Are Faifi and/or Razihit descendants of Ancient South Arabian??? (spoiler alert: no.)

When you go to Wikipedia – which is something I’m sure the vast majority of readers will at one point in their lives have done – and look at pages related to Semitic languages, you’ll run into the claim that two current languages spoken in Northern Yemen and Southwestern Saudi Arabia, namely Raziḥit and Faifi, rather than being varieties of Arabic, are in fact last living descendants of the Old South Arabian languages.

            Just a quick reminder: the Semitic languages are a language family that are generally grouped into various branches and sub-branches: firstly, there’s East Semitic – represented by Akkadian – and West Semitic, which is pretty much everything else. The subclassification of West Semitic is a bit more controversial, but the majority of scholars working on Semitic agree that West Semitic splits up into two branches: Central Semitic and Ethiopic. The Modern South Arabian langauges, spoken in eastern Yemen and western Oman (as well as on the island of Soqotra) are considered to have split off from West Semitic directly, although much of their history is still unclear.

            Now, within Central Semitic we have another branch, Northwest Semitic – represented most famously by Hebrew, as well as Aramaic and Ugaritic. Arabic constitutes a branch on its own, as do the Ancient (or Epigraphic) South Arabian languages. There are many good reasons to adhere to this classification (which I won’t go into right now) but the most important thing here is that (early) Arabic and the Ancient South Arabian languages were cousins, kind of like English and Swedish; or Russian and Polish.

            Why is this all important? Well, most people who are familiar with this subject are of the opinion that the Ancient South Arabian languages, which were in use in South Arabia from about the end of the 2nd millennium BCE died out somewhere between the 7th and 10th centuries CE (fun fact, this is one of the subjects I discuss in my upcoming dissertation). There are, however, also some people who claim that a a few remnants of these languages can still be found, in the areas mentioned above: the ʿAsīr and Ǧabal Rāziḥ regions in Southwestern Saudi-Arabia and North Yemen.

            The argument is as follows: these linguistic varieties display a number of features – phonological, morphological, grammatical – that are not derived from Arabic. Therefor, these linguistic varieties represent a kind of Semitic that is not Arabic, most likely Ancient South Arabian. This argument is phrased relatively lightly in Watson et al’s 2005 article “The language of Jabal Rāziḥ: Arabic or something else”, as they note: “[a]t this stage, we leave open the question as to whether Rāziḥī is a dialect of Arabic or better regarded as another language with common features derived from a common Semitic source and others adopted from Arabic”. A similar argument comes from Alfaife’s 2018 master’s thesis: “[b]ased on this information, it could be that Faifi is a surviving Sabaic dialect which is still spoken today”.

            How does this claim hold up when looking at the evidence? Let’s take a look:

  1. Phonology

There are a number of phonological characteristics in both Rāziḥīt and Faifi that set them apart: first of all we have the realization of the sibilant s2 as a lateral fricative [ɬ]. Similarly, the pronunciation of *ḍ in Rāziḥīt – depending on the whether the word is inherited or borrowed – can either be a voiceless lateral affricate [t͡ɬ]. Moreover Behnstedt (1989) mentions the pronunciation of the so-called emphatic ṣ as an affricate /st/, possibly metathesized from an original */ts/. Finally, both Rāziḥīt also exhibits assimilation of the nasal /n/ to any following consonant, which occurs with both nouns (e.g. ssān, “man”; ssāna, “woman”) and verbs (e.g. past našar vs present yuššur, “to go out in the evening”). (Watson et al. 2006)

            With the exception of the last, all of these features are pretty archaic: s2 is reconstructed for Proto-Semitic as a lateral and is pronounced as such in the Modern South Arabian languages, such as Mehri and Soqotri. Furthermore /ḍ/, which is a glottalized voiced dental stop in Classical Arabic, was originally pronounced as a lateral as well, as many early loanwords from Arabic in languages such as Spanish and comments from early grammarians indicate.
And it also seems that /ṣ/, which is pronounced as a glottalized voiceless fricative (/sˤ/) in most Arabic dialects, was originally an affricate /ts/, much like in Hebrew. The final feature, the assimilation of /n/ to all following consonants is something that is sporadically attested in some Arabic dialects, but only in the case of a few lexical items. It is also inconsistently attested in Safaitic, but it really appears all over the place in Late Sabaic. (Stein 2011, Al-Jallad & Jaworska 2019)

So can we rely on phonology to prove whether or not Rāziḥīt and Faifi descend from the Ancient South Arabian languages? Apart from the apparent isogloss of consistent assimilation of /n/ to following consonants – which only occurs in Rāziḥīt, and not in Faifi – there’s no immediate reason to an Ancient South Arabian antecedant, rather than a dialect of Arabic with typically archaic features. But perhaps there is more to be learned by looking at Rāziḥīt and Faifi morphology:

2. Morphology: the definite article

Both Rāziḥīt and Faifi exhibit some rather interesting morphological features. An example of this is the realization of the feminine ending in nouns and adjectives, which in Rāziḥīt is distributed as either -Vh or -īt, depending on a number of factors which I don’t want to get into now. In Faifi, such a system does not exist at all. However, as Watson (2014) pointed out that the realization of the feminine ending as –t is something that occurs throughout the South Arabian linguistic area, taking examples from Ethiopic (Amharic) and Modern South Arabian languages (Mehri and Shehri).

            Moreover, both Rāziḥit and Faifi exhibit variations of the prefixed definite article, which is typical in Arabic but not present in Ancient South Arabian, where definiteness was marked on the noun as a suffix. Throughout Yemen the definite article occurs as Vm-, in the case of Faifi this is /im-/ (e.g. im-laḥža, “the window”); in Rāziḥīt the definite article is iC-, with full assimilation to the following consonant (e.g. ib-bēth). In the light of the presence of an unassimilating definite article /in-/ in the area directly east of Ǧabal Rāziḥ, Watson (2006) suggested an original article */in-/ for Rāziḥit as well. Very recently, Al-Jallad demonstrated that a North Arabian inscription predating the 4th century CE contains the /Vm/-article. On this basis he suggested that despite the /Vm/-article being one of the typical isoglosses of Yemeni Arabic, it originated in North Arabia (Al-Jallad fc.)

3. Morphology: 1st and 2nd person past tense

Another feature of Rāziḥīt is the paradigm of the 1st and 2nd person past tense ending. In most dialects of Arabic (as well as in Classical Arabic), the verbal paradigm of the 1st and 2nd person past tense is marked by a suffixed /-Vt/. However, many Yemeni Arabic dialects have a paradigm in which this marker is /-Vk/ instead. So in Rāziḥīt you’d get sarḥuk, “I went”; sarḥik, “you (m.) went” and sarḥič, “you (f.) went”.

