Friday, May 22, 2015

Old Arabic in Greek letters, in 3rd/4th century Jordan

An article published this year (Al-Jallad and Al-Manaser 2015) reveals the oldest known fully vocalised Arabic inscription by far - written in Greek letters in northeastern Jordan, probably in the 3rd or 4th century AD. Here it is: New Epigraphica from Jordan I: a pre-Islamic Arabic inscription in Greek letters and a Greek inscription from north-eastern Jordan. The inscription's author describes himself as "al-'Idāmī" - probably to be interpreted as "the Edomite" - a nisba featuring the definite article al-, unique within Semitic to Arabic.

There are a fair number of Arabic names transcribed in Greek at this period in various sources, but this seems to be the only known attempt to write Arabic text in Greek letters until much later. Most contemporary Arabic inscriptions were instead written in the Safaitic script, which does not indicate vowels. A text like this thus enables us to see much more clearly how the Arabic of the nomads of 3rd/4th century Jordan was pronounced. It confirms two crucial points. In Arabic, case is usually indicated only by final vowel choice; in this inscription, accusative case (-a) is clearly marked, but the Classical nominative and genitive (-u, -i) are not transcribed, suggesting that this dialect had dropped final short high vowels and thus developed a case system like that of Geez. Also reminiscent of Geez is the fact that intervocalic semivowels elided in Classical Arabic were unambiguously pronounced - thus 'atawa rather than 'atā for "he came". There may well be more material like this out there in the deserts on the Syrian-Jordanian border; let's hope research on the Syrian side becomes possible again soon...

Incidentally, next week I'll be at Bucharest for AIDA - if you're there, come to my talk on Wednesday!

10 comments:

David Marjanović said...

Also says interesting things about Greek which might help in dating: k and t are transcribed as χ and θ, meaning Greek hadn't turned its aspirates into fricatives yet.

It's strange that the long consonants aren't written double. In principle the writer could have carrived over the convention from the Semitic scripts – but if you know one of those, why write in Greek letters?

David Marjanović said...

"The transcription of ṣ with Zeta is attested,but only rarely. Perhaps it is significant that it occurs in a Greek-Safaitic bilin-gual text, namely, C 2823–2824 (+Greek) (Al-Jallad 2015b: §3.9.1)."

Maybe it was still an affricate, then.

Al-Jallad said...

Hi Lameen, thanks for posting my article! @D. Marjanović, on the phonology of Near Eastern Greek and the status of ṣ in the Old Arabic of this region, see: https://www.academia.edu/7583140/Graeco-Arabica_I_the_southern_Levant

And in later Arabic, see:
https://www.academia.edu/8770050/Al-Jallad._2014._A%E1%B9%A2-%E1%B9%A2%C4%80DU_LLAT%C4%AA_KA-S-S%C4%AAN_EVIDENCE_FOR_AN_AFFRICATED_%E1%B9%A2%C4%80D_IN_SIBAWAYH

--Al-Jallad.

Peter Norman said...

Zi "bonjur" la Bucureşti în numele meu!

David Marjanović said...

on the phonology of Near Eastern Greek and the status of ṣ

Thank you very much!!!

petre said...

David, this probably isn't useful, and I guess you're talking about a much earlier period than I know anything about, but one of the tests in Romanian for whether we're dealing with a word derived from "old" or "new" Greek ("new" in this context means Byzantine) is the presence of an unvoiced intervocalic "s": in the technical speak of us Balkanologists, "a dead give-away".
I don't suppose that's very helpful, but at least another little thing you know, to put in your pixie-bag.

David Marjanović said...

Oh, thank you!

Lameen Souag الأمين سواق said...

Sounds handy, but does that work because of a Greek sound change or a Romanian one?

Peter Norman said...

A Greek one, I think. If it were Romanian, it would have affected all intervocalic sibilants. Romanian is full of both intervocalic /z/ and /s/. In the case of Greek-derived words, we date them on that basis. It's also quite consistent between Daco-Romanian and the southern versions spoken in Greece and elsewhere in the Balkans. But wasn't the Greek /s/->/z/ well in place long before Romania became part of the Ottoman Empire? Maybe David can help us on that.

David Marjanović said...

No idea.