Archive for the ‘languages’ Tag

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!

Old Georgian phrases and sentences 39 (Mirian & religion in Georgia)   Leave a comment

Ⴜ(ႫႨႣႠ)Ⴢ ႫႤႴႤ ႫႨႰႨႠႬႤ | წ(მიდა)ჲ მეფე მირიანი. King Mirian, from the Samtavisi Cathedral. Source.

Ⴜ(ႫႨႣႠ)Ⴢ ႫႤႴႤ ႫႨႰႨႠႬႤ | წ(მიდა)ჲ მეფე მირიანი. King Mirian, from the Samtavisi Cathedral. Source.

For today’s Georgian reading, here are a few lines from the K’art’lis c’xovreba, with Robert Thomson’s translation (Rewriting Caucasian History).

ed. 65.7-9 (Th. 77)

და იყოს შვილი ჩემი ორსავე სჯულსა ზედა: მამათა ჩუენთა ცეცხლის-მსახურებასა და თქუენთა კერპთასა, რამეთუ პირველვე ამას ზედა მოეცა ფიცი.

“My son [Mirian] will observe both religions, the fire-worship of our fathers and the worship of your idols”, because he had previously given his oath for this.

  • იყოს aor. conj. 3sg ყოფა to be
  • სჯული law, religion
  • ცეცხლის-მსახურებაჲ fire-worship
  • კერპჲ idol
  • მო-ე-ც-ა aor 3sg მოცემა to give
  • ფიცი oath, vow

ed. 65.15-17 (Th. 77)

და აღიზარდა მირიან მსახურებასა მას შინა შჳდთა მათ კერპთასა და ცეცხლისასა.

Mirian grew up in the worship of the seven idols and of fire.

ხოლო შეიყუარნა ქართველნი, და დაივიწყა ენა სპარსული და ისწავა ენა ქართული.

He loved the Georgians, forgot the Persian tongue,  and learned the Georgian language.

  • აღ-ი-ზარდ-ა aor 3sg აღზრდა to be reared, grow up
  • მსახურებაჲ worship (cf. above in ცეცხლის-მსახურებაჲ)
  • შე-ი-ყუარ-ნ-ა aor 3sg N შეყუარება to love
  • და-ი-ვიწყ-ა დავიწყება to forget
  • სპარსული Persian
  • ი-სწავ-ა aor 3sg სწავება to learn

The seven gods are:

  1. Armazi (არმაზი)
  2. Gac’i (გაცი)
  3. Gaim (გაიმ)
  4. Ainina (აინინა)
  5. Danina (დანინა)
  6. Zadeni (ზადენი)
  7. The seventh in view here may be Aphrodite, an idol of whom is mentioned as having been brought to Georgia by Sep’elia, wife of the king Rev, and set up at the entrance to Mc’xet’a (ed. 58.2, Thomson, p. 69).

In the Life of Nino, we also find mention of Armazi, Gac’i, and Gaim (cf. Lang, Lives and Legends of the Georgian Saints, pp. 23-24). Further on early religion in Georgia, for which the textual data are much later, see especially Michael Tseretheli (1935), “The Asianic (Asia Minor) Elements in National Georgian Paganism,” Georgica 1: 28-66; and later, the indices under the names of the gods in Cyril Toumanoff, Studies in Christian Caucasian History and Stephen H. Rapp, Jr., Studies in Medieval Georgian Historiography: Early Texts and Eurasian Contexts (CSCO 601), esp. p. 277-279, where our passage above is also cited.

From Peter Boodberg’s “Philologist’s Creed”   2 comments

I’ve recently finished David B. Honey’s Incense at the Altar: Pioneering Sinologists and the Development of Classical Chinese Philology, AOS Series 86 (New Haven: AOS, 2001), which my friend Chuck Häberl pointed out to me a few months ago. The books covers the lives and works of these “pioneering sinologists” from various countries, backgrounds, and temperaments in what was for me a delightful reading experience.

