Thursday, November 10, 2005

A comparative linguist of the 10th century

Yehudah ibn Quraysh was a rabbi of the late ninth/early tenth century from Tahert (modern Tiaret, in Algeria.) Shocked to hear that the Jews of Fez in Morocco were neglecting the study of the Targum (an Aramaic translation of the Bible), he wrote a letter to them intended to establish that they could not and should not get by on the Hebrew alone - because other languages, especially Aramaic and Arabic, are essential in elucidating the Hebrew. In the process, he casually noted most of the correct sound correspondences between Hebrew and Arabic, and ended up writing what amounts to an extensive comparative dictionary of the three languages, even throwing in 9 Berber comparisons and 5 Latin ones at the end. He definitely hedges his bets on the cause of this obvious similarity between the three languages, but seems to come surprisingly close to the correct explanation - common descent - at times... something to bear in mind next time you read about Sir William Jones having founded comparative linguistics in 1798.

Here is what he had to say about it, as far as I can translate it:

I then resolved to put together this book for people with understanding, so that they should know that Syriac [Aramaic] expressions are scattered throughout the whole of the Holy Tongue in the Bible, and Arabic is mixed with it, and occasionally bits of Ajami [Latin] and Berber - and principally Arabic in particular, for in it we have found many of its strangest expressions to be pure Hebrew, to the point that there is no difference between the Hebrew and the Arabic except the interchange of ṣād and ḍād, and gīmel and jīm, and ṭet and đ̣ā', and `ay(i)n and ghayn, and ḥā' and khā', and zāy and dhāl. The reason for this similarity and the cause of this intermixture was their close neighboring in the land and their genealogical closeness, since Terah the father of Abraham was Syrian, and Laban was Syrian. Ishmael and Kedar were Arabized from the Time of Division, the time of the confounding [of tongues] at Babel, and Abraham and Isaac and Jacob (peace be upon them) retained the Holy Tongue from the original Adam. The language became similar through intermixture*, just as in every land adjoining a land of a different language we see intermixture of certain expressions between them and the spread of language from one to another; and this is the cause of the similarities we have found between Hebrew and Arabic...


The original was written in classical Arabic using the Hebrew script; I retranscribe it into Arabic script here:
فرأيت عند ذلك أن أؤلِّف هذا الكتاب لأهل الفطن وذوي الألباب، فيعلمو أن جميع לשון קדש (لغة القداسة: العبرانية) الحاصل في المقرأ (الكتب المقدسة) قد انتثرت فيه ألفاظ سريانية واختلطت به لغة عربية وتشذذت فيه حروف عجمية وبربرية ولا سيما العربية خاصة فإن فيها كثير من غريب ألفاظها وجدناه عبرانيا محضا، حتى لا يكون بين العبراني والعربي في ذلك من الاختلاف إلا ما بين ابتدال الصاد والضاد، والجيمل (حرف عبراني: ڱ) والجيم، والطِت (حرف عبراني: ط) والظاء، والعين والغين، والحاء والخاء، والزاي والذال. وإنما كانت العلة في هذا التشابه والسبب في هذا الامتزاج قرب المجاورة في البلاد والمقاربة في النسب لأن תֶרח (تِرَحْ) أبو אברהם (ابراهيم) كان سريانيا وלבן (لابان: حمو يعقوب) سريانيا. وكان ישמעאל (اسماعيل) وקדָר (قيدار) مستعرب من דוֹר הפלגה (زمان الاختلاف)، زمان البلبلة في בבל (بابل)، وאברהם (ابراهيم) وיצחק (إسحاق) وיעקב (يعقوب) عليهم السلام متمسكين بـלשון קדש (لغة القداسة: العبرانية) من אדם הראשון (آدم الأول). فتشابهت اللغة من قبل الممازجة، كما نشاهد في كل بلد مجاور لبلد مخالف للغته من امتزاج بعض الألفاظ بينهم واستعارة اللسان بعضهن من بعض، فهذا سبب ما وجدناه من تشابه العبراني بالعربي...


(Source: D. Becker, Ha-Risala shel Yehudah ben Quraysh, Tel Aviv University Press, Tel Aviv 1984.)

* I previously mistranslated this, having misread qibal as qabl.

Update: Read more at http://lameen.googlepages.com/ibn-quraysh.html.

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

Hi,
I came to your blog via 'Rishon Rishon' - Interesting.

But tell me, doesn't Ajami mean Persian, not Latin? I can see from the Arabic text that Syriac and Berber are called Suryaniyya Birbiriyya - I wasn't aware of these words' history.

Anonymous said...

The above post was from Danny

Chris Lucas said...

Hello Lameen!!!! This is Chris from school. How are you?! I can't believe you're at SOAS now. Did you know I have just finished 4 years of Arabic there? Now doing Mphil Linguistics at Cambridge. Guess how I found your blog... I googled "arabic ma ...sh" - probably going to do an essay on just what you commented on, Jespersen's cycle in colloquial Arabic. Would be great to hear from you/meet up at some point. Email me on cbl23@cam.ac.uk. Take care, Chris.

Lameen Souag said...

Ajami literally means "non-Arab"; in the east it commonly means Persian in particular, but in the Maghreb and Spain it commonly meant Romance (hence "Aljamiado") and in West Africa it normally means a local language (Hausa, Wolof, Fulani, etc.) Also, it's Barbariyya, presumably from Latin barbari.

sawal-tachelhit said...

salut j'aime bien tes écrits,j'aime bien vous dire qu'il y a un livre apparis en 2010 au maroc ecris par le professeur Mr Elmadlaoui ( specialiste en langue hebreu et amazigh) son livre intiluler ( maqqamat fi allughat wa alàaqliyyat) parle parle du sujet examiner par ce texte.et j'ai une autre remarque que j'ai penser de vous le dire tres longtemps quand j'ai trouver un sujet de vous qui parle sur les numiros en tamazight , quand j'ai regarder ta bibliographie, j'ai pas trouvé un texte du professeur ( simon lévy) qui parle du meme sujet. c'est vous voulez je vous l'enverrai en pdf.