Showing posts with label Africa. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Africa. Show all posts

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Sara, sara

With only 30,000-odd inhabitants, and fairly poor road connections, Dellys is a reasonably small and out-of-the-way place. In summer it briefly fills up with the unfamiliar faces of other Algerians looking for a quiet beach holiday, but I've never seen, for instance, a Chinese person here, even though there are plenty in Algiers. Nevertheless, the problems of the Sahel have made themselves felt even here: this year, for the first time, a couple of families from Niger seem to have made it to Dellys. As I was browsing in a little bookshop, a little girl came in, holding up a bowl and saying "Sara, sara". She said the same word to each of us in turn, then left to proceed along her route. Shortly after she left, I belatedly realised what she was saying. In Zarma (the main language of western Niger), historic intervocalic d became r, and intervocalic velars were lost. Arabic ṣadaqah "alms" (Hausa sadaka) is thus reduced to sara. She can't have been here long, or surely she would have found a more effective expression to use; I imagine everyone else was assuming that she was simply repeating her own name.

As a town, Dellys is not particularly fond of strangers, though it leaves them alone; coincidentally, the owner of the bookshop had just been complaining to me about how all the post-independence immigrants into town - from villages a few kilometres away - had made a mess of the place. Absorbing Nigerien immigrants may take some work. But I expect more will arrive; right now, Niger has the fastest growing population in the world, with a birthrate last seen in Algeria in the 1970s, and in the industrialised world during the 19th century. Many Algerian young people dream of escaping the country's sclerotic economy, sometimes illegally by boat from Dellys - there used to be a graffiti near the lighthouse alluding to the early Muslims' flight to Abyssinia: "I shall go to Spain, for it is ruled by a king who does not oppress anyone." But compared to Niger, Algeria might as well be the US.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

The Arabic Script in Africa

An article of mine that's been in the pipeline for almost four years has finally come out: "Writing 'Shelha' in new media: Emergent non-Arabic literacy in Southwestern Algeria". I discuss the usage of non-Arabic languages (Berber and Korandjé) in Southwestern Algeria in digital media, looking at the orthographic solutions adopted and the purposes of those writing it. The results suggest that, under appropriate circumstances, a high degree of orthographic uniformity is possible without any formal training in writing the language in question – but that the existing sociolinguistic marginalisation of these languages in speech is taken even further in writing.

I received a copy of the book recently, and found the rest of it very interesting. Maarten Kossmann and Ramada Elghamis discuss the traditional Arabic orthography of Tuareg, which shows several unexpected features. Two articles discuss the writing of Afrikaans in Arabic script, which – hard as it may seem to believe – predates its writing in Latin script. Nikolai Dobronravine discusses the use of Arabic to write African languages (as well as the Arabic language) in the Americas – the archives of Brazil, for example, contain a surprising number of letters confiscated from slaves. Other articles examine Fulani, Kanembu, Manding, and Swahili, as well as the history of Arabic writing in general and its distribution in Africa.

On a related note, if you're interested in Libyan Berber, it turns out there's a surprisingly large number of people writing even some of the least well-known varieties on Facebook, often in Arabic script; see my recent post on Awjili negation for Awjila, or Awal n ɛdeməs for Ghadames.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Some updates: Darja etymologies, sub-Saharan loans, Libyco-Berber

Back again :)

I've often talked about why it's not enough for developing countries to use English or French as a working language for research and leave the majority of their own citizens in the dark. So I'm putting my money where my mouth is (so to speak) and starting a blog in Arabic focused on dialect etymology, a subject rife with popular misconceptions: الأصول التاريخية للدارجة الجزائرية (Historical Origins of the Algerian Dialect). Some of this blog's readers may be interested.

I've written up a finding first posted here - Songhay words in El-Jadida, Morocco - as part of a recently submitted article on sub-Saharan loanwords into North African Arabic. (There aren't many, but more than you might think: one of them, شطة šaṭṭa "Cayenne pepper" from Hausa cìttā, has even made it into Modern Standard Arabic via Egyptian dialect, and another, كابوية kābūya "pumpkin" from Hausa kàbēwā̀, is quite widespread in Algeria.)

MNAMON have posted a video of my talk about Libyco-Berber at Pisa - if you can stand the poor delivery, the content may be interesting. Among other things, I discuss the question of where LB fits into the Berber family tree.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Genetic and linguistic perspectives on Afroasiatic

Via GNXP, I hear there's been a new study on North African genetics: Genomic Ancestry of North Africans Supports Back-to-Africa Migrations. It provides an interesting cross-check on linguistic hypotheses.

