Al-Jallad and Safaitic.

Elias Muhanna has a wonderful New Yorker piece, “A New History of Arabia, Written in Stone,” that hooks you as follows:

A few years ago, Ahmad Al-Jallad, a professor of Arabic and Semitic linguistics at Leiden University, in the Netherlands, opened his e-mail and was excited to see that he had received several photographs of rocks. The images—sent by Al-Jallad’s mentor, Michael Macdonald, a scholar at Oxford who studies ancient inscriptions—were of artifacts from a recent archeological survey in Jordan. Macdonald pointed Al-Jallad’s attention to one in particular: a small rock covered with runelike marks in a style of writing called boustrophedon, named for lines that wrap back and forth, “like an ox turning in a field.” It was Safaitic, an alphabet that flourished in northern Arabia two millennia ago, and Al-Jallad and Macdonald are among a very small number of people who can read it. Al-Jallad began to transcribe the text, and, within a few minutes, he could see that the rock was an essential piece of a historical puzzle that he had been working on for years.

I’ll quote some more bits, and send you to the link for the whole story:

The inscription on Macdonald’s rock included the name of a person (“Ghayyar’el son of Ghawth”), a narrative, and a prayer. It was the narrative that stood out to Al-Jallad. Reading it aloud, he noted a sequence of words repeated three times, which he suspected was a refrain in a poetic text. This would make it the oldest known record of literary expression in Arabic—evidence, however slim, of a written poetic tradition that had never been explored. […]

As an undergraduate, at the University of South Florida, Al-Jallad got a job at a library on campus and read whatever he could find on Near Eastern civilizations. “I tried to learn Akkadian, so I could read the original Epic of Gilgamesh, but didn’t get very far,” he said. He wrote to professors in Semitic studies around the country asking for guidance. They all replied, “Nobody starts with Akkadian—you need to learn Biblical Hebrew, classical Arabic, and Syriac first,” he said. For two years, he studied those languages on his own in the library. After graduating, he was accepted into Harvard’s doctoral program in Semitic philology.

Al-Jallad is now one of the world’s foremost authorities on early Arabic, leading excavations around the Middle East. The study of early Islam has traditionally depended not on rock inscriptions but on chronicles and literary sources composed a few centuries after Muhammad’s death—a method of research that Al-Jallad likens to reading the history of North America entirely from the perspective of the first European settlers. He is confident that scholars will soon be able to tell the earliest history of Islam using evidence from the time of Muhammad’s birth. “We will find texts from the lifetime of the Prophet Muhammad,” he said. “I am one-hundred-per-cent certain of that. It’s just a matter of time.” […]

For a century, Safaitic remained an almost hidden corner of Arabian epigraphy, an already esoteric area. But, by 2007, when Al-Jallad arrived at Harvard, the field was undergoing a transformation. Digital photography was making a wealth of new inscriptional data available to scholars, and the number of Safaitic texts discovered in the Levant had swollen dramatically, vastly exceeding the number of Latin inscriptions recorded at Pompeii, the Roman Empire’s most famous source of graffiti. (A few Safaitic inscriptions were even found in Pompeii, on the walls outside a small theatre, probably scribbled by Arabian members of the Roman army.) Michael Macdonald amassed a vast collection of photographs of these texts and launched a digital Safaitic database, with the help of Laïla Nehmé, a French archeologist and one of the world’s leading experts on early Arabic inscriptions. “When we started working, Michael’s corpus was all on index cards,” Nehmé recalled. “With the database, you could search for sequences of words across the whole collection, and you could study them statistically. It worked beautifully.”

In 2013, Al-Jallad used the Safaitic database as he worked on an inscription containing several mysterious words: Maleh, Dhakar, and Amet. Earlier scholars had assumed that they were the names of unknown places. Al-Jallad, unconvinced, searched the database and discovered another inscription that contained all three. Both inscriptions discussed migrations in search of water, and a possibility occurred to him: if the words referred to seasons of migration, then they might be the names of constellations visible at those times.

Al-Jallad began pulling up every inscription that mentioned migrating in search of rain, and soon he had a long list of terms that had resisted translation. Comparing them with the Greek, Aramaic, and Babylonian zodiacs, he started making connections. Dhakar matched up nicely with dikra, the Aramaic word for Aries, and Amet was derived from an Arabic verb meaning “to measure or compute quantity”—a good bet for the scales of Libra. Hunting for Capricorn, the goat-fish constellation, Al-Jallad found the word ya’mur in Edward Lane’s “Arabic-English Lexicon,” whose translation read, “A certain beast of the sea, or . . . a kind of mountain-goat.” He stayed up all night, sifting the database and checking words against dictionaries of ancient Semitic languages. By morning, he had deciphered a complete, previously unknown Arabian zodiac. “We’d thought that they were place names, and, in a way, they were,” he told me. “They were places in the sky.” […]

In traditional historiography and common lore, southern Arabia is believed to be the primeval homeland of the Arabs and the source of the purest Arabic. In this telling, Arabic was born deep in the peninsula and spread with the Islamic conquests; as it made contact with other languages, it gradually devolved into the many Arabic dialects spoken today. Classical Arabic remains the preëminent symbol of a unified Arab culture, and the ultimate marker of eloquence and learning. To Al-Jallad, the Safaitic inscriptions indicate that various ancient forms of Arabic were present many centuries before the rise of classical Arabic, in places such as Syria and Jordan. He argues that the language may have originated there and then migrated south—suggesting that the “corrupt” forms of Arabic spoken around the region may, in fact, have lineages older than classical Arabic. Macdonald told me, “His theory will inevitably meet a lot of opposition, mainly for non-academic reasons. But it’s becoming more and more convincing.”

