I am curious about how languages evolve and shift.

English goes from something that doesn’t seem much like English at all-  1500 years ago-  to something that’s pretty much our contemporary English by 600 years ago.

Arabic, being of especial interest to me,  has the curious feature of one important book-  the Quran- having been written, approximately 1400 years ago- in the contemporary Arabic of that time, and considered by large segments of the population over the past millennia and half, to be the dictated word of god (as told to Mohamed via the angel Gabriel)-  and thus not to be translated.  In order to appreciate the book, one must be able to understand the language.

Take a look at the Lord’s Prayer in Old English–  Old English being from approximately the same era in which the Quran was written, and the Lord’s Prayer being an object that has been translated repeatedly over time.

(this example is from here; other old english examples can be found here)

FADER USÆR ðu arðin heofnu
Sie gehalgad NOMA ÐIN.
Tocymeð RÍC ÐIN.
suæ is in heofne and in eorðo.
HLAF USERNE of’wistlic sel ús todæg,
and f’gef us SCYLDA USRA,
suæ uoe f’gefon SCYLDGUM USUM.
And ne inlæd usih in costunge,
ah gefrig usich from yfle.

There are clearly just a few words (is, in, and, us, from) that are identical to contemporary english.

And compare that to contemporary German:

Vater unser, du der bist im Himmel,
Sei dein Name geheiligt.
Komme dein Reich.
Geschehe dein Wille
auf Erden so wie im Himmel.
Unser tägliches Brot gib uns heute
Und vergib uns unsere Schuld
so wie wir vergeben unsern Schuldigern.
Und nicht führe du uns in Versuchung
sondern erlöse uns von Übel. Amen.

words identical to english: Name, Will(e)- and you can see that Old English is easily as different from contemporary English as German is now.

(Beowulf example showing the letter shapes, from Wikipedia)

here’s the Lord’s prayer in Old High German, circa 830 AD

Fater unser, thū thār bist in himile,
sī geheilagōt thīn namo,
queme thīn rīhhi,
sī thīn uuillo,
sō her in himile ist, sō sī her in erdu,
unsar brōt tagalīhhaz gib uns hiutu,
inti furlāz uns unsara sculdi
sō uuir furlāzemēs unsarēn sculdīgōn,
inti ni gileitēst unsih in costunga,
ūzouh arlōsi unsih fon ubile.

Which, from a quick glance, seems closer to contemporary German than Old English is to contemporary English.


Now fast forward.

Chaucer, 1388.

Canterbury Tales, General Prologue
Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licour
Of which vertu engendred is the flour;
Whan zephirus eek with his sweete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the ram his half cours yronne,

it looks so comprehensible, suddenly, doesn’t it?

and Shakespeare, 1620s

Sir, in my heart there was a kind of fighting
That would not let me sleep. Methought I lay
Worse than the mutines in the bilboes. Rashly—
And prais’d be rashness for it—let us know
Our indiscretion sometimes serves us well…

Hamlet, Act 5, Scene 2, 4–8[149]

Looks like plain contemporary english.

English has changed a lot over the past 14 years. There are probably 8 or 10 predominant accents of English (American, Australian, British, Indian, New Zealand and so forth into regional accents.)  But, I’d hazard, the versions of English differ less than dialects of Arabic.  English uses primarily uniform verbs, and regionalizes on nouns.  Dialectical Arabic uses different verbs, different nouns, and different accents.

Also see List of English Dialects, with the interesting note on how British and American linguists differ on what defines a dialect. It seems the Brits consider a dialect to require both vocabulary and accent changes, while the Americans consider something a dialect if differentiated by as little as accent. My original understanding of the word ‘dialect’ had aligned with the British definition, in part because of the seeming mutual un-intelligibility of Arabic dialects.

Researching this question-  “how much has Arabic shifted over the past 1000 years and was it held more stable, linguistically, by ongoing cultural interest in the Quran?” – has proved strangely tricky.  The first thing you learn when you start learning Arabic is that it’s a language of dialects- from Iraq to the Arabian Peninsula across North Africa to Morocco-  the language has dozens of dialects, and each country that holds Arabic as a primary language has a primary dialect.  But in all Arabic language countries, there is a respect for classical Arabic–  called fuṣḥá (pronounced approximately like “fus-ha” with a deep s and a breathy sounding h)- which is ultimately derived from Quranic Arabic.  The vast majority of news programs are in fuṣḥá.  In English, this version of the language is called Modern Standard Arabic, but I think this is an academization of the name, since the word ‘classical,’ in English, seems like something non-contemporary.  As far as I can tell, what academics in the US call Modern Standard Arabic is undifferentiated from fuṣḥá/ classical Arabic-  in conversations that take place in Arabic. And fuṣḥá is a learned version of the language, always in conjunction with a dialect-  at least for native speakers.  (To differentiate from, say, “Ohio-English” –  news-program-English- which wide swaths of this country actually speak.)

An example-  I speak with a Levantine accent in Arabic, because that’s the version I’ve been most exposed to. Last week, I was speaking with my friend’s elderly mother, in Arabic.  Both my friend and her mother are from Iraq, and I got to have the amusing experience of my speaking in Arabic, and having it translated into Iraqi-sounding Arabic by my friend, so her mother would better understand. (however, this translation from Arabic to Arabic could also be attributed to my non-fluency….)

So most people in an Arabic language country understand fuṣḥá and speak one or more dialects, sometimes including fuṣḥá. But practically all written language is in fuṣḥá.  Occasionally, during my Arabic classes, I’ll try to write a dialect word-  and be corrected, because those words are never written! However, no first-language Arabic speaker would speak only fuṣḥá.

{And yes, with the advent of the internet, this is changing of course.  Many of the accounts I follow on instagram are people writing and living in the Middle East-  and I see the dialects being written on screen.  But it’s probably similar in colloquialization as, I don’t know, perhaps Mark Twain.}

I took a look at some segments of the Quran in order to analyze this question:  “How much has Arabic shifted over the past 1000 years?”

The Chapters of the Quran are called sura.  The verses are called ayat.  Each ayat ranges in length from one to a few sentences long- i.e. they are short, with an easily countable number of words.  I can quickly extrapolate that, in an average ayat, I recognize and can read 70%-80% of the words-  without being fluent.  (I’m not posting all the details because, I assume, most readers of this blog are not as fascinated by Arabic specifically as I am.)

Posted by:brook delorme

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