Lyrics and Language Preservation.

A fascinating Jabal al-Lughat post by Dr. Lameen Souag starts off with lyrics from the Berber-speaking oasis of Siwa in western Egypt, which turn out to have been “passed on orally for more than 120 years, with only minor changes”; it continues:

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?

I absolutely love this kind of thing; there’s some good discussion in the comments there, and of course your thoughts are welcome below.


  1. In my experience folk song lyrics serve as an Ark for a considerable amount of, mostly old and dialectal, vocabulary that would otherwise have been lost due to the standardization process effected by the TV, the media, etc. People might have given up on this colourful linguistic treasure in terms of every day speech (some may even feel ashamed of these old, idiosyncratic, “passé” words), but nobody has any problem reciting them in proverbial sayings, wishes, curses, etc., or singing them in well-known songs that pass from one generation to the next. Hence, we still understand them.

  2. dmitry pruss says

    Fascinating ! Perhaps written corpora of old languages may be likewise enriched in older vocabs of magic, memory, verse

  3. Yes, exactly.

  4. ə de vivre says

    I can’t speak to the ‘music and language preservation’ aspect, but I do have some experience with the ‘music and language conservatism’ part. I used to play what is known in the biz’ as “Türk Sanat Musikisi”, a tradition that originated mostly in the Ottoman elite much like European classical music, but then diffused out into various other institutions once European classical music came into vogue in the late 19th century. Of lot of the stuff we played was written before the 20s, so it was all in Ottoman Turkish. Even the word “musiki” for music is an archaism, mostly replaced by “müzik”. Our singers were mostly Turks, well educated ex-pats but not Ottomanists, and the lyrics were just as opaque to them as to us non-Turks. Before I knew more about the history of the language I was shocked that someone with a university education would need a dictionary to read something written in their native language in the late 19th century. I imagine it’s not too exotic for people in places where the dominant script is right-to-left, but I remember one score with the music running left-to-right and the words in Ottoman Arabic script with each syllable right-to-left and a line extending from the right edge (the beginning) of the word to indicate how long to hold the syllable. I was kinda disappointed when I was finally able to read it and it was mostly just a bunch of “aman aman”s and “telelü telelü”s.

    Later I’d get made fun of for unwittingly sprinkling Ottomanisms into my Turkish since I didn’t always keep the words I’d learned from old music separate from the rest of my vocabulary. It was easy to avoid the obvious Persianisms and Arabisms, but I remember getting caught using ‘diriltmek’, which from a phonological point of view seemed like a perfectly cromulent Turkish word

  5. Can something be cromulent without being perfectly so? Almost cromulent? (He asks innocently, pretending that he isn’t trying to drop-kick the topic into the next state).

  6. Dē cromulentiā non est disputandum.

  7. ə de vivre says

    My intent with “prefectly cromulent” was something along the lines of “unambiguously cromulent” to emphasize that (in my mind) I was not taking a risk in using that word. In general I think degrees of cromulency are ambiguous with respect to modality. “X is very cromulent” has either an epistemic reading, “for ∃ situation I am very secure in my knowledge that X is cromulent”; or an alethic reading “X is cromulent with respect to a large set of situations”. I’m having a hard time finding good non-modal uses of “very cromulent”. I think that may be related to “cromulent” needing to be predicated of a type-level object: A word can be cromulent, but my intuition is that a specific use of a word doesn’t have cromulency in and of itself.

  8. ∂, after several examples of the adjective “cromulent” I was ready for the corresponding noun, and just as I was thinking “cromulence or cromulency?” the word serendipiteously appeared: “cromulency”.

  9. ∂, that sounds right — but I admit that my purpose was more to probe whether ‘perfectly cromulent’ had entered usage as a set phrase (since that was how Ms. Hoover described ’embiggen’).

  10. Lars:

    You’re probably right about that. It’s interesting (at least to me) since re: the topic of this post, archaic words often find themselves preserved in set expressions or contexts that, while not idiomatic per se, don’t readily admit decomposition in the same way unmarked vocabulary does. From now on I’m going to make an effort to use “cromulent” without “perfectly” in order to further entrench it in the lexicon.

    Well given Y’s Latin etymology, isn’t “cromulency” is the expected English descendant of “cromulentia”? 🙂

  11. Lars, I had no idea that “cromulent” was actually a Latinate borrowing. (I am still not sure that it is rather than a made up word). But “patience” is from “patientia”, “science” from “scientia”, and so on with other such words.

  12. Oh, I see back there that I had not noticed ∂’s use of “cromulency” earlier in his post, only at the end.

  13. And was Y’s post really a Latin quotation or one he made up himself? (If so, I would not consider it a fault!)

  14. Er, sorry, I was being facetious, it’s a made-up word from the Simpsons, unless you were making a joke too and we’ve fallen into some kind of state of quantumly-uncertain sincerity. My own knowledge of Latin is just a step above “pig”.


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