While I’ve not mentioned Chinese here before, the study of Classical Chinese language, literature, and history developed, not surprisingly, along lines partly analogous to the study of other such fields, including the textual matrices and complexes frequently touched on at hmmlorientalia. Among the scholars discussed in Honey’s book is Vladivostok-born Peter Boodberg (1903-1972), and for now I’d just like to quote part of the latter’s “Philologist’s Creed,” which Honey gives in full (pp. 305-306). It’s a testament of Boodberg’s approach to philology (not only Chinese), his “brooding humanism” (Honey, p. 306), penned in a confessional tone (with echoes of the language of Qohelet in one part), and the excerpt given here (and the whole of it) might resonate — even if wryly! — with other students and scholars.

I mind me of all tongues, all tribes, and all nations that labored and wrought all manner of works with their hands, and their minds, and their hearts. And I cast mine yes unto Hind, unto Sinim, and the lands of Gogs and Magogs of the earth, across wilderness, pasture, and field, over mountains, waters, and oceans, to wherever man lived, suffered, and died; to wherever he sinned, and toiled, and sang. I rejoice and I weep over his story and relics, and I praise his glory, and I share his shame.

Towards a repertorium lectionum vivarum orientalium   8 comments

A particular advantage that the student of modern spoken languages has over the student of languages only studied from texts, so-called dead languages, is that of having hour upon hour of spoken samples, whether conversational or simple reading (as at Librivox, where you can search here by language), scripted or ex tempore, of the languages in question. At least in some settings of instruction and reading in ancient languages, those languages are treated as living, and efforts are made to do lots of reading aloud with practiced fluency. My own experience in learning ancient languages fits this picture, for which I am grateful. (There are also some teachers and students who attempt to use the ancient languages in an even more living way, as I mentioned in the third paragraph of this post.) In countries and communities where there is some continuous reading tradition (e.g. Old Georgian in Georgia, Gǝʿǝz in Ethiopia), even where the form of the language has changed, reading is very often still an oral practice, and even elsewhere students who happen to read ancient languages with a professor who sees value in reading aloud will naturally have plenty of opportunity to exercise their ears with the language as heard, but not every student has that advantage, especially not autodidacts. Where, for example, can students of classical Armenian hear samples of Movsēs Xorenac‘i or the Yaysmawurk’? Where can students of Coptic hear some homilies? And so on.
There is a potential means to remedy this lack, as Akkadian students may know: hosted here at the SOAS, London, are several Akkadian texts (given normalized and translated) read by different readers. Why not do the same thing for other languages? The focus of the blog and of my work at HMML is the (particularly pre-modern) languages of the Christian east, but a venture of this kind need not necessarily bow to such limits. Even so, those limits contain no small collection of languages or of literature from which texts might be chosen: Arabic, Armenian, Coptic, Gǝʿǝz, Old Nubian, Georgian, Syriac, Old Church Slavonic, Persian, Sogdian (perhaps even more lately attested texts in Malayāḷam, Kurdish, Turkish?). Texts read might run the gamut of literary genres in these languages: biblical, theological, liturgical, polemic, hagiographic, etc. The particular texts selected should be some kind of logical unit and not too long, the reading being perhaps not more than five or six minutes. Ideally, speakers would indicate the following information, too:
  • Native language
  • Language in which the read language was learned (e.g. learned classical Armenian in French, learned Old Nubian in English)
  • Text (edition or manuscript)

So, dear readers, I would like to gauge potential interest in such a Repertorium lectionum vivarum orientalium. Would you, as students and instructors, find something along these lines useful? Do you have any other remarks on the prospect? I would also be glad to hear about the practical settings of your language learning experiences: was your reading usually viva voce, did you typically translate into another language, etc.

Until next time, πρόσεχε τῇ ἀναγνώσει, μακάριος γὰρ ὁ ἀναγινώσκων!

2012 in review   Leave a comment


Thanks to you all, dear readers, for a fun year at hmmlorientalia! Let’s hope for and do what we can to effect safety, well-being, friendship, and enjoyment of life, as we look forward to more manuscripts, texts, and languages in the one to come!

In 2012, in terms of manuscripts, I and other catalogers described several hundred manuscripts and identified several thousand distinct texts (I don’t have the exact numbers here before me), and it is our hope that this work will continue to be of use to those at work on the languages, literature, and manuscripts of Arabic/Garšūnī, Armenian, Gǝʿǝz, and Syriac. We have some exciting developments (including within vHMML) and announcements to look forward to in the coming year, so stay tuned!

