Friday, December 21, 2018

We're all related: a calque from Kabyle into Darja

Algerian Arabic (or at least Dellys Arabic) has a verb for "be related to" (as family): kul كول, taking the dative, as in waš y-kul-lek? واش يكوللك "what relation is he to you?" In the reciprocal form, this yields tkawel تكاول "be related to each other"; "we're related to each other" is ne-tkawl-u نتكاولوا. These only seem to be used in the (present) imperfective; I've never heard anyone say *kal كال.

This verb clearly derives from an Arabic word still used in its own right in Algerian Arabic: kun كون "be", with regular assimilation of n+l to ll and reinterpretation of the root. waš y-kul-lek واش يكوللك "what relation is he to you?" was originally waš y-kun-lek واش يكونلك "what is he to you?" But that construction seems rather odd and unidiomatic from a Classical Arabic perspective. You don't normally use an equational verb "to be" in the indicative present tense like that, in Classical Arabic or even in Algerian Arabic; you would rather expect something with a pronoun, like *wašen huwwa lik واشن هو ليك (which you don't hear). What's going on here?

Flipping through Dallet's (1982) enormous dictionary of Kabyle as spoken by the Ait Menguellet, I came across the answer. The Kabyle verb ili "to be" (imperfective ttili) matches Arabic kun كون fairly well in its usage. In the imperfective, with the dative, it means "be related to" (his gloss: "être parent avec, avoir relation de parenté à"): d acu i-m tettili? "what relation is she to you?") It likewise has a reciprocal myili (imperfective ttemyili) "have in common; be related to each other", which in the latter sense only seems to show up in the imperfective: nettemyili "we're related to each other".

It seems clear that the Algerian Arabic verb derives from an excessively literal translation - a calque - of the Kabyle expression, probably by people whose first language was Kabyle. But since then it's taken its own path; whereas in Kabyle the meaning "be related to" remains a context-specific sense of the verb "be", in Algerian Arabic the change of n to l has allowed it to become an independent lexeme in its own right with no one-to-one Kabyle translation equivalent. Contact catalyses change, but the resulting change follows its own path.

Monday, December 03, 2018

Language attitudes around Paris: a vignette

As we reached the stop by the supermarket the other day, I told my son in English "Now we're getting off the bus." This caught the attention of an elderly man sitting near us, who, as we got off, told him with a smile in accented English "Hello. You speak English - very good!". Turning to me, he asked "Est-ce qu'il parle français aussi ? [Does he also speak French?]"

I assured him that he does, and my son piped up with "Moi je parle trois langues : français; anglais, et arabe [I speak three languages: French, English, and Arabic]". Not to be outdone, the old man replied "Comme moi ; je parle français, anglais, allemand, arabe, et hébreu. [Like me; I speak French, English, German, Arabic, and Hebrew.]" I was duly impressed, and he continued "J'ai grandi à Oran, et j'ai fait mes études à la Sorbonne. [I grew up in Oran, then studied at the Sorbonne.]"

"Ô, moi aussi je suis algérien [Oh, I'm Algerian too]", I replied.

His response: "Ah, est-ce que vous êtes français ou israélite ? [So are you French, or Jewish?]"

My answer "Ni l'un ni l'autre [Neither one]" seemed to come as a surprise... The conversation ended about there, as we went our separate ways, with him saying " تهلّا في روحك thəḷḷa fi ṛuħək [Take care]".

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Algerian Sign Language

According to Glottolog, the least documented language in Algeria is neither Korandje nor some Berber variety, but rather one that might not immediately leap to mind: Algerian Sign Language. If you have some idea of what to look for, though, there turns out to be a lot more available than might be expected; here's a brief bibliography gleaned from online:
  • Boutaleb, Djamila. 1987. Les enfants sourds en Algérie : Problèmes d'acquisition de la langue écrite [Deaf children in Algeria: Problems of written language acquisition]. Thèse de doctorat 3e cycle, Université Sorbonne Paris. 408pp. [Abstract: This thesis deals with the problems of deafness in Algeria, more particularly in schools where an attempt is made to pin down the causes of failure in the learning of language by deaf children. In order to understand the difficulties, it had seemed appropriate to examine the problem of deafness itself and its consequences on schooling and social life. This will be the subject of the first part. The emphasis will be on this "difference" which affects primarily the development of language and which may cause schooling delays and create psychoaffective problems and social problems. The current conflict of methods, oralism sign language, makes it possible to reconsider the status of deaf children thanks to the findings of linguistics and the works of psycholinguists and sociolinguists, of whom some current ideas will be presented in this work. In the second part, the deaf community in Algeria will be illustrated with some historical and socio-educational characteristics, for, to know the past and present living conditions of the deaf gives us the means to understand their actual level in the practice of the written language, which will be examined in the third part. The observed difficulties lie at the syntactic level, as well as the lexical, grammatical, and orthographic levels. The choice of deaf francophones, deaf arabophones, and hearing pupils benefits our analysis. This study is made in a pedagogical prospect but is integrated in a set of psycho-sociolinguistic views.]
  • مديرية النشاط الإجتماعي (الجزائر) [Direction des Affaires Sociales (Algérie)]. n.d. قاموسي الأول في لغة الإشارة : الجزء الاول [My First Dictionary of Sign Language: Volume 1]. Algiers. 50pp.
  • Djama, Amal. 2016. Les points communs entre la Langue des Signes Algérienne (LSA) - dialecte de Laghouat, Sud de l’Algérie - et la Langue des Signes Française (LSF) [Commonalities between Algerian Sign Language (LSA) - dialect of Laghouat, southern Algeria - and French Sign Language (LSF)]. Dossier, licence SCL « Acquisition et dysfonctionnement » (SCL F14), Licence 3, AMU, Faculté ALLSHS d’Aix-en-Provence. 5pp. [Comparison of 25 signs].
  • Guiroub, Mustapha. 2010-09-27. «La langue des signes algérienne est une revendication des sourds» [Algerian Sign Language is a demand of the deaf]. El Watan. [Notes that Algerian Sign Language is descended from French Sign Language (LSF), but that about 50% of the vocabulary is different; that there are many differences within Algeria between the North and the South; and that efforts at standardization are being undertaken.]
  • Lakhfif, Abdelaziz. 2009. Un Environnement de Traduction Automatique du Texte Arabe vers la Langue des Signes Algérienne (LSA) [An Automatic Translation Environment from Arabic Text to Algerian Sign Language (LSA)]. Mémoire de Magistèr en Informatique, Université Badji Mokhtar - Annaba. 134pp. [The only specific information about Algerian Sign Language given is a brief discussion of its legal status, pp. 16-17; as far as I can see, the author seems to have no contact with Algerian signers.]
  • Mansour, Mohamed Seghier. 2007. Langage et surdité, Description de la langue des signes des sourds oranais [Language and Deafness. Description of Oranais Sign Language]. Mémoire de magistère, Université d'Oran Es-Sénia. 124pp. [An analysis of sign formation in Algerian Sign Language as spoken in Oran, with a brief discussion of syntax, and some background on the language's history taken mainly from Boutaleb (1987).]
  • Ministère de la Solidarité nationale, de la Famille et de la Condition féminine (Algérie). 2017. Dictionnaire de la langue des signes algérienne : 1560 mots signés les plus usités. Trilingue Arabe - français - langue des signes. 29 thèmes de la vie quotidienne / قاموس لغة الإشارة الجزائرية : 1560 كلمة الأكثر استعمالا. ثلاثي اللغة : عربي - فرنسي - لغة الإشارة. 29 موضواعا من الحياة اليومية [Dictionary of Algerian Sign Language: 1560 most used signs. Trilingual Arabic-French-Sign language. 29 themes from daily life].
  • Ministère de la Solidarité Nationale (Algérie). 2008. Langue des signes algerienne : Guide de recherche et de recueil des signes [Algerian Sign Language: Guide for research and sign collection]. Algiers. 50pp.
  • Ministère de la Solidarité Nationale (Algérie). 2008. La langue des signes [Sign language]. Algiers. 14pp.
And - perhaps more usefully - a brief videography: Let's round this off with a school: Of course, one obvious question remains open: is there really just one sign language in Algeria?

