Friday, October 30, 2015

The cross-cultural ambiguity of "nation" in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict

Advance warning: 1. I am no expert on Hebrew, nor for that matter on semantics. 2. Comments relating to word usage are welcome below; attempts to refight the conflict are not.

One thing that's always puzzled me about pro-Israel discourse is the enormous weight it tends to place on the concept of nationhood. Over and over again, you find Zionists insisting that Israel is a nation, that Palestine is not a nation, that Palestine must acknowledge that Israel is a nation - as if nationhood were the key issue at stake. In pro-Palestine discourse, on the other hand, the question of whether either party is a nation hardly arises except in responses; who cares? Recently it struck me that this difference in rhetoric could perhaps be understood in semantic terms. What is a nation? And just how badly does this rather polysemous word translate?

When Netanyahu defends proposals to define Israel as the "nation-state of the Jewish people" (מדינת הלאום של העם היהודי), or declares that "we do not want a bi-national state" (איננו רוצים מדינה דו-לאומית), the word he's using is le'om לאום. In the Hebrew Bible, this word (better transcribed lə'ōm) is fairly uncommon, occurring 26 times in the plural and 5 in the singular (26 of them in the singular), usually in poetry and paired with its far more frequent near-synonym ʕām עָם "people, nation". It occurs in the singular in Proverbs, with general reference, and in Genesis 25, in which Jacob and Esau are each presented as a le'om, implicitly representing the nation made up of his descendants: respectively, Israel and Edom. Elsewhere, it occurs in the plural, especially referring to other nations (eg Psalms 47:3). In a more modern context, le'om is the word used for "ethnic affiliation" on Israeli ID cards: an Israeli citizen's le'om can be Jewish, Arab, or Druze, but, curiously enough, never Israeli.

In Arabic, the "nation-state of the Jewish people" is rendered as "دولة قومية للشعب اليهودي", and "bi-national state" as "دولة ثنائية القومية", both using the word qawmiyy "national", from qawm "nation, people". The latter word is very frequent in the Qur'an, occurring 383 times. Its usage there, however, is rather different. It never occurs pluralised (though it takes plural agreement). Whereas the only le'oms defined by name in the Bible are defined by common patrilineal ancestry, a qawm is defined by name in the Qur'an only in terms of their prophet or (more rarely) leader: qawmu Mūsā "the people of Moses", qawmu Firʕawn "the people of Pharaoh", qawmi Nūḥ "the people of Noah", qawmi 'Ibrāhīm "the people of Abraham"... Otherwise, it is defined in terms of its characteristics: most often, believing (aware, realising, grateful, etc.) or unbelieving (wrong-doing, misguided, self-wronging, etc.)

As might be expected based on this, the noun qawm is hardly ever used to refer to something like a "Palestinian nation", nor to a "Jewish nation", nor even to an "Arab nation" (Google returns derisorily small numbers of hits, in the low thousands or below). If you search for dawlah qawmiyyah "nation-state", what you mostly get is discussion of Israel (along with a few fringe movements). Qawmiyyah, "nationalism", is a more prominent concept in the modern era - above all, al-qawmiyyah al-ʕarabiyyah "Arab nationalism", ie the dream of a single pan-Arab state - but one with a rather ambivalent ring to it at best; there are still Arab nationalists around, but the Arab unity project has had a musty 1960s smell to it for a while, criticised as much from the right as from the left. Even apart from its content, the common Israeli demand for recognition of a "nation-state of the Jewish people" thus translates rather poorly - not because the concepts don't exist, but because they don't have similar connotations. Palestinians aren't normally speaking in terms of a "dawlah qawmiyyah of the Palestinian people", nor for that matter of "the Arab people"; whether Palestine is a nation-state or some other kind of state is a secondary issue.

When Mahmoud Abbas mentions "national institutions" or a "national unity government" in his UNGA speech - or meets with the Palestinian National Council - the word he's using, and the word any Arabic speaker would use, is waṭaniyy وطني, from waṭan وطن "nation, homeland". In the Palestinian declaration of independence of 1988, qawmiyy occurs once (in a token nod to Arab nationalism), whereas waṭaniyy occurs 13 times, in collocations like "national identity", "national independence", "national rights", "national personality", "national will"... The word waṭan doesn't occur in the Qur'an at all; the closest it comes is a single usage of mawāṭin "regions". It unambiguously refers to a land, not to a group of people. And, unlike qawm, it has a profound resonance in the context of Palestinian - and Arab - nationalism, and not just because it provides the adjective used in collocations like "national liberation" or "national anthem". It recurs nostalgically in the poems of Mahmoud Darwish ("What is the waṭan? It is the house, and the mulberry tree, and the chicken coop and the beehive, and the smell of bread and the sky") or Tawfiq Zayyad ("As you were, so you shall remain, my waṭan - present in the leaves of the oleander and the fragrance of jasmine"). Further afield, Nizar Qabbani's remarkable line comes to mind now more than ever: "O my waṭan, have they made you a serial of horror whose events we follow in the evening? Then how shall we see you if they cut the power?" And, of course, waṭaniyyah وطنية "patriotism" has far more positive connotations than qawmiyyah. All of this vocabulary places the emphasis away from notions of ethnic cohesion or common ancestry, focusing on a different common ground: the land itself.