The stats helper monkeys prepared a 2012 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

4,329 films were submitted to the 2012 Cannes Film Festival. This blog had 18,000 views in 2012. If each view were a film, this blog would power 4 Film Festivals

Click here to see the complete report.

Posted December 31, 2012 by adam_bremer-mccollum in Uncategorized

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Fähnrich’s recent book on Georgian   1 comment

While (Old) Georgian is generally thought of as one of the big six languages of eastern Christianity — considered, that is, apart from Greek and Old Church Slavonic — it seems to have fewer researchers than the other five languages: Arabic, Armenian, Coptic, Gǝʿǝz, and Syriac. Those of the Semitic family have a long history of research in Europe from the 16th century on and knowledge of one naturally builds toward knowledge of another. Athanasius Kircher and others before and after him worked on Coptic, the study of which was rejuvenated in the mid-20th century with the discovery of the Nag Hammadi codices (in quite a more lasting way, we can be sure, than that due to the recent hullabaloo-accompanied discussion of the so-called Gospel of Jesus’ Wife). Armenian, while still a language and a tradition apart, is nevertheless an Indo-European language and so not really so foreign linguistically as it may seem to most American and European scholars. But, compared with these languages, Georgian stands furthest away, both for its linguistic uniqueness and perhaps for the distinct Caucasian stamp it shares with Armenian. Scholars writing in Georgian and in Russian have published extensively on the language and its literature, but aspiring students who can’t read those languages have much less to work with. That which is available in the commonly read European languages is mostly in French and German (some of which was translated from Russian or Georgian), and only recently has anything appeared in English.

Map of Georgia from Marr-Brière

It is well known that Lord Byron had a strong interest in Georgia and its culture. More substantively in the 18th century, Marie-Félicité Brosset (1802-1880) wrote Éléments de la langue géorgienne (1837), a grammatical guide giving attention both to the literary language and the “vulgaire,” including some reading exercises at the end, only one of which might be surely classified as Old Georgian: The Martyrdom of David and Constantine (pp. 268-283); it has the text in Georgian, Brosset’s (now idiosyncratic) transliteration, literal phrase-by-phrase or word-by-word French translation, and a more fluid French translation. More recently came Zorrell’s brief (handwritten!) grammar for reading the Georgian version of the Bible and then N. Marr and M. Brière, La langue géorgienne (Paris, 1931), at the end of which are reading selections in all three scripts (the majority being in mxedruli). The author of the tome considered in this post, Heinz Fähnrich — see on him auf Deutsch here, and in Georgian here; at the latter is a picture of him with renowned Georgian scholar Ak’ak’i Šaniże (1887-1987; see here, very brief, in English and more here in Georgian) — earlier penned a 100-page survey of the language in English (mostly made up of paradigms), and in English we also have the recent, short treatment by Kevin Tuite. Longer than the latter, but still very compendious (and in German), is the little book by R. Zwolanek, with J. Assfalg’s assistance. (See the bibliography below.) This is decidedly not a complete list of grammars for Old Georgian, but it suffices to show the context into which Fähnrich’s new work comes.

This new book is hardly the first grammatical work by Fähnrich on Georgian, even in addition to the translation of Šaniże’s grammar and Fähnrich’s survey in English (see the bibliography below); these works are not closely compared with the new book here. That book appeared in 2011 (or 2012, see below) in Brill’s Handbuch der Orientalistik series. Including bibliography and index, it finishes at 856 pages. The book treats Old and later Georgian separately (15-498 and 511-828), but there is a handy discussion of main differences between the two at pp. 499-510. Most of what I have to say here has to do only with the part on Old Georgian; I studied the second half of the book in much less detail. There is some confusion concerning the book’s publication details: the copyright date in the copy I studied is 2012 (also on the title page), but the ISBN there leads one to an Introduction to Altaic Philology (2010)! The ISBN on the back cover of my copy leads one to the correct book, it seems, but the stated publication date for that one is 2011, and in any case, that is the only appropriate volume that comes up when you look at the author’s books at Brill’s site. Not surprisingly, the cost is exceedingly prohibitive: €217/$298 from Brill, and used copies available through AbeBooks are only moderately cheaper.