In brief, the story these geneticists propose is: the main ancestors of modern North Africans, in particular Berbers, migrated into North Africa at least 12,000 and perhaps as much as 40,000 years ago; this "Maghrebi" component is close to Western Eurasian populations, and is dominant in most of their Moroccan and Algerian samples (and prominent in Libya). Arabs migrated in more recently starting 1,400 years ago, and Near Eastern influence is prominent throughout, especially in Libya, and dominant in Egypt. The Sub-Saharan African component seems to have arrived even later (~1,200 years ago in southern Morocco) and thus probably reflects the trans-Saharan slave trade; in Morocco it looks West African, while in Egypt it appears more diverse. Some European admixture is visible in Algeria and northern Morocco as well, but its nature is not clear. The data set is a bit small: a better coverage of Sahelian populations would be highly desirable, as would more Near Eastern populations, and one wonders where the ancient Egyptians fit in. However, the overall picture seems reasonable.

The more recent stages fit trivially with the detailed linguistic and historical data available (see my earlier post on linguistic traces of sub-Saharan immigration into North Africa), but the genetic divergence between Maghrebis and western Eurasian populations takes us into a realm where both fields offer much less certainty. Linguistically, we know that Berber, Semitic, and Egyptian are all distantly related to one another (and to Chadic and Cushitic, though that doesn't show up in the genetic data here); but we don't know when they split apart. There is no generally agreed upon method for dating linguistic divergences, and Swadesh's original "radioactive decay" glottochronological formula has proved too poor an approximation to be relied upon. However, a much-modified glottochronological formula was more recently proposed by Sergei Starostin in an attempt to fit a curve of attested data points. As it happens, two of his followers, George Starostin and Alexander Militarev, have ventured to offer estimates for Afroasiatic; for the split between Semitic and Berber, they respectively estimate 9,700 or 11,000 years ago. This seems strikingly close to the lower limit of the geneticists' estimate here. But even if this estimate is rejected, if the divergence date is anywhere near what the genetics is suggesting, then we have to conclude that genetic relationships older than 10,000 years can be discerned, contrary to some claims in the literature.

There is a way around this: one could propose a pre-Phoenician immigration that changed the language but had relatively little impact on the gene pool. In fact, such an event may have to be postulated for Afroasiatic's history in at least some areas anyway: speakers of one Chadic language are represented in this paper - Hausa - and their genes look nothing like North Africans or Near Easterners. However, it hardly seems like a parsimonious hypothesis in this case, given the split dates suggested. So... is this a corroboration of Starostin's method, or just a lucky guess?

Wednesday, September 22, 2010


I finally got my hands on an article I had been looking for for a while about the "Kouriya" language of Gourara (around Timimoun, Algeria): Rachid Bouchemit, 1951. Le Kouriya du Gourara, Bulletin de Liaison Saharienne 5, p.46-47. While short, it's significantly more informative than the vague rumours to be found in other sources. "Kouriya", it turns out, was the general-purpose name given locally to any Black African language - "L'unité du terme cache la pluralité des idiomes: Haoussa, Bambra, Foullan, Mouchi, Songhai, Bornou, Boubou, Gouroungou, Minka, Sarnou, Nourma, Kanembou, Karkawi, etc...", in particular as spoken by ex-slaves in the region. Following the abolition of slavery, these languages, no longer reinforced by the arrival of new slaves, rapidly fell into disuse; the new generation learned Arabic and Taznatit instead. By 1951, the author could find only seven or eight speakers of a "Kouriya" in Timimoun, and only two of them spoke the same language, namely Bambara.

While the author leaves the etymology unexplained, I would add that the term "Kouriya", and the corresponding ethnonym kuri, probably derive from Songhay koyra "town, village", used to form the Songhays' own name for themselves, koyra-boro "townsman"; Songhay is, after all, the nearest major ethnic group in the Sahel to the Gourara region.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Manatees and bilingual compounds

In Djenné Chiini, the Western Songhay dialect of Djenné in Mali, the word for "manatee" is ayuumaa. This is clearly a compound of two elements: ayuu, the word for manatee throughout the rest of Songhay (as well as in Hausa), and maa from Bozo máa, which also means "manatee" (Bozo being the original language of the Djenné region.) It's as if the American English word for an elk were "elk-moose". I can't think of any other examples of this kind of half-borrowing, where a native word is "expanded" by adding on its translation into another language; can you?

(Sources: Daget 1953, La langue bozo; Heath 1998, Dictionnaire songhay-anglais-français, tome II: Djenné chiini.)

