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Reviewed by:
  • A linguistic history of Arabic
  • Kees Versteegh
A linguistic history of Arabic. By Jonathan Owens. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006. Pp. ix, 316. ISBN 9780199290826. $49.95.

In Arabic linguistics, the comparative-historical approach has never been popular, although Arabic itself was often the main source for the reconstruction of Proto-Semitic. The consensus of [End Page 241] most linguists working in Arabic linguistics would seem to be that the contemporary Arabic dialects (or New Arabic) developed after the Arab expansion in the seventh century AD, either out of the pre-Islamic ancestor of Classical Arabic (Old Arabic) or emerging in the process of second language acquisition in the conquered territories.

In a book that is to be highly recommended to all those interested in the history of Arabic and in historical linguistics at large, Jonathan Owens aims at applying the methods of comparative historical linguistics to the relationship between the Arabic dialects and earlier forms of Arabic. He regards the evidence of the contemporary dialects as crucial for our understanding of the history of the language (137 and passim). In his view, these dialects go back to a variety of Arabic that coexisted with the pre-Islamic Arabic of the Qur'ān and poetry. He calls this ancestor of the contemporary dialects 'pre-diasporic Arabic', whose 'origin must be found at a time and place when the ancestral populations were still together' (2–3). He situates such an origin between 630 AD and 790 AD. Some features of this pre-diasporic Arabic are documented in the vast grammatical literature on pre-Islamic dialects, while others can be reconstructed from the contemporary dialects by the traditional methods of historical comparative linguistics (2).

In O's view, the history of Arabic is not punctuated by a break between Old and New Arabic. This is certainly a new way of looking at the history of Arabic: most scholars of Arabic would tend to agree that New Arabic represents a new type of language, comparable to that of the Romance languages vis-à-vis Latin, even though they may disagree as to exactly how it emerged. According to O, there existed all along two (or more) varieties of Arabic, one of the Old Arabic type and another of the type represented by the modern dialects (47ff.). Many of the features of New Arabic are just as old as Old Arabic (or even older) and can be used for the reconstruction of pre-diasporic Arabic (72).

The arguments in this book are organized around several themes. The introductory chapters on comparative linguistics, Chs. 1 and 2, present the author's thesis. Chs. 3 and 4 deal with case endings, and in Ch. 5 the differences among the dialects are treated statistically in order to reconstruct pre-diasporic Arabic. In subsequent chapters, case studies are presented of the imperfect verb (Ch. 6), the phenomenon of fronting of /a/ ('imāla, Ch. 7), and the bound object pronouns (Ch. 8). The book closes with a summary and epilogue (Ch. 9), and several appendices (list of dialects cited, list of variables used).

O asserts (19, n. 14) that transmission as a factor in the development of language is a complicating extralinguistic variable. It is too complex to be taken into account in the macroanalysis of language history, and thus he has chosen to rely exclusively on internal linguistic motivation for the explanation of change. In his theory (63), there is no room for the effects of any acquisition process. The Bedouin speakers of pre-diasporic Arabic settled in the conquered territories, where they continued to speak as before. Somehow, the inhabitants of these territories learned the language of the conquerors, but the structure of this language was not affected in the process. This is because the reconstruction shows that there was a Proto-New-Arabic language that already exhibited many of the features of New Arabic.

Yet, it is hard to imagine that a large number of new speakers could have learned Arabic within a short period of time without any effects. All studies of language contact show that the language-acquisition process in such circumstances always affects the structure of the language involved. So, why...


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