Saturday, March 07, 2015

Ibn Khaldun: Arabic dialects are independent languages

In Part 39 of the Muqaddimah, written in 1377, Ibn Khaldun discusses Arabic dialectology and language contact, reaching substantially correct conclusions marred only by the lack of attention to the role of purely internal developments in language change. The section is worth reading, if you haven't already come across it; it gives some idea of just how divergent the different Arabic "dialects" already were in his time. Like a lot of his work, if he had written it today, it would get many Arab nationalists up in arms! The translation is my own, and needs double-checking - appropriately, the Arabic of Ibn Khaldun is often difficult for modern Arabic readers.

"That the language of the city dwellers and townsmen is a language independent of the language of Mudar [Classical Arabic]

Know that the customary medium of discourse in the towns and among the city-dwellers is not the old language of Mudar, nor the language of the people of the generation (of Arabs). Rather, it is a different language, independent, and far from the language of Mudar and of this generation of Arabs in our time. Indeed, it is further from the language of Mudar (than the language of modern Arabs is).

The fact that it is an independent language is obvious; witness how many changes it has which grammarians consider as solecisms. Nevertheless, it varies in its expressions depending on the town. The language of the Mashriq is somewhat different from that of the Maghreb, and likewise that of Andalus from both. Yet each succeeds, with his own language, in realising his purpose and expressing what is within him. That is what is meant by "tongue" and "language". The loss of case-/mood-suffixes is not a problem for them, as we have already said regarding the Arabs of the present day.

As for the fact that it is further than the language of this generation (of Arabs) from the original language, that is because distance from the language depends on mixing with non-Arabness. The more one mixes with non-Arabs, the further one gets from the original tongue, because habits are acquired by learning, as we have said, and this (linguistic) habit is a mixture of the original habits which the Arabs had and the secondary habits which the non-Arabs had. So the more they hear it from non-Arabs and grow up with it, the further they get from the original habit.

You may observe this in the towns of Ifriqiya and the Maghreb and Andalus and the Mashriq:

  • As for Ifriqiya and the Maghreb, the Arabs there mixed with the non-Arab Berbers as they spread their civilisation among them. Hardly a town or a generation was isolated from them. Thus non-Arabness came to predominate over the Arab tongue which they had had. It became a different, mixed language, within which non-Arabness predominated for the reasons outlined. So it is further from the original tongue.
  • Likewise the Mashriq. When the Arabs prevailed over its nations, the Persians and the Turks, they mixed with them. Their languages then spread among them through the labourers and farmers and captives whom they took as servants and nannies and wet-nurses. As a result, their own language was corrupted by corruption of their (linguistic) habits, until it became a different language.
  • Likewise the people of Andalus, with the non-Arab Galicians and Franks.

All the people of the towns from these regions came to have a different language, specific to them and distinct from that of Mudar [=Classical Arabic], and distinct each from the other - as we shall recall. It is as if it were a different language due to their generations' mastery of the linguistic habit of it. And God creates and decrees what He will."


David Marjanović said...

Fascinating. :-)

petre said...

Intriguing stuff, and what a smart guy. Imagine if, way back then, Maghrebi, Andalusi, Mashreqi had acquired real status as languages the way French, Italian, Spanish did. Hmmm...

John Emerson said...

Ibn Khaldun is highly admired by many contemporary and recent social theorists, notably Ernest Gellner.

In Gibb's translation of Ibn Battuta, it seems that "Arab" = "Bedouin" = "bandit". I don't know what Battuta actually wrote.

Battuta may have been a Berber, but as I remember, he didn't think of Arabs as the collective group of everyone who spoke Arabic, but defined people by their city.

petre said...

Highly admired by me, too.

As for bedouins and bandits, my Algerian boyfriend would not be keen to be called a "bandit", but seems happy with "corsaire/pirate" (at least for his ancestors). "Bédouin" is a term he reserves for Saudis and the like.

We're all deeply enmired in prejudice, as no doubt Battuta was too.

Lameen Souag الأمين سواق said...

Ibn Khaldun's influence extends astonishingly far - for one thing, the usual two-stage model of North African Arabic dialectology is basically Marçais's interpretation of Ibn Khaldun. Gellner is certainly one of his most astute modern readers, and unfortunately seems as isolated among his contemporaries as Ibn Khaldun was among his own.

