Monday, October 27, 2008


I love hybrid language, in all its forms, but when it is written, it can be especially creative. It took me a little while to notice that the CNN logo here also spelled out بالعربية bi 'l-'arabiya in Arabic, but I think the 7-up designers take the cake with this one, which still looks like the 7-up logo until you look closely and see that the 7 is actually أب (though with 3 dots below) and then the rest is seven (I suppose it would ruin it to put in سبع instead). The question is whether any Arabic speakers would be confused and think it was more closely related to the number 6 which looks like a 7 in what we call Arabic numerals. Actually both systems are Hindu-Arabic, and the one used in the west came to Europe through the Maghreb and Andalusia, whereas, Eastern Arabic countries continued to use a number system more closely related to the Hindi original.

Friday, October 24, 2008


I came across a french cultural group which has a similar name: "Mille et Une Langues" and offers language classes in Lyon. They also founded a group called KoToPo, which is probably both a creative acronym and a Niger-Congo language spoken in Nigeria and Cameroon (where it is known as Peere).
But this then led me to another site on the Mille et Une Langues du Petit Prince which makes the astounding claim that the Little Prince is the best-selling work of fiction in the world. On our them of books I had to check that out, and verify it with the librass: In fact it does not come on any sort of top ten according to Wikipedia's list, nor according to Russel Ash's top 10 of everything which I remember reading quite a while back and being surprised that the "What Would Jesus Do?" book was number 9. (Incidentally I bought a postcard 2 days ago on the WWJD? theme - slightly irreverent, but not as bad as this). But I digress... The bit that was interesting about the Little Prince was that it has been translated into 150 many languages, and especially now (drum roll please...) Amazigh! It was disappointing to find out that Le Petit Prince wasn't originally written in French, despite it being Saint-Exupery's mother tongue - that my well have been the first book I ever read in French. But back to the Amazigh Principito, which is in Tifinagh script, and translated by a Québecois Moroccan, Fouad Lahbib. Though I haven't gotten very far in my berber studies, it appears that the title is Aglden not the article's stated Ageldun Amezzan. Which made me wonder if this is just the diminutive of Prince (as in Principito) or if the title is cut off. I think it sounds better with a diminutive rather than two words, and was really hoping I would find some creative Arabic diminutives, like امويّر (amweyer) as we might hear in Hassaniya. Instead, the only creativity was a disappointing replacement of رحالة for امير by one of the syrian translators... the only other noteworthy section of the little prince article was this bit on Argentinian language Toba: Il y a deux ans, la parution du Petit Prince en toba, dialecte parlé par une petite communauté aborigène du nord de l’Argentine et intitulé So Shiyaxawolec Nta’a, a permis aux membres de cette communauté de pouvoir lire autre chose que le Nouveau Testament.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Wir Philologen

The ideophone's post about the fad among late 19th century philologists to dabble in African linguistics reminded me of this, my favorite passage of Nietzsche:

Griechen und Philologen.

Die Griechen huldigen der Schönheit
sie entwickeln den Leib
sie sprechen gut
religiöse Verklärer des Alltäglichen
Hörer und Schauer
für das Symbolische
freie Männlichkeit
reiner Blick in die Welt
Pessimisten des Gedankens

Philologen sind Schwätzer und Tändler.
hässliche Gehege.
schmutzige Pedanten.
Wortklauber und Nachteulen.
Unfähigkeit zur Symbolik
Staatssclaven mit Inbrunst
verzwickte Christen

Monday, October 20, 2008


This Colombian bibliophile brings a new meaning to the term portmanteau with his rural walking library, which could best be translated as a "librass." Uses of portmanteau ("un galicismo que significa 'palabra combinada'"), which are not as common in Spanish as in English, (despite my own frequent encounters with and usages of Portanol recently). However the way of forming acronyms in Spanish speaking countries, as well as many other places in the world is very portmanteau-like. The English idea of acronyms taking one letter from each word is rarely true in the rest of the world, and produces what I think are much worse sounding names - like URL (earl?). Even with english's few cooler-sounding acronyms, the extra letters here and there in Spanish acronyms have the benefit of clarifying what the actual composition of the acronym is - most english speakers probably don't even know that laser stands for light amplification by the stimulated emission of radiation, not to mention radar and scuba...
May the Biblioburro march on!

The NYT article which brought this article to my attention ends with a stanza from Rubén Darío's poem "A Margarita Debayle":


Margarita, está linda la mar,
y el viento
lleva esencia sutil de azahar;
yo siento
en el alma una alondra cantar;
tu acento.
Margarita, te voy a contar
un cuento.

Este era un rey que tenía
un palacio de diamantes,
una tienda hecha del día
y un rebaño de elefantes.

Un kiosko de malaquita,
un gran manto de tisú,
y una gentil princesita,
tan bonita,
tan bonita como tú.

Una tarde la princesa
vio una estrella aparecer;
la princesa era traviesa
y la quiso ir a coger.

La quería para hacerla
decorar un prendedor,
con un verso y una perla,
una pluma y una flor.

Las princesas primorosas
se parecen mucho a ti.
Cortan lirios, cortan rosas,
cortan astros. Son así.

Pues se fue la niña bella,
bajo el cielo y sobre el mar,
a cortar la blanca estrella
que la hacía suspirar.

Y siguió camino arriba,
por la luna y más allá;
mas lo malo es que ella iba
sin permiso del papá.

Cuando estuvo ya de vuelta
de los parques del Señor,
se miraba toda envuelta
en un dulce resplandor.

Y el rey dijo: "¿Qué te has hecho?
Te he buscado y no te hallé;
y ¿qué tienes en el pecho,
que encendido se te ve?"

La princesa no mentía,
y así, dijo la verdad:
" Fui a cortar la estrella mía
a la azul inmensidad."

Y el rey clama: "¿No te he dicho
que el azul no hay que tocar?
¡ Qué locura! ¡Qué capricho!
El Señor se va a enojar."

Y dice ella: "No hubo intento:
yo me fui no sé por qué;
por las olas y en el viento
fui a la estrella y la corté."

Y el papá dice enojado:
" Un castigo has de tener:
vuelve al cielo, y lo robado
vas ahora a devolver."

La princesa se entristece
por su dulce flor de luz,
cuando entonces aparece
sonriendo el buen Jesús.

