happened in a wider context of rising tensions in the Sahara over the past five years or so, including especially the ever-worsening cycle of sectarian riots in Ghardaia. It would be very useful to have a serious analysis of what's driving this rising intolerance, in the one part of Algeria that largely escaped violence throughout the 1990s. But for that, the NYT would have to call in a real journalist.

Sunday, May 01, 2016

Yuck: a borrowing from Arabic into Berber?

One of my son's first words is [x:::], "yuck!" - his attempt to pronounce the Algerian Arabic baby-talk item kəxx(i) كخّ "yuck". I was surprised to learn recently that this word goes back well over a millennium: a hadith in Sahih Muslim records its use in addressing Ali's son Hasan, then a child:
أخذ الحسن بن علي تمرة من تمر الصدقة فجعلها في فيه فقال رسول الله صلى الله عليه وسلم : كخ كخ ارم بها أما علمت أنا لا نأكل الصدقة (link)
Al-Hasan son of Ali took a charity date and put it in his mouth. So the Messenger of God, peace be upon him, said: "Kax, kax, throw it away; don't you know that we do not eat alms?"

Variants of this word (kxx, kexx, kexxa, kəxx) are very widespread in North Africa, not just in Arabic but in Berber too, as you can see from the Barefoot Linguist's Baby Talk database: it's used in Siwi, in Kabyle, in Tarifiyt, and in Senhaja. In Europe, on the other hand, it's far from universal; in fact, I don't know that it's even attested. That suggests that independent parallel innovation is unlikely. /x/ is a perfectly normal phoneme within Arabic, but in Berber it's rare in inherited roots and unlikely to be reconstructible for proto-Berber; all of the Berber languages listed there as having this word are intensely influenced by Arabic. That makes it unlikely that it's a common retention from proto-Afro-Asiatic. The most obvious conclusion is that kəxx has been borrowed from Arabic into Berber. Other cases of the borrowing of baby-talk is certainly attested, but this example seems particularly striking for the word's sheer frequency.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Arabic substrate etymologies as urban legends

In Arabic as in English, social networks have a constantly flowing undercurrent of poorly sourced, manipulative stories being shared and reshared by people who vaguely think they sound right. Over the past, say, five years, I've noticed the emergence of a linguistically interesting new subgenre within this miasma of lies and half-truths: etymological tables purporting to prove the massive contribution of Berber, or Syriac, or (more rarely) Coptic, or perhaps some other pre-Arab substrate to the local Arabic dialect. These tables, in my experience, never cite an academic source, and rarely cite anything at all; closer examination generally reveals a farrago of correct etymologies and bad guesses. For example (from the preceding links):
  • Tunisian məlɣiɣa ملغيغة "fontanelle" really is from Berber tamelɣiɣt, a word widely attested in Berber and with no obvious Classical Arabic counterpart...
  • but Tunisian gdər قدر "pot" is of course from the Classical Arabic qidr قِدْرٌ, which ought to be familiar even to elementary school students; the Berber cognates cited are borrowings from Arabic.
  • Tunisian bəkkuš بكّوش "dumb, mute" is slightly less obvious, but again from Arabic: it's an irregular expressive formation from 'abkam أَبْكَمُ, substituting the dialectally rather productive suffix -uš. The suffix might be from Berber, but the root is not.
  • Syrian (and Algerian) dālye دالية "grape-vine" may well be from Aramaic; the word is attested in Syriac with the right meaning (dālī-ṯ-ā "vine-branch, vine"), and belongs to a semantic field where Aramaic borrowings are to be expected from a very early period. Within Arabic, this word was already noted as a regional synonym of karmah in the 10th century by the Palestinian geographer al-Maqdisi.
  • However, Syrian mnīħ منيح "good" has nothing to do with Aramaic; it's a local version of widespread dialectal Arabic malīħ مليح, with nasality assimilation. This adjective exists both in Classical Arabic (malīħ) and in Syriac (malīħ-ā) with the meaning of "salty"; in an era where salt was more expensive than now, this naturally tended to imply "tasty". There is no reason to assume either language borrowed this word from the other, since the root is proto-Semitic and the template is productive in both languages. However, only in dialectal Arabic did it go on to develop the sense of "good", which it now has in a wide variety of dialects including North Africa.
  • More problematic is Syrian wāwā, a baby-talk word for "pain" used (as far as I can see) neither in Syriac nor in Classical Arabic. Syriac does have wāy "woe!", but so does Coptic - and, if it comes to it, English "waaah!" is closer than either. Onomatopeia is a better explanation than borrowing or inheritance in this case.

