August 10, 2005

Chimwiini exemplified, tax perceived, uncertainty admired

A few days ago, the mail brought me a copy of The Chimwiini Lexicon Exemplified, by Charles W. Kisseberth and Mohammad Imam Abasheikh, which is no. 45 in the Asian and African Lexicon series published by the Research Institute for Languages and Cultures of Asia and Africa, of the Tokyo University of Foreign Studies.

The book came in a cardboard package without any stamps or any other indication of a specific amount of postage having been paid. The upper right corner of the package is blank, but in the top center there is a circular stamping like a postal cancellation, which (after being de-circled) reads:




I didn't know that percevoir can mean "to receive (payment)" as well as "to perceive" or "to comprehend". Taxe perçue is a charming expression, as if it's enough for the Japanese postal authorities that TUFS has perceived its financial obligation in this matter. Or perhaps, since the perceiving agent is unspecified, it's only someone in the Musashifuchu tax office who perceived it? In any case, despite Shintaro Ishihara's insults, the Japanese government is apparently still using French to let the rest of the world know that adequate tax-perception has occurred. And the fact that the tax was perceived by someone in Japan, and thus noted in French, was also enough to persuade the U.S. Post Office to deliver the book to my office in Philadelphia

Chimwiini is a Somali dialect of Swahili. Ethnologue specifies

Region: The Mwini live in Baraawe (Brava), Lower Shabeelle, and were scattered in cities and towns of southern Somalia. Most have fled to Kenya because of the civil war. The Bajun live in Kismaayo District and the neighboring coast.

Dialects: Mwini (Mwiini, Chimwiini, Af-Chimwiini, Barwaani, Bravanese), Bajuni (Kibajuni, Bajun, Af-Bajuun, Mbalazi, Chimbalazi).

Comments: Reported to have come centuries ago from Zanzibar. Mwini: artisans (leather goods); Bajun: fishermen.

According to Kisseberth and Abasheikh's Preface,

Chimwiini is a dialect of Kiswahili which has, for some centuries, been spoken in the town of Mwiini (generally known as Brava or Barawa) in southern Somalia. Brava was at one time not the only location in Somalia where forms of Kiswahili were spoken. Historical evidence shows that some centuries ago, Kiswahili was spoken at least as far north as Mogadisho. The Somali language eventually displaced Kiswahili in Somalia except for Brava. The people of Brava (numbering roughly 10,000 in the early 1970's, according to MIA's estimate) somehow resisted the Somali language hegemony. Civil war and the political chaos in Somalia in the first part of the 1990's have apparently led to the dispersal of the population of Brava, with many people currently refugees in Kenya or further afield. The present outlook for the language's continued existence looks bleak indeed.

While Chimwiini is a dialect of Kiswahili, its differences from Kiswahili in phonology (especially in the prosodic features of length and accent), morphology, and lexicon (due in large part to the significant influence of Somali) warrant detailed study of all aspects of its structure.

The preface also explains what the authors mean by "exemplified":

This volume atempts (a) to document the lexicon of Chimwiini and (b) to exemplify the morphological, phrasal and sentential patterns of the language as fully as possible given the limitations of our research. ... The examples include single words, phrases and sentences. From the point of view of a purely lexical study, the examples are often redundant (i.e. do not provide new information about the meaning or use of the item in question). They do, however, serve the purpose of richly documenting a little studied, endangered language.

Although the authors have been working on this project on and off since 1973 (among many others activities for both of them), and although one of the authors is a native speaker of Chimwiini, the work often admits to uncertainty, in some cases about fairly basic things. For example, one of the exemplifications given for ma-haba "love, affection" is

wa'ishiize pamooyi ka mapeenḏo na mahabbá they lived together in love and affection (phon. This item was recorded with gemination, but the precise status of gemination in the language is not easy to determine -- is it entirely stylistic? is it a combination of both stylistics and lexicon? in the case of borrowed words, what is the relevance of gemination in the source language to its treatment in Mw.?)

I think this frankness about scholarly uncertainty is refreshing and praiseworthy.

Most of the uncertainties are more local, like about the relationship of words to possible cognates in Kiswahili or Somali. There are also quite a few entries whose gloss is "[unfortunately we did not obtain a gloss for this item]", and notes like this one, for a word glossed "at a hotel":

(Note: Doubtless the basic from of this noun exists in Mw., but we only recorded the locative form and thus now cannot be certain about what the correct vowel quantity is in the basic form.)

