I've arrived at a stage in my research where I need to kind of figure how how I think about the "Poetic Koine"-theory of Arabic. As I am not quite sure what my stance is yet, I decided to just throw some words at this blog post and see where it takes me and hopefully get some comments here or on Twitter.
I think for those that are interested in this post, it will be worthwhile to read the blog post I wrote for the IQSA blog in November.
So for the past century or so, the status quo opinion has been that the Quran was composed in a language which has gotten so many different names, that it can be rather confusing: "The ʿArabiyyah/The Pre-Islamic Koine/The Poetic Koine/Classical Arabic/Pre-Classical Arabic, etc. etc." The exact name an authors gives this language kind of depends on the theoretical framework they work from, but for all of the scholars working on this, whatever term they used, they agreed that this meant that the language of the Quran was identical to the language of the Pre-Islamic poetry, which in turn is quite close to the language that we call "Classical Arabic" today. While it is perhaps a terrible idea to introduce yet another term, I'll do it anyway: Let us call this "Poetic Arabic" for now.
Over the past two years, I have built up the case that the language of the Quran was not composed in Poetic Arabic, but rather a vernacular language -- likely the language spoken in the Hijaz at the time of the revelation. I call this "Quranic Arabic"
The Quran was previously the only evidence for Poetic Arabic that stemmed unproblematically from the 7th century. Because of its language being identical, it suddenly did not seem unlikely that the pre-Islamic poetry from around the 6th century would also be composed in this period. The poetry itself only gets put into writing about two centuries later, and there is no a priori reason to assume that these are genuinely from that early a period, but the Quran anchored it. With the Quran being composed in a different language, that anchor has now been lifted.
Previous scholars on pre-Islamic Arabic have been essentially in two camps about the status of Pre-Islamic Arabic as a spoken language.
One group envisioned Poetic Arabic to be an archaizing poetic register used by the Pre-Islamic poets for poetry but this was not the language they used in every day life. Poetic Arabic would, in this case, fall within a highly archaizing poetic tradition not dissimilar to that of epic Greek as we find it in, e.g. the Iliad and Odyssey. Michael Zwettler with his The Oral tradition of classical Arabic poetry is in my opinion one of the stronger defendants of that position. Before him Karl Vollers basically envisioned the same situation.
Another group envisioned Poetic Arabic to be a "supertribal poetic dialect" as well, but did not consider it to differ strongly from the spoken language. Joshua Blau is one of the stronger defendants of this position when he says: "Suffice to say that as far back as the late sixth century Classical Arabic [=Poetic Arabic] was, apparently, a super-tribal language, absorbing lexical and at this time presumably also phonetic, morphological and syntactic features of various tribal dialects. Nevertheless, the difference between these dialects or even between Classical Arabic and the tribal vernaculars must not be overestimated. Typologically, they were closely akin, all of them being languages of the synthetic type, tneding to express several concepts in a single word and possessing similar system of declension and conjugation, so that it was relatively easy to switch from one language to another." [page 2 in Emergence]
The second position is a completely introspective account. It is certainly how the Islamic histories tell the situation was, but as the evidence that Blau used was fully based on these accounts there was little possibility to come to any other conclusion.
To Blau it was unthinkable that Pre-Islamic Arabic did not have full case and mood inflection that we know from both Poetic Arabic, and what later gets canonized by the Arab Grammarians which I call "Classical Arabic". This is mostly because he works from a strictly (but completely self-imposed) dichotomy between "Old Arabic" and "Neo-Arabic".
Old Arabic, to Blau, is a language with full case inflection on the noun, with full tanwīn and full mood distinctions.
