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Reviewed by:
  • Arabic language handbook by Mary Catherine Bateson
  • Steven Berbeco
Arabic language handbook. By Mary Catherine Bateson. (Georgetown classics in Arabic language and linguistics 1.) Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2003. Pp. xvi, 127. ISBN 0878403868. $22.50.

As the series editors note ominously, ‘global awareness [is] now refocused on the Arab world’, and with it an increased need for solid reference material written for, as Bateson states in her preface, ‘a student of the language, a specialist in the region where Arabic is spoken, or a linguist interested in learning about the structure and use of [Arabic]’ (xiii). There is something here for each audience, and the writing style is smooth throughout, though the less adventuresome reader may want to tread lightly through, or avoid altogether, the first section.

‘An outline of Arabic structure’ (1–50) opens with the disheartening advice that ‘the exploration of an Arabic dictionary is a disillusioning business’ (2), all the more so when B’s table of Arabic consonants has errors in both English and Arabic (4), and it seems an italicized ‘d’ represents at different times an interdental voiced stop or a dental voiced stop in a root, as all roots are italicized. Although orthographic ligatures are carefully defined (xv), more appear further on as unhappy surprises. On the whole, this section is more useful for the advanced student than the beginner or idly curious, who may wonder what is meant by several terms introduced and not defined. B’s caveat that ‘we must be concerned with interesting or pivotal features of Arabic syntax, rather than with the attempt to present it as a coherent system’ (42) seems to address the section as a whole.

The second and third sections are much stronger, despite spotty typographical errors. ‘The history of Classical Arabic’ (51–73) includes concise and highly informative comments on the development of the Semitic family (51–54), as well as the answers to several of this linguist’s lingering questions about the history of the Arabic script (54–58). The rest of the section is an excellent capsule summary of the rise, fall, and modern resurrection of Arabic literature, offering enough to tantalize the reader without ignoring the important dates and details.

‘The linguistic practice of the Arabs’ (75–116) offers a broad sociolinguistic look at diglossia, culminating in an enlightening comparison of nomadic and sedentary dialects, with particular attention to Iraqi, Syrian, and Egyptian colloquial usage (100–108). B chooses to highlight the colloquial variants of ‘table’ and ‘cat’, for instance, though she warns: ‘Every Arabic word is said to have four meanings: its primary meaning—the precise opposite—something obscene—something to do with a camel!’ (86).

As this is a reprint from 1967, the editors appended three supplemental bibliographies on Arabic language, literature, and Colloquial Arabic to bring the book up to date. A map of Arabic-speaking countries is provided (xvi), though it lacks places mentioned in the text such as Tripolitania (57) and Malta (107); it would be more useful, for the sake of its regional specialist readership, if Romanized Arabic were used, the Oxon River brought into focus, and Equatorial Africa left out.

Kostas Kazazis’s positive review of the book when it was first published (Language 45.415–21, 1969) speaks to its appeal to the non-Arabist linguist. The regional specialist will also find much of interest, and despite its problems there are enough nuggets for the Arabist to recommend at least a cursory reading.

Steven Berbeco
Charlestown High School


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