Friday, July 23, 2021

The *Bugzu of Bagzan?

Mt. Băgzăn, at the heart of the predominantly Tuareg-speaking Air massif in Niger, bears a not very Tuareg-looking name. The only Berber meaning for the root BGZ found in Nait-Zerrad is a word used by the neighbouring Iwellemmedan, taken from Alojaly's dictionary: ebăgez, pl. ibəgzan "vessel for dogs or for rubbish"; this corresponds regularly to Tahaggart ebăǵăh, pl. ibəǵhan "crude vase or plate (used for giving dogs their food and for gathering rubbish)", with a feminine tebăǵăht, pl. tibəǵhin "flat, slightly concave instrument used as a dustpan" (Foucauld). Not a root one would want to reconstruct very far back in Berber, nor an obvious source for the name of a mountain.

Hausa provides a surely related form that may shed light on the term's history: the ethnonym būzu < *bugzu (by Klingenheben's Law, as shown by the pl. bugā̀jē) "serf of the Azben [Air] people" (Bargery). The term refers to ex-slaves, iklan, what in Mali would be called Bella. It presumably does not share an etymology with būzu pl. būzā̀yē "undressed skin mat, loin-cloth", with no *g, for which Skinner (1996) gathers plausible cognates elsewhere in Chadic.

Combining the two, we get what looks like a brief glimpse of morphology: the homeland of the *Bugzu is *Bagzan (perhaps their manufactures included crude plates). From a Tuareg perspective, -ăn looks like a masculine plural ending; but the specific vowel alternation would be hard to explain Tuareg-internally, though Tuareg has a-ablaut in other plural types. From a Chadic perspective, one is reminded of the -n plurals of Bade and Ngizim, e.g. Bade zawa-n pl. zawa-n-ən "stick" (Schuh ms), Ngizim gâzbə́r̃ pl. gázbàarín "tall" (Schuh ms, 1972); Ngizim even offers parallels for the vowel alternation, and a-ablaut plurals are widespread in Chadic more generally. The Bade-Ngizim subgroup includes geographically the closest Chadic varieties spoken to the Air besides Hausa, located almost due south of the Air, so it seems a promising point of comparison; could the *Bugzu have spoken a since lost West Chadic B.1 language? But of course, nothing guarantees that Bagzan should be an old plural; perhaps -ăn was a locative suffix, or something else entirely.

I wouldn't be surprised if some early 20th century work proposes this connection, but I haven't come across it in the literature so far; if you have, let me know.

Wednesday, July 21, 2021

Clitic doubling in Arabia: An update

Back in 2017, I published an article on "Clitic Doubling and Contact in Arabic" (ZAL 66, pp. 45-70), arguing that the various cases of clitic doubling reported across Arabic dialects in different regions - NW Africa, Malta, the Levant, Cyprus, Central Asia, Dhofar - differ in their behaviour, do not share a common origin, and in each case reflect substratum influence. The case of Dhofar turned out to be particularly tricky in that the only available evidence for clitic doubling in local Arabic and in its Modern South Arabian substratum came from the same speaker in each case - Mhammed bin Selim El-Kathiri, a bilingual speaker of Jibbali and Dhofari Arabic who worked with a team of Austrian linguists about a century ago. He used the same clitic doubling construction across both his languages (definite DO/IO/PrepO, no marker); but no such construction appears in more recent work on either language. I tentatively concluded that:
Only further data can determine whether this is a general feature of some particular Dhofari dialect (perhaps the second language dialect of Arabic spoken by Shihri speakers?) or just an unusual feature of El-Kathiri's idiolect. However, if this construction was not simply idiolectal, its origins seem more likely to lie in Jibbali than in Dhofari Arabic, since no parallels have been found in any Arabic dialect of the Arabian Peninsula.
A forthcoming article I recently came across, Pronominalization and Clitic Doubling in Syrian and Omani Arabic, changes the picture for this region. In a paper primarily focused on the generative syntax of clitic doubling rather than on its history, Peter Hallman and Rashid Al-Balushi demonstrate for the first time that the Arabic variety of al-Batinah in the north of Oman has productive clitic doubling, and that its distribution (definite/specific DO/IO/PrepO/Poss, no marker) largely matches El-Kathiri's usage a century earlier. Clitic doubling of this type thus a widespread Omani feature, not a Dhofar-specific one, and certainly not a merely idiolectal one.

Note that the dialect of Al-Batinah, like that of Dhofar, is a dialect with q for historic qāf, representing the earliest stratum of Arabic to reach the region. One hypothesis could be that clitic doubling of this type is a Modern South Arabian (MSA) substratum feature, calqued into the first Arabic varieties to reach Oman but never reaching the g-dialects that first come to mind when one thinks of Arabian dialects. On the other hand, no further evidence has yet come to light for clitic doubling in MSA; based purely on the available data, it seems equally or more plausible that this type of clitic doubling arose spontaneously in Omani Arabic and was calqued into Jibbali by bilinguals such as El-Kathiri. Much more dialectological data is needed to decide the question; available descriptions are evidently far from complete. In either case, independent origin appears far likelier than any kind of historic connection with the rather different types of clitic doubling observed in other parts of the Arabic-speaking world.

