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Review of  Middle Arabic and Mixed Arabic

Reviewer: David Wilmsen
Book Title: Middle Arabic and Mixed Arabic
Book Author: Liesbeth Zack Arie Schipper
Publisher: Brill
Linguistic Field(s): Historical Linguistics
Subject Language(s): Arabic, Standard
Language Family(ies): Semitic
Issue Number: 23.5132

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EDITORS: Liesbeth Zack and Arie Schippers
TITLE: Middle Arabic and Mixed Arabic
SUBTITLE: Diachrony and Synchrony
SERIES TITLE: Studies in Semitic Language and Linguistics 64
YEAR: 2012

David Wilmsen, Department of Arabic and Near Eastern Languages, The American University of Beirut


This is a collection of papers read at the Second Conference of the Association internationale pour l’étude du moyen arabe et des variétés mixtes de l’arabe (AIMA), held at the University of Amsterdam in 2007. It comprises seventeen chapters, including the introduction, five of which are in French. A release concentrating on Middle Arabic from a major scholarly publishing house heralds the remarkable activity in the field of Middle Arabic studies over the last ten years. An initial conference convened in 2004 at the Université Catholique de Louvain, one of the outcomes of which was the formation of the Association, a third conference having been held at the Università degli Studi di Firenze in 2010. In addition to those major events, two smaller workshops have met, one in Cairo and one in Oslo, the latter in 2010. This type of Arabic has been under study since the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, growing into a sub-field of Arabic studies in its own right, owing largely to the many publications and exhaustive work of Joshua Blau since his 1965 work on Judeo-Arabic.

This type of Arabic constitutes medieval Arabic texts, largely written by writers from minority populations composing works for use in their own communities in the Arab Muslim world of the day; these were writers who were not so firmly committed to the unforgiving rules of Classical Arabic as to expurgate all colloquialisms from their work. They were certainly not all Jews; Blau himself published a three-volume work of Christian writers (1966). Even some early Muslim authors, writing within the genres of canonical Classical works addressing such solemn subjects as the words and deeds of the prophet of Islam, writing in a time before the codified rules of Arabic composition took complete effect, sometimes strayed into what later came to be considered stigmatized vernacular features.


Introduction: Middle and Mixed Arabic, A new trend in Arabic studies
Johannes den Heijer

In his superb introduction, den Heijer outlines the disparate avenues of approach within in the field of Middle Arabic studies, situating the volume’s contributions into their broader context. More than a mere summation of the contents, his is a theoretical manifesto in its own right, by itself one of the book’s most valuable contributions. In it, the author reviews all relevant perspectives on the study of Middle Arabic texts: the value of Middle Arabic to a diachronic approach to Arabic dialect history and reconstruction; its position in questions of a standardization of the norms of Arabic writing; the literary and cultural contexts in which its texts appear, including the confessional identities of their authors and the religious communities in which they appear; the contact between Arabic and other languages as manifested in such texts, especially, but not limited to Hebrew; the concern over transmission of these texts in their original manuscripts and their redactions by medieval editors; the construction of systematic tools and reference systems, such as databases and corpora, for use in analysing Middle Arabic; and finally, a prefiguring of directions and prospects in the study of Middle Arabic.

Chapter 2: Moyen Arabe et variétés mixtes de l’Arabe: Premier essai de bibliographie supplément no. 1
Jérôme Lentin

An entry better left to the end of the volume, this is a bibliographical supplement to that appearing in the first AIMA conference volume that Lentin co-authored (Lentin et Grand’Henry 2008). A full twenty pages in length, this includes relevant titles that have appeared since that volume’s publication date.

Chapter 3: Some Remarks about Middle Arabic and Saʿdiyya Gaon’s Arabic Translation of the Pentateuch in Manuscripts of Jewish, Samarian, Coptic Christian, and Muslim Provenance
Berend Jan Dikken

A review of different text traditions of Saʿdiyya’s Arabic Pentateuch, of which no autograph exists, but to which, according to Blau, the Yemenite Jewish manuscripts are the closest. Coptic manuscripts are very close to these but display far fewer Middle Arabic features. Those features thus become indispensable to an understanding of history of the transmission of Saʿdiyya’s Arabic Pentateuch.

Chapter 4: Linguistic and Cultural Features of an Iraqi Judeo-Arabic Text of the Qiṣaṣ al-ʾAnbiyyāʾ Genre
Lutz Edzard

An examination of the traces of an Iraqi dialect of Arabic in a Joseph story published in Baghdad in 1924, mingling Jewish and Muslim religious motives, legends, and narrative techniques.

Chapter 5: Deux Types de Moyen Arabe dans la version Arabe du discours 41 de Grégoire de Nazianze?
Jacques Grand’Henry

An examination of two translations into Arabic of the originally Greek Homily 41, one produced in a Syro-Lebanese variety of Middle Arabic and one in an Egyptian-Sinaitic variety. The second being a translation -- into Arabic -- of the Arabic of the first, the genuinely Egyptian-Sinaitic Middle Arabic and the reduplications of a Syro-Lebanese style are difficult to distinguish. There are, however, recognizable features of a clear Egyptian-Sinaitic style. Reluctant to conclude therefrom that there were two types of Middle Arabic, Grand’Henry maintains that there is but one Near Eastern Middle Arabic with different sub-standards.

Chapter 6: Présentation du livre Le Conte du Portefaix et des trois jeunes femmes, dans le manuscrit de Gannand (XIVe-XVe siècles)
Bruno Halflants

A presentation of a translation of one long tale in the Thousand and One Nights, demonstrating a few of the salient features of that collection of stories in an attempt to produce a grammar of Middle Arabic.

Chapter 7: Judeo-Arabic as a Mixed Language
Benjamin Hary

An examination of literal translations of Hebrew and Aramaic religious sacred texts into Judeo-Arabic, their translators adhering to a long tradition of verbatim translation, thereby accessing the pedagogical purposes of word-for-word translations and reinforcing the Jewish identity of the readers of those texts.

Chapter 8: The Story of Zayd and Kaḥlāʾ -- A folk story in a Judaeo-Arabic manuscript
Rachel Hasson Kenat

A rare instance of a Muslim folktale being adopted into Jewish society and subsequently abandoned by Muslim society, found in seven different manuscript versions, the copying errors and errors in textual tradition throughout giving an indication that the manuscripts of the story have been copied from Arabic script into Hebrew characters.

Chapter 9: Towards an inventory of Middle and Mixed Arabic features: The inscriptions of Deir Mar Musa (Syria) as a case study
Johannes den Heijer

A brief case study of some practical and methodological issues in inventorying a Middle Arabic text, focusing on common and widespread features, those being in the domains of orthography and phonetics, morphology and syntax, and to a lesser extent the lexical and cultural features of the text. Even here, a limited study such as this cannot describe any such text adequately, and a comprehensive and complete inventory of the phenomena involved would likely be best undertaken with digitized texts, something still in the future. For now, the only solution is to concentrate on smaller, more manageable texts.

Chapter 10: Qui est Arabophone? Les variétés de l’Arabe dans la définition d’une compétence native
Amr Hilmy Ibrahim

The only contribution from a native speaker of Arabic, Hilmy’s paper exhibits their oftentimes bemused perplexity at the sheer variety to be found in Arabic, even in its written forms. As if to demonstrate this, he adduces a phrase seen on a signboard in Tunisia that could be understood in wryly-amusing alternates by Arabic speakers from elsewhere in the Arabophone world, whereupon he asks, “Comment donc la même langue, produite avec les mêmes mots, dans la même construction et le même niveau du langue, peut-elle prendre deuz sens aussi différents?” (p. 178).

Chapter 11: Perspectives ecdotiques pour textes en moyen arabe: L’exemple des traités théologiques de Sulaym al-Ġazzī
Paolo La Spisa

La Spisa adopts what he calls a neo-Lachmannian approach to interpreting and editing with the hope of outlining a method for producing authoritative critical editions of Middle Arabic texts. He maintains that all manuscript witnesses must be taken into account, and, using the approach now used in Romance philology ‘criticism of forms’ and ‘criticism of variants’, he demonstrates how more reliable readings can be arrived at by comparing manuscripts.