Y así dice: "En mis campiñas
esa rosa le ofrecí:
son mis flores de las niñas
que al soñar piensan en mí."

Viste el rey ropas brillantes,
y luego hace desfilar
cuatrocientos elefantes
a la orilla de la mar.

La princesa está bella,
pues ya tiene el prendedor,
en que lucen, con la estrella,
verso, perla, pluma y flor.

Margarita, está linda la mar,
y el viento
lleva esencia sutil de azahar:
tu aliento

Ya que lejos de mí vas a estar
guarda, niña, un gentil pensamiento
al que un día te quiso contar
un cuento.

Rubén Darío (1908)

A Margarita Debayle

Margarita, how beautiful the sea is:
still and blue.
The orange blossom in the breezes
drifting through.
The skylark in its glory
has your accent too:
Here, Margarita, is a story
made for you.

A king there was and far away,
with a palace of diamonds
and a shopfront made of day.
He had a herd of elephants,

A kiosk, more, of malachite,
and a robe of rarest hue
also a princess who was light
of thought and beautiful as you.

But one afternoon the princess
saw high in the heavens appear
a star, and being mischievous,
resolved at once to have it near.

It would form the centrepiece
of a brooch hung with verse, pearl,
feathers, flowers: a caprice
of course of a little girl.

But also, because a princess,
exquisite, delicate like you,
the others then cut irises
roses, asters: as girls do.

But, alas, our little one went far
across the sea, beneath the sky,
and all to cut the one white star
that, high up, made her sigh.

She went beyond where the heavens are
and to the moon said, au revoir.
How naughty to have flown so far
without the permission of Papa.

She returned at last, and though gone
from the high heavens of accord,
still there hung about and shone
the soft brilliance of our Lord.

Which the king noted, said: you,
child, drive me past despair,
but what is that strange, shining dew
on your hands, your face, your hair?

She spoke the truth; her words shine
with the clear lightness of the air:
I went to seek what should be mine
in that blue immensity up there.

Are then the heavens for our display,
with things that you must touch?
You can be altogether too outré,
child, for God to like you much.

To hear that I am sorry, truly,
for I had no plans as such. But,
once across the windy sky and sea
so I had that flower to cut.

Whereupon, in punishment,
the king said, I'd be much beholden
if you'd go this moment and consent
to return what you have stolen.

So sad was then our little princess
looking at her sweet flower of light,
until and smiling at her distress
there stood the Lord Jesus Christ.

Those fields are as I willed them,
and your rose but signatory
to the flowers up there that children
have in dreaming formed of me.

Again the king is laughing, brilliant
in his robes's rich royalty,
he troops the herd of elephant,
in their four hundred, by the sea.

Adored and delicate, the princess
is once more a little girl
who keeps for brooch the star and, yes,
the flowers, and the feathers, the pearl.

Beautiful, Margarita, the sea is,
still and blue:
with your sweet breath have all the breezes
blossomed too.

Now soon from me and far you'll be,
but, little one, stay true
to a gentle thought made a story
once for you.

Rubén Darío (1908)

Translator: C. John Holcombe (2005-2006)

note azahar - great arabic loan word (الزهر)

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Indiana Jones and the inaccurate depiction of pre-Columbian America

       Quite to my surprise, I found out that the new Indiana Jones and the kingdom of the crystal skull movie which premieres in the US tomorrow, opened here today, so I got to see it at one fifth the price of what it would have been back in the states... and free arabic subtitles to boot.  
   Some of the linguistic aspects of the movie were a bit laughable to be honest.  First there was the combination of ancient Mayan and modern Quechua, which are not from the same areas at all.  They seemed to be intending to mix the Norte Chico civilization of the 3rd millenium BC with the Incan empire (both of Peru), and then throwing in some random meso-american nonsense (is this where they got the strange alien connection).  There doesn't seem to be any record of a pre-Incan (written) language, despite the fact that the Andes were one of the world's 6 indigenous developments of civilization.  The stereotypical quest for El Dorado reminded me of the strange and dare I say creepy Werner Herzog film "Aguirre, der Zorn Gottes" (Wrath of God).  

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Triglossia, and cinematic linguistics

Enough of this "diglossia" business, I want something a little more challenging.  Let's try "tri-" !
Actually, while I was thinking about the whole diglossia issue a month ago with my friend in Switzerland, we shot a short film called "Anatomy of a decision" in which three characters act out the internal "monologue" of an individual whose will, reason, and emotions are debating... in three different languages of course.  You can see it here.  The quality is not great so it is tough to see what is going on visually, but the figures (all of them played by me) are supposed to appear as hollow mesh mannequins hovering over a brook.  They are conversing (trilingually) about whether they should answer the phone call that was just made.  My favorite line was that of the emotions, saying (in Spanish):  "Or maybe it's the police asking me to identify a body at the morgue!" 
     But enough tooting of my own horn... I have been meaning to do a little movie review of "The Linguists" which I saw the UK premiere of at SOAS just last week in London, with commentary and Q&A by Swarthmore prof David Harrison.  David said the inspiration for the film was the feeling of a couple Jewish filmmakers that Yiddish was dying.  When they realized actually it wasn't, they decided to try to do a movie on some languages that actually were.
Here is a further convo with David about dying languages:

I thought the Bolivian language Kallawaya was the most interesting (and in true praeteritian fashion I will gloss over the appalling fact that though David and Greg claim to speak 33 languages between them, they don't know spanish!). The Kallawaya language, which even Bolivian linguists believed to be dead, or absorbed into Quechua, is actually passed down only through transmission from Adult-male medicine men to adolescent male trainees. I am not sure what one would call this sort of unnatural language transmission, but it reminds me of Lameen's observation about Kwarandzie, that it is only learned in adolescence, and only used in certain social situations (and I guess football matches and occult healing ceremonies are both frenzied religious experiences in a manner of speaking).  So the question is what does one call that kind of language acquisition, where no "native speakers" learn the language from birth? Any suggestions?  Could they be "latent languages," or "teenanguages," to take the portmanteau a bit further?  