Now, I point out the book’s strengths. Such judgements are, of course, at least partly subjective, but even so they will serve to give a more precise idea of the book than one might glean from the blurb of a bookseller.

At the outset, it is worth stressing that, while the majority of the book really is a presentation of the linguistic behavior of Georgian (i.e. a grammar), it is not exclusively so. The macrosection called “Lexik,” which covers “Bedeutungsänderungen,” “Normierung von Lautformen,” “Homonyme,” “Synonyme,” “Fachwortschatz und wissenschaftliche Terminologie,” “Wortgut kartwelischer Herkunft” (classified topically), and “Lehnwörter” (classified by origin), is the most interesting. We might justifiably ask whether such a section belongs properly to grammar stricto sensu — I think not, but it is well to recall that the book’s title lacks Grammatik! — but at the same time, its interest is almost undeniable. I wish more lexica included sections like these, and easily navigable. (Cf. R.M.W. Dixon, Basic Linguistic Theory, vol. 1, ch. 8.)

Another not strictly grammatical topic, but one especially important for a non-current literary language, that Fähnrich covers is the corpus, i.e. Old (15-46) and later (514-528) Georgian literature. While serviceable as surveys, these sections would be all the stronger with full references to editions and at least a few textual and literary studies, where they exist.

The fact that the book covers both Old and Modern Georgian in one volume will be appreciated by some linguists, both Kartvelologists and others, and especially worth highlighting here is the aforementioned concluding part of the first main part of the book: “Veränderungen vom Alt- zum Neugeorgischen” (499-510).


I turn now to some complaints I have about the book. One of the biggest problems with the book is that the sources of text citations are not given. Those from the Bible might be easily identified, but not so with the rest of Georgian literature! Supplied references would be of use not only to those who want to check the further context of a particular word form or syntactic usage, but also to those who are struck by the content itself of an example sentence and who wish to see more. Supplied references also confirm without a doubt the genuine existence this or that form, that it is not a mere contrivance of a grammarian.

A quibble: Why is the section “Stammwechsel bei Verben” (370-371) classed under syntax? This is simply suppletion, and not really a feature of syntax, even though it may the case that “[i]n der altgeorgischen Sprache sind Morphologie und Syntax eng miteinander verflochten” (328). (Whether this is really more characteristic of Georgian than other languages is another question.) While a language’s grammar (understood in the fullest sense) is in fact “an integrated system” (cf. § 1.8 in Dixon, Basic Linguistic Theory, vol. 1) — sections on “morphosyntax” that are sometimes found in grammars bear some witness to this recognition — and so suppletion touches aspects of both morphology and of syntax, in a work ranged according to that traditional tripartite structure of phonology, morphology, and syntax, which Fähnrich’s is, questions of “Stammwechsel bei Verben” are to my mind misplaced if they appear under syntax.

Some long spans of the book consist almost entirely of paradigm after paradigm after paradigm. We expect this in books with titles like 501 [insert language adjective here] Verbs or [Language] Grammatical Tables, but in a bald form such as here it is not an advantageous characteristic of linguistic description. (The same criticism might be raised against Fähnrich’s English survey of Old Georgian.) These paradigms will, to be sure, find some occasional use by certain users in certain circumstances, but more description and explanation, less enumeration, would have better made up what purports to be a fairly comprehensive guide to Georgian as a language.

As for the arrangement of the book, in rather non-Teutonic fashion, sections are not numbered and subnumbered ad nauseam. While we may appreciate not being brought ad nauseam, some demarcation and clear marking of divisions with an easy system of reference would certainly have made the book more navigable.

The typography of individual letters, words, and lines (in German or in Georgian) leaves little to be desired, but the same cannot be said for the mise-en-page. There is almost no space in the margins, which not only makes the reading experience itself less pleasant, but also leaves little room for notes (only 1/2 inch outer margins). Indeed, a quick glance at one of this volume’s pages reminds one unfortunately of a document produced using the default settings of Word! (With which contrast the default for a document in LaTeX!) In addition, straight (rather than curved) quotation marks are used, which lends an overall cheap appearance to the book, something hardly appropriate for a book the personal possession of a hard copy of which will devour a few hundred dollars or euros from one’s bank account!

