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’; prt.pl talvi); keeliti ‘from language to language’ (<keel, ‘language’; prt.pl 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’, nom.sg. rind, gen.sg. rinna, part.pl. 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     def.man
‘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     DEF.man
‘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 historiek.net 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.