Wednesday, September 27, 2023

Two Bambara words in Gnawa songs of Meknes

Across North Africa, small groups dominated by descendants of slaves brought from the Sahel preserve musical traditions, with ritual and medical functions, usually called Gnawa in Morocco, Diwan in Algeria, and Stambeli in Tunisia. Aguadé's Die Lieder der Gnawa aus Meknes provides the lyrics of an extensive corpus of Gnawa songs from Meknes in northern Morocco. These songs are primarily in Arabic, but characteristically include a number of words with no plausible Arabic or Berber source, presumed to derive from languages of the Sahel. Their identification, however, is generally difficult, although Aguadé ventures a few suggestions drawn from Hausa. Anyone can comb dictionaries for sound-alikes, but similar forms may be found across unrelated languages of the Sahel with very different meanings. It would be much easier if the meanings were certain, but the singers do not necessarily know the meaning of such words, and the context often hardly narrows it down. Nevertheless, some cases can be identified more confidently than others.

Aguadé's song number 88, Lalla l-Batul "Lady Virgin" (pp. 128-129), is dedicated to a female genie whose song cycle corresponds to the colour yellow. Its refrain (accounting for 5 out of its 8 lines) is a lalla l-batul, saysay "Oh Lady Virgin, saysay". The word saysay has no meaning in Arabic or in Berber. In Bambara, however, sáyi means "yellow"; the refrain would then be "Oh Lady Virgin, yellow, yellow".

In his song number 90 (pp. 130-132), the refrain is fufu dənba ya sidi "fufu dənba, oh master" (repeated 14 times, including the opening line of the song). Bambara dénba means "mother". The first verse after the initial refrain is ma bɣatək kda ya sidi "she didn't want you like that, oh master"; no feminine singular subject to which this could refer appears anywhere in the Arabic text of the song, but the Bambara interpretation allows this line to be better understood. I'd like to relate the preceding fufu to Bambara fò "greet" and/or fɔ́ "say, speak" - "greet Mother" would seem contextually appropriate - but I can't quite see how the grammar would hang together.

Addendum: In song 5, Sidi Gangafu "Mr. Gangafu", almost every couplet ends in Bambaṛa or shortened ya Mbaṛa, so a Bambara etymology seems worth considering (although an allusion to Hausa is also found). As Aguadé notes, Ganga is simply a kind of drum used by the Gnawa, whose name is shared across most of the Sahel, so one would expect this name to mean something like "drum-player" or "drum-maker". In fact, Gangafu can readily be interpreted as Bambara gàngan-fɔ̀ "play the ganga-drum". "Drum-player" should properly be something like gàngan-fɔ̀-la, but it doesn't seem like much of a stretch to suppose that the Bambara used by slaves among themselves would have had some non-standard features, given that for many of them it would have been a second language to begin with.

Wednesday, September 20, 2023

Some Dellys manuscripts

(Not linguistics, just history - possibly self-indulgent at that.)

Quite a few years ago in Dellys, I was allowed to photograph a bundle of pages from different manuscripts grouped together in a single detached cover, labelled as belonging to my great-uncle (رحمه الله). (I wasn't very good with metadata at the time, so I apologise in case anything ended up in the resulting folder from a different source.) Both the internet and my ability to read premodern Arabic handwriting have advanced a lot since then, and I can now identify (more or less) six of the works which these were taken from:

  • A commentary on al-Nawawī's Forty Ḥadīth - a selection of key sayings of the Prophet Muḥammad (SAWS)
  • Muhammad Mayyāra's commentary on Ibn ʕĀshir's Guiding Helper - a condensed summary in verse of essential Mālikī fiqh (religious jurisprudence)
  • Abū al-Layth al-Samarqandī's Warning to the Neglectful, a book of religious exhortation
  • Ibn Ghānim al-Maqdisī's Decipherment of the Symbols and Keys of the Treasures, explaining Sufi concepts and terms
  • A linguistically focused commentary on al-Būṣīrī's Mantle - a poem in praise of the Prophet Muḥammad (SAWS)
  • Ibn Mālik's Thousand-Liner - a condensed presentation of Arabic grammar in verse to facilitate memorisation
  • A commentary on al-Abharī's Isagoge - an introduction to Aristotelian logic

Apart from these, there were a few pages of rhymed dua (supplication to God), which I can't find a source for online.

