Archive for January 2012

Translating into and composing in ancient languages   8 comments

When I studied Hebrew in graduate school, part of my work included translations from English into Hebrew, and after shorter sentences, I moved on and did parts from Weingreen’s Classical Hebrew Composition, a book rare at the time but which may have been reprinted since then. (See mention of this book, and some remarks related to the theme of this post, particularly in terms of Hebrew, here.) Composition into a language one is learning, even an ancient one, used to be very much the norm, so much so that you would be hard-pressed to find a 19th-century learning grammar (as opposed to a reference grammar) that does not include some composition exercises. I confess that I am not well-read on research (the latest or otherwise) for second-language acquisition and its pedagogical concerns, but speaking merely from personal experience, assuming there are adequate resources for it and a way to check it (preferably by another human being who knows the language better), second language composition is an excellent learning practice, not to mention possibly fun, depending on the material to be translated. Optimally, there should be a “known language” to “language being learned” glossary, with idioms, and a key, and the sentences to be translated ought to be based closely on passages that have been read. Good stand-alone dictionaries will of course also have idioms included.

Exercises for compositions and translations into Greek and Latin abound in classical textbooks, especially older ones. For work like this, a kind of practical vocabulary, one that is often not derivable from dull vocabulary lists at the end of language lessons in grammars, is necessary. Ancient, late antique, and medieval commentaries—there are immediate examples for Greek, Latin, Syriac, Arabic, Armenian, etc.—can be very helpful here, as can even later texts when they are written in an ancient language, as the compilers of the Delphin editions, a number of which, but far fewer than the entirety, are available online, recognized. A similar method was put to good use more recently in Waldo Sweet’s reader of Vergil’s Aeneid, Books I and II, which has the text, a facing Latin prose paraphrase, and commentary on certain passages from Servius and other commentators. Eleanor Dickey has made some material like this in Greek more approachable in her Ancient Greek Scholarship (Oxford, 2007).

Some classicists will also know of the method pushed by W.H.D. Rouse (see especially his Scenes from Sixth Form Life and A Greek Boy at Home, as well as The Teaching of Greek at the Perse School) and latterly the similar work of Hans Ørberg for Latin and the Italian adaptation of Athenaze by L. Miraglia for Greek. These all stress real direct use of the language and reading and composing without translation as an intermediary crutch. For one of the volumes (Sermones Romani ad usum discipulorum) in the Lingua Latina per se illustrata series, Ørberg used to good effect the Latin part of some colloquia (the original also has Greek) published with the Hermeneumata Pseudodositheana (ed. G. Goetz, Leipzig, 1892).

A plethora of English to Greek or Latin exercises exist in (especially older) grammars, and there are many slim volumes for both languages specifically dedicated to composition. Taking a cue from Cicero’s De oratore, Roger Ascham in the 16th century was a strong advocate of double translation in learning Greek and Latin: the student would learn a Greek or Latin passage, translate it into English and then, after a period of time, put away the copy in the original language and translate from his or her English translation back into the original language and finally compare it with the original text. (I can’t at present locate my copy of The Scholemaster, where he discusses this method, or I would cite some lines from it. Those interested may find the work online here and probably elsewhere.) The Gaisford Prize, long a venue for Greek composition at Oxford, is also worth mentioning. Some of these are new compositions (mostly prose), others translations from English literature into Greek (mostly verse). Unfortunately, only a few of these interesting specimens have been published. In prose, the most notable piece is on a trip to the zoo in Herodotus’ Ionic Greek style. As an example of verse, some lines from Henry IV, Part 2 (Act 1, sc. ii, ll. 173-181) were rendered into Greek by George Nutt in 1866. Shakespeare’s words read (Lord Chief Justice to Falstaff):

Do you set your name in the scroll of youth, that are written down old with all the characters of age? Have you not a moist eye? a dry hand? a yellow cheek? a white beard? a decreasing leg? an increasing belly? Is not your voice broken? your wind short? your chin double? your wit single? and every part about you blasted with antiquity? and will you yet call yourself young? Fie, fie, fie, Sir John!

The Hellenic version is:

ἆρ᾽ ἐγγράφεις σὺ τοὔνομ᾽ εἰς νεανίας,

ὅστις γέγραψαι πάντ᾽ ἔχων τεκμηρία

γήρως γέρων ὢν ἐμφανῶς; ἆρ᾽ οὐχί σοι

λημῶσιν ὀφθαλμοὶ μὲν αὔη δ᾽ ἐστὶ χείρ;

ὠχρὸς παρειὰν καὶ πολιὸς γενειάδ᾽ εἶ·

γαστὴρ μὲν οἰδεῖ, τὰ σκέλη δ᾽ ἰσχναίνεται·

φωνὴ παρέρρωγέν θ᾽ ὑπ᾽ ἄσθματός τ᾽ ἀεὶ

πονεῖς· διπλοῦν γένειον ἀλλ᾽ ἁπλοῦς ὁ νοῦς.

