Showing posts with label language endangerment. Show all posts
Showing posts with label language endangerment. Show all posts

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.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

From Figuig to Igli: Berber in the Algerian-Morocco borderland

The number of good Berber descriptive dictionaries has been slowly but steadily increasing in recent years, but Hassane Benamara's new Dictionnaire amazigh-français : Parler de Figuig et ses régions (Rabat: IRCAM, 2013), which I was lucky enough to be lent a copy of lately, is surely one of the best. Apart from being quite unusually large (800 pages), it incorporates examples, multiple senses, pictures of items difficult to describe, an appendix with encyclopedic information on culturally specific words such as festivals and childrens' games. It incorporates a few neologisms useful for schooling, but takes a fairly inclusive attitude towards Arabic loanwords. There are barely 15,000 people in Figuig, but, astonishingly enough, this is actually the second dictionary of Figuig Berber published by a native speaker; the first, Ali Sahli's معجم أمازيغي-عربي (خاص بلهجة أهالي فجيج) (Oujda: Al Anwar Al Maghribia, 2008), was a good effort, but is substantially shorter and used a less accurate transcription. (There's even another linguist from Figuig, Mohamed Yeou, threatening to make a third dictionary – if he goes ahead with the project, he'll have a high hurdle to clear.)

Across the border in Algeria, the situation is rather different. A number of towns across a wide area around Bechar and Ain Sefra speak Berber varieties closely related to that of Figuig, collectively imprecisely termed "Shelha". Some of them seem to be shifting to Arabic (on my latest trip, I was told that in Lahmar they had stopped speaking Berber with their children, and for Igli I had heard the same much earlier.) But little effort – and no official effort, as far as I know – is being made to document them. The only (very) partial exceptions of which I am aware are Igli and Boussemghoun.

For Igli (population 7000), I have already described the local Scouts' efforts to put together an online dictionary. More recently, however, I came across a laudable local attempt at approaching the problem academically: Fatima Mouili's The Berber Speech of Igli, Language towards Extinction. After a very brief summary of Igli grammar and phonology, unfortunately made frequently illegible by font problems, the author discusses the reasons for language shift. Corresponding to my impressions for the region, including Tabelbala, she cites emigration and the desire to ensure educational success as important drivers; others are more surprising, including the immigration of refugees expelled by the French from a nearby village during the Algerian War of Independence. Apparently, her thesis discusses similar issues, for those with 59€ to spare...

For Boussemghoun (population 4000), a few articles and a book by Mohamed Benali may be cited, all focusing – as far as I can see – exclusively on the sociolinguistic situation of Berber in the town. A local Berber-language poet billed as "the Ait Menguellet of Boussemghoun", Bashir Oulhaj, has a considerable presence on YouTube, eg here; he's even been interviewed, by Figuig News. It seems to be treated as the centre for Amazigh identity in the region; the HCA has even organised a symposium there. Nevertheless, little if any descriptive work has been published on its variety of Berber.

Taken together, there are probably more speakers of Berber in southwestern Algeria than in and around Figuig. Why the difference, then? Is it because linguistics is better represented in Moroccan universities than in Algerian ones? (Notwithstanding some interesting work coming out of Algeria, I think that is fair – it would be hard to think of any linguist working in Algeria with a profile comparable to Abdelkader Fassi Fehri, for example.) Or is it because the Amazigh movement in Morocco is less closely associated with one side in the "culture war"? (Benali observes that, while most Semghounis wanted Berber to be taught in schools, they rejected the installation of an HCA office due to distrusting their politics.) Or are there more specific, purely local factors explaining the difference? That would be worth a study in itself – though perhaps not as much so as the Berber varieties in question!

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Ethnologue update comments

Ethnologue recently announced an update. Since, at least online, they are the easiest to find and hence most commonly cited authority on worldwide language distribution, this merits some comment. They've made some improvements in North Africa, including a much prettier map. However, there still remain a fair number of errors. This is perhaps natural given that SIL, which produces Ethnologue, is basically a Christian missionary organisation and as such is unwelcome in a number of countries. (Why is there no neutral source doing something comparable, one might ask? UNESCO has attempted a language endangerment atlas, but sadly that one is both less complete and far less reliable.) However, quite a few errors could have been avoided simply by closer attention to sources.

In Algeria, they've updated the Korandjé entry with my population estimate and endangerment classification, and corrected the Tashelhiyt one based on my thesis - although they apparently couldn't be bothered to cite the source of this estimate! They've reclassified the Berber dialects of the Southwest (Boussemghoun, Igli, etc.) as Taznatit, along with the Berber of Timimoun; in previous editions, the former were classed as part of Moroccan Tashelhiyt. The new classification is rather more tenable than the old one, at any rate; the former dialects are not called "Taznatit" by their speakers, but they are rather closely related to it, and are not at all closely related to Moroccan Tashelhiyt.

There are still a fair number of errors, though: the Tarifit of Arzew became extinct a century ago (and there is no such place as "Alteria"); "Tamazight de l’Atlas blidéen" is rather more like Kabyle than like Chenoua, and is missing from their map; the boundaries they give for Kabyle are rather inflated, annexing the Arabic-speaking areas of the Boumerdes coast to the west and half of Jijel in the east; the enormous circle they draw for Teggargarent contrasts oddly with the tiny ones they draw for Korandjé and Temacine Tamazight, which in reality occupy comparable areas (perhaps this was to take into account Ngouça, but the latter oasis is even smaller than Ouargla); Hassaniyya Arabic is still missing even though it's the primary language of Tindouf; and the curiously precise boundaries they give for "Saharan Arabic" leave me baffled as to what this "language" is supposed to be. The "Algerian Arabic" dialect of Jijel or Skikda is far more different from the Algiers koine than the "Algerian Saharan Arabic" I heard in Bechar or Timimoun or Abadla; perhaps the dialect further east is more different, but the boundaries shown are indefensible. They also seem to have misunderstood the constitutional amendment: it's Tamazight in general that is legally a national language now, although it's admittedly Kabyle that benefits the most in practice.

In Morocco, they've belatedly figured out that Ghomara and Senhaja are still spoken - for the past several editions they've been labelled extinct - but according to the entry French has no presence in the Moroccan linguistic landscape, unlike Algeria or Tunisia. For Egypt, their map ignores Gara (the other oasis where Siwi is spoken), and their population figures for Siwi are extremely optimistic. For Libya, their map (unlike their text) ignores Zuwara, while grossly inflating Ghadames and Sokna (especially in contrast to Siwi, which actually occupies a much larger oasis). For Mauritania, they still include the apocryphal Imraguen "language", whose reported existence Catherine Taine-Cheikh deconstructs in a forthcoming article, and their population figures of Zenaga are mutually inconsistent bad guesses which should have been updated based on the introduction to the latter's Dictionnaire zénaga-français.

Monday, November 07, 2011


Sorosoro have just put up a webpage by me, giving a general picture of the language of Tabelbala: Korandje. It's also available in French and Spanish.

Friday, April 01, 2011

Tunisian Berber and language shift

It is not that easy to find information on Tunisian Berber, so I was quite happy to come across this PhD thesis free online: Berber ethnicity and language shift in Tunisia, by Hamza Belgacem. The author, himself from Douiret, estimates that only about 60,000 Tunisians still speak Berber, and the number is dropping as their children grow up speaking Arabic. He calls the surviving varieties Douiri, Cheninnaoui, Djerbi and Matmati, and argues that they together form a single Tunisian Berber "dialect" on a par with Kabyle or Tashelhiyt. (However, he offers no opinion on whether the extinct variety of Sened belongs with the rest, and forms this opinion on the basis of comparison to Kabyle and Moroccan varieties, but not Tumzabt or Chaoui or other geographically closer varieties.) This Berber community of southern Tunisia represent the remnants of a mostly Arabised tribal confederation, the Ouerghemma, which controlled much of southern Tunisia and parts of what became northwestern Libya until the French conquest.

He paints an interesting picture of a small minority language under the impact of modernity. Traditionally, the language was preserved by a number of factors tying the community together and excluding outsiders. The women of each community would marry only within it - not just among the Ibadis, but within the Maliki villages as well (as formerly in Siwa.) Some testimonies suggest that land was not sold to outsiders (a claim I also heard about Berber-speaking villages around Bechar.) Such ties are being loosened by modernity, as people emigrate and marry out and as the national state has taken on a more active role in the community with compulsory education and mass media. On the other hand, modernity, in the form of international media, also exposes the young to pan-Berber, or at least pro-Berber, ideologies, counteracting the low value placed on it in the national context.

Berber, and more specifically village, identity seems to have been maintained, with emigrants to Tunis maintaining close ties with other emigrants from the same village. But in terms of language, the balance seems to have tipped against Berber throughout Tunisia: "Some children of five years old could not utter a coherent sentence in TuB... Hardly any Tunisian Berbers under 30 speak TuB fluently but they may be able to utter a few words or understand what is said in Berber... hardly anyone under 10 years of age uses or knows TuB except for a few words or expressions", although there reportedly remain "certain clans, where the whole population still speak TuB, including all the children." There are a couple of pithy quotes from interviewees expressing why this happened: "Our language is excellent but it does not put bread on the table", "Our children are reluctant to speak our language outside the home because the other children of Arabophones laugh at them." The author suggests that Berber may survive in Tunisia if attitudes towards Berber continue to grow more positive, but that strikes me as a bit optimistic given his observations - which adds to the urgency of producing a decent description of the language.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Reporting language "discovery"

Turning on the BBC yesterday, I was surprised to hear a descriptive linguistics story, about the "discovery" by linguists on the Enduring Voices project of a previously unknown Tibeto-Burman language called Koro in Arunachal Pradesh: Indian language is new to science. Insofar as one can judge from the report, it sounds like Koro is clearly distinct from its neighbours rather than being an ambiguous dialect-continuum case, so this should be interesting for comparative Tibeto-Burman.