Thursday, April 17, 2008


It seems from some of the comments on the previous post, that there is some confusion on what diglossia actually is, and after looking into it a bit more, I see that it is with good reason, given the international nature of the input, and the different ways the term has been used historically. It comes to English through the French use of diglossie which is an adaptation, introduced by the Greek-French writer Jean Psichari (Ioannis Psikharis), of the Modern Greek διγλωσσία, which simply means ‘bilingualism.’ The French philologist Auguste Dozon already commented in 1889, in reviewing Psichari’s work, that the only possible rendition of διγλωσσία would be bilinguisme, which he however characterized as a mot barbare, and which did not become current in French until the linguist Antoine Meillet used it in 1917. It is a matter of semantics and technical usage to differentiate between these two words anyways, since bilingua is basically a Latin calque for the Greek διγλωσσία (but one which I personally identify with as significant, as I distance myself from my philologist friends in jest by identifying as a linguaphile - a mixed metaphor if you will). The term was not really used in a technical linguistic sense until 1959 by Charles Ferguson, though this was not broadly accepted as standard. In fact, in 1959 the word ‘diglossia’ was present in unabridged dictionaries (such as Webster’s Third International) with ‘condition of the tongue being bifid’ as its only meaning, while the linguistic term ‘diglossy’ was being used at least by linguists specializing in Greek, for example P. C. Costas, and continued to be so used after the publication of Ferguson’s paper, for example by Robert Browning. It is only in dictionaries published in 2000 or later that the sociolinguistic meaning of ‘diglossia’ can be found. Diglossia has settled into a more or less accepted usage that includes both a pair of languages which are quite genetically unrelated, as well as variations (I avoid 'dialects' because it is more often a literary standard or Dachsprache and a colloquial that form the pair).

Thus diglossia continues to be used ambiguously to refer to a continuum from stable bilingualism and ambilingualism, to code-switching and register change, all of it dependent on the specific languages involved and how discrete from one another they are considered to be (often based on somewhat arbitrary governmental policies concerning what is an 'official language'). I will not pretend to know anything about Finnish, but one of the funniest examples (I am told) is the Helsinki public transportation website which can be accessed in 'Suomeksi' and 'Slangi':

Reittiopas neuvoo perille
Reittiopas ehdottaa reittejä kahden valitsemasi paikan välille pääkaupunkiseudun joukkoliikennettä käyttäen.
Syötä lähtöpaikka ja määränpää tekstikenttiin. Paikka voi olla katuosoite, pysäkki tai paikannimi. Voit myös valita paikat kartalta tai hakemistosta.

Reissugaidi viisi vuotta!
Stadin kielellä joukkoliikennetietoutta tulkkaava Reittioppaan slangiversio juhli vappuna viisivuotissynttäreitään. Lue käyttäjien kommentteja Reissugaidista vuosien varrelta.

Just comparing this brief introduction in the two registers (which manifestly can both be written, though this is probably the exception to the rule) shows that there are numerous differences in word choice and order, and as someone who doesn't know the language, if I saw these two texts and knew nothing else, I would guess they were somewhat related, but certainly not the identical language.
In any case the fundamental definition of a language is significant to this discussion, but this will never be decided definitively because it is dependent on locally significant socio-political realities rather than linguistic principles. For the purpose of this question there should at least be a clear way of distinguishing between communities which extensively use two genetically (in terms of nuclear language family) unrelated manners of speech and communities which switch between closely related manners of speech.
For this it may be worthwhile to use the Ausbausprache - Abstandsprache - Dachsprache continuum which refers to the social relationships among languages. I would characterize simultaneous use of two Ausbausprache (referring to their both being used - though perhaps to differing extents in spoken and written and educational contexts, such that they are each independent), as in Quechua-Spanish in South America, French-English in Quebec, Arabic-Spanish/Latin/Portuguese-Hebrew in Andalusia, Kabyle-Arabic in Algeria, Wolof-French in Senegal, etc. need not be classified as diglossia, since the term stable bilingualism sufficiently covers those situations. An Abstandsprache - Abstandsprache or Abstandsprache -Ausbausprache combination, might debatably describe some of the above, but would be certainly true of Guarani-Portuguese in Brazil (and possibly in Paraguay with Spanish, I am not sure how much Guarani is written and taught there), Pulaar or Soninke - French in Mauritania, Siswati - English in Swaziland, (and undoubtedly many languages in Africa that are not written extensively, alongside either lingua franca like Swahili, or colonial languages). This would be what Joshua Fishman calls "extended diglossia."
However this is problematic, because it doesn't acount for the fact that in a diglossic case like Arabic, you have numerous variants which are Abstand towards one another because they are mutually unintelligible, but they share the Modern Standard Arabic Dachsprache. Thus, they are almost as equally 'extended' in terms of intelligibility as an Abstand - Ausbau pair would be, but they are genetically related. Furthermore, the pairs of "extended diglossia" are qualitatively different than coexistent variants of the same language (using the term broadly). They in fact represent a case of linguistic co-dependence, where the primarily spoken language either does not have the cultural prestige or the commercial utility to merit the study and attention of the written Ausbausprache. Thus the situation should be described as co-dependent bilingualism (which from a sociological perspective does insinuate a certain dysfunctionality, or at least instability which is not true of the cases of "stable bilingualism").
I posit that it is more significant and precise to classify Abstand-Dachsprache cases such as the famous Kathaveroussa-Dimotiki in Greece (before the mid 20th century), Catalan-Spanish in Northern Spain, Schweizedeutsch - Hochdeutsch in Switzerland, Arabic dialects - MS Arabic across North Africa and the Middle East, etc. as diglossia not as a statement that Catalan is not a language (for example), but as a way of preserving the uniqueness of the term as a marker that differentiates itself from bilingualism in the relatively rare cases where the historical occurence of two different manners of speaking reflects diachronous standardizations/fossilizations of language, rather than contact between unrelated languages.

