A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Monday, July 29, 2013

Did Punic Survive Until the Advent of Arabic? Part 3: The Evidence of Augustine

I'm on vacation. As I've done in recent years, I've prepared a number of posts on topics of historical and cultural interest ahead of time, posts unlikely to be overtaken by events. There will be one or more of these per day, and I may drop in to comment on current developments as required.
In Friday's post, we looked at the evidence for the survival of the Punic language from the destruction of Carthage in 146 BC down to the era of Augustine. Today we'll look at what Augustine has to say about the survival of Punic, and tomorrow look at the (much less solid) evidence of its survival until or beyond the arrival of Arabic.

Saint Augustine of Hippo (354-430 AD), Doctor of the Christian Church, is a towering figure in the intellectual world of late antiquity; his Confessions and The City of God are still read today, and his literary output was huge; a great many of his letters, sermons, and other works survive, making him one of the most documented figures of the fourth and fifth centuries. He was also North African, born at Thagaste in Roman Africa (Souk Ahras, Algeria), studied at Madaurus, Numidia (M'Daourouch, Algeria) and at Carthage, the Roman city that arose on the site of Punic Carthage and is today a suburb of Tunis. After time in Rome and Milan he returned to North Africa and eventually became Bishop of Hippo Regius (modern Annaba in Algeria).

Ethnically, Augustine may have been of Berber origin; famously his father was a pagan and his mother, Monica, a Christian; he spent time as a Manichean before converting. Though he wrote in Latin, his writings frequently refer to another language spoken in the countryside, which he calls the lingua Punica. Some early biographers insisted he meant Berber, but it is clear from many of his references that he meant Punic, including citations of several words to be noted below. In fact, he also speaks of a "Libyan" language spoken beyond the Roman frontier, which probably refers to the "Libyco-Berber" language presumed ancestral to modern Tamazight; he did not speak this language, but apparently understood Punic. In fact, though Augustine did not know Hebrew, he explicates some Biblical names by reference to Punic. (Punic/Phoenician and Hebrew are very closely related Canaanite dialects with an almost identical lexicon.)

I have not seen one important work on this subject, W. M. Green, "Augustine's Use of Punic," University of California Studies in Semitic Philology XI (1951), but I think there is enough evidence available to demonstrate Augustine really did mean Punic. (Nor is he the only evidence for his era; his contemporary St. Jerome also refers to Punic, but for Augustine it is an everyday language, in fact, apparently the primary language of the countryside in Roman territory outside the major towns. (Whereas he seems to imply "Libyan," presumably Berber, was mainly spoken outside the Roman limes.) And he often speaks of the lingua Punica, and there are many references indicating that the Church struggled to find Punic-speaking clergy and that often translators were needed. The recent work by Brent D. Shaw, Sacred Violence: African Christians and Sectarian Violence in the Age of Augustine (Cambridge University Press, 2011) deals with the Punic-Latin divide in some detail. And Fergus Millar, in the work quoted in the previous part of this series,
The two essential points from the evidence of Augustine are firstly that the 'lingua Punica' was a Semitic language related to Biblical Hebrew; and secondly that it was fairly widespread not only in rural bishoprics but among Augustine's own congregation in Hippo. On the other hand it is clear that it did not rival Latin as a language of culture.
Augustine himself argues in one of his epistles with those who dismiss Punic's value (quoted in Wikipedia's "Punic Language" article:
Writing around AD 401, he says:
Quae lingua si improbatur abs te, nega Punicis libris, ut a viris doctissimis proditur, multa sapienter esse mandata memoriae. Poeniteat te certe ibi natum, ubi huius linguae cunabula recalent.

And if the Punic language is rejected by you, you virtually deny what has been admitted by most learned men, that many things have been wisely preserved from oblivion in books written in the Punic tongue. Nay, you ought even to be ashamed of having been born in the country in which the cradle of this language is still warm. (Ep. xvii)
But the critical evidence that leaves little room for argument that when Augustine said lingua Punica he was referring to the language of Ancient Carthage is lexical. I have already noted that Augustine, who apparently knew no Hebrew, explicated some Biblical terms from his knowledge of Punic. But two other interesting pieces of vocabulary occur in Augustine's writings.