            Interestingly, Faifi is one of the dialects of the region that has a paradigm with /-Vt/ instead, which is typical for Arabic dialects of the Yemeni Tihāma (the plains between the Red Sea and the Sarāt mountains). Faifi does display some interesting conservative features when compared to Classical Arabic: in his MA thesis, Saleem Muhammed al-Faife gives an example of this paradigm (Al-Faife 2019). As you can see, the system is phonologically rather close to that of Classical Arabic:

Classical ArabicFaifiEnglish translation
ḍarab-tu-hāʿagar-t-ha“I hit her”
ḍarab-ta-hāʿagar--ha“You (m.) hit her”
ḍarab-ti-hāʿagar-ti-ha“You (f.) hit her”

What is important to note here is that the t-paradigm is characteristic of Northwest Semitic and Arabic, not for Ancient South Arabian. In ASA, like in Rāziḥīt and many other Yemeni Arabic dialects, the 1st and 2nd person past tense verbal conjugation was marked by -/Vk/. This is something it shared with the Ethiopic languages as well as (historically) with the Modern South Arabian languages (Watson 2014).

4. Morphology: the relative pronoun

Finally I’d like to discuss one of my favorite features: the relative pronoun.       In Classical Arabic, the relative pronoun is inflected for number and gender (and in the case of the dual also for case). While  I remember writing in my MA thesis that there are no spoken dialects of Arabic that have a relative pronoun that is inflected, but again, there are a number of exceptions that occur in Southwest Arabic. Rāziḥīt distinguishes four relative pronouns: ḏa (masculine singular), ta (feminine singular), wulā (human plural) and ma (non-human plural). Faifi distinguishes three: ḏi (masculine), (feminine), and ʾuḏi (plural). This is noteworthy, as the vast majority of Arabic dialects have an uninflected relative pronoun ʾillī, with ʾəldi and ʾəddi attestd as well, which is most likely eventually related to Classical Arabic ʾallaḏī (Rabin 1951).

            The situation in ASA is somewhat more complicated: evidence from Sabaic indicates the presence of a paradigm for the relative pronoun, which was asymmetrically inflected for gender, number, and case (only clearly attested in the plural), i.e. – (m.); ḏt- (f.); ʾlw (; ʾly (; ʾlt ( Apart from this, there is also evidence for an invariable relative pronoun -, occuring with any antecedent (Stein 2011)

Conclusion: are Faifi and Razihit surviving descendants of Ancient South Arabian?

When we look at what we know about the phonology and morphology of Ancient South Arabian – more specifically, Sabaic (and even more specifically, Late Sabaic), there is very little concrete evidence that either Rāziḥīt or Faifi can be considered descendants of the Ancient South Arabian languages. In my opinion, it is much more likely that both Rāziḥīt and Faifi are local variants of Arabic that are on the one hand extremely archaic while also having underwent some substratal influence of local pre-Islamic languages. This is clear, amongst under things, by the amount of Sabaic lexical items in Yemeni Arabic in general.

            The phonological evidence is very inconclusive: much has been written about the fate of the sibilants in Late Sabaic, but there is definitely something weird going on when looking at Sabaic-Arabic language contact in this area (which is something I’d like to revisit in a later blog post). Phonology can also change considerably over short amounts of time, and is something that spreads relatively easily within a single linguistic area.

            The morphological features discussed here are certainly of some interest: the definite article in both Rāziḥīt and Faifi are typical for the Southwest Arabia as a whole, but as the epigraphic evidence indicates, is more likely to be inherited from Early Arabic. Their different realizations in Rāziḥīt and Faifi is more likely to be a natural development rather than substrate influence.

            In the case of the verbal paradigm of the 1st and 2nd person, Faifi displays an archaic system – but one that is wholly Arabic. In the case of Rāziḥīt, the case for substrate influence can be made much more strongly, as even the borrowing of an entire verbal paradigm is not unprecedented. [1]

Lastly, although there are some superficial similarities between the relative pronouns of Sabaic and Faifi, it is hard to see how Faifi ʾuḏi could derive from a Sabaic source. Again, it seems more plausible that this paradigm in Faifi goes back to Early Arabic. The system of Rāziḥīt on the other hand seems more likely to be related to that of Sabaic, although the non-human plural ma appears to be Arabic in origin.

I do not doubt that there has been a good deal of contact between speakers of Ancient South Arabian languages and the varieties of Arabic that were present in Yemen. [2] However, purely based on the phonology and morphology of Faifi and Rāziḥīt it does not seem plausible to suggest that they descend from the Ancient South Arabian languages.


Al-Jallad, Ahmad, and Karolina Jaworska. 2019. A Dictionary of the Safaitic Inscriptions. Leiden ; Boston: Brill.

Al-Jallad, A. forthcoming. “The History of the Am- Definite Article – South Arabian or Arabic.”

Alfaife, Saleem Mohammed. 2018. “A Grammar of Faifi.” M.A. Thesis, California State University, California.

Asiri, Yahya. 2008. “Relative Clauses in the Dialect of Rijal Alma’ (South-West Saudi Arabia).” Proceedings of the Seminar for Arabian Studies 38:71–74.

Behnstedt, P. 2016. Dialect Atlas of North Yemen. Vol. 114. Leiden: Brill.

Rabin, C. 1951. Ancient West Arabian. London: Taylor’s Foreign Press.

Stein, P. 2011. “Ancient South Arabian.” Pp. 1042–73 in The Semitic Languages – An International Handbook, edited by Weniger, S. Berlin/Boston: De Gruyter.

Watson, Janet C. E., Bonnie Glover Stalls, Khalid Al-razihi, and Shelagh Weir. 2006. “The Language of Jabal Rāziḥ: Arabic or Something Else?” Proceedings of the Seminar for Arabian Studies 36:35–41.

Watson, Janet C. E. 2014. “Southern Semitic and Arabic Dialects of the South-Western Arabian Peninsula.” Proceedings of the Seminar for Arabian Studies 44:147–53.

Watson, J. C. E., B. Glover Stalls, K. al-Razihi, and S. Weir. 2006. “Two Texts from Jabal Razih, North-West Yemen.” Pp. 40–63 in Current issues in the analysis of Semitic grammar and lexicon II: Oslo-Göteborg cooperation 4th-5th November 2005, edited by L. Edzard and J. Retsö. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz.

[1] For example, Michin has French nominal morphology and Cree verbal morphology (Bradley, personal communication). Lamunkhin Even (Northern Tungusic) borrowed two full verbal paradigms from Sakha (Turkic) (

[2] One of the arguments I will propose in my doctoral dissertation is that there were considerable amounts of Arabic speakers in South Arabia before Islam.