Monday, April 14, 2008

whirlwind tour of the world

when I last wrote I was on my way to Mauritania, and I did in fact make it there, via Qatar to Morrocco and overland down to Nouakchott. On the always interesting stretch through the Western Sahara, I got to chat with some Hassaniya-speaking young men who were all too eager to share some poetry sha'bi with me, including not just givan but tulha, which are more like full sonnets where the gaf is simply a quatrain:
اصبر يا عقلي لا بعاد
وكر المدقوق بلا عنان
واصبر محدّاك بين زاد
اقلاب الدوقج ساكن
واصبر تشواشك لا نزاد
ولى حرك من ساكن
هذا ما كُن يغير بعد
أل؟ فخلاقي ما كُن
ماهو ما كُن فخلاق حد
احزيمُ ماهو ماكُن
سبحان الله الاشوي
عاد إلزم كفسارة
هذا ميجك؟ ما زال حي
وأقليبات الفرفارة

from the Tiris ( تيرس ) region...
I wish I could translate this accurately for you, but I have forgotten their explanation at the time, and too manz of the words are unfamiliar for me to spin it off right now... but on to more hassaniya poetry... this is one of my favorite tongue/twister givan:
سالكة من ورقتها تيات
وسلامة لهذاها الهاها
الهاها الين الهاها
نسات الناس لهذاها

Salecka from her leaves made tea
and Salama from over here [went] over there
that one there if over there
she forgot the ones over here

interpretation: Salecka was making atai (Mauritanian foamy espresso green tea with mint) and she spotted her buddy Salama (who in more suggestive versions of the poem is a man not a woman) over yonder. She was so preoccupied with her over there that she got the people nearby who she was making tea for. I'll have to confess I don't totally understand all the grammar and whatnot, but it always draws lots of exclamations of uskiin from the beydhan.

... carrying right along, I ended up losing my passport, getting stuck in Morocco, and ultimately denied entrance into the Sudan because of my emergency passport, and their unwillingness to accept my former residency and work permit and everything else. They even had the gall to write on my deportation papers "questionable or forged documents."

After finding out it would take a while to get a real passport with an acceptable visa, I figured I should take the opportunity to visit a friend who happened to be in Spain, my favorite phonologist and Finn, in Zaragoza, i.e. Tharagotha (homeland of Zarathustra, as one friend claimed). This city is a great example of mudejarismo, but I didn't really get a great opportunity to check that out... though I did get a bit of a start on Finnish language, which some say is magical...
I was particularly interested in the reality of diglossia among Finnish speakers - the written language is quite different from the spoken language, even to the extent that if you are learning Finnish from a book, the greeting they will teach will be "hei," when in reality people would only say "moi." As I travelled on through Barcelona, and then Switzerland, I realized that there is a surprising amount of diglossia going on around Europe. Catalan is now being written more, but it seems as though most all books and longer writing is Spanish, while in Switzerland there is quite a difference between the swizzedeutsch and spoken altedeutsch. Sure, everybody has to use a slightly different register between writing and speech, but I would have thought, there would be a tendency towards convergence, except in the cases like Arabic, where the spoken dialects are spread over many different countries. It seems like there is instead a more general move towards convergence in written language norms, and divergence in spoken language... which leads to greater difference for each individual between their speech and their writing.
Well, that is a summary of the last month, which also has seen the momentous return of bulbulovo to the blogosphere, most recently with an interesting post on foreign languages in "Law and Order."

Friday, March 14, 2008

bilad shinqit

I regret that I have been negligent in posting the last month, but I have been away from internet access much of that time, and busy with humanitarian more of the time, and then losing my mind the rest of the time. But now I am going on holiday for a bit, and where would I go but... you guessed it : Mauritania! Having lived there for 2 years I really miss the place, and I can't wait to get back into a little Hassaniya... I have a soft spot in my heart for all the mixed up french/zenaga/wolof/arabic messiness, and most of all the occasionally poetry, known as givan (sing. - gaf) passed back and forth of glasses of sweet minty green tea. here are are a fewI still remember:

متنقلي ميات ذشهر
ومتنقلي بعد اوطاني
شوف نجمة واشهرعلامة موريتاني
mutanagli miat dha shhar
wa mutanagli ba'd watani
shouf nejma w'ashhar
'alamat muritani
Missing the end of the month
and missing yet my homeland
look, the star and half-moon
the standard of Mauritania
...and for your empty stomachs missing your favorite lunch:
اشبه القوت
مارو والحوت
بط من الماء
ashbah al-qout
maro wal hout
batt min al-ma
wa soppema
The best of meals
is a fish and rice
a bottle of water
and cabbage
... and for the francophones out there, from the famous polyglot poet of chinguetti:
اراد عنك تو لفوا
والامحان بوركوا
انت لارن
وانا لاروا
arad 'annik,
tu le vois
w'al-amhan pourquoi
anti la reine,
w'ana le roi
I want you, you see
and the proof why is
you are the queen,
and I am the king

on the second one there are two Wolof words (from what I am told - my knowledge of Wolof is quite rudimentary) - "maro" is rice, and "soppema" is cabbage.
more givan to come in the next week hopefully!

Monday, February 11, 2008

Browne's Nubian bible

I had a lot of trouble uploading this and had to compress it - I hope you can still see it...

Nubian Comparison

Thanks to the kind and prolific Ideophone, I now have some new Nubian texts to compare to the mysterious inscription I have been writing about. Gerald M. Browne's "Old Nubian Grammar" is probably the most helpful work out there on Nubian, and Mark Dingemanse (the man behind the expressives) was kind enough to scan a dozen pages of it for me (before going off to catch the African Cup final, which once again was taken by a country which only considers itself African [at least socially] when it comes to sports ;), which included a couple of passages from Nubian translations of the Bible. A comparative analysis of the actual Nubian with the locally found inscription (well probably not local from Darfur, but brought from somewhere else in Sudan), reveals that the inscription could be Nubian, containing a lot of abbreviations, and possibly some letters used as numbers (accounting for the consonant strings). The strange vowel patterns which I commented on earlier were also consistent with some of the Nubian vowel groupings or diphthongs, but from what I could tell, there were not any identifiable Nubian words, nor were there any clearly Nubian letters, so I really couldn't discount the possibility of Coptic (since there are quite a few Coptic letters, and otherwise the letterforms are identical). I am leaning toward thinking the general text is not religious, since of all the Greek words only αναπαυσις is almost definitely religious in nature (signifying a certain type of prayer which requires standing up for a long time I believe), and it occurred to me that its use could be a prescription of prayer for someone who is sick perhaps the Πετρονος whom I had earlier been assuming was actually referring to the Biblical apostle Peter, but could just as well be someone simply named after him. In the next few weeks I will look for some Coptic texts online, and report on any findings of similarities there, but if you are able to pick out any common words between Browne's publication of the Nubian grammar, and the inscription, please let me know. I might even give a prize.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Multi-liingual poetry

Language Hat's post concerning Antoine Cassar's Muzajk or "Mosaics" appearing in Chimaera was quite an inspiring exercise in interlinguality (as opposed to intertextuality) and reminded me of a poem I wrote while part of Kuumba quite a while ago which includes ten languages used in a very pastiche style, with a spoken word rhythm:

why do I learn another language?
so that I can share in your anguish;
A sorrow shared is half a sorrow;
but who can share sorrow in a language borrowed
"O si vous avez des yeux que vos yeux s'emplissent de larmes."[i]
But they don't have eyes: they don't see the harm
in everyone speaking their language
atrophied as their minds languish
at your feet is the same damned dish
of second hand adverbs and adjectives.
Day after day the same prison food to the non-native tongue tastes so crude
unable to express the subtlety of my mood
"I'm not trying to be rude I read all the way through to Jude
but there was no Revelation
I was expecting some kind of elevation
but you gave me French when I needed Haitian."
I can't describe the sensation that I saw
when I sang "Chamo Kwoni gibala”[ii]
with Nairobi’s orphans I can't describe the sensation that I saw
when I sang "Nkosi sikelele Africa"[iii] with Desmond Tutu
I can't describe the sensation that I saw when I sang
"Kwaze kwa wonakala"[iv] with a Kenyan woman exiled in Columbus
I can't describe the sensation that I saw “Jesu da ho ya”[v]
I can't describe the sensation that I saw “Hol no mbitiye da”[vi]
I can't describe the sensation that I saw…
because I didn't feel it, except vicariously
Oh how the mother tongue must hang precariously
on the lips of a motherless child who's too scared to sleep.

Yes, a sorrow shared is half a sorrow
weeping may remain for a night
but rejoicing, tomorrow.
because the other half of the proverb's also right:
Joy shared is twice a joy…

[i] “O if you have eyes, may your eyes fill with tears” – Chants Kabylie 1982 Anonymous Algerian Poet

[ii] The opening line of a traditional Kenyan song in Luo (?) a Bantu language spoken by a minority of Kenyans. The song is about a monkey stealing fruit; an arrangement by Mwashuma Nyatta ’02 was performed by the Kuumba Singers in the spring of 2002.

[iii] “God Bless Africa” – Xhosa, the opening line of the South African National Anthem

[iv] First line from a Swahili Christian song – “When He comes I will be like Him”

[v] Christian song in Kikuyu, a Kenyan language spoken by the largest ethnic group of Kenya

[vi] “What is your Name” – Pulaar, a West African Language

Monday, February 4, 2008

More on Nubian (and the claimed connection with Fur)

I have looked a little more at the Nubian text, which I laboriously pieced together from about a dozen pictures I took of a stone tablet at a local museum (the former palace of Sultan Ali Dinar, in fact), and then attempted to decipher. I am afraid to say that I am actually not totally convinced that it is Nubian, since the only letter I can make out that might not be Coptic is a double-gamma, which is in fact not at all what a Nubian double gamma (representing ŋ) should look like - the second gamma should be rotated to the bottom so the letter looks like a bracket, but instead appears to be simply two gammas appended horizontally (see lines 10 and 11 for the clearest examples). So I thought for a minute it could actually be Coptic rather than Nubian (or even some other language written with a Coptic script for that matter). On the other hand it may be that in your average religious text (which is the theme of most extant Nubian texts) there would be so many loan words from Greek and Coptic, that very few of the uniquely Nubian sounds would show up. Unfortunately I can't back this hypothesis up, since I don't have access to any other Nubian texts, but I would bet on this pretty heavily.
The little that I can make out for sure from the text is a bit of Greek religious terminology:

...besides this there are a lot of perplexing strings of letters to be honest, and I am not necessarily even sure where to put the word breaks. What this makes me think is that perhaps this is either an early Nubian text before there was any sort of standardizing of the orthography. Perhaps it is an early attempt to approximate the spoken language, which makes me wonder if some of the difficulty, or repetition of letters is an attempt to render the tones of the language. All currently spoken languages of the Nubian family are tonal, so Ancient Nubian also must have been tonal, but there is no evidence of that having been marked in any way. What if early attempts at writing it like this, experimented in that? The only other possibility that comes to mind is that the consonant clusters represent strangely abbreviated words (there is one string of 8 consonants in a row 6 lines from the bottom). In addition to the strange consonants there are some pretty implausible dipthongs... how would you pronounce "uoiai"?
Finally, to revisit my somewhat preposterous assertion that Fur might be another Nubian language, having arrived in the region along with Midob, and then diverged under the influence of the Jebel Marra "accretion zone" languages. The first thing I was thinking of was merely the sounds of Fur consonants:






plosive, voiceless





plosive, voiced



ʒ [dʒ]


fricative, voiceless



fricative, voiced









l, r


these seem to match up pretty exactly with Nubian, except for a few sounds in Nubian which are not in Fur, but are probably mostly for Greek loan words (like ξ, χ). I still have not gotten around to doing much of a lexical analysis since I have been quite busy here, doing health/nutrition and education projects here in Darfur... as well as entertaining other interests like the OLPC (the first G1G1 recipient of Darfur, if you've been following that project). Anyone else involved in i18n or L10n projects for Saharan and Sahelian languages? I am really interested to get my XO running in Arabic...

Sunday, February 3, 2008


In light of the impending overthrow of Idriss Deby, the world's richest Zaghawa, and the continuing violence in Chad (most likely supported by Sudan) I wanted to write a follow-up post on Zaghawa. I was finally able to get the sound values for the Zaghawa Beria Alphabet that I wrote about before:


A b p s c d e f g h i j k l m n x o r t u y w z

a b p s š/ʃ d e f g h i j k l m n ɲ/ñ o r t u y w ŋ

These are taken from camel brandings, as I mentioned earlier, and I can not figure out why there would be capital letters and lowercase letters, but in the only text I have access to, it seems to be used as it would in French (Chad being a francophone country). This one text I have, entitled "La Vendeuse de Lait" starts:

Kubayni, bagu oh barta ni geni ru / key key-gini. Ber kettié, oh kigo / narení.

More on the rest of the text, and some translation later, when I have a chance to talk to one of my Zaghawa staff people who has informed me that he, like other Beria, are a very different group of Zaghawa than the "wange" power mongerers like Deby and Minni Minnawi (whom he considers traitors for having signed the Bogus peace deal with Khartoum).