Thursday, September 06, 2018

Baghrir as a battleground

I really don't have the time to post these days, but I couldn't resist letting you all know about a strong contender for the most ridiculous language-related controversy I've ever seen: the Moroccan baghrir scandal. "Baghrir" بغرير, as North Africans will know, is a kind of delicious pancake typically served with honey. A recent Moroccan primary school textbook incorporates (presumably for the first time) a picture of this regional delicacy, captioned with its name: الْبَغْرِيرُ. Pretty banal, right?
Image result for ‫بغرير دراسية‬‎

Apparently not. A furore erupted on social and traditional media, as ordinary people and self-styled experts lined up to lambast the Ministry of Education for this shocking betrayal of the Arabic language. Fouad Bouali of the National Coalition for the Arabic Language fulminated: "Citizens don't need "baghrir" or "slou" in their school texts... "The use of folk expressions in school texts caps the tendency towards dialectalization". Prof. Mohamed Nabil Esrifi of Ibn Tofail University wrote a letter to the head of government:
In shock, a shock whose bitterness I share with millions of Moroccan citizens, at the insertion of "popular Darija" expressions in approved school texts, which has spoiled our appetite for our favourite dishes such as "briwat" and "baghrir" and "ghribia", and raised our blood pressure and body temperature... I address you this letter to put an end to the rise in idleness and neglect of the career of a whole generation, the dissolution of educational content, and the stultification of the act of education."
Naturally, some took a more sensible view, such as Dr. Mohsen Akramine:
"We cannot reject a group of names that we commonly use in our social life on a regular basis, such as "briwat bellouz" and "baghrir" and "ghribia". so what problem does the term "baghrir" create in nurturing learning in class?... We cannot restrict the Arabic language to the language of "the lion and the blade" [two archaic terms are used, but English is rather poor in synonyms for "lion"]; the Arabic language cannot remain stuck in the classroom and the lecture hall, completely isolated from our daily business."
As far as I can see, none of the shocked citizens complaining about this has ventured to suggest an acceptable Standard Arabic synonym for "baghrir".  Nor have they ever objected to the word's routine presence in cookbooks - which, along with schoolbooks and religious texts, are basically what keep most North African bookshops alive.  So is the idea simply that this impure term must be kept out of the sacred space of the classroom, or what?  My mind is boggled - or, as they say in Algeria, مُخّك يحبس.

Sunday, August 19, 2018

Bilingual suppletion comes from selection conflicts: Supporting evidence from Pichi

Azeb Amha recently directed my attention to a very interesting passage in Kofi Yakpo's grammar of Pichi, the English-based creole spoken in Equatorial Guinea. In this language, English-based numerals are used up to seven (and known in theory by some speakers up to ten), while Spanish numerals are familiar to all speakers and are used consistently above seven. The English numerals are followed by singulars (plural marking in Pichi is handled with postposed dɛ̀n, and occasionally the suffix -s):
‘So I have three nationalities in this world.’ [fr03ft 102]
When Spanish numerals are used, however (p. 545), we get "bilingual suppletion" (Matras 2012) - i.e., a grammatical rule of one language that seems to require switching into another one:
The attributive use of Spanish numerals goes along with the insertion of Spanish head nouns – there is no instance of a mixed combination of a Spanish numeral and a Pichi noun:
‘Leave her, let her reach [the age of] fifteen years.’ [ab03ay 138]

In Spanish, of course, numerals other than 1 select for plural nouns.

Now I would prefer to see a wider range of examples before reaching any firm conclusions, because counters like "years" are inherently more likely to cause borrowing of numeral+noun units. But, as described, this language precisely fits the explanation proposed for bilingual suppletion in Souag & Kherbache (2016), based on Myers-Scotton's Embedded Language Island Hypothesis:

[W]here bilingual suppletion in numeral+noun combinations emerges, it will occur only following borrowed numerals whose noun selectional requirements in the source language differ from those in the recipient language.
I was, of course, unaware that Pichi displayed bilingual suppletion when I proposed this generalization, so I take this as corroborating evidence. I would be interested to hear of any further examples.

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Yaqṭīn as substratum vocabulary?

A strong contender for the most obviously ridiculous etymology in Jeffery's The Foreign Vocabulary of The Quran is his attempt to derive yaqṭīn "gourd" from a "garbled form" of Hebrew qîqāyôn (p. 309). Is it possible to do better?

Like ḍarīʕ, yaqṭīn is barely attested in early Islamic-era literature apart from Qur'ānic allusions and botanical texts. However, in this case the grammarians also take an interest, due to the word's slightly unusual form. Sībawayh (d. 796) notes it as one of two nouns of the form yaCCīC(the similar pattern yaCCūC, mainly for animal names, is more productive), along with a yellow-flowered desert plant called yaʕḍīd (Launaea mucronata). The latter word is well-attested in modern Arabic dialects, eg Najdi ʕaḍīd - and has passed into Korandje, the Songhay language of an oasis in southwestern Algeria, as yaʕḍud; I first heard it there, in a chant from a children's story:

aɣ a išən kadda, I'm a little goat,
aɣ a nɣa tantərama, I eat tantərama,
aɣ a nɣa lyaʕḍud, I eat Launaea.

Now, yaʕḍīd is presumably derived from the root ʕḍd, "support" (etc.); despite its scrawniness, the plant holds itself well above the ground. A Hebrew or Aramaic origin is obviously out of the question, given the ḍ. Ibn Durayd (d. 933) cites a third word of this form whose origin is clearer: yaʕqīd "thickened (crystallized?) honey", related to 'aʕqada "thicken (a liquid)" (ويَعْقيد: عسل يُعقد حتى يَخْثُر). By analogy, one would expect yaqṭīn to be derived from the root qṭn, and this is exactly what al-Zamakhsharī (d. 1144) not unreasonably proposes:

واليقطين: كل ما ينسدح على وجه الأرض ولا يقوم على ساق كشجر البطيخ والقثاء والحنظل، وهو يفعيل من قطن بالمكان إذا قام به. وقيل هو: الدباء.
Yaqṭīn is anything that sprawls on the surface of the earth and does not stand on a stalk, like the melon and the snake cucumber and the colocynth. It is (of the form) yaCCīC, from qṭn, "it dwells/settles" in a place if it comes up there. It is also said to be the gourd.

However, the fact that Arabic has only three words of this form - two of them plant names, and one related to honey extraction - should arouse our suspicions. If a language has a small class of morphologically anomalous nouns all relating to wild food-gathering activities, the hypothesis that should immediately spring to mind is: this is substratum vocabulary. In other words, these three words - especially yaqṭīn and yaʕḍīd - should be suspected of being borrowings, not from some garbled Hebrew source, but from the indigenous Semitic languages spoken in the Arabian peninsula before the spread of Arabic. If so, Western Qur'ān studies' excessive focus on written sources seems more likely to obscure linguistic history than to reveal it.

(Yes, you didn't misread that - epigraphic evidence suggests that Arabic expanded from northwestern Arabia into the rest of the peninsula within historic times. Ahmad Al-Jallad has been doing some interesting work on this issue, summarized briefly on this Twitter thread.)

Sunday, June 24, 2018

Yūnus/Jonah viewed through hapaxes

The Qur'ān is not intended as an account of events. Rather than being organised around narratives, it typically brings up apparently familiar narratives in support of points being made. Yūnus/Jonah, for example, is mentioned by name 4 times, and by epithet another 2 times. Two of these mentions give no details of his story at all (4:163, 6:86). 10:98, 21:87-88, and 67:48-49 only briefly summarise specific aspects of the story. 37:139-148 recounts the story as a whole, but in such an abbreviated form as to presuppose that at least part of the audience had already heard a fuller version. Can anything about that version be determined from the text of the Qur'ān?

