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.


David Marjanović said...

Where would the n- come from?

(I'm ignoring the vowels because I guess they could be explained through morphology or epenthesis somehow.)

Anonymous said...

Abu lxayr al icbili, umdat attabib [Mediëval Andalus]
- ulmus: awalmay, awalmi, ulmu, tizzaght

Imed Adel said...

I often hear children conjugating the verb kla/kul as nkul, tkul... rather than nak°el, tak°el.... However, I don't understand their transition from this "wrong" (but regular) conjugation to the usual (but irregular) one.

Etienne said...

I'm assuming the Kabyle /ulmu/, because of its vowels and absence of initial /n/, is a Latinism. Is it found elsewhere in Berber, and (if so) does its distribution indicate a word borrowed by Proto-Berber itself?

Lameen Souag الأمين سواق said...

David: I don't have a good explanation for the n; Semitic-internally, one might envision a reinterpretation of a phrase with an early version of the definite article, like *han-'aɬam > *ha(n)-naɬam, but that's pretty speculative.

Anon: Thanks!

Emad: Interesting observation; I wonder at what age they correct themselves?

Etienne: The distribution of elms in North Africa is too limited to tell for certain whether the word could be Proto-Berber or not (it doesn't grow in Mauritania, for a start), but the medieval, non-Kabyle evidence cited by Anonymous is suggestive.

Imed Adel said...

Unfortunately I didn't have the chance to get enough information about that. However, the inverse happened to me: I was using "ak°el" as the imperative of "kla" instead of "kul". I changed it at the age of 15 after my friends corrected me.

Etienne said...

About elms: if elm wood was a sufficiently useful/widespread trade item, I could easily imagine that the loanword /ulmu/ could have existed in Proto-Berber even if elm trees did not grow in the Urheimat.

The quotation by Anonymous is suggestive, but it could also suggest that /ulmu/ was borrowed from Mozarabic Romance (phonologically, it could be late Latin or Medieval Southern Romance).