The optimistic take on this is that it shows that there's a real public demand in the Arabic-speaking world for information on etymology and on substrate influence. The pessimistic take is that people just want "information" confirming what they want to believe - in this case, that they're not really that Arab after all. (The converse case also exists, of course - recall Othmane Saadi - but I haven't seen as much of it circulating on social media, though that may just reflect my own bubble.) The reality is probably somewhere in the middle.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Diglossia politics and the Algerian novel

For decades, Algeria has been characterised by a divide between "Arabophone" and "Francophone" intellectuals. The divide is drawn primarily according to which language they feel more comfortable writing in, but correlates rather well with political and cultural positions. Of these two, it has almost always been Francophones who have attempted to attack diglossia and elevate Algerian Arabic (Darja) to the status of a language rather than a dialect. The best-publicised recent case is the columnist (and now novelist) Kamel Daoud, who wrote a typically hyperbolic "manifesto" calling Arabic a dead colonial language (warning: popup-infested link):
In Algeria, the essential part speaks Algerian: the people, the money, the ads, love and anger. The rest, then, is artificial: ENTV, Bouteflika, the regime, the imams, the "assimilated", the Islamists. All those who want Algeria to prosper, to love itself, or to get through, speak Algerian. All those who want to possess it, to steal it, to destroy it, to deny it, speak Classical Arabic. They are a dominant minority. Algerian is a dominated majority. For the moment. When they tell you it's a dialect, what they're saying is that you're not a citizen. That you're plebs, not a people.
This stirring passage, like everything else Kamel Daoud has ever published, is written in French. His prize-winning first novel, Meursault : un contre-enquête - a rejoinder to Camus' L'étranger set entirely in Algeria - contains precisely one line in Darja, quoted from a rai song: Malou khouya, malou majache. El b'har eddah âliya rah ou ma wellache. ("What's wrong with my brother, what's wrong with him that he hasn't come? The sea has taken him from me, he's gone and hasn't returned.") Apparently, as much as Kamel Daoud may want to challenge the view of Darja as a dialect, he has little interest in challenging what, in most Algerians' eyes, makes it a dialect: the fact that it isn't written. It is almost unnecessary to say that Darja is equally absent from the works of most other Algerian Francophone novelists, few of whom have ventured to defend Darja in such terms. The one exception is Kateb Yacine, who, after Independence, went from writing novels in French to writing plays in Darja; but, as far as I know, even he did not venture to incorporate Darja passages into French novels, much less attempt Darja novels.

Ahlam Mostaghanemi, one of Algeria's most widely read Arabic novelists, has rather less to say for Darja than Kamel Daoud. I am not aware that she's taken any public position on the dialect as such, but she's on record as favouring the diglossic status quo: she described the Minister of Education's recent proposal to teach in Darja for the first two years of primary school as a "new scandal" intended to "destroy the national character". On the basis of stated ideologies alone, one would expect her work to contain less Darja than Kamel Daoud's. The contrary, however, is true. Alongside much more numerous Darja quotes from songs, she casually throws in dialogue in Darja as well, eg (ذاكرة الجسد, p. 354, Darja sections italicised in the translation):

I politely ask him:
How are you, Si Mustapha?
Without preambles, he starts complaining:
We're drowning in troubles... you know!
At that point, randomly, a saying of De Gaulle crosses my mind: [...]
I keep it to myself, and say
Yeah... I know...
أسأله مجاملة:
- واش راك سي مصطفى؟
فيبدأ دون مقدمات بالكشوى:
- رانا غارقين في المشاكل ... على بالك!
تحضرني وقتها، مصادفة، مقولة لديفول: [...]
أحتفظ بها لنفسي وأقول:
- إيه... على بالي...

Granted, more-Arab-than-thou types have been known to criticise her for these brief concessions to reality, as in this fine example of self-hatred by Mouloud Ben Zadi (whose targets also include Naguib Mahfouz):

Are we to fill our writings with our complicated colloquial dialects spread in our Arab lands, easy and difficult, and count what we have written as Arabic literature? Has the Arab intellectual not yet realised that these colloquial languages are only languages that divide and do not unite, that lower and do not raise, that hurt and do not benefit? If Fusha could speak, it would wash its hands of us and of the literature distorted by blind dialect that we record under its name and attribute to it, whose benefit, by my life, is little, and which has no relationship to Fusha!
Nevertheless, Mostaghanemi's practice is not isolated: similar passages can easily be cited from Waciny Laaredj. Why the difference?

One obvious explanation comes to mind: the audience. Any Algerian novelist can hardly avoid hoping - forlornly or otherwise - to become popular abroad; they certainly aren't ever likely to be able to live on the proceeds of selling their book in Algeria alone. French speakers, by and large, can make no sense of dialogue in Darja at all. Arabic speakers, on the other hand, can at worst understand a good deal of Darja just by looking for cognates, and a good third of them can be assumed to speak a very similar dialect already; even for Middle Easterners, a Darja passage may be no harder to read than a particularly flowery Fusha passage. Passages like the above did not stop Ahlam Mostaghanemi from becoming a bestseller in other Arab countries; their equivalent in French would give the average reader pause, at the very least.

