Showing posts with label Songhay. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Songhay. Show all posts

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Shoes in Songhay and West Chadic: towards an etymology

The proto-Songhay word for "(pair of) shoes, sandals" is *tàgmú (Zarma tà:mú, Kandi tà:mú, Gao taam-i, Hombori tà:mí, Kikara tă:m, Djenne taam, Tadaksahak taɣmú, Korandje tsaɣmmu). It is evidently related to a less widely attested verb *tàgmá "step on" (Zarma tà:mú, Gao taama, Hombori tà:mà, Djenne taam). (Velar stop codas are lost in all of Songhay except the Northern branch, leaving behind either compensatory lengthening or a w; see Souag 2012.)

In Hausa, the word for "shoe, boot, sandal" is tà:kàlmí: (borrowed directly into the Songhay (Dendi) variety of Djougou as tàkăm). Within Hausa, this likewise corresponds to a verb tá:kà: "step on". The two-way similarity is striking, but if there was borrowing, which way did it go? A cognate set in Schuh (2008) casts some light on the question.

Hausa belongs to the West Chadic family, in which the best comparison to Hausa "shoe" seems to be Bole tàkà(:), with no obvious cognates within its own subgroup, Bole-Tangale (Ngamo tà:hò looks similar, but Ngamo h seems normally to correspond to Bole p, not k.) For "step on", however, Schuh points to a potential cognate set in a slightly more distantly related West Chadic subgroup, Bade. In this subgroup, we have Gashua Bade tà:gɗú, Western Bade tàgɗú, Ngizim tàkɗú which Schuh analyses as *tàk- plus an unproductive verbal extension -ɗu supported by Bade-internal evidence, eg tə̀nkùku "press" vs. tə̀nkwàkùɗu "massage". Within Bole-Tangale, one might speculate that Gera tàndə̀- is cognate, but Gera seems to be known only from short wordlists, so that would be difficult to show.

So the comparative evidence provides some support for the idea that Hausa tá:kà: "step on" goes back to proto-West Chadic. If tà:kàlmí: "shoe" could be regularly derived from this verb within Chadic, then the answer would appear clear: Songhay borrowed it from Chadic. However, while Hausa frequently forms deverbal nouns with a suffix -i: (Newman (2000:157), there seems to be no plausible language-internal explanation for the -lm-. In Songhay, on the other hand, a suffix -mi forming nouns from verbs (sometimes -m-ey with a former plural suffix stuck on) is reasonably well-attested: Gao (Heath 1999:97) dey "buy" vs. dey-mi "purchase (n.)", key "weave" vs. key-mi "weaving", Kikara (Heath 2005:97-98) kà:rù "go up" vs. kàr-mɛ̂y "going up", húná "live" vs. hùnà-mɛ̀y "long life". A shift *-mi to *-mu seems natural enough, especially since a few Songhay varieties actually have reflexes of "shoe" with a final -i in any case; so the Songhay form looks kind of like it could be **tàg "step on" plus deverbal -mí̀. To top it off, deverbal noun-forming suffixes in -r- are widely attested in Songhay, and Zarma attests a combined suffix -àr-mì: zànjì "break" vs. zànjàrmì "shard", bágú "break" vs. bàgàrmì "piece of debris" (Tersis 1981:244). If we treat the Hausa form as a borrowing from Songhay, we can then analyse it as **tàg "step on" plus deverbal -àr-mí. But before we get carried away, we should note that within Songhay there's no motivation for analysing the -mu / -mi in "shoe" as a suffix; the verb and the noun differ (if at all) only in the final vowel.

So what to make of all this? So far, the scenario that suggests itself is something like the following:

  1. Songhay borrows a verb *tàk "step on" from West Chadic (or vice versa?).
  2. Songhay internally forms a deverbal noun *tàk-mí "shoe" (there is no reconstructible contrast between *k and *g in coda position in proto-Songhay), alongside a variant *tàk-àr-mí.
  3. Hausa borrows this as tà:kàlmí:.
  4. Songhay replaces *tàk with a denominal verb formed from "shoe" (which becomes internally unanalysable): *tàgm-á. This step has possible internal motivations: in most of Songhay, final velar stops disappeared leaving behind only compensatory lengthening on the preceding vowel, and the resulting form tà: would have been homophonous with the much commoner verb "receive, take".
  5. Djougou Dendi, a heavily Hausa-influenced, somewhat creolized Songhay variety spoken in Benin, borrows the Hausa form as tàkăm.

Further Chadic comparative data may yet turn out to bear upon this etymology, but one thing seems clear: these two families have been affecting each other for a long time.

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.

Friday, June 17, 2016

Language Contact in the Sahara: An overview

I am very happy to announce the publication of my freely accessible overview of Language Contact in the Sahara, written for the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Linguistics. Apart from being the first introduction to this topic to cover both sides of the Sahara, it encapsulates a good deal of my research program over the past few years, and gives some idea of what remains to be done in this domain. Here's the abstract; if it sounds interesting, go read it!
As might be expected from the difficulty of traversing it, the Sahara Desert has been a fairly effective barrier to direct contact between its two edges; trans-Saharan language contact is limited to the borrowing of non-core vocabulary, minimal from south to north and mostly mediated by education from north to south. Its own inhabitants, however, are necessarily accustomed to travelling desert spaces, and contact between languages within the Sahara has often accordingly had a much greater impact. Several peripheral Arabic varieties of the Sahara retain morphology as well as vocabulary from the languages spoken by their speakers’ ancestors, in particular Berber in the southwest and Beja in the southeast; the same is true of at least one Saharan Hausa variety. The Berber languages of the northern Sahara have in turn been deeply affected by centuries of bilingualism in Arabic, borrowing core vocabulary and some aspects of morphology and syntax. The Northern Songhay languages of the central Sahara have been even more profoundly affected by a history of multilingualism and language shift involving Tuareg, Songhay, Arabic, and other Berber languages, much of which remains to be unraveled. These languages have borrowed so extensively that they retain barely a few hundred core words of Songhay vocabulary; those loans have not only introduced new morphology but in some cases replaced old morphology entirely. In the southeast, the spread of Arabic westward from the Nile Valley has created a spectrum of varieties with varying degrees of local influence; the Saharan ones remain almost entirely undescribed. Much work remains to be done throughout the region, not only on identifying and analyzing contact effects but even simply on describing the languages its inhabitants speak.

Tuesday, February 09, 2016

A Soninke loan in Songhay

There are a rather large number of words in Songhay, the language of the Niger River valley between Timbuktu and southern Niger, which are almost the same as in Soninke, the language of the semidesert regions around the Mali-Senegal-Mauritania borders well to the west. Since most of the basic vocabulary is very different, these must be considered loanwords. But how do we tell which language coined them and which one borrowed them from the other? In some cases, this can be tricky, but in others it's quite clear-cut.

