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I wouldn't say it quite like this:

"It is true that our evidence of Pre-Islamic Arabic has a rather 'Northern' bent."

This portrays it as sort of an argument from silence when it is not. The more inscriptions that come to light from across the Peninsula, the more 'northern' Old Arabic appears. I was speaking to Alessia Prioletta some weeks ago about the Thamudic F (Himaitic) inscriptions from near Najran. So far they appear all to be names, but she tells me that the team has discovered a number of (relatively) longer texts but ... they make no sense, that is, they are not in a language readily understandable as Arabic (or any other Arabian Semitic language we know). It is exactly the area Blau regards as peripheral that is central to Old Arabic, and his non-border areas are the places that were Arabicized in the historical period (probably not long before the emergence of Islam). I wouldn't go so far to say nothing like the language of the poems has appeared in the epigraphy, but just that nunation hasn't yet appeared. Perhaps inscriptions from the central Higaz will yield this feature, and that these dialects eventually spread south and eastward giving rise to our eastern (Tamimi) dialects. Too many gaps in the epigraphic record for the time being.


In pre-Islamic times it seems that there was an attempt to introduce prestige elements into the written Arabic language; and it was clear that the source of those prestige elements was Aramaic. You see this most prominently in the appearance of
and in early Arabic texts.

I would argue that the birth of the Islamic Empire catalyzed a "need" for a new classical and liturgical tongue, one that was specifically and unquestionably Arabic, yet different from the emerging written standard. And so the "target" of classicization shifted towards the relatively isolated Arabic dialects of Najd.

I don't think it is possible to prove from contemporary sources that a completely uniform intertribal poetic koine existed in the 6th century, but there was certainly the knowledge that a distinct Najdi tongue existed, and probably a general idea of what made it different from the Arabic of the western peninsula and areas further north (final short vowels, nunation, glottal stop, etc.). And we have proof that in the few centuries between the emergence of the Qur'an and the codification of the grammarians there were attempts to apply Najdi features to non-Najdi dialects (the qira'at as one example).

I do believe however that the modern bedouin poetic koine(s) of Arabia, which as you mentioned, share several important features with the language of Classical poetry, must have some precedent in an ancient poetic koine. I think both the modern bedouin poetic tradition and the Classical poetic tradition stem from the same source tradition, but were semi-independently maintained.


"In pre-Islamic times it seems that there was an attempt to introduce prestige elements into the written Arabic language; and it was clear that the source of those prestige elements was Aramaic."

I do not think the interpretation of these elements as 'prestigious' and 'introduced into the language' is correct. They rather seem to be formulaic holdovers from the Aramaic writing tradition of Nabataean. It is Arabic that is slowly introduced into the language, until the only places where Aramaic survived was in high frequency formulaic expressions. And in these cases, they were probably simply 'Aramaeograms', as we have in Pahlavi.


"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,"

Because this idea (intertribal 'high' poetic language ...) comes from (Western)scholars to resolve the problem raised by the linguistics affirmation (poetic language) stemmed by the Islamic tradition. Therefore if the premise is false(poetic language), the answers : "intertribal poetic language" is perforce false.

You wrote in Iqsa blog :

" When speaking about the language of the Quran, it is these days almost universally accepted that it was composed in the ʿArabiyyah, a poetic koine that functioned as an intertribal form of communication of high poetic culture.[1] This ʿArabiyyah was close – if not identical – to what eventually came to be thought of as Classical Arabic.

However, this assumption is far from obvious."

If this is the case (far from obvious...) why do you continue to ask arguments to believe they're true.
Why do you not try to put aside the Islamic tradition about the Quranic language (including pre Islamic 'high' poetry, concept which build the Western scholarship idea of a poetic koine) and work with what is outside of it ? Why do you hesitate ?


Dear Albert,

I appreciate the provocative suggestion that I'm simply asking the wrong question. :-)

My hesitation is based on several reasons

1. The language of the poetry cannot be completely confabulated in the 9th century by the Arab grammarians. It contains several true archaisms which were probably lost already, at least in most spoken dialects, by the time they write it down.

So if the "Poetic Arabic" is not just the language of the Bedouins at the time and in the region, it must come from somewhere.

The somewhat worrying thing in all this is: We have yet to find anything that looks like "Poetic Arabic" in the pre-Islamic epigraphic record.

This perhaps suggests that "Poetic Arabic" is indeed a purely oral poetic register, and this is why it is escaping our notice. That's an argument from silence of course; but it's a fairly forceful if we're not looking in the wrong place for it (which we might very well be).

2. A healthy skepticism of the traditions is of course warranted, but I'm a little reticent to just plain throw out all the data that we have on the pre-Islamic poets. The fact that the pre-Islamic poetry is attributed to people, about whom things are known (Tribe, date of death etc.) and likewise with early Islamic poetry.

The fact that the epic poetry of the Greeks is also attributed to a mythical Homer of course shows that we should not necessarily believe such accounts. But, it's becoming more and more clear to me that the history writing in the Islamic tradition isn't complete fiction, and unless there is a very obvious ideological reason for a wholesale fabrication, I don't quite see how they would have pulled it off.

I think we can technically 'answer' these kinds of questions. There's a lot of work to be done in terms of stylometrics, probably, and likewise a careful examination of how consistent certain poems are attributed to one person, and it isn't constantly jumping around.

But even if 90% of the material is problematic, and 10% is unassailable, we still have to contend with the fact that multiple people of multiple tribes were composing poetry before Islam in a language which was perhaps dialectally diverse, but still closer to each other than, e.g. to Quranic Arabic or modern vernaculars.

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