The other difference is, precisely, diglossia! French, for its speakers, is a language of daily conversation. Translating a Darja dialogue into French doesn't make it any more formal; if you want to explicitly mark it as informal, there are plenty of contractions and prescriptively ungrammatical forms that you can use ("J'sais pas"). Translating the same dialogue into Standard Arabic makes it a good deal more formal, verging on schoolmarmish - not because of any intrinsic limitations of Arabic, but because Standard Arabic is normally only used in formal contexts. A novelist who wants to render the mood and context of a conversation correctly, rather than just the content, will thus be hard-pressed to avoid at least a few concessions to the colloquial. It's probably no coincidence that Ahlam Mostaghanemi and Waciny Laaredj have sold better than Mouloud Ben Zadi.

In brief: Writing in French encourages the desire to identify with Darja and treat it as a distinct language, but makes actually writing in it feel difficult and superfluous. Writing in Arabic reinforces the idea of Darja as just a provincial dialect of Arabic, but makes writing in Darja feel easy and, in some contexts, almost unavoidable. Writing novels in Darja is not a serious option, for the moment. But if it develops gradually, I suspect its development will be driven by Arabophone writers rather than by Francophone ones.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Lexical gaps in diglossia: When you can't write what you know

"Write what you know" is what they tell aspiring writers. If you're an English speaker who made it through high school, you should be able to do just that, on any topic that you know anything about (although the spelling might need work.) In Algeria (as in other Arabic-speaking countries) diglossia makes it a little more complicated. You may have mastered the grammar perfectly, and gotten a great score on your high school exams. You may be an excellent plumber, or a great fisherman, or an expert carpenter - and you certainly have no problem talking about any of these things in Darja (dialectal Arabic). But try to write about any of those fields, and you're almost guaranteed to run into the limits of your Fusha vocabulary (standard Arabic).

You don't even have to get all that specialised to run into difficulties. If you're Algerian, all of the items listed below should be familiar to you from daily life - some of the words might be different in your region, but you almost certainly still know a Darja word with the appropriate meaning. But how many of them can you name in Fusha? (No fair using a dictionary, especially since you're unlikely to have a Darja-Fusha dictionary.)

  • تورنيفيس (screwdriver)
  • لومبرياج (clutch of a car)
  • زربوط (top)
  • حرّايق (nettle)
  • مشيمشة (loquat)
  • بلاّرج (stork)
  • أكليل، أزير (rosemary)
  • رعف (to have a nosebleed)
  • زبر (to prune)
  • ددّش (to toddle)
  • هترف (to sleep-talk)
In the very unlikely event that you did know all of these in Fusha, ask yourself for each one: if you used this word in an article, how many readers do you think would understand? Granted, a couple of them are trick questions - cases where the Fusha word is basically the same as the Darja one. But the main point stands even in those cases: you probably didn't know that before checking it, and for at least one of those words, I can confirm from personal experience that there are professors teaching in Arabic, and journalists working in Arabic, who didn't know that either. In Algeria (though not necessarily in other countries, like Egypt), the default assumption is always that a Darja word is wrong until proven otherwise.

It's understandable that Algerians (and quite likely other Arabic speakers) tend not to know these words in Fusha. How often do any of them come up in journalism, or religion, or poetry, or any of the other contexts in which people are most frequently exposed to Fusha? But what it means is that even well-educated Algerians don't know enough Fusha to adequately describe their daily life, much less to write all they know. In effect, compared to their Darja abilities, they're suffering from a Fusha-specific language deficiency that limits what they can write about. If you agree with me that it would be nice to see more good Algerian novels, or even more Algerian DIY handbooks, then that's a problem.

Friday, March 18, 2016

School in a language you don't speak

When I was six years old, I started first grade in a small Algerian city, right after having done kindergarten in the US and forgotten most of the Arabic I had previously known. It was by far the most painful institutional transition I've ever had to make. At home, I was devouring National Geographics and starting to tackle The Lord of the Rings - but at school, I'm pretty sure the teacher thought I was retarded. In the classroom, I spent a lot of that year completely tuned out, playing with pens or bits of bread and waiting for the boredom to stop. By the end of second grade I had formed some idea of what the teacher was talking about - her vivid descriptions of hellfire and torture remain particularly memorable - though I still had no idea that there might be actual principles determining whether my writing was judged as correct or incorrect. At that point, however, my parents decided that enough was enough, and we started homeschooling, mostly in the language I spoke best - English. It felt like being released from jail.

My experience of starting school in a language I didn't know is not exactly typical, of course. I was a lot luckier than most. Sure, I was failing at school, but I could already read English just fine, so even at six I could see that that school wasn't the only game around. For most children who start school in a language they don't know, the choices are starker: master the new language, or give up on education altogether.

Plenty of Algerian children have faced precisely that situation, as I saw doing fieldwork in the southwest - and not just during the colonial era. It's what has led the people of Tabelbala and Igli to start speaking Arabic to their children rather than Korandje or Berber. For that matter, so have plenty of American children - Native Americans during the era of forced boarding schools come to mind. It's a problem faced by linguistic minorities all over the world, and, unless they manage to force the schools to make concessions, it often ends in language extinction, as the next generation of parents try to spare their children the trauma they themselves had experienced.

