Sunday, December 10, 2017

Jerusalem's suppletive gentilic

Jerusalem stands out among Arab cities today not only culturally and religiously, but morphologically as well. In Modern Standard Arabic, the city of Jerusalem is al-Quds القدس, and the gentilic suffix is (properly -iyy), but "Jerusalemite" is Maqdisī مقدسي rather than the expected *Qudsī (though the latter is attested as a personal name). As a general cross-linguistic rule of thumb, morphological irregularities are most likely with older, more basic words. Yet this type of irregularity is rather unusual, even among the region's oldest and most prominent cities: Dimashq (Damascus) yields Dimashqī (Damascene), Baghdād yields Baghdādī, Makkah (Mecca) yields Makkī... How did it arise?

It turns out that, in the early Muslim era, it was formed in a perfectly regular way. In his masterwork, the medieval geographer Al-Maqdisī (d. 991) calls his hometown Bayt al-Maqdis بيت المقدس ("house of holiness"), a title now largely supplanted by al-Quds ("the holy"). It survives to the present in certain religious contexts or as a poetic synonym, not only in Arabic but in Kabyle Berber as well: H. Genevois ("Croyances") notes a traditional popular belief that the souls of the dead gather in Bit Elmeqdes, corresponding exactly to Al-Maqdisī's boast that Jerusalem is "the site of the Day of Judgement, and from it is the Resurrection, and to it is the Gathering" (عرصة القيامة ومنها النشر وإليها الحشر).

A quick search of Alwaraq's heritage library suggests that the shorter name "al-Quds" became popular around the period of the Crusades, when Jerusalem was as much a subject of dispute as now. The earliest attestation I can spot on a cursory search (excluding a work falsely attributed to al-Wāqidī) is a mention by the Andalusi traveller Ibn Jubayr (1185), who notes that "between [Kerak] and al-Quds is a day's march or so, and it is the best location in Palestine" (بينه وبين القدس مسيرة يوم أو اشف قليلاً، وهو سرارة أرض فلسطين). Very likely a longer search would yield slightly older attestations. By the time of the next major Palestinian writer I notice in the collection - Al-Ṣafadī (d. 1363) - al-Quds had clearly become the unmarked term for the town; it recurs constantly in his work.

The name Bayt al-Maqdis was thus replaced in practice by the shorter and catchier name al-Quds a good 800 years ago, yet the corresponding gentilic continues to preserve the older name. Since 1967, the Israeli government has imposed a third name as its official term for the city in Arabic: Ūrshalīm, a transcription of the Syriac name used in Christian liturgical contexts which provoked "furious ridicule" from residents (Segev 2007:492). Since this usage remains entirely unknown to most Arabic speakers, it is unlikely to have much impact on Arabic usage. Yet the timing of the shift from Bayt al-Maqdis to al-Quds reminds us that political upheaval impacts placenames as well as people's lives.


Whygh said...

Could Bayt al-Maqdis be formed after the mishnaic name for the temple, בֵּית הַמִּקְדָּשׁ bēiṯ hammiqdāš?

Gale Cowan said...

(This is John Cowan using my wife's computer.)

Until the mid-20C, the demonym Dorpian was used for Poughkeepsie, N.Y., from Dutch dorp 'village'.

Lameen Souag الأمين سواق said...

Whygh: Clearly there is a connection, although the paucity of documentation of pre-Islamic Arabic makes it difficult to figure out the exact pathway.

John: That is a wonderful example. (If you ask me, "Dorpian" should be revived.) And it's probably no coincidence that we find such a case in one of the first regions of the US to be settled, rather than in, say, Montana.

Alexander said...

In contemporary Persian, قدس and بیت‌المقدس are both used for Jerusalem, but the latter is pronounced 'beytolmoqaddas'. This is probably because the history you describe here is unknown in Iran, such that the unfamiliar reading 'maqdes' is elided by the more familiar 'moqaddas' (which is a common word for "holy" in Persian).

Lameen Souag الأمين سواق said...

Interesting. Even in Arabic, "Muqaddasi" is attested as an archaic alternative to "Maqdisi", so it may well be that this alternative reading has an older history.