Talking to a dog in Aramaic   1 comment

At some points in the history of lexicography, the acceptable fodder for lexicographers has been restricted, investigations into non-literary and purely colloquial words being eschewed. In the course of the last few centuries, at least, in more than one lexicographic arena, this custom has fortunately fallen into disuse, with the study of slang, etc. finding able word-hunters such as John S. Farmer (on whom see here, with numerous works here, with his French-English Vocabula Amatoria elsewhere), Allen Walker Read (Lexical Evidence from Folk Epigraphy in Western North America: A Glossarial Study of the Low Element in the English Vocabulary [Paris, 1935], reprinted by Maledicta Press in 1977 as Classical American Graffiti), and more recently Eric Partridge, Jonathon Green, and others. It is not only the vocabulary of languages of Europe that have been studied on this more earthy level. Yona Sabar’s Jewish Neo-Aramaic Dictionary (Harrassowitz, 2002), for example, includes in its store euphemisms, taboo words, and metaphors as such, as well as the vocabulary of women’s speech and baby talk (see pp. 59-64).

The tenth-century scholar Ḥasan bar Bahlul (see GEDSH, p. 54) compiled a large Syriac lexicon, which contains many terms that are quite rare — indeed some words we know only thanks to his lexicon — and he also gives evidence of Aramaic dialects as spoken in his own time. One colloquial word, yet a word that he came across, he says, in reading, not necessarily in speech, is kušukušu:

Eric Partridg
Eric Partridge
Bar Bahlul's lexicon, ed. Duval, col. 883

Bar Bahlul’s lexicon, ed. Duval, col. 883

Kušukušu. I found it in the Proverbs [or tales] of the Arameans. [It is a term for] coaxing a dog, putting a dog at ease.

This is just the kind of dog-speech one might use with the animal as described by T.S. Eliot:

The usual Dog about the Town

Is much inclined to play the clown,

And far from showing too much pride

Is frequently undignified.

He’s very easily taken in —

Just chuck him underneath the chin

Or slap his back or shake his paw,

And he will gambol and guffaw.

He’s such an easy-going lout,

He’ll answer any hail or shout.

Perhaps especially a hail or shout “Kušukušu!” If we’re to believe the rest of Eliot’s poem (thanks to my children for keeping it so often in my ears), it’s not so with cats!

Bar Bahul’s complete lexicon, ed. R. Duval, is available online, and the CAL project provides links from individual lemmas to the appropriate pages. The work is hardly a mere glossary, with just close equivalents for Syriac-Syriac or Syriac-Arabic. Some entries are long and give much more than simple definitions (e.g. philosophy on cols. 1548-1554). A full-scale study of the work would yield us a fuller picture of intellectual work and knowledge around Baghdad in the tenth century, especially in Christian circles, so hopefully some able scholar will undertake such a project before long, and a complete digital edition, fully searchable, would be a good foundational start.

One response to “Talking to a dog in Aramaic

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  1. Pingback: Dried meat in Bar Bahlul | hmmlorientalia

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