Thursday, October 12, 2017

Shoes in Songhay and West Chadic: towards an etymology

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, September 15, 2017

Berber and not so Berber words in Tunisian Arabic

Not too long ago I finished reading Lotfi Sayahi's Diglossia and Language Contact: Language Variation and Change in North Africa. The book is a valuable contribution to the study of synchronic language contact between Tunisian Arabic, Standard Arabic, and French in Tunisia, with some coverage of the rest of the region as well. Unfortunately, when it briefly looks at Berber lexical influence on Arabic (pp. 135, 187), reflecting joint work with Zouhir Gabsi, its conclusions are rather over-hasty. Since this book is likely to become a standard point of departure for English speakers studying language contact in North Africa, I think it's worth correcting the record here even at the risk of being pedantic:
  • fakru:n "turtle" and ferzazzu "wasp" really are Berber, though the -u:n suffix in the former was first added in dialectal Arabic (almost all Berber varieties have forms similar to Kabyle ifker/ikfer).
  • garžu:ma "throat" is a very difficult word to etymologize, but may ultimately be Berber (compare Tuareg a-gurzăy), although it does bring to mind Romance forms such as French gorge.
  • karmu:s "fig" is clearly derived from karm-a "fig tree", which is definitely not Berber, and seems to come from a narrowing of the meaning of Classical Arabic كرم karm "orchard" (see the brief discussion in Behnstedt & Woidich 2011:491). The suffix -u:s might theoretically be Berber, I suppose, but probably not; it's not widely attested across Berber, and it fits well with the widespread dialectal Arabic pattern of augmentatives in -u:-.
  • sebsi: "pipe" is from Turkish sipsi.
  • bu-telli:s "monster/nightmare" ("sleep paralysis", to be precise) is a compound involving bu- "possessor of" (originally "father of") plus telli:s (a kind of rug). The latter is well-attested within Arabic in the Middle East as well as in North Africa; its etymology is controversial, but it may derive from Latin trilicium "triple-twilled fabric".
  • ḍabbu:ṭ "axilla" (ie "armpit") is evidently an expressive formation from Arabic إبط 'ibṭ. The widespread Berber word for this is rather taddeɣt (from which we get Maghrebi Arabic dəɣdəɣ "tickle").
  • dagdag "to shatter" is a reduplicated form from Arabic دقّ daqqa "pulverize".

I don't have the time to check the rest of the reduplicated verbs he cites (tartar "to mutter", dardar "to muddy", maxmax "to nibble", maṣmaṣ "to rinse", sɛksɛk "to flow", tɛftɛf "to graze", and wɛdwɛd "to talk nonsense"), but maxmax and maṣmaṣ include phonemes with no regular proto-Berber sources, and I doubt any of them is really Berber in origin.

I don't mean to pick on the authors; notwithstanding this brief lapse, it's a good book, and worth reading. But I do want to hammer home to every linguist the message that etymology needs to be done properly. If you want to do etymology in a North African dialect, don't just assume that any word you don't recognize from Modern Standard Arabic or French is a Berber loanword; check other regional languages (especially Turkish), check existing publications on the subject, check the distribution of the word across different Berber and Arabic varieties. Etymology may not be a very trendy subject, but that doesn't mean it's easy.

Monday, August 28, 2017

Street math and diglossia

In "Mathematics in the streets and in schools" (Carraher et al. 1985), child street vendors were given a paper and pencil and asked to calculate multiplications that they had, in fact, already done in their heads in the course of selling their wares. The results were often sobering, as in the following case:
Informal test
Customer: OK, I'll take three coconuts (at the price of Cr$ 40.00 each). How much is that?
Child: (Without gestures, calculates out loud) 40, 80, 120.

Formal test
Child solves the item 40 x 3 and obtains 70. She then explains the procedure 'Lower the zero; 4 and 3 is 7'.

As you can see, the children were perfectly capable of doing (some!) multiplication their own way, but when faced with school-style problems, this ability frequently deserted them. Confronted with a piece of paper, they attempted to apply the algorithm they had learned at school, without so much as checking their answers against the algorithm they had mastered as part of their daily life. In daily life, conversely, they presumably weren't getting much out of the multiplication algorithm they had learnt at school, even though it would let them tackle a much wider range of multiplication problems. School-learning that stays at school, and never affects real life despite having an obvious potential to be useful there: it's an educator's nightmare.