The work is full of helpful little grammatical notes, as in the entry for iḻa "defect", whose exemplification includes

[numba yaa wé/ nthukiingilá/ híiwi/ iḻáye] [prov.] the house that you/ have not entered/ you cannot know/ its defects (notice that a negative relative verb does not end in o but rather a)

And sometimes the grammatical notes are not so little. My favorite part is the discussion, scattered throughout the work, of the interaction of lexical, morphological and phrasal factors in determining which syllables are accented. Describing the development of the authors' ideas about this aspect of the language, the preface says:

Lexical items are characterized by penultimate accent in the unmarked case, but there are morphosyntactic factors that trigger ultimate accent. The principles governing vowel length and accent are critically dependent on the parsing of sentences into "prosodic phrases" [=PP]. Whether a vowel can be long depends on its position in the PP; whether a vowel is accented or not depends on its position in the PP. ...

In principle, we would have like to record each and every example in what we might call a narrow transcription. That is, we would have liked to indicate whether a given vowel was long or short, accented or not, and how each example is organized into prosodic phrases. Many of the examples in this book are in fact given in such a narrow transcription. These examples can be recognized as follows: there is a left bracket ("[") at the beginning of the example and a right bracket ("]") at the end; the right edge of all phrases except the last is marked by a slash ("/"); short vowels are written with a single symbol (e.g. a) while long vowels are written double (e.g. aa); and accented vowels are written with an acute accent mark over them (e.g. á) while unaccented vowels have no accent mark.

While we would have liked to always give a narrow transcription, this has not been possible. Unfortunately, at the time when the data was collected, we did not fully understand the accentual system. While we made an attempt to accurately transcribe the vowel length facts of every example we collected (and believe that our observations in that regard are generally accurate), we could not mark the accent fully. ...

Recently, we have achieved a much better understanding of accent, and armed with that understanding, it is possible to re-examine material that was tape-recorded and assign such material a narrow transcription. It is also possible to return to many examples that we collected (but did not tape record) and assign them an accentual structure and a PP-phrasing that is undoubtedly correct. But there are various reasons why this is not always possible ...

So they use three other kinds of transcription: what they call a broad transcription, which indicates vowel length and accent to the extent that they are sure of them, and prosodic phrasing to the extent that it is determined by that information; what they call a phrasing-free transcription, which indicates some vowel length and accent position but does not attempt to make any prosodic phrase boundaries; and what the call a prosody-free transcription, which makes no attempt to mark vowel length, accent or prosodic phrasing. Prosody-free transcriptions are required in cases where they were given examples in written form by others, or where examples are known to them only from song recordings (from which vowel length and accent can't reliably be determined in this language).

Anyone who has worked on an undocumented language or dialect will be familiar with this kind of situation. In fact, any honest observer who has worked on even the most extensively documented speech communities will recognize the sort of thing that they are writing about. For example, in the work recently sketched here on the pronunciation of the and a in English, there are some transcriptional uncertainties that are quite similar to the sorts of uncertainty that Kisseberth and Abasheikh discuss so frankly with respect to the Chimwiini examples. I'll pick this up again in another post.

[Update: Steve from Language Hat checked the OED, as I neglected to do, and discovered that English used to have the same sense of "take into possession" for perceive. This makes perfect sense, since the Latin root meant "to take"...:

II. To take into possession. Cf. L. percipere, F. percevoir, in lit. sense, from L. capere to take.

   8. trans. To receive (rents, profits, dues, etc.).

1382 WYCLIF Tobit xiv. 15 Al the eritage of the hous of Raguel he perceyvede [Vulg. percepit]. 1472-3 Rolls of Parlt. VI. 4/2 Every of the seid men Archers, to have and perceyve vid. by the day oonly. 1512 Knaresb. Wills (Surtees) I. 4, I will that my forsaid doghters have and persaive all the revenieuse. 1596 BACON Max. & Use Com. Law I. xx. (1636) 73. 1625 Concession to Sir F. Crane in Rymer Fædera XVIII. 60 To have, houlde, perceive, receive and take the said annuitie or yeerely pension of two thousand pounds.

   b. in gen. sense: To receive, get, obtain. Obs.

1482 Monk of Evesham (Arb.) 75 Gretely merueylde why he yat was so honeste of leuyng..had not yette perceiuyd fully reste and ioye. 1540-54 CROKE Ps. (Percy Soc.) 19 Full spedely let me obteyne Thy socoure, and perceyue the same. 1591 SHAKES. Two Gent. I. i. 144 Pro. Why? could'st thou perceiue so much from her? Sp. Sir, I could perceiue nothing at all from her; No, not so much as a ducket for deliuering your letter. 1748 J. NORTON Redeemed Captive (1870) 22 Mrs. Smeed was as wet.. but through the good providence of God, she never perceived any harm by it.


Posted by Mark Liberman at August 10, 2005 10:43 PM