Friday, January 22, 2016

Feminine endings in the orthography of the Qur'an

Phoenix has started posting a rather interesting series on the orthography of the Qur'an and the linguistic features it reflects. Such features, it must be noted, need not always reflect the dialect of the Qur'anic text itself; they may reflect pre-existing orthographic conventions developed for the dialect of another region, most probably Jordan where the Aramaic script was first adapted to writing Arabic, or indeed may reflect another, less prestigious register of the speech of Quraysh. This proviso is not merely a theoretical point. Phoenix discusses one case, the spelling of /ā/ with wāw و, in which the spelling looks as though it reflects an older pronunciation than that found in Classical Arabic. The opposite also holds, however: in some contexts, strangely enough, the orthography of the Qur'an corresponds better to modern Arabic dialects than to Classical Arabic or to any of the Qur'anic reading traditions. Phoenix already discusses one such case, but the most striking to my eyes is the spelling of imra'at- امرأة "woman" in the following two verses:
إِذْ قَالَتِ امْرَأَتُ عِمْرَانَ رَبِّ إِنِّي نَذَرْتُ لَكَ مَا فِي بَطْنِي
when the wife of 'Imran said, "My Lord, indeed I have pledged to You what is in my womb" (3:35)

وَإِنِ امْرَأَةٌ خَافَتْ مِنْ بَعْلِهَا نُشُوزًا أَوْ إِعْرَاضًا فَلَا جُنَاحَ عَلَيْهِمَا
And if a woman fears from her husband contempt or evasion, there is no sin upon them if they make terms of settlement between them - and settlement is best (4:128)

Why is the final t written with tā' ت in the first case, and with tā' marbūṭah ة in the other? In Classical Arabic and in every Qur'anic reading tradition I know of, both are pronounced with the same final consonant, t, followed in both cases by the same case vowel, u. Only at the end of a phrase or line is feminine -t- pronounced h, and that is not possible here. However, in almost every spoken Arabic dialect in use today (there are a couple of exceptions in Yemen), the word for "woman" - along with most other feminine nouns - is pronounced with a final consonant t in 'iḍāfah إضافة contexts like the first one (ie when possessed), and with no stop a(h) in other contexts like the second. In Algerian Arabic, for example, "the wife of Imran" would be məṛ-t ʕəmṛan مرت عمران, whereas "a woman" would be mṛ-a مرا. If you examine all the Qur'anic occurrences of this word on the QAC, you will quickly note that imra'at- is written with a tā' ت if and only if it is possessed, ie in 'iḍāfah, and otherwise is written with tā' marbūṭah ة.

However, whereas in the dialects this is true of almost all feminine nouns, in the Qur'anic text it seems to be much more restricted. Contrast nāqat- ناقة "she-camel" or ṣibġat- صبغة "colouring", which are written with tā' marbūṭah ة throughout, including when possessed. For jannat- جنة "garden", there is at least one case of an 'iḍāfah with tā' ت:

فَرَوْحٌ وَرَيْحَانٌ وَجَنَّتُ نَعِيمٍ
rest and bounty and a garden of pleasure (56:89)
Other cases, however, are written with tā' marbūṭah ة:
عِنْدَهَا جَنَّةُ الْمَأْوَىٰ
Near it is the Garden of Refuge (53:15)

How is this state of affairs to be explained, given that not only all the reading traditions but even the orthography of hamzas confirm that Qur'anic Arabic kept the case endings? No doubt the question can be - and probably has been - extensively debated, but on the face of it, it looks as though the scribes were familiar with two dialects: that of the text itself, presumably a high register of the dialect of Quraysh, and another one - perhaps a low register, or perhaps the dialect of another, more literate region - which, like modern colloquial Arabic, had already dropped case endings. The latter was not prestigious enough to be used for reading the Qur'an, but was sufficiently well-established in writing to influence its spelling. والله أعلم.


Anonymous said...

Hello, this is not on topic for this specific post, but do you have an idea about the origin of the people of the Gara? How are they connected to the people of Siwa? Do the communities display similar phenotypes? Could they have a connection to the extinct Berber community that probably existed in southern Egypt?

