The Siwi language

The Siwi language. By Seymour W. Walker. (LINCOM gramatica 31.) Munich: LINCOM Europa , 2010. Pp. 99. ISBN 9783895862489. $62.72.

Reviewed by Thomas R. Wier, University of Chicago

Siwi, the easternmost Berber language, is spoken in one of the most arid and ostensibly inhospitable climates known (the westernmost oasis in Egypt), so it is not surprising that its grammar has only rarely received attention from the outside world. Indeed, until the twentieth century, little had changed in the oasis since Alexander the Great visited it more than two millennia ago. This reprint of an early twentieth century grammar by one of the first western visitors to study the language represents an often flawed but welcome addition to LINCOM’s series of grammatical analyses.

The work provides a broad outline of the grammar following an outline common among late nineteenth and early twentieth century classicists and orientalists: rather than being organized according to domains like syntax, morphology, and phonology, each part of speech and construction type is enumerated separately (§1–146) with illustrations, and little in the way of chapter headings to group like subjects. Thus, grammatical categories like ‘gender’ (§40–58) and ‘number’ (§59–88) are formally parallel to syntactic categories like articles (§10–11) and morphological categories like comparison (§32–39). Seymour Walker asserts, though does not provide evidence to show, that Siwi nouns formally belong to the same syntactic category as adjectives, but groups them separately, presumably on morphosemantic grounds. After the general survey, W provides several useful appendices listing nouns (A1), adjectives (A2), and verbs (A3) in all their principal parts and showing any irregularities of the stem form necessary to speak the language. Thereafter, W provides a sample of rather less useful phrases (A4, e.g. Hit that dog for me!), weights and measures (A5), and an overview of the English translation of Siwani customs and legends.

At the most general level, it is helpful to have short grammar sketches like this, both for typologists and for those who do not intend to become specialists in the family. However, many aspects of this work make it especially hard to find generalizations about the structure of Siwi. Many times the author seems rather out of his depth, as when he says ‘[i]t is practically impossible to lay down any guide to its [ğ’s—TRW] pronunciation’ (22) or when he claims that ‘[t]here are no Regular conjugations of the Verb, every verb in Siwi being irregular’ (45), which rather begs the question. At other times W seems to confuse syntactic constructions with particular English lexical items, as when he says, in a section entitled ‘Auxiliary verbs’ that there are no auxiliary verbs in Siwi, though one can indicate possession by use of a conjugated preposition: for example, dêêdee ‘with, at me’, dêêdik ‘with, at thou [sic]’. Why the section was not entitled ‘verbs of possession’ or some such is rather mysterious.

Ultimately this book cannot be recommended for the use of the student learner, the traveler (should one find oneself in Siwa not knowing Arabic), or the scholar, except insofar as it provides a number of examples from which to start one’s further study in Siwa on first principles.

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