Showing posts with label Kabyle. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Kabyle. Show all posts

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Getting from "Hey you!" to "If only"

A well-known Algerian proverb has it that:
لي عندهٌ مية يقول يا ميتين
li `andu mya yqul ya mitin
who has hundred says oh two.hundred
He who has a hundred says "If only it were two hundred!" (literally: "Oh two hundred!")

The ya here is not a general-purpose interjection. Unlike English "oh", it's normally used as a vocative, followed by the name of the person you're addressing. That's its primary function in Classical Arabic too. But in Classical Arabic, you can't use it on its own to mean "if only..."; in fact, that usage isn't very common in Algerian Arabic either. Yet the same extension of function from vocative to wish-marker is found in Algerian Berber. In an 18th century Kabyle poem recorded by Mouloud Mammeri in his Poèmes kabyles anciens (p. 132), an aspiring poet, Muh At Lemsaawd, begs the better-established Yusef u Qasi to accept him as an apprentice:

Ul-iw fellak d amaalal
A wi k-isâan d ccix is

My heart is sick for you
If only I had you as my teacher (literally: "Oh he who has you as his teacher!")

You can't do this in Classical Arabic, nor in English: a vocative followed by a noun phrase is going to be interpreted as an act of addressing, not of wishing. But in Arabic you do find an otherwise unexpected vocative particle showing up in some wish constructions, notably يا ليت yaa layta "if only". And in (slightly archaic) English you have a very similar construction with an infinitive in "to" or a prepositional phrase in "for", instead of with a noun phrase: "Oh to be young again!", "Oh for a thousand tongues to sing!" That suggests that the connection between vocative and wishing reflects some general feature of human cognition, or at least of a rather large culture area.

The obvious connection would be through requests. One reason to address someone is to ask them to bring you something. It's not such a big step from "Hey kid, get me a glass of water" to "Hey, a glass of water!", with the addressee and the verb erased, and the vocative particle effectively serving as much to mark the wish as to get the addressee's attention. But that doesn't really predict forms like the Kabyle one, where the state wished for takes the form of a relative clause, nor even the old-fashioned English constructions discussed, so I'm not really happy with this explanation. Any ideas? And can you think of any parallels in other languages?

Tuesday, August 02, 2016

More Darja notes: oath complementisers, free choice indefinites, kids' morphology, finger rhymes

Oath complementisers

In North Africa, the oath wəḷḷah والله, literally "by God", is used so frequently to emphasize statements - religious scruples notwithstanding - that a more appropriate synchronic translation might be "seriously". (It can even be used with imperatives, which can hardly be read as committing the speaker to the truth of any given statement.) Perhaps as a result of their high frequency, constructions with wəḷḷah have a number of unique morphosyntactic characteristics. Negation after wəḷḷah uses ma ما alone, whereas in most other contexts negation is bipartite ma... š(i) ما... شي. Positive sentences after wəḷḷah are introduced by what seems to be a complementiser, ɣir غير or la لا, which in other contexts mean "just, only". What struck me this time is that in certain syntactic contexts this complementiser systematically shows up twice, once right after the oath and once at the start of the main clause proper; I've come across this in topics:

wəḷḷah la lyum la sxana والله لا اليوم لا سخانة
by.God just today just heat
By God, today, it's hot.

wəḷḷah ɣir anaya ɣir dərt-ha والله غير أنايا غير درتها
by.God just I.EMPH just did.1sgPf-3FSgAcc
By God, me, I did it.

and in conditionals with the condition preposed:
wəḷḷah ɣir lukan t-dir-ha ɣir nə-ʕṭi-k ṭṛayħa والله غير لوكان تديرها غير نعطيك طرايحة
by.God just if 2Sg-do-3FSgAcc just 1Sg-give-2SgAcc beating
By God, if you do that I'll give you a beating.
In generative grammar, it is generally supposed that sentences are complementiser phrases. The complementiser is unpronounced in normal declarative sentences here, as in many languages, but is pronounced overtly in specific circumstances such as, here, oaths. A popular hypothesis in the cartographic approach to generative grammar proposes that the complementizer phrase needs to be split into a more fine-grained set of projections: Force > Topic > Focus > Topic > Finiteness, following Rizzi 1997. Prima facie, this complementiser-doubling data suggests otherwise: it looks very much as though right-adjunction of both topics and conditions is being handled by embedding the CP within another CP.

