A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Did Spoken Punic Survive Until the Advent of Arabic? Part One

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.

Unless you're familiar with some of the French literature on North African history you may never even have heard of the question I want to explore over the next few days: how long did Punic, the language of Ancient Carthage, survive as a spoken language? If that seems rather obscure, consider this aspect: some have argued that Punic was still spoken in some parts of north Africa at the time of the Arab conquest in the seventh century, AD. And, it has been argued, the presence of a closely related Semitic language eased the adoption of the Arabic language. A modern Tunisian linguist has gone so far as to argue that Punic underlies the modern spoken dialects (darija) of North Africa. Most would not go that far. But it's an intriguing, if unproven, assertion.

Carthage, of course, was destroyed by Rome in the wake of the Third Punic War in 146 BC. Rome destroyed the city, and also much of whatever literature and history in Punic existed. But the language did not disappear: Saint Augustine of Hippo (AD 354-450) refers to it on several occasions and apparently understood it. Some skeptics have suggested that when Augustine says "Punic," he means Berber, but he gives examples which support that it was indeed Punic, including noting that its speakers referred to it as "Chenani": clearly kan‘ani, "Canaanite," as Phoenician speakers referred to their own language. So the survival of Punic into the fourth century seems pretty reasonable. Other authors before Augustine also make occasional reference to Punic, as does a contemporary, St. Jerome.

A few inscriptions exist in "Neo-Punic," a late form of Punic, into the Common Era, and there are "Latino-Punic" inscriptions as well; there is more dispute about certain texts in the "Libyan" alphabet (ancestor of the Tifinagh used for today's Berber), buy which may include some in Punic, especially in Tripolitania.

After Augustine the trail becomes a lot more unclear; there's a passage in Procopius' account of the Vandalic War in the sixth century that speaks of Punic, but it is in a confused and rather dubious context; there's a passage in the 11th century Arab geographer al-Bakri about a language that is neither Arabic nor Berber, but it's otherwise not clear what he means.

Over the several parts of this vacation post, I'll be talking about many of these clues in greater detail.

Let me add a couple of caveats up front, though: first, other than Augustine, all the evidence is at best suggestive and not proven; getting from Augustine to the Arab conquest requires spanning three centuries. Second: epigraphical evidence is scant, and proving what languages were spoken in antiquity is difficult; even the assumption that modern Berber languages descend from ancient Libyan or "Libyco-Berber" is mostly inference and common sense, not provable. And third: we really have very little evidence of Punic as distinct from Phoenician: some tombstones and other finds in Carthage and elsewhere in North Africa and Spain, and some inscriptions in Malta that seem more Punic than Phoenician, but the maternal country's language (Phoenician) and the colonial language (Punic) seem to be more closely linked than British and American English.

No comments: