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, 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.

Wednesday, January 06, 2016

Tamazight official in Algeria

Yesterday, Ouyahia made an announcement with momentous implications for Algerian language policy: the revised constitution that they've been working on is to make Tamazight (Berber) official. The section on language policy follows, with proposed revisions in bold (see مشروع تمهيدي لمراجعة الدستور, or in French: Avant projet de révision de la Constitution):
Article 3. Arabic is the national and official language. Arabic remains the official language of the State. A High Commission for the Arabic Language shall be created under the President. The High Commission for the Arabic Language shall be tasked particularly with working for Arabic to flourish and for its use to be generalised in scientific and technological fields, and with encouraging translation into it towards this end.
Article 3b. Tamazight is also a national and official language. The State shall work to promote and develop it in all of its linguistic variety used within the national territory. An Algerian Academy of the Amazigh Language shall be created, placed under the President of the Republic. The Academy shall refer to experts' work and shall be tasked with providing the necessary conditions for the development of Tamazight, with a view towards eventually making its official status concrete. The means of implementation of this article shall be determined by organic law.
Now anyone who's not cynical about the Algerian Constitution hasn't been paying attention. As I recall, Algeria has changed its Constitution more often than it's changed its president since its independence in 1962 - indeed, one of the proposed new changes, term limits, simply reverses a fairly recent change made specifically so the current president (now somewhere near his deathbed) could stay in power longer. And the fact that French is still dominant in much of the government today, decades after Arabic became official, gives some idea of how slow the implementation can be expected to be. The timing of this announcement - in the wake of massive, budget-busting oil price drops - makes it a transparent attempt to curry favour with part of the population without having to actually spend anything on helping them.

Nevertheless, justified cynicism should not blind us to the change this represents. It's not just that Tamazight is now to be official; it's that the idea of making Tamazight official is hardly even controversial any more, including among Arabic speakers. The extent to which this idea has become mainstream is as much a victory for one of the most justifiable demands of the Amazigh movement as the new article itself is.