Hapaxes - words that occur very rarely or only once in the text - offer an interesting window on the problem (see also previous posts: ضريع, قسورة). Apart from the name Yūnus (Jonah) itself, four words are attested in the Qur'ān only within accounts of Jonah. The oldest attested form of his name is Yônāh, which in Greek yields Iônas (ιωνας) in the nominative (the -s is a widespread Indo-European nominative singular suffix); the final s in Yūnus thus suggests that the audience's knowledge of Jonah came in part via Greek intermediaries at some remove. "Fish" is normally ḥūt حوت in the Qur'ān, including in accounts of Jonah (Standard Arabic samak سمك is unattested in the text), but in 21:87 Jonah is alluded to as ḏā n-nūn ذا النون "he of the fish", the only occurrence in the Qur'ān of the Aramaic loanword nūn. The fish swallowed (iltaqamat التقمت) Jonah in 37:142; the only other mention of swallowing in the Qur'ān uses a word much better attested in modern Arabic dialects, balaʕa بلع (11:44:3). After praying to God for release, he is then cast out onto the shore, for which both 37:145 and 68:49 use the more specific term ʕarā' عراء, ie barren land. Eventually God causes a gourd - yaqṭīn يقطين - to grow over his head; this is the only Qur'ānic mention of the plant in question.

Compare the relevant terms in various early Semitic versions of the Book of Jonah:

Jonahfishswallowland sp.plant sp.
ArabicYūnus يونسḥūt حوت / nūn نونiltaqama التقمʕarā' عراء (barren land)yaqṭīn يقطين (gourd)
HebrewYônāh יוֹנָהdāḡ דָּגbālaʕ בָּלַעyabbāšāh יַבָּשָׁה (dry land)qîqāyôn קִיקָיוֹן
Babylonian Jewish AramaicYônāh יוֹנָהnūnā נוּנָאblaʕ בְּלַעyabbeštā יַבֶּשׁתָּא (dry land)qîqāyôn קִיקָיוֹן
SyriacYawnān ܝܘܢܢnūnā ܢܘܢܐblaʕyaḇšā ܝܒܫܐ (dry land)qar'ā ܩܪܐܐ (gourd)
GeezYonas ዮናስʕanbari ዐንበሬ (whale)wəxṭä ውኅጠmədər ምድር (land)ḥamḥam ሐምሐም (gourd)

One immediately notices that none of them match the Qur'ān as a whole at all well. For "Jonah", only Geez (Ethiopic) offers a similar Greek-influenced term, contrasting with the obvious Aramaic source of nūn for "fish". For "swallow", the Hebrew and Aramaic/Syriac versions all use a word whose direct cognate - balaʕa - is attested elsewhere in the Qur'ān, and is very familiar in Arabic; why then does the more vivid term iltaqama (something like "take in as a morsel") appear? For the land onto which Jonah is cast, the Qur'ān twice uses a specific term incorporating a detail absent from any of these versions of the Book of Jonah, all of which use a generic term for "dry land" or even just "land"; why is this used rather than 'arḍ or even the cognate yābisah?

The conclusion seems obvious: none of these translations were at all prominent for the Arab audience to whom the Qur'ān was first addressed. Whatever its distant roots may have been, the account of Jonah they knew best was something orally transmitted in Arabic, and not directly based on any one of these.

Sunday, June 10, 2018

fatta: a loan from Chadic into Songhay?

The Proto-Chadic word for "go out" was reconstructed by Newman and Ma (1966) as *p-t-, with attested reflexes in all primary subgroups of the family; the best known of these is of course (West Chadic A.1) Hausa fìtā.  The vowels vary across languages, and there is often no final vowel.  Only one subgroup, as far as I can see on a quick check, shows the consistent vocalisation *patā: the Bole languages (West Chadic A.2), spoken in Nigeria's Yobe State along the boundary between Hausa and Kanuri.  Thus Bole pàtā, Ngamo hàtâ, Karekare fàtā.

Most Songhay varieties have reflexes of two near-synonyms for "go out": *hùnú and *fáttá.  Usually, the distinction seems to be roughly "leave (a place or event)" vs. "go out of (an enclosed or concealed space)".  In Northern Songhay - the subgroup most isolated from the rest for longest, spoken in the Sahara - only reflexes of *hùnú seem to be attested, covering both senses (eg Korandje hnu).  This could be interpreted as reflecting Northern Songhay's general tendency to reduce its inherited vocabulary by widening the usage of generic terms.  In light of the Chadic data, however, it is tempting to interpret it the other way around: did Northern Songhay preserve the original situation, while a West Chadic borrowing spread throughout the rest of the family via the Niger River?

Saturday, June 09, 2018

Songhay glosses in Djenne manuscripts

Djenne, in central Mali, is one of the oldest cities in West Africa; it also happens to be the westernmost Songhay-speaking town, isolated in a predominantly Bozo area.  As an old regional centre of Islamic learning, it has rather a lot of manuscripts, most still in the hands of local families rather than taken over by official heritage-keepers.  56 family collections of manuscripts in Djenne have recently been digitised and made available online, at the Djenne Manuscript Library Collection.  Searching through this amazing resource is a bit of an adventure, since a lot got lost in the translation of the metadata (for instance, this manuscript labelled as Intercession is actually a list of tribe names).  But doing so has potential rewards for the historical linguist as well as for the historian: scattered through the manuscripts are very occasional marginalia in local languages.

The first examples I've managed to find come from a late 19th or early 20th century manuscript of 8 pages, belonging to the family of Alphamoye Baber Djenepo, to which the cataloguers gave the title مكتوب في اللغة "writing on language" (which, after passing through a layer or two of translation, ended up in English as "Philology").  It's an obviously incomplete part of an alphabetical poem (unknown to Google) recounting the life of the Prophet, which gives for each letter of the Arabic alphabet in order a section rhyming in that letter.  The language is somewhat obscure, and is copiously annotated - mainly in Arabic, but every so often in Songhay.

On p. 8, for instance, we see the Arabic word تَعَوُّذِ "seeking God's protection" glossed with the Songhay word sumburku "holy formula, spell":

On p. 9 of the same, we see Arabic نَادِ "caller" glossed with Songhay kaati "call, shout":

This particular example is too recent to contribute much to Songhay philology, but it at least proves that Songhay was used to gloss manuscripts in Djenne, and suggests that it would be worth looking through the collection for other examples.

(Added after posting): On p. 5, we find Arabic تمساح "crocodile" glossed with Songhay kaarey "small crocodile sp.":

(PPS): And in this undated fragment of Maqamat al-Hariri, p. 4, we find another identifiable Songhay gloss (or at least a word found in Djenne Chiini): tangara for قضيب "rod, staff", followed by عجم "non-Arab" to make its status clearer:

Friday, June 01, 2018

Drawing water in Songhay and Zenaga

Almost every attested Songhay variety (Tasawaq is perhaps the only exception) has a reflex of the proto-Songhay word *gúrú "draw water" (from the river, from a pond, from a well, etc.)  To express this concept, most Berber varieties (including Tashelhiyt, Kabyle, Tumzabt, Ghadames, Awjila, Tamajeq...) use reflexes of a verb *āgum "draw water", which is thus equally securely reconstructible for proto-Berber.  Zenaga, however, has a rather different verb: ägur "puiser l'eau d'un puits, remonter le delou, tirer la corde du seau; faire parvenir qqc (à qqn)" and "se lever (astre)", with an irregular corresponding noun tgäʔrih "eau tirée du puits".  It seems to be distinct from äggur "pull".

The only Berber cognates Taine-Cheikh suggests for ägur are reflexes of a verb that may be reconstructed as *agir "throw; rise (of sun)" (eg Tashelhiyt gr, Kabyle gər, Chaoui gər).  Presumably the semantic shift of "throw" to "draw water" would be explained via the idea of throwing the bucket down the well.  If the comparison is accepted, then the verb shows an innovative semantic shift specific to Zenaga.  (It would be interesting to see if Tetserrét shares this, but unfortunately the relevant term doesn't seem to have been recorded.)

If the Zenaga word is indeed cognate to the suggested Berber forms, then it seems reasonable to draw the conclusion that proto-Songhay borrowed *gúrú "draw water" from an early relative of Zenaga.  This would fit well with the evidence for a Western Berber language having played an important role in the history of at least northern Mali.  If not, then it would become tempting to draw a conclusion much harder to fit with what is known of the region's history: that Zenaga borrowed the word from proto-Songhay.

