Scientific ELDP Project Highlight: Documentation of the North-Eastern Neo-Aramaic dialect cluster of Gargarnaye

By ELAR Archive|September 17, 2018|ELDP Project Highlight|0 comments

Today on the ELAR blog, we are featuring a scientific highlight from ELDP grantee and ELAR depositor Lidia Napiorkowska. Lidia is documenting Gargarnaye, a North Eastern Neo-Aramaic (NENA) dialect, in Iraq. To learn more about Gargarnaye, visit Lidia’s deposit on the ELAR catalogue. Today on the blog, Lidia is talking about potential language change in the language: 

Researching dialects and languages featuring high internal diversity pose some challenges to linguists, while also providing invaluable insights into the phenomenon of language change. The Neo-Aramaic varieties around the town of Diyana are subject to extensive mixing with other Neo-Aramaic dialects on the one hand, and with Kurdish and Arabic on the other. They are thus a valuable source of data on language change. Documenting the differences between the dialects, as well as comparing data from various speakers of the same dialect according to the sociolinguistic parameters of gender, age, background and education allow us to analyse the variation as an ongoing change and help establish some tendencies for development.

‘The picnic interview session on mount Zozek near Diyana was a great opportunity to talk about the geography of the area’ -Lidia

In this context, a particularly interesting phenomenon seems to be the phonological fronting of certain segments. The appearance of the front rounded vowel /ü/ instead of the original *u and palatalization of the velar stops /k/ and /g/ are shifts that are progressing in front of our very eyes. They are not, however, regularised and fail to occur in many grammatical words, as well as frequent lexical items. This distribution is, of course, in line with the current approaches to language change. Nevertheless, determining the exact contexts in which the above phenomena are already well established and in which they are as yet emergent contribute to our comprehension of what the stages of a phonological shift are and also what are the factors that may block it.

‘Interviewing the speakers does not always leave enough time to set up all your mounts and tripods, so one needs to be flexible (pun intended).’ -Lidia

In the case of the Gargarnaye dialects, innovative changes are fascinating within the framework of contact-linguistics studies. The above phenomena of fronting occur also in the surrounding varieties of Kurdish and at the same time are a common cross-linguistic phenomenon. Thus, attributing the change in Neo-Aramaic entirely to language contact would be problematic since it could be equally justified to claim that it emerged independently. A closer observation of the triggers and outcomes of the change in progress has the benefit of affecting the arguments for or against the existence of language areas (Sprachbunds) and the scope of contact-induced changes. For the cluster of Gargarnaye, for many of the phonological shifts, and in particular the fronting of segments, an internal motivation may be advanced, based on tendencies and shifts observed in other languages. This stance is different from some approaches to Neo-Aramaic as it does not assume the primacy of external factors in interpreting changes. In this light, the contact with Kurdish and Arabic would act as a contributing factor, but not a primary driving force, even though the languages discussed belong to a single language area. Needless to say, more extensive studies are required in order to demonstrate the validity of this argument.

‘I had an opportunity to visit the Assyrian School in Diyana. There is an alphabet board in East Syriac script used by the Assyrian Christians of this area to the right of me. The classes are taught in the standard variety of Suret, so the dialect is used at home.’ -Lidia

Post and photos by Lidia Napiorkowska

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