Monday, April 05, 2010

More on the WOLD Kanuri entry

The World Loanword Database is a great resource, and the Hausa/Kanuri team deserve congratulations for undertaking the Herculean labour of putting together two sets of etymologies. However, there are some issues with the Arabic etymologies in the Kanuri entry. The transcription is inconsistent and sometimes incorrect; more seriously, a few entries give incorrect meanings or impossible etymologies, as in the following cases:

3.592 àkú parrot: the quoted Arabic form is almost impossible as a Classical Arabic noun (and not in the Lisan al-Arab; the Arabic word is babγā’), and parrots are known in the Arab world only as an exotic import. Assuming the form exists in some Arabic dialect, it must be a loan from a sub-Saharan African language, not vice versa.
9.24 mágàsù scissors: the g and the u both suggest that this word entered directly from (Bedouin) Arabic, not via Hausa.
11.12 hàláltə́ own: if this is correctly transcribed, surely it comes from Arabic ħalāl “licit; one’s lawful property”. Arabic halak means “perish”.
11.79 ríwà dìò to earn: “ribā” means usury, and is strongly condemned in Islam; it is unlikely that this would be adopted as a neutral word “earn”. The more plausible source for both the Kanuri and the Hausa is Arabic ribħ “profit, gain”.
11.78 àlwúsùr wages: Perhaps < Arabic al-`ušr "tithe (< one-tenth)"; surely not from ma`āš.
14.451/6 kàjílí evening: “kajir” is not a possible native Classical Arabic word, and is not attested in Classical Arabic. If it’s in Shuwa, it must come from Kanuri, not vice versa.
16.34 tə́wə́rítə́ regret: Hausa tuubaa does come from Arabic, but clearly from Arabic tūb “repent”; it has nothing to do with Arabic ta’assaf (not *tāssaf) “regret”.
16.69 gàfə̀rtə́ forgive: the connection to Arabic γafar- is obviously correct, but Arabic yaʕfū is equally obviously not relevant; even if ʕ were normally reflected as g in Kanuri, it would leave the r unexplained.
18.33 kàsàttə́/àrdìtə́ admit: the Arabic form “kasat” does not exist. yarḍā means “may He hope/ approve” (as noted), not “admit”, making the connection rather tenuous.
18.45 áwúlò dìò boast: there is no Classical Arabic word “awulo”.
19.47 àmàrtə́ permit: Arabic ʔamar- means “he ordered”, not “permission”.
20.31 súlwé armor: Arabic silāħ means “weapons”, not “armor”.
21.24 àlàptà swear < ħalaf "swear" (not < allāh "the god")
21.37 àzáwù punishment: from Arabic ʕađāb “punishment, torment” rather than jazā’.
21.47 perjury: by what chain of semantic changes could “perjury” derive from “lawful”? And why would l > k?

Probable Arabic loanwords not listed as such include:
11.54 bàyîl stingy: from Arabic baxīl.
4.89 sûm poison: surely from Arabic samm?
4.93 sə̀lé bald: surely from Arabic ‘aṣla`?
5.26 kóló pot: perhaps cp. Arabic qullah (or onomatopeic?)
7.58 kábbì arch: surely from Arabic qubbah?
14.25 bàdìtə́ begin: surely from Arabic bada’?
11.29 lòrùtə́ damage: from Arabic ḍarr (impf. -ḍurr-). Cp. “judge” for ḍ > l.
24.02 wàltà become: perhaps from Maghrebi Arabic wəlli “become, return”.

In some cases, looking more widely allows the etymologies to be improved:
3.11 lə̀mân animal: < al-māl- "livestock, money", rather than al-mann "favor, benefit". For the dissimilation, compare the common Maghrebi Arabic change of n...n to n...l, eg badənjal < bāđinjān, fənjal < finjān.
2.34 lòrúsà wedding: probably from al-`arūs “bride” (Maghrebi Arabic l-aʕṛuṣa), rather than direct from ʕurs. Cp. Siwi aʕṛus “wedding”, with the same semantic shift.