Three years ago, I discussed a Songhay-Arabic poem including the Timbuktu-area word sete "caravan". This word is well-attested elsewhere in Songhay, from eastern Mali to northern Benin (though not in the Sahara proper):

  • Gao šeta "(camels) go on caravan", šetete "go in single file" (Heath)
  • Hombori sèt-ò "convoy, caravan", sétt-ó "pack of horses" (Heath)
  • Kaado sété "village delegation sent to seek food in times of famine" (Ducroz and Charles)
  • Zarma sátá "group, troupe, team" (White and Kaba)
  • Kandi sété "row" (Heath)
The root is also found in Fulani, eg Gambian Fula sete "caravan" (Gamble), Pular seteejo "traveller, caravaneer", setagol "go on a trip" (Bah), and Heath glosses it as a Fulani loan in his Hombori Songhay dictionary. In neither language, however, does it have an obvious derivation from some shorter or more basic form. For that, we need to turn to a third language - Soninke.

In Soninke, setú is the normal word for "to ride", glossed by Diagana "to be on top, to ride, to perch". By applying the productive morphological process C1V1C2V2 > C1V1C2C2V2, normally used to form imperfectives, we get sètté "caravan, cavalcade, group on horseback, riding". This etymology is not possible in Songhay, where "ride" is kaaru, nor in Fulani, where "ride" is maɗɗ- / waɗɗ-. We thus see that this commercially and politically significant word must have been coined within Soninke. That fits some aspects of the known history of the region: the early Soninke kingdom of Ghana played an important role in the development of the trans-Saharan trade, and even after its fall a diaspora of Soninke traders, the so-called Wangara, played an important role in tying the region together economically.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Do Siwi people have bodies?

For English speakers, it is mysterious and highly debatable whether we have souls, but obvious except to the odd philosopher that we have bodies. In other languages, this intuition doesn't translate so well; quite apart from the question of the soul(s), many languages - reportedly including Homeric Greek - don't seem to have a word for "body" in the sense of "the ​whole ​physical ​structure that ​forms a ​person or ​animal", notwithstanding the protests of NSM-ists. In Wintu, a language of northern California, Lee (1950:134) was only able to elicit kot wintu "all person". (Wintu is not that well documented, but in this case Lee's account agrees with later work; Schlichter (1981:242) gives winthu:n thunis "person altogether".) For Korandje, my data suggest the same, although further checking is needed; when asked, the oldest of my Korandje consultants came up with a precise equivalent of this expression, bɑ kamla "person whole", while others gave Arabic loans like ṣṣəħħəts (literally "health") or žžhaməts (which so far seems rather to mean "corpse").

In Siwi, the situation is slightly different. Unlike the hesitations and disagreements of Korandje speakers asked about this subject, Siwi speakers asked to translate Arabic jism "body" confidently reply aglim, and early wordlists confirm that they have been doing so for over a century. However, if you ask them to translate aglim, they equally consistently reply with Arabic jild "skin". A person or animal has an aglim, but so does a potato, and its aglim can be peeled off. To further complicate the semantic field in question, ilem also translates as jild "skin", but refers to a piece of skin rather than to the whole: kteṛṭiyya aksum ɣair ilem "You have brought me meat that is nothing but skin"; ilem en ṭad yekkes "Some skin came off his finger". This renders the interpretation of aglim questionable. Does it have two distinct meanings, "body" and "(whole) skin"? Or does it just mean "(whole) skin", and refer to the body only as the volume encompassed by the skin?

Thinking out the question here makes it obvious what I should try to elicit next time the occasion arises: how to say "The human body is covered with skin" or "A snake sheds its skin many times, but always has the same body". Any other suggestions for contexts that clearly bring out the relevant differences in meaning?

(I should mention that this question was inspired by a recent talk by Mustapha El Adak of the University of Oujda, arguing that all non-borrowed Berber words for "body" either include non-physical aspects of the person or relate specifically to a particular aspect of the body rather than referring uniformly to the whole.)

Sunday, October 25, 2015

The original chupacabra?

Americans of a certain age probably remember the "chupacabra" (goat-sucker), a nonexistent reptilian monster supposed to suck the blood of Puerto Rican goats back in the 1990s. The notion of goat-suckers, however, has a longer, less bloody, and slightly more respectable history. In European folklore, a goat-sucker (Spanish chotacabras, Latin Caprimulgus) is a kind of nocturnal bird, thought since Pliny to steal goats' milk as they slept. In Middle Eastern folklore, however, it's a creature a little more reminiscent of the chupacabra that is popularly supposed to steal milk from goats: namely, the monitor lizard (varan, ورل‍). In Persian, this lizard is even called بزمجه bozmajeh "goat-sucker" (Anderson, "Lizards", Encyclopaedia Iranica). Unlikely as this notion seems a priori, it does appear that monitor lizards will drink milk offered to them, if we may believe an aside in Kesteloot and Veirman's "Le culte du Mboose à Kaolack" (p. 85). I recently came across a passage describing how this is said to work in a recording in Korandje (a Songhay language of southwestern Algeria):
monitor lizard,when3Sg-seegoat=PL,
a-m-gwabmaʔʔʔʔ maʔʔ,
3Sg-IRR-INCEPTmaaa maaa,
so that3Sg-IRR-
so thatgoat-PLIRR-stand-3Sg.DAT3Sg-IRR-go3Sg-IRR-suckle-3PlEmph.
The monitor lizard, when it sees goats, it starts going maaa maaa, it bleats like a kid goat so that it- so that the goats will stand by it and it can go and suckle them.

I'll leave it to the biologists to determine whether this story has any basis in fact, and folklorists to consider if it can be connected to the Puerto Rican chupacabra. However, it does have one linguistically interesting feature as well. In Korandje, an aspect marker is ordinarily directly followed by a verb. It is possible to hesitate after an aspect marker, but not to insert anything between it and the verb it governs. However, in this sentence we find an aspect marker (gwab) followed directly by an onomatopeia representing the sound made. This suggests that, despite the inseparability of the verb from the aspect marker, it might be plausible to take them as two distinct words rather than as a single long word.

Friday, October 02, 2015

Korandje from the 12th to the 21st century (popular article)

Korandje, the seriously endangered Songhay language of Tabelbala in southwestern Algeria, is a longstanding research interest of mine. As far as I can see, it has the most complicated contact history of any language in the Sahara, with multiple extensive layers of loanwords from each of at least five languages which successively dominated the region. I recently wrote a short summary of the history of Korandje (as I understand it), aimed at a non-specialist audience, for a special issue of The Middle East in London. You can read it here:

Gaining a language, losing a language: Korandje from the 12th to the 21st century.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Songhay historical linguistics: Three new articles

Northern Songhay is a small group of languages (Korandjé, Tadaksahak, Tagdal, and Tasawaq) spoken in the Sahara, with a Songhay core vocabulary and grammar but extremely heavy Berber influence on vocabulary and structure. In Tadaksahak and Tagdal, this has gone so far that verbal derivational morphology consists exclusively of Berber affixes attached to Berber roots, making the causative and passive of every inherited Songhay verb suppletive. How these languages emerged - often in areas quite far from the Songhay-speaking banks of the Niger River - remains mysterious in several respects, but my recently published article "Non-Tuareg Berber and the Genesis of Nomadic Northern Songhay" (Journal of African Languages and Linguistics 36:1, pp. 121-143, 2015) brings new comparative Berber data to bear on this problem for Tadaksahak in particular, showing that it wasn't just an encounter between Songhay and Tuareg as generally assumed. Copies are available on request, and here's the abstract:
With massive borrowing resulting in systematic suppletion, the nomadic Northern Songhay languages, Tadaksahak and Tagdal, are some of the most striking products of intense language contact in Africa. While the importance of Berber in their formation is obvious, published comparisons have focused almost exclusively on Tuareg, the currently dominant Berber language of the region. This paper, however, demonstrates that Tuareg-Songhay contact alone cannot adequately account for their emergence. Tadaksahak at least seems to have as its substrate not Tuareg, but rather a Western Berber language closely related to Tetserrét, a small minority language of Niger; such a language also played a role in the development of Tagdal. Western Berber influence, however, is not reconstructible at the proto-Northern-Songhay level, despite being attested in most Northern Songhay languages individually. A closer look at the Western Berber stratum in Tadaksahak indicates that language shift there was accompanied by broader cultural changes, including a shift away from the regional norm of cross-cousin marriage towards the North African preference for patrilineal parallel cousin marriage. These linguistic and cultural changes may have been part of an effort to assert an identity as specialists in Islamic learning, following regional political shifts around the sixteenth century.
A persistent problem for research in this domain is the inadequacy of the published data. A new article by Maarten Kossmann takes an important step forward in this regard, providing a sketch grammar of Tasawaq along with the first adequately transcribed published text in it: "A Tasawaq (Northern Songhay, Niger) Text with Grammatical Notes" (Linguistic Discovery 13:1, 2015). Conveniently, this article is freely downloadable - no subscription necessary.
[This article presents] a Tasawaq story with glossing and comments, recorded in Agadez in October 2003, told by Mrs. Ibrahim, born Nana Mariama Aweïssou, originary from In-Gall, but then living and working in Agadez. Mrs. Ibrahim speaks Tasawaq, Hausa and French; at the time of the recording her daily language was Hausa. [...] The text presented here is a well-known story in the region, a version of which appears, for instance, in Jacques Pucheu’s collection of Nigerien Hausa stories (Pucheu 1982:45ff.). There is a clear connection to Hausa stories in the name of one of the participants, the bóóráy tree.

Northern Songhay is just the most extreme example of a strong tendency to intense language contact throughout the Songhay-speaking world. Paulo Moraes Farias' article Bentyia (Kukyia): a Songhay–Mande meeting point, and a “missing link” in the archaeology of the West African diasporas of traders, warriors, praise-singers, and clerics (Afriques 4, 2013) - also freely available online - gives a historically oriented picture of some of the migration patterns that helped produce this, with a particular focus on a contact whose linguistic effects still need to be elucidated: between Soninke, the Mande language of the Kingdom of Ghana along the modern-day Mali-Mauritania border, and mainstream Songhay in places such as Gao.

The present tragedy in Mali draws our attention to the divisions, tensions and conflicts between West African ethnic groups, religious persuasions, and populations from different regions, in both the present and the past. But a long-term critical perspective on the past brings to light borrowings between cultures, and shows how the mobility of people across West Africa links regional and ethnic histories. The communication axis running from the Aḍagh to the Niger and, along the Niger Valley, from Gao to Busa (in Nigerian Borgu) and beyond, is a strategic locus for investigating this mobility and connectivity. It has linked together the Saharan, savannah, and forest zones of West Africa. It was a magnet for diasporas of Soninke praise-singers and Mande warriors and traders. Fishermen and other waterfolk along the river, oral traditionists and other craftspeople, priests and priestesses of African cults, and Islamic clerics, as well as armies, long-distance merchants, and enslaved human beings, moved along it. Although the archeological sites at Bentyia/Kukyia occupy a strategic position on this historical axis, they have not been excavated, whence a serious gap in our knowledge of the history of the eastern Niger Valley and of West Africa as a whole.

Much work remains to be done in this domain, but the picture is gradually becoming clearer, despite a political situation in the area which is not very conducive to research.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

How Korandje made "with" agree it-with its subject

Korandje, the language of Tabelbala in southwestern Algeria, requires the comitative preposition "with" to agree in person and number, not with its object, but with its subject (strictly speaking, with its external argument):
ʕa-ddər ʕ-indza xaləd, I-went I-with Khaled.
nə-ddər n-indza xaləd, you-went you-with Khaled.
This seems to be vanishingly rare worldwide. The nearest parallels I have encountered are ones in which the comitative is expressed using a serial verb, but a closer look at the syntax and morphology of Korandje shows that indza is indeed a preposition, not a verb or a noun. Perhaps most strikingly, when you relativise on its object, you pied-pipe not only the preposition but the agreement marker on it too:
ʕan bạ-yu ʕ-indz uɣudz əgga ʕa-b-yəxdəm
my friend-s I-with whom PAST I-IMPF-work
"my friends with whom I was working"
Its historical source, proto-Songhay *ndá "with, and, if", was also a preposition, and did not display agreement. Comparative data makes it possible to reconstruct how this change took place: it developed out of a strategy, common in Berber and found in some Songhay languages, of expressing "I went with Khaled" as "I went, I and Khaled", which seems to be the result of reinterpretation of a postverbal subject as part of the adjacent comitative phrase. This development in turn provides the first attested way to reverse the well-known grammaticalisation chain "with" > "and". If you want to know more, read my article, which has just been published:

"How to make a comitative preposition agree it-with its external argument: Songhay and the typology of conjunction and agreement". In Paul Widmer, Jürg Fleischer, and Elisabeth Rieken (eds.), Agreement from a diachronic perspective, Berlin: De Gruyter, pp. 75-100, 2015. (offprints available on request - just email me.)

Here's the abstract:

This article describes two hitherto unreported comitative strategies exemplified in Songhay languages of West Africa – external agreement, and bipartite – and demonstrates their wider applicability. The former strategy provides the first clear-cut example of a previously unattested agreement target-controller pair. Based on comparative evidence, this article proposes a scenario for how these could have developed from the typologically unremarkable comitative and coordinative strategies reconstructible for proto-Songhay, in a process facilitated by contact with Berber. The grammaticalisation chain required to explain this has the unexpected effect of reversing a much better-known one previously claimed to be unidirectional, the development COMITATIVE > NP-AND.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Archaic and innovative Islamic prayer names around the Sahara, finally out

Just a quick alert: my article about Islamic prayer time names that I discussed here almost two years ago (post) is finally out! If your institution has a subscription, you can view it at the following link:
Archaic and innovative Islamic prayer names around the Sahara
Or you could email to ask me for a copy.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Some Tuareg-Songhay loans

I'm almost three-quarters of the way through Heath's Grammar of Tamashek (Tuareg of Mali). The main interest lies in its efforts to reduce the bewildering complexity of Tuareg morphology to some sort of order, an impossible task which it accomplishes more successfully than any other Tuareg grammar I've looked at so far. Aside from this, however, it's raised some interesting etymological issues.

I've wondered for years where the Korandjé verb wəy "gather (firewood)" comes from. It normally appears in the idiom a-wwəy-ts skudzi [3Sg-gather-hither wood] "she gathered in firewood". On p. 333 of Heath's grammar, I found the explanation, in the following example:

i-wwáy=ədd i-sǽɣer-æn
3MaSgS-bring.Reslt-Centrip Pl-firewood-MaPl
[He] has brought firewood here.

The Tamasheq verb in question, awəy in the imperative, is simply the normal Berber word for "take, bring" (which in Korandjé is expressed with a Songhay verb, zəw), so I would have hesitated to connect them based on a dictionary entry alone. But given this attested usage with "firewood", the semantic specialisation poses no problems. What does surprises me is that it was borrowed as a bare stem, rather than with a fossilised 3rd person prefix y/i - contrast yəf (Tashelhiyt y-arf "roast", not attested in Tamasheq), ikna "make" (Tamasheq i-kna). Usually, only stems that start with a syllabic onset are borrowed into Korandjé without the y/i.

Another probable loan into Korandjé that I noticed going through the grammar is Korandjé ləwləw "shine, gleam" - cp. Tamasheq m̀ələwləw "shine".

However, a number of words have gone the other way - from Songhay into Tuareg. Heath comments on many of these in his dictionary (eg kə̀rikəw "practice sorcery"), but not all. One that struck me is the verb ḍùkr-æt "become angry at", obviously related to Gao Songhay dukur "be angry"; I don't recall seeing this verb elsewhere in Berber (not even in Alojaly's dictionary of Tamajeq), whereas it's widespread in Songhay.

Obviously cognate are Tamasheq é-tæqq "male ostrich" and widespread Songhay forms such as Gao taatagey, Fulan Kirya taataɣey "ostrich" (the shift of g to ɣ next to non-high back vowels is regular in several Songhay varieties, and in Tamasheq qq is the geminate equivalent of ɣ). The word is generic in Songhay but specific in Tuareg - the opposite of what we saw with "bring" - which suggests to me that it was borrowed into the latter, as does the fact that I don't find the term in Alojaly's Tamajeq dictionary. However, since ostriches are extinct in most Berber-speaking areas, it's difficult to prove the direction of borrowing.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Northern Songhay comparative wordlists

Linguistically, the northern and southern shores of the Sahara have remained surprisingly distinct, and most Saharan groups are easily identifiable as outposts of one or the other. Occasionally, however, a greater degree of language mixture is found. Nowhere is trans-Saharan language mixture more prominent than in Northern Songhay, a group of languages spoken in Niger, Mali, and Algeria combining a Songhay base with an enormous Berber superstratum, including Korandjé, a southwestern Algerian language I've been working on for a few years now.

Following an inquiry I recently received, I've been comparing Korandjé data to the Northern Songhay comparative wordlist in Rueck and Christiansen (1999). In the spirit of open data, you can view the wordlist (with a few remaining gaps to be filled) here: Korandjé 380-word list for Northern Songhay lexical comparison. Draft version, 14 July 2014. The results should be treated as provisional, since the Tasawaq part of this wordlist in particular appears a bit unreliable and since a few gaps remain in the Korandjé and even Tadaksahak lists, but are nevertheless interesting.

Counting cognates makes it very clear that Korandjé is the outlier, as might be expected based on geography:


The other three Northern Songhay varieties (treating Tagdal+Tabarog as one variety) form a linkage, which, following Wolff and Alidou's suggestion, we might label Azawagh Songhay - from west to east: Tadaksahak, Tagdal+Tabarog, then Tasawaq. On this wordlist Korandjé is clearly closest to Tasawaq, but that's only because Korandjé and Tasawaq have both kept more Songhay vocabulary, a fact irrelevant for subgrouping. The only innovation in vocabulary that Korandjé and Tasawaq share to the exclusion of the rest is the borrowing of numerals from 5 up from Arabic, and if you look at the sound correspondences it's clear that Tasawaq and Korandjé each borrowed their current numerals separately from different dialects of Arabic. Tadaksahak, Tagdal, and Tabarog all show almost the same number of items shared with Korandjé due to common borrowing from Berber, and most of that is due to shared borrowings of widespread Berber words that could easily have happened independently. The use of a Berber form originally meaning "weaver" for "spider" in Korandjé and Tadaksahak alone is striking, but very likely coincidental.

Another way to look at this is to note that 188 of the 332 items are shared across all of Azawagh Songhay, whereas only 108 are shared across all of Azawagh Songhay plus Korandjé. Of the latter, only 9 are Berber or Arabic loans, while 99 are Songhay retentions:

eye, ear, mouth, head, hair, neck, milk, belly, foot, hand, skin, blood, urine, liver, person, man, woman, owner, name, dog, cow, donkey, (venomous) snake, louse, meat, fat, stick, grass, rope, salt, pot, pit (hole), iron, fire, smoke, ashes, night, sun, day, yesterday, wind, water, stone, one, two, hot, cold, long, old, lots, red, black, white, dry, full, what, where, near, far, and, sit down, stand up, lie down, sleep, bite, eat, drink, suck, laugh, cry, see, hear, know, love, give, steal, hide, give birth, die, kill, walk, run, fall, wash, pierce, hit, tie, do, sew, bury, sandals, horse, truth, falsehood, finish, dig, stand, find.
This list is dominated by basic, rarely loaned words: nearly half of it overlaps with the Leipzig-Jakarta list. However, more culturally specific shared retentions such as "iron", "owner", "cow", "donkey", "horse", "pot", "sew", and "sandals" remind us that the split of Northern Songhay is after all rather recent (much more so, in fact, than these words alone might suggest).

These pan-Northern retentions, however, by no means exhaust the Songhay lexicon of Northern Songhay. Korandjé alone retains some 183 list items of Songhay origin, at least 135 of them shared with Tasawaq, while for many words (eg "four", "green"), only Tasawaq has kept Songhay forms. Well over 227 items have Songhay equivalents in at least one Azawagh Songhay variety, and more than 241 have equivalents either in the Azawagh or in Korandje. If the even more conservative (but extinct) Emghedesie variety were added to the list, that number would no doubt be even larger. Proto-Northern Songhay certainly had a significantly larger Songhay lexicon than any of its descendants does.

[Later addendum]: Removing all words with Arabic-derived Korandje forms from the list makes no difference to the classification; the table ends up like this:


Tuesday, June 10, 2014

The Subclassification of Songhay, now online

After more than a year, I can now finally put a PDF of my article The Subclassification of Songhay and its Historical Implications online for whoever may be interested. The abstract follows:
This paper seeks to establish the first cladistic subgrouping of Songhay explicitly based on shared arbitrary innovations, a prerequisite both for distinguishing recent loans from valid extra-Songhay comparanda and for determining how Songhay spread. The results indicate that the Northern Songhay languages of the Sahara form a valid subfamily, even though no known historical records link Tabelbala to the others, and that Northern Songhay and Western Songhay (spoken around Timbuktu and Djenné) together form a valid subfamily, Northwestern Songhay. The speakers of Proto-Northern Songhay practised cultivation and permanent architecture, but were unfamiliar with date palms. Proto-Northwestern Songhay was already in contact with Berber and probably (perhaps indirectly) with Arabic, and was spoken along the Niger River. Proto-Songhay itself appears likely to have been in contact with Gur languages, confirming its relatively southerly location. This result is compatible with two scenarios for the northerly spread of Songhay. On Hypothesis A, Northern Songhay spread out from an oasis north-east of Gao, probably Tadmakkat or Takedda, and Northwestern Songhay had been spoken in areas west of Gao which now speak Eastern Songhay. On Hypothesis B, Northern Songhay spread out from the Timbuktu region, and Western Songhay derives from heavy “de-creolising” influence by Eastern Songhay on an originally Northern Songhay language. To choose between these hypotheses, further fieldwork will be required.
Comments welcome!

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Speaking in Oran

It's a bit last minute, but I'm glad to announce that I will be giving two talks in Oran over the next few days: It would be a pleasure to see some readers of this blog there.

Friday, March 07, 2014

Korandjé tale (Conte en korandjé - قصة بلبالية)

In the early 1950s, the French anthropologist Dominique Champault made a number of sound recordings in Tabelbala. Champault’s recordings have recently been made available online by the Centre de Recherche en Musicologie, through Cécile Funke’s archival work. Many are in Arabic or French, but the Korandjé ones are an irreplaceable resource for the study of the language; in her time, the language was under rather less pressure and verbal arts were in much better health.

One of the easiest recordings for me – the sound quality is good, and the language simple – is a short folk tale about a cat, narrated by Zohra Adda (70-01):

Like “the house that Jack built”, this cumulative tale helps children learn to understand recursive causation. There are a few dialectal or idiolectal differences from the Korandjé I’ve heard, minor but striking to my ears. Following Marijn van Putten’s example, I’ll put it up here – comments very welcome! Etymology is marked by colour: yellow for Arabic, blue for Berber, and unmarked for Songhay.

عيحاجانيس عسكاتنيسي: – حاجيتك ما جيتك
ʕa-yħaža=ni.s ʕ
I have told you, I haven't come to you (ie “Once upon a time”):
Je t’ai raconté, je ne suis pas venu à toi (c’est à dire “Il était une fois”) :
Comments: This is an alarmingly literal translation of the widespread North African “Once upon a time” formula, ħajit-ək ma jit-ək. This fixed formula is barely interpretable in Arabic, but one grammatically possible parse corresponds to the Korandjé here. iħaža, of course, is a Maghrebi Arabic loan, from ħaji “tell a story” (possibly via Berber).

1. إيشنّ احّلّق موشفُكدّا. – خلق الله قطا صغيرا
išann a-ħħəlləq muš=fʷ kadda.
God 3Sg-create cat=one small
God created a little cat.
Dieu a créé un petit chat.
Comments: išannu, historically a compound “our master”, has fallen into disfavour in modern Tabelbala; most speakers now prefer the dialect Arabic equivalent mula-na. ħəlləq “create” is from Maghrebi Arabic xləq, with an irregular shift x > ħ, probably the result of place dissimilation, paralleled in the Arabic of the Touat region (cf. Bachir Bouhania). Songhay, Berber, and local Arabic all have more or less the same word for “cat”, so it’s difficult to say which source Korandjé got the word from; provisionally, I assume it’s inherited.

2. آدر آبينبش. – ذهب يخدش
a-a-dər a-ab-inbəš.
3Sg-PF-go 3Sg-PROG-scratch
He went scratching (in the ground).
Il est allé gratter.
Comments: inbəš “scratch” is Maghrebi Arabic nbəš.

3. افُّ ابساتاكا اتّاس: توغ نبابتلاّ؟ – مر به أحد فقال له: عمّا تبحث؟
a-ffʷ a-bbsa-t-a.ka a-tts=a.s tsuɣ n-bạb-tsə̣llạ?
Nom-one what 2Sg-PROG-seek
Someone passed by him and told him: What are you looking for?
Quelqu’un est passé à côté de lui et lui a dit : Qu’est-ce que tu cherches ?
Comments: I’ve never heard any modern speaker pronounce “seek” as emphatic; the pronunciation I always heard was [tsɛlla] / [tsɨlla]. For the etymology of this Berber loan, cf. Zenaga pf. yə-llāh, impf. yə-ttälla(a)h “chercher” (Taine-Cheikh 2010); unusually, it seems to derive from the imperfective rather than the perfective.

4. ايتا عابتلاّ (ذ) إدرامن. – ها أنا أبحث عن النقود
əytsa ʕ-ab-tsə̣llạ (ḏ) idṛạmən.
lo 1Sg-PROG-seek (?) money
I'm looking for... money.
Je cherche... de l’argent.
Comments: There’s a clearly audible before “money”, but I can’t figure out a plausible reason for it. əytsa “lo!” is probably Berber, cp. Kabyle aṯan. idṛạmən “money” is a formally plural noun taken from Berber, ultimately from Arabic dirham (itself from Greek drachma).

5. ما نبغ إدرامن؟ – لماذا تريد النقود؟
n-bə̣ɣ idṛạmən
why 2Sg-want money
Why do you want money?
Pourquoi veux-tu de l’argent ?
Comments: “Want” is one of two quasi-verbs in Korandjé – the other is “exist” – that does not take mood/aspect morphology. I’ve heard maɣạ and mạʕạ for “why” > Berber ma-ɣər, but never just ma/mə as here. bə̣ɣ “want” looks suspiciously like Arabic bɣa, but actually it has a regular Songhay etymology, *baga.

6. عمذينذي فركا. – لأشتري بها حمارا
ʕə-mm- ə dzay=ndz.i fə̣ṛka.
1Sg-IRR- uh buy=with.3Pl
So I can buy a donkey with it.
Pour que j’en achète un âne.
Comments: Modern speakers usually have a slightly more reduced vowel in “buy” – [dzɛi], or even just [dzɨi]. Note the 3Pl, agreeing with idṛạmən.

7. ما نبغ فركا؟ – لماذا تريد حمارا؟
ma n-bə̣ɣ fə̣ṛka
why 2Sg-want donkey
why 2Sg-want donkey?
Why do you want a donkey?
Pourquoi veux-tu un âne ?

8. عمنڤّر لابو. – لأنقل الطين
ʕa-m-dza- ʕa-mm- ə- nəggə̣ṛ lạbu.
1Sg-IRR-bu- 1Sg-IRR- uh- transport clay
So I can bu- so I can- uh- transport clay.
Pour que j’ach- pour que je- euh - transporte de l’argile.
Comments: I’ve never heard “clay” with an emphatic vowel either; modern speakers usually say [læ:bu]. nəggə̣ṛ is presumably from Arabic naqala “transport”, but I need to double-check its meaning is also normally not emphatic now.

9. ما نبغ لابو؟ – لماذا تريد الطين؟
ma n-bə̣ɣ lạbu?
why 2Sg-want clay
Why do you want clay?
Pourquoi veux-tu de l’argile ?

10. عمكا آضّب. – لأصنع الطوب
ʕa-m-kạ ạḍḍə̣b.
1Sg-IRR-hit brick
So I can make bricks.
Pour que je fasse des briques.
Comments: kạ ạḍḍə̣b “make (lit. hit) bricks” is a fixed expression; kạ can be used in some other contexts to mean “work”. ạḍḍə̣b “brick” (pl. iḍḍụbən) is a Berber-style adaptation of Arabic al-ṭūb, which, transmitted via Spanish, also gives us English adobe.

11. ما نبغ آضّب؟ – لماذا تريد الطوب؟
ma n-bə̣ɣ ạddəb?
why 2Sg-want brick
Why do you want bricks?
Pourquoi veux-tu des briques ?

12. عمكيكي ڤا. – لأبني بيتا
ʕa-m-kikəy gạ.
1Sg-IRR-build house
So I can build a house.
Pour que je construise une maison.

13. ما نبغ ڤا؟ – لماذا تريد بيتا؟
n-bə̣ɣ gạ?
why 2Sg-want house
Why do you want a house?
Pourquoi veux-tu une maison ?

14. عمّيكنا محمّد نذا فاطنة إمّيـ – أصنعها، محمد وفاطمة يـ
ʕa-mm-ikn-a muħəmməd ndza fạṭna, i-mm-i-
1Sg-IRR-make-3Sg Muhammad and Fatima, 3Pl-IRR-h-
I’ll make it, and Muhammad and Fatima, they’ll- (Je la construirai, et Mohamed et Fatma, ils –)
Comments: Note that fạṭna “Fatima” shows place dissimilation, a regular process in many Atlas Berber varieties, suggesting that this version of the name reached Korandjé via Moroccan Berber rather than directly via Arabic.

15. عمذاكا محمد نذا فاطنة. – لأضع فيها محمدا وفاطمة
ʕa-m-dza=a.ka muħəmməd ndza fạṭna. Muhammad and Fatima
So I can put Muhammad and Fatima into it.
Pour que j’y mette Mohamed et Fatma.

16. ما نبغ محمد نذا فاطنة؟ – لماذا تريد محمدا وفاطمة؟
ma n-bə̣ɣ muħəmməd ndza fạṭna?
why 2Sg-want Muhammad and Fatima
Why do you want Muhammad and Fatima?
Pourquoi veux-tu Mohamed et Fatma ?

17. عمكيكيغيس تا- إمّيسرحغيس تاوالا. – لأبني لي قـ- ليسرحوا لي قطيعا
ʕa-m-kikəy=ɣəy.s ta- i-mm-isrəħ=ɣəy.s tsawala. fl- flock
So I can build myself a fl- so they can herd for me a flock.
Pour que je me construise un tr– pour qu’ils me paissent un troupeau.
Comments: isrəħ “herd, graze” is Arabic srəħ. tsawala “flock (cared for by turns)” is Moroccan Berber, and is probably a later re-borrowing of the same word that yields Korandjé tsara “(a) time”.

18. ما نبغ تاوالا؟ – لماذا تريد قطيعا؟
n-bə̣ɣ tawala?
why 2Sg-want flock
Why do you want a flock?
Pourquoi veux-tu un troupeau ?

19. عمكواكا هوّا. – لأستخرج منه الحليب
ʕa-m-kaw=a.ka huwwa. milk
So I can get milk from it.
Pour que j’en obtienne du lait.
Comments: As with “buy”, modern speakers usually have a rather more reduced vowel in “remove” – more like [kçəu].

20. ما نبغ هوّا؟ – لماذا تريد الحليب؟
ma n-bə̣ɣ huwwa?
why 2Sg-want milk
Why do you want milk?
Pourquoi veux-tu du lait ?

21. عمكواكا ڤي. – لأستخرج منها السمن
ʕa-m-kaw=a.ka gi. ghee.
Pour que j’en obtienne du s’men.
Comments: By an amusing coincidence of sound and meaning, gi means more or less the same as English “ghee”.

22. ما نبغ ڤي؟ – لماذا تريد السمن؟
ma n-bə̣ɣ gi?
why 2Sg-want ghee
Why do you want ghee?
Pourquoi veux-tu du s’men ?

23. عمْيننذا رسول الله ن تالبّسْت(؟). – لأدهن به ؟؟ رسول الله
ʕa-m-yən=ndz.a ṛạsuləḷḷạh-n tsagʷḍḍə̣st[?].
1Sg-IRR-anoint=with.3Sg Messenger_of_God GEN lock
So that I can anoint with it the Messenger of God’s hair-lock.
Pour que j’en oigne le ?? de l’Envoyé du Dieu.
Comments: I can’t seem to make out that last word – the speaker tails off – but it seems to have the Berber feminine circumfix. ṛạsuləḷḷah is an Arabic compound, rasūl “messenger” and Allāh “God”. By the way, despite appearances, n is not Berber – given the associated word order, it can more plausibly be derived from an irregular shortening of Songhay wane (see Kossmann).

