A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Cypriot Maronite Arabic and Other Cool Stuff

Tired of the same old posts about politics? Okay, this is for those of you who are interested in the arcane stuff. We've talked a few times about diglossia and Arabic dialects. The excellent linguistics blog Jabal al-Lughat, written by Lameen Souag, an Algerian studying African languages at SOAS, had a post recently (well, last month, I'm late to the party) with references to Cypriot Maronite Arabic, three words I'm not used to seeing together. I knew there was a fairly substantial Maronite Christian community in Cyprus, but did not know that elements of this community have retained a spoken Arabic dialect. What's more, he links to a YouTube video called "Sanna" (from lisanna, "our language"). The main narrative is in Greek, with English subtitles, so note his comments first on what to listen to:
go straight to 2:40, 5:00, 7:04 to hear the language itself. (Ignore the video's ill-informed claims that this is descended from Aramaic, by the way.) If you speak Greek, there are even lessons at Hki Fi Sanna. This is far more incomprehensible to me than any mainstream Arabic dialect I've ever heard, including the Levantine Arabic from which it presumably derives - a remarkable case study in how much isolation from related varieties speeds up language differentiation.

It doesn't sound anything like Levantine Arabic to me. I can recognize a few words, but it's like trying to understand French if you only speak Spanish. Or maybe even Dutch and English. The link he notes, actually spelled on the website Xki fi Sanna mostly requires Greek, but the transliteration used reminds me a bit of Maltese, itself an Arabic spoken dialect that got separated from the Islamic world and written Arabic and took on a life of its own. There's an Egyptian proverb, azan fi Malta, to give the call to prayer in Malta. An Egyptian teacher once told me it meant they wouldn't understand you, but that's not really it: they would understand the words, since Maltese is an Arabic dialect that has become a separate language, but they're Christians, not Muslims, so they wouldn't heed the call. (Why I know anything at all about Maltese is a long story, not for this post.) Maltese is said to have links to Siculo-Arabic, spoken in Sicily when it was under Arab rule (just as some aspects of Tunisian Arabic allegedly derive from Andalusian Arabic, since a large number of Muslims expelled from Spain ended up in Tunis). (Note added later: in fact the not uncommon Tunisian surname Mourou is actually said to be from Moro.)

Also, if the post isn't recondite enough for you so far: While browsing around at Jabal al-Lughat I found a very interesting post called "Why would 'qaswarah' be claimed to be Ethiopic?" which makes the above discussion seem mainstream. Still, linguists among you may find it intriguing, as I did, though in fact no one can really comment who doesn't know 1) Qur'anic Arabic, 2) the Qur'anic tafsir tradition, 3) Ge'ez (Old Ethiopic), and 4) the Old South Arabian writing system. I don't qualify (okay on one and limited on two, dead no on three and four). Among personal acquaintances my count comes up to precisely one, who's now retired, and perhaps one other (yes on Old South Arabian, not sure about Ge'ez, and also retired), though worldwide there are doubtless hundreds (well, maybe dozens) who fill the bill, including Lameen Souag. Even if you aren't qualified to critique the argument, it's an interesting read.

1 comment:

Chris said...

Thanks, Michael. Amid all the politics I'd forgotten how interesting linguistics can be ... so fascinating.