Friday, February 1, 2008


A little random, but I just thought I would try my hand at translating a little TS Eliot into Arabic, using a few terms that I thought were funny, including "khawaji" for stranger, since this is what all of the sudanese children shout at foreigners passing by. But I don't let them get away with it

انتم تتجاهلون وتستصغرون البادية
البادية ليست بعيد في الاقاليم الاقسى الجنوبية
البادية ليست حول الركن بس

البادية مرصص في "التوب" القطاع بجنبك
البادية في قلب اخك

تسمح لي ابين لك شغلة المتوضع. اسمع.

في الاماكن الخاوية
نبنى بطوب جديد

اي حياة عندكم، لو ليست حياة جميعا ؟
اي حياة عندكم، لو ليست حياة جميعا ؟

حيث سقط الطوب
نبنى بحجر جديد
حيث رمّت الرافدة
نبنى بخشب جديد
حيث سكت القول
نبنى بنطق جديد.
هناك شغل جميعا
كنيسة للكل
وعمل لكل واحد

اي حياة عندكم، لو ليس حياة جميعا؟
لم يوجد حياة غير جماعية،
ولم يوجد جمعة لا تعيش في حمد الله.

والآن تعيشون اباديد على الطرق
ولا شخصاً يعرف جاره او يهتم له مَن جاره
إلا إن جاره بلبله كثير
لكن كل يجرون كذا وكذاك بسيارة
عارفين الطرق ولا وطنوا ايهم

كثير للتفريق وكثير للبناء وللرد.
اعطيتكم قدرة الاختيار وتبادلون
بين تنظير خائب وفعلة ما معتبرة

والريح يقول: "هنا كان شعب متعدل وملحاد
اثرهم الوحيد الزلط
والف قرة جولف مفقود."

ولما يقول الخواجي: "ما معنى هذه المدينة
انتم تتقربون لانكم تحبّ بعضكم البعض؟"
ماذا تتجوبون؟ "نعيش جميعا كلنا
لنتبدل الفلوس، وهذه الجمعة؟"

يا نفسي تستعد لمجئ الخواجي
يا نفسي تستعد لمجئ الخواجي

يا نفسي تستعد لمجئ الخواجي

تستعد نفسك للذي يعرف يطرح لك أسئلة

Saturday, January 12, 2008

χιλιοι γλωσσων

I was quite unaware that my blog had been garnering any attention from other language bloggers, though quite happy to have links from Mark Dingemanse and Lameen Souag - whose specialties are not far from my own (if I can even claim a specialty - dilettante that I am). When I found out however that Language Hat had also picked up on my random writings, I was quite surprised, and then even concerned at the scrutiny that my pastiche of a title was being subjected to - admittedly I may not have been thinking in a very rigorous grammatical sense when I wrote it, but rather the intertexts which the phraseology may suggest. Because of this I do still stand by χιλιοι γλωσσων as the Greek version of my title, despite the helpful suggestions that χιλιαι γλωσσων, χιλιαι γλωσσαι or χιλιος γλωσσων might be better.
I chose the trilingual title because each of the phrases echoed something which I wanted to invoke in this blog... obviously the arabic الف لسان (alf lisan - I only used "elf" in the URL because I thought it looked better than "alf" - a terrible TV show) echoes الف ليلة و ليلة (alf layla wa layla - a thousand and one nights)

يا ملك الزمان وفريد العصر والأوان أني جاريتك ولي ألف ليلة وليلة وأنا أحدثك بحديث تمني يا شهرزاد فصاحت على الدادات والطواشية

O king of time and peerless one of all ages and epochs, I have been near to you for a thousand nights and a night, while I told you tales “To your heart’s content, o Shehrazad” [The King said] and she waxed eloquent to the wet-nurses and the eunuchs…

(certainly the authenticity of the thousand and one nights is suspect as an Arabic collection, but it is, for better or for worse, how early modern Europe was re-introduced to the Arabic-speaking world.)
I think it also evokes the early arabic poetic form of the الفيّة (alfiyya) - a wonderful example of which Lameen comments on here.
With French I thought mille langues echoed mille-feuille, the multi-layered dessert whose sumptuousness merits mention, as we don't use our tongues exclusively for talking - and I had to put in some language with a romance script.
ِThe Greek was actually taken from the Koiné New Testament, a reference which I thought would be more obvious when I wrote "tithe of the myriad manners of expression," since the word tithe (i.e. a donation of one-tenth of one's income) is not really used widely today except in churches, and myriad is obviously from μυριος. This specific pair of words does not occur together, admittedly, but it echoes this passage in the αποκαλυψις (which I consider a pretty nice picture of heaven):
Μετὰ ταῦτα εἶδον, καὶ ἰδοὺ ὄχλος πολύς, ὃν ἀριθμῆσαι αὐτὸν οὐδεὶς ἐδύνατο, ἐκ παντὸς ἔθνους καὶ φυλῶν καὶ λαῶν καὶ γλωσσῶν, ἑστῶτες ἐνώπιον τοῦ θρόνου καὶ ἐνώπιον τοῦ ἀρνίου, περιβεβλημένους στολὰς λευκάς, καὶ φοίνικες ἐν ταῖς χερσὶν αὐτῶν·
[After these things I looked, and behold, a great multitude, which no one could number, out of all nations and kindreds and people and tongues, stood before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed with white robes, with palms in their hands. - Revelations 7:9]

...and since I wanted to get "thousand" in their somehow, for consistency's sake, I had to replace οχλος with something used similarly, and χιλιοι echoed the τετρακισχιλιοι and πεντακισχιλιοι, who are mentioned elsewhere in the NT - I thought that would be more interesting to paste the two together and keep the intertextual continuity, rather than the internal consistency of the grammar, which I don't think is wrong, but it is certainly not the best way of expressing it in Greek, barring all other considerations.
I do appreciate the attention, and I hope that I can prove in a future post that I am not entirely a slouch when it comes to classical and medieval Greek, but for now I leave you with my favorite quote from the Odyssey, which actually has come in handy as a form of literary self-defense in my travels:

“Αντίνο', ου μὲν καλὰ καὶ εσθλὸς εὼν αγορεύεις:
τίς γὰρ δὴ ξεινον καλει άλλοθεν αυτὸς επελθὼν
άλλον γ', ει μὴ των οὶ δημιοεργοὶ έασι,
μάντιν ὴ ιητηρα κακων ὴ τέκτονα δούρων,
ὴ καὶ θέσπιν αοιδόν, ό κεν τέρπησιν αείδων;
ουτοι γὰρ κλητοί γε βροτων επ' απείρονα γαιαν.
πτωχὸν δ' ουκ αν τις καλέοι τρύξοντα ὲαυτόν .”