Free choice indefinites

In traditional Algerian Arabic, it seems pretty clear that the function of free choice indefinites ("anyone could do that", "take anything (you want)") isn't very strongly grammaticalised. In French, however, it's expressed using a relatively frequent, dedicated series of forms based on "no matter" plus the interrogative pronouns: n'importe qui/quoi/quel "anything, anyone, any..." Younger speakers of Algerian Arabic have borrowed the morpheme n'importe, but not the construction as a whole; instead, they simply prefix n'importe to existing indefinite nominals, in which interrogative pronouns play no role. Thus the phrase I heard today:

fə-z-zit wəlla f næ̃mpoṛt ħaja في الزيت ولا في نامبورت حاجة
in-the-oil or in any thing
in oil or in any thing

More children's morphology

Algerian Arabic has very few native bisyllabic words ending in the vowel u, but in loanwords it's not so unusual; for instance, it uses French triku تريكو (ie tricot) for "t-shirt". The first person singular possessive has two allomorphs: -i after consonants, -ya after vowels. I caught the younger of the two kids mentioned in the last post saying trikuww-i تريكوّي "my T-shirt" and trikuww-ək تريكوّك "your shirt"; his father (and everyone else, as far as I've noticed) says triku-ya تريكويَ and triku-k تريكوك. So it would seem that this kid has reanalysed the word as phonologically /trikuw/. Further inquiries are called for.

This little piggy...

I've encountered two finger rhymes in Algerian Arabic around Dellys; compare them to a Kabyle version below from Hamid Oubagha:

Dellys A Dellys B Kabyle
hađa ʕaẓẓi məskin
هاذا عزّي مسكين
This one is a robin, poor thing
hađa sɣiṛ u ʕaqəl
هاذا سغير وعاقل
This one is small and gentle
Wa meẓẓiy, meẓẓiy meskin !
This one is small, poor thing!
u hađa ṣbəʕ əssəkkin
وهاذا صبع السكّين
And this one is the knife-finger
u hađa ləbbas əlxwatəm
وهاذا لبّاس الخواتم
And this one is the ring-wearer
Wa d Ɛebḍella bu sekkin !
This one is Abdallah of the Knife!
u hađa ṭwil bla xəsla
وهاذا طويل بلا خسلة
And this one is long without function
u hađa ṭwil u məhbul
وهاذا طويل ومهبول
And this one is tall and crazy
Wa meqqer, meqqer bezzaf !
This one is big, very big!
u hađa ləħħas əlgəṣʕa
وهاذا لحّاس القصعة
And this one is the dish-licker
u hađa ləħħas ləqdur
وهاذا لحّاس القدور
And this is one is the licker of pots
Wa d ameccaḥ n teṛbut !
This one is the dish-licker!
u hađa dəbbuz əlgəmla
وهاذا دبّوز القملة
And this one is the louse-club
u hađa dəbbuz ənnəmla
وهاذا دبّوز النملة
And this one is the ant-club
Wa d adebbuz n telkin !
And this one is the lice-club
u yəmma tqul: mʕizati, mʕizati, mʕizati!
ويمّا تقول: معيزاتي، معيزاتي، معيزاتي
And mother says: my little goats, my little goats, my little goats!
dəbb əđđib, dəbb ənnəmla, dəbb əđđib, dəbb ənnəmla...
دبّ الذّيب، دبّ النملة، دبّ الذّيب، دبّ النملة...
Debb the wolf, Debb the ant, Debb the wolf, Debb the ant...