What struck my attention most is that this made it into the news! There have been a couple of discoveries of new languages in Africa over the past decade or so - Baka, for example, and Tondi Songhay Kiini. And the belated realisation that Bangime is a clear isolate, rather than a dialect of "Dogon", actually reshapes our picture of West African linguistic history much more than finding any of these languages has. Where was the news coverage of these? Have media attitudes towards the newsworthiness of "new" languages changed? Is it because they're in Africa? Or did the linguists in question simply not issue any handy press releases? Publicity is a hassle, frankly, and no one wants to sound like they're playing Indiana Jones. But stories like these are a big part of what gets people interested in linguistics in the first place, and the general public who fund most linguistic work, whether through taxes or donations, need to know what they're getting for their money.

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Religious origins of the "Welsh Not"?

A well-known weapon in the arsenal deployed by educational systems the world over against local languages was what in the UK used to be called the Welsh Not - a piece of wood hung around the neck of a student caught speaking their own language, and passed on through the day to anyone that student heard speaking their language, so that whoever was wearing it at the end of the day would be punished. At a talk yesterday I heard that the same idea was implemented in Japan (against Ryukyuan languages) and Sudan (against Nubian.) Coincidentally, I just came across an account that gives interesting insight into the origins of this oppressive practice:
"With a general consent of all our company, it was ordained that there should be a palmer or ferula which should be in the keeping of him who was taken with an oath; and that he who had the palmer should give to every one that he took swearing, a palmada with it and the ferula; and whosoever at the time of evening or morning prayer was found to have the palmer, should have three blows given him by the captain or the master; and that he should still be bound to free himself by taking another, or else to run in danger of continuing the penalty, which, being executed a few days, reformed the vice, so that in three days together was not one oath heard to be sworn."The Observations of Sir Richard Hawkins, Knt in his voyage into the South Sea in the year 1593
Hard to imagine a ship full of sailors submitting to such a practice! But was this the original purpose of the Welsh Not? It would be interesting to find out. If anyone has an older citation to compare, I'd love to see it.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Endangered languages on Aljazeera

Aljazeera English is doing an interesting series on language endangerment and revitalisation:
* Language on the brink, talking with the last speaker of Wichita.
* Saving the language of the Cherokee, in Tahlequah
* French region aims to save language, on Breton
* Turkey's fading linguistic heritage and Saving Turkey's Laz language, on Laz (a close relative of Georgian, not "an ancient tongue that bears no resemblance to any other language in the region".)
* Circassians in bid to save language in Jordan - at a talk this week by Enam al-Wer I heard that, at the start of the twentieth century, the only permanent population in Amman was Circassian.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Language endangerment: thoughts from Igli

I recently found a forum for the town of Igli, about 150 km north of Tabelbala as the crow flies. Igli's traditional language is a Berber variety called "Tabeldit", or in Arabic "Shelha" شلحة, reasonably close to the better-documented dialect of Figuig across the border but with significant differences (such as the first person singular in -ɛ rather than -γ.) In Igli, it is at least as endangered as Kwarandzyey, and is likely to disappear in another couple of generations - although I was told that it is doing better in the small neighbouring town of Mazzer. I think the reason, as in Tabelbala, is that parents started speaking only Arabic to their kids in the hope of giving them a head start in school, but all I know about Igli I heard from Glaouis in other towns. In situations like this, speakers inevitably see their language's disappearance with mixed feelings, and the following pair of posts forms a microcosm of the global language preservation debate:
The "Xiṭ Azugar" Project (posted by Shayma)

"Tabeldit Shelha is part of the fragrance of the Saoura region... a treasure inherited from our ancestors. Shall we preserve it, or let it disappear before our eyes?.... A secret weapon that saved some of us from death. How long will we remain with our hands tied as our language disappears before our eyes? Until when, until when?

I hope that these words have awakened your sleeping hearts and moved your sentiments. Therefore I present to you today this project, consisting of the establishment of an "Arabic-Shelha" dictionary to preserve our language. Therefore I ask the director and administrators and even the members to study this project; if you accept the idea, then let's start to lay down precise plans to overcome difficulties... and if you don't accept the suggestion, then we will do our ancestors an injustice... I urge you to take the matter seriously. To the administration, and all the members, let us put hand in hand. No more lamentation over Shelha, that doesn't help. What helps is effective work.