Chapter 12: Normes Orthographiques en moyen arabe: Sur la notation du vocalisme bref
Jérôme Lentin

Lentin compiles a list of orthographic features common to many medieval texts, the likes of which researchers are likely to find even in edited and published texts of the writing from earlier eras.

Chapter 13: Playing the same game? Notes on comparing spoken contemporary mixed Arabic and (pre)modern written middle Arabic
Gunvor Mejdell

Demonstrates that Middle Arabic texts do, indeed, exhibit features similar to those of modern spoken varieties. Nevertheless, the two types of data are not completely similar, nor are the approaches to the data. This is hardly surprising, as “the nature of the two sets of data -- one in written mode and graphic representation, the other spoken mode and phonetic representation ... provides different kinds of linguistic information” (p. 237).

Chapter 14: Middle Arabic in Moshe Darʿī’s Judaeo-Arabic poems
Arie Schippers

Analysis of a Karaite Jewish poet. While it claims to analyse linguistic features, it is more of a straight literary analysis of metre and rhyme, albeit, as the author maintains, as they interact with the grammar. But here, by grammar is meant classical norms of grammar.

Chapter 15: Written Judeo-Arabic: Colloquial versus Middle Arabic
Yosi Tobin

Tobin advises that medieval Judeo-Arabic is purely a written form he calls medieval Judeo-Arabic or MWJA, largely composed using Hebrew characters and shared by Jewish scholars in the medieval Arabo-Islamic world. This he opposes to spoken Judeo-Arabic, an important distinction to make, for, as Tobin points out, while MWJA is attested over a period of a few hundreds of years between the tenth and fifteenth centuries, spoken Judeo-Arabic enjoyed a lifespan of perhaps a millennium and a half.

Chapter 16: Yefet ben ʿEli’s commentary on the Book of Zechariah
Kees de Vreugd

This is a critical translation of passages from a work in the Karaite tradition of Abū Ḥasan ibn ʿAlī al-Lāwī al-Baṣrī, known as Yefet ben ʿEli. His name and his apparent origin indicate that he must have known Arabic as well as Hebrew, and both are faithfully reproduced in de Vreugd’s contribution with translation and commentary.

Chapter 17: Damascus Arabic according to the Compendo of Lucas Caballero (1709)
Otto Zwartjes and Manfred Woidich

An eighteenth-century missionary grammar of Damascus Arabic composed by Spanish Franciscans in Damascus, this work is a tally of some of the more conspicuous features of the dialect of the day. The authors add the crucial proviso, one that must always be kept in mind when considering any older written representation of a dialect, the question of dialect type: “the varieties of Arabic spoken in Levantine towns such as Damascus and Aleppo differ depending on religious affiliations, ... it is quite probable that [the authors] in fact used their fellow Christians as their teachers ... accordingly, we have to take into account that some of the deviating features could be due to the impact of the other dialects” (p. 308). The same can be said for any Middle Arabic or indeed mixed Arabic text.

In true dialectologist style, the authors spend a large amount of their space (11 pages) in addressing vowels, especially where those show differences in the expected vowel configurations as they now obtain in the modern dialects(s) of Damascus, noting also that, in the manuscript they are consulting, Arabic entries are vocalized but not in a systematic manner. This, of course, is a difficulty in deciphering almost any Arabic manuscript. Compounding this is that “the author often tries to indicate both the classical and the colloquial pronunciation by writing several vowel signs on one word” (p. 309). As the authors point out, the admixture of standard Arabic orthography and dialectal features renders this a work of “mixed” Arabic. Nevertheless, as a document produced by non-native writers of Arabic, it cannot be classified as a work of Middle Arabic.


