Tuesday, September 29, 2020

A fable written in Korandje

Yesterday, H. Yahiaoui posted what might be the first continuous story written down in Korandje by a 1st-language speaker (translated from a cynical little fable in Arabic): The Donkey, the Lion, and the Tiger. In this text, we clearly see the "consecutive aorist" used after imperatives but not after perfectives: contrast n-as abəqqạ nə-m-t-as "giveimperative him a slap and tellirrealis him" with a-hh-ana a-tt-asi lit. "he askedperfective and said to himperfective". More crucial among this text's points of interest, however, is the placement of spaces. Word boundaries are surprisingly tricky to determine in Korandje. Plenty of elements could be analysed as bound forms or just as free forms with a somewhat restricted syntactic distribution, and it's hard to decide which is which. A text like this provides suggestive (though certainly not conclusive) data on where speakers perceive them. A few generalizations quickly emerge. In the verb word:
  • Subject markers are written as prefixes to the verb or MAN marker (2Sg n, 3Sg a, etc.)
  • The aspectual auxiliary ba, which turns perfective into perfect and imperfective into progressive, is written as a separate word - but only in contexts where the b is preserved; contrast ənnmər ba bə-kkạ-γ "the tiger is hitting me" with a-(a)-b-kkạ-γəy "he is hitting me".
  • Otherwise, mood, aspect, and negation (MAN) markers are written as prefixes to the verb (Neg s, Prosp (b)aʕam, etc.)
  • Directionals (ti "hither" are written as suffixes to the verb.
  • Object pronouns (2Sg ni, 3Sg ana, etc.) are written as suffixes to the verb.
  • Oblique pronouns (2SgDat nisi, 3SgDat asi, etc.) are usually written as suffixes to the verb word, but in one case (kəs γəys "leave to me") as an independent word, plausibly reflecting its less closely bound status.

In the noun phrase:

  • Genitive n is written as a prefix to the head noun.
  • Possessive pronouns are written as prefixes to the head noun (1Sg ʕan, etc.)
  • The indefinite article (or numeral) fu "a, one" is written as a suffix to the noun it quantifies.
  • "Other" (fyạṭən), despite historically containing "one", is written as a separate word.
  • Demonstratives are written as suffixes to the noun phrase (γu "this", etc.)
  • Dative si and locative ka are written as suffixes to their objects.
  • The focus marker a is written as a suffix to its noun phrase.
  • The identificational copula (aγu "this is", etc.) is written as an independent word, despite historically incorporating the focus marker.

Pending more data, the following cases seem sui generis:

  • səndza-n-a (Neg.Cop-2Sg-Foc) "it's not you who..."
  • mu-kunna-ni (what.Rhet-find-2Sg) "what's wrong with you?"
  • ku-xəd (each-when) "whenever"

For those who can't read the original, here's a transcription of the fable:

  1. Fəṛka a-ddər izmmi-s a-yzʕəf a-hh-ana, a-tt-asi: "Maγạ səndza-n-a lγabət n-uγ bya?"
  2. Izmmi a-tt-asi: "Iyyah… mu-kunna-ni, tuγ ba yzra?"
  3. Fəṛka a-tt-asi: "Nnmər ba bə-kkạ-γ ʕam-mu-ka ku-xəd a-ggwa-γəy, a-m-ti 'Maγạ nə-ss-aʕam-ḍəb taššəyt?', maγạ a-(a)-b-kkạ-γəy kʷəl ana?? Aha tuγa taššəyt-γ ʕamḍəb kʷəl aγəy?"
  4. Izəmmi attasi: "Kəs γəys ləxbạ-γu, nə-s-bə-zzu lhəmm haya."
  5. Aywa ləxʷəddzi(d) izəmmi a-kbʷəy ənnmər a-hh-ana "Tuγ-a taššəyt-γ n-ləxbạ?"
  6. Nnmər a-tt-asi: "ʕa-b-talla γar əssəbbət ndzuγ ʕa-b-kkạṛ-ana wəxḷaṣ.."
  7. Izəmmi a-t ənnmər-si: "Təlla ssəbbət fyạṭən-ka, a-a-ybən… T-as a-m-zu-t-nis əttəffaħ-fu ndzuγ, ndza a-zzu-t-a-nis yạṛạ, n-as abəqqạ nə-m-t-as 'Maγạ nə-ss-aʕam-zu-t-ana tirəy?' Ndza a-zzu-t-a-nis tirəy, n-as abəqqạ nə-m-t-as 'Maγạ nə-ss-aʕam-zu-t-ana yạṛạ?'"
  8. Nnmər a-žžawb-ana a-tt-asi "Lfikrət-f hannu aγu."
  9. Am-bibya ənnmər a-kbʷəy fəṛka a-tt-asi: "Zu-t-γis əttəffaħ-fu."
  10. Fəṛka a-nnəg-aka mliħ a-hh-ana a-tt-asi "Waš ʕa-m-zu-t-ana tirəy wəlla yạṛạ???"
  11. Nnmər a-ttəmtəm an-nin n-tiri a-tti "Tirəy yạṛạ…"
  12. A-ħħərrəm an-kambi ạ-kkạ fəṛka ndza abqa-fu, a-tt-as "Maγạ nə-ss-aʕam-ḍəb taššəyt???"
  13. *** Uγ ba b-iḍləm a-ss-a-bə-ttəlla əssəbbət ndzuγ a-b-yəḍləm.
In English:
  1. The donkey went to the lion angry and asked him: "Hey, aren't you the chief of the forest?"
  2. The lion told him "Yes... what's wrong with you, what has happened?"
  3. The donkey told him "The tiger is hitting me on my face every time he sees me, saying 'Why won't you wear a cap?' Why is he hitting me?? And what cap would I wear anyhow?"
  4. The lion told him "Leave this affair to me, don't worry about it at all."
  5. So when the lion met the tiger, he asked him "What's the issue of this cap?"
  6. The tiger told him "I'm just looking for an excuse to hit him, that's all."
  7. The lion told the tiger: "Look for another excuse, it's (too) obvious... Tell him to bring you an apple so that, if he brings it to you yellow, give him a slap and tell him 'Why won't you bring it red?' If he brings it to you red, give him a slap and tell him 'Why won't you bring it yellow?'"
  8. The tiger replied "This is a good idea".
  9. The next day the tiger met the donkey and told him "Bring me an apple."
  10. The donkey looked hard at him and asked him "Should I bring it red or yellow?"
  11. The tiger mumbled under his breath "Red, yellow..."
  12. He lifted up his hand and slapped the donkey and said "Why won't you wear a cap?"
  13. *** An oppressor doesn't need an excuse to oppress.

Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Nəskibən: "You don't appear any more"

"Nə-s-k-ibən" (2SG-NEG-anymore-appear) "You don't appear any more!"

I heard this sentence several times during my fieldwork in the Saharan oasis of Tabelbala. Parsing it was easy enough, but making sense of it took more flexibility: at first I thought I must have misheard. I've never heard anyone in England or America or France say anything like "You don't appear any more!"; yet there it turned out to be a stock phrase.

It makes sense once you unpack the presuppositions. A man should appear in public regularly - in town, at the market, at the mosque, en route to other places. But, in that slow-paced small town, doing so is an act of socializing, not just a stage in an errand: you don't just pass someone you know by without at least stopping a minute to say hi and share news. Not appearing in public for some time is an event noteworthy in itself, and people can and will criticize you for it if you don't have a valid excuse like illness.

That's not really how it works in Paris or London. You might be obliged to "appear" at your office, but not for strictly social reasons. They might notice your absence at your regular pub or your clubhouse or something, but certainly not on the street. Even in such cities, though, we normally spend much of our day before the gaze of others - if not exchanging greetings and gossip, at least seeing and being seen.

But now things have changed. On Facebook, a friend in Tabelbala recently made a post to urge social distancing, translating the message "Stay at home!" into Korandje: gwạ nən gạ ka! The first response was chaffing from a more frivolous friend, telling him that he's been social distancing so much that "nə-s-k-ibən"!

I imagine the lockdown in Tabelbala is less rigidly enforced than it could be - surrounded by 100 km or more of empty desert in every direction, it is impressively isolated without it. But otherwise, we're all in the same boat now: we don't appear any more. Except online.

What kind of expectations and presuppositions will that create, over weeks that may stretch into months? When we all emerge from our hideouts, will we find it worthy of comment if people don't appear in their usual social media sites or chat forums?