All three clearly share a common background. Obviously, Dellys B has been deliberately made more posh - ants substituted for lice, pots (with urban q) for dishes (with villagers' g), ring-finger for knife-finger... Dellys A remains defiantly unrefined, but shows at least one sign suggesting an original in Kabyle: ʕaẓẓi məskin "a robin, poor thing" makes a lot less sense for referring to the little finger than meẓẓi meskin "small, poor thing", but sounds almost the same. On the other hand, Dellys A shows a near-rhyme between verses 3, 4, and 5 which doesn't work at all in the attested Kabyle version. It would be interesting to compare more versions in both languages

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Teaching in Dardja before colonial rule

In a recent article on RFI, I'm quoted as saying that Darja (Algerian dialectal Arabic) was already used in education before the colonial period. Here's why I said so.

If you talk to anyone who studied at a Qur'ānic school before independence, you'll find they learned their letters by reciting a little ditty in Darja that goes ألف ما ينقط شي، البا نقطة من تحت، التا زوج من فوق... etc. (Alif ma yənqəṭ ši, əlba nŭqṭa mən təħt, ətta zuj mən fuq..., ie: "Alif is not dotted, ba has a dot underneath, ta has two on top...") The same ditty existed in Kabyle: alif u yneqqeḍ ara, ba yiweṯ s wadda, ta snaṯ ufella... . My own aunt learned her letters that way before independence - in a school affiliated with the Association of Muslim Ulama, who today are pressing for a school boycott if dialect is officially introduced as a means of primary instruction... Well, it turns out that this exact ditty is already attested in Franciscus de Dombay's Grammatica linguae mauro-arabicae, a study of the Arabic dialect of northern Morocco published in Vienna in 1800, thirty years before the occupation of Algiers, when European power in North Africa was limited to a handful of ports:

Standard Arabic was, of course, by far the most important language to learn. But it turns out that at least one other language was taught using Darja: Kabyle Berber! In Des noms et des lieux, Mostefa Lacheraf notes:

A propos de ces départs pour les zaouias du Djurdjura [...] je découvris l'existence de poèmes mnémotechniques que ces jeunes gens arabophones des Hauts-Plateaux et du Tell apprenaient par coeur dans le but de se familiariser avec un vocabulaire kabyle fonctionnel, et pédagogiquement bien choisi, qui serait susceptible de les aider à se reconnaître dans leur nouveau milieu. Je regrette de n'en avoir pas gardé un spécimen, mais je me souviens que dans cette poésie pratique, utilitaire, au rhythme bien élevé, en un dialectal correct, figuraient des verbes, substantifs et expressions berbères avec leurs équivalents arabes désignant des objets et des actes essentiels à leur vie courante. (pp. 218-219)
[Through these trips to the zawiyas of the Djurdjura... I discovered the existence of mnemonic poems which these young Arabic speakers of the High Plateau and the Tell learned by heart in order to make themselves familiar with a practical Kabyle vocabulary, pedagogically well chosen, which would help them to find their footing in their new situation. I regret not having kept a specimen, but I remember that this practical, utilitarian poetry, with a good rhythm and in a correct dialectal [Arabic], included Berber verbs, nouns and expressions with their Arabic equivalents, referring to objects and acts essential to their daily life.]

I've written previously about a Classical Arabic poem intended to teach Songhay in a similar context: students coming to study in areas where a different language is spoken. Unfortunately the poems Lacheraf describes have not been published, as far as I know, but the papers of the noted anti-colonial leader Shaykh Aheddad include a Dardja-Kabyle wordlist presumably intended for the same purpose; this is described in Aïssani's 2012 article Le lexique manuscrit Arabe dialectal-Kabyle de la Zawiyya historique de Cheikh Aheddad.

