Inventing Mandaic.

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.


  1. In another very interesting post (August 14, 2014), Prof. Häberl discusses the Peacock Angel of the Yezidi religion and the early attestation of a similar figure in a Mandaean text.

  2. Very dry! Perhaps Mandaeans should retaliate in kind and declare that English speakers are mispronouncing English every time they fail to enunciate a silent e.

  3. It’s a great blog; I just wish he’d update more often (a complaint I have about many of my favorite blogs). He went on a posting binge at the end of last year, but posted only once in all of 2015!

  4. I don’t understand how these pseudo-historical spellings are consistent with the notion that “at all times and in all places, native speakers of Mandaic wrote their language exactly as they spoke it”.

  5. David Eddyshaw says

    Consistent if the sense of “exactly as they spoke it” is syntax and vocabulary, and perhaps morphology; after all, no language has a writing system which is exactly phonemic in all circumstances.

    Part of the background to this is that earlier foreign investigators of Mandaic had a pronounced tendency to regard contemporary spoken Mandaic as just a debased version of the language of the old texts.

    I currently actually have a Mandaean trainee; disappointingly, she does not speak Mandaic (though she does speak English, Persian and Arabic), but she remembers the prayers in Mandaic she was taught as a child.

  6. Wow, that’s great!

  7. Phil Jennings says

    Googling on the word ‘philologasty,’ I scrolled through the images and saw pages of ‘Romeo and Juliet’ translated into what certainly looks to be Mandaic, written in Roman script using the same conventions elsewhere displayed in the blog. This is a wonderful thing to contemplate.

  8. ‘Philologastry.’ Looking deeper, this translation is discussed in Jabal al-Lughat, where the issue is whether it’s Levantine Arabic or Aramaic. So it’s not Mandaic. Which and how many sacred languages has Shakespeare been translated into?

  9. I wonder how you’d say “To be or not to be” in Sumerian.

  10. Dunno about Shakespeare, but I am proud to own a volume of translations of a Jeeves story, “The Great Sermon Handicap”, into a variety of languages including Arabic, Aramaic, Coptic, Hebrew, and Sanskrit…

  11. Wow! Who published it?

  12. Heineman. Vol. 5 of 6: Here, on Ama***. Oh my God: “The story has been translated into 57 languages and all of them published in a 6-volume set by J.H. Heineman, New York, in 1989. v.1. In English. Phonetic English. Latin. French. Spanish. Italian. Brazilian Portuguese . Romanian. Catalan. Romansch. v.2. In English. Chaucerian English. Dutch. Flemish. Afrikaans. Frisian. German. Middle High German. Low German. Luxembourgish. Yiddish. Swiss German. Phonetic English. v.4. In English. Esperanto. Pidgin. Kréol. Papiamentu. Finnish. Hungarian. Basque. Romani Kalderash. Welsh. Breton. Irish Gaelic. Scots Gaelic. Phonetic English. v.5. In English. Sanskrit. Armenian. Arabic. Maltese. Ancient Hebrew. Modern Hebrew. Aramaic. Amharic. Somali. Coptic. Phonetic English. v.6. In English. Czech. Polish. Russian. White Russian. Ukrainian. Bulgarian. Macedonian. Serbo-Croatian. Slovenian. Slovakian. Phonetic English.”

  13. David Eddyshaw says

    Jīvaḥ strikes me as a good, upbeat Sanskrit name for a gentleman’s gentleman.

  14. ə de vivre says

    I wonder how you’d say “To be or not to be” in Sumerian.

    Are you laying traps for me on purpose? In Sumerian “to be” is usually translated with an enclitic that doesn’t really have an infinitive form. A less literal way of saying it might be:

    til-am, nu-til-am. entar-ud-a ur-am

    That would be more along the lines of, “as for living, as for not living. that is the thing to be asked”.

  15. I like it! I look forward to seeing it staged, with ziggurats in the background.

  16. ə de vivre says

    Who could forget the tale of Ḫamlet dumu-lugal of Ur who, upon returning home from tablet-house in Nippur, is visited by the gidim of his father? Something’s rotten in the land of the black-headed people!

  17. Something is rotten in the kingdom of Larak.

  18. David Marjanović says

    Sudden awesomeness.

  19. Hamlet in Sumerian? Hmm, well, that would explain this…

  20. Pretty sure “HARD.TO.PARSE.PARTICIPLE.THINGY” ought to be added to the Leipzig Glossing Rules list.

    > Who published it?

    James H. Heineman, Inc., New York.

  21. Poor Richard’s Almanack’s “Write with the learned, pronounce
    with the vulgar” is apposite here.

  22. “The Great Sermon Handicap”, into a variety of languages

    in six volumes.

  23. in six volumes — the 57 (58?) languages are also listed in slightly more detail at TFoAK.

    The bulk of it must be commercial translations aimed at speakers of the languages in question, but there are items like Middle High German which I doubt any commercial publisher would pay for.

    The only Indo-Iranian languages in the list are Sanskrit and Romany. Is that because everybody from Kurdistan to Bangladesh who is in the market for Wodehouse prefers to read him in English?

  24. David Eddyshaw says

    The (so far sole) customer review is very positive; I like his “in Maltese or Papiamentu, or even French.”

  25. Since Middle High German and Old Norse are included, I doubt the preferences of readers (as in “I’ve always wanted to read Wodehouse, let me find a nice edition”) are much of an issue.

  26. ə de vivre says

    It looks like the volumes are grouped by (rough) geographical region with a tilt towards the small and ancient. My guess is that the general distribution of languages reflects a core of commercial translations from when someone noticed, “hey this story has been translated into several languages”, and then proceeded to fill in the rest with as many obscure (from a Western European point of view) languages as they could muster.

  27. Jimmy Heineman was the son of Dannie Heineman, the industrialist. His association with Wodehouse resulted in an exhibition at the Morgan Library and a sale at Sotheby’s.

  28. But for obscurity from a WE viewpoint Telugu or Kannada would serve just fine, if Hindi doesn’t make the cut. No Chinese or Japanese either, come to think of it, and it’s hard to believe that no translations exist. Is it possible that more volumes were planned, one for Asia for instance?

  29. Tamaki Morimura (森村 たまき) has translated many Wodehouse books into Japanese, including a couple in manga form. She wrote about it in the “Lost in Translation” number of ALSo and it was reprinted in Plum Lines, here.

    I believe all were after Heineman was dead.

  30. Mandäische Handschriften vollständig digitalisiert. Via Slavomír Čéplö (bulbul)’s Facebook post, q.v. for relevant comments.

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