Saturday, March 21, 2020

W-deletion in Arabic

In Arabic, triliteral verbs starting with w- often drop the w- in the imperfect ("present"), and in a few related forms like the verbal noun: وجد wajada "he found" vs. يجد yajidu "he finds", وزن wazana "he weighed" vs. يزن yazinu "he weighs"... But not always: contrast وسن wasina "he fell asleep" vs. يوسن yawsanu "he falls asleep", وجز wajuza "it was brief" vs. يوجز yawjuzu "it becomes brief". Going through a dictionary, it becomes obvious that the primary determining factor is the vowel: verbs with an imperfect in -i- drop the w, while others keep it. (Proviso: verbs which originally had -i- turn it into -a- if the third consonant is "guttural", ie pharyngeal or glottal: thus وقع waqa3a "it happened" vs. يقع yaqa3u "it happens" from *yaqi3u, contrasting with وجع waja3a "it hurt" vs. يوجع yawja3u "it hurts" with original -a-.)

Empirically, this seems to work fine. But it doesn't make sense to me historically. Why should an i in the second syllable correlate with the absence of a w in the first syllable? Any ideas how such a sound change could plausibly have taken place?

Thursday, January 30, 2020

Unifying Mubi -oo- plurals

NB: Sorry, no tone marking today – might throw it in later.

We’ve seen two productive plural allomorphs characterized by round vowels: BVCV > BuCooC vs. BVVCV [-front] > BooCuC. Let’s see where -oo- shows up in the plurals of longer nouns.

Nouns of the form BVCVD(V) [-front] tend to take a plural in BuCooDu (the reduplicative plural horoɗyo > horoɗyuc, discussed last time, seems to be isolated):

  • jorol “fox” > juroolu
  • ɗoloso “lynx” > ɗuloosu
  • kabada “red fig” > kuboodu
  • jubugo “arrow” > juboogu
  • wasaga “thread” > wusoogu

In two cases, a suffix -k is added, with what seems to be dissimilation of *-guk > -yuk:

  • fidak “mat” > fudooyuk
  • cagada “hut” > cugooduk

Formally, despite the shape and the front vowel (which may lead us to rethink the conditioning), the following cases fit this pattern as well:

  • kurri “chicken” (assimilated from *kurɗi) > kurooɗuk
  • urde “granary” > urooduk

In another two cases, both ending in -k, the expected final vowel is omitted:

  • tamak “sheep” > tumook
  • koɗogo “toe-ring” > kuɗook

And, as we saw last time, in one case the final consonant is irregularly reduplicated:

  • bodol “road” > budoolul

If a long vowel is present and this plural type is used, vowel length is normally preserved; thus BVCVVDV yields BuCooDu – sometimes, as above, the final vowel is omitted to end in -k:

  • ɗyubaago “blind” > ɗyuboogu
  • sinyaaro “cat” > sinyooru (the i in the first syllable is probably caused by the following palatal)
  • duwaago “dorcas gazelle” > duwok (with unexpected shortening of the last vowel)

but BVVCVDV yields BooCuD(u):

  • gaayimo “wildcat” > gooyumu
  • kaarumo “fingernail” > koorum

On the other hand, we also find the variant plural gaayimo > guyoomu, suggesting that BuCooDu is starting to be generalized.

What about longer nouns? In those, frontness is irrelevant...

A nasal followed by a voiced stop (except in the Arabic borrowing (a)ngumbul "calabash" > (a)ngunoobul) behaves like vowel length, so BVNDVF(V) > Bo(o)CDuF:

  • tengil “calf” > tongul
  • minjilo “Mubi person” > monjul
  • humbuk “hedgehog” > hoombuk

In the few relevant examples available, BVCVDFV(GV) > BuCoDFu(G), whether D is nasal or not:

  • gomorko “basket” > gumorku
  • suwangot “Arab” > suwongu
  • aranjala “kidney” > uronjul

Otherwise, four-consonant nouns BVCDVF(V), BVCV(V)DVF(V) overwhelmingly (15 out of 24 examples) map to BuCooDuF:

  • ɗurgul “donkey” > ɗuroogul
  • kalman “in-law” > kuloomun
  • sunsuna “tale” > sunoosun
  • kasagar “sword” > kusoogur
  • kodoguno “sorcerer” > kudoogun
  • giraakumo “molar” > gurookum

Now we can finally start to put things together: all of these seem to be mapping to subsets of a notional template CuCo(o/C)CuCu, in a predictable fashion.