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Zenaga dialectal reflexes of ʔ, :

For the purposes of Berber historical linguistics, arguably the most important thing about Zenaga is its thoroughgoing retention of the glottal stop. Some Zenaga glottal stops derive from *q, corresponding to ɣ elsewhere in Berber, but many derive from *ʔ, lost without trace in most Berber varieties. When a rather carefully transcribed new source of dialectal Zenaga data comes to light, it thus seems logical to start by seeing how the glottal stop is reflected there. For convenience, I restrict this first pass to two of Ahmadou Ismail's wordlists: body parts, and herding vocabulary. The results are fairly clear.

In general, Taine-Cheikh's Vʔ corresponds regularly to Ismail's V:, with the length clearly marked, as distinct from Taine-Cheikh's short V, which Ismail consistently transcribes short. Thus:

Ismail Taine-Cheikh
young camel awāra äwaʔräh
waterbag āga äʔgäh
moustache āya aʔyäh
donkey m. ājji aʔž(ž)iy
donkey f. tājil taʔž(ž)əL
beard tāmmart taʔmmärt
camels īyman iʔymän
cows tiššīđan ətšiʔđaʔn / ətšiʔđän
lamb hīmmar iẕ̌iʔmär
donkey foal īgiyu iʔgiyi
shoulder(blade) tūṛiḍ toʔṛuḌ
donkeys ūjjayan uʔž(ž)äyän
shoulder(blade)s tūrdin tuʔṛäđän

There are only two contexts where this correspondence does not hold.  In the context / _C#, if C is a stop or fricative, Ismail retains the glottal stop; if C is a sonorant, it disappears without affecting vowel length.  (More examples of this context would be useful to confirm the exact conditioning.)

spring taniʔđ täniʔḏ
cow taššiʔđ täšši
head iʔf iʔf
camel ayyim äyiʔm
camel f. tayyimt täyi(ʔ)mt

Word-finally, the variety Taine-Cheikh describes has no overtly realised glottal stops (*ʔ > Ø / _#); the contrast, however, is maintained, since all originally vowel-final words now end in h (*V > Vh / _#). In Ismail's dialect, the latter change never happened:

waterbag āga äʔgäh
moustache āya aʔyäh
young camel awāra äwaʔräh
stomach taxṣa taḫs(s)äh
goat tikši təkših
ewe tīyyi tīyih

Nevertheless, the two classes have not completely merged; final *i remains i, but final *iʔ becomes u:

billy-goat ahayu äẕ̌äyi
mouth immu əmmi
tooth awkšu äwkši
tongue itšu ətši
donkey foal īgiyu iʔgiyi
calf īrku īrki
In the variety Taine-Cheikh describes, long vowels derive not from *Vʔ but from *Vh (ultimately *Vβ). Given that vowel length can be a reflex of a former glottal stop in Ismail's dialect, the next thing we need to check is what happens to *Vh there; it turns out that there too it yields long vowels:

small cattle tākšin tākšən
calf īrku īrki
ewe tīyyi tīyih
nostril tīnhart tīnẕ̌ärt
nose tīnharin tīnẕ̌ärän

The regularity of these correspondences is a testimony to the accuracy of both parties' work, and confirms the value of Zenaga as a data source for Berber historical phonology.

Monday, May 28, 2018

A "crazy rule" in Zenaga

As part of what seems to be a solo documentation effort, Ahmadou Ismail has been posting some very interesting tidbits on Zenaga (in Arabic). The dialect reflected differs in some ways from the one reflected in Catherine Taine-Cheikh's publications. One of the more conspicuous differences is in the fate of proto-Berber *z. For Taine-Cheikh, *z > ẕ̌ in general (a slightly lowered ž), but *zt > Z (a tautosyllabic geminate zz). In Ahmadou Ismail's dialect, *zt > zz as with Taine-Cheikh, but otherwise *z > h, eg tihigrarin "tarawih prayers" vs. Taine-Cheikh's təẕ̌əgrärən, hīmmar "lamb" vs. Taine-Cheikh's iẕ̌iʔmär, awahiđ̣ "rooster" vs. äwäẕ̌uđ̣, yahinha "he sold" vs. yäžžənẕ̌äh. This leads to systematic alternations between h and zz; synchronically, Ismail's dialect of Zenaga has the "crazy rule" ht > zz. This is nicely illustrated by "he knew" (Taine-Cheikh: yuʔgäẕ̌) plus the direct object personal pronoun clitics:
  • "he knew me": yūgah-i
  • "he knew you m.": yūgah-ku
  • "he knew you f.": yūgah-kam
  • "he knew him": yūgaz-zu
  • "he knew her": yūgaz-zað
  • "he knew us": yūgah-ānag
  • "he knew you": yūgah-kūn
  • "he knew you": yūgah-kimmið
  • "he knew them m.": yūgaz-zin
  • "he knew them f.": yūgaz-zincað (maybe; not quite sure how چَّٰ is supposed to be read)
For forms without assimilation, compare, as posted by someone else on the same group (Omar Sidi Mohamed), "he was owned by" (Taine-Cheikh yənšäg):
  • "he was owned by me": yiššag-i
  • "he was owned by you m.": yiššak-ku
  • "he was owned by you f.": yiššak-kam
  • "he was owned by him": yiššak-tu
  • "he was owned by her": yiššak-tað
  • "he was owned by us": yiššag-ānag
  • "he was owned by you": yiššak-kūn
  • "he was owned by you": yiššak-kamað
  • "he was owned by them m.": yiššak-tan
  • "he was owned by them f.": yiššak-tinyað

Tuesday, May 22, 2018


Ever since she got interviewed on TV ten days ago, the 19-year-old president of the student union at Université Paris-Sorbonne, Maryam Pougetoux, has been making headlines - not for anything she said, but simply for wearing a hijab while she said it. In the name of defending freedom and feminism, the Minister of the Interior himself had the gall to criticise this brave young Frenchwoman as "marking her difference from French society". But as a historical linguist watching all this, I found myself wondering: where does the name "Pougetoux" come from? It turns out it can be traced several thousand years back:

In the course of this long history, no less than three different diminutive suffixes have been accreted on to the original root (although I'm not quite sure about the identity of that -oux.) I wonder whether that generalizes; do words meaning "hill" tend to accrete more and more diminutive suffixes as they develop over time?

Tuesday, May 08, 2018

Songhay viewed through PCA

Playing around a bit more with PCA, I decided to apply the method* to a dataset I've worked with more extensively: Songhay, a compact language family spoken mainly in Niger and Mali. On a hundred-word list (Swadesh with a few changes), randomly choosing one form in cases of synonymy and including borrowings, I get the following table of lexical cognate percentages:

Tabelbala Tadaksahak Tagdal In-Gall Timbuktu Djenne Kikara Hombori Zarma Djougou
Tabelbala 1 0.678 0.67 0.687 0.636 0.667 0.625 0.622 0.616 0.602
Tadaksahak 0.678 1 0.857 0.8 0.63 0.635 0.567 0.576 0.58 0.586
Tagdal 0.67 0.857 1 0.857 0.632 0.649 0.579 0.588 0.582 0.588
In-Gall 0.687 0.8 0.857 1 0.65 0.667 0.598 0.606 0.6 0.606
Timbuktu 0.636 0.63 0.632 0.65 1 0.979 0.773 0.808 0.79 0.778
Djenne 0.667 0.635 0.649 0.667 0.979 1 0.753 0.789 0.771 0.768
Kikara 0.625 0.567 0.579 0.598 0.773 0.753 1 0.835 0.814 0.823
Hombori 0.622 0.576 0.588 0.606 0.808 0.789 0.835 1 0.838 0.867
Zarma 0.616 0.58 0.582 0.6 0.79 0.771 0.814 0.838 1 0.808
Djougou 0.602 0.586 0.588 0.606 0.778 0.768 0.823 0.867 0.808 1

Running this through R again to get its eigenvectors, the first two principal components are easily interpretable:
  • PC1 (eigenvalue=7.3) separates Songhay into three low-level subgroups - Western, Eastern, and Northern, in that order - with an obvious longitude effect: it traces a line eastward all the way down the Niger river, jumps further east to In-Gall, and then proceeds back westward through the Sahara.
  • PC2 (eigenvalue=1.1) measures the level of Berber/Tuareg influence.
All the other eigenvectors have eigenvalues lower than 0.4, and are thus much less significant.

