Linguistic Diversity of Ancient Arabia.

I don’t often recommend podcasts, but “Episode 82: What Writing Can Tell Us About the Arabs before Islam” of the University of Texas at Austin’s “15 Minute History” series was so interesting I listened to the whole thing and wished there were more. Host Christopher Rose, of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies, interviews Ahmad al-Jallad of the University of Leiden; among the topics discussed are inscriptions from Najd and Hijaz that we can’t read, in languages that were very different from Arabic and don’t have modern descendants (farther north, in Jordan and Syria, the language was much closer to Arabic); the language of Tayma, which has a striking similarity to Aramaic and Hebrew as against Arabic; the transition from South Semitic script to “Arabic” script, which comes with the Nabataean kingdom (which spoke Arabic but administered in Aramaic) in the 3rd-5th centuries — it was essentially a transition to a cursive script, which implies writing with ink (it developed in an administration tradition, where the texts were very formulaic, so you don’t need full writing; by contrast, South Arabian script was used for memorial purposes and graffiti, not administration); the myth of the “isolation” of Arabic, especially among nomads (in fact there are bilingual inscriptions in Old Arabic and Greek); the fact that the Koran, unlike other early Arabic writings, does not show marks of Aramaic (e.g. bar ‘son’); and the need to explain the Arabicization of Arabia — a question that couldn’t have been asked a couple of centuries ago. It’s only a quarter of an hour long, and well worth your while. Thanks, Trevor!

(A point of interest in terms of English linguistics is the frequent use of “so” to begin responses; this is almost ubiquitous these days, but I mention it for the benefit of those who aren’t aware of the phenomenon or want a convenient source of examples.)


  1. Jim (another one) says

    “A point of interest in terms of English linguistics is the frequent use of “so” to begin responses; this is almost ubiquitous these days,”

    This sounds very new to me and I like it. It is a very natural and necessary discourse particle. The only think close to it for opening a sentence is “[I] say..” and that is for bringing up a topic instead of responding to or continuing one.

  2. Yeah, when I first started hearing it I disliked it (presumably out of sheer fogyism), but it’s growing on me.

  3. I’m almost your contemporary and it’s always seemed completely natural to me. But then we differ on fun too.

  4. Sentence-initial “so” is a continuity scam. It is intended to suggest that what has been said, and the new sentence, are logically coherent.

  5. David Marjanović says

    Correct 🙂

  6. My favorite example of “So,” starting a chain of thought comes from Fred Saberhagen’s The Broken Lands*, where it does a pretty good job of conveying the villain’s intelligence. I blogged about it at

    * If you want to read these books (which are really excellent), please take the trouble to find the original three books. The one-volume omnibus edition is heavily edited, and the third book suffers a lot from the modifications.

  7. Rodger C says

    Seamus Heaney famously started his Beowulf with “So.”

  8. But that’s different. (This is one reason it’s so hard to talk about this development; sentence-initial “so” has been around forever, but used differently.) Heaney was using it to carry semantic weight, and the standard use (“so you’re saying…”) also carries semantic weight, implying a logical conclusion. The innovative use has no such weight; it’s simply a marker of a change of speaker (like “over” in voice procedure, except used by the new speaker).

  9. Jim (another one) says

    “The innovative use has no such weight; it’s simply a marker of a change of speaker (like “over” in voice procedure, except used by the new speaker).”

    I don’t get that sense. The sense I get is that it marks a response to the previous utterance from the interlocutor. In this way it resembles the use of “Right,…” at the beginning of an utterance, which signals that you are going to start talking. It’s English for “Anno…”

  10. In what way would the response differ if the “So” had been omitted? You yourself say it “signals that you are going to start talking,” which was exactly my point.

  11. Greg Pandatshang says

    OT (not about “So”): I happen to be in the middle of a short paper that Kees Veersteegh recently uploaded to, “From Classical Arabic to the modern Arabic vernaculars”: … it’s very entertaining!

  12. Thanks!

  13. Greg Pandatshang says

    I have not much interest in adding epicycles to salvage Christoph Luxenberg’s Syro-Aramaic theory, but how about one epicycle? The Qurʾān proclaims that it is in “pure” Arabic. This could mean that somebody protests too much. Perhaps an early editor was aware of its Aramaic provenance and went through and “fixed” some of the most obvious Aramaicisms (e.g. “bar” for son), while leaving its pervasive Aramaic structure mostly intact.

  14. Thanks! I’ve replaced the link in the post (dead after only five years, bah).

  15. I hope they just forgot to pay for it in time. But as I am reading it on archive now, it would be stupid not to post the link. To my surprise, the audio is working. I checked and it turns out that the file is

  16. In the second half, after the picture “Greco-Arabic script” every second sentence in every paragraph begins with so. [word]-[position within the paragraph]: now-2 so-2 so-2 so-2 so-2 so-2 so-4 so-3

  17. Ha, so it does!

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