If the first syllable is long or includes the first half of a prenasalized stop, you drop the initial Cu:

BVVC > Cu[BooCuC]u
BVVCV > Cu[BooCuC]u
BVVCVD(V) > Cu[BooCuDu]

If the first syllable is open and the second one is closed, you get oC instead of oo:


Otherwise, you just proceed from left to right, always respecting the requirement that the output have at least 2 syllables:

BVCV > [BuCooC]uCu
BVCDV > [BuCooDuk]u
BVCVC(V) > [BuCooDu]Cu
BVCVVD(V) > [BuCooDu]Cu
BVCDVF(V) > [BuCooDuF]u
BVCV(V)DVF(V) > [BuCooDuF]u

So we’re starting to get somewhere. But this opens up a new can of worms: do some geminate-internal plurals belong here too? And where do those BaaCaC plurals fit into the system now? Those questions will have to wait for another time.

Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Reduplicative plurals in Mubi

Yesterday we saw that the dominant plural type for CVC / CVVCV stems, CVVDvD, can be given a unified analysis. How does this generalize to other stem types?

Plurals with final reduplication, dominant for CVC / CVVCV stems, are much less common for other stem shapes. For CV(C)CV stems, however, we do find a reasonable number of reduplicative plurals, this time in -o(o)C:

  • sùwá "calabash" > sùwòw
  • tògò "skin" > tùgók
  • rìwwí "song" > rèwòw
  • màbò "old" > mùbóop
  • cóɓɓì "lance" > cúɓóop
  • lánjá "friend" > lúnjóoc

(There is also one reduplicative plural in -eC - kúrɗyí "buttock" > kòrɗyèc - which seems difficult to reduce to the same pattern. It suggests that height harmony may apply to short vowels too, in which case we might blame sùwòw above on the influence of the semivowel.)

In Mubi, final VVC seems to be rare in simplex words. In monosyllables, it occurs only in loans, while elsewhere, it mainly shows up in imperfectives (cf. Jungraithmayr 2013:31). We may very tentatively suppose that in some common plurals it has been reduced to VC. Reduction of vowel length in final VVC also allows us to revise our analysis from yesterday to take into account bàŋ "mouth" > bòŋúŋ; a surface CVC stem may be underlying *CVC or *CVVC, and the vowel length in the plural reflects that rather than changing the stem.

Apart from the issue of vowel length, the rules outlined so far would yield the following (or, if we assumed that height harmony applies to short vowels too, the forms in brackets):

  • sùwòw (*sòwòw)
  • *tògók
  • *rìwwòw (*rèwwòw)
  • *màbóop (*mòbóop)
  • *cóɓɓóop
  • *lánjóoc (*lónjóoc)

A rule spreading roundness along the lines of a,o > u / _Coo seems feasible, judging by the lexicon, and fixes some of the problems above (not sure what's going on with "song"):

  • sùwòw
  • *tògók
  • *rìwwòw
  • mùbóop
  • *cùɓɓóop
  • lúnjóoc

But that can't be the whole story here. If bòdòl (see below) is a possible word, then so is *tògók; and there's no general ban on geminates in these positions, cp. wíccáak "to jump about while dancing (impf.)". Instead, there seems to be a templatic element here, whereby the vowel before the plural o/oo has been generalized to be u irrespective of the input, and the consonant before it must not be geminate. Insofar as these involve fixed vowels inside the stem, that strengthens the case for a comparable analysis of the previous data, which is feasible for CooDuD plurals. Integrating the -oC plurals seen above, we can thus reformulate the reduplicative plural as follows:

sg. BV(C/D)DV => pl. Bu(C)DooD (with sporadic reduction to -oD)
sg. BVVD(v) [-front] => pl. BooDuD
sg. BVVD(v) [+front] => pl. BVVDaD

Note that the internal vowel lengths and positions of the singular are preserved in the plural in all three of these; only stem-final vowels are affected.