The volume begins by resolving one confusing matter that the very term “Middle Arabic” had engendered, one not yet resolved by the time the 2004 conference on the theme had convened. Whereas, as the author of the enormously useful introduction writes, the first conference, “witnessed a vivid debate on the adequacy of the terms ‘Middle Arabic’ and ‘Mixed Arabic’”, in succeeding conferences, the situation had changed: “In general, specialists in the field no longer seem to adhere to the old habit of using the term ‘Middle Arabic’ as an exclusively chronological device for describing a postulated intermediate phase between Old Arabic (often incorrectly identified with Classical Arabic) and the modern Arabic dialects” (p. 6).

This accounts for the term ‘Mixed Arabic’ in the title. At one time, Middle Arabic was posed as a stage in a chronological sequence proceeding from a hypothetical Old Arabic -- often associated with the Arabic of pre-Islamic poetry and the Quran; Middle Arabic; and Neo-Arabic, that is, the modern spoken Arabic vernaculars, implying stages of development analogous to Old English, Middle English, and Modern English. While this was often taken implicitly, Blau poses it specifically (1966: 26; 2002: 9); but even Blau (2002: 18) has begun to retreat from it. His reason must be that even he acknowledges that Middle Arabic shares many features of texts written in the modern period. Writing about Middle Arabic more than a decade ago, Versteegh had already recognized this (Versteegh 1997: 114).

It has been customary when dealing with such texts from the modern era, whether spoken or written, neither fully colloquial nor completely adhering to the canonical rules of writing, to refer to them as “mixed”. The uneasy consensus reached by AIMA conferees about what to label such texts is evident in the very title of the book under review: Middle Arabic is mixed Arabic, and it does not represent a historical stage in the development of the dialects.

Nevertheless, this recognition has not led to much study of variation in and dialect influences on writing styles (for an exception, see Wilmsen 2010). Instead, much literature in Arabic sociolinguistics is directed at the manner in which speakers with varying degrees of success or skill imitate such written norms in speaking. It would seem that far more interesting, and to a study of Middle and Mixed Arabic more germane, is the variation in modern writing styles and, where it happens, its deviation from the codified norms of Arabic writing. As such, Mejdell’s closing observation in her contribution should point the way to future studies of mixed styles: “recent years have witnessed an explosion in the use of more colloquial-oriented styles in print -- in parts of the press, and in youth magazines. Above all, the new electronic media provide arenas for new written practices -- unedited and uncontrolled by language authorities, literary as well as purely communicative” (p. 244-5). This is a linguistic phenomenon truly worth documenting in real time.

Medieval Middle Arabic texts are valuable to linguistics precisely because they give evidence of the remarkable continuity and stability of the spoken dialects of Arabic over a period of one thousand years. As such, both the terms ‘Middle Arabic’ and ‘Mixed Arabic’ are misleading and have outlived their usefulness. The charge to be put to conferees in their upcoming colloquia is to seek a different term for their object of study. Indeed, den Heijer recognizes this in his introduction to the volume (p. 8).

Two types of reader may be interested Middle Arabic studies, and, therefore, this volume: historical linguists and readers from the modern religious confessions whose medieval forebears produced the texts. Consequently, some contributions are of historical interest, but not of great interest to linguistics. For example, Schippers’ comments about “grammar” do not bear upon linguistics as such. That medieval writers might produce such solecisms as he documents, probably unwittingly for lack of attention more than for lack of knowledge of the rules of classical Arabic, does not add any new revelations about dialect development. Instead, Schippers’ analysis is of interest for its cultural implications: “The audience to which the poet directed himself was acquainted with the regular Classical Arabic poetry, and, at the same time, its members are supposed to like the deviations from the Classical language which give the poetry a special, perhaps ‘Judaeo-Arabic’, flavour” (p. 263).

Similarly, de Vreugd’s text is itself a linguistic curiosity with the Hebrew script interpolated with passages of punctiliously correct Arabic. For that reason alone, it is of little interest to historical linguistics. The same might be said for Kenat’s contribution: it is an interesting historical document, but its value to a linguistic accounting of the development of Arabic dialects is relatively small.