Neo-Arabic on the flipside, is what happens when Old Arabic loses its final short vowels and tanwīn. With this loss (which all modern dialects have lost), the vast majority of the Case and Mood distinctions of Arabic are lost. Blau envisions an instant breakdown of this system towards an typologically "isolating" type, because it is lost in a good 90% of the environments. This does not at all follow. Languages can and do maintain morphological distinctions for centuries in a minority of words long after a break down of the original system has taken place. As example of this we can take Berber. Originally Berber used to have a morphological distinction between the Aorist and Perfect stem due to vowel alternation:
Aor. *ălməd Pf. *əlmăd 'to learn'
Aor. *ăbḍu Pf. *əbḍa 'to cut'
The majority of the Berber languages have lost the distinction between the short vowels *ă and *ə, both merging to ə, causing the morphological distinction between the two verb stems to be lost: Aor/Pf əlməd. For Tashelhiyt, for example, it seems clear that this has been the case for hundreds of years. Nevertheless, in verbs that have the vowels u/a alternating this distinction is never lost, even though these verbs make up a tiny minority of the verbs, e.g. Tashlhiyt Aor. bḍu Pf. bḍa.
Blau's idea that the phonetic development of the loss of final short vowels would therefore lead to the inevitable and instantaneous breakdown of the case/mood system (and by extension its "Synthetic" character) simply does not follow. It is exactly this transitional stage where I imagine Quranic Arabic to have been in; And it seems clear from early Islamic Arabic linguistic evidence, that this breakdown (which indeed eventually did happen) took several centuries to take place, rather than a catastrophic lnguistic "Clash of civilizations" moment that Blau envisioned to have happened during the Arab conquests.
So far I have only presented reasons why Blau's theory need not be true, but not yet why it isn't true. The reason why this is untenable is because today we have ample evidence that Pre-Islamic Arabic was much more diverse than previously thought. Not through introspective evaluation of the traditional data, but by actually looking at the rather awe-inspiring corpus of primary sources for Pre-Islamic Arabic in the form of inscriptions and papyri. It is now clear that both Safaitic and Hismaic, both pre-Islamic varieties of Arabic written in an Ancient North Arabic script, were quite different from Poetic Arabic or one of the "Old Arbaic dialects" that were supposed to have been close to Poetic Arabic. They both lack tanwīn, Hismaic lacks a definite article, while Safaitic (see also this) has one but it usually looks like haC-. Safaitic has a case system where the accusative is marked by -a, but none of the other cases seem to have been marked.
Nabataean Arabic, the Arabic which eventually gives rise to the written tradition that gives us the modern Arabic script, also was quite different. While it seems to have retained, at least in its earliest stages, a fully functioning case system, it lacked tanwīn, and may have treated feminine nouns like diptotes, similar to the Quranic Arabic and some Yemeni dialects, but unlike Classical Arabic and Poetic Arabic.
The reason why we nevertheless call these varieties 'Arabic', is because they share a number of innovations typical of all varieties that we call Arabic, including Classical Arabic, Poetic Arabic and the modern dialects. It should be added that it does not follow that the modern dialects are somehow closer to Classical Arabic/Poetic Arabic/Quranic Arabic than to Safaitic, Hismaic or Nabataean Arabic. While this is probably true for quite a number of modern dialects, it certainly is not true for a rather staggering number of unusual dialects spoken in Yemen and southern Saudi Arabia.
That Nabataean Arabic was quite different from Poetic Arabic/Classical Arabic, and seemed to have already undergone a breakdown of its case system well before the advent of Islam was something that was already well-known at the time that Blau established his fundamental "Old Arabic" vs. "Neo-Arabic" dichotomy, due to the visionary work of Werner Diem. However to Blau this Nabataean evidence did not count:
"Nothing Must Be Inferred from border Dialects for Central Dialects.
In a closely reasoned paper, Diem (1973) [...] suggested that Nabatean Arabic had given up the Semitic case system as early as the first century B.C. As stated, this suggestion does not raise any theoretical difficulty. The Nabateans did not participate in the culture of Standard Arabic [=Poetic Arabic] poetry [...]. Diem completely disregarded the essential difference between a border dialect like Nabatean Arabic [...] and those central dialects that were part of ʿarabiyya [= Old Arabic spoken dialects, I think]. Whatever the linguistic system of Nabatean was, nothing may be inferred from it for the "central" Arabic dialects."
The distinction Blau makes between "central" and "border" forms of Arabic, seems to be based on a rather romantic view of where the Arabs and Arabic came from, saying things like: "[... I]n the Djâhiliyya, 'the Age of Ignorance' (and the very beginning of the Muhammadan period), the Arabs lived to a great extent in almost complete isolation from the outer world, roaming from place to place in the Arabian Peninsula, seeking pastures, and engaging in endless tribal feuds."