For other stem shapes, reduplicative plurals seem to be sporadic, mostly involving words whose last consonant is a liquid. I can only find 3 clear instances of -uC in Jungraithmayr's lexicon for them, and 1 of -aC:

  • bòdòl "road" > bùdòolúl
  • kòròojó "small calabash" > kòròojúc
  • ɗíngírí "branch" > ɗìngéerúr
  • gúrlí "testicle" > gòrlàl
Once again, the internal vowel positions of the singular are preserved in the plural, if not necessarily the lengths. However, the predictions of our previous hypothesis are thus slightly off in two cases; we would have expected:
  • *bòdòolúl
  • kòròojúc
  • *ɗìngéerár (or, if we force a -uD plural despite the front vowels, *ɗìngúurúr)
  • gòrlàl

For ɗìngéerúr, no explanation for the -uC comes to mind; it is tempting to hope that this one is a typo. For bùdòolúl, however, a templatic explanation for the irregularity is at hand: CuCooCuC is, as we will hopefully see in a later post, the dominant plural template in Mubi for four-consonant nouns, which behave rather differently from what we've seen so far.

Now we've covered final reduplication plurals (glossing over a couple of irregulars, notably gìn "face" > gèenín / gànàn). This leads on naturally into another set of plurals, likewise featuring long vowels but without reduplication; if everything goes well, we can look at those next time.

Monday, January 27, 2020

Pluralizing Mubi biradical nouns

(Attention conservation notice: Kind of technical...)
NB: Updated with important corrections shortly after posting, following discussion with Marijn van Putten.

To better understand the Mubi plural system (following up on last time), let's start with two-consonant nouns of the form CVVCV and CVC (not CVCV, which has different default plural templates). Most of these take a CVVDvD plural with reduplication of the final consonant, with the vowels accounted for by the following correspondences:

  • CeeDi > CaaDaD, e.g. gèébí "horn" > gàabàp (final consonants automatically devoice)
  • CiiDi > CeeDaD, e.g. lìísí "tongue" > lèesàs
  • CooDi, CuuDi, CuD > CooDaD, e.g. fùúdí "thigh" > fòodàt
  • CooDo > either CooDaD or CooDuD, e.g. góoró "throat" > gòoràr; zòoró "tributary river" > zòorúr
  • CaD, CaaD, CeD, CoD, CaaDo > CooDuD, e.g. fáaɓó "breast" > fòoɓúp
(No such nouns end in -a, -e, or -u.)

There seem to be no instances in the lexicon of *iiCa or *uuCa (the only case of iiCaa is in an Arabic loanword); nor are there cases of *aaCi or *aaCu, except in manifest loans like áarìt pl. àwáarìt "devil" (Arabic ʕifriit), with the odd exceptions of gíráakúmò "molar" and káarúmo "fingernail". We may thus assume that there is backwards spread of height from the short vowel to the long vowel preceding it. The latter may be mid but must not be the opposite height to the short one, with conflicts resolved by changing to mid and harmonising for frontness and roundness:

  • ii > ee / _a
  • uu > oo / _a
  • aa > ee / _i
  • aa > oo / _u

Generalizing the latter point, it also looks like roundness spreads backwards to a long vowel in a preceding syllable, i.e.:

  • ee > oo / _o, u
  • ii > uu / _o, u

On a quick glance through the lexicon, the only exceptions I can see to this are vocalised semivowels as in hàaɗáw, pf. héeɗû "knead". This allows us to reinterpret CeeDi above as /CaaDi/, and CooDo as either /CeeDo/ or /CooDo/. We thus get a nice distribution of allomorphs: -aD if the singular contains an underlying front vowel, -uD if not:

  • *CaaDi > CaaDaD
  • CiiDi > *CiiDaD
  • CooDi > CooDaD
  • CuuDi, CuD > *CuuDaD
  • *CeeDo > CooDaD
  • CooDo, CoD > CooDuD
  • CaD, CaaD, CaaDo > *CaaDuD
  • CeD > *CeeDuD

Now we can almost rewrite the rule rather simply to unite all these cases:

sg. CVD, CVVDv [+front] => pl. CVVDaD
sg. CVD, CVVDv [-front] => pl. CVVDuD

The problem with this reformulation is that CooDo < *CeeDo nouns take a plural in CooDaD, not *CeeDaD. Perhaps this is best understood as an effect of the deleted final vowel: the delinked /o/ relinks to the previous vowel. But if so, this only applies for rounding, not for fronting...