On the other hand, the implications of Tobin’s views to linguistics, although also largely historical in perspective, are immense. Tobin embraces the possibility that Judeo-Arabic existed before Islam. Recent linguistic work (al-Jallad 2012) corroborates that Arabic speakers have been living in the Fertile Crescent for centuries, perhaps as many as fifteen, before any Muslim spoke a word of Arabic. In the multiethnic, multilingual polities of the day, there were likely Jews who spoke Arabic either as a native or second language.

That being the case, from the perspective of historical dialectology, it is not clear how Grand’Henry can justify his conclusion that Middle Arabic constituted a single type. Living dialects constitute variable types, why cannot literary dialects do the same? More likely, his texts represent, as he also concludes, “deux styles d’écriture des copistes et deux styles de révision textuelle à l’intérieure d’un cadre linguistique relativement stable qui maintient pour nos textes du XIe au XIXe siècle” (p. 111).

Meanwhile, as historical dialectology of Arabic does indeed rely upon texts of all types, den Heijer’s, La Spisa’s, and Lentin’s contributions are welcome references for scholars of all manner of medieval Arabic writings, not simply texts classified as Middle Arabic.

For theoretical and applied linguistics, Hilmy brings forth an observation, well worth keeping in mind in speculations about language acquisition: native speakers of Arabic develop as part of their language competence the ability to recognize and understand many widely diverse regional variants. For his part, Hary presents a detailed schematic of the interpretive aspect of translation, constituting a model of the “black box” of the process of translation, so named because it is impossible to observe.

The papers collected here represent the best of the conference volume genre, comprising a sharing of findings in an ongoing research enterprise with the broader scholarly community. The contributors are all active scholars in the field, most with long publication records.

The conclusion that Zwartjes and Woidich reach is a suitable ending for the entire work, adumbrating many of the concerns that continue to face researchers into Arabic manuscripts of any kind and certainly those of what is still called Middle Arabic:

“Further thorough study, in particular with respect to scribal habits, will certainly reveal more details and lead to a better understanding ... For the time being, however, we cannot tell with reasonable certainty whether we have to assume here the influence of the standard variety or another Arabic dialect ... Alternatively, it may be that this description represents an older stage of linguistic development, namely a kind of pre-modern ... Arabic. [The question is]: how reliable is the data from [whichever] century ... ? To find the answers to these questions and to obtain a more complete picture of the problems at hand, it is extremely important to carefully investigate this and similar works …” (p. 329).


Blau, Joshua, 1965. The Emergence and Linguistic Background of Judeo-Arabic: A Study of the origins of Middle Arabic. Leiden: Brill.

Blau, Joshua. 1966. A Grammar of Christian Arabic: Based mainly on South-Palestinian texts from the first millennium. Louvain: Corpus Scritorum Christianorum Orientalium, Secretariat

Blau, Joshua. 2002. A Handbook of Early Middle Arabic. Jerusalem: Max Schloessinger Memorial Foundation, Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

al-Jallad, Ahmad. 2012. Ancient Levantine Arabic: A reconstruction based on the earliest sources and the modern dialects. Ph.D. dissertation, Harvard University.

Lentin, Jérôme et Grand’Henry, Jacques (eds.). 2008. Moyen arabe et variétés mixtes de l’arabe à travers l’histoire. Actes du premier colloque international (Louvain-la-Neuve, 10 -- 14 mai 2004). Louvain-la-Neuve: Institute Orientaliste de Louvain (Publications de l’Institute Orientaliste de Louvain 58).

Versteegh, Kees. 1997. The Arabic Language. New York: Columbia University Press.

Wilmsen, David. 2010. “Dialects of Written Arabic: Syntactic differences in the treatment of object pronouns in the Arabic of Egyptian and Levantine newspapers,” Arabica 57/1: 99-128.

David Wilmsen is associate professor of Arabic at The American University of Beirut. His most recent published works have to do with the many manifestations in speech and in writing of the Arabic nota accusativi, or object pronoun, and its variable use cross dialectically. He is currently completing a comprehensive diachronic study of indefinites, interrogatives, and negators in western Arabic dialects.

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