C.G. Häberl has an extraordinarily interesting post at his blog Philologastry (which I am glad to learn about) on how Mandaic as a subject of study (as opposed to a mere tool for spoken communication) has been, and is still being, constructed. He starts out with the Slovak philologist Rudolf Macuch and his Handbook of Classical and Modern Mandaic:
Philologists are basically people who do things with words, and the primary thing that Macuch attempts to do with his Handbook is to document his personal discovery of both Classical and Modern Mandaic. In a very real sense, neither existed prior to 1965 (please bear with me on this) and he wants us to know that he was present at their making. In fact, he outlines the case that he has played a pivotal role in this making. […]
From his perspective, neither his Mandaean informants nor his scholarly colleagues were truly aware of the significance of this language, until Macuch arrived in Ahvaz to begin the laborious process of construing a discovery from these scattered finds, and thereby bring its significance to the attention of humanity (or at least that portion of humanity that reads Mandaic grammars). In order to do so, he assumes an authoritative position, that of the ultimate arbiter of linguistic norms, which requires him to subvert the authority of his informants repeatedly throughout the pages of his grammar […]
The attentive reader may well ask, what is the “correct” pronunciation of Mandaic, if not that which is used by the people who actually speak it? If I, as an American, do not employ the Queen’s English, is my language incorrect or does it actually reflect some important aspect of my own identity and its history? Obviously the latter, but equally Macuch is not incorrect, either. What he means, clearly, is that the priests are not pronouncing Mandaic correctly according to the scholarly representations of Mandaic that emerged with Nöldeke’s 1875 grammar. This representation is an entirely new scholarly enterprise, separate from but to some extent informed by Mandaic as it is understood and employed by the community, and (increasingly, as we shall see) informing this other Mandaic as well. […]
Classical languages, as opposed to texts, are those that have been elaborated by scholars over the course of generations, and standardized through the production of dictionaries and grammars, so that they can eventually be learned and employed by non-native speakers, even after they are no longer natively spoken. This is, for example, the case for classical languages like Classical Greek, Classical Latin, and Classical Hebrew, but there is no evidence that this process of elaboration had ever occurred in Mandaic, at least not before 1875. Instead, as Nöldeke notes in his grammar, at all times and in all places, native speakers of Mandaic wrote their language exactly as they spoke it (resulting in the wide spectrum of linguistic variation he noticed). It was not until the missionaries arrived that any non-native speaker attempted to learn Mandaic, let alone write it according to any such standard. The first surviving attempt, the Leiden Glossarium, faithfully reflects the language as it was spoken at the time, rather than a self-conscious literary standard, very likely because such a thing simply did not exist at the time. Thus, in a very real sense, the history of “Classical Mandaic” begins in 1875, even if it had to wait another 90 years for scholars to come up with a name for it. This explains Macuch’s repeated insistence that the ultimate authority over “Classical Mandaic” resides among western scholars such as himself, and not among the Mandaeans, whom he relegates largely to a passive role in its construction. Classical Mandaic, as it is currently constituted, is an entirely novel enterprise, and Mandaeans who contrast their own spoken language and their own understanding of their own texts against this enterprise should do so only with their eyes wide open.
I like his tone, which combines a devotion to the subject with an amused awareness of the impossibility of people ever agreeing about it, and the whole post is well worth your time (particularly the final section on pseudo-historical spellings). Many thanks to Joe in Australia, who posted it to MetaFilter.