The merits of teaching in Darja are open to debate, as are the motivations of Benghabrit. But to go into a sudden moral panic over Benghabrit's proposal, you need to ignore not only current but also historical practice among Algerian teachers. Anyone who really thinks Darja should be banned from the classroom should push to have that actually happen, not wait until someone admits to it to start protesting - and should acknowledge that doing that would in fact be something new.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Berber: classification, Tasahlit, roots vs. stems

Today seems to be a good week for comparative Berber linguistics - the day's haul is worth sharing:

Maarten Kossmann has uploaded his preliminary classification of Berber varieties based on shared innovations: Berber subclassification (preliminary version). He divides Berber into seven blocks:

  1. Zenaga block (Zenaga of Mauritania, Tetserrét in Niger)
  2. Tuareg block
  3. Western Moroccan block (SW Morocco, Central Morocco, i.e. Tashelhiyt and most of Tamazight)
    possibly including NW Moroccan Berber (Ghomara, Senhadja de Sraïr)
  4. Zenatic block (Eastern Morocco, Western Algeria, Saharan oases, Tunisia, Zuara) extending towards the east with Sokna, Elfoqaha, Siwa
  5. Kabyle (N Algeria), possibly linked to the western Moroccan block
  6. Ghadames (Libya), probably to be linked to Djebel Nefusa (Libya)
  7. Awdjilah (Libya)
By and large, this appears very plausible, although it should be noted that Tunisian Berber and Zuwara are already somewhat peripheral to Zenati, not sharing western Zenati's innovative distribution of initial vowel dropping, and El-Fogaha is even more so than Siwa or Sokna. (As he notes, the much greater homogeneity and clearer boundaries of Zenati in the west imply that this group arrived in Algeria and Morocco from the east.) But, in principle, it is still necessary to identify specific innovations characteristic of each of these groups. It is also clear that the Zenaga block is by far the first split on the tree, and the list ought ideally to reflect that. But the moderately high degree of mutual intelligibility poses serious obstacles to applying the family tree model to Berber, as he discusses.

The most interesting Kabyle varieties for historical reconstruction are the little-known ones of the extreme east, "Tasahlit". As it happens, Abdelaziz Berkai has just uploaded his recent thesis, a dictionary and sketch grammar of the Tasahlit of Aokas: Essai d’élaboration d’un dictionnaire Tasaḥlit (parler d’Aokas)-français. The quality of his work appears excellent, and this will no doubt be a very useful resource. The choice of dialect, however, is not entirely ideal. It is clear from Basset's dialect atlas, and from the all too rare comments in Rabdi's grammar on neighbouring varieties, that the vocabulary of Aokas is still quite close to that of Bejaia; the really divergent varieties seem to be those of the Babor Mountains and Oued el Bared, approaching Jijel, and those are the ones most likely to give an insight into the dialect of the now largely Arabised Kutama.

I haven't yet had time to properly look at Samir Ben Si Said's thesis, De la nature de la variation diatopique en kabyle: étude de la formation des singulier et pluriel nominaux, but it tackles the synchronically as well as diachronically thorny problem of Berber non-concatenative morphology, and argues for an approach based more on roots than on stems, contrasting with another important study I've been working through lately, Heath's Grammar of Tamashek (Tuareg of Mali).

Monday, July 01, 2013

So how different are Algerian and Egyptian Berber?

In the previous post, we looked at how hard Egyptian Arabic was for an Algerian to understand (answer: not that hard) and how it diverges from the rules of Algerian Arabic (answer: a lot). What if we try the same exercise for Berber – specifically, Kabyle vs. Siwi? Obviously, I don’t speak Kabyle fluently or even well; if you do, feel free to correct me or give me your own impressions. However, with a bit of help from a dictionary, I think it’s worth a try. There aren’t any Siwi stories recorded online at the moment, about Juha or otherwise, but here’s a short fable with a sad ending retranscribed and retranslated from Laoust’s grammar:
Azidi dilla g adrar, itessu aman. Tizmert ttella adday. Azidi yeṃṃ-as: “Itta xeḅḅecṭ-i aman nnew?” Tizmert teṃṃ-as: “Aman dillan g ɛali, iteggezen i gda!” Yeṃṃ-as: “Ɛam-nuwwel nic uṭnaxa, cemm edduqqaṭ ṭaren nnem!” Teṃṃ-as: “Nic n aseggasa!” Yeṃṃ-as: “Namma eṃṃa nnem namma axxa nnem!” Baɛdin yečč-ét.