Forgive me for my harsh words, and I hope you accept the idea. The project is called "Xiṭ azugar" for historical reasons, because these words have saved a person from certain death.
This suggestion was acclaimed and adopted, and there is now a small Arabic-Shelha Dictionary forum. However, there was also some scepticism - the following post started a vigorous debate:
What would we lose if Shelha becomes extinct? (posted by igliab)

Following the increased concern with the local dialect "Shelha" from the brother members, for which thanks are due, I decided to pose the following question: What would we lose if this dialect became extinct?

It's not a language of civilisation, nor a language of science. And supposing we are able to make an "Arabic-Shelha" dictionary and lay down the rules for this language, will our sons agree to learn it? What would the motive be? It's not used at home, nor in public places. Or do we want to put it in museums and say we have "saved" it?

Moreover, by my reckoning those who speak it today are:
90% old men - 8% middle-aged men - 1.5% youths - 0.5% children. Admittedly I haven't made a study to come up with these figures but it could be worse than I anticipate, so it can be said that Shelha has no future in Igli.

I also told myself that if everyone thought the way I think then they would put down their pens and wait for the demise of Shelha, the way an ill man who has despaired of his state waits for death. But I rethought the issue, this time positively, and realised the need to put together a plan for its preservation. But what is the point of solutions if there is no logical, powerful reason, so the first question we have to answer is: why should we preserve Shelha? I urge the brothers to think deeply about this issue and put sentiments aside.
What would your thoughts be? Have you had a parallel experience?

Thursday, April 23, 2009

"Political complexity predicts the spread of ethnolinguistic groups"

An interesting paper: Political complexity predicts the spread of ethnolinguistic groups. Two basically unsurprising claims that it's good to have calculations supporting: "pastoralists were found to have larger language areas than agriculturalists" and "languages associated with more politically complex societies cover significantly larger areas than those of less complex societies". They also present arguments that "although regions of high biological and cultural diversity do overlap to a striking degree, it is unlikely that biological diversity has any direct effect on cultural diversity on a global scale." Surprisingly, mountainousness was found to correlate with larger language areas, not smaller ones - seems a little suspicious that, though some mountainous areas are pretty un-diverse. Flaws: well, it relies on Ethnologue data and GMI maps, both of which are often unreliable, and systematically more splittist in some areas than in others; but it's not obvious that that would substantially affect the result. Also, ethnic groups, languages, and political units very often don't match up, and their measure of political complexity is based on data for ethnic groups rather than for languages.

(Via GNXP.)

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Beni-Snous: Two unrelated phonetic forms for every noun?

I got flabberghasted recently by a casual statement in Destaing (1907:212)'s grammar of the Berber dialect of Beni Snous in western Algeria (near Tlemcen). I nearly missed it as I skimmed it; see if you can spot it. (The translation is mine, as are the bits in brackets.) All the numerals above 1 are from Arabic here, but that's nothing surprising - the same is true in Tarifit, and few Berber varieties have retained the numbers above 3.
"The numbers from 2 to 9 inclusive are followed by the Berber noun in the plural [eg]:

two men ..... θnāịẹ́n ịírgǟzĕn
six women ... sttá n tsénnạ̄n

From "10" to "19" inclusive, the number is followed by the Arabic singular substantive:

eleven women ... aḥdăɛâš ĕrmra (Algerian Arabic mṛa "woman" مرة; contrast Beni Snous Berber θä́mĕṭṭūθ "woman")
fifteen cows ... ḫamstaɛâš ĕrbégra (Algerian Arabic bəgṛa "cow" بڨرة)
sixteen mares ... sttɛâš ĕrɛấuda (Algerian Arabic `əwda "mare" عودة; contrast Beni Snous Berber θáimārθ "mare")

After the number nouns "twenty, thirty, forty" etc., one uses the Arabic substantive[...]

twenty women ... ɛašrîn ĕmra
fifty mules ... ḫamsîn beγla (Algerian Arabic bəγla بغلة "mule")

a thousand rams: âlĕf kebš (Algerian Arabic kəbš كبش "ram"; contrast Beni Snous Berber išérri "ram")"

If I thought it were remotely possible for Destaing's claim to be true of counting every noun in the language - rather than, say, just the six nouns he gives appropriate examples for - I would be putting together an application to head out to Tlemcen instead of making this posting. (I might still do that anyway some time, mind you.) But for rather a lot of minority languages, all or nearly all speakers are bilingual. And if all speakers are bilingual, what in principle is there to prevent the grammar from containing a rule like this?

So I ask: have you ever come across anything similar elsewhere?