I praised above the inclusion of the section on lexicon. The part on loanwords includes a few remarks particular to each case that touch on historical or sociolinguistic factors of language contact thought to have been conducive to linguistic influence, and it is classified according to language (or, at least, family) of origin, but Fähnrich does not actually gives the words in those original languages. Perhaps he assumed that scholars familiar with the source languages could come up with the original words easily enough themselves, but such scholars are not the only people who might find the data of interest.

The upshot

The appearance of Fähnrich’s new book is not unwelcome. With the paucity of materials on Georgian available in widely read European languages, we might welcome almost any attention to the language, especially one with the kind of detail given here. But the $300 price tag certainly limits its distribution and therefore its use, scans of the book notwithstanding. From the perspective of Old Georgian, the one from which I am writing here, the book takes its place among the detailed grammars of Šaniże(Schanidse)-Fähnrich and Marr-Brière, but what does it add to what has been available in them for decades? The strengths that I indicated above — and there are probably more — do make the book stand out, but we do not yet have before us a reference grammar of Old Georgian that will stand for decades as the main go-to resource for students and scholars of the language. Such a work must be not only authoritative in analysis and explanation, it must also be comprehensive in linguistic and textual scope, based on clearly defined sources, preferably with examples from those sources clearly indicated, easily navigable, accessible (i.e. widely distributed), and at least relatively affordable (I would say under $150 or so). And it would not be a bad thing for its author, where needful, to break out of the traditional tripartite mold of grammatical presentation mentioned above and well-known to all of us by bowing to linguistic common sense and being well-versed in up-to-date — I acknowledge the constant movement of this adjective and thus the frequent evolution of its meaning! — linguistic theory. Finally, while the great majority of scholars, but not necessarily students, who might be interested in a Georgian reference grammar can work with German, it is, for better or worse, probably the case that this wished-for book will garner broader readership with English than with German. In the meantime, we can spend our efforts studying those easily available Georgian texts — there are some published in Georgia that are unfortunately very hard to find — in CSCO, PO, Le Muséon, and elsewhere, publishing new texts, making translations, and studying the language itself more closely, and as we do we have the aforementioned grammars, including the one here under review, whose author (with Surab Sardshweladse) has also given us a monumental dictionary.

Some amusing or otherwise memorable phrases and sentences, or, the beginnings of The Quotable Old Georgian

There is very often something amusing in the vocabulary, phrases, and sentences taken out of context that one meets in grammars, whether they are intended for pedagogical or reference purposes, and dictionaries.[1] Here listed from the Old Georgian part of Fähnrich’s work are but a few phrases or sentences useful not only for remembering particular grammatical forms, but which will also serve us well at the next cocktail party we attend. Because Fähnrich fails to cite his sources, I cannot easily give them (although the places of some can be guessed), but I do give the page in his book where these occur.

  • მაქსიმიანე ეშმაკთმსახურისა მეფისა ზე “zur Zeit des Königs Maximian des Teufelsdieners” (305)
  • უდაბნოსა ზედა “in der Wüste” (305)
  • ენასა ზედა ეგჳპტურსა “in die ägyptische Sprache” (305)
  • მწიგნობართა თანა და ხუცესთა “mit den Schriftgelehrten und Ältesten” (308)
  • აჰა, ესერა, სიმრავლც მოაწია ჯინჭველთაი! “Siehe, es ist eine Vielzahl von Ameisen gekomen [sic]!” (323)
  • ვაგლახ მონაზონსა ვეცხლისმოყუარესა “Weh dem geldliebenden Mönch!” (323)
  • თურე ვარა ხარ? “Bist du denn ein Esel?” (327)
  • მატლ ვარ და არა კაც “Ein Wurm bin ich und kein Mensch.” (329)
  • და იყო პირსა შინა ჩემსა, ვითარცა თაფლი ტკბილ “Und es war in meinem Mund wie Honig süß.” (329)
  • ეტლები რკინისა იყო მათი “Sie hatten Wagen aus Eisen.” (335)
  • მამით ნუვის ჰხადით “Nennt niemanden Vater!” (341)
  • ავაგენ ატენი სახლნი “Ich habe in Ateni Häuser gebaut.” (365)
  • ეპისკოპოსმან აღმკუეცნა თმანი “Der Bischof beschnitt mir die Haare.” (366)
  • დასაბამად ქმნნა ღნერთმან ცაჲ და ქუეყანაჲ “Am Anfang schuf Gott Himmel und Erde.” (368)