There was a jackal on a mountain, drinking water. A ewe was below. The jackal said to her: “Why have you muddied my water?” The ewe said: “The water is above, and goes down to here!” He said: “The year before last when I was ill, you stamped your feet (disturbing him with the noise)!” She said: “I’m from (I was born in) this year!” He said “Or (it was) your mother, or your aunt!” Then he ate her.

Only seven words (out of 44) have no cognates in Kabyle as far as I know – in three cases, this is because one language or the other has borrowed an Arabic term:

  • azidi “jackal”: in Kabyle this would be uccen.
  • yeṃṃ-as “he told her”: in Kabyle this would be yenn-as.
  • itta “why”: in Kabyle this would be ayɣer. The Siwi form is from i “to, for” and -tta < tanta “what”, a local variant of widespread Berber matta, which Kabyle has replaced with the Arabic loan acu.
  • ɛali “above”, from Arabic: in Kabyle this would be asawen, but the Siwi form is easy to guess from Arabic.
  • iteggezen “they go down”: in Kabyle this would be trusun.
  • ɛam-nuwwel “year before last”, from Arabic: in Kabyle this would be sell-ilindi, but the Siwi form is easy enough to guess if you know Algerian Arabic.
  • namma “or”: the first syllable is cognate to Kabyle neɣ, but the word has changed enough to make guessing difficult.
  • axxa “aunt (mother’s sister)”: in Kabyle this would be xalti, from Arabic.
So in terms of vocabulary, the situation is pretty similar to what we saw between Algerian and Egyptian Arabic. However, as with the previous example, there are many more subtle differences – and those differences are of a more significant kind. If we look at grammatical differences alone and ignore phonetic or semantic ones, we notice that:
  • g adrar “in the mountain”: in Kabyle this would be g wedrar; Siwi has no “état d’annexion”.
  • dilla, ttella: “he is at, she is at”: Kabyle yella, tella, with no d- prefix. adday “below”: Kabyle does have a noun adda “below”, but it can only be used in combination with certain prepositions, not on its own as here.
  • xebbecṭ-i: Siwi marks the 2nd person singular (“you”) with just -(a)ṭ; Kabyle uses t-...-ḍ.
  • nnew “my”, nnem “your (f.)”: in Kabyle this would be inu, inem.
  • iteggezen: Siwi marks the 3rd person plural (“they”) with y-...-en; Kabyle, like all other Berber languages, uses -en alone.
  • i gda: in Kabyle, i is usually used just for the dative, but in Siwi it’s used for destinations in general; the g- in gda was originally the preposition “in”, but in Siwi it became part of the word for “here”.
  • uṭnaxa “I am/was ill”: the -a suffix is a Siwi verbal form marking the perfect, frequently used in subordinate clauses to mean “while”. Kabyle doesn’t have such an ending, and would just use uḍnaɣ.

This contrasts with what we saw between Algerian and Egyptian Arabic, where very few of the textual differences were strictly grammatical. Of course, a longer text would have revealed more grammatical differences between Algerian and Egyptian, for example in the formation of comparatives – and would reveal many more between Kabyle and Siwi. This makes sense; for many centuries, Siwi has been much more isolated from Kabyle than Algerian Arabic has been from Egyptian Arabic, and the expansion of Berber happened earlier than that of Arabic, so they’ve had longer to develop separately.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Kabyle vocab 1: Verbs of motion

I've been taking advantage of being in Paris to attend some Kabyle classes. However, the classes are in French - as are all the textbooks - and I find that I memorise vocabulary more easily when English equivalents are presented. So I'm going to experiment with writing up vocabulary lists and posting them online periodically, on the theory that these might be useful to Anglophone learners other than myself, and that putting them together will be good for my memory. For today, the theme will be verbs of motion. I find that knowing facts about a word's wider connections makes me more likely to remember it, but that may just be me, so if you don't, feel free to ignore them...