There are also a few cases, many probably originally formatting issues, where the correct form is given in comments, but contradicted elsewhere:

3.25 sheep: the source cited, Kossmann 2005 (67), points out that the form quoted by Skinner, *adaman, is unattested. The correct form, adəmman, is found in Arabic as well as Berber, and refers to a type of sheep said to come from sub-Saharan Africa. Given that it refers to a specifically sub-Saharan sheep breed, 5 would seem a better classification than 4, though 4 is understandable.
3.78 camel: Kossmann 2005, cited, makes it rather clear than an Arabic origin for this word is very improbable. Moreover, there is no such Arabic word as “ləγəmal”; only the form jamal is correct.
4.87 physician: If Shuwa Arabic or some such variety has a term liktaay, there can be little doubt that it is a loan into Shuwa, not from Shuwa. As the comment indicates, this comes from English, not from Arabic.
7.422 blanket: The comments indicate a Berber form abroγ, but the field gives abrok. The Arabic etymology is less implausible than it appears, since the semantic shift to “full body covering” is well-attested, as in English “burka” from the same source.
12.081 above: here it is called areal and probably not Arabic, but under “sky” and “heaven” the same word is listed as “clearly borrowed”. One of these statements must be wrong.
13 zero: the Hausa form is transcribed correctly in comments, but wrongly under “Source words”.
18.51 write: rubuta is Hausa, not Berber, as the sources quoted make clear. The proto-Berber form had no suffix -t (as Kossmann indicates), and neither do any of the equivalent modern Berber verbs.
19.62/20.11 quarrel: If it’s related to “alhilaafu”, the Arabic form is al-xilāf. If it’s related to “judge”, that form is irrelevant. In either case, there is no Arabic word “alwalaʔ” with appropriate meaning.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Ajami in Boston

The Boston Globe has an article today about Ajami, the tradition of transcribing African languages in the Arabic script. It focuses particularly on the efforts of Fallou Ngom, whose work has been mainly on Wolof Ajami in Senegal, the subject of one of my first posts here. In the article he emphasises the potential historical significance of such work in opening up neglected sources on African history. While most African manuscripts are in Arabic, some historically rather interesting Ajami sources are known; for Mandinka, published historical manuscripts include the Pakao Book and the Bijini manuscript, the latter outlining regional history over the past 500 years. There are undoubtedly more out there that have gone uninvestigated simply for lack of enough historians who can read them. My work on Ajami has focused more on issues of orthography, however: most African languages have rather different sound systems to Arabic, and it's quite interesting to see what kind of devices they developed to make the alphabet fit better.

Friday, July 17, 2009

More on Nile Valley Berber [?]

I finally got around to borrowing Bechhaus-Gerst's Sprachwandel durch Sprachkontakt am Beispiel des Nubischen in Niltal. It's tough going because I don't really speak German, but she briefly suggests (p. 37) that the C-Group Culture of 2200 BC-1500 BC in lower Nubia, known as Temehu to the Egyptians, were Berbers (referencing Behrens 1984/5), and that Nobiin-speaking Nubians came in about 1500 BC and replaced them. This would explain the possible Berber loanwords in Nobiin, notably aman "water". Apparently, the archeology shows a change of cultures and of body types around 1500 BC, and ancient Egyptian paintings first begin depicting their southern neighbours as black around this period, while the Egyptian loanwords in Nobiin seem to date to the New Kingdom or later.

The identification of the Temehu with the Berbers is not based on linguistic evidence, as far as I know, and the small inventory of possible Berber loans in Nubian is neither conclusively established nor necessarily dates from as early as 1500 BC. So I don't know how much confidence to put in this scenario. However, it points to an interesting avenue for studies of Berber to explore. A lot of evidence suggests that Afroasiatic originated further east than North Africa, so it would make sense for there to have been Berber speakers in the Nile Valley - that could even be where Berber spread from in the first place. I previously discussed this issue in The Berbers of Southern Egypt.

The book is interesting for other reasons, incidentally - if her scenario for the development of Kenzi/Dongolawi is correct, it has borrowed an astonishing amount of grammatical material from Nobiin.

Behrens, P. 1984/5. "Wanderungsbewegungen und Sprache der frühen saharanischen Viehzüchter", SUGIA 6:135-216.

Friday, April 17, 2009

A Fulani village in Algeria

Anyone acquainted with West African history will be aware of the remarkable extent of the Fulani diaspora, stretching from their original homeland in Senegal all the way to Sudan. However, I was surprised to read the following note in a history of the Tidikelt region of southern Algeria (around In-Salah):
"Le village actuel de Sahel a été créé en 1779 par Sidi Abd el Malek des Foullanes, venu à Akabli dans l'intention de se joindre à une pèlerinage, dont le départ n'eut pas lieu... Les Foullanes sont des Arabes originaires du Macena (Soudan); il y a encore des Foullanes au Sokoto; Si Hamza, le cadi d'Akabli appartient à cette tribu." (L. Voinot, Le Tidikelt, Oran:Fouque 1909, p. 63)
(The current village of Sahel was created in 1779 by Sidi Abd el Malek of the Fulani, who had come to Akabli with the intention of joining a pilgrimage whose departure never occurred... The Fulani are Arabs originating from Macina (Sudan [modern-day Mali]); there are still Fulani at Sokoto; Si Hamza, the qaid of Akabli, belongs to this tribe.)