Thursday, February 11, 2021

Review: "Inventing the Berbers"

I finally got a chance to read Ramzi Rouighi's Inventing the Berbers recently; much food for thought.

The book is primarily the history of a name: how did certain people in North Africa come to be called "Berbers", and how did the reference and connotations of this label change over time? Viewed as such, it has a good deal of useful material. He argues that, rather than being derived directly from Latin or Greek "barbari", the label was transferred from East Africa to Northwest Africa as the Arabs moved west; its original associations would be with slavery rather than with barbarism as such. (Traces of the original usage persist: in Nubia, as I first learned on a trip to Aswan, "Berber" is still understood to mean "Nubian"!) In the early medieval period, it was used primarily for rebels and enemies on the fringes; groups with a closer involvement tended to be referred to by more specific terms. Ibn Khaldun's usage is more complex, reflecting Andalusi practice as it emerged in the context of elite competition between Berber and Arab noble families, but shows clear traces of the older tendency to reserve it for "outsiders" to the ruling elite. The modern European usage of the term comes essentially from Ibn Khaldun as filtered through De Slane's essentialism (which turned Berbers into a "race") and subsequent academic and ideological debates, largely in the context of the French colonization of Algeria.

In the penultimate chapter, however, he lays his cards on the table, presenting the term Amazigh as a mere relabelling of the neo-Khaldunian concept of "Berber", constructed with insidious intent and making an already misleading discourse even more ahistorical:

In the early 1950s, a few specialists proposed to replace “Berber” with “Amazigh,” the name some people in northern Morocco had.... “Amazigh” could not fully conceal its colonial birthmark, however. Its rejection of Arab imperialism of centuries past, its search for an authentic indigenous category, and its reliance on the fruits of colonial historiography, epigraphy, and linguistics to do so are all telltale signs. Calling for name change could have led to the realization of the historicity of all names and from there to the historicity of Berberization. It did not... “Amazigh” (indigeneity) was the parting gift of a dying colonialism to the frail nationalisms it had never accepted. Pulling the rug from under “Algeria” and “Morocco,” which as the colons repeated were new and artificial, “Amazigh” dealt a blow to anticolonial nationalism.

The 2-page discussion of “Amazigh” is unacceptably simplistic, especially after multiple chapters of careful examination of the changing semantics of "Berber". The author would have been better off omitting the term entirely than giving it such a caricatural treatment, massively understating the geographic distribution of the term (not just northern Morocco but as far off as northwestern Libya...); his medieval focus cannot entirely excuse the omission, as this term is (less frequently) attested in the medieval period. A proper examination - and, yes, historicization - would have been all the more valuable given that the term was used as an endonym in many regions long before the emergence of the modern trans-national ideology, whereas "Berber" has not been adopted in ordinary Berber speech anywhere, remaining an exonym, and usually an exclusively learned one at that.

Reading as a linguist, I can appreciate the attention given to semantic shifts and to the arbitrariness not only of the sign but of the signified. But as a historical linguist, it feels rather at cross-purposes to the questions of interest to me. Fundamentally, I don't much care which ethnic label people identify or are identified with: for me, "Berber", like "Arabic", is primarily useful as a linguistic category. And its referent has a history starting far earlier than the earliest attestation of "Berber", "Tamazight", or any other label one might choose to apply to it. It is necessary and appropriate to historicize such labels - to be aware that Masinissa or Dihya or Fatma n'Soumer were not acting in the name of some kind of Amazigh nationalism, and may not even have been familiar with "Amazigh" as a name, let alone as an identity. But how this relatively close-knit language family spread, and retreated, remains a historical question, of interest to archeologists and population geneticists as well as linguists, which an exclusive focus on ethnic labels erases.

It should, however, help to provoke reflection on the appropriate choice of label for this language family. "Berber", neutral though it undoubtedly is in English or French, does have a problematic history; the derivation from "barbarian" may be inaccurate, but this book really underscores the extent to which its usage in Arabic has been overwhelmingly negative and "othering" for most of the region's history. "Amazigh" does not have this problem, but is strongly associated with a projection of shared ethnicity into the past which risks distorting our picture of language spread. In an ideal world, one might prefer a purely geographical label ("Northwest African"?), or, better yet, a purely linguistic one (iles-languages, after the usual word for "tongue"?) In practice, however - here as elsewhere - it seems preferable to live with the occasional misunderstandings caused by the use of a well-known "ethnic" term than to confuse the public with a completely novel one.