Counting Arabic nights

Most students of Arabic are at one point introduced to and annoyed by what is known as deflected and strict agreement. This means that in VSO-type sentences, the verb only agrees with the subject in gender (1&2); in SVO-type sentences, the verb agrees with the subject in both number and gender (3&4):

1. ʾaman-a l-muʾminūn    
believed-M.SG. the-believers, “The believers believed”

2. kataba-t          al-bināt      the-girls.F.PL, “The girls wrote” .

3. ʾinna     l-muʾminīna ʾaman-ū
indeed the.believers.PL believed-PL.M, “Indeed, the believers believed”

4. ʾinna     l-bināt             katab-na
indeed the-girls wrote-PL.F. “Indeed the girls wrote”.

What’s more, in Classical Arabic there is a pretty strict distinction between animate and inanimate nouns. When something needs to agree with a noun (essentially verbs and adjectives), they can and sometimes have to (see above) take agreement in both number and gender. When a noun is inanimate, in the plural it only takes feminine agreement. The following phrase from al-Masʿūdī serves as a good example:

fa-lamma          qutila    yaḥyā   ǧazaʿa-t           ʿalayhi nufūs    al-nās
and-when         killed   Yaḥyā  gathered-F.       to-him  souls    the-people

“and when Yaḥyā was killed the souls of the people gathered around him”

Although this is one of the most typical features of Arabic, it’s interestingly not present in pre-Classical Arabic. In the Qurʾān, for example, inanimate plurals take feminine plural agreement. Consider the following verse (Q2:184)

ʾayyāman         maʿdūd-ātin fa-man kāna min-kum marīḍān
days             and who amongst you is sick […] “For a limited number of days. Those amongst you who are sick […]”

5. li-layla-tin ḫala-t mina l-rağab 
night.SG. pass-F.SG. from  Rajab, “One night having passed of Rajab”

6. li-layla-tayn ḫala-tā  mina l-rağab
to-night-DL.    pass-F.DL     from     Rajab, “Two nights passed of Rajab”

7. li-ṯalāṯin layālin ḫalaw-na  mina l-rağab
three       night.F.PL  pass-F.PL  from  Rajab, “Three nights passed of Rajab’

So I checked the early Islamic sources to see if this system is maintained everywhere, and it turns out that yes, this is pretty much as it is everywhere. For example, in the tenth part of Ibn Kathīr’s Kitāb al-Bidāya wa-l-Nihāya, we find the following line:

tawallā l-muʾminūna l-ḫilafata   fī l-muḥarram li-ḫamsin baqī-na min-hū
entrust  the-believers the-caliphate in Muḥarram five remain.F.PL of-it
‘The believers were entrusted with the Caliphate on the 25th of Muḥarram’

And similarly, in the same environment:

yawm al-ʾarbāʿ li-ṯamān  baqī-na   min  hāḏihī   l-sina
 ‘Wednesday’   eight    remain.F.PL of this the-year
‘On Wednesday, with eight [days] left in the year’

What’s interesting about this is that Ibn Kathir lived in the 14th century, centuries after the standardizations of Classical Arabic. For some reason, this old system of counting days and nights was maintained, with full agreement of subject and verb up until the re-standardization of Arabic during the Nahda.

How I came in the possession of some strange South(?) Arabian inscriptions

There is a story that I like telling people about the way I started doing my PhD, although it’s not one that I’ve really put into writing before – there is a short version that appeared in the Estonian magazine Müürileht, but the full story is so much better and worth of more attention. I don’t think I’ll be able to fit all of it into one blog post, but I’m going to start the i There are many ways how one could tell this story, but I’m going to start in  an unexpected place: Hamburg, Germany.

On the 17th of October 2015, the Swedish professor Christopher Toll passed away after a long and illustrious career as professor of Arabic and Semitic studies at . By coincidence, this is exactly one month before my 23rd birthday, the first one I would celebrate in Estonia after having moved there to start my MA degree at Tallinn University. Although Christopher Toll had worked on subjects that I was also already interested in (but we’ll get to that later), I’d never heard of him and I had no idea who he was.

Either way, as time went on I was lucky enough to have my PhD project funded by the University of Tartu. It was there that at one occasion the head of our department came in to the office and mentioned that there was a bunch of books, articles, letters, and a whole bunch of random stuff that had been sent to the university a few years prior. As you may have guessed, this was a good part of the inheritance of professor Christopher Toll. Why his next of kin decided to send (part of) his library to us isn’t really clear: as far as I’m aware, professor Toll had never been to Estonia nor did I find anything in his correspondence that ever hinted that he’d be interested in it. It’s been suggested that it’s due to the fact that the Tolls are an old Swedish aristocratic family, which also a presence in Estonia.

So I started going through the boxes containing professor Toll’s inheritance, the bulk of which consisted of (mostly Arabic-language) books. These had already been shipped off to the University Library, where I’d started cataloging them (before, you know, the coronavirus happened). What we were left with consisted mostly of (drafts of) articles, duplicates, personal letters to colleagues and editors of journals, and so on. There is so much to tell about these, but right now I want to focus on a brown envelope, which contained the imprints of two slabs with South Arabian inscriptions. In this envelop was a smaller white envelope, which contained the four smaller imprints seen on the left:

also pictured: our wonderfully tasteful tablecloth

There are a few interesting things to be told about these inscriptions, but I’m going to get into those in a later blog post (and maybe, an actual article). However, first of all I’d like to tell where they came from.

What we’re looking at here are not the original inscriptions: rather, these are imprints in plaster. The idea is that if for any reason someone does not want to or is unable to physically transport whatever item or object such inscriptions are written on, that a soft piece of plaster is pressed onto the inscription, leaving a nice imprint. In the case of three dimensional objects, this can leave some letters to become awkwardly placed (thanks to Fokelien Kootstra for pointing this out).

For reasons that I can’t get into right now (and may not be the most interesting to some readers) it’s not immediately obvious where these inscriptions are from: some letters look South Arabian, others look more distinctively North Arabian. So after consulting with some other friends/colleagues in the field of Arabian epigraphy the most important thing was to figure out how these inscriptions came to me in the first place.


This is the envelop which originally contained the imprints. On the top left the name of the sender is visible as G. Ahlström. This is in fact Gösta Ahlström, a Swedish professor of Old Testament Studies who published extensively on the history of Ancient Israel.

Photo by Mike Weinstein, University of Chicago Photographic Archive

The recipient’s name is quite a bit harder to read, but the address reads 8200 Aarhus. The street name is a bit more difficult, but it is in fact the address of Aarhus University: Jens Chr. Skous vej 2. This also happens to be the address of the Institute of Semitic philology, which was integrated into the Institute of Culture and Society (Institut for Kultur og Samfund) in 2011.

