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.


John Cowan said...

It's true that in Ethiopic the vowel marks are attached to the consonants, but this isn't true in the many abugidas of India and Southeast Asia. The essence of an abugida is that each consonant comes with an inherent vowel, typically but not always /a/, which has no vowel mark. When you add a vowel mark, the /a/ is overridden in favor of some other vowel. In most abugidas other than Ethiopic, there is also a virama mark (under various names) which indicates a consonant with no vowel, and can be used to write consonant clusters or syllable-final consonants.

Tamil people are not really aware that their script is an abugida: like Ethiopic-script users, they are taught it as a syllabary, in tabular form with the consonants in rows and the vowels in columns. North Indian people, though, think of their abugidas as basically alphabetic.

Canadian Syllabics is also an abugida, where the consonants are rotated 90, 180, or 270 degrees to indicate up to three vowels other than the inherent vowel. The letter is written as a small superscript to indicate no vowel.

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