Thursday, September 11, 2014

Why "Levantine" is Arabic, not Aramaic: Part 3

We've seen that historical linguists decide which languages share a more recent common ancestor on the basis of shared innovations (or their absence). But if you're paying attention, you may have noticed a potential problem here: innovations can be shared for at least three reasons:
  • Common ancestry - the reason why, for example, Proto-Indo-European intervocalic *s has changed to r both in Spanish and in French.
  • Contact - for example, the change of r (the rolled r you get in Spanish) to R (the uvular r you get in French) started in French, but spread to other European languages such as German, probably due to the prestige of French among the upper classes (actually there's some debate about the direction of spread - see eg this paper by Kostakis - but either way it spread through contact)
  • Chance - for example, θ (th) has changed to t both in Jamaican English and in Levantine, but not because they share any common history or close ties.

So, when it comes to shared innovations, what can we do to distinguish the "confounding factors" of chance and contact from common ancestry? There are two obvious general approaches. The most securely reliable is to establish relative chronology: if change A was applied to the outputs of change B, then obviously change B is the older. Unfortunately, many pairs of changes are commutative - the relative order makes no difference to the output. That often forces us to resort to the more probabilistic criterion of number of changes: if language A shares a lot of common innovations with language B to the exclusion of C, and only a couple with language C to the exclusion of B, then it's more parsimonious to group A with B and find some other explanation for those shared with C. For better results, we can weight the innovations according to the chances of them occurring independently: for example, a change of ð > d is rather common worldwide, whereas a change of ɬʼ > ʕ is rather unusual.

Levantine Arabic provides a useful case study: as NNT correctly pointed out, it shares a couple of innovative sound changes with Aramaic, in particular θ (th) > t, ð (dh) > d. (The hamza-y correspondence is a different issue - there's massive variation within Classical Arabic on where and whether hamza is realised, as can be seen from the different Qur'an reading traditions, and the consonantal orthography of Classical Arabic obviously reflects a dialect in which, like the majority of present-day dialects but unlike Modern Standard, hamza was hardly ever pronounced). Yet we have seen that Levantine Arabic does not share most of Aramaic's defining innovations, and does share important innovations of Arabic, such as the reflexes of proto-Semitic *g, *θʼ, *ɬʼ, and (depending on reconstruction) , the replacement of "say" (originally 'amar-) with qāl-, the metathesis of ʕam- "with" to maʕ-, or almost every detail of the extremely intricate broken plural system. How can this be explained?

If the explanation is common ancestry, then we should find the changes θ > t, ð > d only in Levantine words that are not Arabic innovations. In fact, however, we find them in words such as itnēn "two", in which the i- is an Arabic innovation - cp. Arabic iθnayni (acc/gen), Aramaic trēn, proto-Semitic *θn-ay-n(a). This hypothesis would also fail to account for the rest of the observations; if Levantine shares a more recent common ancestry with Aramaic than with Arabic, and is spoken exclusively in an area once dominated by Aramaic, then why on earth did it pick up so many innovations from Arabic while remaining immune to practically all the innovations Aramaic went through except these two? Both the criteria given above therefore point away from common ancestry as an explanation.

This suggests that we should consider contact. At first sight, you might think the answer is simple: Aramaic speakers couldn't pronounce interdentals, so they left them out of their Aramaic-accented Arabic. But that hypothesis would be absurd. By the late pre-Islamic era, all known varieties of Aramaic did in fact have the sounds θ and ð, due to a later development of t > θ, d > ð after vowels (except when doubled). We find these sounds alive and well in the only surviving Levantine Aramaic dialect, that of Maaloula: eg xoθla "wall", ḳrīθa "village", eḥða "one (f.)". Why, then, would Aramaic speakers change these sounds to t, d in Arabic?

How about the opposite contact situation: Arabic speakers living on the fringes of the Aramaic-speaking world copied the shift θ > t, ð > d from their neighbours, while those living further inland stuck with the traditional pronunciation? That is more plausible, but still a bit problematic. The development of t > θ, d > ð had already happened by 250 BC in Aramaic, so the shift would have to have been borrowed before that; but Arabic-speaking groups which used Aramaic as their high language, such as the Nabataeans or Petra, are only well-attested later than that.

A third, more subtle contact explanation seems preferable. Aramaic speakers would certainly have taken advantage of the many similarities between Aramaic and Arabic to reduce the burden on their memories. But, whereas θ and ð are extremely common in Aramaic, in Arabic they are quite rare: in the Qur'ān, t is ten times commoner than θ, and while ð is about as common as d overall, practically all of its occurrences are limited to demonstratives. A good rule of thumb for the Aramaic learner of Arabic to apply would therefore be "replace Aramaic θ, ð with t, d except in demonstratives"; 9 times out of 10, the result would be correct Arabic, and the 10th time it would still be comprehensible. In such an environment, where Aramaic-speaking learners of Arabic outnumbered native speakers, it's not hard to imagine the distinction disappearing. If so, the loss of interdentals in Levantine would indeed reflect Aramaic influence - as a result of Aramaic speakers' effort to avoid Aramaic forms!


David Marjanović said...

actually there's some debate about the direction of spread - see eg this paper by Kostakis - but either way it spread through contact

I had no idea anyone had argued that any Germanic languages had [ʀ] first. Seems obviously silly to me for several reasons.

ḳrīθa "village"

I'm curious: what do you mean by ?

The development of t > θ, d > ð had already happened by 250 BC in Aramaic

What's the evidence for that? Are there perhaps Greek transcriptions with s, z?

David Marjanović said...

The maps in the paper (which I've now read), BTW, are massively outdated. In Austria's non-Alemannic cities, the last three generations have grown up without ever learning to articulate [r].

Lameen Souag الأمين سواق said...

ḳ: ask Werner Arnold! Apparently, it's a backed k like you get in many Palestinian dialects, rather than a uvular.

The evidence for spirantization comes from Greek transcriptions, yes, but I haven't yet tracked down the original citation (Beyer, Die aramäischen Texte I, pp. 125—128).

David Marjanović said...


John Cowan said...

Levantine Arabic provides a useful case study: as NNT correctly pointed out, it shares a couple of innovative sound changes with Aramaic, in particular θ (th) > t, ð (dh) > d.

Of course, these exact sound changes are also shared with Continental North Germanic, and yet NNT is not talking of his Norwegian ancestors.