After a bit of googling around, it was also possible to uncover the initially illegible name of the recipient as that of Erling Hammershaimb, who apart from having the most bad-ass Viking-sounding name, specialized in Old Testament exegesis and even became rector of the University of Aarhus. Hammershaimb passed away in 1994.


Photographer unknown. 

It is probably in Aarhus that the imprints came into the possession of professor Toll; this is pretty much confirmed by another letter, which he sent to the editor in chief of the Zeitschrift für arabische Linguistik on the 15th of May, 1984. For the non-German-inclined reader, the relevant bit is the second paragraph: “For the address I prefer my work address: the Institute for Semitic Philology, etc”.

toll letter
Some more personal details were added 

And so this is how a few imprints of South (?) Arabian inscriptions were sent from Chicago to Aarhus in December of 1982, before coming to the University of Tartu sometime after October 2015. In a next blog post I want to go in to more deeply on why there’s a question mark after South Arabian, because there’s probably something more going on here.

A response to Ghafar Samar and Bhatia

A few months ago someone on the AskHistorians subreddit asked a very interesting question, one that has been puzzling historians of the linguistic history of the Middle-East for quite a while: why did the Coptic language die while the Persian language survived? As far as I’m aware, there are as of yet no real satisfactory answers to this question, but one of the commenters linked to a recent article by Reza Ghafar Samar, a linguist connected to Tarbiat Modares University, Tehran and Tej K. Bhatia, a professor of linguistics at Syracuse University and head of the South Asian languages department there.

The article, Predictability of language death: Structural compatibility and language contact, interestingly suggests that languages death is more likely when a language is in prolonged contact with structurally similar superstrate. In order to demonstrate this hypothesis, the authors point towards the varying fates of Coptic (an Afro-Asiatic language, ultimately descending from Egyptian) and Persian (an Indo-European language). Coptic declined in importance starting from the 12th century onwards and appears to have died somewhere in the 17th century, whereas Persian underwent something of a renaissance starting from the 9th century onwards and became the court language of several dynasties several centuries later.

Although I am not unsympathetic to the notion that structural similarity may influence the rate at which languages disappear, I feel that the authors neglected to accurately present the complexities of the social, political, and linguistic history of Egypt and Iran following the Islamic conquests. I believe that these flaws present themselves on two levels specifically: firstly, in their description of the Arabic language; and secondly, on their description of the historical interaction between ruling “Arabs” and subject “Iranians”.

  1. Not all Arabic is Classical Arabic

It appears that the authors’ understanding of the linguistic reality of the Arabic-speaking world is not founded in the current scholarly understanding of the subject.  Apart from a footnote in which they refer to the existence of different varieties of Arabic (p. 57), they do not seem to be aware of the distinction between Classical (or Modern Standard) Arabic and the spoken Arabic dialects. At no further point do they refer to the concept of diglossia (Ferguson 1959), the existence of the various Arabic dialects, or the question of whether Classical Arabic was the main contact language.

This lack of awareness becomes particularly egregious as it appears that the authors assumed that Persian was mostly in contact with Classical Arabic, which was never a spoken language. The fact that they present a number of features which they consider typical for Arabic (productive nominal dual, indefinite marking with “nunation” and VSO word order) are typical for Classical Arabic, with the first two features only occurring there, and the latter being much more idiosyncratic in the dialects.  

Although it can be argued that the discussion concerning the (historical) relationship of the spoken Arabic dialects to Classical Arabic and their respective degree of contact with other languages, such as Persian, would be beyond the scope of the paper, the fact that the authors do not mention it at all is rather disappointing. Furthermore, it implicitly suggests that Arabic is essentially Classical Arabic, which is something that any undergraduate student of Arabic would be able to dispel. Any attempt to propose a history of linguistic contact between Arabic and Persian without accounting for the historical and contemporary linguistic diversity of the Arabic-speaking world should be treated with an extreme degree of scepticism.

  1. Who’s an Arab, anyway?

Potentially more disturbingly is the simplistic understanding of the history of the Early Islamic period that the authors appear to perpetuate. This becomes apparent in several of their assertions, most obviously on table 1 (p. 54). In this table they assert that in Egypt:

  1. The population was first Arabized (as a harbinger of conversion) then accepted the Islamic ideology
  2. Local religions were to some extent tolerated
  3. Egyptians were treated like other new Muslims, no mawalis in Egypt

The authors juxtapose these assertions to the situation in Iran, which they assert to be as following:

  1. Persians were first Islamized
  2. Treatment of local religions became increasingly contemptuous and intolerable
  3. Mawalis (the Iranians and Nabataeans of Iraq) were looked upon as aliens and treated with scorn and contempt by the Arabs.

It is somewhat suspect that these claims are almost entirely based on a single article (Yücesoy 2015), but it is much more disconcerting that the authors do at no point engage critically with the terminology they employ. For example, they seem to lack any awareness of the groundbreaking research by scholars such as Crone (2006), Webb (2015), and Cooperson, which have forced us to more critically consider the meaning and usage supposed terms of ethnicity in the early history of Islam. Specifically Cooperson has in a recent article demonstrated that during the ‘Abbasid Caliphate, terms such as ‘arab, ‘aǧam were very much in flux (2015:382-3).

Furthermore, the way the authors describe the history of the two regions implies that Arabic and Islam were more-or-less forced upon the peoples, and does not account for the possibility that in both environments people may have embraced Islam for political, social, economical, or spiritual reasons, or a combination of any or all of these. This is one of the (many) stereotypes perpetuated by the article, and seems once again, to be grounded in popular ideas rather than in any scholarly material.

The fates of local religion seems to also be confused: the authors do not mention which kind of contempt and intolerance the varying religions of Egypt and Iran underwent, or even what these religions were. The authors allude to Zoroastrianism in table 1 by stating that “a group of Persian Magians left the land”, but there is no reference this event in Yücesoy’s article. If the authors intend to state that there were few Zoroastrians in Iran after the Islamic conquests, then this is accurate, although it is uncertain how popular Zoroastrianism was even before the Islamic conquests (Malandra 2005).

All three presented claims present clean, binary opposites in Egypt and Iran, but the politics of the Islamic polities in these places was never monolithic. The relationship of both the Umayyads and the Abbasids, as well as the later local ruling dynasties towards the pre-Islamic religions present in Iran could complicated, but it was certainly not only “contemptuous and intolerable”. In fact, for many non-Zoroastrians, the situation under the Islamic polities marked a considerable improvement (Savant 2013:92-3).