οὐκ εἶ σὺ γὴρᾳ πᾶς παρεξηυλημένος;

κἄπειτα ληρεῖς σαυτὸν ὀνομάζων νέον;


A recent example of Greek composition is the brief paragraphs on current events in classical Greek at a site I have from time to time in leisure moments enjoyed for some years.

While Greek and Latin are the languages for which (for speakers of European languages, at least) the most tools in this regard  are available, they are not the only languages that have been and can be learned this way. For example, for Sanskrit, E.D. Perry’s Sanskrit Primer (4t ed., New York, 1936) contains exercises, and an English-Sanskrit glossary (but no key). Huehnergard’s Grammar of Akkadian has (generally short) sentences to be made into Akkadian from English; there is an English-Akkadian glossary, and a key is available as a separate volume. I was very surprised to read recently in Budge’s autobiographical remarks in his By Nile and Tigris (London, 1920; vol. 1, p. 60) that at Cambridge, where he read Syriac texts with William Wright and Robert Bensly, with the latter he translated part of The Pilgrim’s Progress into Syriac! In his words, “During the years I read with him, I turned, with his help, the greater part of ‘The Pilgrim’s Progress’ into Syriac, as an exercise in composition.” It is possible that this translation is somewhere among Budge’s papers, but I don’t know where these are located. This was apparently not the only English-Syriac composition Budge did at Cambridge, but this is the only specific project named under this head. When he sat down with Wright at the beginning of his studies with him, Wright

at once sketched out a plan of work, and terrified me with the list of books which he expected me to read. Certain set books in Syriac and Arabic he would read with me himself; Syriac works which were translated from Greek were to be read with Mr. R. L. Bensly, who would help me in translating English into Syriac; and the Hebrew and Chaldee books were to be read with the Rev. W. H. Lowe, who would direct me in Hebrew composition. (pp. 55-56)[1]

Learning a language this way, where possible, is not only effective in improving one’s knowledge of it, it’s also quite fun, as mentioned above, and as, for example, the people at Eisenbrauns know, when they have their annual Valentine’s Day contest for putting together amorous compositions in ancient languages (see the 2011 results here). Well-known songs might also be good practice; I’ve long thought “Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” and almost anything from Dark Side of the Moon would be suitable.

Related to all of this, too, is the place of memorization (of lines and texts, not paradigms and individual isolated lexemes) in language learning. Hopefully, there’ll be opportunity for a post on that in the future. Until then, I would be glad to hear of others’ experiences, both good and bad, translating into and composing in ancient languages.

[1] These lines are also quoted in the introduction of the new publication of some of Wright’s letters. See my review here.

Another manuscript of the Syriac Life of Barṣawmā   4 comments

While the industrious François Nau published a summary, with Syriac excerpts and French translation, of the sixth-century Life of Barṣawmā (d. 458), the full text has, to my knowledge never been published. According to Nau (ROC 18 [1913] 272 n. 1), three Syriac copies of the work, all incomplete, are known to exist: BL Add. 12174, 14732, and 14734, and this information does not seem to have had cause for emendation in the intervening century. Now, however, a new witness to this long and interesting text can be added to the list: Church of the Forty Martyrs 256, pp. 378-477. The text comes almost at the end of a 500-page codex. The main hand is a distinct Serṭo that is very easy to read, and vowels are present here and there. The last page of the manuscript (513), which is written in a different hand than the majority of the book, has the date 1982 AG, that is, 1670/1 CE. This scribe says, “Don’t blame me because I messed it up, since the exemplar was in Arabic,” a statement that must refer to the text at the very end (on Moses), which the scribe apparently translated from Arabic into Syriac, and not to the Life of Barṣawmā. This copy of the Life of Barṣawmā is unfortunately missing a few folios at the end, but it goes to miracle no. 96 (out of 99 or 100). While of dubious historical value, the story most certainly possesses other qualities customarily met with in hagiographic literature, including just plain entertainment!


J.M. Fiey, Saints syriaques (Princeton, 2004), no. 79 (pp. 49-50).

F. Nau, “Résumé de monographies syriaques,” Revue de l’Orient chrétien 18 (1913): 270-276, 379-389; 19 (1914): 113-134, 278-289. (These and a host of other important articles are available here.)