I very much doubt there would be any traces of the language left - even assuming that Sidi Abd el Malek came with a large enough entourage to make a difference - but wouldn't it be interesting to check?

Friday, July 04, 2008

The Berbers of southern Egypt

Checking through the 11th-century geographer al-Bakri for information on the linguistic history of Siwa, I was not surprised to see that he says the Siwans were Berber, and not very surprised to see that the people of Bahariya at the time were Arabs and Copts, and those of Farafra Copts alone. I was a bit more surprised, though, when a little further down the page he says that some of the people of Dakhla and Kharja, in southern Egypt (map), were Lawāta Berbers:

وهذا واح الداخلة كثير الأنهار والعمارات... ومن هذا الواح إلى الواحين الخارجين ثلاث مراحل وهو آخر بلاد الإسلام... وفي بغض الواحات قبائل من لواتة

It kind of fits with an observation made by several Nubian specialists (I read it in an article by Bechhaus-Gerst) that Nubian - specifically Nobiin, in fact, not the Nubian languages of Kordofan or Darfur - seems to contain Berber loanwords; the easiest to remember, and most convincing, of these is "water", aman (which in other Nubian languages is something completely different, along the lines of essi.) If a dictionary of the Arabic dialects of these oases ever comes out, it would be very interesting to check it for Berber loanwords.

On a more romantic note, al-Bakri also warns those travelling into the desolate lands west of these oases that they will find "great sands... full of palm trees and springs, with no civilisation nor companions, where the murmuring of the jinn is heard unceasingly."

Friday, August 31, 2007

Leiden conference on African languages and linguistics

I'm just back from a conference at Leiden, and heading off to take a holiday in Algeria very soon; here's my interim report to tide my readers (to whom I apologise for the interruption in service:) over.

Leiden turns out to be a very nice little town, clean, quiet, full of canals, and practically empty. I imagine all that changes when the students get there! The conference was good - I got to talk to several other people working on Berber and Songhay, and heard some interesting talks. To name a few, Jeffrey Heath discussed the remarkable ways in which syntax affects tone in Jamsay Dogon; Maarten Kossmann argued (and I am inclined to agree) that the Mande influence discernible in southern but not northern Songhay, and especially strong in "Inner", or Eastern, Songhay, is particularly to be linked to Soninke, and is not a feature of proto-Songhay; Alain Bassene presented a paper on topicalisation and focus in a Jola variety where both proved to behave in a manner almost completely identical to their behaviour in Algerian Arabic; and Mary Pearce presented in impressive detail what turned out to be a clear ongoing sound change (a shift from phonemic tone to phonemic voicing) in the Chadic language Kera. My own paper was perhaps a little too esoteric even for a conference like this - I'm not sure that more than two or three people in the audience actually cared about sound shifts in Songhay - but I heard corroborating evidence for one of my statements immediately afterwards, which was satisfying.

I also picked up a pleasing number of free language/linguistics books, including review copies (look for them on Afrikanistik sometime in the indefinite future) of a new dialectological atlas of the Moroccan Rif and of a book by Pichler on the history of Tifinagh which (I'm not sure whether to be amused or annoyed) briefly quotes me verbatim regarding Neo-Tifinagh without attribution or even quotation marks.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Is Omotic Afroasiatic?

Omotic, a small group of non-Cushitic, non-Semitic languages spoken in the highlands of Ethiopia, has always been the odd one out in Afroasiatic; by anyone's tree it is the first to have split off, and the noted Chadicist Paul Newman expressed scepticism about its membership in the family. I know little about Omotic, or Cushitic for that matter, but after reading a few sketch grammars in Omotic Language Studies , I found it very difficult to imagine these languages as Afro-Asiatic; with Berber or Hausa or Beja or Semitic the cognates are instantly visible, but none of the most familiar grammatical morphemes or lexical items seemed to be present. However, a paper I just came across by Rolf Theil is the first I've seen to present an argument against the hypothesis, and a pretty good one at that. There are parts I would question - for example, the suggestion that pronouns are unreliable (they are conspicuously unreliable in regions where extensive politeness systems have developed, like East and Southeast Asia, but I didn't think highland Ethiopia fell in that category) - but the overall argumentation seems good. In particular, the attempt to show that a roughly equal number of similarities can be observed between Omotic and families other than Afro-Asiatic is on the right track - if Omotic were to have more similarities with Afro-Asiatic than with any other family, then merely pointing out problems with some of those similarities would be inadequate. I'll be interested to see the reactions of people better acquainted with the family.