Go: ṛuḥ "go!", yeţṛuḥ(u) "he goes", iṛuḥ "he went". This verb, obviously, is borrowed from colloquial Arabic ṛuḥ (like its Siwi counterpart ṛuḥ, iteṛṛaḥ, iṛaḥ); it is quite commonly used, but there is a more purist alternative:

Go: ddu "go!", iṯeddu "he goes", yedda "he went". This verb is also used with the same meaning in Tashelhiyt; it's probably related to Tamasheq idaw, itidaw, ǎddew "accompany, go with". Example: Tom yebɣa ad yeddu ɣer Japun.

Come: as "come!", yeţţas "he comes", yusa "he came". This nearly pan-Berber verb is usually combined with the particle -d "hither (towards here)"; in Siwi, that particle has fused with the stem, yielding héd, itased, yused. Example: Yusa-d ɣer Japun asmi ay yella d agrud.

Pass: ɛeddi "pass!", yeţɛeddi / yeţɛedday "he passes", iɛedda "he passed". This verb, widespread in both Berber and dialectal Arabic, is from Arabic عدا "he passed", as the generally un-Berber ɛ betrays. Siwi retains fel, iteffal, yefla "pass / depart"; the rarer cognate verb (fel, yeffal, ifel) in Kabyle means "go over". Example: ɛeddaɣ fell-as deg wezniq.

Arrive: aweḍ "arrive!", yeţţaweḍ "he arrives", yebbʷeḍ (yuweḍ) "he arrived". Siwi instead uses an Arabic loan mraq, imerraq, yemraq; but it retains a causative of the original root, siweṭ. Example: aql-ik tuwḍeḍ-d zik.

Go up: ali "go up!", yeţţali "he goes up", yuli "he went up". The similarity to Arabic على is probably just a coincidence, since the Tashelhiyt equivalent is eɣli. Siwi uses an equally Berber but unrelated form wen, itewwan, yuna, also found in Tashelhiyt (awen); Kabyle retains a causative of this root, ssiwen "go up (eg road)", and a commoner noun, asawen "(up) a rising slope". Example: La ttalyeɣ isunan.

Go down: aḏer "go down!", yeţţaḏer "he goes down", yuḏer "he went down". Siwi again uses an equally Berber but unrelated form ggez, iteggez, yeggez, also found in Tashelhiyt (ggʷez). Example: La ttadreɣ isunan.

Go in: ḵcem "go in!", iḵeččem "he goes in", yeḵcem "he went in". The same verb is used in Tashelhiyt; Siwi uses a cognate form kim, itekkam, ikim. Example: Ttxil-k, kcem-d.

Go out: ffeɣ "go out!", iṯeffeɣ "he goes out", yeffeɣ "he went out". The same verb is used in Tashelhiyt. and (with a trivial regular vowel change) in Siwi f̣f̣eɣ, itef̣f̣aɣ, yef̣f̣aɣ. Example: Zemreɣ ad ffɣeɣ ad urareɣ?

Or, in a form more suitable for quick self-testing:

go upali
go downaḏer
go inḵcem
go outffeɣ

Comments and suggestions welcome, especially if you speak Kabyle!

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Berber dictionary online

A link I've been meaning to post for a while: Amawal n Tiddukla Tadelsant Imedyazen. The guy behind it, Omar Mouffok, deserves credit for his efforts to document Kabyle dialects outside of the mainstream, like the one spoken near Blida; many entries indicate which regions the word is used in, though unfortunately a fairly impenetrable system of abbreviations is used. Translations into French, Spanish, and Arabic are given for some words, but many are only given definitions in Kabyle.