The Hebrew translation of waṭan would appear to be moledet (מולדת) "homeland". This word does occur in the Bible, 22 times - but, like le'om, it carries there a sense much more closely tied to human kinship, referring to "kindred, family" as well as "birthplace, native country". Israel's declaration of independence refers to the land as the "national homeland (moledet)" of the Jews, and there seems to be a good deal of Hebrew poetry on the subject. However, collocations like "national anthem" or "National Council" or "national unity government" or "national liberation" all derive from le'om, not from moledet.

"Nation" in English usage is ambiguous: is a nation united primarily by its attachment to a given area, or by its common ancestry? Either language can express either idea. However, the best-established and most positively viewed terminology in Arabic focuses on the former, while in Hebrew it focuses on the latter. This difference is hardly the source of the conflict, but it does play some small part in impeding mutual understanding.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

The original chupacabra?

Americans of a certain age probably remember the "chupacabra" (goat-sucker), a nonexistent reptilian monster supposed to suck the blood of Puerto Rican goats back in the 1990s. The notion of goat-suckers, however, has a longer, less bloody, and slightly more respectable history. In European folklore, a goat-sucker (Spanish chotacabras, Latin Caprimulgus) is a kind of nocturnal bird, thought since Pliny to steal goats' milk as they slept. In Middle Eastern folklore, however, it's a creature a little more reminiscent of the chupacabra that is popularly supposed to steal milk from goats: namely, the monitor lizard (varan, ورل‍). In Persian, this lizard is even called بزمجه bozmajeh "goat-sucker" (Anderson, "Lizards", Encyclopaedia Iranica). Unlikely as this notion seems a priori, it does appear that monitor lizards will drink milk offered to them, if we may believe an aside in Kesteloot and Veirman's "Le culte du Mboose à Kaolack" (p. 85). I recently came across a passage describing how this is said to work in a recording in Korandje (a Songhay language of southwestern Algeria):
monitor lizard,when3Sg-seegoat=PL,
a-m-gwabmaʔʔʔʔ maʔʔ,
3Sg-IRR-INCEPTmaaa maaa,
so that3Sg-IRR-
so thatgoat-PLIRR-stand-3Sg.DAT3Sg-IRR-go3Sg-IRR-suckle-3PlEmph.
The monitor lizard, when it sees goats, it starts going maaa maaa, it bleats like a kid goat so that it- so that the goats will stand by it and it can go and suckle them.

I'll leave it to the biologists to determine whether this story has any basis in fact, and folklorists to consider if it can be connected to the Puerto Rican chupacabra. However, it does have one linguistically interesting feature as well. In Korandje, an aspect marker is ordinarily directly followed by a verb. It is possible to hesitate after an aspect marker, but not to insert anything between it and the verb it governs. However, in this sentence we find an aspect marker (gwab) followed directly by an onomatopeia representing the sound made. This suggests that, despite the inseparability of the verb from the aspect marker, it might be plausible to take them as two distinct words rather than as a single long word.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Lyrics and language preservation?

The Berber-speaking oasis of Siwa in western Egypt, where I did doctoral fieldwork, has a rather extensive poetic tradition embodied in song lyrics. Practically every Siwi I spoke to quoted me some lyrics at some point, and songs in Siwi apparently remain a key element of parties. I included a few of these in my book about Siwi, among them four nicely arranged lines referring to Shali, the main town of Siwa:

Quṛ, ya lmendi, quṛ!Dry, O wheat, dry!
Baba nnek yexsa Cali.Your owner misses Shali.
Nan edderb n Cali,People of the Shali road,
Sellemm-i af elɣali.Give the beloved my greetings.

It wasn't until later that I finally received a copy of Bricchetti-Robetti's (1889) article "Sul dialetto di Siuwah", and not until this month that I finally got around to reading it carefully. When I did, I was surprised to find this poem transcribed practically word for word:

qor aimindi qorقور ايمند قور
babenik jiksa - scialiببنك يخس - شالى
nani derbj enscialiتندرب انشالى
salamuet - afelrhaliسلموت افلغالى

Apparently, these lyrics have been passed on orally for more than 120 years, with only minor changes.

