Tag Archives: linguistics

Two books on Zwara Berber | كتابين على لهجة زوارة الامازيغية

Picking up the theme of Berber (Amazigh) languages which we started last month, we move to the area of Zwara in northwest Libya. It has become known a bit better to the outside world, unfortunately, as a point of departure for refugees attempting to cross the Mediterranean and for related problems with trafficking. So it is with many places in Libya, which hadn’t been heard of until something bad happened. Like Benghazi: before 2011 no one had ever heard of such a place, now everyone has heard of it but still can’t pronounce it correctly. But I’m getting off track—I want to highlight something unique about Zwara: it is one of the places where a Berber language is still spoken in Libya.

The linguist T.F. Mitchell (1919-2007) spent time doing fieldwork in Zwara in the 1940s and 50s, publishing some articles about the language (he also published work on Cyrenaican Arabic). But only recently were some of his copious papers on the Zwara Berber language edited into monographs.

The first is Ferhat: An everyday story of Berber folk in and around Zuara (Libya) (Berber Studies 17, Rüdiger Köppe: Cologne, 2007). Ferhat is the result of Mitchell’s work with his main informant Ramadan Azzabi, who narrated aspects of everyday life in Zwara. It hadn’t been published until Mitchell gave the papers to the editor of the Berber Studies series shortly before his death. The publication of this lengthy material is a valuable contribution for those interested not only in linguistics, but also Libyan/Berber language and culture. There is also an appendix discussing marriage customs in Zwara and a bibliography of work on the language carried out up until that point.

The follow-up to that volume, and posthumously capping T.F. Mitchell’s work is Zuaran Berber (Libya): Grammar and Texts (Berber Studies 26, Rüdiger Köppe: Cologne, 2009). This work consists of a partial grammatical sketch (partial because it concentrates mostly on verb morphology) of the Zwaran language that Mitchell had completed before his death, together with a number of transcribed conversation between Zwarans. Best of all, the audio files are available online at the publishers website (see link above) so that anyone interested can hear some Zwaran Berber.

Book: The Berber language of Ghadames | لهجة غدامس الامازيغية

Ghadames. Image by George Steinmetz, National Geographic.

The historic city of Ghadames in the far west of Libya is well-known for its beautiful vernacular architecture. It is also is home to a unique variety of the Berber language. Like in Awjila, fieldwork in Ghadames was primarily done before the regime came to power and both research and mention of Berbers were restricted. Much material was collected primarily by a French linguist named Jacques Lanfry, who stayed in the oasis in the 1940s. Prior to that, linguistic material from Ghadames had not been published since 1904. Lanfry’s material has now been analysed by Maarten Kossmann, who works on a wide variety of languages in North Africa including several Berber varieties, and published as A Grammatical Sketch of Ghadames Berber (Libya). Rüdiger Köppe Verlag: Cologne (2013, Berber Studies 40). The publisher’s website states:

“Ghadames constitutes a Berber language on its own, which has followed different historical paths from all other languages. It preserves a number of phonological features that are not commonly found else­where and in its morphology, Ghadames also has a number of highly unusual features. While much of its syntax follows general Berber patterns, a number of outstanding features occur. Ghadames Berber lexi­con has undergone relatively low influence from Arabic; thus in a count of loanwords in traditional narrative texts, Ghadames has 18% loanwords from Arabic, whereas languages such as Tashelhiyt and Figuig have twice as much. Furthermore there are a number of recognizable loans from Tuareg and Hausa.

In spite of the importance of Lanfry’s materials, in Berber studies the language of Ghadames has not yet been given the place it deserves. This may be due to the fact that anfry’s studies are difficult to obtain, and that Lanfry’s notations prove somewhat difficult to interpret for a superficial reader. Moreover, while Lanfry provides a detailed description of verbal morphology, other subjects remain under­represented, such as syntax. This is the reason the author decided to write this short grammatical sketch, based on Lanfry’s materials.”

Book: The Berber language of Awjila | لهجة اوجلة الامازيغية

Here at the Silphium Gatherer we are going to close out this month with a focus on recent studies about the various Berber groups of Libya. [1]

Academic work on the Berbers of Libya has been primarily linguistic, but of course, as we often say here, all aspects of these groups are understudied. By sharing the main recent publications here, I hope to at least give an impression of what has been done and possibilities for future research. The first two works highlighted here are both based on linguistic data collected during the pre-regime period, as little fieldwork has been possible in the past several decades.

The most recent publication is my friend and colleague Marijn van Putten‘s overview of the grammar of the Berber variety spoken in the oasis of Awjila in eastern Libya: A Grammar of Awjila Berber (Libya), Rüdiger Köppe Verlag, Cologne, 2014 (Berber Studies 41). The material for this was collected in the 1960s by a very able linguist named Umberto Paradisi, whose tragic death in an accident in Benghazi prevented him from finishing his work. Marijn van Putten has now turned his work into a detailed and readable grammatical description which also includes all the material in Awjila Berber recorded by earlier scholars, including a number of fairy tales and songs.

On a Berber-language-related blog that Marijn and I started a while ago, you can also find some discussion of Awjila Berber (note that it is oriented primarily at those with some linguistic knowledge of Berber languages). Over at Marijn’s academia.edu page those interested will also find a number of further articles about the Berber variety of Awjila.

1 The term ‘Berber’ is usually used in scholarly works, but is sometimes considered pejorative—however, we’ll continue to use ‘Berber’ here in order to refer to publications without confusion.

Article: Mutual Intelligibility of Benghazi Arabic, Tunis Arabic, and Maltese

Last year, I participated in a research project led by my good friend and colleague Slavomír “bulbul” Čéplö which focused on testing how well speakers of Arabic from different places could understand each other’s dialects.

To do this, and get more than just impressionistic results, Slavomír first adapted a method that was previously used to test the mutual intelligibility (meaning how well speakers can understand each other) of Chinese varieties. The test had three parts: words, sentences, and stories. People taking the test listen to each part spoken in dialects other than their own, and attempt to answer questions about what they’ve heard. Based on their answers, we try to figure out 1) roughly how much of those other dialects they can understand, and 2) what are the specific problems that they encounter when they can’t understand something.

These three dialects were chosen for the pilot study because they are all North African, and therefore have a number of similarities. Plus, they were the easiest to field-test: I could do the testing in Benghazi, Slavomír in Malta, and Christophe Pereira in Tunis.

For those who simply want somewhat scientific, but uncomplicated, results to share with their friends, I can say this: 1) speakers of Benghazi Arabic can understand about 44% of Maltese and 73% of Tunis Arabic, 2) speakers of Tunis Arabic understand slightly more of both, about 80% of Benghazi Arabic and 45% of Maltese, and 3) speakers of Maltese understand about 38% of both Benghazi and Tunis Arabic.

If you want the real details, especially with regard to what particular factors affect how well those speaking one dialect can understand those speaking another (such as changes in sounds, the use of different words, and changes in grammar), then you should read our description of the whole thing. If you’re interested in the results, you can read a draft of our article (which has been accepted for publication in Folia Linguistica). Feel free to come back with questions!

The testing procedure was actually pretty simple. Particpants simply sat down with an iPad and a pair of headphones, and spent about 30 minutes listening and and responding via the touch screen. (Of course, making the software itself was much more complicated, and accomplished by Slavomír and his colleagues over at Sonic Studio). If you’re interested in the details, you can read a description of the application used for testing.

Here you can get a glimpse of how the actual app looks. The left-hand sideshows the word test, while the right-hand side shows the sentence test.


*Note: more pictures coming soon!