Friday, October 20, 2023

Being "upon the truth"

It's not too hard to think of words that are characteristically used in English almost exclusively by Muslims - salat, namaz, wudu, shahada, masjid... There are even a few such words that aren't borrowings from Arabic or Urdu: circumambulation comes to mind. It is much more difficult, at least for me, to think of characteristics of "Islamic English" that go beyond the lexicon.

I was recently struck, however, by the expression "upon the truth". Searching for "upon the truth" yields plenty of mainstream English examples like "hit upon the truth", "lay hold upon the truth", "an essay upon the truth of the Christian religion"... However, searching for "be upon the truth", "are upon the truth", "is upon the truth", etc. yields a very different picture. Suddenly almost every single search result is specifically Islamic:

You get the idea. The rare exceptions, like "their ultimate dependence is upon the truth", reflect quite a different construction, as the inanimate subject shows. In English, referring to people or groups being "upon the truth" appears to be unique to Islamic discourse (perhaps even to some genres thereof; most of the hits seem to have a vaguely Salafi vibe).

While this construction uses only well-known English vocabulary, it literally translates the Arabic expression على الحق ʕalā l-ḥaqq "on the truth/right". Within Arabic, this expression has a bit of an archaic ring to it, but is familiar from a number of hadith, e.g:

فَجَاءَ عُمَرُ فَقَالَ أَلَسْنَا عَلَى الْحَقِّ وَهُمْ عَلَى الْبَاطِلِ
At that time `Umar came (to the Prophet) and said, "Aren't we on the right (path) and they (pagans) in the wrong?" (Bukhari 65.365)

Being "upon the truth" is thus a calque into Islamic English from Arabic. No doubt a wider investigation would reveal other such cases.

Thursday, October 12, 2023

Chenoua and the rectification of names

According to Ethnologue - or even to the HCA - Chenoua (Tacenwit) is one of the larger Berber/Amazigh languages of Algeria, spoken west of Algiers from Tipasa almost to Tenes. Unfortunately, no one seems to have told the speakers, who call their own language Haqḇayliṯ or Haqḇayləḵṯ - i.e. Kabyle. Chenoua is the name of one particular area, a mountain near Tipasa, and speakers from other areas are often entirely unfamiliar with the term; I recently learned of a first-language speaker who had reached her twenties without ever hearing of it.

This is not to say that they speak the same language in Tipasa as in Tizi-Ouzou! In fact, "Chenoua" is much more closely related to Chaoui than to what is usually called "Kabyle". But "Kabyle" is just an Anglicisation of Arabic qbayǝl - "tribes". It came to be applied to mountain-dwelling groups like this in the Ottoman period as a broad ethno-political category, not a linguistic one; around Jijel, communities who have spoken Arabic for many generations still call themselves Kabyle.

What should you call a language in a situation like this? "Chenoua" takes a part for the whole, and as such is confusing, as well as privileging one group of speakers over others. "Kabyle" matches speakers' traditional self-understanding, but misleads linguists, who are accustomed to using this for the much larger, not very closely related Berber variety spoken further west. "Western Algerian Berber" is potentially too broad; perhaps "Dahra Berber" is better, after the low-lying mountain range where most speakers live, but it presupposes a distinction from "Ouarsenis Berber" that is probably not linguistically justified.

But neither "Berber" nor the currently preferred term "Tamazight" correspond to traditional usage among speakers. "Berber" has never been used in any Berber variety; it has always been a term used by outsiders to label them, and in traditional coastal Algerian usage bǝṛbṛiyya actually referred to colloquial Arabic, not to Berber. And before the Amazigh identity movement gained ground in the late 20th century, most speakers in northern Algeria had never heard of "Tamazight".

In contexts like this, it makes no sense for a linguist to insist on using the name speakers use. Folk categories simply don't divide languages up at the same level as the one the linguists are interested in, nor for the same purposes. (In Bechar, šəlħa "Shilha" refers not only to several very different Berber varieties, but to the completely unrelated Songhay language Korandje). That doesn't mean denying the validity of folk categories; people can call whales "fish" if they want to. It does mean making sure not to get misled by them.

Thursday, October 05, 2023

Nilotic father tongues

Back in the late 1990s as human genetic data started piling up, it became increasingly clear that there were a lot of language families where most speakers shared relatively recent common male-line ancestry, visible by looking at Y-haplogroups. George van Driem memorably turned this observation into the Father Tongue Hypothesis: that language expansions are typically male-led, with children often raised to speak their father's language rather than their mother's. Berber is one of the many families where this holds true; Afroasiatic, on the other hand, shows several quite different dominant Y-haplogroups depending on the subgroup, indicating a more complex story at an earlier stage. What about Nilotic?