I still can't identify most of the commentators; it seems that plenty of commentaries have yet to be properly digitised. But the geographic spread of the authors is noteworthy, covering almost the whole span of the former territories of the Umayyad Caliphate: al-Samarqandī from Uzbekistan, al-Abharī from Iraq or Iran, al-Nawawī from Syria, Ibn Ghānim al-Maqdisī from Palestine, al-Būṣīrī from Egypt, Mayyāra and Ibn ʕĀshir from Morocco, Ibn Mālik from Spain. The chronological spread, on the other hand, is notably more concentrated: 10th c. (al-Samarqandī), 13th c. (al-Abharī, al-Nawawī, al-Būṣīrī, Ibn Mālik), 16th/17th c. (Ibn Ghānim al-Maqdisī, Ibn ʕĀshir). The 13th century doesn't necessarily spring to mind as a golden age of Islamic thought, but for the early 20th century curriculum this notebook presumably reflects, it was at least a golden age of school texts. (On the other side of the Mediterranean, it was also the age of Thomas Aquinas and Dante.) The absence of 19th century texts here might be accounted for by the rise of printing, but that cannot explain the paucity of texts from other recent centuries; even the 16th/17th century texts seem to be intended to open the door to understanding older works. The common purpose of these works should also be clear: all of them either relate directly to religion or are ancillary to the religious sciences.

The texts themselves accordingly therefore cast only a very indirect light on the context where they were being studied. A note carefully added in pencil on the inside cover sometime in the early/mid-20th century, however, is much more eloquent:

WARNING: The earth is a dark planet, lit by the moon at night and by the sun in the day. The earth is suspended in space by the power of Allah SWT; He made a gravitational power in the stars that attracts the earth towards them just as a magnet attracts iron. The earth is not carried on the horn of a bull, as claimed on p. 36 of this book in a ḥadīth of `Abd Allāh ibn Sallām when he asked the Messenger of Allāh SAWS about the earth "What was it created from?" and so on until he asked him "And what do these seven earths rest upon?" He replied "On a bull." He asked "And what is the bull like?" He said "A bull with 40,000 heads", etc. This ḥadīth has no basis, and has been deemed fabricated, and none of the learned have confirmed this ḥadīth - and Allah knows best.

This short comment feels like the entire modernist era in a nutshell - that late 19th/early 20th century moment of collision with the West, when this vast storehouse of traditional knowledge, stabilised over centuries by mnemonic verses and long insulated from external criticism, is suddenly confronted with an urgent need to sift out the grain from the chaff and go back to first principles, or risk losing intellectual as well as physical battles. We're still living through the aftermath; one result is a widespread suspicion of works formerly treated as unimpeachable, including some of those above.

Monday, September 18, 2023

Notes on East Saharan

Along the southwestern fringes of the Sahara, in the Ennedi and Biltine regions of northeastern Chad and the Darfur region of western Sudan, a few hundred thousand people, the Beri or Zaghawa, speak a language called Beria. Until well into the last century, the Berti people of Darfur and Kordofan still spoke a rather poorly documented related language, Berti; today they are reported to have all shifted to Arabic. Together, they make up the Eastern subgroup of the Saharan family (supposedly part of Nilo-Saharan). I've been looking over some of the literature on these languages lately, so here's a very brief summary on their historical phonology; it's mostly just for my own memory, but if anyone else is interested then great.

Beria is divided into a number of dialects (cf. Wolfe 2001, Anonby & Johnson 2001), of which the best described - thanks to Jakobi and Crass 2004 - is the eastern variety of Kube in Chad. Unfortunately for present purposes, this also seems to be a good candidate for the least phonologically conservative variety. The southeastern Dirong-Guruf varieties preserve /f/, reduced to /h/ in Kube and in the rest of Beria but retained as /f/ in Berti; there is reason to suspect that it was originally *p (for instance, intervocalic variation between /rf/ and /rb/). The western Wegi variety of Darfur preserves intervocalic voiceless stops, which Kube voices, and intervocalic /d/, which Kube merges with *r. There's a lot of cross-dialectal variation within Beria between /m/ and /b/, especially in initial position, which is difficult to account for through regular sound change; word-initially, despite its name, Berti seems to have /m/ in almost all words that have Kube cognates with /b/. Wegi and Dirong appear to preserve a distinction between /l/ and /n/ that has been lost in Kube; but Berti also has /n/ in such cases, so one wonders whether this might be a split rather than a retention, though there's no obvous conditioning factor. It's hard to say much about Berti phonology given the quality of the sources, but it also seems to shift /ɟ/ to [z] in some cases.