Ibn Khaldun's atttitude to the Arabs was a little more complicated than that. In his autobiography he proudly claims Arab ancestry for himself - but elsewhere he tells us that it's a meaningless boast for an urbanite (which he certainly was) to claim tribal ancestry, because such a claim only means anything in the context of a functioning nomadic society. In effect, urbanity destroys ethnicity. As for the camel nomads whom he sees as the truest Arabs, he condemns their violence and mismanagement in one breath and praises their honesty and valour in the next. The townsmen are unlikely to become bandits, true, but only because they haven't got the guts - they're used to letting the government do that job. It's not a million miles from the social-ethical landscape of Dune, actually.

Paul Ogden said...

The section you quote doesn't seem to appear in my print edition as translated by Rosenthal and edited/abridged by Dawood (1967). This edition is online at

The chapter "Cities, Forms of Sedentary Civilization" has a short section (#22) titled "The dialects of the urban population" that touches on language issues, as do a few sections, beginning with #42, in the chapter titled "The Various Kinds of Sciences."

Peter said...

Wolfhart Heinrichs discusses some of these issues in a short paper entitled “Ibn Khaldūn as a Historical Linguist with an excursus on the question of ancient gāf”, in Language and Nature - papers presented to John Huehnergard on the occasion of his 60th Birthday, pp. 137-149.

Lameen Souag الأمين سواق said...

Paul: The section I quote is online at , translated slightly differently of course.

Peter: I'll keep an eye out for that - sounds interesting.

Moroccan said...

I don't think Ibn Khaldun claimed that he was Arab, nor was he proud thereof. I think he said that he was Yemeni / Hadrami from Hadramawt. Yemenis are actually non-Arab Semitic people, just like Hebrews or Syrians are non-Arab Semitic peoples. Maybe Ibn Khaldun meant to make a difference between Yemenis and real Arabs of Arabia. Ibn Khaldun bashed and panned the Arabs with harshest possible words. He said "Arabs are savages and are far from civilization and whenever they conquer a nation it quickly turns into ruins".

I don't think this is a person who is proud to be an Arab at all. Most likely he meant he is of Yemeni origin. Today the original languages of Yemen, Hadramaut and Oman like Mehri language, Harsusi language and Jebbali language are still alive and spoken. Maybe one of them was the original language of Ibn Khaldun's ancestors.

Lameen Souag الأمين سواق said...

Moroccan: You're assuming that Ibn Khaldun shared the simplistic view that civilization is in every way the best state for man and barbarism the worst. In reality, in the same section where he explains that Arabs ruin civilization when they conquer it, he explicitly says that "Bedouins are closer to being good than sedentary people", and that this is because they are less civilized and lead harder lives. Civilisation, in Ibn Khaldun's view, is necessary but naturally tends to spoil people, accustoming them to luxury and dissipation.

You're also assuming that Ibn Khaldun defined Arabness in terms of language, as we do now. In reality, for Ibn Khaldun as for other medieval authors, the Yemenis were not only Arab but the original Arabs (al-arab al-aribah) and the northern Arabs who spoke what we think of as Classical Arabic were merely Arabised tribes (musta'ribah).

Jared Krauss said...

I got giddy when you mentioned the relationship to Dune.

I wish there were more serious work looking at Dune for its social and political theory, as well as its relevance to issues today, whether socio-cultural/economic/political.

petre said...

I think some of you are being very unkind to Ibn Khaldun. In his day, as indeed in our own, any talk of "the Arabs" needs to be interpreted in context. Words fall from the lips of my Algerian friend which I would never dare utter. "Les Arabes, quel désastre!" is one of the printable ones. But virtually in the same breath, he can say "Je suis arabe, et fier de l'être."

I too have harsh things to say about the English, to the point of being considered "anglophobe", but nonetheless I carry a British passport.

Picking out the exact meaning(s) of "Arab" in Khaldun's writing is no doubt of academic interest for people who are academically interested in such things, but you can be sure there's enough rivalry and rancor there, without us dragging it into the arena of modern-day intra-Arab or Arab-European disagreement.