“Antinous, no fair words are these thou speakest, noble though thou art.
Who, pray, of himself ever seeks out and bids a stranger from abroad,
unless it be one of those that are masters of some public craft,
a prophet, or a healer of ills, or a builder, aye,
Or a divine minstrel, who gives delight with his song?
For these men are bidden all over the boundless earth;
But no one is likely to ask a beggar who will only worry him.”
-Eumaios, Odyssey17.381-387 (transl. A.T. Murray, Loeb Edition)

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Nilo-Saharan and the Sahel

So, it seems as though (from my relatively amateur perspective) languages of the Sahara and Sahel are particularly hard to classify, whether because of the relative lack of data already mined on them, or because of the inherent difficulties in the languages in finding conclusive similarities. Sociologically and anthropologically speaking, both of these probably have a lot to do with the relatively sparse populations in the region. The more contact, the more linguistic similarity one would presume, and the less contact, the less discernible links - except the region has historically been peopled by nomads and traders who traverse vast expanses and therefore have contact with languages from the Mediterranean to the jungle, and the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean. The dramatic climatic changes over time also complicate things to some extent, especially the further back you go. So the classification of many languages, or clusters of languages, is very unresolved.
The classification of languages could seem esoteric and irrelevant, but what if it could lead to a decrease in ethnic tensions, through more widespread understanding of the common roots of groups that see themselves as separated and opposed since time immemorial? This particularly tends to be the case between nomads and more sedentary groups, who are often so culturally tied to their occupational identities that they associate with any group of that occupation more than neighboring ethnic groups with whom they have lived in symbiosis for years. My favorite example of this sort of is a Fulani (Fuuta Toro) friend who said that the shepherds to whom the birth of Jesus was first announced by angels (as in the famous christmas carol “Angels we have Heard on High”), were Fulani. He stopped short of saying that King Herod (who tries to kill baby Jesus later in the story) was a Beydhani, but the recent memory of les évènements (’87 – ’91) had definitely colored his memory of centuries of co-existence as bitter.

On the other side of the Sahel, here in Darfur, we are seeing the extermination and absorption of minority ethnic groups, and what has been termed ethnic cleansing of non-Arabs. In Alexander De Waal’s book “Darfur: A short history of a long war,” (which is by far the best and most in-depth analysis of the history of a convoluted and confusing conflict) he reveals internal documents of the nomadic Arabic-speaking tribes, which indicate that they see themselves as Sudan’s only pure Arabs, and that their attempts to purify Darfur of non-Arabs is only the first step toward purging the entire country’s power structure of the dominant riverain Arabs.

Perhaps I am too hopeful in the possibility of linguistic analysis bringing about change, but this is the motivation that pushes me to explore the relationships of some of these languages, and of particularly are the Nubian languages, Meroitic, and Fur. Perhaps a later analysis will look at wider Sahelian trends through language groups such as Fulani, Tuareg, and Songhay (maybe with some help from Jabal al-Lughat and the Ideophone?). Specifically, my question is how the Nubian languages could be so widespread geographically within Sudan without evidence of other attendant elements of the culture having expanded, and without having had a greater overlap with Meroitic.

The common historical reconstruction of what happened is that at some point long ago (at le, the Nubian languages dispersed, and a major part of the family ended up in the Nile Valley and succeeded what remained of the Meroitic Empire. This is covered in the proceedings of a 1981 conference organized by Ehret and Posnansky, the reviewer of whose publication articulates thus:
“When and how [was] the Meroitic kingdom on the Nile penetrated and largely resettled by Nubians from Kordofan and Darfur? The conclusion reached is that, rather than a process of rough and rapid conquest narrowly anticipating that by the Aksumites of King Ezana, most of the Nubians arrived as peaceful settlers five or six hundred years earlier, at a time when the country between the first and third cataracts was temporarily underpopulated. The idea which is persuasively presented by William Adams, seems to have occurred to him in connection with the absence of archeological data for the first millennium BC revealed by all the elaborate surveys undertaken in preparation for the Aswan High Dam. It took shape when he studied the glottochronological evidence for the divergence of the Nobiin and Dongolawi languages, for which a linguistic paper by Robin Thelwall provides the wider background.”

Yet this does not fit with the obvious textual evidence that shows a gap between Meroitic and Nubian cultures (Note that there is evidence of Nubian inscriptions before the 8th C. but not “texts” per se):

“The corpus of Meroitic Late texts can be dated to circa 5th century CE whereas the Old Nubian corpus extends from the 8th century CE (Browne 2002). The texts of Old Nubian and Meroitic are only distanced by a few hundred years. Diachronically this small length of time would allow us to see the relatedness of these languages if indeed they were, although the attempts to position Meroitic as an ancestor of Old Nubian have always resulted in disappointment for those who have chosen to pursue this line of investigation.” (Rowan 2006)

Though we can determine that Meroitic and Nubian are not very related linguistically, it seems likely that Nubia appropriated a lot of the imperial infrastructure left over from Meroe. They almost certainly did not co-exist along the Nile for the 1500 years that Adams proposes before the Nubians suddenly rose to prominence. However it is also unlikely that the Nubian languages spread to their current dispersal before they developed their writing system, given Arkell’s findings of Nubian inscriptions and pottery shards as far west as Dongola and Eastern Darfur, which one would have to date to (at earliest) the 10th c. CE. This would seem to indicate a late dispersal date, but what drives the assumption that all the Nubian population movements occurred simultaneously? The Nuba Mountains branch of Nubian languages including Dilling, Ghulfan, and Kadaru seems likely to have been the center of gravity of the family, a theory supported by the fact that there exist the most number of dialects of Nubian here in a relatively small geographical area (the Nuba Mountains seem to be an “accretion zone” as Nichols describes it), and that there are no traces of any writing or other material cultural influence in these areas.

