Libyans in Egypt.

I’m on the final section of Toby Wilkinson’s The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt, one of the best histories of a country I’ve ever read (see this post from a few weeks ago), and I wanted to quote this passage on the incursion of the Libyans during and after the ignoble collapse of the New Kingdom; it ends with an interesting bit on linguistic change:

Under Ramesses III, the battles against the Libyans in 1182 and 1176 had been nowhere near as conclusive as the official propaganda had suggested. Behind all the triumphalism, the authorities had felt it necessary to fortify temples on the west bank of the Nile, including the king’s own Mansion of Millions of Years, with its valuable treasuries and granaries. Despite the Egyptians’ best endeavors, the Libyans who had been repelled from the western delta had simply turned southward to infiltrate the Nile Valley in Upper Egypt. The frequent attacks on Thebes during the later Ramesside Period showed the Libyans’ determination and persistence. Ramesses III had also boasted of forcing thousands of Libyan prisoners to “cross the river, bringing them to Egypt,” where they were settled in fortified camps (“strongholds of the victorious king”), branded with the pharaoh’s name, and forcibly acculturated: “He makes their speech disappear and changes their tongues, so that they set out on a path they have not gone down before.” Yet the integration had often been only superficial, and sizeable concentrations of Libyans around the entrance to the Fayum and along the edges of the western delta had resolutely hung on to their ethnic identity, forming distinctive communities within the local Egyptian population. By the reign of Ramesses V, a land survey of Middle Egypt noted a substantial proportion of people with foreign names. The Libyans were by now well ensconced. A generation later, a boisterous community that had settled in the central delta near the town of Per-hebit (modern Behbeit el-Hagar) was causing the Egyptian authorities particular concern. During the course of the Ramesside Period, Egypt had unintentionally become a country of two cultures, in which a large ethnic minority made its presence increasingly felt.

Of all the country’s institutions, the army had felt the impact of Libyan immigration most acutely. The Egyptian military had a long and proud tradition of employing foreign mercenaries, and had therefore proved a natural, and popular, career choice for many Libyan settlers. Whether manning remote desert garrisons or fighting on campaign, Libyan soldiers had served their adopted country with loyalty and distinction throughout the second half of the Twentieth Dynasty. Moreover, some of the more ambitious Libyan soldiers had been able to secure themselves positions of considerable influence at the heart of Egyptian government. Two such individuals were Paiankh and Herihor, the military strongmen who headed the Theban junta in the dying days of Ramesses XI’s reign.

[Read more…]

South Africa’s Kitabs.

I wrote about the Arabic-based orthographies called “Ajami” used to write various African languages back in 2009, expressing my surprise that Afrikaans had been thus written; now Alia Yunis reports on the Muslim Cape Malay families who own books, called kitabs (kitab means ‘book’ in Arabic), written in Arabic letters:

Even after the official end of slavery in 1834, and prior to apartheid forcing the separation of people by race in 1948, Cape Muslims lived on the periphery of the white colonial rulers, and they remained connected through religion. During community gatherings and family lessons, a religion teacher or family member would write and read from kitabs, which mostly contained Qur’anic lessons and sermons. […]

After some encouragement, we convince [92-year-old Abdiyah Da Costa] to go to the closet in her bedroom and dig out her family’s kitabs. There are two books, each handwritten by her father, and two older, yellowing books that are not mere copybooks but gracefully written, elegantly bound tomes in the practiced handwriting of religious teachers. One is in Jawi, a Southeast Asian language that uses Arabic script. The other one is especially rare: Dated 1871, it is one of the few remaining kitabs in Arabic Afrikaans.

Afrikaans, which today is one of 11 official languages of South Africa, is derived largely from Dutch, as the Dutch East India Company established Cape Town (and later all of South Africa) as a stopping-point colony until the Dutch government was forced to hand it over to the British in 1814. In addition, Afrikaans also carries influences from Malay, English, Portuguese and Khoi, an indigenous language. And the first time Afrikaans was written down—possibly as early as 1820—was with the Arabic script, mostly for lesson writing in kitabs.