On another note, I passed my upgrade presentation yesterday - yay!

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Frananglais in Cameroon - but what exactly is it?

The BBC has recently reported that "Teachers in Cameroon are concerned that the new language frananglais - a mixture of French, English and Creole - is affecting the way students speak and write the country's two official languages." An interesting language contact story, in a remarkably multilingual country none of whose own languages are used for official purposes; shame you can read straight through the article without being any the clearer on whether Frananglais is a system in its own right or just what they choose to call the local brand of code-switching between the two. Many of their examples suggest a French syntactic frame with English vocabulary inserted ("Tu as go au school", "Tu play le damba tous les jours?") - raising the possibility that certain English words consistently replace their French counterparts, while others remain in French - but other examples suggest plain old code-switching, ie shifting from one language to another in mid-sentence ("Tout le monde hate me, wey I no know", "je ne suis pas sure about this"). The one other example of frananglais I could find online is very much in line with it having a French frame with English words (and at least one Italian one) inserted, but there simply isn't enough data to see whether the replacement is systematic or ad hoc. I wonder if anyone can tell me :)
Quand je tellais aux djo de came put leur hand dans la marmite ici ,les djo me tellait que je ne suis pas reglo,que sam est un reglo,l'autre que france foot ne prenait pas en consideration de tels votes,et l'autre que je devais plutot appuyer ma petite au lieu de stay ici un saturday afternoon a game come les muna.(au fait moi je l'ai appuyé hier).Je remercie tous les toileurs qui ont sensibilisé le peuple et qui continue a do leur work reglo.Un seul mot....................jusqu'à ce que notre muna soit en haut sur tous les yahoo de ce web.Je vous en prie camez ici sur yahoo italie,la situation se fait inquietante,que les djo des state là quando tout le monde ici en europe nang deja began a do ce qu'ils Know.C'est notre arme segrete,la force du muna c'est le jour,et nous les grands continuons a work meme la nuit grace aux djo des state.J'ai began a speach avec notre frananglais parceque les djo tell qu'ils y'a des Mazembe ici qui boblé nos tactiques et vont les appliquer pour eux memes.Alors il faut qu'on leur show qu'on peut speach sans qu'il ne yah rien..... - Saittout, le 26/10/2006 à 15:33, Lions Indomptables

UPDATE: Language Log has a helpful post on this, citing some literature. See comments also - apparently it is very much a system rather than code-switching.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Black = free: a nice case of polysemy in Songhay, and its converse

Looking through Jeffrey Heath's 1998 dictionary of Koyra Chiini, the Songhay language spoken in and around Timbuktu, I was struck by the following entry:
bibi * a) [intr] be black, dark [cf bii 2] [INTENS: tirik! T, fi! N] * be freeborn, noble (not a slave) * LOCUT: bañña nda bibi slave and freeman alike * [final in compounds involving sorcery, => čiini-bibi * b) [adj] black, dark * c. [n] soot, burnt residue.

It contrasts satisfyingly with the sort of polysemy you tend to get for "black" on the other shore of the Sahara, as in this Kabyle entry from Dallet 1982:
akli (wa), aklan (wa) || Negro. || Slave, servant. || Butcher; profession reserved for the inferior class of aklan (slaughterer and wholesale and retail vendor in the market.) || Male first name often given to a Kabyle child as a prophylactic measure (against envious gazes and the evil eye.) Antonym: aḥerri [free].
It would be interesting to examine the connotations of "black" in more languages...

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Sheng and other links

Sheng is the 'Slanguage' of the Future offers plenty of food for sociolinguistic thought: here we have a columnist at once decrying the prescriptivists who are offended by this urban "slang" and urging that Kenya's "tribal" languages be abandoned to extinction in favor of this new trans-tribal language. (For a more academic Sheng link: Talking Sheng: The role of a hybrid language in the construction of identity and youth culture in Nairobi, Kenya.)

Other links:
Anthro-Ling offers a myth in Rumsen Ohlone - I guarantee you won't find this elsewhere online...

Bulbul on languages named after products (no, not as an advertising gimmick!)

And Language Hat on Wade-Giles, edifying for Chinese learners anywhere

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Some links

I'm finishing up my thesis, so don't expect a posting for the next week, but in the meantime here's a couple of links:

LinguaMongolica - a site dedicated to classical Mongolian.
Academic Grammar of New Persian

The paper that more or less founded modern typology: Some Universals of Grammar with Particular Reference to the Order of Meaningful Elements (Greenberg 1963).