What this immediately reminded me of is diglossia. In a schoolroom or an essay, you obediently attempt to use Standard Arabic, and all the grammatical rules and vocabulary you learned for it. Almost anywhere else, you carefully avoid it, even while claiming to accept that Standard Arabic is correct and that what you actually make very sure to speak is wrong. To me, that seems to send a fundamentally problematic message: that what you learn in school is not supposed to be useful outside of some limited institutional contexts. I hope that's not the message most people get from it, but it would be great to know for sure. I don't suppose anyone knows of a study addressing the question?

Thursday, August 24, 2017

*-min-: an Algonquian morpheme that went global

American English was born in the clearing of the eastern woodlands, where British settlers encountered native Americans mostly speaking Algonquian languages. The same is true, mutatis mutandis, of Canadian French. If either language can be said to have a native American substratum at all, it's Algonquian. This substratum is hardly conspicuous, manifesting itself almost exclusively in loanwords. If the Algonquian languages had vanished without record, as most of the pre-Indo-European languages of Europe did, could anything at all be said about their morphology on the basis of this influence?

It turns out that there's at least one bound morpheme that shows up in quite a few loanwords: *-min- "berry, fruit". But it manifests itself more clearly in French than in English, where it has been obscured by a number of irregular developments.

Today, French barely survives in the upper Midwest; but before Jefferson's purchase of the Louisiana Territory, France claimed the whole of this vast area, and attempted to back up its ambitions with a handful of missionaries and settlers. There, up among the Illinois near Peoria, French speakers encountered two quite unfamiliar fruits, and adopted their names from the Myaamia-Illinois language:

English missed the chance to borrow a local term for the pawpaw - the English word derives from papaya, a fruit originating much further south - but adopted a reflex of the same word for "persimmon", along with several other terms containing this. Unfortunately, most are fairly obscure (although no more so than "asimine"), and no two show the same form of the morpheme:
  • persimmon; cf. Virginia Algonquian putchamins (Smith), pushenims (Strachey), apparently reconstructed by Siebert as pessi:min (cf. Skeat 1908; although that looks rather implausible given the Illinois form).
  • hominy (because it's made from corn); cf. Virginia Algonquian ustatahamen (Smith), vshvccohomen (Strachey) and other forms.
  • chinquapin (a kind of chestnut); cf. Virginia Algonquian chechinquamins (Smith), checinqwamins (Strachey).
  • saskatoon (a berry); cf. Cree misâskwatômin ᒥᓵᐢᑲᐧᑑᒥᐣ.
  • pembina (a kind of cranberry); cf. Cree nîpiniminân ᓃᐱᓂᒥᓈᐣ.
The prospects are not that encouraging, but combining the English and French evidence, an alert etymologist just might be able to spot the *-min- morpheme, and hence guess that Algonquian had head-final compounds. Thankfully, in North America, such hyper-speculative substrate chasing is hardly necessary; Algonquian is a fairly well-documented family. In other parts of the world, though, such approaches may occasionally prove effective.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

What's wrong with the obvious analysis of waš bih واش بيه?

In the Algerian Arabic dialect I grew up speaking, "what's wrong with him?" is waš bi-h? واش بيه. (Further west, in Oran and in Morocco, it's the more classical sounding ma-leh? ما له.) When the object is a pronoun, as it usually is, waš bi-h? can readily be understood as waš "what?" and bi-, the form of "with" (otherwise b) used before pronominal suffixes (in this case, -h "him"). But substitute a noun, and this historically correct interpretation becomes synchronically untenable: we say waš bi jedd-ek? "what's wrong with you (lit. your grandfather)?" واش بي جدّك, whereas "with your grandfather" would be b-jedd-ek بجدّك. Nor can we cleft it with the relative/focus marker lli اللي: *waš lli bi jedd-ek? (*"what is it that's wrong with you?") is totally ungrammatical, while *waš lli b-jedd-ek? does not have the appropriate meaning (in fact, out of context, it makes no sense at all). This tells us that, whatever its origins, waš bi- can no longer be analysed as "what?" plus a preposition "with"; it has to be treated as a morphosyntactic unit in its own right. In particular, this bi- cannot be used to form an adverbial - it only forms a predicate - so it can hardly be treated as a preposition. Nevertheless, it continues to take the prepositional pronominal suffixes: "what's wrong with me?" is waš bi-yya? واش بيَّ, not *waš bi-ni.

