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19th Century Libyan Wolves

Giuseppe Haimann’s Cirenaica (Tripolitania) published in 1886 is mostly a travel account, with extensive lists of eastern Libyan flora and fauna given in Latin without their Arabic equivalents, but may otherwise leave a clue about the Arabic dialect of the time:

Fra gli abitanti delle città ed i beduini non esiste troppa simpatia ; i cittadini temono i nomadi, che considerano come feroci ; El bedaui keif el dib (i beduini sono come il lupo), era il ritornello che ci ripeteva ognuno dal Pascià fino all’ultimo cammelliere.

” Between the inhabitants of the city and the bedouin, there aren’t many good feelings ; the city-dwellers fear the nomads, whom they think fierce ; el bedaui keif el dib (“the bedouin are like the wolf”) was the refrain which we repeated from the Pasha to the last camel-rider. “

Besides the sentiment, the interesting thing about this phrase is whether Haimann is transcribing an actual [d] in the word dib “wolf” ذيب, or simply not indicating a pronunciation [ð] of the letter dhal. Assuming that Haimann heard the phrase from a city-dweller, is this a piece of evidence for the merging of the Arabic interdentals with the dentals by citadin speakers in late 19th-century Benghazi? The transcription of another word, cadi, pronounced today /gāð̣ī/, is equally inconclusive with regard to the ض (but his c probably indicates a qaf).

However, the writer also mentions the pronunciation of a “soft g” in Cyrenaica, but doesn’t indicate whether that includes speakers from the city as well. So no conclusion with regards to the qaf of Benghazi at that time.

And, for some reason, he records “orange” as portugal with [p] …

On another note, of anthropological humor is his account of how the Bedouin greet each other :

È curioso il modo col quale i beduini si salutano. Allorchè incontrano per via o vanno a visitarsi nelle tende, dopo l’indispensabile salem aleikum e l’altrettanto inevitabile risposta : aleikum es salam, si abbracciano e si baciano più volte, mettendosi reciprocamente la testa ora a destra ora a sinistra sulle spalle, con un modo cadenzato e regolare ; poi comincia un fuoco incrociato di as’halak (com’è il tuo stato?) as’lonak (com’è il tuo colore, la tua salute?) e ripetono questa interrogazioni molte e molte volte, senza aspettare la risposta.

Of interest is the way the Bedouin greet each other. When they meet  on the way, or go to visit each other in tents, after the necessary salem aleikum and the equally inevitable answer : aleikum es salam, they embrace and kiss each other several times, putting their heads now to the right now to the left shoulder, in a rhythmic and regular manner ; then begins a cross-fire of as’halak (how are you?) as’lonak (what is your color, your health?)  and they repeat these questions over and over, without waiting for a response.

les plus châtiés des arabes

Almost every Arabic speaker will tell you that his or her dialect is the best, or the closest to the ‘eloquent Arabic Language’, the assumption being that the dialects are imperfect or degenerate forms of Classical Arabic. However, they are almost all wrong, because the Libyan dialect is actually the most eloquent and closest to the original language of al-Hariri, al-Mutanabbi, and the prophet Mo.

But don’t take my word for it, this was proved as early as the 13th century by the Andalusi-Maghrebi traveller Muḥammad al-‘Abdarī, who wrote an account (al-Riḥla al-Maġribiyya) of his travels through North Africa on the way to and and from the Hijj. Passing through Barqa (Cyrenaica, near modern-day Benghazi), he had the opportunity to chat with a few Bedouin. He instantly realized the pureness and correctness of their language, more pure than even the Arabs of the Hijaz:

و عرب برقة من افصح عرب رأيناهم و عرب الحجاز ايضاً فصحاء و لكن عرب برقت لم يكثر ورود الناس عليهم فلم يختلط كلامهم بغيره و هم الى الان على عربيتهم. لم يفسد من كلامهم الا القليل … ولا يخلون من الاعراب الا ما لا قدر له بالاضافة الى ما يعربون

“Les Arabes contemporains de Cyrénaïque sont parmi les plus châtiés des Arabes que nous ayons vus. Ceux du Hedjâz sont également châtiés, mais, chez ceux de Cyrénaïque, il vient si peu de gens que leur langage ne s’est mêlé d’aucun autre. Jusqu’à maintenant, ils maintiennent leur arabe. De leur langage, il n’est que peu qui se soit gâte et ils ne manquent à la fléxion que dans une proportion infime par rapport à ce qu’ils fléchissent.”