Berti is much more closely related to Beria than any other Saharan language, and there are plenty of transparent basic cognates, like "name" (Berti tir, Kube tɪ́r) or "night" (Berti gini, Kube gɪ̀nɪ́ɪ̀). The surprise is that there are also lots of very basic words with no obvious cognates, like the personal pronoun "I" (Berti su, Kube áɪ), or the numeral "one" (Berti sang, Kube nɔ̀kkɔ̀), or the adjective "little" (Berti batti, Kube mɪ̀na). This sort of thing seems to happen a lot in Saharan; maybe more data will make things clearer, or maybe there's a contact context that needs to be better understood. Either way it makes subgroup reconstruction a lot trickier.

Saturday, September 02, 2023

Book review: Zenati-Arabic Arabic-Zenati Lexicon, Haji (2019)

I got my hands on a copy of a recent dictionary of the Berber variety of Ouargla: Muʕjam al-mufradāt zanātī-ʕarabī ʕarabī-zanātī : Warqalah, Ngūsah, Tmāsint, Baldat ʕumar, ɣumrah, Maqrīn, Timīmūn wa-ḍawāḥīhā معجم المفردات زناتي-عربي عربي-زناتي : ورقلة، نڨوسة، تماسنت، بلدة عمر، غمرة، مقرين، تميمون وضواحيها, by Abderrahmane Haji, published 2019 with Afrmād in Algeria. The variety of Ouargla, Təggargərənt, is relatively well-documented thanks primarily to the texts and dictionary published by Jean Delheure. Delheure's work, however, was based on fieldwork between 1941 and 1976, and as such represents the speech of several generations ago. The primary merit of Haji (2019) is in presenting an up-to-date picture of Ouargla Berber as currently spoken and seen by a first-language speaker; it is also of sociolinguistic interest for presenting a heartfelt argument for linguistic diversity and "dialect" preservation from an essentially populist nationalist-conservative perspective. Unfortunately, however, apart from an understandable lack of linguistic training, the book is marred by an astonishing number of typographical errors (the Arabic text of the introduction gives the impression of never having been proof-read at all) and an orthography which fails to distinguish /ə/ from /a/; the author notes that he had to rapidly reconstruct the work from scratch after losing his original manuscript file.

The introduction starts by noting the constitutional position of "the Amazigh language" in Algeria and objecting that the variation across Berber is far higher than such a phrase might seem to imply, with only 2.4% (?) of vocabulary common across all varieties. He claims to be able to understand only 35% of Kabyle and 65% of Tuareg as against 80% of Chaouia, 95% of Tumzabt, and 95% of Timimoun; more surprisingly (typo?), he reports understanding only 40% of the rather similar varieties of Tiout, Boussemghoun, and Beni Ounif. A brief overview of Amazigh/Berber/Algerian history includes an original etymology of "Amazigh": he derives it from am jjiɣ, "as I left (it)", an idea made possible by Ouargli's tendency to merge š/ž with s/z, explaining his eccentric spelling of it as أمزيغ rather than أمازيغ. He then presents his objections to standardisation: "The attempt to create an Amazigh language in the laboratory, without immersion in its principles and the depths of its components spread across the nation is in itself self-destructive, and may find no one to feed it or protect it, being rootless and inauthentic and asocial... How can 17 dialects be reduced to one dialect which no one has deemed the source or the original? As Algerians say: 'When the crow tried to imitate the partridge, it forgot how to walk'." For good measure he takes such efforts to reflect "this savage project known as globalisation, which since 1945... has imposed what it (globalisation and pragmatism) considers appropriate for its ambitions and desires to let loose and satisfy the instincts and consumption in all its forms, and release blind freedoms and illusory democracy." Specifically, "dialectal diversity is a strong fortress and effective tool [against this project] which must not be reduced or destroyed for nothing."

