A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Friday, January 15, 2016

A Punic Survival in Berber, Even in Siwa?

 I like to think there is some small, eccentric subset of my readers who have been asking themselves, "why is he spending so much time  on history and current events and neglecting posts on obscure linguistics of dead Middle Eastern languages?" I even like to think that a subset of that subset has been mumbling, "You haven't had a single post on Punic since the summer of 2013! " Then, you may recall, we discussed the question of whether spoken Punic (the language of Ancient Carthage) survived until the coming of Arabic.

Actually, maybe none of you are thinking that. But not being a linguistics expert, I have to refer you to someone who is, Lameen Souag over at Jabal al-Lughat, who also deserves congratulations for his 10th anniversary of blogging. I also recently linked to his posts about the officialization of Tamazight in Algeria.

In this particular link. "Raisins from Carthage to Siwa," Souag, citing a Facebook post, notes that the standard word in Tamazight dialects for "raisin" is usually either a Berber phrase meaning "dried grapes" or is a loan word from Arabic, but that in Djerba in Tunisia, Zuwara and other places in western Libya — and, curiously, at Siwa, the only Berber enclave in Egypt —the root in use is found in a late inscription in Neo-Punic. The root is also documented in Hebrew, as is often how Punic and Phoenician inscriptions are deciphered. (Hebrew, Phoenician, Punic and Canaanite are extremely similar languages.)

Souag, who has written a book on Siwi and its relations to other Berber languages, notes that Carthaginian influence, and Neo-Punic, never extended east of central Libya, so what explains the presence in Siwa of all places? He answers:
The answer is simple, as I discuss in the introduction to my book Berber and Arabic in Siwa (Egypt): modern Siwi seems to derive mainly from a Berber variety spoken much further west, which reached Siwa only during the Middle Ages. There very probably was a Berber language spoken in Siwa before that, but if so, it has left very few traces.
 I, at least, find that fascinating.

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