Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Two funny adjectives (?) in Algerian Arabic

In Algerian Arabic, as in any other Arabic variety, adjectives follow the noun. However, there is one exception to this rule: invariant quja قوجا or qŭjna قُجنا, "a huge". Thus we say ṛajəl kbir راجل كبير "a big man", but quja ṛajəl قوجا راجل "a great big man". Not only does this "adjective" precede the noun it modifies, it requires it to be made indefinite: you can say šrit quja ktab شريت قوجا كتاب "I bought a huge book", but if you want to say "I bought the huge book", there's nothing you can do but use a different adjective. *šrit quja l-ktab or *šrit əl-quja ktab or *šrit əl-quja l-ktab are all impossible. You can make quja قوجا follow the noun, but you have to use a different construction, equally unique to this "adjective": ṛajəl quja mən huwwa راجل قوجا من هو "a great big man", daṛ quja mən hiyya دار قوجا من هي "a huge house". The origin of quja قوجا is clear: it comes from Turkish koca "large; husband", which in turn is apparently an early adaptation of Persian xɑje خواجه "master, gentleman". In Turkish, all adjectives are prenominal, so one could take that to explain its position in Algerian Arabic; but a quick search suggests that Turkish koca has no problem combining with the indefinite (one finds phrases like bu koca dünya "this huge world"). However, it looks like Algerian quja has followed a trajectory very similar to Iraqi and Khaliji xôš خوش. It is not obvious to me why obligatorily indefinite prenominal adjectives should even be possible in a language that otherwise strictly requires adjectives to be postposed, much less why they should have to be indefinite in order to stay prenominal - but that's what it looks like....

The word məskin مسكين "poor (pitiable)" is not so unusual, lexically speaking; it's just about pan-Arabic. It combines just fine with definite nouns, and takes normal agreement (f. məskina مسكينة, pl. msakən مساكن.) However, it has almost the opposite idiosyncrasy: it doesn't take the definite article, which would be obligatory with any normal adjective whose head is definite (and, if it comes to that, with a noun in apposition to a definite phrase as well). Thus we say bwəʕlam məskin maqdərš yji بوعلام مسكين ماقدرش يجي "poor Boualem couldn't come", even though we would say bwəʕlam əṭ-ṭwil بوعلام الطويل for "tall Boualem" (Boualem the-tall). Why? No idea. Suggestions are welcome!

Monday, August 15, 2016

Microvariation in Dellys Arabic

There are plenty of factors that one naturally expects to condition linguistic variation: age, sex, location, class, ethnicity, religion - in short, any variable such that people are more likely to talk with those who match their value for it than with those who don't. Dellys offers clear examples of several of these:
  • Age: There's an obvious gap between the generation born before Independence and those born since then, the latter having had much greater freedom of movement and access to media as well as education. Within my extended family, my father's generation all negate verbs indifferently with ma... ši ما...شي or ma... š ما...ش, whereas their children and grandchildren uniformly use only the latter. Similarly, the older generation use mazəlt مازلْت for "I am still...", conjugating it as a verb, while the younger ones consistently use mazalni مازالني; many of the older generation use -ayən ـاين for the dual (eg يوماين yumayən "two days"), while the younger generation all use -in ـين.
  • Sex: Only women use the exclamation a məħħənti أ محّنتي "oh my goodness!"; only men, as far as I've noticed, use the quasi-expletive jədd جدّ "grandfather" (eg nəħħi jəddu نحّي جدّهُ, approximately "remove the damn thing"). In less integrated French loans, women of my generation or younger use a uvular R, whereas almost all men (and older women) substitute a trill ; this sex differentiation is acquired well before the age of ten.
  • Location: The most salient distinction at a local level is classic in Maghreb dialectology: urban (more or less pre-Hilalian) vs. rural (Hilalian). People from Dellys proper say qal قال "he said" and ṣab "he found"; people from the villages and small towns around it instead say gal and lga.
Such variation is easily understood. But a lot of variation I'm noticing seems to show no such patterning. Out of three brothers, fairly close together in age and all currently working in the same family business:
  • Two have baš باش for "so that"; the third - unlike anyone else I know - uses li baš لي باش.
  • All use lukan لوكان for "if (hypothetical)", but one also uses lakun لاكون and the other yakun ياكون.
Maybe this is somehow explained by their earlier backgrounds - the one who uses li baš لي باش and yakun ياكون had more education, perhaps he picked it up where he went to school, or where he used to work when he was younger? But there are many other variables like this. I similarly don't see any pattern to the choice between bəṛk برْك and kan كان for "only", or yəsħaq and yəsħaj يسحاج for "he needs", or yʊɣləq يُغلق and yəʕləq يعلق for "he closes", or (at least for older speakers)yəqdər يقدر and yənjəm ينجم for "he can". People of the same age and gender, living all their lives less than a kilometer from each other and sometimes even in the same household, consistently use one or the other. Presumably something must explain the difference, but it looks like it would require a pretty intensive social network analysis to find out...