The next section presents his perspective on the history of Arabic in Algeria. He seems to take for granted that the Kutama were descended from Himyar, and therefore that Kabyles are actually Arab, unlike Zenata (such as himself) who are indigenous, but who "learned Arabic of their own free will, far from the Hilalians and Riah and those under their influence, who preferred the wilds and transhumance, entering the town to buy and sell but leaving in the afternoon". He insists that, as with Berber, "In Algeria there are Arabics and not just one Arabic, which must likewise be gathered and corrected and preserved from oblivion." The main thrust of the section, however, is to argue against the exclusion of Arabic loanwords, since they are historically well-entrenched: "is it not true that most of English comes from French ... and most of French from Latin..? Is Arabic not our neighbour, even ahead of Islam being our religion"?

The next section briefly presents a linguistic geography of Algeria from a Saharan-focused perspective: Tuareg around Djanet, Tamanrasset, Borj and Tin-Zaouatine and Timelaouine; Regueibat (non-Amazigh) around Oued Daoura, Matar Ennaga, Hassi-Khebi, Tindouf, Ghar Djbeilat, and the Western Sahara; Zenati in Ouargla, Ngoussa, Goug, Beldet Amor, Temacint, Meggarine, Ghomra, Timimoun, Beni Ounif; Shilha in Tiout, Sfissifa, Boussemghoun, Chellala; Chaouia from Zeribet el-Oued to the Tunisian border, and from El Kantara to the edge of Souk Ahras; Kabyle in a rectangle from the edge of Setif to the sea of Bejaia and from Bouira to the edge of Algiers and Boumerdes - plus Zenati around Cherchell, as an afterthought.

He then briefly and polemically addresses script choice: "I write in Arabic, in accordance with article 2 of the Algerian constitution of 2016, and because Arabic came down from Paradise with Adam AS and Eve, and the Quran is in flawless Arabic... Moreover, Arabic is indisputably the oldest language in the world... Latin script destroyed the country and the people, and stole our goods and property, and split our unity; the people of the South reject it and don't want to learn it." He adds that Zenati has adopted plenty of Arabic loanwords, as well as others from "French and Hausa and Zarma and Bambara and Adadi[?] and other languages".

The next section is an overview of prior publications on Ouargla Berber, short yet replete with mistaken identifications ("Hodson" (sic: rather Hodgson) is identified as a general, René Basset as a member of the René missionary family) and apparently cut short in the middle of the first sentence to mention Delheure ("deleu").

Finally, he moves on to "the rules of Zenati" (قواعد الزناتية), summarizing the fully vocalised orthography he adopts (including new characters for ẓ, ṇ, ṃ, ṛ, but sadly no distinct solution for ə), and then describing the morphology. The headings adopted are "Feminine", "Verb", "Pronoun suffixed to the verb or noun", "Plural", "Negation", "Masdar", "Interrogative", "Warning", "Intimidation", "Calling for help", "Ululation", "Colours", "Relative pronoun", "Demonstratives", "Locative adverbs", "Nisba", "Paucal plural", "Free pronouns", "Demonstrative" (yes, twice), "Ownership", "Demonstratives suffixed to the noun", "Suffixed genitive pronoun", "Numerals and counting in Zenati", "Counting money", "Metre and poetry" (with basically no content), "Keys to Ouargli" (a list of function words). Many of these include asides on subjects that would not be expected based on the section title. These are followed by a series of paradigm tables: "Free pronouns", "Genitive pronoun suffixes", "Free pronouns" (absolute possessives), an unlabelled table of the conjugation of "say", "Conjugation of 'say' in the present then in the past", "Conjugation of 'say' in the negative'", "Conjugation of 'come' in the past then the present then the imperative", "Conjugation of 'give' with a first person subject in the past and the present and the imperative", "Conjugation of 'give' with a third person subject in the past and the present", "Form of exaggeration", ... and many other verb paradigms.

The remainder of the work is divided into three alphabetically ordered sections: a short phrasebook, "Phrases and expressions, Zenati-Arabic"; then the dictionary proper, "Zenati-Arabic dictionary of lexemes" and "Arabic-Zenati dictionary of lexemes".

On the whole, I found this work disappointing; with a better transcription system and some training in linguistics, the author could have created a definitive reference work rather than a miscellany. Nevertheless, serious students of the Berber varieties of the northern Sahara should not neglect it; it covers areas of modern life absent from earlier sources, and addresses some aspects of pragmatics neglected by more professional treatments.