Dutch linguist Adrianus van Selms coined the term “Arabic Afrikaans” in the early 1950s upon discovering manuscripts in Arabic script but with Afrikaans words. The oldest existing one is Uiteensetting van die Godsdiens (An Exposition of Religion) written in 1869 by Islamic scholar Abu Bakr Effendi. Linguists believe that although there may have been earlier Arabic Afrikaans publications, the first usage of Arabic Afrikaans, and thus the first written Afrikaans, appeared in homegrown kitabs. Afrikaans was not taught in schools until it became an official state language in 1925.

We ask Abdiyah to read for us from the Arabic Afrikaans kitab. She agrees and puts on her glasses. But then she wavers, becomes overwhelmed, a little frazzled. “No, no, it’s been too long,” she says. “I’m not so fluent. I can’t. No.” It’s a firm no. She only agrees to read us a poem she has written in memory of her husband. She’s tired now. It is time for us to go.

The piece is full of touching stories and striking photographs. Thanks, Trevor!

Persian-Language Manuscripts Now Online.

Good news from the Library of Congress:

In celebration of the Persian New Year, also known as Nowruz, the Library of Congress has digitized and made available online for the first time the Rare Persian-Language Manuscript Collection, which sheds light on scientific, religious, philosophical and literary topics that are highly valued in the Persian speaking lands. This collection, including 150 manuscripts with some dating back to the 13th century, also reflects the diversity of religious and confessional traditions within the Persian culture. […]

The unique manuscripts feature beautifully illuminated anthologies of poetry by classic and lesser known poets, written in fine calligraphic styles and illustrated. It includes the Shahnamah, an epic poem that recounts the history of pre-Islamic Persia. Also, it contains the most beloved poems of the Persian poets Saadi, Hafez, Rumi and Jami, along with works of the poet Nizami Ganjavi. […] In addition to the manuscripts, the Library will expand the Rare Persian-language Collection with lithographs, early imprint book and Islamic book bindings in the following months.

Keep up the good work!

Perhaps of more immediate use to those of us who don’t read Persian: Curated and Randomly Generated Selections from the Library of Congress. Every time you refresh, you get a new batch of links, so if something looks interesting it’s best to open it in a new tab if there are others you want to investigate. I was intrigued by the title “More borrowings,” and it turned out to be a collection of quotable quotes Compiled by Ladies of the First Unitarian Church of Oakland, California and published in 1891. Warning: time sink!

Alternative Translations.

Stuart Gillespie, author of the forthcoming Classical Presences: Newly Recovered English Classical Translations, 1600–1800, summarizes some of his research for OUPblog:

Thanks to increasing scholarly interest, we understand the history of literary translation in English better today than we did only a couple of decades ago. Bibliographical tools have appeared, historical narratives have been published (the weightiest of them the five-volume Oxford History of Literary Translation in English), and critical studies are no longer restricted to a small number of high-profile writers. But the record of printed translation on which this understanding is based reflects only part of the historical phenomenon, and not necessarily a representative part. Translations that never reached a printer may hold as much interest for us as those which were widely read in their own day, and in some cases more. One example recently printed for the first time is the English translation of the Latin epic poem of Lucretius, De rerum natura, by the civil war period writer Lucy Hutchinson. This shows us very clearly how someone quite different from any published translator of Lucretius responded to his epic. Hutchinson may well be its very earliest English translator. Hutchinson was a Puritan, Lucretius was renowned as an atheist. Like all Lucretius’s other translators, Hutchinson was a capable Latinist; but unlike them, she was a woman. […]

Translating a Greek or Latin verse text was an exercise in which a surprising number of people indulged. Some of them are anonymous. Some belong to social groups previously not much in evidence in the record. Writings by more familiar figures can be recovered too. The private diaries of Warren Hastings, the eighteenth-century statesman, contain remarkable translations of Catullus which Hastings never published. An impressive English version of part of a Horatian epistle appearing in two contemporary manuscripts is likely to have been written by Ben Jonson, the poet and playwright contemporary with Shakespeare.