BBC readers' attitudes to African languages. An interesting range of opinions - probably enough for a small sociolinguistics article right there:
"Whether you were educated in French, English, Spanish or in whatever western language, on this small piece of God's earth called Rwanda, everything is done in Kinyarwanda. In this context, English may be as obscure a language as any other."
"Democracy is such a complex issue that it requires educated people. This being the case, my argument has always been that popular education cannot be achieved relying on a foreign language with which one doesn't have any link other than the fact that it was imposed on you."
"English in my opinion is the most widely spoken language in the world, but the most important language for me is that with which I can speak to my mother, my father, my grand-parents without having to bother if I was making the right sense. This language is Igbo. You can have your own view, but mine is mine."
"African Language are fantastic its makes you feel at home when you speak it. To be taught as a subject could be a big waste of time in school because it can't take you anywhere."
"In Cameroon we have almost 300 different languages beside English and French which are our official language. I am proud to able to read and write both English and French. I don't deem it necessary to learn to learn or know any other language because they cant help me in any way."

Monday, October 17, 2005


A tantalizingly brief note of 1931 in the Gold Coast Review describes an ethnic group called the Mpre, found only in the village of Butie in central Ghana (8° 52' N, 1° 15' W) near the confluence of the White and Black Voltas, apart from a few emigrants in Debre. According to the author's description, the Mpre people, once more widespread, were reduced to a single village in the course of comparatively recent wars with the Asante. Noting that their language was “different to that of the surrounding tribes”, he lists 106 words of Mpre. This short vocabulary appears to be the only existing record of the language, which is believed to be extinct. The gap is all the more unfortunate because Mpre turns out to be of some taxonomic significance. It is not closely related to any of its neighbors, and Heine and Nurse (2000) treat it as unclassified. A friend of mine's paper dealing partly with this will be appearing sometime soonish, but I won't spoil the surprise...

You might think, given all this, that it was impossible to retrieve any information on its grammar. However, you would be wrong! Fellow language geeks may find it an interesting exercise to try their hand at extracting grammar information from the wordlist, which Blench gives a copy of, before reading on...

The wordlist strongly suggests a noun class prefix system still at least partially productive. The highly lopsided initial letter statistics would alone suggest this: 31 entries begin with e-, 21 with a-, and 12 with n-, together accounting for the majority of the wordlist. This speculation is confirmed by distributional analysis for the e- which appears in the numbers 1-5, but disappears in 11-13 and 20-30; it is presumably to be identified with the Ga prefix é- observable in the same numbers. (The change of ekpe “one” to mpe in “11” is noteworthy, if it is not a typo.) Likewise, comparison of kelafa “100” with lefanyo “200” reveals a prefix ke- - with precise analogues in Ch./Kr. kʌ́-, Na. gʌ́-, and Go. ká- in the same numbers. Of the 21 entries with a- (corresponding to 19, or possibly 18, distinct words), five are glossed as plural in English, while another four are glossed as collective nouns; no entries not beginning with a- are glossed as plural. I therefore conclude that a- is a marker of plurality - suggesting that ado (the formative element in “20”, “30”, ...) is the plural of edu “ten”. This jibes nicely with other languages of the area: a plural prefix a- is found in Gonja, Twi, Lejana, Akpafu, and Avatime, for example.

Identifiable compounds include zingilzi-nogha “bush cow” (cf. zingelza “bush”, nogha “cow”), sunko kawuseggi “earth owner or tindana” (cf. sunko “earth”), nkemnzui “son” (cf. nzui “child”), lefanyo “200” (cf. enyo “2”, kelafa “100”), eputo nasi “foot” (cf. eputo “leg”) ; all suggest a word order type Modifier-Modified. “Lion” (jikpajikpakoseggi) must surely be a compound, in which I would identify the final koseggi with kawuseggi “owner (?)” above? Also, ataza “finger” and atazai “toe” are clearly related, but it is unclear whether one is a compound form or whether both are simply different transcriptions of the same word.

One short sentence is given - agbem aba “it rains” (cf. agbem “God”). Assuming that this is of the form SV, this could be taken to suggest verb agreement in gender (or at least number) with the subject; however, this is by no means certain.

Thursday, June 23, 2005

Beja and beyond

Some interesting news this week from the Beja, an ethnic group of the Red Sea coast of Sudan and Egypt. It's unclear whether this rebellion is representative of the Beja's general feelings or just a figleaf for Eritrean intervention (or both), but it's a story to watch - and an excuse to bring up a cool language.

