Latin-speaking Muslims in Medieval Africa.

Lameen Souag has a fascinating post at Jabal al-Lughat about an unexpected survival of spoken African Latin:

In his recent book La langue berbère au Maghreb médiéval (p. 313), Mohamed Meouak uncovers a short recorded example of spoken African Latin from between these two periods, which otherwise seems to have escaped notice so far.

The 11th-century Ibadi history of Abu Zakariyya al-Warjlani, he gives a brief biography of the Rustamid governor Abu Ubayda Abd al-Hamid al-Jannawni (d. 826), who lived in the Nafusa Mountains of northwestern Libya. Before assuming his position, this future governor swore an oath:

Bi-llaahi (by God) in Arabic, and bar diyuu in town-language (بالحضرية), and abiikyush in Berber, I shall entrust the Muslims’ affairs only to a person who says: “I am only a weak being, I am only a weak being.”

In al-Shammakhi’s later retelling, the languages are named as Arabic, Ajami, and Berber (بلغة العرب وبلغة العجم وبلغة البربر). As Mohamed Meouak correctly though hesitantly notes, diyuu must be Deo; he leaves bar uninterpreted, but it is equally clearly Latin per, making the expression an exact translation of Arabic bi-llaahi. The Berber form is probably somewhat miscopied, but seems to include the medieval Berber word for God, Yuc / Yakuc.

The earliest Romance text is the Old French part of the Oaths of Strasbourg, made in 842 and opening Pro Deo amur… “for the love of God”. The Ibadi phrase recorded above curiously echoes this, although it predates it by several decades.

There is speculation in the comments on what African Latin would be like if it had survived; Hugelmann Alexis writes that “Martin Posthumus, a conlanger (language inventor) imagined such a descendant of North African Romance which he named ‘Tunisian’ :”


  1. J.W. Brewer says:

    The much-later 12th century survival referenced in an earlier post is maybe substantially more surprising than this instance. The Arab conquest of that approximate chunk of North Africa from the Byzantines was not complete until circa A.D. 700, so barely a century before a fellow who died in 826 (and took the relevant oath who knows how much earlier in his life?) would have been there. Periods of Arab/Muslim rule much longer than a single century did not eliminate the local Romance vernacular in Spain, Sicily, etc., so I’m not sure when one would have expected North African Romance to finally completely disappear in the ordinary course of things, but not necessarily as early as 826.

  2. J.W. Brewer says:

    Perhaps not unrelatedly, see this brief summary of evidence that a smallish-but-non-zero Christian minority remained present in the Maghreb for more centuries after the Arab conquests than one might have supposed. Obviously in places like Egypt and Syria where the Christian minority never disappeared they eventually almost all switched over from their ancestral languages to Arabic as their L1 (with Coptic and Aramaic being preserved largely in specialized religious millieus), but that was a slow process that I believe remained uncompleted well into the second millenium.

  3. marie-lucie says:

    Very interesting! Thanks Lameen.

    As Mohamed Meouak correctly though hesitantly notes, diyuu must be Deo; he leaves bar uninterpreted, but it is equally clearly Latin per, making the expression an exact translation of Arabic bi-llaahi.

    To me, diyuu recalls Italian Dio rather than Latin Deo. Not that this implies Italian influence, but independent evolution in Italian and North African Latin (and in the latter, a stress shift to the final vowel, suggested by its length).

    I agree that bar must be Latin per, but I would not call bar diyuu a “translation” of the Arabic phrase, although it may have seemed so to the Arabic-speaking oath writers and takers: rather, I would call it an “equivalent” used independently in the various languages. Swearing an oath “by” the name of a deity, thus calling on the deity as a witness to the swearer’s seriousness and honesty, has been common for centuries if not millennia, at least in the Mediterranean world and the heirs to its cultures. As time went on, less serious “swearwords” replaced the name of the powerful deity by other attributes, by a distortion of the name, or (especially jocularly) by the name of a culturally significant but no longer worshipped deity (as in Italian per Bacco or English by Jove).

  4. I wouldn’t really put much stock in the phonetic particulars, since this would have been an ad hoc transcription constrained by the limits of the Arabic script. Likewise the b in bar probably stands in for p, since Arabic lacks the latter.

  5. diyuu recalls Italian Dio rather than Latin Deo

    Arabic script did not have a standard way to write e, o, as these vowels did not exist in Classical Arabic, so it is a distinction without a difference. Al-Qaeda in classicizing spelling would be Al-Qaida, and it sometimes appears that way.


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