Saturday, March 07, 2009

Tawalt closing down

Tawalt is a nine-year-old Libya-focused Amazigh/Berber website with a remarkable collection of audio recordings, sketch grammars, vocabularies, and resources for some of the least well documented Berber languages - those of Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt. It is thus rather a shame that Tawalt is shutting down - updates stopping immediately, and site to go down by the end of the year. Sure, the Wayback Machine should preserve all the texts on it - but not its remarkable audio archives (which have already disappeared from the main page.) Their plans are probably related to political problems - the site's political postings had gotten rather outspoken. If you have any interest in Berber linguistics, I suggest looking around now before it disappears...

Saturday, January 05, 2008

Colour vision and language shift

In a brief Edge article (see LH), Lera Boroditsky makes the thought-provoking remark - regarding perception of colours - that “It turns out that languages meddle in very low-level aspects of perception, and without our knowledge or consent shape the very nuts and bolts of how we see the world.” If this is so, what happens when pretty much every speaker of a given language is also fluently bilingual in another one which divides up the spectrum (or indeed the world) differently - as has been the case here in Tabelbala for at least two generations? As it happens, some of my recent work here points to an answer.

I've recently been examining the colour system of Kwarandjie, trying out the second half of the Berlin and Kay tests (focus identification) with a number of speakers (well, 13 so far.) Of course, like all speakers of Kwarandjie, they are bilingual in Algerian Arabic; in fact, many of the speakers tested speak Arabic better than Kwarandjie. The colours they see turn out to be remarkably consistent, with more or less the same foci from speaker to speaker: black, white, red, yellow, green, and blue (as well as some secondary colours, most commonly pink (Arabic wəṛdi or, in reference to a darker shade, ħənnawi), that are less widely agreed on.) However, the words used to refer to “green” and “blue” show significant variation. For some speakers, zəgzəg means “blue” and “green” is (Arabic) xḍəṛ; for others, zəgzəg means “green”, and “blue” is (Arabic) ẓərrig!

It doesn't require too much speculation to think up a scenario to explain this. A few generations back, Kwarandjie must have had a five-colour system, featuring (like Japanese aoi, for example) a colour zəgzəg which covered both green and blue, whose focus was somewhere between the two. As speakers grew more fluent in Arabic, this focus split; they came to see both green and blue. Depending on whether they more frequently heard older speakers refer to, for example, plants or the sky as zəgzəg, they decided it meant one colour or the other, and gave the other colour an Arabic name; but different choices were made in different families. In the coming weeks I hope to gather more evidence on the issue - in particular, to learn whether even older speakers than those examined see a single colour grue or not.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

"The inadequacy of traditional Islamic languages"

A Pakistani physicist weighs in on the state of science in the Islamic world in Physics Today, a magazine I used to subscribe to during the very brief period when I was doing physics at university. The article's quality is variable; he makes some good points (like the alarming publication and patent statistics, and the way that authoritarian attitudes inhibit hypothesis forming), but also some poor ones (his Bourguiba-esque suggestion that fasting and prayer are incompatible with hard work, for example, is laughable.) Anyway, he throws in an observation on language worth discussing:
Second, the inadequacy of traditional Islamic languages—Arabic, Persian, Urdu—is an important contributory reason. About 80% of the world's scientific literature appears first in English, and few traditional languages in the developing world have adequately adapted to new linguistic demands.
In what sense can a language be inadequate for a purpose? What I take him to be referring to is the inadequacy of technical terminology. Specialists in any field have to learn a set of fairly complicated ideas to which they can refer concisely and unambiguously (phoneme, wh-movement, coronal, theta-role; integration, isomorphism, standard deviation...) Such terms often do not refer to anything normally noticed by people, and therefore have no equivalent in any language until one is created or borrowed. Various specialists or committees have undertaken to create such terms (in Arabic, at least, they generally eschew the idea of borrowing them.) But in many cases a chaos of alternative terms is spread. For "linguistics" alone, different Arabic dictionaries will suggest اللسانيات، الألسنيات، اللغويات، علم اللغة, and even other terms. I have three dictionaries of linguistic terminology in Arabic sitting on my shelf; randomly looking up "retroflex", for example, I find ارتدادي، التوائي، انقلابي all given as translations.

One might expect that the efforts of specialists to communicate with each other would end this problem, with the community of linguists (say) rapidly converging on a single term and abandoning the rest, just as such synonyms for "retroflex" as "cerebral" or "cacuminal" have largely disappeared in English. But there we have a vicious circle. At present, to be a good specialist in many fields, you need to have studied them in some Western language, and to be following a literature on them that's largely in a Western language, and to be communicating with colleagues who mostly speak that same language. In fact, given how little on average is spent on research in the Islamic world, in many such fields the odds are high that you won't even be able to find employment without going to or staying in the West, further reducing your opportunities to talk about, or teach, the subject in your own language - and if you do stay in your own country, you may find that specialist terminology dictionaries, especially those printed in other countries, are hard to find. So if ambiguities or misunderstandings come up, the easy thing to do is to switch to English or French or the like; the ideological incentive to use your own language is not supplemented by any significant material or practical incentive. And thus the language gets slowly pressured out of another domain. It's not inevitable, but to change it you'd have to create more incentives and more opportunities for people to stay and to teach in their own countries.