The big difference, though, is that in America, most children come to school speaking something pretty close to the language of their textbooks. In Algeria, and any other Arabic-speaking country, it's a little more complicated. Most children come to school speaking Algerian Arabic, and most teachers use Algerian Arabic with them to some extent, even though they're not supposed to. But the Standard Arabic that they're learning to read is as different from what they speak as the language of Chaucer from 21st-century American English. Even the most divergent Appalachian or inner city dialects are closer to standard English than the home language of the most highly educated middle-class Algerians is to standard Arabic.

Don't get me wrong: it's much easier than starting school in a completely different language. Even before independence, when TV was an unaffordable luxury and 90% of Algerians were illiterate in any language, a sufficiently motivated Arabic speaker could learn to read well enough to do it for fun, without ever passing through anything the colonial government considered to count as a school; that's what my own father did. And now that most children are watching cartoons in Standard Arabic from a young age, the gap is narrower than it used to be. Nevertheless, the difficulties it poses seem conspicuous to anyone lucky enough to have studied in their own language: how many children would be willing to read Chaucer in the original for fun?

You might suppose that the solution is obvious: speak "properly" to your kids! Or, alternatively: Make the spoken dialect into a written language! However, both ideas are almost equally taboo. The idea of teaching dialect at school seems as ridiculous to the average Algerian as it does to the average English speaker: we send them to school to learn stuff they don't know, not the language of the street! But, whereas many English speakers actively try to speak "correct" English, with their children and with everyone else, an Algerian who tried to speak Standard Arabic to everyone would be shunned; you can't seriously expect to be part of Algerian society without speaking the dialect. Of course, English speakers don't react well either when someone tries to speak too formally in an informal situation. But in most English-speaking social circles, it is possible - by the judicious avoidance of words like "judicious" and "avoidance" - to speak English in a way that is simultaneously informal enough to be friendly and prescriptively correct enough to be written down in an essay. That is not possible in Arabic, irrespective of social class: you have to choose one or the other. For me, that lack of a middle ground is what's really distinctive about the situation. For the foreseeable future, this means that most Algerian children will continue to be expected to learn both Algerian Arabic and Standard Arabic (not to mention French and English and sometimes Tamazight too), while having practically no opportunities to hold a conversation in Standard Arabic.

What's the best way to achieve that goal, and what evidence bears on that question? I've been reading around that a bit lately, but if you have any recommendations, please feel free to post them below!

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Translating a pseudo-Welsh accent into French (or, over-explaining a joke)

Recently I came across Accros du Roc, a French translation by Patrick Couton of Terry Pratchett's comic fantasy Soul Music. In the original, Imp y Celyn ("Bud of the Holly" in Welsh) is a young musician from Llamedos, a small country full of druids and stone circles and harps where it rains all the time. He has a conspicuous Llamedos accent, which seems to consist mainly of doubling all his l's: "Not ellvish at allll, honestlly". For British readers, it's fairly obvious what's going on here: Welsh makes extensive use of the letter combination ll (transcribing a lateral fricative not found in English), so doubling the l's gives it a vaguely Welsh look without actually attempting the difficult task of representing a Welsh accent using an orthography as phonetically inexact as English's. Not a terribly funny joke, really, but it plays some small part in establishing our expectations for this character. But how could it be translated into French, or for that matter any other language?

Conveniently enough, France does have a sort of equivalent to Wales, a rainy, mountainous, coastal region with its own Celtic language and a lot of stone circles: Brittany. Breton does not make much use of the combination ll, but it does have a few characteristics that appear equally exotic to French speakers - in particular, the combination c'h (transcribing the velar fricative /x/) and the frequent use of the letter k (for /k/, reasonably enough). So Kreskenn Kelenn (one guess as to the name's meaning in Breton) talks like this:

Je vois un homme ki tient une hac'he de jet !

So in this case, it works out quite well - though I imagine the joke is lost on readers from, say, Quebec.

I gather that Soul Music has been translated into quite a few languages, but I don't think Arabic is one of them. What on earth would a translator do in this case? It would be kind of tempting to go for equating Celts with Berbers - there are a few stone circles in North Africa - and have Imp substitute ث ذ for ت د. But I don't think any Arab reader east of Algeria would get the allusion, and I doubt that the Middle East contains any ethnic group that can be satisfactorily thought of as playing the role for the Arabs that the Welsh do for the English. Then again, if I were an Arabic translator asked to take on Soul Music, I would give up immediately - any of the few Arabic speakers capable of getting enough of the rock music history allusions to be entertained by the book would be more comfortable reading it in English or French anyway. But that objection is not insuperable: after all, The Wasteland and Finnegan's Wake have been translated into Arabic (for some reason). Perhaps some day a genius will come along sufficiently reckless to give it a try...