Plenty of schoolroom translation exercises are certainly extant, but so is much sophisticated work by adults – their translations are often not the amateurish productions we might expect. They are frequently responses to the professional printed translations with which they are familiar, but these responses can be questioning or testing, undercutting, subversive, hostile. They tend to be in some way alternative because, after all, a reader entirely happy with existing translations would have no reason to devote time to creating another. Thus different Catulluses, different Juvenals, different Horaces emerge here from those we know in the familiar or classic English versions. One reason for this must be that innovation, experiment, playfulness, and risk-taking are much more likely to happen among translators who do not have to satisfy a publisher who commissioned their work, and have no public to avoid offending.

By the eighteenth century, English-speaking readers acquired the habit of seeing the world in terms of the ancient works with which they had become so familiar. This familiarity came about partly through a heavily Latin-based education. But it also came about through the burgeoning production of English classical translation, by now at the very forefront of literary endeavour and prestige. What we have not understood until now is how energetically, and with what creativity and sophistication, these readers participated in that production themselves.

I approve of this kind of democratizing research.

Sharjah Historical Dictionary of Arabic.

The National (UAE) reports on what is definitely a good idea:

Sharjah is compiling a landmark historical record charting 17 centuries of development in the Arabic language. The Historical Dictionary of the Arabic Language will look at how the world’s fifth most widely spoken language, as well as Arab culture, has grown. News of the project was set out at the Arabic Language and Culture Festival in Milan by Dr Mohamed Safi Al Mosteghanemi, secretary general of Sharjah’s Arabic Language Academy. […]

Its contents will chronicle Arabic language and culture from the past 17 centuries in three research stages – old inscriptions, the Semitic branch of languages with a focus on Arabic, as well as the practical use of the language. It will encompass five ages: pre-Islamic, Islamic (Umayyad and Abbasid), separatist dynasties, the Mamluk Sultanate, and modern history. More than 300 senior Arabic researchers and linguists, editors and experts divided into nine committees in nine countries are working on the creation of the dictionary, and that the editing committee sits at the Union of Arab Scientific Language Academies’ premises in Cairo, Egypt. […]

“There are many dictionaries in the Arab world, but none as comprehensive as this one, which documents the history and evolution of all Arabic words,” Dr Al Mosteghanemi told an audience. “This project faced challenges, especially those that were related to its massive scale. The historian or linguist cannot build on specific references and leave others. They should not include books on literature and its genres and ignore books on philosophy, history and other sciences.” […] He said the project entails the development of a Digital Language Registry along with the physical dictionary.

But there’s already a Doha Historical Dictionary of the Arabic Language, which launched a web portal last year (and which I posted about in 2013); I don’t know if there are any links between the projects, or if this represents a pointless duplication of effort. Anybody know? (Thanks, Trevor!)

Tocharian C.

Douglas Q. Adams reports at the Log on an exciting development (to those of us who are excited by Indo-European linguistics), the confirmation of a third Tocharian language:

For over a hundred years now linguists have known of a small Indo-European family comprised of two closely related languages, Tocharian A and Tocharian B, in the Tarim Basin of eastern Central Asia (Chinese Xinjiang). Tocharian B speakers occupied the northern edge of the Tarim Basin, north of the Tarim River, from its origin at the confluence of the Kashgar and Yarkand rivers eastward to about the halfway point to the Tarim’s disappearance into Lop Nor. Politically Tocharian B speakers were certainly the major constituent of the population of the kingdom of Kucha and natively they called the language (in its English form) Kuchean. To the east-north-east, in the Karashahr Basin, were speakers of Tocharian A, centered around Yanqi (Uighur Karashahr, Sanskrit Agni). On the basis of the Sanskrit name this language is sometimes referred to as Agnean, though we do not have any direct or conclusive evidence as to what the speakers themselves called it. To the east-south-east of Kuqa, along the lower Tarim was the historic kingdom of Kroraina (Chinese Loulan < Han Chinese *glu-glân). The administrative language of Loulan was Gandhari Prakrit, obviously imported into the Tarim Basin along with Buddhism from northwestern India. In documents of the Loulan variety of Gandhari Prakrit are non-Gandhari words that have been attributed to the native language of the area. Some of those non-Gandhari words look like Tocharian (e.g., kilme ‘region’ beside TchB kälymiye ‘direction’) and it has seemed a reasonable hypothesis that the native language of Kroraina/Loulan was another Tocharian language, “Tocharian C.” (That the native language of Loulan was Tocharian was first suggested by Thomas Burrow in his The Language of the Kharoṣṭhī Documents from Chinese Turkestan, 1937.) This is a reasonable hypothesis, for which the evidence is admittedly meager, and many have been (reasonably) dubious or unconvinced.