"When our rural peasants are asked what they are. they reply, in Punic, "Chanani."

By far the most conclusive statement of all is this one, from Augustine's 
Epistulae ad Romanos inchoata expositio (ed. J. Divjak 197, Corpus Scriptorum Ecclesasticorum Latinorum Vol. 84, 162), Ep. 13:
Unde interrogati rustici nostri, quid sint, punice respondentes: "Chanani" -- corrupta scilicet, sicut in talibus solet, una littera, quid aliud respondent quam "Chananaei?"

When our rural peasants are asked what they are, they reply, in Punic, "Chanani," which is only a corruption by one letter, what else should they respond but "Chananaei?"
But Chanani is even better than the Latin Chananaei, Canaanites. "Phoenician" is a Greek name and "Punic" a Latinization of it. The Phoencians called their language Kan‘ani and their homeland Kan‘an, the same word the Bible uses for the land of Canaan and the Canaanites (כנעני). In Isaiah 19:18 Hebrew itself is referred to as "the language of Canaan" (שְׂפַת כְּנַעַן); Hebrew, Phoenician and Canaanite (and Moabite) all form the Canaanite language subgroup of Northwest Semitic, and are extremely close to each other. And as late as five centuries and a half after the destruction of Carthage, Augustine tells us that when asked what they are (unde interrogati quid sint) "our rustics" responded that they were Kan‘ani! And clearly, the language in which they replied was also Kan‘ani.

That particular anecdote, along with many other mentions in Augustine's works of people in the countryside speaking Punic, has convinced most scholars today; those who used to claim he must have meant Berber have no comparable evidence or, actually. any.

But there's another piece of lexical evidence as well.

Salus = Tria

In the same epistle quoted above, Augustine tells a story about his predecessor as Bishop of Hippo, one Valerius. Valerius was Greek and is said to have spoken Latin poorly and Punic not at all. One day he is said to have been listening to the locals speaking in Punic and he heard a word which he thought sounded similar to the Latin salus (safety or, to a churchman like Valerius, salvation). Valerius asked those with him (Augustine may have been present himself as he tells the tale) what this Punic word that sounded like salus meant in Latin, and he was told "tria", three.

So in what sort of language would the word for "three" remind a Latin speaker of salus. "Three" in Phoenician was shalush (compare Hebrew shalosh, שָׁלוֹשׁ, Arabic thalatha). Perhaps to a Latin ear the sh sound was indistinguishable from the s sound, or perhaps the local dialect of Late Punic did not make the distinction; in early Canaanite, early Hebrew and Phoenician the shin and sin were not distinguished in writing (though later Hebrew added a dot to make the distinction); and remember the story in Chapter 12 of Judges, in which the men of Ephraim were distinguished from the men of Gilead by using the word shibboleth as a password, since the Ephraimites couldn't pronounce the shin. (On a related point, our name "Judges" translates the Hebrew Shoftim, which implied more than just a judicial function; and the civil government officials of Ancient Carthage were known in Punic as shofetim, the same word but camouflaged via Latin into the English term suffetes, which you may or may not have encountered depending on how classical your education is.)

So, salus = shalush = tria = three. And Valerius is said to have preached a sermon on how Latin salus, salvation, could be achieved through the Punic meaning of the word, "three": that is, through the Trinity. A bit of a reach, and perhaps why Valerius' successor as Bishop of Hippo is much better remembered.

Augustine's evidence leaves little real doubt that in the provinces of North Africa he knew (Numidia and Africa Proconsularis, roughly Algeria and Tunisia), spoken Punic was a going concern in his era (he died in 430). Latin-Punic tomb inscriptions from Tripoli and Sirte in Libya suggest it still survived there as well.

But 430 is still over 200 years before the Arab conquest, and the argument that Arabic spread quickly because another Semitic language was already spoken there requires Punic to have survived for those centuries. The evidence trail gets much colder after Augustine, but it does not disappear entirely. Tomorrow, Procopius and al-Bakri, two very curious and arguable testimonies.

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