[1] Cf. Ullendorff’s remarks on the curious presences and absences in Armbruster’s English-Amharic Vocabulary (An Amharic Chrestomathy, 5).

Fähnrich, Heinz. Grammatik der altgeorgischen Sprache. Hamburg, 1994.
——–. Kurze Grammatik der georgischen Sprache. Leipzig, 1987.
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Schanidse, A. Altgeorgisches Elementarbuch, 1. Teil, Grammatik der altgeorgischen Sprache. Trans. H. Fähnrich. Staatsüniversität Tbilissi Schriften des Lehrstuhls für Altgeorgische Sprache 24. Tbilisi, 1982.
Sardshweladse, Surab and Heinz Fähnrich. Altgeorgisch-Deutsches Wörterbuch. With the collaboration of Irine Melikishvili and Sopio Sardshweladse. Handbook of Oriental Studies, Section 8, Uralic & Central Asian Studies 12. Leiden and Boston, 2005.
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Maltese   7 comments

I’m back from a week-long visit to Malta. As I mentioned in the previous post, I was there for the Symposium Syriacum (first part of the week) and Conference on Christian Arabic Studies (last part). The official languages of Malta (since 1934, reaffirmed after independence in 1964) are English and Maltese, and Maltese is now an official language of the EU (from 2003). As a graduate student I studied Maltese a little in Bergsträsser’s Introduction to the Semitic Languages (206-208, with some scattered remarks on 185-198). On arriving to Malta, the first word I noticed was Ħruġ (= خروج) on a sign in the airport. The language is a fascinating arena for linguists to study language contact, sociolinguistics, and other areas of their field. Here are a few remarks on the language especially from a perspective of historical linguistics.

Some historical points

Maltese is a striking mixture of Arabic and Romance languages, and the background for this mixture is, of course, observable in its history. While the Muslim occupation of the ninth century and Romance contacts from the eleventh are perhaps the most salient events in Malta’s linguistic history, it is worth highlighting especially that a Semitic linguistic substratum is present thanks to earlier Phoenician presence, Phoenician and then Punic and Neo-Punic having been used on the island centuries before. With the expulsion of the Muslims in the mid-thirteenth century, classical Arabic as a standardizing anchor loses its potency and the mixture with Romance elements begins in earnest. Documents in Latin from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries reveal a recognition of “Maltese” as a distinct linguistic entity; among those cited by Wettinger (and Borġ) is one from 1521 with the words ut maltensi lingua dicimus.

  • Neolithic farmers from Sicily arrive around 5000 BCE
  • Bronze Age people arrive around 2000 BCE
  • Phoenicians arrive in the eighth century BCE
  • Carthaginians rule during the Punic period
  • Under Roman rule (province of Sicily) from 210 BCE
  • In the third century CE Vandal and then Ostrogoth rule
  • Byzantine rule from 535 CE
  • Muslims take Malta in 869 or 870 CE
  • They are expelled in the mid-thirteenth century

Pronunciation and orthography

The developed phonological features of Maltese are known from other Arabic dialects (and other Semitic languages), too. These include:

  • h > 0
  • ḫ > ḥ (ħ in the standard orthography)
  • ġ > ʿ which itself somewhat weakens to a pharyngealizing force on a nearby vowel, in Maltese orthography; at word end, ʿ has completely died away, as with the genitive particle, ta < (ultimately) متاع “property, goods (of)”
  • see below for some examples of vowel changes

Maltese orthography was standardized in 1924; for the most part, it still conveys relatively well how one pronounces the language, but it does look a little strange at first glance.