The independent unity of waš bi-? becomes a lot clearer when the construction is borrowed into another language, as has happened in the Berber variety of Tamezret in southern Tunisia. The stories recorded there by Hans Stumme shortly before 1900 are a bit hard to read, but provide probably the single most extensive published corpus of material in Tunisian Berber. These texts furnish many examples of aš bi-, although Tamezret Berber neither has to mean "what?" (that would be matta) nor bi- to mean "with" (that would be s). Many of these look just like Arabic: aš bi-k "what's wrong with you? (m.)" (p. 14, l. 11); aš bi-kum "what's wrong with you (pl.)?" (p. 27, l. 26), aš bi-h "what's wrong with him?" (p. 14, l. 3); and even, with a noun, aš bi iryazen "what's wrong with men?" (p. 41, l. 5). But the similarity is somewhat deceptive; in some cases, this construction takes Berber rather than Arabic pronominal suffixes, as illustrated by aš bi-ṯ "what's wrong with her?" (p. 25, l. 21) instead of Arabic aš bi-ha, aš bi-m "what's wrong with you (f.)?" (p. 10, l. 5). Unfortunately, the texts do not provide a complete paradigm - further documentation is needed! But judging by the available data, all cells but 3m.sg. match well with the Berber paradigm:

Algerian ArabicTamezretTamezret, direct objectsTamezret, objects of prepositions
2m.sg.waš bi-kaš bi-k-ak-k
2f.sg.waš bi-kaš bi-m-am-m
2m.pl.waš bi-kumaš bi-kum-akum / -awem-kum
3m.sg.waš bi-haš bi-h-ṯ-s
3f.sg.waš bi-haaš bi-ṯ-ṯ-s

The 2m.sg. and 2m.pl. suffixes are quasi-identical between Tamezret Berber and Arabic, facilitating the borrowing; for the second person, neither language clearly distinguishes direct object forms from objects of prepositions. The third person, however, distinguishes the two in Berber but not in Arabic, and 3f.sg. suggests that the object in this construction is treated as a direct object, not as the object of a preposition, contrary to the situation seen for Arabic. This fits Berber-internal patterns; throughout Berber, nonverbal predicators (Aikhenvald's "semi-verbs") typically take the direct object pronominal paradigm, and assign absolutive case to their arguments. The perfect agreement of the most frequently used cells in this paradigm between Arabic and Berber surely facilitated the borrowing of this item, but within Berber the paradigm got rebuilt on a largely Berber basis. In morphology, etymology is not destiny!

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Can slur avoidance be taken too far?

I was rather flabberghasted to read an otherwise good post on Language Log seriously suggesting that racial slurs are so painful they should be coyly asterisked out even in careful lexicographical explanations of why they should not be used. I do not pretend to any expertise on the impact of the specific slur in question there - I'd prefer to hear more black linguists' comments on that - but much of the argument they make is general, not specific:
If you take the standard linguistic analysis of slurs, though, the word’s power does not come from mere taboo [...] The word literally has as part of its semantic content an expression of racial hate, and its history has made that content unavoidably salient. It is that content, and that history, that gives this word (and other slurs) its power over and above other taboo expressions. It is for this reason that the word is literally unutterable for many people, and why we (who are white [...]) avoid it here.

Yes, even here on Language Log. There seems to be an unfortunate attitude — even among those whose views on slurs are otherwise similar to our own — that we as linguists are somehow exceptions to the facts surrounding slurs discussed in this post. In Geoffrey Nunberg’s otherwise commendable post on July 13, for example, he continues to mention the slur (quite abundantly), despite acknowledging the hurt it can cause. We think this is a mistake. We are not special; our community includes members of oppressed groups (though not nearly enough of them), and the rest of us ought to respect and show courtesy to them.

