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.


David Marjanović said...

I'm always up for some mysteries of the south...eastern Sahara!

About the very unstable very basic vocabulary, I guess there was either a very strange contact situation or a very strange sociolinguistic situation...

Benjamin Suchard said...

Interesting! I guess the grammar shows that the languages are closely related and the shared words didn't just spread through contact?

Lameen Souag الأمين سواق said...

Let's put it this way: the verb "to eat" is conjugated in the pfv. as follows in Beria and Berti respectively:
1sg: sɛ́gɪ́: satigis
2sg: sɛ́ní: negeseting
3sg: kɪ́sɛ́ɽɪ́: kasegedis
1pl: sɛ́dɪ́: setidis
2pl: sɛ́bɪ́: setizi
3pl: kɪ́sɛ̀ɽɪ́: kasegidi

And "to come":
1sg: kéigí; kaisus
2sg: kéiní; kainer
3sg: káɽí: kirish
1pl: kéidí: kaiter
2pl: kéibí: kainunnung
3pl: kágàɪ́: sunkerei

Again, enough similarity to say there's surely some kind of relationship, but it just feels weird. These languages look too closely related to look so distantly related!

David Eddyshaw said...

There are some odd divergences in very basic vocabulary within Oti-Volta too, though not to this degree.

The Western Oti-Volta subgroup has innovated for "water" and "sit", and its "name" etymon is shared only with Buli/Konni, its closest relative. (The peculiar thing about the WOV "water" and "sit" words is that both actually look pretty ancient, being CV-stems with glottal vowels. They just don't have any cognates at all anywhere else, whereas the usual Oti-Volta roots go all the way back to proto-Volta-Congo.)

Moba has a word for "name" which is completely unrelated to either the Western Oti-Volta/Buli-Konni or general Oti-Volta words: differing even from Gulmancema, with which it shares something like 90% of basic vocabulary.

"Little" is pretty constant in Oti-Volta (it shares its root with "child", one of the most widespread etyma throughout Volta-Congo), but "big" is not reconstructable, with practically every subgroup having its own word.

"Heart" and "fire" are reconstructable for the "Bugum" subgroup (Western Oti-Volta/Buli-Konni/Yom-Nawdm) but every other subgroup has a different unrelated word for each.

I gave up on "all", "every" and "many" even for lexicostatistics-style guesswork within Oti-Volta: even closely related languages often have unrelated words; like a fair bit of supposedly-core vocabulary in Oti-Volta, they actually resemble ideophones phonologically.

The words for siblings are not reconstructable even to proto-Western Oti-Volta: the named categories of sibling relationships don't even align with one another.

"Not" is not reconstructable either ... nor is "go."

What is this "highly stable vocabulary" that people speak of?

David Marjanović said...

The coordinated Romance dysphemism assault on the basic vocabulary comes to mind... but it hasn't gone that far. Not even if you include the latest developments, like colloquial French flotte for "water".