The earliest work on a Libyan Arabic variety was written by Hans Stumme (1864-1936), a diligent German linguist who studied a number of language varieties in northern Africa. In his Märchen und Gedichte aus der Stadt Tripolis in Nordafrika (Folktales and Poems from the city of Tripoli in North Africa, 1898), he describes the speakers he interviewed for his research and relates an interesting detail.
Arriving in Tripoli in 1897, Stumme was put in touch with a certain Sidi Brahim bin Ali al-Tikbāli, who he describes as a 45-year old inhabitant of the old city and a skilled poet. Sidi Brahim became Stumme’s main interlocutor for his study of the Tripoli dialect and provided the majority of the texts Stumme transcribed in his book (10 khurrafas and 7 poems). A second speaker, whom Stumme praises as a “walking dictionary”, was a 15-year old black Libyan named Mhemmed bin Jum’a Breñgāli. Besides being Stumme’s guide around the city and general explainer-of-things, Mhemmed provided 3 additional poems which Stumme transcribed. A third person, a Tunisian named Hmed al-Susi who apparently lived in Tripoli, helped translate when Stumme’s knowledge of Tunisian Arabic didn’t suffice to be clearly understood by his Tripolitanian interlocutors.
Stumme’s transcription of Sidi Brahim’s poem
For the past several decades, linguistic fieldwork in Libya has been extremely difficult, even at times downright impossible. This has certainly been the case for foreign researchers: not only was it nearly impossible to get research permits for Libya from the 1980s to 2000s, and fieldwork that did occur was heavily monitored and restricted, but there has been so little work on Libya in general, and scholars of Libya in Western institutions, that interested students usually have no place to start or advisors with whom to work. But this also to a great extent true for Libyans as well: Libyans with linguistic training have typically returned to work in universities teaching translation studies or foreign languages and only a few have published research in Libya on Libyan languages. Up until 2011 it was illegal to openly research anything other than Arabic—the regime’s official position was that Amazigh is a dialect of Arabic, and numerous researchers (not to mention activists) were thrown in jail for trying to write, teach, or research Amazigh in Libya. And now, although the activism and dedication of numerous Libyans has led to the increased visibility of the Amazigh and Tebu languages in Libya, actual fieldwork and research remains difficult for everyone due to the current political and military struggles.
I’ve always assumed that fieldwork during the colonial era and during the kingdom was, in contrast, much easier. Foreign researchers could simply have taken advantage of colonial power structures to go where they wanted, and indeed many did. Or after independence they were given permits to do so. And this is largely the case for research on Libya up until the early 1970s in a variety of fields—anthropology, linguistics, history, urban studies and so on. But, on examining a bunch of older linguistic works more closely, I was surprised to find that many of them were not actually done in the place the language was actually spoken at all—some of them not even in Libya. Of course, these studies were still carried out within colonial power structures. But, it’s likely that French scholars, for example, weren’t as easily able to travel to then-Ottoman Libya as they were able to travel within French colonial domains, and therefore took advantage of what opportunities they had to produce knowledge on the region. I’ve gathered some of these sources together under the rubric “non-site fieldwork”, the opposite of “on-site fieldwork”. Continue reading
When you do research in a particular field, over time you become acquainted, naturally, with the general trends of that field, what studies are considered the most important, what gaps there are, and with individual scholars and their works. But it often isn’t until you can sift through a large bibliography that you can really see what has or hasn’t been done, what’s completely lacking, and what works have been totally overlooked.
One of the major surprises to come out of my bibliographic work on Libyan languages (you can see the complete bibliography here) has been how many MA and PhD theses were written on Libyan Arabic or Berber (there are no theses, nor any academic publications at all, on the other languages of Libya), primarily by Libyan students in Western universities. Not only is the number higher than one would expect, but in most cases these theses were never published, their authors returned to Libya, and their theses were not circulated among linguists and hence rarely, if ever, cited. Although most of these theses have been almost totally overlooked, several of them are quite valuable and deserve wider attention. So, the purpose of this post is to first and foremost make them all more accessible. This isn’t a detailed review of any particular work, rather just an effort to simply show how they, and the scholars who wrote them, represent unused potential for broadening and deepening scholarly knowledge of Libyan languages. A complete listing is posted at the end, but first I want to briefly examine the bibliographic data.