However, in December 2018 Hempen Verlag of Bremen published Klaus T. Schmidt, Nachgelassene Schriften, edited by Stefan Zimmer. One of the two Nachlass documents was an examination of some ten heretofore ignored texts written in the Kharoṣṭhī alphabet, clearly associated with Loulan, in an obviously Tocharian language that is neither Tocharian A nor Tocharian B. […] This new data firmly establishes the existence of a Tocharian language in the Lop Nor Basin. A rather similar hypothesis, that there was a Tocharian-speaking population in the Gansu Corridor, known to the Chinese as the Yuezhi, is hardly proved by this new data, but it is rendered a bit more plausible in that now we can imagine an unbroken chain of Tocharian languages from the upper Tarim into the Gansu Corridor. The Yuezhi of course, driven from their home by the Xiongnu in the second century BC, migrated to western Central Asia where, ultimately, they were known to the classical world as the Tókharoi. The latter’s name was extended by early investigators (particularly Friedrich W. K .Müller in 1907) to the newly discovered languages of the Tarim Basin (A and B) under the mistaken idea that these peoples represented an eastward reflux of the Tókharoi. This reasoning was clearly wrong, but, if the Yuezhi should happen to have spoken a variety of Tocharian, the name may actually have some historical justification. The classical Tókharoi are now known to have spoken an Iranian language, but it’s quite possible that the incoming Yuezhi (whatever their original language) came to speak the language of the earlier inhabitants of their new home. (Compare the French who today speak a Romance language but whose [partial] ancestors, the Franks, were speakers of Germanic, or the Bulgarians who speak a Slavic language but whose [partial] ancestors, the Bulgars, spoke a variety of Turkic.) Further information and discussion, focusing on the linguistic data and issues, will appear in my review of the book to be published in the Journal of Indo-European Studies.

(Tocharian previously at LH.)


From Lev Oborin’s FB post I learned about a delightful phenomenon, the spread via graffiti of the enigmatic word едодой [edodoi] across the streets of Krasnodar and then via social media throughout the Russian-speaking world, even turning up in the US scrawled next to a Trump Tower. There were plaintive tweets like “Так, а вы знаете, кто такой ЕДОДОЙ? Почему он везде пишет?” [So, do you know what this EDODOI is? Why is it written everywhere?] One person suggested it might be an ad for a pizza chain, another thought it was a mythical bird of the Kuban marshland. You can see many such questions and hypotheses, as well as lots of images, at Maria Vlasova’s Medialeaks write-up, where she quotes the solution to the riddle, as provided by Prost Post of Krasnodar:

На самом деле слово «едодой» (или «одедодой») означает «Это да!» ( «Вот это да!») Существуют и другие интерпретации перевода. Почему? Потому что это слово пошло из новояза, который придумал переводчик и поэт Валерий Нугатов.
В этой белиберде и смесь языков советского пространства, и элементы шифрования, и протест, — как говорят поклонники автора.
На его странице в фейсбуке можно наблюдать, как фанаты перекидываются односложными фразами секретного новояза, который, если приноровиться, легко поддаётся пониманию. Делают они это со скуки или всерьёз — неизвестно.