This is actually fairly similar to what Nancy Dorian found for the Scots Gaelic of East Sutherland fisherfolk: "Surprises in Sutherland: Linguistic Variability amidst Social Uniformity". She observes that this kind of variation usually tends to be ignored: "Oftedal, my immediate predecessor in Gaelic dialect studies, noted that the Gaelic of his single source and that of the man’s wife differed in a number of respects, despite the fact that the two had grown up as next-door neighbors; but after noting the existence of such differences in an early footnote, he never referred to the wife’s Gaelic again." While Algerian Arabic is far from endangered, the two situations are not as different as you might think: in both cases, small towns were substantially expanded over the 19th century by rural refugees fleeing land confiscations and wider upheavals, and left to sort out the resulting mess of dialect variation among themselves without that much pressure towards standardization. Perhaps such variables would have correlated more clearly with speakers' background a century ago, and have been left today as relics too scattered by later changes to be assigned a social meaning any longer.

Do these examples of variation seem familiar to you? What kind of individual-level variation have you noticed between friends and family?

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 09, 2016

Phonics and whole word teaching in Algeria

Just about every parent I've spoken to in Dellys is concerned one way or another about the direction the educational system has been going – over-complex curricula, excessively heavy backpacks, extramural tutoring, discipline, class sizes... How children are taught to read and write looms relatively small among these concerns, except for parents who find their own child having serious difficulties. The more I've learned about this issue, though, the more worrying it seems.

During my brief, unpleasant experience with Algerian education in the late 1980s, reading and writing were taught in much the same way as in my American home school. We learned how to build up letters into words and break down words into letters – in brief, a variant of phonics. Arabic spelling is almost perfectly regular, so this stage is actually significantly easier in Arabic than in English (although this advantage is no doubt more than offset later on by diglossia). Today's Algerian children, however, are taught to memorise words and texts as wholes, and are only exposed to individual letters well after having memorised words containing them – in other words, a rather extreme version of the whole language method. This change of method – imposed not by the controversial current Minister of Education, but by her well-connected predecessor – is enforced by teaching inspectors, who are empowered to penalize efforts to teach in the older way.

This would be all very well if the whole language method were more effective. Unfortunately, as far as I can tell from a quick literature meta-review (and notwithstanding some conspicuous sketchy political exploitation of the issue), the evidence seems to be pretty clear-cut (eg [1], [2], [3]) that including phonics makes reading instruction more effective even in a language as irregularly spelled as English, and tends to favour a primary (if not exclusive) focus on phonic methods in early teaching. In other words, Benbouzid's "modernizing" educational reforms seem likely to have deprived Algerian children of one of the very few advantages they enjoyed over English-speaking children.

A question especially for any readers with a wider background in education: do you know of any good studies of the effectiveness of different methods of teaching Arabic early literacy, preferably carried out within Arabic-speaking countries?

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...
(n/a?)

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.

Monday, July 25, 2016

Darja notes: Elms and kids' morphology

I'm back in Algeria, and, as usual on such trips, finding matters of linguistic interest all around. Here are a couple, with more to follow if time permits...

A morphological innovation continues

Regular readers will recall that, just about a year ago, I found two young cousins using an innovative strategy to prevent consonant clusters in feminine nouns when vowel-initial possessive suffixes are added. I predicted that “Most probably, the next time I go to Dellys I'll find these two children using the normal forms and denying they ever spoke this way”. It turns out I was wrong: for the time being, at least, both of them are still using it, as confirmed by spontaneous data (quww-at-ək قوّاتك “your strength”, sənsl-at-ək سنسلاتك “your chain” rather than everyone else's quww-t-ək, sənsəl-t-ək.)

Elms between Europe and Arabia

A new word I learned lately is nəšma نشمة (pl. nšəm نشم) “elm tree”. Knowing that most of Arabia is desert, you might assume that this would be a prime candidate for a substratum word to borrow from Berber. In reality, however, it reflects Classical Arabic našamah نَشَمَة, a word used by the pre-Islamic poet 'Imru' ul-Qays and defined in the first Arabic dictionary, Kitab al-`Ayn, as “a tree from which bows are made” (even though the Modern Standard term appears to be dardār دَرْدَار). Clearly it would be a mistake to imagine the pre-Islamic Arabs as uniformly living in an isolated desert environment. At first sight, this word looks nothing like English elm, Latin ulmus, or Kabyle ulmu. However, in general Arabic š corresponds to Proto-Semitic *ɬ, so the original form would have been *naɬam-, which looks rather more similar. The mountains of the northern Middle East where the elm grows have been a zone of contact between Semitic and Indo-European for a long time, and given the tree's distribution, a borrowing into Semitic from IE would seem plausible a priori, especially since it doesn't seem to have cognates in Syriac or Hebrew; but the etymology would require more investigation than I can undertake on holiday. Within Indo-European, the form in question seems to be limited to European branches (Slavic, Germanic, Italic, Celtic), so how it would have reached Arabic is not obvious; coincidence is not to be excluded.