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?