As has hopefully become clear in these past blog posts, Arabic, and especially Arabic of the Qurʔānic text is spelled in a really weird way. Many of these weird spellings have fascinating explanations, and while a definitive explanation is always elusive, there are plenty of reasonable arguments to make.
However, one spelling that has always baffled me is the Arabic word miʔah 'hundred', which is spelled ماية <mʔyḧ>. Normally <ʔ> markes either the sequence aʔ(a) in internal position, and <y> generally marks y or ī, while it only marks ʔ if it is directly preceded or followed by the short vowel i. That is technically the case here, but why is <ʔ> written in front of it? The spelling of the word rather looks like māyah, or perhaps maʔyah.
I filed this in my mental repository of "weird things that will become relevant when I find something that looks like it", and just the other day, I found just that!
It turns out, in the Qurʔān, we find several sequences of surprising/unusual spellings where ʔ and y or i have changed places from both a historical perspective, and in the way it is conventionally read in the Qurʔān.
First of all, the word for miʔah appears consistently in this weird spelling.
Besides this, a almost identical environment appears in Q51:47 where a sequence iʔa is spelled <ʔy> rather than the perhaps expected <yʔ> or simply <ʔ>. The noun ʔayd 'strength' normally written ايد <ʔyd> is preceded by the preposition bi-, this sequence in classical Arabic orthography would simply be written as بايد <bʔyd>, however that is not what we find in Q51:47, there we find it spelled with the rather foreign-looking bi-ʔaydin باييد <bʔyyd>. This is essentially the exact same 'weird' spelling that we find in miʔah, but even accross a morpheme boundary, the sequence iʔa is being written with <ʔy>, even if it yields the unusual looking sequence <yy>.
But this isn't the only environment where we find this, also the sequence yʔ yields the same unusual spelling, as found in Q18:23 li-šayʔin لشاي <lšʔy>. What is interesting about this spelling of the word šayʔ, is that it is one of the typical 'markers' of "Middle Arabic" (I would argue Colloquial-like) writing in the very first centuries of Islam in the Papyri studied by Hopkins (1984). The normal spelling of šayʔ is attested in many instances, and in the exact same context in Q16:40. The Sana'a Qurʔān in fact has the spelling show up in another place (Q19:9).
But this isn't all, also the verb yaʔisa 'to despair' shows up in this spelling in the imperfect stem -yʔas- with this same metathesis in spelling, which leads to rather enjoyable spelling 'corrections' in the vocalized text, where the <ʔ> is acquiesced, and an extra glottal stop sign is written on top of an empty bit of line to 'fix' the metathesized yʔ. Attested in these spellings we have:
Q12:87 wa-lā tayʔasū <wlʔ tʔyswʔ> 'and despair not'
Q12:87 lā yayʔasu <lʔ yʔys> 'he despairs not'
Q13:31 ʔa-fa-lam yayʔas(i) <ʔflm yʔys> 'and he despairs not' (translated as 'and he doesn't know, I am not sure how that works).
These three are the only instances of the imperfective stem of this verb, so the spelling is 'regular'.
A final environment is an example of an etymological sequence *īʔa which is once again spelled in this unusual way, in the passive of ǧāʔa 'to bring': ǧīʔa
Q39:69 wa-ǧīʔa <wǧʔy> 'and he will be brought'
Q89:23 wa-ǧīʔa <wǧʔy> 'and it will be brought'
These are the only two examples of this verb in this conjugation, and thus the spelling is 'regular' within the Qurʔān.
So these spellings appear quite regular, how can we understand them? In the case of sequences yʔ being spelled as <ʔy>, the answer appears fairly straightforward, a metathesis yʔ > ʔy has regularly taken place in the Arabic dialect of the QCT. This explanation however does not work for sequences of iʔa and īʔa as examined above. Here we must assume that the 'palatal/front' feature from the consonant was somehow transferred to behind the ʔ, or alternatively assume the ʔ was palatalized to ʔʸ (which is extremely exotic). A general rule can be formulated: iʔ, īʔ, ayʔ > i, īʔy (or iʔy?), aʔy.
It was pointed out to me by Lameen Souag that this metathesis (or palatalization or whatever you want to call it) is still found in modern Arabic dialects, e.g. Algerian Arabic layas 'despair' < *al-ʔayās not **al-yaʔās, which implies that the metathesis was generalized, and even used for the stem outside of the imperfect stem.
So now the question we've been asking ourselves throughout this series of articles: Is this rule part of the language of the orthography or part of the language the Qurʔān was composed in?
One thing is for sure: the spelling for 'hundred' is solidly part of the language of the orthography. But in the much more common word šayʔ 'thing', the "metathesized" spelling is actually uncommon. This is the only form that occurs often enough to really make any judgement about what the orthographic standard is. And it is quite clear that the spelling شي <šy> rather than شاي <šʔy> is the orthographic standard for this word in the Qurʔān. This might suggest that the metathesized spellings are rather slips of the pen, shedding some light on the pronunciation of the Qurʔān. This would then suggest that this metathesis is indeed part of the Qurʔānic lanuage.
However, every instance of this metathesis other than the word šayʔ is spelled as if the shift had applied. It then is regular rather than a unusual deviation from the 'norm'. This might suggest that those spellings were originally the orthographic norm, and that somehow the 'colloquial' spelling شي <šy> for *šaʔy sneaked into the Qurʔānic orthography as the normal form.
However we analyze this, that there is something going on with y/i+ʔ sequences in the Arabic language is very clear. I would love to hear my readers' opinion on how this problem would be solved.
[UPDATE] Phillip Stokes informed me of the highly interesting book Qur'ans of the Umayyads by François Déroche (2013), which talks about older Qur'an manuscripts and their spelling variation. On page 22-23, Déroche mentions the spelling of the phrase bi-ʔāyāt(i-nā) 'with (our) signs', being consistently written as <bʔyyt(nʔ)> rather than the spelling <bʔyt(nʔ)> that we find in the the Cairo edition of the Qur'an today.
This is then once again an example of this same spelling convention that we find in miʔah, but this time, interestingly, before a long ā. This shows that this spelling was clearly more widespread in earlier editions of the Qurʔān. Déroche fails to note that this spelling closely resembles the spelling of miʔah, and tries to attribute it to a form of imalah, (vowel raising near an i vowel), which I don't find particularly convincing.
Déroche (pg. 23) also mentions that šayʔ is consistently spelled <šʔy> unless it was in the indefinite accusative, where it was written <šyʔ>, as per the standard orthography. It is difficult to decide what to make of that variation, but looks somewhat similar to a spelling convention mentioned earlier by Déroche where 3ibād ' servants' is spelled <3bʔd> unless it is an indefinite accusative 3ibādan <3bdʔ>.
This might suggest a orthogaphic convention that avoids a sequence <ʔCʔ>, which in Kufic writing takes up a lot of space, but alternatively, we may imagine that it represents some kind of linguistic reality and the the sequence āCā undergoes a shortening to aCā (Thank you Phillip for this useful suggestion). If the latter interpretation is correct, that would suggest that the spelling <šʔy> whether from original *šaʔy or not, was already pronounced šāy by these scribes.