Beja is Afro-Asiatic* - either part of Cushitic or a separate branch, depending on who you ask - and happens to be among the most obviously similar languages to Semitic and to Berber. The noun morphology is already fairly suggestive:

Beja definite articleArabic noun endingsKabyle obligatory prefix
Masculine nominative singularu:--uw-
Masculine accusative singularo--aa-
Feminine nominative singulartu:--atut-
Feminine accusative singularto--atata-

And the pronominal object suffixes add credence:

me-i, -o-ni:-iyi
you (pl.)-okn-kum-kən

(Beja, apparently, has no third person suffixes.) However, what really clinches it is the verbal system. Beja has two principal classes of verbs: one that often takes prefixes, and one that usually just takes suffixes. In Semitic, the prefixes are used for the imperfect, and the suffixes developed from a stative (still to be seen in Akkadian) into a perfect; Berber mostly retains the prefixes, whereas only minor traces of the suffixes remain. The prefixes are especially telling:

you (m.)ti- -ata-t- -ḍ
you (f.)ti- -ita- -i:t- -ḍ
you (pl.)ti- -nata- -u:nat- -m
theyi- -naya- -u:na-n

while the suffixes are best exemplified in Beja in the conditional mood:

BejaArabicDahalo general non-past (Cushitic)
you (m.)-tia-ta-to
you (f.)-tii-ti-to
you (pl.)-tina-tum-ten
they-ina-u:-en, -ammi

Just for good measure, in the prefix verbs you also have a feature found in Akkadian (among other Semitic languages) and Berber but lost in Arabic: a present tense formed by doubling the middle radical (in Berber and Akkadian) or adding n before the middle radical (in Beja). Compare:

  • Beja aktim ("I arrived") > akanti:m ("I arrive")
  • Akkadian almad ("I learned") > alammad ("I am learning")*
  • Tamasheq əlmədǎγ ("I learn", irrealis) > lammǎdǎγ ("I am learning", realis)

It's really remarkable, considering all this, that Afro-Asiatic research isn't more advanced. There are two etymological dictionaries out there, admittedly - Ehret's and Orel and Stolbova's - but, though valuable, they frequently disagree with each other, and neither has attained general acceptance.

* Some people think Afro-Asiatic is not proved. I can't think why. Omotic's membership is not entirely clear, but all the rest is just plain obvious.

* Previously misquoted forms corrected, thanks to Matthew Loran.

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Writing Wolof (or rather وَلَفْ)

With apologies for the long hiatus in my postings, I would like to present another topic in West African writing: the surprisingly formalized tradition of writing Wolof, the main language of Senegal, in Arabic script. Wolof is also written in Latin script, I should note, which you can see copious examples of in the pedagogical materials on this Gambian Peace Corps site, but the Arabic script is much more widely known, especially in rural areas, although French is far more widely used for writing than Wolof in any script.

Myself, I only went to Dakar, so books in Wolof of any sort were relatively hard to come by. However, Arabic bookstalls, while rarer than the French ones, weren't hard to find (they had a predominantly religious focus, but a number of literary, scientific, and historical works), and, while most of their works were in Arabic, they had a couple of Wolof religious texts in a rather nice Arabic script, of which I enclose a scan. I was going to retype some, but even a cursory effort revealed serious issues. For instance, there is a Unicode letter for the common West African vowel sign that indicates short e (a dot under the letter, smaller than dots that form part of the letter) - the charts say it's 065C - but I can't find a font that will display it; and another common letter which seems to indicate ny or nj, jiim (ج) with three extra dots on top, isn't in Unicode at all. Apart from those, the main differences with standard Arabic seem to be:

  • Short e is as described previously; long e is indicated by adding an alif maqsura ى with a small alif on top (another character I can't seem to find fonts for, despite its commonness in the Qur'an; it should be 0654.)
  • p is a ba ب with three dots on top (and actually is in Unicode - 0751.)
  • A dal with three dots above (ڎ) occurs some places; I don't know how it's pronounced.
  • gaaf is a kaaf with three dots (ڭ), following longstanding Maghrebi tradition.
  • Again in the Maghrebi tradition, faa has its dot below, and qaaf has a single dot above.

PS: You can find a font that will display some of these letters at PakType; however, their selection is more adapted for Sindhi (which has the largest Arabic-based alphabet I know of) than for West Africa.

PPS: Apparently, the latest version of PakType can display all these after all; see comments...