The problem of poorly defined terminology becomes even more apparent when we look at the individual claims, especially considering the authors’ assertion that “Persian was never the dominant language of the Arabic Empire, while Arabic was the dominant language of Persia for more than 800 years”. At this point, it is what they consider a “dominant language”, “the Arabic Empire” and “Persia”. Although it is accurate that Arabic played an extremely important role in Iran following the Islamic conquests, the claim that it was “the dominant language” is misleading to say the least. The authors’ claim that “only gradually Persian dominated the fields of secular literature later in the fifteenth century” completely overlooks the fact that Iranian literary culture flourished in the centuries following the ‘Abbasid revolution, and was strongly promoted by the Samanid dynasty, a fact acknowledged in the article the authors mention (Yücesoy 2015:385-8). 

Even outside the heartlands of Iran, namely in Mesopotamia, Persian literary culture continued to play an important role. This becomes clear when looking at the members of the ‘Abbasid bureaucratic elite, who were mostly of Persian origins, some of whom (but by no means all) converted to Islam (Gutas 1999:135-6). To speak about a “dominant language” in these contexts, without distinguishing between the language of the court, literature, or religion is misleading, giving the (incorrect) impression that Arabic replaced Persian in all of these spheres.

Moreover, as any undergraduate student of Middle Eastern Studies would be able to confirm, the period in which all Islamic lands were administered from one location never lasted for more than about a century. The claim that there was a single “Arabic Empire” completely ignores the fact that from the latter half of the 8th century onwards, the Islamic world was fragmented in such a way that it would never be under central rule again.


The flaws mentioned above in my opinion render the majority of the article almost impossible to take seriously. This is really regrettable, as there might be merit to the notion the authors want to advance. However, their lack of reflection on the linguistic diversity of Arabic, as well as their explicit usage of stereotypes (“the historical hostility between Arabs and Persians” (p.64)) without any kind of clarification of these terms do it a great disservice. Cooperson’s reference to the truism is indeed correct: the premises and preoccupations of of nineteenth-century nationalism cannot be projected onto the past.

Cooperson, M. “‘Arabs’ and ‘Iranians'”: The Uses of Ethnicity in the Early Abbasid Period”. In Sadeghi, E. (et al) (ed.) Islamic CUltures, Islamic Contexts – Essays in Honor of Professor Patricia Crone

Crone, P. (2006). “Post-colonialism in 10th century Islam”, Der Islam

Ferguson, C. (1959). Diglossia, WORD, 15:2.

Gutas, D. (1999). Greek Thought, Arabic Cultyure – The Graeco-Arabic Translation Movement in Baghdad and Early ‘Abbāsid Society (2nd-4th / 8th-10th) centuries

Savant, S. (2013). The New Muslims of Post-Conquest Iran – Tradition, Memory, and Conversion.

Webb, P. (2015). Imagining the Arabs

Yücesoy, H. (2015). “Languages of Empire: Politics of ARabic and Persian in the Abbasid World”, PLMA 130:2

Water good, fire bad? – A semantic and grammatical opposition in Indo-European and Semitic (maybe)

This is an overview of the words for water and fire in various Indo-European languages of different branches (Italic, Hellenic, Germanic, Balto-Slavic, and Indo-Iranian):

water masc. neuter fem.   fire masc. neuter fem.
Lat.     aqua Lat. ignis    
Gr.   húdōr   Gr.   pûr  
Old N.   vatn   Old N. eldr    
Got.   watō   Got.   fōn  
Lith. vanduo     Lith.     ugnis
Ch. Slv.     voda Ch. Slv. ogni    
Sansk.     áp Sansk. agni    
Avest.     ap Avest. atār    

There are a couple of things to notice here: firstly, if the word for water is grammatically feminine (Latin, Old Church Slavonic, Indo-Iranian) it follows that the word for fire cannot be grammatically feminine. This is something that goes for a lot of basic binary terms (day-night, sun-moon, heaven-earth), but for now I want to talk about fire and water.

The other thing one might notice is that in Lithuanian the grammatical genders of fire and water were reversed. Lithuanian ugnis is obviously very similar to ignis, ogni and agni (and actually atār as well apparently not, as Marijn van Putten points out!) so it’s clear hat these words are related (if you don’t  believe me: Derksen 2015:478). For historical reasons that I won’t go into now, it seems that vanduo was assigned masculine gender due to phonological changes, after which ugnis was assigned feminine gender to maintain this opposition also on a grammatical level.

So why didn’t this happen in in two languages (Greek and Gothic) where the terms for both fire and water are gramatically neuter, and in Old Norse the term for water is grammatically neuter (but fire is masculine)? This probably has something to do with the notion that in Proto-Indo-European culture there existed a distinction between active, animate elements and passive, inanimate elements: so water in the sense of a flowing (personified) river or river was considered active (and therefor animate), whereas water as simply the liquid was considered passive (and inanimate) (Gamkrelidze 1995:238). It’s interesting to see that this original distinction was maintained for a long time in the grammar of these various Indo-European languages.

What’s pretty interesting is that this distinction also holds fairly well outside of Indo-European languages. When looking at Arabic and Hebrew the term for fire is (almost always) grammatically feminine (respecitvely nār and ʾeš), even though they aren’t marked morphologically as feminine. In another closely-related Semitic language, Aramaic, the same term did gain morphological marking, i.e. ešāṯā (Sokoloff 2009:108). Similarly, the term for water is generally masculine (e.g. Arabic māʾ) and/or occuring in the plural (e.g. Aramaic maand Hebrew mayim).

So what does this mean? It’s probably true that (localized or personified) fire in the Semitic context was generally viewed negatively. For example, the Qur’ān (15:27) indicates that the generally-not-very-positive jinn were created out of a (scorching) smokeless fire (nār al-samūm), and the most common term for Hell is similarly “the Fire” (al-nār). In Islamic eschatology, Heaven is commonly envisioned as a Garden (also consider firdaws < M.Pers. para-daeza, “enclosed garden”), where rivers of pure water flow (fī-hā ʾanhārun min māʾin ġayr ʾāsinin). Similarly, it is said (47:15) that God is the one who “brings down the waters from which we grow all kinds of plants” (wa-huwa ʾallaḏī ʾanzala mina l-samāʾ māʾan fa-ʾaḫraǧnā bi-hī nabāta kulli šayʾin). Although it’s worth pointing out that the Arabic terms for Heaven are both grammatically feminine, it’s at least worth considering that many morphologically unmarked feminine nouns in Arabic often carry bad or profane connotations, such as ḫamr, “wine”; ḥarb, “war”; ṭāġūt, “an idol”; šams, ‘the Sun’) (Wright 1998:180). In the case of water (masculine, good) and fire (feminine, bad), Here there is both a grammatical and semantic opposition between at least in the Arabic/Islamic context (consider also Dixon’s discussion of the Dyirbal language of Australia (1987)).

