Travels in Arabia, by John Lewis Burckhardt

No. VII

Philological Observations.

MANY Arabic terms which have become obsolete in other places, and are found only in the good authors, many expressions even of the Koran, no longer used elsewhere, are heard at Mekka in the common conversation of the people, who retain, at least in part, the original language of the Koreysh. Some neighbouring Bedouin tribes, especially those of Fahm and Hodheyl, use a dialect still more pure and free from provincialisms and grammatical errors. I sometimes attended the lectures of a Sheikh in the mosque, who to his own excellent native Arabic had added the result of his studies at Cairo: and I never heard finer Arabic spoken. He prided himself in sounding all the vowels, not only in reading, but even in conversation; and every word he uttered might be noted as of standard purity.

It is to their extensive commerce with foreigners that we must ascribe the corruption of the Mekkan dialect when compared with that of the neighbouring Bedouins, though it still serves as a model of softness to the natives of Syria and Egypt. In pronunciation, the Mekkans imitate the Bedouin purity — every letter has its precise and distinct sound: they pronounce [Arabic consonant] like k, and the [Arabic consonant] like a soft g, (as in the word going); although in the public service of the mosque, and in reading the Koran, they express that letter with the guttural aspiration given to it in Syria, and which is therefore regarded as the true pronunciation. The [Arabic consonant] is pronounced djem; but in the mountains to the south, and the interior of Yemen, it is sounded gym, as at Cairo. The guttural pronunciation of the elif [Arabic consonant], often neglected in other places, is here strictly observed. The only fault in the Mekkan pronunciation is, that in common with the Bedouins they sometimes give, in words of two syllables, too great an emphasis to the last: thus they say Zahab, [Arabic] Safar, [Arabic]Lahem, [Arabic] Matar, [Arabic] Saby, [Arabic] and others.

The people of Yemen whom I saw at Mekka pronounced and spoke Arabic almost equally well as the Mekkans: those from Szanaa spoke with purity, but a harsh accent; but the Hedjazi, like the Bedouin accent, is as soft as the language will admit.

It has been said that the dialects of Arabic differ widely from each other; and Michaelis, one of the most learned orientalists, affirms that the Hedjazi is as different from the Moggrebyn dialect as Latin from Italian; and a noble Sherif traveller makes a strong distinction between Moorish and Arabic, pretending to understand the latter and not the former; and even the accurate and industrious Niebuhr seems to have entertained some erroneous notions on this subject. But my own inquiries have led me to a very different opinion. There certainly exists a great variety of dialects in Arabic; more perhaps than in other languages: but notwithstanding the vast extent of country in which Arabic prevails, from Mogador to Maskat, whoever has learned one dialect will easily understand all the others. In respect to pronunciation, whoever can spell correctly will feel little embarrasment from the diversity of sound, and soon become familiar with it. The same sense is often expressed by different terms; but this is applicable rather to substantive nouns than to verbs. Many words are used in one country and not in another: thus bread is called khobs in Syria, and aysh in Egypt; both terms being genuine Arabic, a language rich in synonyms: but the Syrian dialect still retains what has become obsolete in the Egyptian. From the specimen given by Niebuhr of the Egyptian and Hedjazi dialect, I could show, word by word, that there is not one provincialism in the whole. If the Egyptian says okod, and the Arabian edjles, they both use genuine Arabic words to express the same thing, one of which is more common in Arabia, the other in Egypt, when both terms are well understood by all who have mixed in the busy crowd, or have had even an ordinary education. An Englishman is justified in using “steed” for “horse;” thus the Moggrebyn calls a horse owd, the eastern Arab hoszan; but many poets use the word owd, which is at present unknown to the vulgar in Egypt. This variation of terms arose probably from the settlement of different tribes, each having their peculiar vocabulary; for it is known that Feyrouzabády compiled the materials of his celebrated Dictionary (the Kámous) by going from one tribe to another. The Arabs spreading over conquered countries took their idioms with them, but the joint-stock of the language continued known to all who could read or write.

Pronunciation may have been affected by the nature of different countries, retaining its softness in the low valleys of Egypt and Mesopotamia, and becoming harsh among the frozen mountains of Barbary and Syria. As far as I know, the greatest difference exists between the Moggrebyns of Marocco, and the Hedjaz Bedouins near Mekka; but their dialects do not differ more from each other than the German of a Suabian peasant does from that of a Saxon. I have heard learned men of Syria express their ignorance of many Bedouin terms used by tribes in the interior of the Desert, especially the Aenezey, who, on the other hand, do not comprehend certain words of the Syrian town-language; but the wants and habits of a Bedouin are so different from those of a town-person, that the one frequently cannot find terms to express the ideas of the other.

As to pronunciation, the best is that of the Bedouins of Arabia, of the Mekkans, and people of the Hedjaz; that of Baghdad and of Yemen is next in purity. At Cairo the pronunciation is worse than in any other part of Egypt; after which I should rank the language of the Libyan Arabs, who have a tinge of the Moggrebyn pronunciation mixed with the Egyptian. Then comes the Arabic spoken in the eastern and western plains of Syria, (at Damascus, Aleppo, and on the sea-coast); then the dialect of the Syrian mountaineers, the Druzes, and Christians; next, that of the Barbary coast, of Tripoly, and of Tunis; and lastly, the rough articulation of the Marocco and Fez people, which has a few sounds different from any other, and is subdivided into several dialects. The Arabs, however, of the eastern side of Mount Atlas, at Tafilelt, and Draa, pronounce their Moggrebyn tongue with much less harshness than their western neighbours. But I must acknowledge, that of all Arabic dialects, none appeared to me so disagreeable and so adulterated as that of the young Christian fops of Cairo and Aleppo.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:31