This information, missing from the published grammar, gives us some of the necessary background to understand where those pesky CuCooDuC plurals might come from... But that's a story that still needs work, to be continued later perhaps.

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Mubi plurals from Arabic

Mubi, an East Chadic language spoken in the Guera Mountains of eastern Chad, stands out even in Chadic for the sheer complexity of its plural system, and all the more so for its extensive use of internal vowel changes. This seems likely to give it particular relevance for the reconstruction of Afroasiatic. However, Mubi is also profoundly influenced by Chadian Arabic, to a greater degree than even an Arabic-speaker might suppose at first sight. How much of Mubi's plural system reflects Arabic influence?

Looking through Jungraithmayr's (2013) La Langue Mubireview, I find 14 plurals of the form BaCaaDi(i)F (e.g. àbàlány "patas monkey", pl. àbàalîny) and 5 of the form BaCaaDo/u (e.g. móngò "monkey sp." > mánáagò). Of these, 9 and 4 respectively are found in Jullien de Pommerol's (1999) Dictionnaire arabe tchadien-français (including, to my surprise, both the previous examples), and many of the remainder seem semantically likely to be features of some more localized Arabic variety (e.g. mánjàk "village chief" pl. mànáajìk, various ethnonyms). It seems rather clear that these two plural types are borrowed from Arabic; but there is no strong evidence that they have been extended to inherited vocabulary.

For the closely related plural form BaCaaDiFe, we find 3 examples, of which only one is definitely of Arabic origin: shàddáarì "shaman" (i.e. "herbalist", based on Chadian Arabic šadar < šajar), pl. shàdáadìrè. Suffixation of -e is not otherwise typical of Mubi plurals, and matches perfectly with the Arabic plural in BaCāDiF-ah; it thus seems reasonable to consider this plural type as a borrowing from Arabic as well. If so, it provides us with one good candidate for an extension to inherited vocabulary. Mubi érìny "scorpion", pl. àráarínyè is comparable to other East Chadic forms in its singular, eg Dangaleat ɛ́rîndílɛ̀ pl. ɛ́ríndílnà, Toram irindeeɗà pl. irindeɗ, Kajakse ʔàràari pl. ʔàràaràk (Fedry 1971, Alio 2004), but disagrees strikingly with them in its plural.

At first sight, one is tempted to go further and conclude that the plural types BuCooDuF and BiCeeDiF are also adaptations of the Arabic iambic plural. But the evidence in those cases is not so clearcut. BiCeeDiF is only attested for a single word with no Arabic counterpart that I've been able to find (dólgúm "a type of basket", pl. díléegìm.) BuCooDuF is far more frequent than BaCaaDi(i)F and seems to contain a much greater proportion of inherited vocabulary, although some Chadian Arabic loans are found as well (e.g. àngúmbùl "calabash", pl. àngùnóobùl, corresponding to Chadian Arabic amgunbul pl. amganâbil). Moreover, it can plausibly be unified with another plural schema with no possible Arabic counterpart, BuCoDFuG, e.g. áránjálà "kidney", pl. ùrònjúl. For the time being, it seems prudent to withhold judgement on the explanation for why these two plural types are so strikingly reminiscent of the Arabic iambic plural.

Other Arabic plurals borrowed only for the corresponding Arabic nouns include BuCuuD (e.g. tês "billy-goat", pl. túyúùs), BiCiDaan (e.g. jédì "dorcas fawn", pl. jídíyáàn), and the sound masculine plural suffix -iin (e.g. máanì "strong", pl. màanìʔíìn). In the case of the sound feminine plural suffix -a(a)t, only two of the four examples in Jungraithmayr are clearly of Arabic origin (àntàháarà "mantis", pl. àntàhàarât; ràbàʔíyè "young woman", pl. ràbàʔìyáàt.) The other two look suggestively Arabic, however (ìrèedíyè "small granary", pl. ìrèedìyât; ròomìyè "crushing-stone", pl. ròomìyáàt), and this plural type too probably consists entirely of Arabic loans.

So far, it looks like in Mubi, as in Berber, Arabic influence has had the effect of further complicating an already very complex plural system. But Mubi is spoken in a far more multilingual context than most Berber varieties; one wonders whether some of the complexity here might be due to contact with regional languages other than Arabic as well...