In reality, the word edodoi (or odedodoi) means Eto da! (Vot eto da!) [exclamation of enthusiasm and/or amazement that could be rendered “how about that!” or “that’s really something!”]. There exist other interpretations of the translation as well. Why? Because the word came out of the newspeak invented by the translator and poet Valery Nugatov.
In this nonsense and mixture of languages of the Soviet space there are elements of both encryption and protest, say the author’s admirers.
On his Facebook page you can see how fans toss at each other terse phrases of the secret newspeak which, if you accustom yourself to them, are easily understood. Whether they do this out of boredom or seriously is unknown.

Not only is it satisfying to learn the solution (I am not one of those who prefers mysteries to answers), I learned the word новояз, translating Orwell’s Newspeak; the first citation in the Национальный корпус русского языка is from Гибель Джонстауна [The destruction/death of Jonestown] (1978-1980)
by Boris Vakhtin (son of the writer Vera Panova [thanks, Alex!]): “В этом тумане, среди неясностей, недоговоренностей, неконкретностей растет и развивается безликий, безнациональный, неукорененный и неплодный «новояз» («ньюспик»), тот «язык», в котором слово «мир» означает «война», слово «счастье» ― «горе», «совесть» ― «обман»…” [In this fog, among unclearness, unspokenness, lack of concreteness, there grows and develops a featureless, nationless, rootless, and fruitless “newspeak,” that “language” in which the word “peace” means “war,” the word “happiness” “grief,” “conscience” “deceit”…].

To quote Gregory of Tours, “a great many things keep happening, some good, some bad” [cum nonnullae res gererentur vel rectae vel inprobae] and to my mind edodoi is one of the good things.

No Man’s Land.

James Pickford reports for the Financial Times on a fascinating discovery:

A 4,500-year-old marble pillar that has lain in the basement of the British Museum for 150 years has been revealed as the first recorded account of a conflict over a disputed border — and the earliest known instance of word play. […] Deciphered only this year by Irving Finkel, a curator in the Middle East department of the British Museum, it describes a long-running and bloody dispute over a lush tract of land claimed by the rival city states of Lagash and Umma, the first prolonged border conflict in recorded history.

Created by the rulers of Lagash as a boundary marker, it is also a political weapon invoking historical precedent and the will of their god Ningirsu to lay claim to the land. The scribe who chiselled it took this a stage further by doctoring the stone to make it look older and employing inventive word play that cast the city state’s nighbours in a bad light. Where the god’s name is normally expressed with the signs “Nin”, “Gir” and “Su”, the scribe replaced some of the conventional symbols with the word for god — ramming home the divinity of Ningirsu through repetition. When it comes to the rival god of the enemy Umma people, however, the signs that spell the god’s name are messy, sprawling and virtually illegible. […]

The ancient scribe had employed an early version of fake news, to bolster Lagash’s historical claim to the border. Mr Finkel discovered that the surface of the marble had been treated so it appeared eroded by the passage of time. The scribe had also used a style of writing that was redolent of a much earlier era, when the written Sumerian language was shifting from pictograms to cuneiform. “The scribe who produced this text was at the same time giving the impression that the underlying text was older than the contemporary time,” said Mr Finkel. “It’s a multi-faceted thing.”

Alongside other artefacts from Mesopotamia, as well as contemporary works, it will go on show on Thursday in a display called “No Man’s Land” (another expression that appears for the first time on the Lagash pillar).

Unrelated, The 50 Best Slaughterhouse-Five Covers from Around the World by Emily Temple at LitHub. It’s fun to see if you can identify the languages from the covers!