The resulting cluster patterns have a strikingly shallow time depth; as in the Arabic example in my last post, this method's results correspond well to criteria of synchronic mutual intelligibility (Western Songhay is much easier for Eastern Songhay speakers to understand than Northern is), but it completely fails to pick up on the deeper historic tie between Northern Songhay and Western Songhay (they demonstrably form a subgroup as against Eastern). It's nice how the strongest contact influence shows up as a PC, though; it would be worth exploring how good this method is at identifying contact more generally.

* Strictly speaking, this may not quite count as PCA - I'm starting from a similarity matrix generated non-numerically, rather than turning the lexical data into binary numeric data and letting that produce a similarity matrix.

Update, following Whygh's comment below: here's what SplitsTree gives based on the same table:

Monday, May 07, 2018

Some notes on PCA

(Exploratory notes, written to be readable to linguists but posted in the hope of feedback from geneticists and/or statisticians - in my previous incarnation as a mathmo, I was much more interested in pure than applied....)

Given the popularity of Principal Component Analysis (PCA) in population genetics, it's worth a historical linguist's while to have some idea of how it works and how it's applied there. This popularity might also suggest at first glance that the method has potential for historical linguistics; that possibility may be worth exploring, but it seems more promising as a tool for investigating synchronic language similarity.

Before we can do PCA, of course, we need a data set. Usually, though not always, population geneticists use SNPs - single nucleotide polymorphisms. The genome can be understood as a long "text" in a four-letter "alphabet"; a SNP is a position in that text where the letter used varies between copies of the text (ie between individuals). For each of m individuals, then, you check the value of each of a large number n of selected SNPs. That gives you an m by n data matrix of "letters". You then need to turn this from letters into numbers you can work with. As far as I understand, the way they do that (rather wasteful, but geneticists have such huge datasets they hardly care) is to pick a standard value for each SNP, and replace each letter with 1 if it's identical to that value, and 0 if it isn't. For technical convenience, they sometimes then "normalize" this: for each cell, subtract the mean value of its (SNP) row (so that the row mean ends up as 0), then rescale so that each column has the same variance.

Using this data matrix, you then create a covariance matrix by multiplying the data matrix by its own transposition, divided by the number of markers: in the resulting table, each cell gives a measure of the relationship between a pair of individuals. Assuming simple 0/1 values as described above, each cell will in fact give the proportion of SNPs for which the two individuals both have the same value as the chosen standard. Within linguistics, lexicostatistics offers fairly comparable tables; there, the equivalent of SNPs is lexical items on the Swadesh list, but rather than "same value as the standard", the criterion is "cognate to each other" (or, in less reputable cases, "vaguely similar-looking").

Now, there is typically a lot of redundancy in the data and hence in the relatedness matrix too: in either case, the value of a given cell is fairly predictable from the value of other cells. (If individuals X and Y are very similar, and X is very similar to Z, then Y will also be very similar to Z.) PCA is a tool for identifying these redundancies by finding the covariance matrix's eigenvectors: effectively, rotating the axes in such a way as to get the data points as close to the axes as possible. Each individual is a data point in a space with as many dimensions as there are SNP measurements; for us 3D creatures, that's very hard to visualise graphically! But by picking just the two or three eigenvectors with the highest eigenvalues - ie, the axes contributing most to the data - you can graphically represent the most important parts of what's going on in just a 2D or 3D plot. If two individuals cluster together in such a plot, then they share a lot of their genome - which, in human genetics, is in itself a reliable indicator of common ancestry, since mammals don't really do horizontal gene transfer. (In linguistics, the situation is rather different: sharing a lot of vocabulary is no guarantee of common ancestry unless that vocabulary is particularly basic.) You then try to interpret that fact in terms of concepts such as geographical isolation, founder events, migration, and admixture - the latter two corresponding very roughly to language contact.

The most striking thing about all this, for me as a linguist, is how much data is getting thrown away at every stage of the process. That makes sense for geneticists, given that the dataset is so much bigger and simpler than what human language offers comparativists: one massive multi-gigabyte cognate per individual, made up of a four-letter universal alphabet! Historical linguists are stuck with a basic lexicon rarely exceeding a few thousand words, none of which need be cognate across a given language pair, and an "alphabet" (read: phonology) differing drastically from language to language - alongside other clues, such as morphology, that don't have any immediately obvious genetic counterpart but again have a comparatively small information content.

Nevertheless, there is one obvious readily available class of linguistic datasets to which one could be tempted to apply PCA, or just eigenvector extraction: lexicostatistical tables. For Semitic, someone with more free time than I have could readily construct one from Militarev 2015, or extract one from the supplemental PDFs (why PDFs?) in Kitchen et al. 2009. Failing that, however, a ready-made lexicostatistical similarity matrix is available for nine Arabic dialects, in Schulte & Seckinger 1985, p. 23/62. Its eigenvectors can easily be found using R; basically, the overwhelmingly dominant PC1 (eigenvalue 8.11) measures latitude longitude, while PC2 (eigenvalue 0.19) sharply separates the sedentary Maghreb from the rest. This tells us two interesting things: within this dataset, Arabic looks overwhelmingly like a classic dialect continuum, with no sharp boundaries; and insofar as it divides up discontinuously at all, it's the sedentary Maghreb varieties that stand out as having taken their own course. The latter point shows up clearly on the graphs: plotting PC2 against PC1, or even PC3, we see a highly divergent Maghreb (and to a lesser extent Yemen) vs. a relatively homogeneous Mashriq. (One might imagine that this reflects a Berber substratum, but that is unlikely here; few if any Berber loans make it onto the 100-word Swadesh list.) All of this corresponds rather well to synchronic criteria of mutual comprehensibility, although a Swadesh list is only a very indirect measure of that. But it doesn't tell us much about historical events, beyond the null hypothesis of continuous contact in rough proportion to distance; about all you need to explain this particular dataset is a map.

(NEW: and with PC3:)

Wednesday, April 04, 2018

Songhay crows and Korandje ravens

In Niamey, where I went last week for a workshop on Songhay as a cross-border language, the crows do something I've never seen them do in any other country: they come to the window and start tapping on the glass, like something out of Edgar Allen Poe. The reaction of my fellow attendees taught me a new Songhay word - gaaru-gaaru "pied crow" (Heath 1998) - which in turn revealed a new Korandje etymology. In Korandje, "raven" is gạḍi. The shift of intervocalic *d to r in mainstream Songhay is well-established (Nicolaï 1981). But the vowels are more interesting.

Korandje usually derives from *ar or *or. In several inherited Songhay words, however, seems to derive from *a not followed by *r: thus kạṣ-əw "rough" < kas-ow, bạzu "skin bucket, waterbag" < baasu, hạmu "meat" < *hamu, kə̣kkạbu "key" < *karkabu. Yet *a otherwise usually yields a in similar contexts: contrast gani "louse" < *gani, akama "wheat" < *alkama, dzam-a "do it" < *dam-a. It looks as though the vowel in the following syllable is what makes the difference: if it's rounded, you get , otherwise you get a (though one or two exceptions suggest that the story may be more complicated: notably, "difficult" is gab-ə̣w < *gab-ow.) Assuming this rule, *gaadu should regularly have yielded gaaru in mainstream Songhay and gạḍu in Korandje.

What we actually get, however, is gạḍi. Why? Well, Korandje has a rule of final high vowel deletion phrase-internally: if a word ends in i or u, its final vowel will be deleted unless it comes before a pause, ie most of the time. (Basically the opposite of Classical Arabic.) In a number of words, this seems to have led to confusion between original -i, -u, and consonant-final words. For instance, ạṣạnkri "skink" comes from Berber asrmkal, which should regularly have yielded ạṣạmkər; the i is unetymological (Souag 2015). In effect, speakers must have been hypercorrecting final high vowels - a fact which suggests that, if Korandje survives, it may be on its way towards phonologically losing them altogether, much as Classical Arabic did with final short vowels.