L. Van Rompay, “Barṣawmo,” in Sebastian Brock, Aaron Butts, George Kiraz, and Lucas Van Rompay, eds., Gorgias Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Syriac Heritage (Piscataway, 2011).

Recently digitized books from HMML’s collections   1 comment

I want to highlight five books from HMML’s rare books collections that we have recently photographed and made available at Vivarium. The first three are slim booklets with some very basic information about Arabic, Persian, and Syriac in the form of a guide to reading and pronunciation with some short well-known texts in the particular language and a Latin translation. The Alphabetum Arabicum (1592) has  the Lord’s Prayer, the Annunciation, Psalm 113 (112), Psalm 117 (116), and John 1:1-9.[1] Similar introductory books were published for Gǝˤǝz (Alphabetum Aethiopicum sive Gheez et Amhharicum [Rome, 1789]),[2] Armenian (Alphabetum Armenum), Coptic (Alphabetum Cophtum sive Aegyptiacum), Persian (Alphabetum Persicum), and Syriac (Alphabetum Syro-Chaldaeum), all of these printed by the Congregatio de Propaganda Fide press. Later the Dominicans at Mosul would print the comparable Syllabaire ou exercices de lecture arabe à l’usage des enfants (1862), Syllabaire chaldéen, 3d ed. (1884) for east Syriac script, and Livre de lecture syrienne, 3d ed. (1884) for west Syriac script.[3] These digitized booklets on Arabic, Persian, and Syriac (the script in this one is mostly Serṭo) may be of interest for the history of scholarship in these languages, typography, and perhaps even pedagogy.

Alphabetum arabicum (Rome, 1592).

Alphabetum persicum, cum Oratione dominicali et Salutatione angelica (Rome, 1783).

Alphabetum syro-chaldaeum, una cum Oratione dominicali, Salutatione angelica, et Symbolo fidei (Rome, 1797).

The next volume, completely unrelated to the previous three, is Budge’s The Miracles of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and the Life of Hannâ (Saint Anne), and the Magical Prayers of ‘Ahĕta Mîkâêl (London, 1900). Only 300 copies were printed (“for private circulation”), of which this copy is no. 79. No one who has not seen this ponderous tome will divine its heft and size merely from viewing the images on a screen, but I vouch for its massive dimensions. To be sure, some of the criticisms that R.H. Charles leveled against another of Budge’s huge books are fitting here (see in Hermathena 10 [1899]: 397-406, available here), too, but, at the very least, many of the plates are worth examining.

The last book is Giovanni Battista Ferrari’s Ktābā da-bnāt qālē suryāyātā = Nomenclator Syriacus (Rome, 1622), a Syriac-Latin glossary (based on onomasiological rather than semasiological principles). HMML also has a copy of Thomas Obicini’s similar work, Thesaurus Arabico-Syro-Latinus, which was posthumously published at Rome, 1636.[4]

[1] For Arabic HMML also has the similar, but longer, Fabrica overo dittionario della lingua volgare arabica, et italiana by Dominico Germano de Silesia (Rome, 1636); it includes some partially vocalized Christian phrases and texts, such as the Christian basmallah, the Lord’s Prayer, Ave Maria, the Apostles’ Creed, Ten Commandments, Salve Regina, and the Athanasian Creed.

[2] Note also the Chaldeae [sic!] seu Aethiopicae Linguae Institutiones (Rome, 1630). HMML also has this volume; it has already been photographed and will be added to Vivarium in the near future.

[3] See further M.W. Albin, “Preliminary bibliography of Arabic books printed by the Dominican fathers in Mosul,” MIDEO 16 (1983): 247-260, and J.F. Coakley and David G.K. Taylor, “Syriac Books Printed at the Dominican Press, Mosul,” in, George A. Kiraz, ed., Malphono w-Rabo d-Malphone. Studies in Honor of Sebastian P. Brock, Gorgias Eastern Christian Studies 3 (Piscataway, 2008), pp. 71-110.

[4] This work is based, without attribution, on Eliya of Nisibis’ Kitāb al-turjumān fī taˤlīm luġat al-suryān, of which I am preparing a new edition—there is an older one by Lagarde—based partly on six newly identified manuscripts of the work, including the oldest dated copy.

Syriac letters and Coptic numerals   2 comments

The image below shows the correspondences between the Syriac letters used as numerals and the Coptic numerals, which are also occasionally found in Syriac and (more commonly) Arabic manuscripts for foliation or quire-marking. Note the incongruity of position for the two systems: the Coptic numerals are right-side-up, but most of the Syriac letters are turned sideways.  The manuscript is a liturgical book from Saint Mark’s Monastery, Jerusalem, which recently partnered with HMML to digitize its collection, and these numerals are written out at the bottom of the first folio, without any apparent connection to the text itself; they are written again (without the Syriac correspondences) on the inside front wooden board of the book.