Monday, February 22, 2016

From existential to indefinite determiner: Kaš in Algerian Arabic

One of the few characteristics of Algerian Arabic that are genuinely unique to Algeria is kaš كاش "some, any". At first sight, this rather frequent word must baffle Arabic speakers from other regions, to say nothing of learners of Arabic. However, it turns out to be a quite recent development, completed only in the 20th century, from two well-known Arabic words: kan كان "there is" (originally "was"), and ši شي "some, something, thing" (originally "thing"). I've just published a short article examining its usage and development: From existential to indefinite determiner: Kaš in Algerian Arabic (in the Proceedings of AIDA 11). Its core findings are summed up in this little graphic:

The center of the image has already been explained above. For the rest, you need to see examples of the five principal functions of kaš. The most central seems to be as an irrealis indefinite determiner, as in:

جا كاش واحد؟
ja kaš waħəd?
came any one?
"Did anyone come?"
However, it can also be used existentially in questions, as in:
كاش حليب؟
kaš ħlib?
any milk?
"Is there any milk?"
And, of course, it forms the second half of the extremely frequent negative existential "there is no":
ماكاش الزهر
makaš əz-zhəṛ
NegExist the-luck
"There is no luck."
In combination with the complementiser ma ما, it yields another two rather surprising constructions:
كاش ما شريت؟
kaš ma šri-t?
any that buy-2Sg?
"Did you buy anything?"
كاش ما جا؟
kaš ma ja?
any that came?
"Did he come (at all, by any chance)?"
For full details of how Algerian Arabic managed to produce all these functions by combining an existential marker and a quantifier, you'll have to read the article!

A rather similar grammaticalization seems to have taken place in Chinese for yŏu 有; can you think of any other comparable cases?

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Gravitational waves and lexical diffusion

Recently, the detection of gravitational waves made headlines all over the world. These waves were only hypothesised a century ago, and have literally never been consciously experienced by a human being before. Apart from a few physics fans, most people had (still have?) never heard of them. That means that, this month, millions of people all over the world are learning, for the first time, how to say "gravitational waves" in their own language, entirely as a result of media coverage. For the official languages of First World countries, determining how to say "gravitational waves" was simply a matter of looking it up in a dictionary, or consulting a physicist; the groundwork had been laid long since for terms such as the following (morphemes separated by dots). In most European languages, even the term for "gravity" and/or "gravitational" had been borrowed wholesale from Latin, and all that had needed doing was to translate "wave" and add appropriate inflectional morphology: Of course, Latin is not the only classical language; Japanese, for one, had opted to coin a term out of morphemes borrowed from Chinese:
  • Japanese: 重力波 (jū.ryoku.ha; weight-force-wave)
In the Third World, the naming problem is a little less straightforward. There are plenty of physicists speaking Arabic, for example, but it cannot even automatically be assumed that an Arabic-speaking physicist will be capable of talking about physics in Arabic; many not only work but even teach in a foreign language. Nevertheless, the mere fact of a language being extensively used in media and teaching guarantees that it already contains expressions for "gravity" and "gravitational", not to speak of "wave", and makes it probable that they had already been combined, as in the following expressions: For languages not lucky enough to enjoy official status, the issue poses more difficulties. The BBC's Hausa service heroically managed to coin or find a term for "gravitational waves" in Hausa - a language with no specific word for "wave" - but one wonders how physicists, to say nothing of ordinary speakers, feel about it... What about Berber? Well, in principle the relevant words have been coined, probably more than once. If we go with Mazed's (2003) Amawal amatu n tfizikt tatrart, "gravitational waves" should be timdeswalin tizayzayanin. You may not be unduly surprised to hear that this gets zero hits on Google. There are dictionaries of proposed terminology for Tamazight (pan-Berber), but there are no fully Berber-language newspapers, and nobody teaching physics in Berber. Very likely the Berber-language radio/TV stations have spoken about this news, but if so, my experience of Algeria's Radio 2 suggests that they probably just switched into French to express it - and if they did use the neologisms, chances are virtually none of their listeners understood them.

What about Siwi, or Korandje? Come on - who are we kidding? If a speaker of either wanted to speak about gravitational waves, they would simply use the Arabic term (or possibly the French or English one). Nothing in the structure of these languages prevents them from coining the terminology for this - but the fact that these languages have no media or educational system of their own, and are spoken by communities too small to include any professional physicists, makes it extremely unlikely that their speakers will do so, and even less likely that any such coinages will be successful.

The moral is obvious: for a language's speakers to effectively be able to talk about the full range of topics associated with the modern world without resorting to code-switching or nonce borrowing, they need mass schooling and mass media in that language.

Which brings me to another recent news item: it appears that Morocco's Minister of Education, Rachid Belmokhtar, plans to start teaching scientific and technical subjects in French, even in secondary school (1 2). The most obvious disadvantage of such a policy is that it makes it impossible for students doing badly in French to understand these subjects, thus reducing even further their already limited chances. But its implications for Standard Arabic in Morocco bear considering too: this decision condemns an important part of its vocabulary to local oblivion.

Tuesday, February 09, 2016

A Soninke loan in Songhay

There are a rather large number of words in Songhay, the language of the Niger River valley between Timbuktu and southern Niger, which are almost the same as in Soninke, the language of the semidesert regions around the Mali-Senegal-Mauritania borders well to the west. Since most of the basic vocabulary is very different, these must be considered loanwords. But how do we tell which language coined them and which one borrowed them from the other? In some cases, this can be tricky, but in others it's quite clear-cut.

