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.