The Nabateans (and, I suppose, the nomadic Safaitic and Hismaic speakers) then, should be excluded from consideration, because they were not "real" Arabs. And what constitutes to Blau as real Arabs, are whoever spoke Old Arabic. Of course, with such a criterion, one cannot help but conclude that all Arabs spoke Old Arabic before Islam. This way, Blau conveniently shuts himself out from examining any real evidence of Pre-Islamic Arabic that comes from the Pre-Islamic period, and has to rely solely on what the Islamic sources tell us, sources that really cannot be trusted to be accurate representations of the pre-Islamic period.
It is true that our evidence of Pre-Islamic Arabic has a rather 'Northern' bent. But whenever we do find Arabic further south, such as in Najrān or Dedan, we find that the language that we find there likewise isn't the language with full case/mood inflection that Blau envisioned to be central to "Old Arabic". Envisioning a homogeneous Old Arabic dialect group from which all modern dialects develop as the result of the Islamic conquests is simply not in keeping with the epigraphic evidence.
While this is not said explicitly by Blau, his views seem most defensible if one would accept that the modern dialects had developed from Poetic Arabic/Old Arabic. A view, not usually explicitly endorsed by Blau, but a view widely held (at least for the Urban dialects) by the generation contemporary and slightly predating Blau. Rabin, for example, says that "the present-day colloquials [...] after all are derived from Classical Arabic [=Poetic Arabic] or from a Vulgärarabisch closely related to it."
Where this idea exactly comes from, is unclear to me, and it certainly has not been defended particularly well. Charles Ferguson's "The Arabic Koine" (not to be confused with the unrelated "Poetic Arabic Koine"!) is the closest thing to a coherent defense of this idea, but all of the elements that are thought to bind the modern dialects together as coming from a single Classical Arabic-derived, have been convincingly challenged, e.g. by Owens.
All this, however, should not be confused with the view that Poetic Arabic is a completely artificial register, and its complex case/mood system is a fabrication of the 9th c. Arab grammarians, as Jonathan Owens has famously argued. The similarity of the case and mood system is so similar to ancient Semitic languages and traces of it can so clearly be found in ancient and modern dialects, that envisioning this system to simply be "fake" is untenable.
The absence of a language identical or close to Poetic Arabic in the pre-Islamic epigraphic record need not mean that a form of Arabic with a functioning case and mood system did not exist at all as a spoken language in the 6th and early 7th century. The modern Najdi dialects developed from a branch of language which at least had tanwīn, something that Quranic Arabic had already lost by that time. The fact that the medieval grammarians saw the best Arabic to come from the eastern dialects (i.e. Central Arabia/Najdi tribes), and that even today the oral poetic traditions of these dialects retain meters similar to Poetic Arabic poetry, where word-final consonants, at least in some contexts are treated as if they are followed by final short vowels (= the case/mood vowels) is a tantalizing indication that there is something going on in these eastern dialects.
As it stands, however, nothing that is even remotely like Poetic Arabic has shown up yet in the Pre-Islamic epigraphic record; and it perhaps never will. We do not know if the ancestral language of the Najdi dialects had a writing system, and its silence in the epigraphic record might suggest that they didn't. But alternatively, we might simply be looking in the wrong place or we haven't looked yet.
What is clear, however, is that the variety was not used for writing (and presumably also not for speaking, or even poetry) along the Hijaz, and the Levant, where forms of Arabic have been found, none of which look like Poetic Arabic.
But that Poetic Arabic was not a spoken language in, e.g. the Hijaz around the time of the Islamic revelation, does not mean it wasn't a Epic Greek-like special inter-tribal poetic register. The Islamic tradition certainly gives us the impression that this was the case. There is a great collection of Pre-Islamic and early Islamic poetry attributed to different tribes, and they all display more-or-less the same language. However, there are two issues that need to be addressed before we can start to develop the idea of Poetic Arabic as an inter-tribal archaic poetic register. First there is the problem of classicization, and second there is the issue of authenticity.