St Mark’s, Jerusalem, ms. 59, f. 1r.

Some references for the use of Coptic numerals in manuscripts:

A. Gacek, Arabic Manuscripts: A Vademecum for Readers, p. 118.

W.H.P. Hatch, Album of Dated Syriac Manuscripts, p. 23.

H. Ritter, “Griechisch-koptische Ziffern in arabischen Manuskripten,” Rivista degli studi orientali 16 (1936): 212-214.

W. Wright, Catalogue of the Syriac Manuscripts in the British Museum, vol. 3, p. xxvi.

A fine Arabic synaxarion   3 comments

CFMM 251 is a beautiful copy of a synaxarion (the catalog of saints according to the day they are celebrated in the church) in Arabic. It follows the Greek menologion (text in PG 117) closely (but not exactly) and is almost complete, with only a folio or two missing at the end. Since the end is lacking, there is also no colophon, nor is there any clear indication of date elsewhere in the manuscript. The images below are the first page of the book, which begins with the month of Aylūl (= September), and p. 13, for Sept. 10, on which these saints are named: the sisters Menodora, Metrodora, and Nymphodora; Baripsibba; and Pulcheria.

CFMM 251, p. 1

CFMM 251, p. 13

English loanwords in Arabic: data from the early 20th century   2 comments

Not too long ago Riccardo Contini highlighted the importance of travel literature for scholars interested in the diachronic investigation of Arabic by examining Charles Doughty’s Travels in Arabia Deserta (first published 1888).[1] Similar, though more paltry, data useful for this kind of linguistic research may also be found in a somewhat unexpected resource, and it is this resource I would like to point out here.

I spent part of the weekend reading H.L. Mencken’s excellent The American Language: An Inquiry into the Development of English in the Unites States, originally published in 1919, followed by revised editions, the last of which, the fourth, appeared in 1936. Mencken also augmented this first thick volume with two equally sized supplements. I can hardly praise the book highly enough, both for the information it provides and for the delightful prose and wit in which that information is couched. At the end of the first volume, Mencken offers some remarks on a number of languages spoken in immigrant communities in America, and Arabic is happily among that number, his data having been provided by H.I. Katibah and S. Baddour (pp. 683-685). Here (with modified orthography) are some of the English-influenced lexical items,[2] mostly verbs, he lists, along with a few remarks of my own:

  • sannas earn a cent, as in l-yom mā sannasnā, “We didn’t make a cent today.”
  • šannaj make change (money)
  • šarraj charge
  • darrav drive
  • narvas become nervous
  • layyat be late, as in l-trēn mlayyit, “The train is late.”
  • baḏar bother, as in lā tbaḏirni, “Don’t bother me.”
  • barrak park
  • sammak smoke. The original way to say “I smoked” is šaribtu l-duḫ()āna, “I drank smoke (or tobacco),” etc. (Lane p. 1526, col. 1),[3] but subsequently a denominative II verb from duḫān developed: daḫḫantu (Wehr, Dictionary, p. 317). Cf. D.R. Woodhead and W. Beene, A Dictionary of Iraqi Arabic: Arabic-English, pp. 154-155, 238.
  • faksan fix, as in hāda muš mfaksan, “This isn’t fixed.”
  • [fabrak manufacture. This word is included in the list as though it were an English loan, but it much more likely derives from French fabriquer.]
  • haldab hold up
  • sayyan sign (a document)
  • kaddam say “God damn”
  • some English nouns with Arabic feminine plural marker added: hawsāt (houses), starāt (stores), bazāt (bosses), šuzāt (shoes [as noted in the list, a plural of a plural!]).

As can be clearly seen, most of the verbs, whether taken as from triliteral or quadriliteral roots, are put into the phonological and morphological pattern of the II verb, and this practice is common across Semitic languages for making new verbs, often from nouns (denominative). It’s too bad more examples were not given for these lexical items, but we at least see some participles for the verbs, both active (mlayyit) and passive (mfaksan). Especially interesting are haldab and kaddam, both of which each come from two words in English.


[1] “Travel Literature as a Linguistic Source: Another Look at Doughty’s Najdi Arabic Glossary,” in F.M. Fales and G.F. Grassi, eds., CAMSEMUD 2007: Proceedings of the 13th Italian Meeting of Afro-Asiatic Linguistics, Held in Udine, May 21st-24th, 2007 (Padua, 2010), pp. 305-314.