Korandjé is generally thought of as a contact-intensive language – so how mixed is this sample? Well, there are two ways to count (excluding, in any case, bound morphemes and incomplete words), depending on what we do with words that occur more than once. If we count by token, then we count the same word each time it appears; if we count by type, then we count the same word only once.

By token, we have 84 words: 52 Songhay, 12 Arabic, 20 Berber. So 62% of the text is Songhay, 14% Arabic, and 24% Berber.

By type, we have:
  • 24 Songhay words: ka “come”, išannu “God”, -fu “one”, kadda “small”, dri “go”, bsa “pass”, tsi “say”, tsuɣu “what”, bəɣ “want”, dzay “buy”, fəṛka “donkey”, lạbu “clay”, kạ “hit, work”, dza “put, do”, ndza “and, with”, kikəy “build”, kaw “remove”, huwwa “milk”, gi “ghee”, yən “anoint”, aɣəy “I”, ni “you”, ana “he/she/it”, ?muš “cat”
  • 8 Arabic loans: iħaža “tell (a story)”, ħəlləq “create”, yinbəš “scratch”, yisrəħ “herd”, ṛasuləḷḷạh “the Messenger of God”, muħəmməd “Muhammad”, fạṭna “Fatima”, nəggə̣ṛ “transport”
  • 8 Berber loans: idṛạmən “money”, ạḍḍə̣b “brick”, ikna “make”, tsawala “flock”, əytsa “lo”, tsə̣llạ “seek”, ma “why”, tsagʷḍḍə̣st “hair-lock”
So this rather repetitive text has a total vocabulary of only 40 words; 60% of its vocabulary is Songhay, 20% Arabic, and 20% Berber.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Korandjé music video (Algeria's other language)

As regular readers will know, for some years I've been working on the only language of Algeria that's neither Arabic nor Berber – Korandjé, spoken in a tiny oasis betwen Bechar and Tindouf called Tabelbala. A little while ago, we saw a brief video of one of its closest relatives, the Tagdal language of Niger. Today, for the benefit of anyone who may have wondered what Korandjé sounds like, I'd like to present the first music video in Korandjé to reach YouTube – a nostalgic song in a Middle Eastern style by Abdou Makhloufi:

Musically and poetically, it's rather derivative (and not derivative of Tabelbala's traditions either). But I salute the author's efforts anyway; it's not easy to go against the flow, and the trend in Tabelbala is very much to leave music (and most other domains of life) to Arabic. Here's an attempt at a transcript, minus most of the repetition (almost every line is repeated at least twice):

عباعمير كُارا عباعمير
ʕ-baʕam-yər kʷạrạ, ʕ-baʕam-yər
I-wanna-return town, I-wanna-return
I wanna go back home, I wanna go back,

تكُّاري ندا ادرا ن لهوا ابيسحر
tsəkkʷạrəy ndz’ adṛạ n ləhwa a-b-yisħər
sand and mountain ’s air it-IMPF-enchant
The sand and the mountain air are enchanting,

عباعمير كُارا عباعمير
ʕ-baʕam-yər kʷạrạ, ʕ-baʕam-yər
I-wanna-return town, I-wanna-return
I wanna go back home, I wanna go back.

ومّوغيسي، عباعميرنيسي
wə-ṃṃə̣w-ɣəy-si, ʕ-baʕam-t-ndzi-si
y’all!-listen-me-to, I-wanna-say-y’all-to
Y'all listen up, I wanna tell you all,

اوغ اكّس ان كُارا، توغا اڤُّاسي
uɣ əkkəs an kʷạrạ, tsuɣạ ggwạ-a-si
who abandon his town, what remains-him-to
Someone who abandons his hometown, what's left for him?

عباعمير كُارا عباعمير
ʕ-baʕam-yər kʷạrạ, ʕ-baʕam-yər
I-wanna-return town, I-wanna-return
I wanna go back home, I wanna go back.

الله الله، ڤايو زّينيو بايو
əḷḷạh əḷḷạh, gạ-yu zzin-yu gạ-yu
God God, house-s old-s house-s
O Lord O Lord, the old houses,

ڤايو، بايو ندا لغاديايو
gạ-yu, bạ-yu ndza lɣadya-yu
house-s, person-s and ???-s
The houses, the people and the ???s,

ڤُند عفّكّر كُارا، عاهيو
gundz ʕa-f-fəkkəṛ kʷạṛạ, ʕa-hyu
when I-ed-remember town, I-cry
When I remembered the hometown, I cried.

عباعمير كُارا عباعمير
ʕ-baʕam-yər kʷạrạ, ʕ-baʕam-yər
I-wanna-return town, I-wanna-return
I wanna go back home, I wanna go back.

تاميسا عباعمدغنني، تامسّخ ما كُنّاني
tsamis a ʕ-baʕam-dɣən-ni, tsaməssəx ma kunna ni!
how FOC I-gonna-forget-you, how what find you!
How could I forget you, how – what's wrong with you!

ڤُا بايباهنڤاني، آ نمبغسي واراني
gwạ bạ-i-ba-hanga-ni; a nən bə̣nɣ-si wara ni
stay person-s-have-follow-you, ah your head-to even you
Stay, people are following you; ah, (stay) for yourself too!

تاميسا عباعمدغنني، تامسّخ ما كُنّاني
tsamis a ʕ-baʕam-dɣən-ni, tsaməssəx ma kunna ni!
how FOC I-gonna-forget-you, how what find you!
How could I forget you, how – what's wrong with you!

اقّا عقّوم عمزوني، عمزوني
əgga ʕa-ggum ʕa-m-zəw-ni, ʕa-m-zəw-ni – əgga ʕa-ggum
PAST I-swear I-'d-take-you, I-'d-take-you – PAST I-swear
I had sworn to marry you, to marry you

نزّو افيط نكّسغي
nə-zzəw a-fyəṭ nə-kkəs-ɣi
you-take an-other you-abandon-me;
You married another and left me;

تامسّخ ما كُنّاني
tsaməssəx ma kunna ni!
how what find you!
How – how could you!

نن لقبيلت اسبغغي، اسبغغي - نن لقبيلت
nn ləqbilət a-s-bəɣ-ɣəy, a-s-bəɣ-ɣəy – nn ləqbilət
your tribe it-not-like-me, it-not-like-me – your tribe
Your tribe doesn't like me, doesn't like me – your tribe;

إدرامن اسباغيسي
idṛạmən əs-bạ-ɣəy-si
money not-be-me-to
I don't have money

آغي عمبين اكُّاري، نبّي مسّخ من بكري
aɣəy ʕan bin ək-kwạrəy, nə-b-bəy məssəx mən bəkri
Me my heart is-white, you-PF-know thus from long_ago
But my heart is clear, you've always known that

تامسّخ ما كُنّا ني
tsaməssəx ma kunna ni!
how what find you!
How – how could you!