“For a long time it was assumed that the Nubian peoples dispersed from the Nile Valley to the south, probably at the time of the downfall of the Christian kingdoms. However, comparative lexicostatistic research in the second half of the twentieth century has shown that the spread must have been in the opposite direction (Thelwall 1982, Adams 1982, among others). Greenberg (as cited in Thelwall 1982) calculated that a split between Hill Nubian and the Nile-Nubian languages occurred at least 2,500 years ago. This account is corroborated by non-linguistic evidence — for example, the oral tradition of the Shaiqiya tribe of the Jaali group of arabized Nile-Nubians tells of coming from the southwest long ago.” (Wiki)

In fact the Shaiqiya are quite significant further for the linguistic evidence found among a subgroup, the Nidayfab, which preserved many Nubianisms in a collection of legal documents from the early 19th c. See Jay Spaulding’s “The Old Shaiqi Language in Historical Perspective.” for more of the specifics, but the key point is that until relatively recently, the Shaiqi and all riverain Arabs saw their identity as autochthonously Sudanese (and thus part of the Meroitic- Nubian Political continuity) rather than Arab.

So perhaps we can say that about 2500 years ago, a large number of Nubians went from the Nuba Mountains northward, but did not arrive to the area which the Meroitic empire was inhabiting until after it was destroyed by Aksum, at which point they saw an opening to establish themselves in the vacuum left behind… but in order to fill the large shoes left behind for them, they had to have a language and material culture to match their predecessors, but wanted to be a part of the global economy, which required Greek, so they borrowed Greek letters via Coptic and added 3 Meroitic letters for good measure, putting forth a standard literary language. This clearly would not have reflected the diversity of the different dialects which composed the greater Nubian empire (actually 3 sub-empires, of Nobatia, Makuria, and Alodia), and the limited nature of Nubian writings (religious texts, political proclamations, and a few contracts) makes it likely that their was a vast discrepancy between spoken and written Nubian, and that this diglossia reflects the current diversity in modern riverain Nubian dialects, namely between Kenuzi-Dongolawi, and Nobiin, which probably represent two different empires. This diglossia and diversity of dialects also may explain why the subsequent move of the mysteriously stranded Darfurian dialects of Nubian could have occurred so late, and been accompanied by material evidence (the above mentioned inscriptions detailed by Arkell) and seem so lexically distant from the other strands. I suggest that not only did Midob and Birgid (now extinct) leave toward the waning of the Nubian empires in response to pressure from without, but that these were not the only Nubian languages to have moved out there, and that others have become extinct (like Birgid), and others remain to be classified as Nubian languages… And here’s where it gets crazy – I think the Fur language has significant Nubian influence both lexically and otherwise. The (as-yet unpublished) Fur dictionary I have is poorly organized and not conducive to searching, so more in depth analysis will be forthcoming from that angle, but superficially speaking, Fur and the Nubian languages both have a limited range of tones, they share some plural formations (Fur has multiple) and the ascendancy of the Fur Sultanate not long after the Nubian empire’s demise, in the midst of a jumble of different ethnic groups smacks of some sort of transmission of imperial memory.

To take it back to the meta-level and summarize, a language family (Nubian) within the Nilo-Saharan phylum originates in an accretion zone (Nuba Mountains) with contact with a number of Niger-Kordofanian* language families, then moves into an area dominated by languages within the Afro-Asiatic stock* (Meroitic, then Arabic) until most of the speakers adopted the dominant Semitic language. Some however migrated to an area which was again a Niger-Kordofanian dominated accretion zone (Jebel Marra) where their languages became heavily influenced by these languages until the dominance of Arabic again overtook them. The repeated and prolonged contact of this Nilo-Saharan language family with Niger Kordofanian languages contributes to the extensive lexical similarities noted by Blench in his designation of a Niger-Saharan macrophylum.

*Johanna Nichols has much more on the classification of "quasi-stocks" Niger-Kordofanian and Afro-Asiatic here:

The type-defining example is probably Niger-Kordofanian, a set of families
and stocks mostly of sub-Saharan Africa including the Bantu family (Bendor-
Samuel 1989, Greenberg 1963), discussed below. The genetic marker of
Niger-Kordofanian is its complex systems of generally prefixal genders (also
called concord classes), in which there are particular prefixes for particular
classes and systematic correspondences between singular and plural concord
classes. The system is shared widely among the daughter branches and is identifiable
as a system even when individual elements are greatly changed or lost.
This kind of gender system is quite specific and quite rare worldwide and thus
useful as a genetic marker. Yet systematic sound correspondences and regular
lexical reconstructability are absent from Niger-Kordofanian, the internal
structure of the genetic tree is still in doubt...
An atypically stock-like quasi-stock is Afroasiatic, another African group
established by Greenberg (1963). It consists of the families Chadic and Berber,
the isolate Egyptian, the Semitic stock, a likely isolate Beja, a stock or pair of
stocks Cushitic, and possibly the family Omotic (see e.g. Bender 1989, Newman
1980). The Afroasiatic quasi-stock has a distinctive grammatical signature
that includes several morphological features at least two of which independently
suffice statistically to show genetic relatedness beyond any reasonable
doubt (the entire set is listed inNewman 1980; for statistical significance,
see Newman 1980 and Nichols 1996). Hence it is routinely accepted as a genetic
grouping, though uncontroversial regular correspondences cannot be
found and a received reconstruction may never be possible.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Egyptian Fur

I was able to find quite a lot of material in Khartoum on the Fur language, the most interesting (though not necessarily most accurate) of which is a book by Dr. Idriss Yusuf Ahmed published in Arabic first in 2001 by New Star Printing House in Khartoum with a second printing by The Key Publishing House in Toronto, Ontario. Unfortunately they neither use the extended arabic letters for sounds that do not occur in standard Arabic, nor is there any attempt made to represent the tones.

I’ll include the most salient selections as I get to them, but I had to start with this list which made me just about roll on the floor laughing, though I defer to the judgment of the reader as to the plausibility of the connections:

Ancient Pharaonic influences on the Fur language:

Fur Language

Ancient Pharaonic Language




wind, breeze

Sing fi naro


“does what he says”





Usou aan


wait for the signal

Ubwa Simbla

Abu Simbel

black grandmother*

Jasis ah


“built for you”

(mentions al-abanus which has an interesting history of being borrowed into Coptic from greek, though it originally came from the demotic hbny)

The source of the information is given as Professor Zekariah Sayf al-Din of Nyala, South Darfur