Daily Archives: 21 May 2008

A Linguistic Rediscovery Close to Home

During my dissertation fieldwork in Papua New Guinea over thirty years ago, I discovered that a bunch of Austronesian languages in Morobe Province mark their relative clauses in a manner that is pretty rare from a typological point of view: they mark both the beginning and the end of the clauses. An English equivalent would go something like, “The language [that they were speaking that] sounded vaguely familiar,” or “The language [which they were speaking such] sounded vaguely familiar.”

The only other place where I could find languages that did the same was in Central Africa, and my dissertation cited a 1976 article by the great French linguist Claude Hagège which mentioned by name two Nilo-Saharan languages, Moru and Mangbetu, and two Niger-Congo languages, Mbum and M’baka. Over the years, I lost track of anything pertaining to those languages except their names.

But I got curious again recently as I worked on updating for publication an old paper on clause-bracketing in PNG Austronesian languages. So, yesterday, after googling those names and finding out that Mbum and M’baka (= Ngbaka) are spoken in the Central African Republic, I emailed my historian brother in Strasbourg, whom I recently visited, to ask whether he knew of any CAR languages that bracketed their relative clauses. He had spent years working in the (at that time) Central African Empire for the US Peace Corps and USAID while I was writing my dissertation in linguistics, and he later wrote a dissertation himself on Japan-Africa relations before World War II.

My query didn’t ring any bells with him at first, but after some reflection he came up with some examples in Sango, CAR’s national lingua franca. And then he emailed to ask his linguist friend Raymond Boyd at CNRS whether he could think of Adamawa-Ubangi languages that used such markers for relative clauses. Boyd replied:

Right off, I can’t think of one that DOESN’T. In languages like Sango and Chamba, opener and closer can be the same. In Zande, the opener is etymologically an indefinite and the closer is a locative. I’ve been reading a dissertation on Mambay (an Adamawa language closely related to Mbum and Mundang) where there is only an opener, but I take this to be perhaps a Chadic influence (I’d have to check this on a much larger range of data).

It was a Eureka moment for both of us.

I can’t believe I never thought to ask my own brother before! Back in January, when he took us to the used book vendors in place Gutenberg in Strasbourg, I discovered a book I couldn’t resist buying—despite the 30€ price—for no other reason than that I had mentioned the language it described in my dissertation. It was La Langue des Makere, des Medje et des Mangbetu, par A. Vekens, Dominicain (Editions Dominicaines Veritas, 1928), and the pages were still uncut. But even then, it didn’t cross my mind to quiz my brother about the CAR languages he had worked on.

Here are some examples of bracketed relative clauses.

Mangbetu (Vekens 1928) in Congo

A belu [si kesia né môlô ta kira ne] kambuba e faranga môkôtu.
Les hommes [ceux font le travail avec intelligence ceux-là] gagneront des francs beaucoup.
‘Those who work smart get plenty money.’

Sango (my brother, pers. comm.) in CAR

Tene [so mo tene so] ake nzoni ape.
word [thus you say thus] is good not
‘What you say is no good.’

Jabêm (Dempwolff 1939) in PNG

Lip [tec aê gawa nec] gêjac mocseŋ teŋ.
trap [Dem I I-set Dem] it-catch bushfowl one
‘The trap I set caught a bushfowl.’

South Watut (Holzknecht 1989) in PNG

Jek i-ra jiyaʔ ri naip a [ti ra-gin afu ŋga]
Jack he-cut tree with knife [Dem I-give to Dem]
‘Jack cut the tree with the knife which I gave him.’

Patep (Lauck 1980) in PNG

Ông ob tyoo yii yuu nuhu [wê ob lam ge]
you will dodge spear two arrow [Rel will come Rel]
‘You will dodge the spears and arrows that will come.’


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Filed under Africa, Central African Republic, language, Papua New Guinea

Gulag Returnees Meet Their Accusers

From The Whisperers: Private Lives in Stalin’s Russia, by Orlando Figes (Metropolitan, 2007), pp. 583-587:

‘Now those who were arrested will return, and two Russias will look each other in the eye: the one that sent these people to the camps and the one that came back.’ With those words the poet Akhmatova anticipated the drama which unfolded as prisoners returned from the camps to confront colleagues, neighbours, friends who had informed on them….

Ibragim Izmail-Zade was a senior professor of medicine and a departmental head at the Institute of Medicine in Baku at the time of his arrest, in 1938, on charges of belonging to an ‘anti-Soviet group of Azerbaijani nationalists’. After his release from the Kolyma camps, he returned to Baku, where he took up a junior position in the same institute. Instead of the cutting-edge research he had done in the 1930s, he was now employed in routine clinical work. During the trial of M. D. Bagirov, the former Party boss of Azerbaijan, in 1955, Ibragim appeared as a witness for the prosecution, in which capacity he was allowed to look at his own file from 1938, when Bagirov had led the terror campaign in Baku. Ibragim discovered that he had been denounced by his favourite student, who had since gone on to become the head of his department at the institute. While Ibragim was in Kolyma, the former student had often visited his wife and daughter, who treated him as a member of the family. The old student was noticeably cooler in his behaviour after Ibragim’s return, rarely coming to the house, and never in the evening, when he would have been obliged to eat or drink with him. After his discovery of the denunciation, Ibragim and his family were forced to see the former student several times, and while they never spoke to him about his actions, it was clear that the Izmail-Zades now knew of the betrayal. One day the political director of the institute appeared at the Izmail-Zade house. He wanted Ibragim to sign a document stating that his family had no grievance against the former student, and that they would remain on friendly terms. Ibragim refused to sign. He had to be restrained from throwing the official out on the street. According to his daughter, Ibragim was crushed by the betrayal. He felt humiliated at being forced to work beneath someone who, he felt, was hardly qualified. Being asked to sign the document had been the final straw….

Many former prisoners were surprisingly forgiving towards the people who had informed on them. This inclination to forgive was seldom rooted in religious attitudes, … but it was often based on the understanding, which was shared by everyone who had experienced the prisons and the camps of the Gulag system, that virtually any citizen, no matter how good they might be in normal circumstances, could be turned into an informer by pressure from the NKVD.

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Filed under Russia, USSR