Of course, for Arabic in particular but to a lesser extent for Urdu and Persian, there is a second factor to be considered: diglossia, the wide gap between the language spoken in everyday conversation and the one considered suitable for writing or teaching in. This in itself has some negative implications for teaching science, although the obstacles it sets up to participation by the masses are far less than those that use of an unrelated foreign language like English or French does. But that is another topic for another time.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Back from CamLing

I'm just back from a linguistics conference in Cambridge, CamLing 2007, where I presented a talk on number borrowing in Berber. If you missed it, you can view the slides at my homepage.

The conference was interesting, and I won't go into too much detail on it, but one thing I was surprised and saddened to learn (from Mary Ochoa) was that Yucatec Maya, one of the largest Maya languages, is extremely threatened. It has nearly a million speakers, but, except in the remotest villages, practically all Yucatec children are being spoken to exclusively in Spanish by their parents. Some parents even tell their children not to speak Yucatec or they'll punish them. Like Navajo, another Native American language that was flourishing until lately, it seems to be headed for a massive, rapid decline over the next fifty years.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Zenaga and Mauritania

Mauritania deserves some attention this week. On the rare occasions when it makes Western headlines, it's generally for slavery or famine, but this week it's distinguishing itself in a rather nobler fashion: holding its first free presidential elections. This is all the more remarkable because it comes some months after a military coup deposing the dictator who ruled Mauritania for 21 years, Maaouya Ould Taya; is it possible that a coup leader actually wants to step down in favour of an elected government? One can but hope that the appearance corresponds to the reality...

Anyway, in commemmoration of this event, I will talk a little about Zenaga this week. Zenaga is the nearly-extinct Berber language of Mauritania. Until about five hundred years ago it was spoken throughout most of the country; its ancestor would have been the language of the Almoravids. However, after the main Berber tribe, the Lamtuna, was defeated by the Arab Beni Ma`qil, most tribes gradually shifted to Hassaniya Arabic, which itself came to contain numerous Zenaga loanwords. The "marabout" tribes, those specialising in Islamic religious learning, retained Zenaga longest, and to this day it continues to be used, at least by the elderly, in a few areas near the southern Atlantic coast. It is remarkably divergent from other Berber varieties, due partly to a number of sound shifts (x > k, l > dj) and partly to a rather different vocabulary, incorporating words rare elsewhere in Berber along with Wolof and Pulaar loanwords. In addition to influencing Hassaniya Arabic, it has also contributed a number of loanwords to the Azer dialect of Soninke, and several words - notably the words for three of the five prayer times, and some religious holidays - to Wolof. Catherine Taine-Cheikh has been doing some documentation of it.

At least one of the few books on this language is available online: Le Zénaga des tribus sénégalaises, by General Faidherbe - although, chillingly, the author dedicates it to the genocidal mass murderer King Leopold II.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Tamazight near Blida (Algeria)

A friend of mine alerted me to an interesting article in Ech Chorouk (3/3/2007): Beni Mesra - the forgotten people of the Blida Atlas. It describes a rural area near Blida where a Berber language was spoken within living memory, and is still spoken by the older generation. Dispersed first by the French counterinsurgency policy of forcing the inhabitants of many rural areas off their land during the War of Independence, and again by the violence of the civil war of the 1990s - to say nothing of the economic incentives to leave the area - their problems are tragically typical of much of rural Algeria. However, it is their nearly-vanished language which is of particular interest here; they represent a last survival of Tamazight in the otherwise entirely Arabic-speaking region south of Algiers. The author, Mohamed Arezki Ferad (who has written a book on the Tamazight of Tipasa), states:
‬ ومما لا شك فيه، أن مأساة بني مصرا لم تنحصر في الجانب الاجتماعي فقط بل امتدت إلى موروثهم الثقافي الأمازيغي الذي ضاع منهم لهجرتهم وتشتتهم في شتى التجمعات السكانية في سهل متيجة بفعل جرائم الاستعمار الفرنسي خاصة خلال ثورة نوفمبر، ثم جاءت أحداث الإرهاب الأعمى لتفرغ‮ ‬عرش‮ ‬بني‮ ‬مصرا‮ ‬نهائيا‮ ‬من‮ ‬سكانه‮ ‬بنزوح‮ ‬سكان‮ ‬قرية‮ »‬يما‮ ‬حليمة‮« ‬المقدر‮ ‬عددهم‮ ‬حوالي‮ ‬200‮ ‬عائلة‮ ‬سنة‮ ‬1996م‮.