Anglo culture has a long tradition of scrupulously avoiding certain words in order to respect and show courtesy towards, in particular, women and children - people who were thought of as weaker and more emotional than adult men, and in need of their protection. Politeness is great, but if you treat people like they're made of glass, you're not only patronizing them, you're excluding them - you're implying that there are some discussions they just can't handle. (The term "white knight" comes to mind.)

This is ironic in general - people who have made it through serious oppression tend to be pretty tough, though everyone has their vulnerabilities. It's doubly ironic within an academic context, in that a core academic skill is the ability to confront and (if necessary) rebut personally threatening arguments without getting carried away by one's immediate reactions. In order to master North African historical linguistics, I've had to read works by colonial generals and OAS terrorists who fought and killed to subjugate my ancestors, and whose attitudes often colour their work; most people working on marginalized languages will have had similar experiences. If I can deal with that, do you really expect me to be incapacitated by some professor's cautious mention of, say, the word "raghead"? Words certainly can hurt, but slurs have enough power as they stand without adding the power of absolute taboo on top.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Sticks and stones and value inversion

In the Western world over the past few years, freedom of speech seems to be becoming a matter not just of human rights but of cultural identity. While many threats to this principle are routinely ignored, some are singled out for a great deal of attention. In particular, legions of columnists stand firm against the efforts of ungrateful foreigners and degenerate youths – suicide bombers and special snowflakes – to undermine our liberal traditions. Such whiners, apparently, have forgotten one of the first proverbs an Anglo child learns:
Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me.
I am not aware of any close equivalent of this saying among the other cultures I know best; in that sense, it can indeed be seen as reflecting a distinctive characteristic of Anglo culture, if not necessarily Western culture. However, this saying is also much more recent than you might expect; its first appearance in print seems to be in mid-19th century America. This timing coincides well with the rise of classical liberalism, and its form seems to be a deliberate inversion of earlier proverbs, reversing the original meaning. Medieval Englishmen used to say precisely the opposite:
Malicious tongues, though they have no bones,
Are sharper than swords, sturdier than stones. (Skelton, Against Venemous Tongues, ed. Dyce, i. 134)
or:
Tongue breaketh bone, all if the tongue himself have none. (Wyclif, Works, ed. Arnold, ii. 44)
Rhyming proverbs to the same effect can be found all over northern Africa, in Algerian Arabic (of Oran):
əḷḷahumma ḍəṛba bdəmmha wala kəlma bsəmmha.
اللهم ضربة بدمها ولا كلمة بسمها.
O God, better a blow drawing blood than a word dripping poison.
or Kabyle Berber:
Ljerḥ yeqqaz iḥellu, yir awal yeqqaz irennu.
A wound digs deep and heals, a bad word digs deep and keeps digging.
or even Zarma (Songhay), down in Niger:
Yaaji me ga daray, amma sanni futo me si daray.
A lance’s edge goes away, but a bad word’s edge doesn’t go away.
Both contrasting sets of proverbs are, of course, gross exaggerations, false if taken literally. Words certainly can hurt, and wounds can certainly hurt worse than words; no one in any culture is likely to deny either fact. What they represent in each case is a cultural consensus – robust, but subject to change – on how seriously to take the hurt that words can cause, and by implication on how sharp a response is justified.

The most compelling by far of the classical liberal arguments for freedom of speech is that it deepens our understanding of the truth. An opinion left unchallenged starts to seem like intuitive common sense; it becomes something people adhere to out of habit rather than out of conviction. Freedom of speech, ironically, is a case in point. Ideally, we are exposed to the arguments for its value at some point, in university if not in high school. But long before that, we’ve already had a weak version of it inculcated by elements of everyday life, like “Sticks and stones...” Such an early exposure makes it seem like universal common sense, like something that should be instinctively obvious to everyone. It’s not; even Englishmen assumed the opposite not too long ago. If you want everyone to believe it, you have to be able to make a good argument for it – and to do that effectively, you need to understand something of where they’re coming from.

How does this compare with cultures you've lived? Are you familiar with any other proverbs on the relative harmfulness of words and weapons?


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