Does that then mean that things considered negative are typically assigned feminine gender? Probably not. For example, it’s hard to imagine that fire (as we now know grammatically feminine in Latvian and Lithuanian) would be considered bad in Baltic folklore and tradition, particularly considering the cultural significance of the Sun (which is, you guessed it, grammatically feminine in the Baltic languages) (Dexter 1998). Regardless, it’s an interesting phenomenon that probably deserves more attention.


Derksen, R. (2015). Etymological Dictionary of the Baltic Inherited Lexicon. Leiden: Brill.

Dexter, M. (1994). Dawn-Maid and Sun-Maid: Celestial Goddesses among the Proto-Indo-Europeans. The Indo-Europeanization of Northern Europe.

Gamkrelidze, T., & Ivanov, V. (1995). Indo-European and the Indo-Europeans – A Reconstruction and Historical Analysis of a Proto-Language and a Proto-Culture. Berlin: De Gruyter.

Sokoloff, M. (2009). A Syriac Lexicon – A Translation from the Latin, Correction, Expansion, and Update of C. Brockelmann’s Lexicon Syriacum. New Jersey: Gorgias.

Wright, W. (2005). A Grammar of the Arabic Language. New York: Dover Publications.

The Estonian adverb: the difference between ‘Being in town’ and ‘seeing in town’

Recently I’ve had many discussions with friends about why it seems that under certain circumstances, originally genitive nouns are used in adverbial usage in Estonian. Basically in Estonian, there are different strategies to create adverbs: generally, the noun stands in adessive case, e.g.:

  • me olime  hommiku-l        linna-s              |   ta   reisis         öösel          Riiga
    we were   morning-add.  city-inessive    |   he  travelled  night-add.  Riga.illative

‘We were in the town in the morning’      |  ‘He travelled to Riga at night’

However, in vernacular usage (and in many, many Estonian dialects) the adverb appears to have been based on the genitive instead:

  • hummog-u      ao-aigo                     sõit peigmiis (South Estonian)
    morning.gen  time.gen-time.prt. drove bridegroom

‘In the morning, from time to time, the bridegroom would drive […]’

  • ommik-u         akkasime lõikkama   õhtass               ol’id  lõegattud (Western Estonian)
    morning-gen we.began to.cut         evening.trans. were cut.passiv

‘In the morning, we started to cut; by the evening, it would be cut’

  • aga ommukk-u     kui      sii       tüdrik  üless  tõus’i       ütle (Eastern Estonian)
    but morning-gen when the(?) girl       up      rose         said

‘But in the morning, when the girl got up, she said’

You get the picture. Now, I’ve had many different discussions with different people about this subject already. Some of them argued that the underlying form must have been the adessive, but that the final consonant was simply elided (lõpukadu). Although this is definitely not impossible, I would point out that it is much more common for final vowels to be elided rather than final consonants, although I realize that this is not necessarily a very strong argument (especially considering how, for example, this is exactly what happened to the old genitive in Estonian, namely n > ø).

Maybe a better argument is that if we do assume that the underlying form was the adessive, then we would find a significant distribution of adessives. However, a search for adverbs with the underlying form hommik*+adv gives 283 results, of which only 17 (arguably up to 21) actually reflect the adessive, about 6% of all adverbs. It’s even worse for underlying päeval, ‘during the day’; where have only one attestation of the adessive out of 63 total forms. For underlying õhtul, ‘at night’ we have 7-10 adessives out of 245 total (2.8%) and for underlying öösel we find 10 adessives out of a total 293 (~3%).

I think that such a low frequency of adessives is significant, so I started thinking of reasons as to how this phenomenon actually came to be. Because I like language contact, I initially thought that it’s possible that the replacement of the adessive with the genitive was due to Russian or German influence. It’s worth pointing out that when talking about times of the day, German also uses the genitive, e.g.:

  • Morgens         und im Winter würden sie
    morning.gen and in   winter will.subj. you

‘In the morning and in winter you may [also bring your children without a ticket]’

Although it’s true that Russian generally uses the instrumental in temporal expressions, e.g. утром, ‘in the morning’, it has been pointed out on various occasions that constructions like на утра до вечера, ‘from the morning until the evening’ take the genitive ending as well (Launer 1973:302-4), and so it’s possible that these forms arose due to contact linguistics. A pretty good argument against this idea is that you would then expect this same temporal adverb on the genitive to also occur in written Estonian, due to the not insignificant influence of German and Russian on the Estonian written language. Despite that, this construction is considered purely colloquial (cf. hommiku, päeva, “Eesti keele seletav sõnaraamat“).

My idea right now is that the form actually reflects an internal development in Estonian, in which the object of verbs with ambiguous valence were reanalyzed as adverbs, which were then generalized and applied in every situation. For example, when we have a phrase like veetsime hommiku (gen.) linnas, ‘we spent the morning in town’, it is possible to interpret hommiku as the direct object of the verb veeta ‘to spend’, but similarly, simply as an adverb. This reminds me, that in English we could agree that ‘the morning’ is the object of the phrase ‘we spent the morning in town’; but who would respond to the question ‘what did you spend in town’ with ‘the morning?’

Either way, this system was then generalized and applied everywhere, potentially initially in phrases with intransitive verbs, e.g. rong sõitis terve päeva, ‘the train rode all day’. In written Estonian this is still perfectly acceptable, but the moment a transitive verb is introduced, the temporal adverb must stand in the adessive, e.g. nägin hommiku-l oma sõpru, ‘I saw my friends in the morning’. It’s possible that the form of the genitive in dialectal Estonian reflects a natural development of the temporal adverb, and that written Estonian stopped this development in order to avoid possible confusion of the object with the adverb.

Launer, M. (1973) Prefixal and suffixal derivation in the Russian adverb.

Something weird about the prolative case in Estonian.

Let’s go back to Estonian for a second.

Estonian has a pretty extensive case system: it innovated a number of cases originally not reconstructed for Protofinnougric, and then introduced some other cases through grammaticalization, such as the comitative. In total, most linguists would say that Estonian has 14 productive cases.

In Estonian, the genitive functions as an oblique case to which other case endings are added, so for example:

  • hommik (nom), ‘morning’
  • hommik-u (gen.)
  • hommik-u-l (gen+adessive) ‘in the morning’

Basically, this system works for every case. This means that whatever case ending you want to add to the noun, it will be based on the genitive case. A notable exception to this is the old prolative case, which is no longer productive as a case (but occasionally found as a suffix), basically expressing the means by which something is done, which is formed using the suffix -ti/-si/-tsi (apparently going back to Protobaltofinnic -ci).