Below are listed some words that reveal divergences of Maltese from (literary) Arabic, and many of these divergences are likewise known from other Arabic dialects. The sign < below, it should be stressed, is meant to indicate genetic relationship, but not necessarily a direct genetic link, that is, the movement is not necessarily directly from high classical Arabic as a literary, recited, or formal linguistic entity, but perhaps from some form of colloquial Arabic spoken on the island in centuries prior.

  • minkeb “elbow” < mankib (Ar. “shoulder”)
  • musmar “nail” < mismār
  • muftieħ “key” < miftāḥ (the correspondence Ar. ā : Mlt ie is very frequently attested)
  • raġel “man” < raǧul
  • mara “woman” < (al-)marʾa
  • baqra “cow” < baqara
  • mejda “table” < māʾida
  • xiħ “old man” < šayḫ
  • xitan “devil” < šayṭān
  • kelb “dog” < kalb
  • ħġieġ “glass” < certainly from zuǧāǧ, but I can’t immediately interpret the change z > ħ


-semantic change in Arabic words

  • ħażin “bad” (Ar. “sad”)
  • ġawhra “pearl” (Ar. more generally “jewel, gem”)
  • ġebla “stone” (Ar. “mountain”)

-when Arabic is used and when Romance

  • skur “dark” (adj.) (cf. It. scuro; note, too, the chance similarity with the root šḥr in Arabic, Aramaic, and Hebrew!)
  • kannella “brown” (< It. cannella “cinnamon”?)

Many words pertaining to Christianity are of Latin or Italian origin — artal [metathesis!], kappella, kruċifis, anġlu, priedka, &c. — but some, including the following, are from Arabic:

  • knisja “church”
  • xemgħa “candle”
  • isqof “bishop”
  • magħmudija “baptism”
  • nisrani “Christian”
  • qrar “confession”
  • xitan “Satan”
  • alla “God”
  • quddiesa “Mass”
  • talba “prayer”
  • qassis “priest”
  • qaddis “saint”

Four of the elements in the Maltese title are Semitic, one Romance.


For nouns and adjectives, the plural forms of Arabic (sound and broken) appear also in Maltese, but Italian or Sicilian nouns generally end with -i in the plural.

In verb conjugation, there is nothing surprising if we keep in mind developments that show up in other Semitic languages and especially Arabic dialects. There are six main vocalic structures for the perfect (3ms), e.g. talab, ħareġ, fehem, seraq, kiser, qorob. For the 3fs the theme vowel is reduced and -et comes at the end, and for 2cs and 1cs the ending is -t (no vowel) and the first vowel of the stem has been reduced, as with fehmet “she understood”, fhimt (NB -e- theme vowel > -i-!) “you/I understood”. These same patterns occur again in the plural: for 3cp, we have e.g. fehmu, etc., for 2mp fhimtu and for 1cp fhimna. Imperfect and imperative forms are similarly unsurprising: joħroġ/oħroġ, joqtol/oqtol, jifhem/ifhem, jifraħ/ifraħ. Non-Semitic verbs in Maltese are adapted to the attachment of these prefixes and suffixes. Space here precludes further presentation of verbal forms (including the derived forms, which do occur in Maltese), but suffice it to say that anyone familiar with morphological developments across the Semitic languages will find few snares in the language.

I hope to look into syntax in a future post.


Borġ, Alexander. “Maltese as a National Language.” In Stefan Weninger, ed., The Semitic Languages: An International Handbook. Berlin, 2011. Pp. 1033-1041. [With bibliography.]

Brincat, Joseph M. Maltese and Other Languages: A Linguistic History of Malta. Sta Venera, Malta, 2011.

Moser, Manfred. Malti-Ġermaniż ‧ Dizzjunarju kbir. Deutsch-Maltesisch ‧ Großes Wörterbuch. Wiesbaden, 2005.

Schabert, P. “Text aus Malta.” In W. Fischer and O. Jastrow, eds., Handbuch der arabischen Dialekte. Wiesbaden, 1980. Pp. 286-291.

Wettinger, G. “Plurilingualism and Cultural Change in Medieval Malta.” Mediterranean Language Review 6-7 (1993): 144-153.

*There are a few items on Maltese listed in the section “Arabic (dialectal)” of del Olmo Lete’s bibliography for Semitic languages.

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