Intra-Berber borrowing in Yefren

At a recent conference, I met the Libyan activist Maziɣ Buzexxar, who was kind enough to answer some of my questions about Yefren Berber.  As we have already seen for “hand“, words that end up as CuC monosyllables in Yefren (and elsewhere in Zenati) regularly correspond to uCeC in Nefusi (and Ghadamsi).  One such word is “straw”: lum in Yefren (as in Siwa) vs. ulem in Jadu (and alim in Kabyle).  Thus, in Yefren, “a pile of straw” is aguday n lum.Milky_Way_Night_Sky_Black_Rock_Desert_Nevada

Throughout the Middle East and North Africa, the Milky Way is referred to as “the Road of Straw” or “Road of the Straw-bearers“, with the scattered stars conceived of as straws fallen from the load being carried, rather than, as in Greek tradition, as milk.  Yefren is no exception.  But in Yefren, according to Maziɣ, the Milky Way is called: abrid n ulem (which he understood, with no difficulty, as meaning “road of straw”).

If the facts are correct – obviously confirmation with more Yefrenis would be better – then the explanation is obvious: Yefren borrowed its term for the Milky Way as a whole from the Nefusi communities to its west, while keeping their original word for “straw”.  Intra-Berber borrowing – borrowing of words from one Berber language into another – must have been an important phenomenon historically, but it is often made invisible by the sound correspondences being trivial.  In this case, the Nefusi vowel shift makes it unusually conspicuous.  More such cases should be sought.

About Lameen Souag
Descriptive/historical linguist

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