وإذا كانت الأمازيغية قد ضمرت إلى درجة أنها لم تعد لغة التواصل لدى جيل الاستقلال، فإنها مازالت حية ترزق على صعيد أسماء الأماكن المتداولة حتى في أوساط الشباب يحمل معظمها معاني الحقل (إقر) العين (ثلا) والثنية (تيزي) والسهل (الوضا) أو (أقني) نذكر منها: ثالة أقنتور/ ثيزي علي/ ثامده أوقني/ ذفير لوضا/ لعزيب/ أحلوق/ ثاحامولت/ آيث غرورة/ يما حليمة/ ثلايلف/ إسبغان/ ثاقاديرث/ آيت أعمرولحاج/ أبريذ إخوان/ ثيزي وزال/ إقر أوزار/ إخف إقر/ إكر تازارت/ إغزر أوشاش/ إغيل أحروش/ ثيقرت وذغاغ/ ثلا أو مكراز/ إغيل أشكير/ ثاوريرث/ ثامرزوقث/ ثيزي أتسيثان. وحسب الحوار الذي جرى بيني وبين أهل بني مصرا، فإن لهجتهم الأمازيغية قريبة جدا من لسان القبائل الكبرى ولا تختلف عنها إلا في بعض الكلمات القليلة أذكر منها: أذر (البلوط) أحزاو (الطفل).

There is no doubt that the Beni Mesra's plight was not limited to the social side alone, but extended to their Amazigh cultural heritage, which was lost to them due to their migration and dispersal in various settlement centres on the Mitidja plain through the crimes of the French colonisation, particularly during the November Revolution; then blind terrorism came to finally empty the Beni Misra's land of its inhabitants, with the emigration of the inhabitants of Yemma Halima, who numbered 200 families in 1996.

And even if Tamazight has declined to the point that it has not remained the language of communication for the Independence generation, it is still alive and well on the level of placenames used even among the youth, most meaning field (iger), spring (tala), pass (tizi), plain (luḍa, ag°ni), of which we name: Tala Ugentur, Tizi Ɛli, Tamda Ugni, Deffir Luḍa, Laɛzib, Aḥluq, Taḥamult, Ayt Гrura, Yemma Ḥlima, Tala Ilef, Isebγan, Tagadirt, Ayt A`mer Elḥaj, Abrid Ixwan, Tizi Uzzal, Iger Uzar, Ixf Iger, Iger Tazart, Iγzer Ucac, Iγil Aḥruc, Tigert Udγaγ, Tala Umekraz, Iγil Ackir, Tawrirt, Tamerzugt, Tizi Atsitan. And according to discussion between me and the people of Beni Mesra, their Tamazight dialect is very close to the language of Grande Kabylie, and differs from it only in a few words, including: ader (acorn), aḥzaw (child).
Earlier he gives an example of the dialect:

وقد علق أحد المواطنين الذي بدت عليه مسحة الحزن والمرارة على وضع المصراويين المأساوي، باللسان الأمازيغي ما معناه: إن الكثير من الجزائريين الذين تبوّأوا مراتب عليا في دواليب الدولة قد أنستهم تخمة المناصب ما للشهداء من فضل وما لأفراد الشعب المنسي من دور في وصولهم إلى مراتب المسؤولية، لذلك أداروا ظهورهم لمن صنع ملحمة النصر (يتشور أوعبوظيس، يتسو ذفيريس).

One of the locals, upon whom the signs of sadness and bitterness over the terrible plight of the Mesraouis were apparent, commented in the Tamazight language that many Algerians who have reached high state positions, satisfied with rank, forget the preference due to the martyrs (of the revolution) and the role of the forgotten members of the people in their reaching positions of responsibility, so they turned their backs on those who made the battlefield of victory (yeččur uɛebbuḍ-is, yettsu deffir-is.)

Friday, March 02, 2007

Destroying Harsusi

I just came across some incredibly unenlightened reporting from Al Watan on one of the more endangered South Arabian languages (not, pace the article, a dialect of Arabic - in fact, it's less closely related to Arabic than Syriac or Hebrew are):