There you have it, and from a medieval writer, which means is it true.

Unfortunately, I think al-‘Abdarī was too concerned with seeking out purely-speaking Arabs to provide really good notes on the dialect of Cyrenaica at that time. The few things he mentions, though, accord with what is known about Eastern Libyan Arabic today, i.e. the presence of imāla (only in Bedouin dialects) and the nunation of feminine sg. and pl. imperfect verb forms. He otherwise comments on their use of rare and odd words, but doesn’t record much, lexically.

[ Larcher, P. 2001. "Le parler des Arabes de Cyrénaïque vu par un voyageur Marocain du XIIIe siècle." Arabica 48/3, pp. 368-382. ]

ngrams and the history of islam

Google’s new Ngram Viewer allows you to compare frequencies of words or phrases in printed books (only in certain languages, for now) from essentially the beginning of the printed books era, until now.

You can’t yet search in Arabic (do they have an Arabic corpus?). But you can, for example, learn that before about 1840, there were few “Muslims”, and many “Mohammedans“. You can then correlate this with the dramatic increase of references to “Allah” starting around 1840 to learn that the Mohammedan religion must have given way to an Allah-centered Islam right about that time.

(For whatever reason, references to “Mohammedans” increase slightly from 0 starting in about 2005).

more to come

My MA thesis (and degree program) are finally finished! For the thesis, I researched connections (loans, calques, stylistic influences) between Sogdian and Avestan in the context of Zoroastrianism in Central Asia.

The SOAS program was thoroughly enjoyable; also had the chance to sit in on the Historical Linguistics seminar of the newly PhD’ed Lameen.

I now intend to return to updating this blog. Many thanks to Language Hat for the tip of the cap and encouragement!

writing academic english

Hans Reichelt, in the Preface of his Avesta Reader: texts, notes, glossary and index, Strassburg 1911:

Finally I beg the reader not to criticize my English two severely. I have only written the book in English because I was specially requested to do so by the Parsees who do not understand German.”


[update!] The above reason for writing a book on something relating to Zoroastrianism in English is apparently common. Thus Henrik Nyberg in his Manual of Pahlavi, Wiesbaden 1964:

If I send forth this new edition of the Hilfsbuch [his 1928 German grammar of Pahlavi] in English, it is solely in order to facilitate the use of it to our Zoroastrian friends in India, who, as a rule, do not understand any other European language. I apologize to British readers for a foreigner’s English.


a response to “the cosmopolitan tongue”

John McWhorter’s article “The Cosmopolitan Tongue: The Universality of English” in World Affairs is a clear, cleverly written piece considering what the simultaneous growth of a global language and the death of many endangered languages imply, and what value preserving the vitality of such languages has. Nevertheless, in respect to the latter question, he leaves out some important points, while bringing up other ones for no clear purpose.

In – I think – support of his thesis that learning a new language is difficult, McWhorter points to Arabic, many varied dialects of which exist, as evidence that one cannot learn a a simple, standard ‘Arabic’ and then expect to be able to speak to any nationality of Arab. This presents a problem to those who are trying to be able to communicate with the Arab world. It’s a good point, and one that needs to be realized more often, but isn’t evidence that learning new languages is complicated, simply because ‘Arabic’ has been falsely constructed to be a single language when it simply is not.

McWhorter also seems to be a supporter of the argument that attempt to learn a new language as an adult is nigh-impossible. He states “Even with good instruction, it is fiendishly difficult to learn any new language well, at least after about the age of 15.” I detest this way of thinking, because it is wrong and cynical. It first of all depends on one’s goal in learning a new language: reading, speaking, etc., but this is unstated. In that one cannot become a fluent speaker of Russian at the age of 28 and call himself a native speaker, this is true, but in no way is it impossible to become fluent in a new language at an older age. I myself didn’t begin study of a second language until after the age of 15, and have, since then, studied 9 and attained various levels of proficiency. The attempt being “fiendishly difficult” depends on a number of things, among them the quality of instruction, time devoted, and ability to use/practice the target language. It is detrimental to the study of language when people are cynical about it.

Another problem, which to my thinking is the more grave, is that McWhorter seems to treat – almost trivially and sarcastically – the complex grammatical constructions and syntax of many endangered languages. He cites two endangered languages as examples:

Other languages can put concepts together in ways that make them more fascinatingly different from English than most of us are aware they can be. In the Berik language in New Guinea, for example, verbs have to mark the sex of the person you are affecting, the size of the object you are wielding, and whether it is light outside. (Kitobana means “gives three large objects to a male in the sunlight.”)

In the Central Pomo language of California, if one person sits, the word is—get ready—‘cˇháw. The mark at the beginning signifies a catch in the throat, and what the raised little h requires shall not detain us here, but rest assured that it’s a distinct challenge to render if you grew up speaking English. But if more than one person sits, it’s a different word, naphów. If it’s liquid that is sitting, as in a container, then the word is cˇóm. The whole language is like this.

He goes on to say that “Learning small indigenous languages tends to be a tough business for people raised in European languages: they tend to be more like Berik than like French,” which, while perhaps true, misses the most important point about the documentation of endangered languages. Indeed, it is because different languages have different vocabularies and grammars that they are interesting, from the point of view of their preservation. It is vastly interesting to find out why light conditions matter to Berik-speakers, or why the Piraha language may or may not be recursive; how language is used reveals how groups of human beings, like us, perceive, process, and relay information about the world through speech, organize time and space, and interact with their environment. McWhorter fails completely to address this point, instead discussing how language death doesn’t imply cultural death, and so on.

Additionally, those who support attempts to preserve endangered languages as spoken and living are not, for example, trying to implement Berik as the language of France; they want the Berik people to continue speaking their own language rather than a global language such as English. Those who want to keep 6,000 different languages alive don’t want to have Central Pomo supplant English as the world’s lingua franca. For French schoolchildren, this isn’t a problem of learning an unrelated and different language, because no one is trying to make them do that.

But, English makes a great global, or even universal, language, McWhorter points out. Its grammar is easier than those Romance languages, its orthography easier than that of Chinese, with its “daunting writing system,” and no ridiculous, silly, difficult sounds like “the notorious trilly sound in Czech,” and, I imagine McWhorter would add, the Arabic ‘ayn, and the tones and clicks of Xhosa. One needs to be on guard here against making value judgments about languages, and about being one who thinks that English is a superior language (a position that I am strongly against). Having expressed these views, I fail to understand how McWhorter can describe himself as “someone who has taught himself languages as a hobby since childhood…”

As an afterthought, I should point out that English isn’t completely genderless: it retains gendered pronouns and vestigial gender marking for inanimate objects. On another end-note, Latin didn’t undergo language death, in the way McWhorter describes it in analogy to reading Vergil in Latin the way we could possibly in the future read Tolstoy in (dead) Russian. Namely that Latin didn’t undergo language death by being supplanted by other languages, strictly speaking, in all places, but that Latin speakers evolved into first regional Latin-dialect-speakers, and then medieval and modern Romance language-speakers.

بهاء الدين زهير ٢


لا تَطَّرِح خامل الرجال فقد تَضْطَرّ يوماً الى ارادتِهِ

فاللينُ في البُرْدِ مُحْتَقَرٌ خيرٌ منَ اليُبسِ عند حاجتِهِ


Spurn not the mildest man on Earth:

Who knows but someday you may need his aid?

Cloth of soft texture is of greater worth

than rougher stuff, when robes are to be made.


- Baha’ al-Din Zuhayr

(translation: E.H. Palmer, The Poetical Works of Baha Ed-Din Zuheir, 2 vols., Cambridge 1877, p. 34)

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