One of the authors I work with most for my dissertation is the 10thcentury Yemeni scholar al-Hamdāni. al-Hamdānī was an interesting scholar with a broad array of interests, a typical example of the medieval polymath. He wrote on geography, ancient history, astrology and astronomy (not that there was much of a difference back then), and geology. In a paper presented to the International Symposium on al-Hamdānī, the Swedish Hamdānī-expert Christopher Toll noted the following:
“al-Hamdānī was also a philologist. The first chapters of the K. al-Ǧawharatayn deal with the different names of gold and silver and the words dīnār and dirham and their etymologies. In this context he explains the South Arabian mimation”. This piqued my interest, so I decided to look what al-Hamdānī says, specifically (al-Hamdānī 2009:75):
“They said: it may be that the origin of the word dirham lies with the ancient ʿArabs [cf. Webb (2015:216-7), particularly with Ḥimyar” (qālū: ka-ʾanna ʾaṣla smi l-dirhami li-l-ʿarabi l-ʿāribati wa-ḫāṣatan li-ḥimyara); “because they were the first to speak of that amongst the ancient Arabs” (li-ʾanna-hum ʾawwalu man ʾaḥdaṯa dālika mina l-ʿarabi l-ʿāribati), “like how daraha is a verb (fiʿl) and al-darrah is a noun (al-ʾism); the Ḥimyar add a mīm to the noun, like in how they named the fortress Rayda, namely “Talf”. Then they added a mīm and say talfum, by which they mean “whatever is ruined” (talifu mā). Then, it softened, and they pronounced it without a vowel following the lām (fa-qālū bi-taskīni l-lām). The addition of the mīm occurs in speech consisting of true Arabic, such as in the saying of al-Taʾabbiṭ: ḫabarum mā nāba-nā muṣmaʾillun (difficult news that afflicted us).”
Hamdānī is essentially talking about a few different things here, but, as the cool kids say nowadays, there are a few things to unpack here. Let’s make our way backwards:
The phenomenon he mentions last is not really addition (ziyāda) or replacement (ʾibdāl), but rather assimilation (idġām). Although al-Hamdānī cites a line from the pre-Islamic poet Ṯābit b. Ǧābir (better known as al-Taʾabbiṭ) the most well-known place assimilation occurs is in Qurʾānic recitation. In the next paragraph, al-Hamdānī does mention this, referring to Qurʾān 2:26: ʾinnā llāha lā yastaḥyī ʾan yaḍraba maṯalam mā bi-ʿūḍatan fa-mā fawqa-hā” (“Indeed, God is not embrassed to use whatever example: that of a mosquito or something above it”).
Let’s go back: al-Hamdānī tells us (admittedly in a rather roundabout way) that some “ancient Arabs, particularly Ḥimyar” used to add a mīm to the end of words, in order to give it a sense of indefiniteness. This is what he means when he says “talifa mā”, “whatever is ruined”, his etymology of the name Talfum. Reckendorf (1921:202) gives a few examples of the similar usage of mā, e.g., laʾyan mā, “only slowly”; ʾilā yawmin mā, “on whatever day”; maṯalan mā “whatever example” (seen above).
In short, al-Hamdānī is telling us that the meaning of the final <m> that we find in many South Arabian place names has one of indefiniteness. People familiar with Classical Arabic are also familiar with nunation, i.e. the marking of indefinite nouns with a final -n (tanwīn). In some other Semitic langauges, such as Akkadian, indefinites were instead marked with a final -m. This ending was also productive in Sabaic – and possibly in other South Arabian languages, too. What’s so fascinating about this Hamdānī’s comments is that they suggest he had awareness of the mimation’s original meaning. But it’s clear that he was not working with the same tools and framework as current linguists.
Ah, by the way, his etymology of dirham is obviously completely wrong. It’s from Greek drachma.
al-Hamdānī, A. 2009. Kitāb al-ǧawharatayn al-ʿatīqatayn. Ed. ʾAḥmad Fuʾād Bāšā. Al-Hayʾa al-ʿāmma li-dār al-kutub wa-l-waṯāq al-qawmiyya
Gzella, H. 2011. “Northwest Semitic in General”. S. Weninger, The Semitic Languages – An International Handbook. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter GmbH.
Reckendorf, H. 1921. Arabische Syntax.
Toll, C. 1984. al-Hamdānī as a Scholar. Arabica, 31. 306-317.
Webb, P. 2015. Imagining the Arabs. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.