The linguistic terra incognita of Tunesia

TUNOCENT will provide up-to-date linguistic data for the hitherto almost unknown Arabic varieties spoken in the region approximating the seven Tunisian governorates of Jendouba, Beja, Kef, Siliana, Kasserine, Sidi Bouzid, and Gafsa. This region can be viewed as a unit because of its shared socio-linguistic (Bedouin-type dialects), socio-historical (semi-nomadism and sedentarization), socio-economic (weak economy, high unemployment, emigration), and topographical (mainly mountainous) character.

In 1950 the famous French dialectologist William Marçais affixed the term terra incognita to Tunisian Bedouin-type dialects, differentiating them into what he called the H- (Hilāl) and S- (Sulaym) dialects. His judgement that further research into these almost completely unknown varieties is urgently needed still holds true now, almost 70 years later. This project is the first attempt to linguistically illuminate a part of Tunisia which has long remained under-studied, in contrast to some dialects spoken along the coast.

The first phase of the project will involve the recording and collecting of the linguistic data through fieldwork using mainly qualitative methods considering the relevant diatopic and diastratic parameters. In the second phase selected dialects will be sketched and two varieties representing the main dialectal areas described in detail. Intra-dialectal comparison will reveal the common traits and differences of Tunisian Bedouin-type dialects and should allow for a detailed classification of them, something which has hitherto never been undertaken. The shared history of (semi)nomadism and the current social reality of settlement will allow us to consider how “Bedouin” these dialects are and whether some of them have gone through a process of urbanization.

Ultimately a digital and fully searchable corpus of transcribed and translated narrative and ethnographic texts and conversations will be developed. TUNOCENT will build on an existing research infrastructure for arabic variations, which has been established at the ACDH over the recent years: The linguistic data (questionnairs, languate profiles, lexicographic content) will be integrated into VICAV – Vienna Corpus of Arabic Varieties; the work on the speech corpus and the transcripts will benefit strongly from the developements and expertise gained in the TUNICO project. The data generated during the project will be made available open access in ARCHE, the ACDH’s repository.

Our project promises to be a big stride in our knowledge of Tunisia’s linguistic landscape, and will be of signal importance for an understanding of the complex relationship between the Tunisian dialects and those spoken in adjacent areas of Algeria and Libya. It will also provide new insights into the diachronic and synchronic linguistic situation in the central Maghreb.