Friday, January 17, 2020

Animal speech in the Songhay world: from orality to manuscript

Whether animals can talk is, above all, a question of definition. There are obviously important differences between human language and animal vocalizations; modern linguists and biologists find it useful to emphasise these by reserving words like "talk" for humans. There are, however, also important similarities which can be used to justify a common term for both - above all the fact that both often seem to be used for communication.

In traditional Songhay discourse, as in many other places, it's perfectly reasonable to say that animals talk. A "Kaado" text by Adama Seydou, recorded at the heart of the Songhay world in northwestern Niger near Dolbel by Ducroz and Charles (1982:55), expresses this attitude concisely:

Dábbèy, ì gó ǹd ŋ̀gêy wón héenó kâŋ ì ǵ té, kâŋ sénní nô, sénníyóŋ mó nô kâŋ, mán t́ bórà kúl nàŋ ǵ má r à. Amá bòryóŋ gò nô kâŋ ǵ nê, ŋ̀gêy ǵ má, wó kâŋ círôw fìláanà gó k̀ nê, wàl wó kâŋ háw fíláan gó k̀ hẽ́ k̀ nê, wàl wó kâŋ bèrì fìláanà, à gó k̀ hẽ́ k̀ nê.
Animals, they have their own cries that they do, which are speech/language; those too are speech/language, which no one can understand. But some people say they understand, what a certain bird is saying, or what a certain cow is saying with its cry, or what a certain horse is saying with its cry.

Some years ago in Tabelbala, the northernmost (Korandje) Songhay-speaking settlement, I recorded a similar attitude towards animal vocalizations, by Mr. Mohamed Larbi Ayachi (tabelbala2010-1-035). After he explained the idea, implicit in animal tales across North Africa, that long ago all the animals used to talk, I asked him why that stopped; he replied:

Aṛṛə̣yyəd, ala wạlu. Ala əytsa lħəywan ba təndzi abdzyəy. Lħəywan. Mħal išənyu, mħal ə ɣuna. Išənyu ndza nbạṛṛaḅḅạna gạka, uɣudz abnnas nɣayu, gundz ə iššəmm an ərriħəts amgẉa anna tsiwktsyu, maʕ maʕ. Itsa abdzyəy.
Did it stop? No, no way. No; look, animals still talk. Animals. Like goats, like uh whatsit. Goats, if you've raised them in the house, the one who gives them food, when they smell his smell they start crying out, maa! maa! So they talk!

How did the precolonial spread of literacy combine with these attitudes? An unpublished Arabic manuscript recently posted by Endangered Libraries In Timbuktu - Kitāb fīhi Kalām al-Bahā’im wa al-Ṭuyūr [A Book Containing the Speech of the Animals and the Birds] (from the Essayouti Library, early 19th c.) - strikingly mirrors Adama Seydou's discourse above, while integrating a specifically religious spin. This apocryphal text, probably composed locally to judge by the occasional gender agreement errors, portrays ten Jewish religious scholars challenging the Caliph Umar with a bunch of difficult questions, including:

وأخبرنا عن الفرس وما يقول في صهيله وعن الإبل وما يقول في رخائه وعن البقر وما يقول في نهاره وعن الحمار وما يقول في نهاقه وعن الريح وما يقول في هبوبه وعن العصفور ما يقول في صرصرته وعن الشاة وما يقول في صياحها وعن الكلب وما يقول في نباحه وعن الثعلب وما يقول في ترنيه
"Tell us about the horse and what it says in its neighing, and the camel and what it says in its grunting, and the cow and what it says in its mooing, and the donkey and what it says in its braying, and the wind and what it says in in its blowing, and the sparrow and what it says in its chirping, and the sheep and what it says in its bleating, and the dog and what it says in its barking, and the fox and what it says in its crying..."