Nilotic, the most geographically widespread family within the rather questionable "Nilo-Saharan" phylum, divides into three primary subgroups:

  • West Nilotic was originally concentrated around the White Nile, in modern South Sudan, including such languages as Dinka, Nuer, and Shilluk. Medieval-era expansions brought Luo speakers as far south as Kenya.
  • East Nilotic languages are spread from southern South Sudan down to Tanzania, including such languages as Bari, Turkana, and Maasai.
  • South Nilotic languages are concentrated in mountainous areas of Kenya and Tanzania, including languages like Nandi and Kipsigis.

It turns out that each of these subfamilies has a reasonable correlation with a Y-haplogroup. West Nilotic shows high rates of A1b1b2b-M13 (62% Dinka, 53% Shilluk, 50% Kenya Luo, 38% Nuer, 22% Alur). Its northern members also have a high frequency of B (54% Nuer, 27% Shilluk, 23% Dinka), which is nearly absent from the more southerly ones (6% Kenya Luo, 0% Alur). A1b1b2b-M13 is also frequent, to a lesser extent, in East Nilotic (33% Karimojong, 28% Maasai and Turkana, 17% Samburu - but 0% Camus), though significant rates of B are recorded only for Karimojong (33%). In South Nilotic, on the other hand, A1b1b2b-M13 is much less frequent (13% Pokot, 10% Marakwet, 8% Ogiek, and so on down to 2% Datog and 0% Sabaot), with B even rarer (11% Pokot), and the plurality of lineages usually belong to E1b1b1-M35 - a Y-haplogroup otherwise notably associated with Cushitic and Nubian speakers (50% Ogiek, 46% Datog, 45% Marakwet, 38% Sengwer...) - or to E2. E1b1b1-M35 is not unknown further north, but is far rarer (20% Shilluk, 15% Dinka, 8% Nuer).

None of this looks much like the result of a single male-led expansion. An obvious interpretation would be that South Nilotic primarily reflects communal language shift, probably from Cushitic judging by the well-studied stratum of Cushitic vocabulary in these languages. One might reasonably postulate a classical male-led expansion to explain the spread of West Nilotic within South Sudan; but, if so, one is led to the conclusion (already plausible on linguistic and historical grounds) that the Luo expansion southwards involved considerable assimilation of local men, notably Bantu-speaking (the Bantu-associated E1b1a1-M2 accounted for 33% of Kenya Luo sampled). Such assimilation also appears probable in East Nilotic, for which I unfortunately lack data from South Sudan.

In a broader perspective, A1b1b2b-M13 is frequent in several far-flung "Nilo-Saharan" groups along the southeastern fringes of the Sahara whose languages are only very distantly related, if at all, to Nilotic: Fur (31%), various Sudanese Maban (26%), and even Cameroon Kanuri (27%). It does not, however, seem to be frequent among Nubian speakers, much closer at hand.

I won't attempt to exhaustively reference this post, which is basically open notes on work in progress, but key sources include Wood et al. 2005, Tishkoff et al. 2007, Hassan et al. 2008, Gomes et al. 2010, and Hirbo 2011. Note that I've combined different samples for Nuer and Dinka.

Tuesday, October 03, 2023

Feynman's Father's Fallacy

The first time I read this quote from Richard Feynman, I was quite convinced by it:

The next Monday, when the fathers were all back at work, we kids were playing in a field. One kid says to me, "See that bird? What kind of bird is that?" I said, "I haven't the slightest idea what kind of a bird it is." He says, "It's a brown-throated thrush. Your father doesn't teach you anything!" But it was the opposite. He had already taught me: "See that bird?" he says. "It's a Spencer's warbler." (I knew he didn't know the real name.) "Well, in Italian, it's a Chutto Lapittida. In Portuguese, it's a Bom da Peida. In Chinese, it's a Chung-long-tah, and in Japanese, it's a Katano Tekeda. You can know the name of that bird in all the languages of the world, but when you're finished, you'll know absolutely nothing whatever about the bird. You'll only know about humans in different places, and what they call the bird. So let's look at the bird and see what it's doing-that's what counts." (I learned very early the difference between knowing the name of something and knowing something.)

And it would be true - in a world where no one else knows anything about birds. (That's probably not so far from the world you or I or Feynman grew up in as children.) If you don't know what nightingales are called, and neither does anyone else, then you can still learn about them - if you have the time and patience to go deep into the countryside to places where they live, and spend cold nights with a pair of infra-red goggles, or set clever traps deep in the countryside or something.

On the other hand, if you do know what a nightingale is called, you can find out enormous amounts about it by simply asking. You can scour Google Scholar for papers by people who did the hard part already; you can get birdwatchers talking about it; you can look it up in a reference manual; in short, you can benefit from the accumulated experience of many generations of observers, instead of having to reinvent the wheel yourself, only to have your knowledge perish with you in the end. If you know what it's called in other languages, you can find out what other communities of observers had to say about it - which, in some cases, may reflect much longer observation than English speakers have been able to undertake. Having found all this out, you can understand your own observations better. Maybe you've discovered something new! Or maybe you've misunderstood what you saw because you lacked a broader context. Either way, you'll know much more with the name than you're ever likely to be able to discover individually without it.