Three years ago, I discussed a Songhay-Arabic poem including the Timbuktu-area word sete "caravan". This word is well-attested elsewhere in Songhay, from eastern Mali to northern Benin (though not in the Sahara proper):

  • Gao šeta "(camels) go on caravan", šetete "go in single file" (Heath)
  • Hombori sèt-ò "convoy, caravan", sétt-ó "pack of horses" (Heath)
  • Kaado sété "village delegation sent to seek food in times of famine" (Ducroz and Charles)
  • Zarma sátá "group, troupe, team" (White and Kaba)
  • Kandi sété "row" (Heath)
The root is also found in Fulani, eg Gambian Fula sete "caravan" (Gamble), Pular seteejo "traveller, caravaneer", setagol "go on a trip" (Bah), and Heath glosses it as a Fulani loan in his Hombori Songhay dictionary. In neither language, however, does it have an obvious derivation from some shorter or more basic form. For that, we need to turn to a third language - Soninke.

In Soninke, setú is the normal word for "to ride", glossed by Diagana "to be on top, to ride, to perch". By applying the productive morphological process C1V1C2V2 > C1V1C2C2V2, normally used to form imperfectives, we get sètté "caravan, cavalcade, group on horseback, riding". This etymology is not possible in Songhay, where "ride" is kaaru, nor in Fulani, where "ride" is maɗɗ- / waɗɗ-. We thus see that this commercially and politically significant word must have been coined within Soninke. That fits some aspects of the known history of the region: the early Soninke kingdom of Ghana played an important role in the development of the trans-Saharan trade, and even after its fall a diaspora of Soninke traders, the so-called Wangara, played an important role in tying the region together economically.

Friday, January 22, 2016

Feminine endings in the orthography of the Qur'an

Phoenix has started posting a rather interesting series on the orthography of the Qur'an and the linguistic features it reflects. Such features, it must be noted, need not always reflect the dialect of the Qur'anic text itself; they may reflect pre-existing orthographic conventions developed for the dialect of another region, most probably Jordan where the Aramaic script was first adapted to writing Arabic, or indeed may reflect another, less prestigious register of the speech of Quraysh. This proviso is not merely a theoretical point. Phoenix discusses one case, the spelling of /ā/ with wāw و, in which the spelling looks as though it reflects an older pronunciation than that found in Classical Arabic. The opposite also holds, however: in some contexts, strangely enough, the orthography of the Qur'an corresponds better to modern Arabic dialects than to Classical Arabic or to any of the Qur'anic reading traditions. Phoenix already discusses one such case, but the most striking to my eyes is the spelling of imra'at- امرأة "woman" in the following two verses:
إِذْ قَالَتِ امْرَأَتُ عِمْرَانَ رَبِّ إِنِّي نَذَرْتُ لَكَ مَا فِي بَطْنِي
when the wife of 'Imran said, "My Lord, indeed I have pledged to You what is in my womb" (3:35)

وَإِنِ امْرَأَةٌ خَافَتْ مِنْ بَعْلِهَا نُشُوزًا أَوْ إِعْرَاضًا فَلَا جُنَاحَ عَلَيْهِمَا
And if a woman fears from her husband contempt or evasion, there is no sin upon them if they make terms of settlement between them - and settlement is best (4:128)

Why is the final t written with tā' ت in the first case, and with tā' marbūṭah ة in the other? In Classical Arabic and in every Qur'anic reading tradition I know of, both are pronounced with the same final consonant, t, followed in both cases by the same case vowel, u. Only at the end of a phrase or line is feminine -t- pronounced h, and that is not possible here. However, in almost every spoken Arabic dialect in use today (there are a couple of exceptions in Yemen), the word for "woman" - along with most other feminine nouns - is pronounced with a final consonant t in 'iḍāfah إضافة contexts like the first one (ie when possessed), and with no stop a(h) in other contexts like the second. In Algerian Arabic, for example, "the wife of Imran" would be məṛ-t ʕəmṛan مرت عمران, whereas "a woman" would be mṛ-a مرا. If you examine all the Qur'anic occurrences of this word on the QAC, you will quickly note that imra'at- is written with a tā' ت if and only if it is possessed, ie in 'iḍāfah, and otherwise is written with tā' marbūṭah ة.

