Page created by: Lameen Souag, post-doctoral fellow, School of Oriental and African Studies (London), 2011.
Photo credits: Lameen Souag
Data on the Korandje language
Alternative names: Kʷạṛa n dzyəy (Kwarandzyey, lit. village’s language), Belbali
Classification: Northern Songhay
Main dialects: There are some small linguistic differences between the two main villages, Kʷạṛa (Zaouïa) and Ifrənyu (Cheraïa.)
Geographic area: Tabelbala oasis, in southwestern Algeria between Béchar and Tindouf.
Number of speakers: ~3000 (the population of the oasis excluding the Arabic-speaking village in the middle)
Language status: Language with no official status
Vitality: Endangered; most parents no longer speak the language to their children, choosing instead to use Arabic. It is still spoken, however, by all native Belbalis (inhabitants of Tabelbala) over the age of 35 and by most over the age of 15. Children often learn the language from their older friends.
Media, literature and teaching: Korandje is not taught in schools, and no books have ever been published in the language; it is used occasionally, however, for writing personal messages. There are also a few songs which are sold locally on cassette tapes.
The presence of a Northern Songhay language so far from its place of origin remains something of a mystery. It is, however, likely to be a result of the expansion of trade between Timbuktu and Sijilmasa around the 13th century, which would have required an expansion of agriculture in the oasis areas along the trade routes. A small number of loanwords from a Berber language very similar to the Zenaga language of modern-day Mauritania probably also date from this period. In the centuries that followed, Tabelbala began to expand, and Sidi Makhlouf ben Ali el-Belbali (died 1533), a scholar known for his fatwas on slavery, was born there. Following a decline in trade in the 16th century, the role of the oasis diminished. Those who remained there, however, have continued to speak Korandje up to the present, and it even became the mother tongue of a large number of Berber and Arab families.
According to their own traditions, the Belbalis are of very diverse origins – Arab, Berber, Black African etc. They are all Muslims, and the long history of Islam there can be seen in the fact that a large number of religious terms are either Berber loanwords (ex. tsizbəṛṛən “Dhuhr prayer”, tsakʷẓẓən “Asr prayer”) or have been retained from Songhay (həymu “fast”, gənga “pray”.) Like other inhabitants of the region’s oases, they are sedentary farmers, mainly growing date palms which are often irrigated by long underground canals (foggaras). They lived in fortified villages, ksars, until the mid-20th Century. They formerly also engaged in hunting, notably for ostriches (which died out in the area almost a century ago) and gazelles. An ethnography of Tabelbala was written by Champault (1969).
While the Korandje language has supporters who see it as an important part of their heritage, in general Korandje is not viewed positively in Tabelbala. Its detractors, including some Belbalis, consider it as a barrier to studying, useless outside the oasis and of little use even there. Its essential function of affirming the solidarity of the Belbali community has been eroded by a lack of economic opportunity in the oasis, by internal divisions, and by immigration.
Korandje has undergone significant sound changes relative to proto-Songhay, notably: the loss of tone, which has created a number of homophones; the adoption of pharyngeal and emphatic consonants via loanwords; the affrication of dental plosives; the loss of syllable-final /r/, which has changed the vowel system; and the change of /l/ to /r/.
Korandje is very heavily influenced by Berber and Arabic: most basic vocabulary is of Songhay origin, but most of the vocabulary as a whole is not. For example, only the numbers 1 to 3 (affu, inka, inẓa) are of Songhay origin; all the rest come from Arabic (ṛəbʕa, xəmsa, səttsa…). As for colours, black (bibəy), white (kwạṛəy), and red (tsirəy) are of Songhay origin; yellow (yạṛa), blue/green (zəgzəg), and grey (gʷəḍṛạ) are of Berber origin; and green (ləxḍəṛ) and henna-coloured (ħənnawi) are of Arabic origin. Berber and Arabic plurals are retained, and are even occasionally extended to words of Songhay origin (eg, tsạṛə̣w “spoon”, pl. tsiṛawən). The Arabic factitive is also productive for Arabic loanwords (eg, yəxwa “to be empty” becomes xəwwa “to empty”). Even the syntax has been influenced: for example, agreement between verb and subject has become almost obligatory, and numerals below 10 are typically placed before the noun (ʕašrin (n) ạṛu “twenty (of) man”), characteristics normal in Arabic and Berber but impossible in Southern Songhay.
Typologically, Korandje resembles other Northern Songhay languages: it uses the orders subject-verb-object, genitive-noun, and noun-adjective, and allows both prepositions and postpositions. It is the only language in the world known to obligatorily place the numeral between the noun and the adjective (for the numbers 1-10): ex. ạḍṛạ inẓa bya-ɣ-yu (mountain three big-this-pl.) “these three large mountains”. Another remarkable phenomenon is the agreement of the comitative preposition indza “with” with the subject, ex. ʕa-ddər ʕ-indz-a (I-go I-with-him) “I went with him.”
(Arabic loanwords are in red, Berber loanwords in blue. Imp=Imperfect, Caus=Causative.)
|γir labu n gạ-i-ka,
||ħar kʷạṛa zzinu ɣuna.
|| just clay Genitive house-s-in
||like village old that
“They were living only in clay houses, like that old village.”
|iri i-b-gwạ-ndz-a təzzənts-ka,
||kikk kaməl əggạ
|water they-Imp-stay-Caus-it basin-in,
||night whole Past
“The water, they would put it in the basin – the canal used to flow all night.”
Cancel, Lt. 1908. “Etude sur le dialecte de Tabelbala”. Revue Africaine 270-271. 302-347.
Champault, Francine Dominique. 1969. Une oasis du Sahara nord-occidental : Tabelbala. Paris: CNRS.
Kossmann, Maarten. 2004a. “Mood/Aspect/Negation Morphemes in Tabelbala Songhay (Korandje)”. Afrika und Übersee 87. 131-153.
Souag, Lameen. 2010a. “The Western Berber Stratum in Kwarandzyey”, in ed. D. Ibriszimow, M. Kossmann, H. Stroomer, R. Vossen. Études berbères V – Essais sur des variations dialectales et autres articles. Köln: Rüdiger Köppe.
Souag, Lameen. 2010b. Grammatical Contact in the Sahara: Arabic, Berber, and Songhay in Tabelbala and Siwa. PhD dissertation (SOAS).
Souag, Lameen. fc. “Writing ‘Shelha’ in new media: Emergent non-Arabic literacy in Southwestern Algeria”. Forthcoming in ed. Meikal Mumin and Kees Versteegh, Proceedings of TASIA.
Tilmatine, Mohamed. 1991. “Tabelbala: Eine Songhay Sprachinsel in der Algerischen Sahara”, in ed. Daniela Mendel and Ulrike Claudi. Afrikanistische Arbeitspapiere, Sondernmmer: Ägypten im afro-asiatischen Kontext. Cologne: Université de Cologne.
Tilmatine, Mohamed. 1996. “Un parler berbèro-songhay du sud-ouest algérien (Tabelbala): Elements d’histoire et de linguistique”. Etudes et Documents Berbères 14. 163-198.
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