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

From hatred to singing in two easy steps

In Kabyle, the word for "sing" is šnu. No other Berber language is known to have a similar word for sing (see Nait-Zerrad, s.v. CN), and both the verbal noun and its plural are formed on an Arabic pattern (ššna, pl. ššnawi); so one is almost forced to look to Arabic for its origins. But ask the average Arabic-speaker in modern-day Algeria, and they'll tell you they've never heard any such word.

In Classical Arabic, there is a fairly rare verb šani'a شنئ, meaning "to hate", probably best-known from the third verse of Surat al-Kawthar: 'inna šāni'aka huwa l-'abtar "For he who hateth thee, he will be cut off (from Future Hope)". (Cognate words are found elsewhere in Semitic, for example Hebrew śānē', Syriac snā "hate".) This has barely survived in spoken Arabic, but (according to de Prémare) the causative šənnā is still used in Tangier (Morocco), meaning "to taunt someone by showing him something he wants that you won't give him."

Phonetically, šani'a is a perfect match for šnu (the glottal stop/hamza becomes y in colloquials, and Arabic final-y verbs normally end up in Kabyle as final-u, for reasons I won't go into) - but semantically, surely this is absurd?

So I would have thought, until, idly browsing through a glossary of the rather conservative Bedouin Arabic dialect of the Nefzaoua area in southern Tunisia (Boris 1951), I found the following entry:
شنى šnệ... inacc. yẹ́šni...; noms d'act. šänyân et šạ́ni: 1) "critiquer en vers, faire la satire"... 2) "détester".

شنى šnē... impf. yašnī...; verbal nouns šanyān and šany: 1) to criticise in verse, to satirise... 2) to hate
"Hate" to "criticise in verse" is a credible change, and so is "criticise in verse" to "sing". Suddenly, a connection that looked impossible becomes almost obvious.

In this case, as in many others, Kabyle has preserved an Arabic word that almost every Arabic dialect in North Africa has lost - but to make sense of the connection you have to look at a wide range of Arabic dialects, not just checking Classical Arabic and stopping there. The converse also applies: when looking into Berber loans into an Arabic dialect, it's not enough to look just at the Berber spoken next door. People move around, and words that were familiar in one generation may be forgotten in the next one.

Of course, if the Nefzaoua data weren't available, there's no way you could accept a comparison like this - and, if several thousand years had passed since the word was borrowed, instead of less than 1500, that intermediate step probably would not have survived. In other words, semantic change can rather easily erase connections beyond any reasonable hope of retrieval. This is one of the main difficulties in long-range historical linguistics - the further back you go, the more cases like this.

Thursday, December 31, 2009

Siwi and Kabyle: same language family, but not same language

Just back from a nice evening with the Siwi community of Qatar. A Kabyle friend came along (hello if you're reading this!), giving me a chance to see first-hand to what extent Siwi and Kabyle are mutually comprehensible. The answer is: very little indeed. Looking through basic vocabulary it's not hard to find cognates; but when it comes to even short sentences, mystified expressions on both sides were the order of the day. The Berber languages of Algeria and Morocco may shade into one another to some extent, even across sub-family boundaries - there seem to be dialects for which it is difficult to decide whether they should be called Kabyle or Chaoui, for example. But by the time you get to Siwa, it's quite clear that you're dealing with a different language, even by Arabic speakers' rather generous standards. Further confirmation, if any was needed, that Berber is a language family, not a language.