However, whereas in the dialects this is true of almost all feminine nouns, in the Qur'anic text it seems to be much more restricted. Contrast nāqat- ناقة "she-camel" or ṣibġat- صبغة "colouring", which are written with tā' marbūṭah ة throughout, including when possessed. For jannat- جنة "garden", there is at least one case of an 'iḍāfah with tā' ت:

فَرَوْحٌ وَرَيْحَانٌ وَجَنَّتُ نَعِيمٍ
rest and bounty and a garden of pleasure (56:89)
Other cases, however, are written with tā' marbūṭah ة:
عِنْدَهَا جَنَّةُ الْمَأْوَىٰ
Near it is the Garden of Refuge (53:15)

How is this state of affairs to be explained, given that not only all the reading traditions but even the orthography of hamzas confirm that Qur'anic Arabic kept the case endings? No doubt the question can be - and probably has been - extensively debated, but on the face of it, it looks as though the scribes were familiar with two dialects: that of the text itself, presumably a high register of the dialect of Quraysh, and another one - perhaps a low register, or perhaps the dialect of another, more literate region - which, like modern colloquial Arabic, had already dropped case endings. The latter was not prestigious enough to be used for reading the Qur'an, but was sufficiently well-established in writing to influence its spelling. والله أعلم.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

"Taharrush gamea" and the perils of reasoning from lexicon to culture

The media was strangely slow to report the shameful and horrible events of New Year's Day in Cologne, in which organised groups of drunk youths, most of them born in North Africa, systematically surrounded women coming out of the train station in order to sexually harass them and steal their valuables. Once they finally noticed, however, it took over the headlines for days on end. Scrambling to respond, the police issued a long and bureaucratic report including the following:
So liegen dem Bundeskriminalamt Erkenntnisse dazu vor, dass in arabischen Ländern ein Modus Operandi bekannt ist, der als "taharrush gamea (gemeinsame sexuelle Belästigung in Menschenmengen) bezeichnet wird. Darüber wurde z. B. anlässlich der ägyptischen Revolution von den Medien berichtet.
[It is thus found by the Bundeskriminalamt that in Arab countries there is known a modus operandi called "taharrush gamea" (group sexual harassment in crowds). This was reported on, for example, by the media on the occasion of the Egyptian revolution. (Update: See comments for a more precise translation.)]
The term as quoted there, misspelling and all, now gets over 116,000 hits on Google News. Most of these hits seem to take this somewhere the German police prudently did not go, leaping with shock or glee to the conclusion that, if Arabic has a name for this phenomenon, it must be deeply rooted in the Arab world indeed. Indeed, at least one prominent typologist who shall remain nameless followed in the same direction, blithely asserting that "there is nothing racist about saying that taharrush gamea (the Arabic term for the gang sexual assault of women) is an Arab custom, part of Arab culture". A closer look at the data reveals that this hasty reasoning is not only incorrect, but results in a profound misunderstanding of the problem for which this name was coined.

‍"Taharrush gamea" is a misspelled transcription of an Egyptian pronunciation of the phrase تحرش جماعي taḥarruš jamāʕiyy, literally "group (jamāʕiyy) harassment (taḥarruš)". Until this month, this phrase was no more familiar to me than to any of these reporters, but I had heard of the phenomenon it describes, although only in one country - Egypt. Abdelmonem 2015 and Ebaid 2013 provide some more background on the recent history of sexual harassment in Egypt. Basically, individual harassment has existed forever, there as in other countries, but on Id al-Adha 2006 a new, unprecedented phenomenon appeared: a mob of young men went on a "mass sexual harassment spree" after being turned away from a cinema. This event was captured on video and widely denounced online, but bloggers' denunciations were not enough to prevent it from being repeated in 2008, and then effectively turned into a political tool during the abortive Egyptian revolution after 2011.

This history suggests that the phenomenon, and therefore presumably the name, are less than ten years old. Corpus investigation confirms this: as I could confidently predict even before checking, it gets zero hits on Alwaraq.net, an extensive library of Arabic heritage texts ranging from the Umayyad period to near-modern times. Google Trends gives a more precise figure: it shows up on Google starting in 2013, only following the Arab Spring! However, the frequency of the term is so low that Google Trends' figures for it can hardly be reliable, and we may suspect that in reality it was coined sometime between 2006 and 2013.

The most obvious question this raises, given that most of the suspects are from Algeria and Morocco, not Egypt, is: were they even familiar with this phenomenon, let alone the term? Unfortunately, by 2015 they could well have been: it may have started in Egypt, but it is no longer an Egyptian monopoly. Horrified reports of it - all postdating the Egyptian revolution - can be found online for Morocco (2014), Jordan (2014), and even Saudi Arabia (2013, 2015). The obvious hypothesis is that the massive media coverage of such crimes following the Egyptian revolution was taken by some good-for-nothings as an inspiration rather than as a warning.

Obviously, any editorial writer who wants to draw conclusions from this term's existence should have started by asking themselves: how old is this name, and how widely known is it? Assuming that it represents some sort of age-old Arab custom suggests one set of conclusions, such the New York Times' superfically anodyne description of the attacks as a "culture clash". Knowing that the term seems to be less than ten years old, and has come into wider use only within the past three years, yields quite another: namely, that "mass harassment" is a new crime (or at least a new variant of an old one), appealing to a certain type of "man", and spread virally by satellite TV coverage and videos shared on social media. In which case, the role currently being played by the media may be somewhat less than constructive.

Friday, January 08, 2016

Party reactions to the officialisation of Tamazight in Algeria

Algeria's political parties are gradually responding to the proposed constitutional text. I've mocked their powerlessness and irrelevance before, but in this case, looking at their reactions gives an interesting guide to what kind of opinions on this matter are accepted today within the Algerian establishment, which, over the past couple of decades, has gradually reached a consensus on the importance of at least claiming to respect Amazigh identity.