I could keep quoting endlessly, it’s all so fascinating — thanks, Trond and Trevor! (Incidentally, if the bit about Safaitic inscriptions in Pompeii sounds familiar, it was mentioned a few years ago in this post.)


  1. An excellent thread consicely illustrating the Arabic upside down theory:

    And other threads on inscriptions by Al-Jallad.

  2. Nobody starts with Akkadian—you need to learn Biblical Hebrew, classical Arabic, and Syriac first

    This reads to me like “Nobody starts with Romanian, you need to learn Old French, Old Spanish, and Golden Age Spanish first.” Not.

  3. Tell that to the professors in Semitic studies.

  4. Stu Clayton says:

    Nobody starts with English, you have to learn Latin and old Anglo-Frisian dialects first.

    Nobody starts with calculus, you have to learn arithmetic first.

    Nobody starts with generalizations, you have to learn specifics first. And vice versa.

  5. Akkadian pronunciation is in large part inferred from comparative Semitics. There’s an advantage to starting with languages whose pronunciation is reasonably certain.

  6. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    I’m sure I’ve been guilty of that sort of statement myself: you can’t start with biochemistry; you need to have studied chemistry first. Depending on the context I might still say it.

  7. Y: No doubt, but I managed to learn Classical Latin pronunciation (of a certain type) without knowing anything about comparative, or even uncompared, Romance languages. Shouldn’t it be possible to learn enough Akkadian to read the Code of Hammurapi for its value as ancient law, or the Epic of Gilgamesh or the Enuma Elish for their value as literature or mythology, without having to either become a scholar of Akkadian or be utterly dependent on other people’s translations? You can easily enough learn Homer’s Greek without having to know anything about Linear B, never mind comparative Greek dialects.

  8. David Marjanović says:

    Ahmad Al-Jallad’s website. In the publications list, every title is linked to the version of the paper. While some of the papers are of course about very specialized paleographic issues, others are highly interesting for historical linguistics.

  9. Darkest Arabia! Ancient Arabia! The largest lacuna in historical knowledge?

  10. Etienne says:

    As someone who has dabbled a little in Ancient Semitic languages and linguistics, I think the statement “Nobody starts with Akkadian—you need to learn Biblical Hebrew, classical Arabic, and Syriac first” is true inasmuch as a great many (perhaps most) grammars of the lesser-known older Semitic languages take it for granted that the reader/learner already has a solid command of Biblical Hebrew (more rarely Classical Arabic or Syriac), and thus much of the material presented (explicitly comparing and contrasting various features in the language described, on the one hand, and those in some better-known older Semitic language, on the other) in these grammars is quite opaque to readers otherwise unfamiliar with Semitic languages.

  11. Trond Engen says:

    David M.: Ahmad Al-Jallad’s website. In the publications list, every title is linked to the version of the paper.

    Thanks. I’m working my way through his papers.

  12. Me too. Fascinating.

  13. January First-of-May says:

    Probably 98% silly question: is Safaitic the same thing as Sabaean, or are the names just coincidentally similar?

    Because I cannot recall having ever heard of Safaitic before, and I’m sure I’ve seen many online posts where it would have probably came up (e.g. Charles Haberl’s comments about 5th century Mandaic history).
    And I do happen to know that Sabaean is an old Arabian script that kind of looks like runes, but I don’t recall much more than that about it either.

  14. Marja Erwin says:

    Safaitic is from northern Arabia, while Sabaean is from southern Arabia, i.e. Sheba or what’s now part of Yemen.

  15. January First-of-May says:

    Safaitic is from northern Arabia, while Sabaean is from southern Arabia

    I thought that was the case, which is why I said that the question was probably silly. But I was sufficiently confused that I had to check.

  16. Barin Sergatschsky says:

    I was always grateful that the first Semitic language that I studied was not Biblical Hebrew, not Arabic, not even Akkadian, but a lesser-known, modern, living language—Tigrinya, which happened to the subject the field methods course in my first year of graduate school in linguistics. Tigrinya has a verbal system with a typically Semitic look to it, and a variety of broken plural formations like Arabic. I found all of this fun and even easy to learn from our Eritrean collaborator and the fine old grammar of the language by Wolf Leslau.

    Then I studied Akkadian (through John Huehnergard’s grammar) to help me read the Hittite texts. Akkadian already felt very familiar from Tigrinya. Then I started going out with a Palestinian guy and I took up Levantine colloquial Arabic. That lead me to Classical Arabic (which I learned quite well and now use every day), and then I learned Biblical Hebrew quite well (with the best Yemenite/Mizrahi pronunciation I could muster) after I moved in with an Orthodox Jewish housemate and started keeping kosher and working as a shabbos goy, and then finally Syriac.

    There is almost always a certain partisanship in historical lingustics : the language you know best is always the most archaic. I felt blessedly free of this tendency in the Comparative Semitic seminar room. For many of the other students, Semitic Philology was there for explaining their favorite language, usually Biblical Hebrew. A prison of their own construction! I was grateful for my escape.

    Long story short—start where you want.

  17. That’s a great story of language acquisition, and I envy you your journey. Tigrinya! What a fine way to start!

  18. the language you know best is always the most archaic

    It’s called “Teeter’s law”, though it doesn’t appear in any of his papers.

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