PhoeniX said...

I'll be posting about this same subject in about a week or two on my blog.

There are two interesting things about the at-constructs that we find in the Qurʔān:

1. There are a lot of them. There's 48 versus maybe 150 written with tāʔ marbūṭah.

Maybe of those 150 are numerals, which considering their behaviour in many dialects may not have been real construct nouns in the language of the Quranic text.

Removing those, you end up with a distribution of about 50:80.

I found that a surprisingly unskewed distribution. (But have to really sit down and accurately count all the ah-constructs).

2. The words that do have at-construct though, are way fewer lexical items than those that have ah-constructs. And all of them have a rather clear idiomatic basis.

raḥmatu llāhi, laʕnatu llāhi, niʕmatu llāhi (or variants with rabbī/rabbika etc.).

This to me suggests that we are dealing with some kind of orthographic standard which was frequently used to write about these central monotheistic terms. Seeing as the 'normal' way of writing it is still -ah, those -at spellings may well be archaic. It seems to suggest that such Neo-Arabic-like spellings probably predate Islam, but do come from some scribal tradition of Arabic from a group of Monotheists.

This need not be surprising, such phraseology, while sounding very Islamic now, certainly had a more general 'monotheistic' sound to it back then, as evidenced by early Judeo-Arabic texts starting with בסים אלה ארחמן ארחים bisim aḷḷāh arraḥmān arraḥīm.

More detail soon on my blog, but hope to start a discussion here in the comments section, as it is a shame everybody seems to intimidated to comment. It's such an exciting topic. :D

P.S. The writing tradition doesn't even need to be Pre-Islamic of course. The Qurʔān's revelation wasn't instantly written down, they may have been contemporary. But I think it's significant that it's specifically mostly religious terminology that has this funky spelling.

Lameen Souag الأمين سواق said...

Anon: The people of Gara are much darker-skinned than the people of Siwa - unambiguously black, in fact. They are generally assumed to be the descendants of imported slaves, but that assumption should perhaps be treated with caution.

Phoenix: Looking forward to your post! The religious terminology connection is suggestive; I think we need a complete list of the forms in question to judge more clearly. בסים is a strange spelling by any standards - epenthetic vowel, sure, but surely they weren't saying isím?

Steven Lubman said...

Off topic - have you seen this -

PhoeniX said...

בסים is a strange spelling by any standards - epenthetic vowel, sure, but surely they weren't saying isím?

I wonder. This papyrus with that opening statement in it is from Egypt. Doesn't Egyptian Arabic actually stress epenthetic vowels these days? Of course it is quite out there to project Modern Cairene Egyptian Arabic stress back to 8th Century Judeo-Arabic, but who knows!

I'm also not sure if it is necessary for Early Judeo-Arabic orthography to have that vowel stressed for them to decide to write it plene. I'm not even sure if that would be the case for Hebrew orthography of the time.

We might also imagine that it is actually a variant without the pre-radical vowel: sim instead of ism/isim, like the ibn~bin variation.

if it is an epenthetic vowel, than that in turn implies that it wasn't pronounced with case vowels, which in such a central classical formula is pretty surprising!

Unknown said...

Modern Egyptian Arabic resolves triconsonantal clusters by inserting a vowel between the second and third consonant (CCiC) while Levantine and Mesopotamian resolves them by inserting them between the first and second (CiCC). The effect of this is that Egyptian often sounds like it has "final short vowels" between words but not at the ends of phrases, much like Classical Arabic.

For example:

Levantine "áridna" = Egyptian "ardína"
Levantine "kúl(l)na" = Egyptian "kullína"
Levantine "bísim állah" = Egyptian "bísmi állah" or more commonly "bísmi lláh"

The phrase "bísim 'állah" with the glottal stop at the beginning of 'állah and the epenthetic vowel between s and m is something I have actually something I have heard old Syrians say. Looks like that Judeo-Arabic reflects a dialect closer to Levantine than Egyptian.