[2] On evidence of language contact in Modern Standard Arabic see Hans Wehr, Die Besonderheiten des heutigen Hocharabischen mit Berücksichtigung der Einwirkung der europäischen Sprachen (Berlin, 1934), and Majed F. Saˤid, Lexical Innovation through Borrowing in Modern Standard Arabic (Princeton, 1967).

[3] Arabic is not alone in this idiom. As one example outside the Semitic languages note the old expression in German “Tabak trinken”: “Tabak rauchen” dates only from the second half of the 17th century (Grimm, Deutsches Wörterbuch, vol. 8, col. 244). Among Neo-Aramaic dialects, we may similarly cite, at least, šty “drink” used for both liquids and tobacco in the dialects covered by Yona Sabar’s Jewish Neo-Aramaic Dictionary (Wiesbaden, 2002), p. 305. In the dialect of Barwar, inter alia, the verb grš “pull, drag” is used for smoking (G. Khan, The Neo-Aramaic Dialect of Barwar, vol. 2, Lexicon, [Leiden, 2008], p. 1128; idem, A Grammar of Neo-Aramaic: The Dialect of the Jews of Arbel [Leiden, 1999], p. 553; idem, The Jewish Neo-Aramaic Dialect of Sulemaniyya and Ḥalabja [Leiden, 2004], p. 584). Maclean (A Dictionary of the Dialects of Vernacular Syriac [Oxford, 1901], pp 58, 314) cites both verbs for this meaning. The use of the verb “pull, drag” instead of “drink” may be due to Iranian influence: cf. Persian چبوق كشيدان “smoke a pipe” (Steingass, Dictionary, p. 387) and سگار كشيدان “smoke a cigar” (p. 690).

Yet another copy of the exemplar of Mingana Syriac 559?   1 comment

Church of the Forty Martyrs (Mardin) manuscript no. 555, copied in 1963-64 by Malki Gülçe for Yuḥanon Dolabani at the Church of Mary in Elâzığ, contains the same texts in the same order as Mingana Syriac 559 (see Mingana’s Catalogue, vol. 1, cols. 1034-1039). This Mingana manuscript—a welcome break from the almost ubiquitous theology, liturgy, and the like—is well-known for containing Job of Edessa’s very interesting Book of Treasures, a facsimile of which was published with an English translation by Mingana himself in 1935. But this is not the only notable text in the manuscript; in addition, there is:

  • a series of questions and answers attributed to Alexander Aphrodisias
  • selected questions and answers from the books of Galen
  • Job of Edessa’s short Treatise on Rabies (on which I have sent a proposal for this summer’s international Symposium Syriacum)
  • a brief work attributed to Ḥunayn ibn Isḥāq on the fact that there are four elements and not more or less
  • a short text on dreams
  • a short text on the heart and the brain attributed to a nameless monk

Mingana’s manuscript was copied for him in 1930 on the basis of an exemplar copied in 1532 AG (= 1220/21 CE). Another manuscript, also copied, it seems, from this 13th century manuscript, is Harvard Syr 132 (Goshen-Gottstein’s Catalogue, pp. 90-91).

The Mardin manuscript at the beginning, before the Alexander Aphrodisias text, has the end of a work (only one folio) that I have thus far not identified, a philosophical text that deals (at least in this fragment) with the soul. This work is completely unmentioned by Mingana and Goshen-Gottstein. While the Mardin manuscript is some decades younger than the Mingana or Harvard copies, there is neither clear evidence, nor, as far as I know, even likelihood, considering the time and place of its copying, that it was copied from either of these manuscripts rather than from the thirteenth-century exemplar itself, the colophonic parts of which are included in the Mardin copy, as in Mingana’s (I don’t know about the Harvard manuscript in this regard). Late manuscripts such as the Mardin copy, and even earlier ones, are known sometimes to derive from printed editions, but the only text in this group that has been published is the Book of Treasures, mentioned above. On a quick perusal of this newly identified manuscript, I observed that the text is often not always the same orthographically and lexically as the Mingana copy. Witness, for example, that the second adjective describing Alexander’s questions, both in the title and in the table of contents at the beginning of the volume, is not asyāyē “medical” (as in Mingana’s text), but usyāyē “essential”, which, it bears emphasizing, requires the writing of an extra letter in Syriac.

These questions of textual derivation would be moot if the thirteenth-century exemplar were discovered, and it may yet show up, perhaps even in one of the collections digitized or being digitized by HMML, but for the time being scholars interested in Syriac scientific and philosophical literature will welcome another witness thereto, even one as late as this one.

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