Monday, March 19, 2018

English spelling traces in Algerian placenames

Going east of Algiers along the coast, the names of two little port towns stand out. Their inhabitants know them as جنّات /d͡ʒənnat/ (sometimes جنّاد /d͡ʒənnad/) and دلّس /dalləs/ (or الدّلّس /ddalləs/). Those names would normally be transcribed in French as *Djennat (if not *Djennette) and *Delless. Yet in French - and hence, given the region's colonial history, in most Western languages - they are in fact written as Djinet and Dellys; the latter at least is very often even (mis)pronounced accordingly as /dɛlis/. French i and y are both normally pronounced /i/; why on earth would Frenchmen write the schwa /ə/ of these names in this way, when French has a schwa and normally writes it as e?

The most likely answer is that they didn't. Rather, they adopted or adapted these placenames' spelling from English - specifically, from the widely translated work of Thomas Shaw, an English reverend and Oxford fellow who spent several years in Algeria in the early 1700s, a century before France occupied Algiers. He spelt the two towns' names as Jinnett and Dellys respectively - a spelling which, in English, yields the almost exactly correct pronunciations /d͡ʒɪnɛt/ and /dɛlɪs/.

Shaw's book was translated into French by 1743, and the translator retained the English spellings of both names. In a later edition no doubt prompted by the French invasion (1830), Jinnett got amended to Djinnett - someone had finally got around to noticing that English j is pronounced like French dj, not like French j. The doubled letters, useful for indicating vowel quality in English but serving no purpose in French, were lost within a decade, as seen in Eyriès (1839). But the i of Djinet, and the y of Dellys, remained to testify to a period when French geographers relied on an English traveller to tell them about Algeria - and to confirm most colonists' lack of interest in how the locals pronounced these names.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Good speaking is not good writing

There's an article by Nathan Robinson that's been going around recently titled "Jordan Peterson: The Intellectual We Deserve". After pages of apparently reasonable criticisms of his subject, the author delivers what he seems to think is his coup de grâce:
Even now, however, I am being too generous to Jordan Peterson’s intellect. I have been presenting him at his most comprehensible and polished. I have not been giving you the full experience of actually listening to him talk. Sitting through a Jordan Peterson lecture is very different to watching a rapid-fire television interview. Below, please find a fully-transcribed portion of 17 minutes of Peterson’s speech.[...] (NOTE: UNDER NO CIRCUMSTANCES ATTEMPT TO READ THE ENTIRETY OF THE FOLLOWING PASSAGE. READ AS MUCH AS YOU CAN BEFORE YOU BEGIN TO FEEL WEARY, THEN SCROLL QUICKLY TO THE END.)
Just to stack the scales a bit further, the transcription features no paragraphing. Nevertheless, I did read it - much quicker than watching some random video for 17 minutes! -and, rather anticlimactically, found a perfectly coherent and reasonably entertaining (if very likely unfair) parenting anecdote, obviously intended to illustrate the importance of setting boundaries. I rubbed my eyes and thought "How is it that an intelligent, well-educated native speaker of English can apparently not only see this transcript as an incoherent mess but also assume all his readers will? Am I crazy, or is he?"

The answer is simple: good speaking is not the same thing as good writing. Take a great talk, one that keeps a non-academic audience riveted, and transcribe it verbatim; it will almost always look rambling and repetitive on the page, unless you're already accustomed to reading such transcripts (part of the job for a descriptive linguist, but a rare experience for most people). That's simply the nature of the medium, and adequately explains the expected audience reaction. Maybe it even explains the author's reaction, if the only context he ever encounters long talks in is academia.

One of the author's main points - a valid one, I think - is that academics need to communicate better with the public for everyone's sake:

[...] he is popular partly because academia and the left have failed spectacularly at helping make the world intelligible to ordinary people, and giving them a clear and compelling political vision.
If so, the first step is to learn appropriate discourse strategies. You don't talk to confused young people on YouTube as if you were addressing a learned seminar, much less writing a article. Nathan Robinson surely realises this himself - but, by going for cheap laughs at the expense of a perfectly ordinary example of spoken language, he's not only weakening his main point but encouraging the very blindness to orality that makes it difficult for many academics to communicate with the public. Academics can surely do better - let a thousand learned YouTube channels bloom! - but not without (re)learning how to talk to the people they want to talk to.

Monday, March 12, 2018

Qaswarah revisited: a Qur'anic hapax in Modern South Arabian

A long time ago, I posted some rather speculative musings on the minor mystery of the allegedly Ethiopic word qaswarah قسورة in the Qur'ān, usually considered to mean "lion". An anonymous commenter years later came up with a much better but still rather speculative idea:
Research substantiates that both “lion” and “hunter” are plausible according to analyses of Proto-Highland Eastern Cushitic wherein “kas” is to stab, pierce or cut and the suffix of “wara” creates “agent nouns”. In modern “Ethiopic” languages such as Tigrinya and Ge’ez (as well as in some other African languages) the word “Wagatwara” means “hunter” and in earlier etymons of this word the “g” is rendered a “q” and the “t” is rendered an “s”.

But just now, looking through a Hobyot vocabulary (Nakano 2013:215), I came across an entry that makes all this discussion unnecessary. In Hobyot, "panther" is ḳáyṣ̂ər, with a plural ḳaṣ̂áwrət - clearly related to the term used in the Qur'ān, and clearly (given the ṣ̂) not borrowed from Arabic. The meaning corresponds closely enough to most commentators' consensus on qaṣwarah, while the location - in the extreme south of Arabia - helps explain why the term might have been associated in their minds with Ethiopia. In fact, the irregular correspondence of Hobyot ṣ̂ to Arabic s would suggest a loan into Arabic, rather than common inheritance, even if we didn't know how much this word puzzled the commentators.

Incidentally, the minority interpretation "archers" is presumably based on Persian, where -var added to a noun means "possessor of" - presumably, Arabic qaus "bow" + Persian -var would yield "bowman", and the feminine suffix -ah would form the plural as so often with nouns of profession. In light of the Hobyot form, it also should be clear that the majority of commentators were right to reject this interpretation.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

"Don't impose on me a language that isn't a vehicle of science": the Salhi scandal

Two years ago, the Algerian state finally decided to make Tamazight (Berber) an official language. In practice, this has not by any means implied giving it the same status as Arabic (much less as French). It has encouraged an expansion of Tamazight teaching, which is being extended to all wilayas (provinces) rather than just the ones with large numbers of Berber speakers. But Tamazight lessons - unlike Arabic, French, or English - remain completely optional. Most parents have no desire for their children to learn Tamazight, and were regularly complaining even before the question arose that the curriculum was too packed. Nevertheless, the very idea that Tamazight might someday be a required school subject seems to have been enough to drive at least one MP - the now-notorious Naima Salhi - into a ranting fury.