Umar forwards the questions to (his future successor) Ali ibn Abi Talib, who replies:

وأما كلام البهائم والطيور فإن الفرس يقول في صهيله اللهم اغفر للمؤمنين واحزن الكافرين واما الابل فانه يقول يا رب كيف يستطيع السكوت من يفهم القنوت واما البقر فإنها تقول يا غافل انت في شاغل يا غافل انت عن القريب راحل يا غافل ما حدثت ما انت فاعل واما الشاة فانها تقول يا موت ما افجاك يا موت ما انشاك يا ××× ما اغفلك واما الحمار فانه يقول اللهم لعن المكا××××××××× الكلب فانه يقول اللهم اني محروم وانت الرحمن ××××××××× واما الثعلب فانه يقول يا رب ا...
As for the speech of animals and birds: The horse says in his neighing "O God, forgive the believers (al-muʔminīn) and sadden the disbelievers (al-kāfirīn)". The camel says "Lord, how can one remain silent (sukūt) who understands supplication (qunūt)?". The cow says "Neglectful one (yā ġāfil), you are in distraction (šāġil); neglectful one (yā ġāfil), you are soon to depart (rāħil); neglectful one (yā ġāfil), what have you made new and what are you doing (fāʕil)?" The sheep says "O Death, how surprising you are (mā ʔafjaʔak); O Death, how established you are (mā ʔanšaʔak); [...], how neglectful you are (mā ʔaġfalak)!" The donkey says "O God, curse the [...]". The dog says "O God, I am deprived (maħrūm), and you are the merci[...]". The fox says "Lord, [...]".

In form, these loosely reflect the actual sounds of the animals: each of the phrases attributed to the animals have a rhyme in Arabic that recalls the animal's stereotypical sound (the horse in -īn, the camel in -ūt, the sheep in -aʔak/-alak.) In meaning, on the other hand, they reflect not any actual intentions that the animals might reasonably be seen to have, but rather their species' role within human society: horses used for war, sheep bred to be killed, dogs relegated to a lowly position.

The real purpose of this invention is obviously devotional and mnemonic: it creates a memorable association between an animal's cry and a sort of mini-sermon, ideally making every animal's cry trigger dhikr (remembrance of God) in its human readers.

On the surface, this text not only admits the possibility of animals speaking but gives it a stamp of religious authority. Yet the specific interpretations it gives make it impossible to read such speech as contextually relevant in any specific here and now, or as relating in any way to the animal's desires or circumstances. The animals are not so much being anthropomorphized as being "angelized" - turned into messengers of an abstract cause, like Smokey the Bear. In fact, the pretense of translating the language of animals here, as so often around the world, actually deprives them of the voice that less "sophisticated" approaches like Adama Seydou's acknowledge.

The ideal people to ask about this topic, in some respects, are neither farmers nor scholars, but hunters and herdsmen (not that those categories are mutually exclusive!) Unfortunately, I'm not aware offhand of any work on Songhay-speaking hunters' attitude to animal communication; it would make a very interesting counterpoint to statements like these.

This little foray into linguistic anthropology was partly inspired by discussions with James Costa. My thanks to him, to Mohamed Larbi Ayachi, and to the ELIT team.

Thursday, January 02, 2020

Kabyle-Arabic phraseological convergence

Kabyle Berber and (especially north-central) Algerian Arabic show the marks of massive convergence, often reflected in the use of phraseology that translates literally with identical meaning. A nice example I came across recently (p. 186, Poèmes kabyles anciens, Mammeri 1980/2009) is the following sentence:
Ur as zmireɣ, ur iffiɣ felli.
NEG 3SG.DAT be.able.NEG.PFV-1SG, NEG 3MSG-go.out.NEG.PFV on-1SG
I can't handle it, it doesn't suit me.

This translates perfectly into (north-central) Algerian Arabic:

ما قدرتلو، ما خرج عليّا.
Ma qdertlu, ma xrej 3liyya.
NEG be.able.PFV-1SG-3SG.DAT, NEG 3MSG-go.out.PFV on-1SG
Literally: I can't to it, it doesn't go out on me.
I can't handle it, it doesn't suit me.

In languages further removed from the area, however, a literal translation would be comically nonsensical:

  • EN: *I can't to it, it doesn't go out on me.
  • FR: *Je ne lui peux, il ne sort pas sur moi.

Another case was highlighted on Twitter by Noureddine Chikh: the use in both languages of "where do I know?" for "how would I know?" The latter proved to have some near-parallels elsewhere (with "Whence do I know?"), but no perfect ones were reported. How about this one? Can you think of any other idiomatic phrases that translate literally across the two languages?