Sunday, September 09, 2007


I went to Tizi-Ouzou today, where I bought a few Kabyle-related books. The smallest, a tiny little handbook entitled Cahier d'écriture de l'alphabet tifinagh, or Attafttar, from Editions Baghdadi, Algiers (no date of publication or author given), provided a bit of a surprise. I thought I had seen every variation of Neo-Tifinagh there was to see, but I was wrong; this illustrated children's book presents yet another one. It's essentially Chaker's Neo-Neo-Tifinagh, but with one or two forms from the Academie Berbere alphabet (b, s) plus at least one sign, Arabic ع with the curves straightened out into right angles, that I've never seen anywhere else. You know, I'm not enormously in favour of Neo-Tifinagh to begin with, but the proliferation of variant forms that you find is just ridiculous; in a sufficiently Algerian mood, I could easily believe many of them are put together by anonymous opponents of Tifinagh seeking to weaken it by spreading confusion.

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...

Monday, October 02, 2006

Kabyle dialect geography and the Kutama-Zwawa divide

Recently I came across A. Basset's Etudes de Geographie Linguistique en Kabylie (1929) - an interesting if incomplete work mapping the distribution of different body part terms across the Kabyle Berber-speaking region of eastern Algeria. The variation is significant, but I noticed a persistent trend: if there was any variation at all, the small Kabyle-speaking area east of Bejaia very often seemed to have a different term, or terms, than the rest of Kabylie. For example, the whole rest of the area has either aqerru or aqerruy as the normal word for head; this small eastern area instead has both ixf and akerkur. Almost the whole area has allen for "eyes"; the far east has taTTiwin. For "ear", everywhere has amezzugh, except the far east, which has imejj. For "knee", variants of tageshrirt (or Arabic borrowings) are nearly everywhere except the far east, which has afud. What's up with that?

A quick look at Ibn Khaldun suggests an explanation. In his History, he outlines the locations and notional genealogies of the principal Berber tribal confederations of his time. He describes the Zwawa - a name more generally associated with Kabyles - as extending through the mountains from Dellys to Bejaia, and the much larger Kutama group as extending throughout a wide area (the northern half of which is now Arabic-speaking) stretching from the Aures Mountains to the coast between Bejaia and Buna (modern Annaba), as well as including scattered groups outside this range, around Dellys and in Morocco (modern Ketama in the Rif.) (He personally inclined to the view that the Zwawa were in origin a subgroup of Kutama, but notes that this was not generally believed.) In other words, the division between Kutama proper and Zwawa lay around about modern Bejaia - exactly where the suspicious isoglosses I noticed seem to be. The next question: where these far eastern dialects diverge from the rest of Kabyle, do they resemble Chaoui?

(See الخبرعن كتامة من بطون البرانس and الخبر عن بني ثابت for the Ibn Khaldun quotes.)

Friday, September 29, 2006

Tamazight cartoon

Dissertation all over, submitted, etc. - just enrolling for PhD...

On a different note, I just found a spot-on cartoon about Tamazight (Berber) language activism: Tamaziɣt nni. The speaker is saying, in French: "Azul fell-awen (greetings) - We have the grave duty of not letting Tamazight disappear... is ineluctable to..." The audience member in front of him is saying, in Tamazight (Kabyle): "What's 'ineluctable' mean?"

To my mind, this is perhaps the single biggest problem of some branches (certainly not all) of the Tamazight movement: they talk about developing Tamazight, but they talk and write and think in French. Tizi-Ouzou's walls are covered in aza signs (the Tifinagh letter resembling a man that has become a symbol of Amazigh activism), but its shopfronts and signs are covered in French, even though Arabic signs are regularly vandalised. This gives many other Algerians who would otherwise look more favorably on the idea of developing Tamazight the impression that it's simply a cover for maintaining or extending the (frankly negative) role of French in public life - an impression that is not always false. Personally, I favour a coherent policy: more use of Algeria's native languages - Arabic and Tamazight - in all spheres of life, and less use of foreign ones except in dealing with foreigners.

(And yes, the fact that I am writing this in English is somewhat ironic - but then, I'm writing for an international audience here, and from an English-speaking country.)