The political core of this establishment (as distinct from the shadowy military/security core ultimately controlling it) consists of three parties, all supporting the same president: the flag-waving FLN, which used to be the only party during the socialist period; the more or less ideology-free RND, created to supplement the FLN; and (a distant and opportunistic third) the Islamist HMS/MSP. A wide variety of smaller, more independent officially recognised parties are variously courted or marginalised; the most important of these are the long-standing socialist FFS and the secularist RCD, together dominant in Kabylie; the Islamist Justice Party; and the Trotskyist Workers' Party. Parties without official recognition are excluded and as far as possible silenced. Of the parties previously mentioned, the FFS, RCD, and Workers' Party have included Tamazight on their election posters for decades, while the rest have gradually moved from reflexive opposition (in the name of national unity and the importance of Arabic) to more or less grudging acceptance. Their change of position is primarily a reaction to periodic Kabyle protests ever since 1980, but the Arab Spring also helped, insofar as it made much of the establishment want to put a little more distance between Algeria and the Arab world.

The FLN's secretary-general, Amar Saïdani, patted himself on the back for the amendment, claiming that "The FLN was the first party in government to demand the officialisation of Tamazight". The word "appropriation" comes to mind. The RND's Ahmed Ouyahia had more sociolinguistically interesting things to say (and said them in Kabyle); he's very clear on the idea of creating a standard Tamazight distinct from what people of any one region speak:

Ar ass-a, mazal kull jiha tesseɣṛay Tamaziɣt s elluɣa-s [...] maci s Tmaziɣt a-m hedṛeɣ-d s Teqbaylit. Gma acawi ad yefhem balak xemsin f-elmya. Ma aṭas. Gma si Lhugaṛ kif-kif, balak xemsa u ɛacrin f-elmya. Ilaq ad nexleq lluɣa-yagi n Tmaziɣt.
Up to today, each region still teaches Tamazight in its own language [...] I'm speaking to you in Kabyle, not in Tamazight. A Chaoui brother will understand maybe 50%, at most. A brother from the Hoggar likewise, maybe 25%. We need to create this Tamazight language.
And he backhandedly acknowledges that the task of Tamazight language planning has largely been tackled by people way outside the establishment:
Lḥaja d nniḍen, Ṛṛayes Butefliqa yefka-d liqtiṛaḥ-agi, isaṛeḥ-d d atmaten-is. Ur-d iṛuḥ ara s tkellaxt. A-k neqqaṛ di lluɣa n tmaziɣt, tikerkasin. Tagi- tagi ḥefḍeɣ-tt seg laɛṛuc.
Another thing, President Bouteflika made this suggestion acting frankly with his brothers. He didn't do it as a trick - or, as we say in the Tamazight language, tikerkasin (lies). That (neologism) I learned from the Arouch movement.
The president of the "establishment" Islamist party HMS/MSP, Abderrezak Mokri, responded by urging unity around both languages in the face of a common threat:
The language that's contesting Arabic in its own home is French, and the language that's making Tamazight disappear from its homelands is French. Arabic and Tamazight are sisters that have been living together and nourishing one another for centuries. The language that is dominating administration, and that officials are speaking in in official meetings, is French, and that is the language being mouthed by idle Westernizing misguided people in our country, for speaking between themselves or even with their sons and spouses. By God than whom there is no other god, were it not for Islam, we would be like Benin or Senegal or Cote d'Ivoire, speaking various dialects and able to communicate with one another only through French. The time has come for both languages, Tamazight and Arabic, to ally with one another, as they did in the past, in order to expel colonisation and the language of colonisation from the strongholds of sovereignty that it still occupies.
Abdallah Djaballah, of the more independent Islamist Justice Party, responded less enthusiastically:
[The draft Constitution] added the Tamazight issue, but neglected to address the characters that it should be written in - Arabic or Latin. This omission is deliberate and intended to serve those who call for it to be written in Latin characters. If that happens, then it would be extremely dangerous to the Arabic language, and will in practice empower French, making Tamazight a mere tool to serve the French language. That would be a major breach of the second most important principle governing Algerian society, and would call for a popular referendum.
The FFS, Algeria's oldest serious opposition party, seems not to have commented on the proposal yet, distracted no doubt by the recent death of its widely respected leader, Hocine Ait Ahmed. Its principal officially recognised rival in Kabylie, the RCD, responded with a fine bit of what the French call "langue de bois":
The second point, the officialisation of the Amazigh language, finally consecrates many generations' struggle for a legitimate demand essential for the harmony and credibility of the parameters defining the framework that is to host our common destiny. One cannot speak of reconciliation as long as the first language of North Africa, used by millions of speakers, is ignored by the basic law of the country. Nevertheless, this advance remains to be turned into an effective practice putting the Amazigh dimension, language, culture, and history, back into public life. In this regard, the promulgation of the organic law and the terms in which it is formulated will require citizens' attention.