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, February 03, 2014

Aljazeera video of mixed Tuareg-Songhay language, Tagdal

Aljazeera's documentary Orphans of the Sahara is worth watching for anyone interested in Tuareg language, as well as Tuareg politics – the producers took the very commendable decision to do most of the interviewing in Tuareg, giving a much more representative picture of Tuareg opinions than if they had stuck to interviewing French speakers as many other journalists do. Other languages of the region, apart from Arabic (and other ethnic groups' opinions) are rather less well represented, but about ten minutes into the first video, my ears perked up as I realised that I wasn't hearing Tuareg any more. As the camera follows Mohammed Igdali's first meeting in many years with his grandmother, somewhere outside Agades in Niger, you hear them speaking in a language that sounds oddly like Tuareg yet has a completely different grammar (from about 10min13s to 10min52s): In fact, this language is Tagdal, the language of the Igdalen tribe – a close relative of Korandjé, the Algerian language I studied for my doctorate. Most of its vocabulary is from Tuareg (or sometimes other Berber varieties), but its grammar and a few hundred of the commonest words are from Songhay, a language family spoken mainly further south along the Niger River. I can make out "Maxámmad Xásan, nənn áahay. – ɣann áahay ah?" (Mohammed Hassan, your grandchild. – My grandchild?), in which "grandchild" (áahay) is Tuareg and the possessive pronouns "your" (nən) and "my" (ɣan) are Songhay, as well as "nən bárar ɣo ggóra nə́n moo ka" (your child who is sitting in front of you), in which only bárar "child" is Tuareg, while the rest is Songhay. This is the first recording of Tagdal I've ever heard.

Tagdal is extremely inadequately documented – there are only three published resources on it that I know of (see my Northern Songhay bibliography), none of which provides even a sketch grammar (although a sketch grammar by the missionary linguist Carlos Benítez-Torres should be coming out in a couple of years, in The Oxford Handbook of Language Contact). It would be a rather interesting language to study, both as a case study in extremely intense language contact and for what it indicates about regional history. (Unlike most Tuareg tribes, the Igdalen are thought to have come from the west, and they seem to have played a prominent role in early medieval history; their original language, like that of the Idaksahak, was quite likely not Tuareg.) Unfortunately, the political situation described in that documentary makes fieldwork rather difficult to undertake for the moment.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013


Tadaksahak, a heavily Berber-influenced Northern Songhay language spoken in northern Mali and Niger and closely related to Korandjé, is a remarkable example of how far language mixture can go. While the core grammar remains Songhay, causatives and passives can only be formed using Berber morphology attached to Berber stems, so every non-Berber verb in the language has a suppletive causative and passive (there are only a couple of hundred of those left, though, so it's not that impossible to learn.) I recently finally finished a review of Regula Christiansen-Bolli's Grammar of Tadaksahak (you can read the review here). For various reasons, I ended up taking the opportunity to write an overview of the general problem of how the language came into being. I don't have a final answer, but I did find that it was even more complicated than it looks.

You see, Tadaksahak speakers are currently mostly bilingual in Tuareg, and well integrated into Tuareg culture. Most of the Berber loanwords in Tadaksahak are from one or another Tuareg variety. But quite a few – including some of those irregular causatives and most numerals up to 20 - are demonstrably not from Tuareg, but from some other Berber language, closely related to Tetserrét (Niger). Today, Tetserrét is nearly extinct, and nobody speaks it as a second language; obviously things must have been different in the past. It looks like most Tadaksahak speakers are visibly of Berber descent, so probably they shifted from Tetserrét to Northern Songhay and then came under Tuareg influence. But why would anyone want to adopt Northern Songhay, currently barely hanging on in one or two remote towns of northern Niger, as a first language? Again, obviously things must have been different, but it's not easy to see how. My best guess for the moment is that they did so in order to reinforce their identity as religious specialists (ineslemen, "marabouts"), since Songhay was the language of the urban centres where advanced religious studies could be pursued, but there are a lot of question marks over that. To confuse matters further, their neighbours like to claim that Tadaksahak speakers are of Jewish descent - probably just to undermine their religious specialist status, but possibly reflecting some more complex history.

Oral tradition isn't much help; there is no firm consensus within the group on their history, and such genealogies as have been circulated, by themselves or by their neighbours, look very much like efforts to push self-serving agendas. About the only common theme across them is that they came from the west. Genetic testing might give firmer data, but the results could be politically sensitive. More lexical data, both for Tadaksahak and for other minority languages of the region, would certainly help, but the problem is ultimately cross-disciplinary - historians, archeologists, anthropologists, etc. take note! Any ideas?

Saturday, December 07, 2013

19th c. Songhay sources from Tanzania and the US

A while ago, I posted about the earliest European source for Songhay. Shuichiro Nakao, who's been doing some interesting work on the 19th-century development of Arabic-based creoles, recently sent me a link to an early record of Songhay from an even more surprising source: the journal Tanganyika Notes and Records. The article in question is a summary autobiography of Adrien Atiman, who spent most of his life working as a Catholic missionary in central Africa. Apparently, as a child he was taken (sold or kidnapped? he would never know which) as a slave from Tindirma (modern Mali) and brought north to Metlili, where he was "ransomed" by a Catholic priest in 1876, converted, trained for priesthood, and finally sent off to a completely different part of Africa to be a missionary. He gives a few words, the only ones he could still remember of his native language after so many years: ""Coro" meaning lion, "Boro" man, "Elham" meat, "Bri" bone, and "Kunduhari" beer." These are easily recognisable as the Koyra Chiini forms (after Heath 2005): kooro hyena, boro person, ham meat (crossed here with Algerian Arabic lħəm "meat"), biri bone, and kundu "bourgou grass" + hari "water" (a syrup is traditionally made from bourgou grass). But it is striking that, even for these last holdouts, the meanings are not remembered exactly. Your first language is not necessarily the language you are most fluent in!

As it happens, another Songhay-speaking slave also left us his biography, from slightly earlier in the nineteenth century (1854): Mahommah Gardo Baquaqua. A native of Djougou (modern Benin), he was taken prisoner while visiting a different town and sold south to the coast, ending up as a slave in Brazil, but eventually managed to escape while passing through New York, which had already abolished slavery. He gives the numbers from one to a thousand in Dendi, as well as a few vocabulary items scattered throughout the book. (Not all the latter are Dendi – some are Hausa, eg "cofa" (properly ƙofa) for "gate".)

I've managed to trace a few Songhay loanwords in North Africa, but as far as I know no one has ever reported a Songhay loanword in the Americas. That is probably to be expected, since most slaves there would have come from regions closer to the sea – but it would be interesting to look more closely...