A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Ibn Khaldun on Arabic Dialects and Classical Arabic

Ibn Khaldun (Tunis)
Ibn Khaldun never ceases to amaze. His Muqaddima is not just the first great work of synthesizing history but also a pioneering work of sociology. Arnold Toynbee, who attempted something similar himself (at much greater length and arguably with less success), famously said of him, in every author's dream of a book-cover blurb:
"Undoubtedly the greatest work of its kind that has ever been created by any mind in any time or place . . . the most comprehensive and illuminating analysis of how human affairs work that has been made anywhere."--Arnold J. Toynbee, Observer
Of course, since Ibn Khaldun lived from 1332-1406, he wasn't able to use Toynbee's quote on his book tour.

Born in Tunis of a family that had fled al-Andalus (Spain) during the Reconquista, he was educated at Tunis and spent a career in North Africa, Granada, and finally Cairo. As I noted a few years ago, after Tunisian independence a statue of French colonial missionary Cardinal Lavigerie was replaced with a statue of favorite son Ibn Khaldun.

A frequent theme on this blog through the years (45 posts  with the label so far) has been the divergence between spoken Arabic dialects and the written language (Classical, Modern Standard, fusha), the phenomenon linguists call diglossia. Many classical Arab writers complained about it, but few tried to explain it. Ibn Khaldun tried to explain everything, of course.

As the excellent Algerian linguist/blogger Lameen Souag notes in a recent post on his Jabal al-Lughat blog, notes that Ibn Khaldun addressed the issue: "Ibn Khaldun: Arabic Dialects are Independent Languages." He translates the relevant section of the Muqaddima, and you need to read the whole post, but essentially he comes down to what I think linguists call a substratum and which he calls "mixing" with non-Arabic: languages:

You may observe this in the towns of Ifriqiya and the Maghreb and Andalus and the Mashriq:
  • As for Ifriqiya and the Maghreb, the Arabs there mixed with the non-Arab Berbers as they spread their civilisation among them. Hardly a town or a generation was isolated from them. Thus non-Arabness came to predominate over the Arab tongue which they had had. It became a different, mixed language, within which non-Arabness predominated for the reasons outlined. So it is further from the original tongue.
  • Likewise the Mashriq. When the Arabs prevailed over its nations, the Persians and the Turks, they mixed with them. Their languages then spread among them through the labourers and farmers and captives whom they took as servants and nannies and wet-nurses. As a result, their own language was corrupted by corruption of their (linguistic) habits, until it became a different language.
  • Likewise the people of Andalus, with the non-Arab Galicians and Franks.
All the people of the towns from these regions came to have a different language, specific to them and distinct from that of Mudar [=Classical Arabic], and distinct each from the other - as we shall recall. It is as if it were a different language due to their generations' mastery of the linguistic habit of it. And God creates and decrees what He will.

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