Monday, October 5, 2009


Ceci n'est plus un blog.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Mauritanian minority languages of the southern Hodh

Mauritania has a few mythic languages, including Imraguen, used by a coastal fishing group which used dolphins to fish. This you tube video claims to tell the story of how they fish: "With ancient rituals, they call to the dolphins by simulating the sound of leaping fish slapping the water. Finally the dolphins come, driving the mullet before them. Perhaps the dolphins are using the fishermen to gather a feast for themselves, in a spectacular display of interspecies cooperation."
Unfortunately, the Imraguen people only speak normal Hassaniya, though with a purported Azer influence, which has not been confirmed.
Another phantom language, Nemadi, also has a supposed Azer influence - which is actually a bit more likely, since they live in the Western Hodh region which also has a fair number of Soninke speakers, and is adjacent to Mali. More recent work has shown that the Nemadi is probably just Hassaniya with a few technical terms dealing with the hunting which those people do, with dogs no less, to complete the "spectacular display of interspecies cooperation." In Hassaniya they are called Ikokol.
In that same region are some other minority languages -a number of others have commented on Hassaniya language contact in use on the Mauritania-Mali border, I came across some non-linguistic academic work that suggests there is another language that is somehow distinct there. The surprisingly large amount of trade that occurs in the Modibougou market area has obviously led to a need for a trade language, or perhaps a language used by unassimilated Haratine, as this comment on the relationship between Beydhan and the economy of the Southern Hodh suggests:
"An example of the relationship between society and nature may be found in the villages of the southern part of the Hodh, and with which this study is concerned. In the area of rain-fed agriculture along the Mauritanian border with Mali are found numerous Haratine villages, known as adweba (singular debaye). Debaye is an offensive term to urban and politicised black Moors but is apparently perfectly acceptable in rural and remote eastern Mauritania. It is possible that the word derives from the word debba, for a beast of burden. If this is the case the word may be a semantic remnant of slavery itself, and point to a former function of Haratine villages in the southern Hodh. Thus, it is possible that many of the villages in the south of the Hodh were founded as summer grain-growing camps, visited by kabila overlords (Bidan Moors) only at harvest time. Regardless of the actual present legal status of the villagers, the practice of harvest-time visits to Haratine villages by Bidan Moors to receive free handouts of grain continues to this day, as the thesis will show. There are only very few signs that the practice is beginning to be questioned. This intriguing possible reason for the settlement of some villages may be supported by the actual names of some of them. For instance, two of the very largest Haratine villages of the central southern border area of the Hodh el Gharbi, Kerkerette Mohammed Saghir and Kerkerette Amar Beyou, belong to the Mohammed Saghir and Amar Beyou fractions of the Oulad an Nasser kabila respectively. Kerkeru in Bambara means ‘granary’, and kerkerette is the Arabised plural of kerkeru. It is therefore possible that these two large villages were founded as a source of grain for people living far beyond the actual village boundaries."

In addition, though, there seems to be a creole that has developed which is actually the 'mother tongue' of some villages like this one, called J'reif:

The village of Jreif is situated about 9 kilometres north of the border with Mali and about 4 kilometres south-west of the main village of Modibougou. As with Mosfeya, the village is due south of Aioun el Atrouss.
The exact ethnicity of the villagers of Jreif is unclear. The villagers are known locally as اهل الترني, meaning, ‘family of Terenni’. They say that they are of ‘Macina’ origin—presumably after the Macina empire of northern Mali of the 17th and 18th centuries. The story they relate about their origin is that under the leadership of their mysterious first ancestor, Mohammed el Hanchi—a being alleged to have been half-man, half-serpent—they migrated south from Tichit in east central Mauritania to the Aioun area, at the time when the ‘rocks were still wet’ (meaning when the rock escarpments around Aioun had not yet been fully formed, or when ‘the rocks were still soft’). This narrative appears to contain both fact and legend. Then, from a settlement close to the site of modern Aioun, they migrated south to Mali but came north again to their present location in 1905 in order for the men to avoid being drafted into the colonial army by the Malian authorities. The villagers also refer to themselves as Bidan or ‘white’. Almost all villagers have some knowledge of Hassaniyya Arabic, yet among themselves they appear to speak neither Arabic nor Sonninké—their own language appears to be a mixture of the two, possibly with a Berber element. The village seems to be integrated to some extent with the local Moorish kabila structure: they are allied with the Oulad an Nasser clan, yet do not appear to have been slaves at any time in the past, unlike most of the other Haratine villages of the area. Their exact origin remains a mystery, although this is not from want of asking questions.

Thanks goes to Jason Lawton for sharing this field work...

Thursday, June 4, 2009


Due to my recent trip to Kenya, Ethiopia and Somali- "we are not Somalia" -land, and a good dose of laziness/uninspiration, I have been silent for far too long, but meeting the famous Ideophone and Jabal, known in the real world as Mark and Lameen, has inspired me to throw up a little something of an effort. Mark was presenting some of his work on the use of Siwu ideophones at SOAS, along with one of his colleagues from the Netherlands, presenting on ideophones in Semai, a Malay language. Some of the ideophones Mark shared that stuck out to me were these contrasting ideophones dealing with burning:
continuous burning: suuuuuuuu
piercing sporadic burning: yuaiuaiuai
This came directly after the use of an ideophone to describe "urinating forcefully out of a small opening" [tsiririri] - I wonder if it was in the same conversation and whether it was the yuaiuaiuai burning sensation, or the suuuuu burning sensation that accompanied the urinating... not that I am a doctor or anything.

One of the other highlights of Mark's presentation for me was hearing some songs in Siwu that contained ideophones, though I leave it to him to explain the meaning of kpia, kpia wagala wagala ee - hopefully he will write a post on ideophones in songs that expands on this one on kananana.

While in Kenya I met a few linguists who were working on languages there, and came across this resource online which has a number of songs, particularly of nomadic Kenyan ethnic groups some of my favorites were this Bajuni one, and another with an amazing lyre called an obokano. This one definitely sounds like it has some ideophones in, but I don't know the first thing about the Gusii language, so it is pure conjecture based on some of the sound patterns - anyone have better ears than I?

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Interesting stuff from others

An interesting post over at jabal al-lughat on a connection between Kwarandzie, Zenaga, and Hassaniya on a word for genie/devil - agwəḍ, pl. igwạḍən -> ugṛuđ̣an (original singular *ugṛuḍ) -> īgṛäwṭən. I am not sure that I have heard this word, though it does resemble iggawen very slightly. On the other hand if one were writing it in Hassaniya it would be أقروطن with a possible substitution of a marked up ك for the ق . I suppose it would be quite far-fetched to say this was a Zenagafied borrowing of قرط , arabic for chives, so I'll have to take Lameen's word for it ;) previous posts this month include one on historical linguistics and the constraints of Fusha. Looks like a mountaintop month!

Thursday, February 19, 2009

ትግርኛ : አቡጊዳ or ኣብግድ?

I have been teaching English to a few Eritrean refugees and they are in turn teaching me some Tigrinya (ትግርኛ) the language of Northern Ethiopia and Eritrea. This requires my learning the Ge'ez script of course (YAY!), which I have begun to do before, but never quite had sufficient social motivation, being particularly intimidated by the idea that it is a syllabary. Or is it? Actually it is technically called an abugida, which is sort of like an abjad (mostly the "alphabets" of west Semitic languages such as Arabic or Hebrew) with explicit vowel inclusion in each phoneme. An abjad (from the arabic term for alphabet ابجد), according to the linguistic definition of Peter Daniels is a consonantal alphabet, in which vowels are not normally marked. An Abugida marks all vowels as part of the consonantal grapheme - to the extent that each consonantally-related grapheme is distinct it approaches a true syllabary, but to the extent they are similar, it resembles a vocalized abjad. Most modern "abjads" actually do have letters to represent long vowels, and in cases of ambiguity will mark short vowels with diacritics, which makes it quite difficult to distinguish them from abugidas. Furthermore, pedagogically, abjads are often taught as abugidas - if you have ever heard a child learning the arabic alphabet, they always recite each letter in all its vocalizations separately, as if the mental conception was of an abugida, which was for convenience's sake being transliterated more simply as an abjad. It's actually probably more likely that the influence of religious instruction on early education bears the lion share of the responsibility for the overzealous vocalization. This is borne out by the fact that countries in which arabic is taught exclusively for religious instruction are prone to hypercorrection of case endings, a primary occasion in which consonants are normally unvocalized except in very formal speech/writing. Thus Muslim West Africa is replete with 'Aminatou's, 'Khadijetou's, 'Abdoullahi's, and 'Mamadou's rather than 'Amina's, 'Khadija's, 'Abdallah's, and 'Muhammad's. We can see this is hypercorrection of case endings, because as the transformation Muhammad -> Mamadou shows us, whole syllables are left out elsewhere - even more striking in the transformation Abdallah -> Abdoullahi -> Ablai.
But the point of this digression was that the spectrum from Alphabet to Syllabary is far from clear, and the distinction between abjad and abugida can be particularly arbitrary. It may have more to do with
historical development of transcription of spoken language and the diachronous sociology of writing in the different cultures than with linguistic structure. In the first place, abjads come from Phoenician, but so does Greek, for that matter - the first "Pure Alphabet." But, I just happened to be reading a bit of greek the other day, and was reminded that in fact it may not be so alphabetic as it seems, structurally speaking. I always felt like all of the different verbal forms somehow made sense in the way that different Arabic verbal forms make sense with their tri-consonantal roots. The word which reminded me of this was γεγραπται (gegraptai) a middle perfect form of γραφω (grafo) which to me evokes a verbal system based on tri-consonantal roots - in this case g-r-p. Obviously all the vowels are written out, but there is something about the forms which always felt reminiscent of Arabic verbs, and subsequently easier for me to remember. And of course with the letter order α, β, γ, δ of course it could fit the bill - though maybe (for sheer variety) we should call it an αβαγδα, reminiscent of αβαγνα - untrodden. This works well with the multidirectional early writing of greek, making it a writing system untrodden upon by the turning oxen: a Boustrophedal abagda.