Showing posts with label contact. Show all posts
Showing posts with label contact. Show all posts

Friday, August 12, 2016

Berber feminine nouns in Dellys Arabic: an update

In Dellys, Berber nouns borrowed into Arabic are not very common, and ones that preserve the Berber nominal affixes are even rarer, so I'm always on the lookout for them. A few days ago, listening to my eldest aunt, I heard one that was completely new to me, in an old idiom:
xəlləṭ tazalt u bəḷḷuṭ
خلّط تازالْت وبلّوط
mix up tazalt and oak/acorns (ie mix good with bad)
Tazalt was described as a vine with white flowers; probably the reference is to Cistus (rockrose), whose Kabyle name is tuzzalt, "little iron". Why that would be particularly easy to confuse with an oak tree is beyond me. There are a few other plant and animal names retaining the Berber feminine circumfix t(a)-...-(t), including tirẓəẓt تيرززت (a kind of small wasp), tubrint توبرينْت (a kind of seaweed), taɣanim تاغانيم (a variety of fig, from Berber taɣanimt "small reed"), and originally plural timəlwin تيملْوين (another variety of fig). Otherwise, this circumfix seems to be almost exclusively reserved for abstract nouns referring to negatively judged character traits (see previous posts): eg taɣənnant تاغنّانْت "stubbornness", taklufit تاكلوفيت "meddling", tayhudit تايهوديت "malice", tastutit تاستوتيت "malicious trickiness". An amusing variant on this theme came up recently: taṭnuhist تاطنوهيست "open-mouthed stupidity", presumably a blend of unrecorded *taṭnuhit تاطنوهيست and French -iste. (This in turn derives from ṭnəh "mooring-post", as in "dumb as a post".)

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

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.

Friday, October 09, 2015

From codeswitching to borrowing in une génération?

It's not unusual to hear sentences like the following from middle-class Algerian adults, especially women:

عندنا ان تيليفيزيون كبير
ʕəndna æ̃ tilivizyõ kbir
"we have a big TV"

شرينا لو تيلي
šrina lœ tele
"we bought the TV"

If I had in fact heard these from an adult, I would unhesitatingly classify them as code-switching, with a French noun phrase inserted into an otherwise Arabic sentence. That goes especially for the former - monolingual adults simply don't use the French indefinite article [æ̃ ] (un). In fact, however, I heard them from a monolingual 5-year old, born and bred in Algeria, who only took her first French class this term. Unless she knows more French than she or her parents are letting on, that necessarily makes them monolingual sentences. And that means that, for this young lady, [æ̃ ] (un) has become a borrowing into Algerian Arabic - an indefinite article used with words that take the definite article le.

Earlier, I noted that children don't typically initiate effective language change; and, in terms of output, this isn't a change at all. She's simply learned to produce the kind of sentences she hears all the time directly, without going through all the effort of learning French first. In terms of the underlying system, however, it's a significant change. Instead of having one indefinite article used with all nouns, she now has two: one with Arabic nouns, and one with French nouns. (Rather like the nouns borrowed from Berber that we looked at earlier, which can't take the Arabic definite article.) In Saussurean terms, one generation's parole (the relatively free Arabic-French codeswitching practiced by her parents) has become the next generation's langue. And that sort of change is by its nature something children, and only children, are extremely likely to lead.

(Note, by the way, that in French télévision is feminine; I'm not sure why she gives it masculine agreement, but probably this reflects the influence of the earlier borrowed form tilivizyun, which regular Arabic phonological gender assignment rules make masculine.)

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.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Berber substratum nouns in Beni-Tamer (Adrar, Algeria)

In most of the Arabic dialects of the Algerian Sahara that I've encountered, Berber influence is rather inconspicuous. Loanwords exist, of course, but they are so well adapted to Arabic structure that they tend to be difficult to spot; who would guess, for instance, that šəṛšmala "skink" came from Zenati Berber *a-sərm-šal (cf. attested Tashelhiyt asrmkal?)

In a few areas, however, Berber loans retain the Berber nominal prefixes a- and ta-, and hence stick out like a sore thumb. In such cases, they often keep Berber-style plurals as well, reproducing a Berber subsystem within the otherwise Arabic domain of the dialect's nominal morphology. The only major Saharan dialect that consistently does this, as far as I know, is Hassaniya in Mauritania and the Western Sahara. However, during fieldwork some years ago, I came across another case well outside of Hassaniya. The area around Adrar (medieval Touat), in southwestern Algeria, seems to have shifted from Berber to Arabic relatively recently, and the process is not complete even today. At least one village, Beni-Tamer just outside Adrar, accordingly borrows many Berber nouns with Berber nominal prefixes, including ones unfamiliar to other speakers from near Adrar that I met. I only spent a short time with the one speaker from Beni-Tamer that I met, but he gave me quite a few examples from his Arabic (he did not speak Berber):

With masculine a-:

  • aždəl "garden near town"
  • ažəlžim “hoe” (Taznatit ažəlžim)
  • afdam “palm fibre” (cf. Hassaniyya fdām)
  • afrag “palm-leaf fence” (Taznatit afrag, cf. Hassaniyya efəṛṛāg)
  • aqənnin / qənnin "palm stump" (Taznatit taqənniħt)
  • agžəm “cellar” (Taznatit ikzəm)
  • amazzər “sloped spot in an irrigation channel”
  • anfif “drainage hole” (Taznatit anfif)
With feminine ta-:
  • tadmayt "garden outside town"
  • tasgat “large basket” (Taznatit tasgawt)
  • taṣəṛbiṭ “skink”
  • tagəmmi “stable”
Most of these are not attested in Hassaniyya, and closely reflect the Taznatit Berber still spoken at Timimoun, confirming that they represent a substratum of Berber words retained by this town's people after they shifted to Arabic. This also fits with their semantic distribution, including a lot of agricultural terminology. At least one of them takes a metathesised Berber plural, originally with the Berber masculine plural suffix -awən: agžəm “cellar”, pl. agəžwamən. Unfortunately I didn't elicit plurals for the rest. I don't think I'll be able to go to Adrar in the near future, but it would be interesting to look at this dialect more...

Have you seen anything similar in a dialect you're familiar with?

References: Hassaniyya from Taine-Cheikh, Dictionnaire hassaniyya-français; Taznatit from Boudot-Lamotte 1964, "Notes ethnographiques et linguistiques sur le parler berbère de Timimoun".

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.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

How Berber is the Arabic of the Chaamba?

As unfortunately foreshadowed by my last post, violence broke out again in Ghardaia recently between Chaamba and Mozabites. At least 22 were killed, most of them Mozabite. As far as I can tell, not one newspaper has ventured to report what specifically triggered this episode of violence - which probably means that the details are thought to be embarrassing or inflammatory. (I suspect that this vicious yet incompetent piece of anti-Mozabite propaganda provides an explanation in reverse - that a rumour circulated among the Chaamba that the Mozabites were celebrating the assassination of Ali or something like that - but that's only a guess.) Instead, they're presenting a flurry of supposedly deeper explanations, vaguely alluding to drug trading, smuggling, religious extremism, and foreign meddling.

One news item that recently made waves came from a Facebook post by Ahmed Ben Naoum, a professor of sociology at the University of Perpignan, who, as reported by El Watan, insists that the Chaamba (properly šʕanba) are not Arabs but rather Zenati Berbers. The ancestry of the Chaamba is not something I can comment on professionally - if that mattered, which it shouldn't, a look at their Y-chromosomes would be the way to go. Nor can I say much on their historical self-identification, though at present it's extremely clear that the Chaamba consider themselves Arab (more specifically, a branch of Banu Sulaym). However, the article also touches on their language:

«Les Cha’anba font partie de la majorité zénète de ce pays. Ils n’ont aucun mythe fondateur les rattachant aux ‘‘Arabes’’ ! Eux-mêmes ont été arabisés comme l’ont été les autres Zénètes, sauf à dire qu’ils expriment leur culture dans une des langues arabes qu’ils ont largement ‘‘zénétisée’’ dans la morphologie et la syntaxe.»
[The Sha'anba are part of the Zenati majority of this country. They have no foundation myth attaching them to the "Arabs"! They themselves have been Arabised like the other Zenatis, but that is only to say that they express their culture in one of the Arabic languages which they have extensively "Zenatified" in morphology and syntax.]

This is not correct. The dialect of the Chaamba is one of the few dialects of the Algerian Sahara for which a grammatical description has been published (Grand'Henry 1976), and its morphology, at least, is pretty well studied. Judging by this material, there is no discernible Zenata (or other Berber) influence on the morphology or syntax of the dialect at all. In this respect, it agrees with Algerian Arabic more generally. Very few dialects of Algerian Arabic show significant morphological influence from Berber; only a few areas, such as Jijel or Adrar, even have Berber plurals for nouns borrowed from Berber, and no dialect anywhere is reported to has borrowed Berber verbal morphology. Many dialects have a few abstract nouns in ta-...-t - usually with negative meanings - but this formation is hardly productive. Syntactic influence is plausible a priori, but has not been adequately demonstrated anywhere in Algerian Arabic (except Jijel), much less for the dialect of the Chaamba.

A better place to look for Berber influence in Algerian dialects, generally speaking, is phonology and vocabulary. In phonology, the phoneme and the merger of the short vowels can both plausibly - although not certainly - be attributed to Berber influence; however, it is unclear from Grand'Henry's rather poor description of the phonology whether even these apply in the Chaamba dialect. The vocabulary listed by Grand'Henry includes very few Berber loans, and most of the latter are pan-Algerian, eg həžžala "widow", atay "tea" (the latter ultimately from Chinese); the only rarer ones noted are two types of date, taqərbŭšt and tantmŭšt, which would naturally be easily borrowed from Berber-speaking oasis dwellers. On the basis of the available data, it's safe to say that the Zenati influence in the dialect of the Chaamba, like the Zenati influence in most Algerian dialects whether spoken by people of Berber ancestry or not, is very limited. It would be very interesting to study the extent of Berber influence in the Arabic spoken in different regions of Algeria, and how it varies. But such a study should not be expected to provide proof that Algerians in general, or any specific group of Algerians in particular, are of Amazigh ancestry. If for some reason you want to know about ancestry, ask a geneticist, not a linguist (nor, I would suggest, a sociologist).

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.

Saturday, March 07, 2015

Ibn Khaldun: Arabic dialects are independent languages

In Part 39 of the Muqaddimah, written in 1377, Ibn Khaldun discusses Arabic dialectology and language contact, reaching substantially correct conclusions marred only by the lack of attention to the role of purely internal developments in language change. The section is worth reading, if you haven't already come across it; it gives some idea of just how divergent the different Arabic "dialects" already were in his time. Like a lot of his work, if he had written it today, it would get many Arab nationalists up in arms! The translation is my own, and needs double-checking - appropriately, the Arabic of Ibn Khaldun is often difficult for modern Arabic readers.

"That the language of the city dwellers and townsmen is a language independent of the language of Mudar [Classical Arabic]

Know that the customary medium of discourse in the towns and among the city-dwellers is not the old language of Mudar, nor the language of the people of the generation (of Arabs). Rather, it is a different language, independent, and far from the language of Mudar and of this generation of Arabs in our time. Indeed, it is further from the language of Mudar (than the language of modern Arabs is).

The fact that it is an independent language is obvious; witness how many changes it has which grammarians consider as solecisms. Nevertheless, it varies in its expressions depending on the town. The language of the Mashriq is somewhat different from that of the Maghreb, and likewise that of Andalus from both. Yet each succeeds, with his own language, in realising his purpose and expressing what is within him. That is what is meant by "tongue" and "language". The loss of case-/mood-suffixes is not a problem for them, as we have already said regarding the Arabs of the present day.

As for the fact that it is further than the language of this generation (of Arabs) from the original language, that is because distance from the language depends on mixing with non-Arabness. The more one mixes with non-Arabs, the further one gets from the original tongue, because habits are acquired by learning, as we have said, and this (linguistic) habit is a mixture of the original habits which the Arabs had and the secondary habits which the non-Arabs had. So the more they hear it from non-Arabs and grow up with it, the further they get from the original habit.

You may observe this in the towns of Ifriqiya and the Maghreb and Andalus and the Mashriq:

  • As for Ifriqiya and the Maghreb, the Arabs there mixed with the non-Arab Berbers as they spread their civilisation among them. Hardly a town or a generation was isolated from them. Thus non-Arabness came to predominate over the Arab tongue which they had had. It became a different, mixed language, within which non-Arabness predominated for the reasons outlined. So it is further from the original tongue.
  • Likewise the Mashriq. When the Arabs prevailed over its nations, the Persians and the Turks, they mixed with them. Their languages then spread among them through the labourers and farmers and captives whom they took as servants and nannies and wet-nurses. As a result, their own language was corrupted by corruption of their (linguistic) habits, until it became a different language.
  • Likewise the people of Andalus, with the non-Arab Galicians and Franks.

All the people of the towns from these regions came to have a different language, specific to them and distinct from that of Mudar [=Classical Arabic], and distinct each from the other - as we shall recall. It is as if it were a different language due to their generations' mastery of the linguistic habit of it. And God creates and decrees what He will."

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Beni-Snous Berber

I have the pleasure of announcing that my article with Fatma Kherbache, Syntactically conditioned code-switching? The syntax of numerals in Beni-Snous Berber, has just been published online in the International Journal of Bilingualism. Long-term readers may recall that, five years ago now, I noticed an astonishing claim in Destaing's grammar of Beni-Snous Berber (spoken near Tlemcen, in western Algeria): that, with numerals above ten, they only used Arabic nouns. In this article, I finally try to get to the bottom of this, based both on Destaing's corpus and on data gathered by my co-author from the half-dozen or so last speakers; the real situation turns out to be a little more complicated than Destaing described, but his claim is correct as a statistical generalisation. Syntactically conditioned code-switching as a systematic part of otherwise monolingual discourse has rarely been described, but one other instance is reported – numeral+noun combinations in the Jerusalem dialect of Domari, an Indic language of the Levant spoken by the Dom "gypsies". Comparing the circumstances of switching in both languages supports the generalisation, building on Myers-Scotton's work, that syntactically conditioned code-switching (Matras' "bilingual suppletion") can only happen when a word shared by both languages has different selectional requirements in each language.

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.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Book out: Berber and Arabic in Siwa (Egypt)

I am very happy to announce here (a couple of days late) that my book Berber and Arabic in Siwa (Egypt) has now come out. The oasis of Siwa in Egypt, already famous in Classical times for its Oracle of Ammon, is by far the easternmost place where Berber is spoken. As a result of its isolation from the rest of Berber, and of a history that includes significant immigration and language shift, the Berber variety spoken there is highly distinctive (and not mutually comprehensible with Moroccan or Algerian Berber). On the one hand, some of the most persistent quirks of Berber grammar have been substantially simplified; on the other, even highly irregular core Berber morphology has been retained, and massive influence from Arabic – including the borrowing of productive root-pattern morphology – has generated new complexities. Based on part of my doctoral thesis but significantly expanded, this book:
  • proposes a classification of Siwi within Berber, and a corresponding probable account of where this Berber variety originated;
  • describes the grammar of Siwi, in greater detail than any previous work;
  • establishes how, and how much, long-term contact with Arabic has affected its grammar;
  • examines the dialectal affiliations of Arabic loans in Siwi, providing further evidence that this contact involved very different varieties at different periods;
  • provides a number of fully glossed Siwi texts of different genres, illustrating Siwi grammar and casting light on Siwi culture.

Thanks once again to everyone who helped in this process, and especially my friends in Siwa. To all those who find this sort of thing interesting, I hope the book comes in handy!

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.

Tuesday, November 05, 2013

APiCS online, ASJP

Any readers interested in pidgins, creoles, or mixed languages (one of those things is not like the others!) will want to know that the data for the Atlas of Pidgin and Creole Languages, APiCS, is finally online and publicly browsable. Think of it as WALS for pidgins and creoles, basically – lots of pretty maps, with the nice bonus that language-internal variation in features like word order can be represented proportionally by a pie graph instead of having to choose a single value per language.

Also released lately is the data underlying the ASJP (Automated Similarity Judgement Program). The program's results itself remain thoroughly unreliable as a guide to classification – as of the latest version, it auto-classifies Songhay with Masa (Chadic), Berber with East Chadic, Kanuri with various Biu-Mandara (Chadic) languages (and not with Teda-Daza), Turkic with some New Guinea language named Kuot, and Hebrew with Tigre and Tigrinya against the rest of Semitic. For low-level subgroupings they aren't always too bad, though – their Berber tree has become surprisingly plausible. In any event, having the data, you can analyse it yourself, or try running your own algorithms if you feel up to it...

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Adposition borrowing at SLE 2013

The Societas Linguistica Europae's annual conference finished today. The plethora of parallel sessions forced me to miss a lot of potentially interesting talks, but here are some highlights from the workshop I was participating in: adposition borrowing. This workshop was organised around a generalisation proposed by Edith Moravcsik 25 years ago, which has held up remarkably well (better than probably any other structure-based generalisation proposed about language contact):
"A lexical item that is of the 'grammatical' type (which type includes at least conjunctions and adpositions) cannot be included in the set of properties borrowed from a language unless the rule that determines its linear order with respect to its head is also borrowed." (source)
Eitan Grossman presented a number of apparent counterexamples – in fact, he reported that fully one-third of his sample of languages with borrowed adpositions displayed counterexamples. His effort to systematically test the hypothesis is laudable. However, the results cannot be taken at face value. Many examples, on closer examination, turn out to be amenable to one of three alternative explanations:
  1. The adposition was originally borrowed as a preposition, and turned into a postposition in the course of a more general typological realignment of the language. (This applies to Sri Lanka Malay dative nang, ultimately from a Javanese preposition; Authier et al. presented a new example, an apudlocative preposition possibly borrowed from Tatic into Georgian: Tatic (b)-tan N > old Georgian tan-a N > modern Georgian N-tan.)
  2. The source language order is not necessarily as postulated. (Thus the Khorasan Turkish postposition is assumed to be from Persian, in which it is a preposition, but could also derive from neighbouring Mazanderani, in which it is a postposition.)
  3. The "adposition" is also used without a complement in the source language (eg as a noun or adverb), and hence was not necessarily borrowed as an adposition. (This applies, for instance, to the Brahui postposition savā "without", connected at some remove to Persian سوا sevā "separate, other", or to the Manambu postposition wantaim "with", from Tok Pisin wantaim "together (adv.) / with (prep.)". In some cases the adverb is unambiguously the source, for instance Turkish raǧmen "despite", from the Arabic adverb raghman رغما rather than the preposition raghma رغم.)
1 and 2 merely illustrate the need for in-depth historical linguistic investigation of each case, which should go without saying. 3, however, is more interesting in principle. If an adposition can readily occur as a noun or adverb, are we justified in classing it as "of the 'grammatical' type"? The answer I gave in my presentation, before discussing the borrowing of adpositions in Northern Songhay, was: no. Not all adpositions are functional, as various authors have been pointing out since at least 1990, and we should not expect the generalisation to apply to lexical adpositions. In fact, we need at least a three-way distinction (cp. Littlefield 2005): purely functional adpositions such as of, in, to; purely lexical items used in complex adpositions such as front, back, middle (Svenonius's (2010) "axial parts"); and mixed items which simultaneously express the meanings of both a nominal/adverbial stem and a functional adposition governing it, such as beside (by the side of), inside (on the inside of). Functional adpositions should be subject to Moravcsik's generalisation; mixed items should be able to go both ways; and lexical items should be subject to the recipient language grammar alone. This proposal appears to eliminate all the few genuine exceptions to Moravcsik's generalisation so far proposed; however, it remains to be seen whether this criterion can be defined unambiguously for all adpositions in all languages.

Petros Karatsareas gave a nice summary of the situation in Cappadocian Greek (cf. Dawkins 1916), which has taken advantage of Greek's word order flexibility to move a long way towards developing postpositions; relational nouns which in Medieval Greek normally preceded their complement came to obligatorily follow it, yielding circumpositions (governing the genitive) whose prepositional component then became optional. This strategy was in turn used for borrowing Turkish adpositions.

Riho Grünthal pointed out the striking rarity of borrowed prepositions on Finno-Ugric, even in languages such as Finnish or Saami that (as a result of contact) have developed prepositions. This seems to confirm a point that I had also made in regard to Northern Songhay: that it's much easier to borrow adpositions when they have the same syntax in the source and target languages. He did find one or two cases, though, notably Livonian pa, from Latvian. Brigitte Pakendorf showed that Even borrows a fair number of Yakut postpositions (with varying degrees of acceptance among speakers), but no Russian prepositions, which at first sight seems to confirm the role of congruence even more. However, it's also true that Yakut has influenced Even much longer than Russian has.

Edith Moravcsik herself finally gave a summing-up address, in the form of an outline of relevant factors that need to be considered in the typology of adposition/case marker borrowing, with allusions to the talks given; she didn't focus particularly on her original generalisation, and she gave the impression of seeing it as being only statistically true in light of the proposed counterexamples.

I won't go into detail on the contributions that did not directly address Moravcsik's generalisation here, since this is already getting too long for a blog post, but some were also very interesting. Notably, Bakker and Hekking revealed that, whereas Quechua and Guarani make little use of Spanish adpositions, Otomí has massively adopted them – probably because Otomí, unlike the other two, had no morphemes serving such a function before contact, leaving it to context.

Much work remains to be done on the topic. Do you know any prepositions that have been borrowed as postpositions, or vice versa?

Saturday, August 17, 2013


I was recently involved in an online discussion of the origins of the greeting "Azul", which over the past few decades has become very popular in Berberist circles, and may even be in the process of replacing "Axir" as the normal Kabyle greeting. Apparently it was probably taken from a Zenaga word for "peace", azol, recorded by Faidherbe, rather than being created out of thin air (as some had assumed), or based on Tuareg (as I had assumed.) Be that as it may, I found one of the last comments on the thread particularly telling:
azul ou aqzul kif kif,l essentiel on a un propre salut en tamazight
(Azul or Aqzul, whatever; the important point is to have a greeting specific to Tamazight)
This motivation is obvious in Berber activists' language planning efforts, sometimes to an almost painful degree; English speakers may be satisfied to have a mathematical vocabulary made up almost entirely of Latin and Greek loanwords, but a mathematical lexicon (Amawal n tusnakt) was one of the very first targets of the Kabyle language movement, published back in 1984. It is equally obvious in the activity of the various Arabic language academies, who, while frequently unable to agree on a single translation of a technical term, can generally at least agree that it must look nothing like the English or French equivalent. And it can be felt even at a much less organised popular level; in Tabelbala, when one speaker gave me an Arabic loan as Korandjé, another would frequently pipe up with "No, that's Arabic, not Korandjé" – even in the case of loans as securely established as the higher numerals. And, while it may not be so active in modern Germany or Finland, its after-effects can still be seen there...

Now axir, while of Arabic origin (خير "good"), is not actually used on its own as a greeting in Arabic, and has a purely Berber prefix a- attached for good measure. The only reason that it can plausibly be targeted by activists for replacement is the fact that most Kabyle speakers know enough Arabic to spot the etymology. No one is clamoring to replace Punic loans (like agusim "walnut") with purely Berber terms – any more than Arabic academies are trying to replace Turkish loans like جمارك or Persian loans like جزر with purely Arabic terms.

In that sense, puristic replacement is just as much a product of language contact as borrowing itself is. If you find a language in which loanwords are being selectively targeted for replacement by neologisms, the one thing you can be almost sure of is that a significant number of speakers know the language those loanwords come from. Widespread bilingualism tends to make lexicon boundaries a bit fuzzy anyway – is such and such a rare word really part of language A, or just of language B? – and when people try to reaffirm the boundaries, they don't always agree on where to draw the lines.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Diversity in Islamic prayer names and its roots

(Traduction en français)

Practically all Muslims whatever their sect or language, and all Arabs, refer to the five daily prayers of Islam by versions of the same names: Fajr / Ṣubḥ before sunrise, Ḍhuhr at noon, `Aṣr in the afternoon, Maghrib at sunset, and `Ishā’ in the evening. West of Egypt, however, things look very different: there we often find quite different names for the five prayers. For example, contrast the familiar names above with those used in the largest Berber language, Shilha (southern Morocco): ṣṣbaḥ, tizwarn, takʷẓin, tiwutsh, and tin-yiḍs. Except for the first, there seems to be no relation.

However, Middle Eastern Islamic prayer names haven't always been so uniform. Al-Bukhārī reports the following hadith (#516):

“... from Sayyār b. Salamah: “My father and I entered into the presence of Abū Barzah al-’Aslamī. My father asked him: “How did the Messenger of God, blessings and peace be upon him, pray the prescribed (prayers)?” He replied: “He used to pray al-hajīr, which you (pl.) call al-’ūlā, when the sun declines (from the meridian), and pray al-‘aṣr such that one of us could return to his home at the far end of Medina while the sun was still lively.” I forget what he said about al-maghrib. “And he used to prefer to delay al-‘ishā’, which you (pl.) call al-‘atamah, and he used to hate sleeping before it or speaking after it. And he used to return from the ghadāt prayer when a person could recognise the one sitting next to him, and read sixty to a hundred (verses.)””
Siwi, the Berber language of Egypt, still uses a series of mostly Arabic-derived prayer names that might as well be taken straight from this hadith: they call the five prayers sra (morning), luli, la`ṣaṛ, mməghrəb, and l`ətmət. Traces of these names are found further afield too: in Songhay (Mali/Niger), Dhuhr is referred to as aluula.

It turns out that this hadith also explains the Shilha name for Dhuhr: tizwarn literally means "the first ones (f.)", a literal translation of Arabic al-’ūlā. This form is not just widespread in Berber, but is also (via Zenaga) the source for Wolof tisbaar. In Soninké, the language of the medieval Ghana Empire between Mauritania and Mali, another literal translation yields sállì-fànà (“prayer-first”), which has been borrowed into Bambara and many other West African languages.

A similar, much less well-sourced hadith (Maṣḥaf `Abd al-Razzāq 2067) likewise explains the Shilha name for Isha:

“From Yaḥyā b. al-‘Alā’, from al-A‘mash, from Abū Wā’il who said: I asked for Ḥuḏayfa, and he said: Why have you asked for me? I said: For conversation. He said: “‘Umar b. al-Khaṭṭāb, may God be pleased with him, used to warn against conversation after ṣalāt al-nawm (the sleep prayer).”
Comparison to other versions makes it clear that the prayer being referred to is Isha. As it happens, Shilha tin-yiḍs means, literally "that (f.) of sleep". This form is widespread in Berber, and was literally translated into Soninke as sákhú-fó (sákhú "sleep", fó "thing"). The resulting form was borrowed into Songhay (saafoo) and several other regional languages.

All of this tells us three things:

  • Berber Islamic terminology was created very early in Islamic history, before these variants disappeared from Arabic usage;
  • Soninké and Wolof speakers adopted Islam in large part from Berbers, not directly from Arabs;
  • Soninké speakers played an important role in the spread of Islam to other ethnic groups in Mali and Niger.
It also has a wider moral, though: that we shouldn't be too hasty to dismiss region-specific Islamic traditions as innovations.

(This post summarises about half of an article of mine which is forthcoming in the Bulletin of SOAS, under the title of "Archaic and innovative Islamic prayer names around the Sahara".)

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Arabic loanwords in "proto-Nilo-Saharan"

Ehret 2001 (or see looks at first sight like an astonishingly detailed reconstruction of Nilo-Saharan, with nice binary splits and loads of technology-related words for archeologists and anthropologists to sink their teeth into. Why shouldn't specialists take advantage of this amazing opportunity to correlate historical developments to linguistic ones?

I just found a handy answer to that question. Bender (1997:175ff) gives the 15 cognate sets in Ehret 2001 that are represented in the most sub-families of Nilo-Saharan. 3 of the 15 look distinctly like Arabic loans.

1387 *wàs “to grow large”: Fur wassiye “wide” and Songhay wásà “to be wide” are both from Arabic wāsi`- واسع. The other items cited – Ik “stand”, Kanuri “yawn”, Kunama “increase, augment”, and Uduk “to tassel, of corn” – are scarcely obvious candidates for being related to one another in the first place.

1297 *là:l “to call out (to someone)”: Kanuri làn “to abuse, curse” and Songhay láalí “to curse” are obviously from Arabic la`an- لعن; Kunama lal- “to denigrate” might be from the same source. That only leaves Uduk “to persuade, incite to do something” and Proto-Central-Sudanic “to call out”.

718 *t̪íwm “to finish, complete”: almost certainly Songhay tímmè “to be finished”, very likely Uduk t̪ím “to finish”, Ocolo t̪um “to finish”, and maybe even Fur time “total”, are from Arabic tamm- تمّ (impf. -timm-), as Bender (ibid:177) considers probable. That leaves Proto-Central-Sudanic, Kunama, and Maba “all”, Kanuri “ideophone of dying animal” (!), and Proto-Kuliak “buttocks”. The “all” set looks rather promising – the whole etymology, not so much.

There are plenty of other Arabic loanwords in Ehret's “Proto-Nilo-Saharan” – a particularly egregious example is Kanuri zàmzàmíyɑ̀ “leather bottle-shaped water vessel for journeys” (#1223 *zɛ̀m “to become damp, moist”), and other especially clear-cut cases include #1173 < sawṭ, #1185 < šamm – but the fact that they include a significant proportion of the best cognate sets is what really strikes me. If a reconstruction attempt can't distinguish a widely distributed recent loan from a cognate set that split more than eleven thousand years ago, any information it gives about readily diffused items like technologies is completely unreliable. For another review from a similar perspective, try Blench 2000 (not sure why it appeared a year before the book's nominal publication date...)

The more I read about Nilo-Saharan, the less convinced I am that it exists (much less that Songhay belongs to it.) That means the classification of the languages of quite a lot of Africa is basically up for grabs. It would be great to have a reexamination of the area.