Examples of the prolative are for example jalgsi, ‘by foot’; käsitsi, ‘by hand’; himuti, ‘lustily’. People who know Estonian will undoubtedly have noticed that the formation of this case ending is apparently based the nominative rather than the genitive. Although I don’t really know Finnish, I understand that a similar case exists there as well, e.g. meritse, ‘by sea’; maitse, ‘by land’; jäitse, ‘by ice’ (which were later borrowed wholesale in Written Estonian). However, there are also various cases of the prolative being based on the genitive as well. For example, we find forms like hommikuti not *hommiksi, küljetsi/külitsi not *külgsi, õhutsi, not *õhksi.

The reason for this variation is not entirely clear to me. Although it is obvious that there are some phonological constraints at work, resulting in the adding of an epenthetic vowel after some consonant clusters, such as hetketi (rather than *hetkti) (itself the result of the loss of final vowels after non-short syllables in Estonian), this does not explain why some forms are based on an oblique genitive case even when there are no phonotactical constraints, such as with näotsi, which would otherwise be *nägutsi; or alati rather than *algsi. Similarly, it does not even seem that phonotactics are that big of a deal, considering the attestation of the form holpsti ‘with a jump’, where we have four consecutive consants.

So I decided to look a bit further and to see if there are some general trends as to which form has an oblique nominative, which one has an oblique genitive, and which form has something else altogether. It turns out that forms with –si are always based on a nominative oblique, e.g. jalgsi, ‘by foot’; silmsi, ‘with [your own] eyes; eye to eye’; pimesi, ‘blindly (‘in the dark’)’; vägisi, ‘by force; involuntarily’; eksi, ‘mistakenly; erroneously’. As far as I know, there are no exceptions to this rule.

Both -(s)ti and –tsi are usually based on the oblique genitive, e.g. hommik-u-ti, ‘in the morning’; ilusasti, ‘beautifully’; kahe-ti, ‘from two sides (<kaks, ‘two’); in pairs’, libe-da-sti, ‘smoothl‎y’, and kao-tsi, ‘having disappeared’ (<kaduma, ‘to disappear’); küljetsi, ‘sideways’ (<külg, ‘side’); näo-tsi, ‘face-to-face’ (<nägu, ‘face’).

Moreover, there’s a whole list of prolatives that appear to be formed on another base altogether.For example, we find talviti, ‘each winter’ (<talv, ‘winter’; talvi); keeliti ‘from language to language’ (<keel, ‘language’; keeli). Where it gets really interesting, however, is with adverbs apparently based on the partitive plural, but whose internal morphology changed due to consonant gradation. Examples of these include põsitsi, ‘cheek-to-cheek’, of which the nominative singular is põsk, the genitive singular is põse, and the partitive plural is põski. Other examples of this include rinnutsi, ‘breast-to-breast’, rind, rinna, rindu; and külitsi, ‘sideways’ (see above).

These forms have to be based on the historical partitive plural, although I’m not yet sure at which point the internal consonants underwent gradation, which is something that I will have to come back to at a later point.

Arabic ’alladī as a demonstrative

While I was reading through Li Guo’s edition of the mercantile letters from Quseir, Egypt, I noticed something interesting about the use of the Arabic terms ’alladī. In Classical Arabic, ʾalladī is an inflected pronoun that is used to introduce a relative phrase after a determinate antecedent, so for example you would say: al-rajul ʾalladī raʾaytu-hū fī l-sūq, ‘the man whom I saw in the market’. In some few cases, this relative pronoun can be elided, such as in the Qurʾān: ka-matal l-ḥimār yaḥmilu l-ʾasfār, ‘[they are] like donkeys [who] carry books’.

It’s been pretty well-described that in some cases, the relative pronoun ʾalladī was reanalyzed as a conjunction instead, such as in the following Classical Arabic phrase:

al-ḥamdu          li-llāh               ʾalladī ḫalaqa                l-nās
def-praise       prep-god         rel       he.created
‘praise be to God, who created mankind’

Which can be reanalyzed as:

al-ḥamdu          li-llāh               ʾalladī   ḫalaqa           l-nāS
DEF-praise       PREP-God         CONJ.  he.created
‘praise be God, that he created mankind’

Examples of this happening are all over the place: we can find it in Judaeo-Arabic letters from the 13th century (for example, in the phrase fəraḥnā ʾalladī ğamaʿ llāh šəlāmnā fī məkān wāḥəd, ‘we are glad that God put us all safely(?) in one place), as well as currently in the spoken dialects of Egypt and the Levant (as Phillip Stokes pointed out: ’anā mabsūṭ ʾillī ğīt, ‘I’m glad that you came’), so I’m not going to really spend more time discussing this.

So we know that Arabic ʾalladī can be used to 1) introduce the relative phrase (as in Classical Arabic) and 2) as a conjunction (in Middle Arabic and the Arabic dialects). However, these two functions do not seem to be sufficient to explain its usage in these two 13th century documents from Qusayr. Let’s look at what they say:

  1. wa-mā sayyarnā hādā ʾillā tasāʿdnā ʿalā ʾalladī fa-llāh allāh (135-36)
    ‘and we will not sent it unless you help us with [ʾalladī]. Oh God, oh God […]’
  1. ʾalladī ʾaʿlam bih al-ʾaḫ ʾaḥmad ʾan […] (240-41)
    ‘[ʾalladī] I inform the brother of Ahmad this, that […]’


What’s odd about these two phrases is that ʾalladī can not really be taken here as a relative pronoun: in example 1 because there is no following determining clause. The editor argues that it is a case of ellipsis, in that ʾalladī actually refers back to what is being discussed in the letter (a shipment of some sort), but I’m not so convinced. I think in this case it would be more logical to expect a resumptive pronoun with ʿalā. Considering the context, it’s not likely that ʾalladī was being used as a conjunction either, considering how this is the end of the sentence (as indicated by the particle fa-).

As for example 2, if ʾalladī was supposed to introduce a relative clause, then where is the antecedent? The letter itself starts with ʾalladī, so I’m not really sure what it’s supposed to refer to. A conjunction is similarly unlikely, considering the presence of the pronominal suffix -h after ʾaʿlam.

So my suggestion is that the use of ʾalladī reflects another function, that of a demonstrative pronoun (maybe distal, maybe proximal?), so we could translate the two phrase as following:

  1. wa-mā sayyarnā hadā ʾillā tasāʿdnā ʿalā ʾalladī fa-llāh allāh
    ‘and we will not sent it unless you help us with this/that Oh God, oh God.
  2. ʾalladī ʾaʿlam bi-h al-ʾaḫ ʾaḥmad ʾan […]
    ‘This/that, that I inform the brother Ahmad of that he’ […]

There are, of course, problems with this hypothesis. Firstly, I’ve only encountered ʾalladī like in this particular environment, and mercantile letters can reflect a specific kind of linguistic usage that is not representative of how people actually speak. Secondly, the corpus is rather thin, so I would definitely need more examples to make a stronger case about this. However, of two things I’m convinced: firstly, you cannot have a relative pronoun or a conjunction at the very end of a phrase; nor at the very beginning.


Some lists make me upset (why don’t we have an etymological dictionary of Arabic yet?)

About a year ago, there was a Dutch blogpost from going around on Facebook; I remember looking at it at the time and getting a bit frustrated with some things, but at the time I didn’t have this blog so..yeah. I don’t mean to be pedant, but there are some things that I want to point out. Sure, many of the words they mention are genuine Arabic, but a considerable number of them were borrowed through Arabic and are, in fact, not actually Arabic. Several of these words have very doubtful or different etymologies as well. Let’s look at some of the worst offenders:

            vizier (18): Yes, well, I guess this term for “minister” is well-known from the Arabic sources, but it was actually borrowed into Arabic from Middle Persian, as was already pointed out by the famous orientalist Paul de Lagarde in his Übersicht über die im Aramäischen, Arabischen, und Hebräischen übliche Bildung der Nomina, in 1889. In the Middle Persian texts, it’s supposed to mean something like “judge; arbitrator“, which semantically fits much better than the Arabic “carrier [of the Prince’s duties]”.

            caravan (3): Same case as above, although possibly not even borrowed through Arabic. Klein’s Etymological Dictionary of English states that the term was borrowed during the crusades, so it might have actually been taken directly from Persian. Attested in Middle Persian as well (kʾlwʾn).

            luit (36): Obviously the word for lute is derived from Arabic al-ʿūd, which is fine. But then the author goes on to say that the English word wood (as in forest) is derived from Arabic, which seems a bit..odd, considering that we have cognates of wood in Old Norse (although interestingly, German Walt and Dutch woud are not related!). So this is just really stupid. I’m not really sure how that kind of mistake would (hah) creep in there.

            douane (46): Pretty much the same story as vizier, except that its origin is much cooler! The word dīwān is derived from Persian, already attested in Middle Persian, apparently going all the way back to the Sumerian word dub “clay tablet”, borrowed into Old Persian through Akkadian. François de Blois wrote about this in the Enyclopaedia Iranica, which is available online for free. Check it out. The term for the supportless bed somehow came into being due to the association of this object with the rooms they were placed in.

            oasis (22): Already attested in Latin, which borrowed it from Greek, in the exact same form. The Greeks got it from Demotic wḥj, which itself reflects a development from Egyptian. The Arab word was probably also directly taken from Demotic.

            mumm (16): The Arabic mūmiyāʾ actually reflects the Persian noun mumyā, ‘asphalt’, attested in a variety of Iranian languages as well as Armenian, and derived for the word for wax, mūm. Although it’s been suggested that the Iranian form was borrowed from the Semitic word for “water” (mā(y)?).

            koffie (2): Coffee. I’ve thought about this, and I really don’t think the form is Arabic for several reasons. Firstly, coffee is not indigenuous to the Arabian Peninsula, but was imported there from Ethiopia by Late Antiquity (5th-6th centuries). Although it’s held that the Arabic qahwa originally meant wine (which it probably did), it seems much more likely that the term was derived from the name of the city Kaffa in Ethiopia (compare also the drink port, fortified Portuguese wine). When it was borrowed into Arabic, they probably associated the drink with what they already knew, and so forth. So through Arabic,  not from Arabic.

            koepel (37): I’ve saved the absolute worst for last. Koepel, (“dome”) they say, is derived from Arabic al-qubba. I have two problems with this assertion: firstly, what happened to the Arabic definite article al-, which was maintained in virtually all other borrowings from Arabic (almanak, elixir, algebra, arsenal, and so forth) and secondly, where did the final l come from? The term, as it turns out, has a perfectly fine Latin etymology, as the fine people of the Meerten’s Institute point out: either the word was borrowed through French coupole (“small barrel; dome”), or directly from Italian cupola, reflecting a Late Latin diminutive of the noun cūpa, “barrel; cup”.

Some more words that really aren’t of Arabic origin are: suiker (sugar, eventually from Sanskrit), kabel (cable, actually Indoeuropean; how would Arabic be borrowed with [k]?), gitaar (guitar, probably from Greek), and masker (masque, Latin or Occitan), and then there are the significant amount of words they included that are not actually Arabic, which they state by their own admission (checkmate, orange, maffia, giraffe, andives, gazelle, azure).

I understand if people think I’m just complaining, but it’s really not hard to look stuff like this up. I also understand that fifty is a nice number to write a list about, but at least eightteen of them cannot really be considered Arabic in origin. It’s fine that there are many words, in various European languages, that were derived either directly or indirectly from Arabic, but sometimes I get the feeling that we tend to treat it as something of a magical language from which everything is derived. The underlying message usually is “look at all the things the Arabs have given us”, which is also OK, it just shouldn’t stand in the way of reality.


Also see:


Klein’s Etymological Dictionary of the English Language

MacKenzie’s Dictionary of Pahlavi


When case collapses: an example from spoken Estonian

The purpose of language is to transfer information from one person to another. Some languages do this by changing the shape of words to show how they relate to one another, such as Latin, Icelandic, German, Classical Arabic, Finnish, most Slavic languages, and so forth. Other languages attribute meaning to words and phrases by heavily relying on word order, such as English, French, vernacular Arabic, Hebrew, Persian, and others.

            Many languages of the former sort changed into forms of the later through the passing of time: many languages that once contained case endings have either lost them altogether (Swedish), or only contain vestiges (Dutch, English).

            In Estonian, there is an intersting example of partial loss of case with regards to the interrogative pronoun mis, “what”. It can be inflected for most cases (except nominative and partitive plural), although in common speech, nominative singular is used virtually everywhere. For example, you could say:

mis teed, “what are you doing” (for (partitive) mida teed);

mis päeval on ta tööl, “what day are they working?” (for (adessive) millel päeval on ta tööl);

mis päevani (or mis päevani jääme, “until what day are we staying” (for terminative mille päevani jääme)

And so on, and so forth. What’s interesting though, is when mis gets inflected, the meaning of the sentence actually changes. When we go back to the first example, mis teed, I’m sure that most Estonians would say it’s a pretty neutral phrase, most accurately translated with “what’s up”; when the form is inflected its meaning changes: mida [sa] teed is a much stronger way of asking what someone is doing, like a mother asking her children why their room is a mess, or maybe catching your significant other in an intimate position with your best friend.

            I guess what I like about this is the fact that even in situations where case has become more-or-less redundant, they can still convey different meanings. Other examples would be from Dutch, where the genitive case is only really used for humorous effect (you know, to sound old-timey). I’m hoping there are more examples of languages that ascribe meaning to case even in the case (hah) when they are no longer grammatically necessary.