Pre-Islamic poetry was only really recorded in the 2nd and 3rd Islamic centuries as part of an effort of codifying a high language which would then become "Classical Arabic". Clearly these codifying efforts must have had a rather homogenizing effect -- and comparing the linguistic features of pre-Islamic poetry to the Quranic reading traditions, or even the descriptions of the early Arabic Grammarians such as Sibawayh, give the impression that the pre-Islamic poetry must have been heavily classicized, and the apparent linguistic unity and the similarity of Poetic Arabic to Classical Arabic might be completely an artifact of the grammatical tradition. An argument I tried to make in my IQSA blogpost. If there was an inter-tribal poetic register, it seems likely that there was considerable (but probably not insurmountable) dialectal variation within this register.
The issue of authenticity is one that I am not sure how to go about answering. If we blindly trust the Islamic tradition, we must believe that people close to the prophet indeed composed poems in Poetic Arabic -- a language which they almost certainly did not speak as their first language. But why should we trust these accounts? The poetry was written down much later, and considering the enormous amount of status Poetic arabic cum Classical Arabic comes to acquire around the time these texts get recorded, combined with the belief that the Quraysh spoke impeccable Arabic and that the Quran was revealed in the language of the Quraysh make any of these attributions somewhat suspicious.
This does not mean that the poems composed in Poetic Arabic contain no authentic references to Pre-Islamic Arabia, they certainly do (see my IQSA blogpost for one such an example); But just because the poems might be authentically pre-Islamic need not mean that all poems attributed to the pre-Islamic and early Islamic period are to be attributed to the authors they are attributed to, nor even that the whole of the poems are authentically pre-Islamic. This is an element which surprisingly often gets overlooked by people who want to think of Poetic Arabic as a "Poetic Koine". If Zwettler is correct that Poetic Arabic really was, like Epic Greek, a formulaic poetic register with a tradition that trained poets could draw upon to semi-recall/semi-improvise the "Epic" Poems, it is perfectly possible that poems that were composed in the second century could still contain figures of speech that date back hundreds of years. This is exactly what we find in the Homeric epics, verses that are evidently extremely ancient, more ancient than even the events, e.g. the Iliad talks about, side-by-side with verses that must post-date the events described in the Iliad by hundreds of years still (due to the mentioning of materials that did no exist yet, etc.).
That there is some amount of authenticity and ancientness to these poems at the time that they get written down, however, is clear because they people writing commentaries on the meanings of the poems seem to often be completely clueless about some elements of their meaning, while within the context of the poem, it seems quite clear that the composed was aware of their meaning.
Let us grant that Poetic Arabic was indeed a intertribal archaic register that enjoyed considerable cultural prestige. This still would not mean that the written language of the early Islamic period, nor the language of the Quran would also automatically be in that language. Among Arabists, there seems to have been a consistent idea that if there was a literary register for poetry, this would automatically dictate that this would have become the written language. This of course does not follow at all. One need only look at the literary languages of ancient Greece, none of which were similar, or even particularly close to Epic Greek nor was that the standard they were aiming for. Examining the early Islamic papyri and inscriptions, it is linguistically very similar to Quranic Arabic and, in fact, to literary Christian Arabic -- but rather further removed from Poetic Arabic. Only when the Arab grammarians set out to codify the Classical Arabic language, we start to see a noticeable change in the language used, at least in literary works (non-literary texts certainly lag behind, and early Christian Arabic does not seem to evidently make the adjustment any time soon pace Blau, who seems to think Christian deviations from Classical Arabic are just failed attempts to write Classical Arabic rather than succesful attempts to write the pre-Classical literary register). The fact that pre-Grammarian copies of works such as Ibn Wahb's Hadith collection on Papyrus are decidedly pre-Classical in orthography and language, clearly show that the crystallization of this language, even in literary works only took place due to the efforts of the grammarians.
So that's my, hopefully not to rambling thinking right now. I am especially interested to hear good arguments why we should take seriously the idea that from as early as the 6th century there already was a intertribal poetic language, and what some of the ways would be to establish their authenticity without blindly trusting the Islamic tradition (N.B. this does not mean that I cannot be swayed by arguments that are dependent on the Islamic tradition; I would just like to hear good reasons why I should believe they're true).