I just got back from the Amherst Cinema showing of Solaris in its Tarkovsky retrospective, and my reaction surprised me. Last Sunday I saw Andrei Rublev, which I had seen several times before and always liked, and liked even more now that I understood everything that was going on (having done some intensive reading). For Solaris I prepared by finally reading the Stanisław Lem novel it was based on; I’d been avoiding it both because the English translation (from French, not the original Polish) isn’t supposed to be very good and because I hadn’t liked any of the Lem I’d dipped into — it all seemed to be the kind of heavily ironical social satire that does nothing for me. I solved the first problem by reading Bruskin’s Russian translation, and I found myself enjoying it tremendously; Lem goes on a bit too long sometimes with his detailed descriptions of the phenomena created by the Solaris ocean, but otherwise it’s a well-thought-out and traditional sf novel, with both suspense and philosophical interest. Thanks to my reading, I finally understood all the bits of the movie that had confused me on previous viewings, but I also understood Lem’s irritation with the result: Tarkovsky’s vision (humanistic, emphasizing the vital importance of love and culture, with lots of Bach and Brueghel plus the occasional horse) is irreconcilable with Lem’s (scientific, emphasizing the importance of not succumbing to sentiment in trying to understand the universe). There’s nothing wrong with humanism, of course, but the attempt to impose it on refractory material renders it incoherent here, so I actually enjoyed the movie less than I had on previous viewings. The final scene is still spectacular and spine-chilling, though.

A linguistic note: the subtitles on the print shown were generally good, but when a drunk Snaut tells Kelvin they should open the manholes in the floor and holler down at the ocean, his “Вдруг услышит” (‘Maybe it will hear’ or ‘What if it hears?’) is rendered “It will suddenly hear.” The subtitler didn’t realize that вдруг ‘suddenly’ can also be used for hypothetical suppositions.


Having finished Bunin’s Суходол [Dry Valley, also translated Drydale (name of estate)], an amazing, Faulkneresque novella about life at the Khrushchovs’ country estate in the 1850s as remembered by their former servant Natashka (who was madly in love with one of the Khrushchov sons), I started on the 1912 story Игнат [Ignat (name of character)], and quickly ran across a difficult word (there are lots of them in Bunin): “За ней, смеясь и что-то крича, выбежал на крыльцо, на тающий снег, Николай Кузьмич, приземистый, большеголовый, с тупым и властным профилем, в косоворотке из белого ластика и лакированных сапогах” [Behind her, laughing and shouting something, Nikolai Kuzmich ran out onto the porch, into the melting snow — thickset, bigheaded, with an obtuse and masterful profile, in a shirt made of white lastik and patent-leather boots]. The only ластик I was familiar with was a word for ‘(rubber) eraser,’ which was obviously not right here; fortunately, my Oxford dictionary had an entry for a different ластик, but it was defined as “(material) lasting,” which meant nothing to me. Again fortunately, Merriam-Webster includes the sense in their entry: “a sturdy cotton or worsted cloth used especially in shoes and luggage.” The OED (in an entry updated in September 2014) defines it as “A durable kind of cloth; spec. a strong worsted fabric formerly used for clothing and for the uppers of shoes (more fully lasting cloth)” and has a range of citations from 1748 (Gen. Advertiser 9 June Lastings, Shalloons, Fustians, Cottons, &c.) to 2000 (D. A. Farnie & T. Abe in D. A. Farnie et al. Region & Strategy in Brit. & Japan iv. 138 After the war Japan crowned its victory by surpassing Britain in the supply of lastings from 1918, of Italians from 1924 and of sateens from 1925). The one that struck me was this:

1993 D. L. Ransel tr. O. S. Tian-Shanskaia Village Life in Late Tsarist Russia iv. 56 On holidays, the men..wear cotton shirts, trousers of lasting cloth, [etc.].

The original Russian, if you’re curious (as of course I was), is: “На мужиках домашнего производства будничный костюм: рубаха, портки, онучи, лапти, поддевка, тулуп, а в праздник мужик (особенно молодой) надевает ситцевую рубаху, ластиковые шаровары, жилетку (иногда пиджак и калоши даже) и сапоги бутылками.” So now I know what it is (though I don’t really have a mental image of it, since I’ve never paid much attention to cloth and don’t know worsted except as a word where you don’t pronounce the -r-), but since it doesn’t seem to have been in use since WWI, it’s odd (though lucky for me) that the Oxford dictionary bothered to include it. Are any of you familiar with this sense of lasting?