I've been reluctant to post about the Naima Salhi scandal, since it's obviously being used by this nonentity as a way to inflate her public profile. But when I heard the actual words of her paranoid rant against Berber, I realized I had to. Her words, thankfully, have been overwhelmingly repudiated by her peers. But her "reasoning" is a perfect specimen of a linguistic ideology that many people all over the world subscribe to, with a few instructive twists coming from the diglossic context of Algeria. As such, it's worth a closer look. Here's what she said, translated from - dialectal - Algerian Arabic into English:

"So don't impose on me a language - it's not a language anyway - don't impose on me a language that isn't a vehicle of science; don't impose on me a language that isn't recognized, isn't understood by people outside; what good is it to me? Study science with it? It doesn't have - it isn't a vehicle of science. Study technology with it? It isn't a vehicle of technology. Go abroad with it, to speak to people abroad? They don't know it and don't understand it. For God's sake, what good is it to us?
When it comes to the Arabic language - and oh, what a language! - which is the world language, which more than a billion people speak, they say we won't study it; a language which has billions of books, and billions of manuscripts, and billions of - everything - you say you won't study it and don't need it. Then you bring me a dead language, which doesn't have letters, and doesn't have meanings, and doesn't have words - you want to hold me back with it so you can make progress - and you go off, and eventually you get to the point, and you tell me: Me, I'm studying English, and I'm studying German, and Spanish, and Turkish, and you all don't know them. You're going to hold me back with this?
My little daughter was studying in a private school where most of them were Kabyles. She naturally learned the language with them, because her classmates' parents taught them to speak Kabyle, so it would continue and spread. So my daughter, with the best of intentions, learned with them. She'd come and speak it, and I never asked her "Why?" I didn't shut her up; I left her free to do as she likes. But now that we've gotten to the point where it's obligatory, I told her: Say another word in Kabyle (Berber) and I'll kill you, I'll discipline you if you say another word.
And I'm saying it plainly and challenging everyone: When we were going by intentions / naive, we didn't say a thing; now that it's become "push me and I'll step on you", don't push me and I won't step on you. Now we're going to make it about who's stronger? And the most for the stronger one? The majority is stronger. You'd have been better off leaving it down to intentions. Now that you think you're so smart and coming out with insults against us, now I'll insult you.
People like me, and people who are real men, and those who don't accept humiliation and aren't used to it, and whose family aren't used to it, won't accept from you something like this. And I now forbid my children from pronouncing a single word in Tamazight. I mean the Frenchified Kabyle made by the MAK and the treasonous terrorist MAK movement. And we need to demand that the MAK is a terrorist movement."
Let's pass over the bizarre misconceptions and factual errors for now (it doesn't have words???), and go to the heart of the matter. It's not an unusual phenomenon anywhere to find speakers of a majority language objecting to having to learn a supposedly useless minority language - look at Swedish in Finland, or Welsh in Wales, or even Irish in Ireland. In this case, however, diglossia introduces a further twist, making her very examples undermine her ideas.

She presents Kabyle as useless for what seem like bluntly utilitarian reasons: it's only spoken by other Algerians and it won't help you study science and technology. Yet most Algerians spend most of their lives in Algeria, and most people anywhere don't study science and technology past high school. By her own testimony, Kabyle is widely enough spoken that her daughter could pick it up in a private school even in a non-Kabyle area. Had her daughter failed to do so, she would presumably have had fewer friends, and found herself excluded from routine social interactions. Yet somehow, for Salhi, that fact doesn't even register as relevant to the question of the language's usefulness. The dialectal Arabic she's speaking is not taught in any school, and the idea of teaching it would no doubt drive her to even greater fury. Dialectal Arabic is by far the most widely used language in Algeria, without which she would find herself deaf and dumb in her own country - just ask any Kabyle outside Kabylie whether it's worth learning - yet that doesn't enter into her definition of "useful" either. A language is "useful", in fact, only if its presence in daily life is so limited as to make it useless in most contexts. Only then can speaking it be a valuable accomplishment that gives you access to coveted jobs, rather than a routine ability that remains invisible until you run into someone who lacks it. Only then is it an appropriate subject for study.

But Tamazight activism threatens to upset that basic rule. If Tamazight ever does become part of compulsory education, that would lead to children studying and getting graded on a language that some of them already speak. How hideously unfair! The Kabyle-speaking children won't need it, and the Arabic-speaking children won't want it. Clearly the only possible explanation for such a move is that Kabyle speakers want to give themselves an unfair advantage at school, and handicap the Arabic speakers. (/sarcasm) The idea that there might be another side to this - that Kabyle speakers would still have to learn dialectal Arabic on their own as they always have, getting no extra credit for that effort, whereas Arabic speakers would be getting government help in learning Kabyle - doesn't even seem to cross her mind.

Monday, February 12, 2018

Shocked by Arabic?

In the course of the recent media furore in France sparked by Mennel Ibtissem's rendition of "Hallelujah", a TV journalist named Isabelle Morini-Bosc managed to spark her own micro-furore by remarking:
«Pas le voile, pas la chanson en arabe, même si je trouve que par les temps qui courent, ça ne s'imposait peut-être pas nécessairement, mais en revanche ce qu'elle a posté oui, ça me choque, sur les attentats de Nice, ça me choque». (video)

"Not [Mennel's] veil, not the song in Arabic - even though I find that, in these times, it may not necessarily have been essential - but what she posted, yes, that shocks me, on the Nice attacks, that shocks me."

The controversy was, of course, over the parenthetical remark and the scope of its implications. Most listeners understood "these times" as an allusion to the threat of terrorism, and the whole remark as asserting that singing in Arabic was inappropriate because Arabic is associated with terrorism - an implication which naturally provoked some outrage. She responded that "I like French songs on the programme because phonetically that's how you can tell whether someone is articulating or not [...] She could have been Serbo-Croatian and singing in Serbo-Croatian and I'd have said the same". A plausible-sounding justification on its own, but difficult to reconcile with her original wording - why "in these times"? And why was she commenting specifically on the Arabic, when the song had been in both English and Arabic? All things considered, it seems rather more likely that the listeners' interpretation was correct.

However, the really interesting thing about her original sentence is not so much the parenthetical remark as the contrastive focus. She explicitly asserts that Mennel's veil and her singing in Arabic do not shock her; apparently, she is too broad-minded to worry (much) about those little things. But in the process of making that assertion, she presupposes that her audience, less cosmopolitan than herself, might reasonably expect her to be shocked by both of those things. The implicit message has two sides to it: it's better not to let yourself be shocked by people singing in Arabic on a French TV show - but it's also perfectly normal to be shocked by it. Hmm...

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Tokenistic Tifinagh #fail 2

The Algerian government recently decided to make the Amazigh New Year (really the Julian New Year) - coming up tomorrow - an official holiday. This holiday is actually traditional in a lot of Arabic-speaking areas too, in Algeria and across North Africa - and its origins are of course Roman - but over the past few decades it has been reinterpreted as an Amazigh holiday rather than a North African one, and the government made it official specifically as a gesture towards Amazigh identity. In non-Amazigh areas, this creates some quandaries, as illustrated by the announcement below by the government of the wilaya (province) of Blida...
No automatic alt text available.
The Algerian flag in the middle is flanked on all sides by easily recognizable signs of Amazigh identity - the letter aza, the abzim pins, etc. - none of which are particularly associated with Blida (even though there are still small Berber communities in the mountains above Blida, not to mention Kabyle migrants.)  The main text is in Arabic, but there is one line of Berber in Arabic script - تفاسكا ن يناير tfaska n Yennayer "holiday of Yennayer", using a word for "holiday" that in a Kabyle context amounts to a modern neologism - and two lines written in Tifinagh, whose geometric shapes add yet another easily recognizable symbol of Berber identity.  If you try to read those lines, though, they turn out in each case to be simple transcriptions (not translations) of the line of Arabic above them:

"Celebration of the Amazigh New Year"
احتفالية رأس السنة الأمازيغية iḥtifāliyyat ra's as-sanah al-'amāzīɣiyyah
 ⴰⵃⵜⴼⴰⵍⵉⴰ ⵔⴰⵙ ⴰⵍⵙⵏⴰ ⴰⵍⴰⵎⴰⵣⵉⵖⵉⴰ aḥtfalia ras alsna alamaziɣia

"Algerian and proud of my Amazigh identity"
جزائري وبأمازيغيتي أفتخر jazā'irī wabi'amāzīɣiyyatī 'aftaxir
ⵊⵣⴰⵉⵔⵉ ⵡⴱⴰⵎⴰⵣⵉⵖⵉⵜⵉ ⴰⴼⵜⵅⵔ jzairi wbamaziɣiti aftxr

It's arguably not quite as bad as the Oran case we saw last time; at least this transcription doesn't randomly discard letters.  Nevertheless, the message it sends is once again clear: nobody involved in the making of this official, centralized celebration of Amazigh identity speaks Berber, or thought it would be worthwhile to get someone who does speak it to help them out.  If the Algerian government seriously wants to make Tamazight official throughout the country, it's got a long way to go...

PS (update 19/01/2018): Not worth a whole post, but I just came across yet another example:
العمال يطالبو... | وزارة الفقر والسّعادة has:
ارحل ...ارحل ....ارحل
بالعربية : ارحل
بالامازيغية : ⴷⴹⴳⴰⴳⴹ
بالفرنسية : Dégage
بالانجليزية : Get out
ⴷⴹⴳⴰⴳⴹ is dḍgagḍ, where ḍ happens to look just like an e; explanation is hopefully superfluous...

Thursday, January 04, 2018

Taleb unintentionally proves Lebanese comes from Arabic

So Taleb has jumped back on his hobbyhorse with yet another post on Lebanese not being Arabic; see my previous posts Why "Levantine" is Arabic, not Aramaic: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Zombie hypotheses and the Zeitgeist, On finding the sources of shared items. The funniest thing about this one is that he's been helpful enough to provide a wordlist (for his dialect, I presume) that - despite a number of typos, almost all of which increase the apparent similarity between Levantine and non-Arabic Semitic languages - should be enough all by itself to prove to anyone in doubt that Lebanese is clearly descended primarily from Arabic, with very little Aramaic influence and even less from Canaanite/Phoenician. Unfortunately, he wasn't as helpful on the grammar, not bothering to include equivalents from other Semitic languages for the pronouns and verbal conjugations...
But I don't have all day to spend beating this dead horse, and doing etymology properly takes time. So let's just have a quick look at the first page of his wordlist (well, probably the second one - the real first one seems to be missing), and leave the other pages as an exercise for the reader.

Out of these 39 words, 18 seem to be unambiguously Arabic in origin - either they share specific sound changes with Arabic to the exclusion of the rest of Semitic, or they use a root not used in the appropriate meaning elsewhere in Semitic. Only two look like being Aramaic rather than Arabic in origin (and the evidence in both cases is fairly weak): "hand" and the patently non-basic vocabulary word "image". (Taleb would add a third, zalame "man", but this word has an at least equally plausible Arabic etymology, making it ambiguous at best.) The remaining 19 words are ambiguous, and could in principle derive from any of more than one Semitic languages - but even there, the situation is not symmetrical; all 19 could derive from Arabic, whereas no more than 11 of them could derive from Aramaic. The unambiguous cases give the following ratio: 18 Arabic : 2 Aramaic : 0 everything else. On that basis, we should therefore expect 90% of the ones ambiguous between Arabic and Aramaic (ie all but one) to derive from Arabic, not from Aramaic, and all of the ones ambiguous between Arabic and another Semitic language but not Aramaic to derive from Arabic. For details, see the following table:

1 goat Arabic does not share Canaanite+Aramaic+Ugaritic *nC > CC; does not share Akkadian *ʕa > e
2 god Arabic / Aramaic shows innovative gemination of the l, attested only in Arabic and some dialects of Syriac
3 good innovative the Arabic etymology is obvious, but the root is pan-Semitic so we may generously assume that it could in principle have derived from some other branch
4 grass Arabic does not share Aramaic and Phoenician *ś > s ; does share Arabic *ś > š
5 grind Arabic / Canaanite does not share Akkadian *aħa > ê ; does not share Aramaic CaCVC > CCVC
6 hair Arabic / Ugaritic does not share Aramaic and Phoenician *ś > s ; does share Arabic *ś > š ; does not share Akkadian loss of *ʕ
7 hand Aramaic although a change of *yad > *īd is natural enough that it could easily have happened independently in Arabic...
8 hare Arabic / Canaanite / Aramaic / Akkadian no distinctive innovations
9 he-goat Arabic / Canaanite / Aramaic no distinctive innovations
10 head Arabic / Ugaritic does not share Canaanite *aʔ > *ā > ō nor Aramaic *aʔ > ī nor Akkadian *aʔ > ē ; the form rās (with loss of the glottal stop) is well-attested in early Arabic dialects
11 hear Arabic does not share Aramaic and Phoenician *s > š (I'm going with Huehnergard's reconstruction of proto-Semitic sibilants here). Note that the correct Syriac form is šmaʕ, not sma3 ; likewise the Hebrew
12 heart Arabic The initial glottal stop (still pronounced q in, for example, Alawite dialects) can only be explained from the Arabic form, which is a lexical innovation replacing original *libb
13 honey Arabic 3asal is clearly Arabic, and – as I've pointed out before – dabs is attested in Classical Arabic as well as in Hebrew and Aramaic
14 horn Arabic / Canaanite / Aramaic / Akkadian / Ugaritic no distinctive innovations
15 horse Arabic Syriac ḥsan 'strong' has s, not ṣ, but even if it were cognate, the Classical Arabic and Levantine form still share a semantic shift unattested in Aramaic
16 house Arabic / Canaanite / Aramaic / Ugaritic Akkadian can be ruled out, since it shows a shift *ay > ī which never happened in Levantine.
17 hundred Arabic / Canaanite / Aramaic / Akkadian / Ugaritic The only innovation here, ʔ > y, is not shared with any of the ancient language in question
18 hunger Arabic Even assuming jūʕ has cognates elsewhere in Semitic, the change g > j is specific to Arabic
19 hunt Arabic / Canaanite / Aramaic / Akkadian / Ugaritic The only innovation here, use of the D-stem, is not shared with any of the ancient languages
20 image Aramaic Since when is 'image' basic vocabulary? But yes, assuming we can trust the transcription, it shares the aw with Aramaic
21 inside Arabic / Aramaic Mixed signal here: the meaning looks like Aramaic, but the sound shift g > j is Arabic not Aramaic. In reality, the word *jaww must originally have meant 'inside' in Arabic too; it lost this meaning in Classical Arabic, but kept it in many of the dialects
22 iron Arabic
23 kidney Arabic / Canaanite / Aramaic / Akkadian / Ugaritic The only innovation here, *y > w, is not shared with any of the ancient languages (but _is_ shared with many other modern Arabic dialects...)
24 kill Arabic / Canaanite Does not share Aramaic CaCVC > CCVC
25 king Arabic / Canaanite / Aramaic / Ugaritic Since when is 'king' basic vocabulary?
26 knee Arabic Shares a unique innovation with Arabic – the metathesis brk > rkb
27 know Arabic
28 laugh Arabic Shares a unique innovation with Arabic – the sound shift *ɬ' > ḍ (which came relatively late in Arabic – later than Sibawayh, even – and never happened in any other Semitic language). I can't speak for Amioun, but in general Levantine has ḍaḥak; if Amioun does have ḍaḥaq, the fact that it didn't become *ḍaḥaʔ suggests that the *k > q happened there only after the regular shift *q > ʔ, and hence has nothing to do with the Canaanite or Ugaritic forms.
29 leg innovative The alleged Ugaritic form is nonsense – Ugaritic had no j sound, and the dictionary of Del Olmo Lete and Sanmartin reveals no appropriate Ugaritic form. It is true that the Levantine form seems to be shared with Ethiopic and some Yemeni dialects, but not with any ancient language of the Fertile Crescent.
30 lion Arabic A very problematic choice as 'basic vocabulary'.
31 live Arabic / Canaanite / Aramaic Except that the Levantine form is clearly 'alive', not 'live', making the whole comparison problematic....
32 love Arabic The Arabic is of course mistranscribed - in his terms, it should be 2a7abba, whereas the Hebrew and Aramaic forms really do have a h.
33 make Arabic
34 man innovative 'zalame' is etymologically problematic – both Arabic and Aramaic etymologies have been proposed. 'rejjel' is of course from Arabic. dakar is 'male', not 'man'.
35 many Arabic
36 meat Arabic This shares a specific semantic shift with Arabic to the exclusion of the rest of Semitic : « staple food » > « meat »
37 milk Arabic / Ugaritic The root is common to several Semitic languages, but the use of the passive pattern fa3īl in this word is unique to Arabic
38 month Arabic Pretty sure the normal Levantine form is shahr, not sha7r, not that it makes any difference to the etymology – and for sure Syriac 'moon' below is sahrā, not šahrā.
39 moon Arabic