وتحدثنا المعلمة شيخة بنت راشد الهنائي إحدى المشرفات على الفصل التمهيدي ومعلمة مادة التربية الإسلامية بالمدرسة قائلة : الفصول التمهيدية التي سعت إدارة التربية والتعليم بالمنطقة بتنفيذه في مدارسها وللعام الثاني على التوالي يأتي بالعديد من الأهداف والتي تتمحور في الأساس لتشمل فئة من الأطفال الذين يتوقع التحاقهم بالصف الأول الأساسي في العام الدراسي القادم حيث تأتي في مقدمة هذه الأهداف تعويد الطالب على الجو المدرسي من خلال طابور الصباح والانخراط مع الطلبة في المدرسة والفصل الدراسي وتأقلمهم مع المعلمة داخل القاعة الدراسية وغرس التعاون والجو الاجتماعي في نفس الطالب قبل دخوله المدرسة وإكساب الطلبة العديد من المهارات في القراءة والكتابة والعمليات الحسابية وكذلك العمل على القضاء على اللهجة السائدة والطاغية على أهالي هيماء وهي اللهجة الحرسوسية من خلال الحروف والكلمات العربية الصحيحة لأنه في الحقيقة تواجه إدارة المدرسة عند التحاق الطلبة في الصف الأول مشكلة فتجد المعلمة الصعوبة في تفهم هؤلاء الطلبة من خلال هذه اللهجة الحرسوسية
"The teacher of Islamic Upbringing at the school, Sheikha bint Rashid al-Hana'i [s]aid: "The preschools that the Ministry of Education in the area has undertaken to implement in its schools for the second year running will bring about a variety of goals [...] the children will gain many skills in reading, writing, and arithmetic, and we will work on destroying the dialect which is prevalent and rife among the inhabitants of Hayma, the Harsusi dialect, through correct Arabic letters and words, because it truly presents the school administration with a problem when the students enter first grade, because the teacher finds it difficult to understand these students in this Harsusi dialect." (Al Watan, 15 Apr 2005)
I wonder if her echo of the language policies that half-destroyed Welsh or Native American languages is conscious. Somebody get over there and make some recordings of Harsusi before people like this manage to implement these goals!

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Arabic threatened in Qatar?

In a development that doesn't surprise me but will probably surprise anyone who hasn't been following developments in the Gulf, an educationalist is warning that Arabic is threatened in Qatar, and some Arab children are growing up not speaking it. Recall that Qataris are a rather small minority in Qatar, outnumbered by guest workers from all over the world, mainly from South Asia (especially Kerala), the Arab world, and the Philippines. English has become very much a lingua franca there, and much of the population speaks it far better than Arabic, if they speak Arabic at all.

Qatari children's exposure to English often begins soon after birth, with the hiring of a nanny who is unlikely to speak much if any Arabic, and certain not to speak the Gulf dialect - or as Ms. Al Misnad put it, "the education of the children is left to foreign housemaids, who teach their own language and customs." It continues at school, where about two-thirds of their fellow students are non-Qatari (in practice probably less, due to many expat kids attending expat schools); English is a mandatory subject from first grade up, and the many American universities opening campuses in Qatar are commonly English-medium (for instance, CMU.) In short, it's easy to lead a fairly full life in Qatar with little Arabic, and easy to envision Qatari kids of this generation acquiring English natively.

However, apart from other issues like not giving any statistics or details, the article suffers from the common conflation of classical and colloquial Arabic. "In addition, parents would rather talk to their children in the dialect of their country of origin rather than in classical Arabic, a factor which is also contributing to a general decline in the understanding of the classical language" - as if parents have ever talked to their children in classical Arabic for the past millennium, or as if it were desirable that the children should grow up not speaking their own dialects!

Friday, August 04, 2006

Kurdish giving way to Turkish in some areas?

Found a telling first-hand account of language shift. I had no idea the last decade or two had made such a difference.

until the end of 1980s the kurdish language was still preserved, because the kurds were still in their villages [...] most of them would not know one single word turkish and the women, in specific, did not know one single word turkish! [...] but at the beginning of 1990s, and since then going on, we have been losing the kurdish language [...] and it is mainly because around four or some say five thousand kurdish villages were forcibly evacuated, i should use "they were destroyed by the turkish army" instead. and more than three million people(kurds) were displaced! and of course it had its consequences! [...]

all the kurds started to go to school, where they would only speak turkish, and if, in any way someone were to speak kurdish s/he would punished for speaking kurdish and this way it would have a deterring effect on the other children(students) as well! kurdish students were despised and made fun of because of their accent so the families of those kurdish students thought that if they spoke only turkish at home it would help their children and they would be able to speak turkish better, and nobody would be able to fun of them. [...]

they only watched the turkish tv channels! and especially the mothers were very badly affected by this, because they wree the ones who would stay at home and when they did not have anything to do they would watch the tv and improve their turkish, but after a while they started to use turkish words while speaking kurdish, keep in mind that their children were not taught kurdish, so even if some of those children wanted to learn kurdish they would learn it wrong because their parents would not speak appropriate kurdish! i still cant believe that some kurds would say "qapi qepamiş bike" for "close the door" in kurdish: i have a very hard time understanding this, qepi originally is kapı(it is pronounced liek qepi in kurdish) "qepamiş" means nothing, it is supposed to mean "close", they combine turkish root of "to close" and add a kurdish suffix to it and make it kurdish. when i see people using those words, and killing kurdish it really hurts me very badly!

The extreme borrowing is an interesting point - and probably a universal of low-status languages. I can sympathise - excessively Frenchified Arabic really grates on my ears...