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.