There are many ways in which Siwa is different from Tabelbala, the Algerian oasis where I did the other half of my doctoral fieldwork. Linguistically, one that struck me early on was the variability of Tabelbala's language, Korandje, compared to Siwi. In Siwa, there was some interesting variation even within the speech of single individuals (1st sg. -ɣ- vs. -ʕ-, negative copula qačči/'ačči/ɣačči), but it hardly seemed possible to speak of dialects. In Tabelbala, not only did different villages take pains to distinguish themselves by different ways of speaking, but neighbours and cousins often showed substantial differences in pronunciation and even sometimes vocabulary. And whereas Siwis rarely seemed at a loss for words, in Tabelbala even the oldest speakers routinely had trouble finding a word, or disagreed on its meaning once they had remembered it.

Another striking difference is the low profile of Korandje poetry, if it exists at all. Whereas in Siwa I could hardly stop people from telling me lyrics, in Tabelbala my utmost efforts barely dredged up a few ditties which the speakers themselves considered absurdly simple. The poetry that men cared about and appreciated was in dialectal Arabic, and even that was far less prominent than in Siwa. (Some older women reportedly sing Korandje poetry in honour of the Prophet at regular Sufi gatherings, but I was unable to hear any of that; given its subject matter, I suspect the language used would be heavily influenced by Arabic.)

One possibility I'm tempted to consider is that these two facts are causally linked. In Siwa, songs are heard and sung in groups, and the best lyrics are widely circulated and - apparently - remembered for many decades; their rhythm and rhyme makes major rewording impractical. Logically, this should keep less frequently used vocabulary in circulation in much the same way as a written literary tradition, or a national broadcasting service. Without songs, for instance, would Siwi have kept a Berber word for "gazelle" (izem), an animal rarely if ever seen in the oasis today, but to which the beloved is constantly compared? In Korandje, on the other hand, the standardising force of songs and poetry is practically absent, and it's not obvious that anything else in their verbal arts (already sadly atrophied by television) compensates for it.

Does this reflect your experience, or contradict it? How do poetic traditions (or lack of them) in societies you're familiar with seem to affect the prospects for their languages?

Friday, October 09, 2015

From codeswitching to borrowing in une génération?

It's not unusual to hear sentences like the following from middle-class Algerian adults, especially women:

عندنا ان تيليفيزيون كبير
ʕəndna æ̃ tilivizyõ kbir
"we have a big TV"

شرينا لو تيلي
šrina lœ tele
"we bought the TV"

If I had in fact heard these from an adult, I would unhesitatingly classify them as code-switching, with a French noun phrase inserted into an otherwise Arabic sentence. That goes especially for the former - monolingual adults simply don't use the French indefinite article [æ̃ ] (un). In fact, however, I heard them from a monolingual 5-year old, born and bred in Algeria, who only took her first French class this term. Unless she knows more French than she or her parents are letting on, that necessarily makes them monolingual sentences. And that means that, for this young lady, [æ̃ ] (un) has become a borrowing into Algerian Arabic - an indefinite article used with words that take the definite article le.

Earlier, I noted that children don't typically initiate effective language change; and, in terms of output, this isn't a change at all. She's simply learned to produce the kind of sentences she hears all the time directly, without going through all the effort of learning French first. In terms of the underlying system, however, it's a significant change. Instead of having one indefinite article used with all nouns, she now has two: one with Arabic nouns, and one with French nouns. (Rather like the nouns borrowed from Berber that we looked at earlier, which can't take the Arabic definite article.) In Saussurean terms, one generation's parole (the relatively free Arabic-French codeswitching practiced by her parents) has become the next generation's langue. And that sort of change is by its nature something children, and only children, are extremely likely to lead.

(Note, by the way, that in French télévision is feminine; I'm not sure why she gives it masculine agreement, but probably this reflects the influence of the earlier borrowed form tilivizyun, which regular Arabic phonological gender assignment rules make masculine.)

Friday, October 02, 2015

Korandje from the 12th to the 21st century (popular article)

Korandje, the seriously endangered Songhay language of Tabelbala in southwestern Algeria, is a longstanding research interest of mine. As far as I can see, it has the most complicated contact history of any language in the Sahara, with multiple extensive layers of loanwords from each of at least five languages which successively dominated the region. I recently wrote a short summary of the history of Korandje (as I understand it), aimed at a non-specialist audience, for a special issue of The Middle East in London. You can read it here:

Gaining a language, losing a language: Korandje from the 12th to the 21st century.