Archive for the ‘Neo-Aramaic’ Category

Reading challenge, April 2015   2 comments

The study of spoken and (ancient) written languages intersect perhaps less than might be desirable, but sic semper erat, sic semper erit. Nevertheless, I would like to take a cue from Olle Linge’s Hacking Chinese ( and suggest an intentional, focused reading effort for ancient language students.

For the month of April 2015, let’s take an opportunity to push reading limits, or at least to re-kindle reading habits in this or that language. It is no secret that wide exposure to multitudes of lines is a boon to philological understanding and enjoyment. By “exposure” I mean reading with understanding. And there’s the rub. This is what makes it possible for an advanced student to do 100 pages of text (or more) in a month, and a novice to do much less: the novice requires far more frequent recourse to the lexicon, grammatical tables, perhaps a translation, etc. than the more experienced user. But the payoff is experience itself. Here is some counsel from the great sinologist George A. Kennedy:

The value of a reference work is its capacity to furnish facts quickly, and a good reference work must be a well-ordered affair. But the quickness with which these facts are appropriated depends in large part on the skill of the user. And this skill results only from diligent practice. It is not enough to know about a book of reference; one must handle it, thumb the pages, know where the index is, know what sort of information it gives. You are not qualified for research unless you can locate the facts that are available quickly.



from his Introduction to Sinology: Being a Guide to the Tz’u Hai (Ci hai), (New Haven, 1981), 1 (emphasis in original)

He has the 辭海 cí hăi in mind, here as a reference work for students of Chinese history, but his advice is equally applicable to textual experience in a language, or philological experience.

Here, then, is the challenge for the month: not a contest, but an individual exhortation to purposefully spend a given amount of time and effort moving — or more picturesquely, plowing, sailing, crunching, &c. — through a text or texts, with understanding. You pick the language, the genre, the text(s), the length. The unique thing is to read carefully more than you might normally do for this month. It might be an opportunity to work especially hard on a language you’re now closely involved with, or it might be an opportunity to return to a language you’ve not read in a while. Simply to be not too vague, here are some language suggestions in no particular order (I assume that if you know the language well enough to do this, you know some texts to read, but in any case, the Bible is usually a good place to start due to the accessibility of texts and the ease of comparison with other versions):

  • Armenian
  • Christian Palestinian Aramaic
  • Syriac
  • Arabic
  • Jewish Babylonian Aramaic
  • Greek
  • Sogdian
  • Persian
  • Georgian
  • Turkish
  • Coptic
  • Gǝʿǝz
  • Uyghur

Do more than one language, if you like. How about reading the same text in more than one language? Read from printed editions, read from manuscripts, read from chrestomathies, whatever suits you. Quant à moi, my reading goals for the month include the following texts:

  1. Persian. 10 pages in the so-called Persian Diatessaron
  2. Turkish. Ali Bey’s Bible: Jonah 1-2; Mt 4:1-11; 11:17-19; 15:21-28
  3. Coptic. “Marina” (pp. 27-33) and “Siebenschläfer” (pp. 21–24) in W. Till, Koptische Heiligen- Und Martyrerlegenden: Texte, Übersetzungen Und Indices, vol. 1, Orientalia Christiana Analecta 102 (Rome: Pont. Institutum Orientalium Studiorum, 1935); volumes available here. Further on this story in Coptic, see here from my hagiography bibliography.
  4. Georgian. The five texts on David & Constantine in I. Abuladze and E. Gabidzashvili, ძველი ქართული აგიოგრაფიული ლიტერატურის ძეგლები, წიგნი IV სვინაქსარული რედაქციები (XI-XVIII სს.) (Monuments of Old Georgian Hagiographic Literature, Vol. 4, Synaxarion Redactions, [11th-18th Centuries]) (Tbilisi, 1968), 359-366; and the Parable of the Man & Elephant in the two versions of Barlaam and Ioasaph.
  5. Old Turkic/Uyghur. The text on p. 53 of  W. Bang, “Türkische Bruchstücke einer Nestorianischen Georgspassion,” Le Muséon 39 (1926): 41–75 (cf. Gabain, Gr., p. 264); and the text in P. Zieme, “Ein uigurisches Sündenbekenntnis,” Acta Orientalia Academiae Scientiarum Hungaricae 32 (1969): 107-121.
  6. Arabic/Garšūnī. Epistle of Ps.-Dionysius to Timothy, SMMJ 263

If you like, share what you plan to read in the comments below. And any thoughts on this enterprise generally are welcome, too. Happy studying!

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).

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