This one’s for the surprisingly stable number of people who haven’t noticed that this blog went mysteriously dark around the twenty-fifth post. I love you people.
Comparative linguistics pt. 1.
Now, I just found out about this one by coincidence, so I’m not able to promise that this is the actual first attested work of comparative linguistics. Knowing what we know, as a blog, together, it is pretty easy to guess that some dude in China did it first. (“How interesting, all these languages share some traits but don’t seem to have regular patterns of similarity! Probably that is because we in China are the center of a sprachbund. Now on the facing page, I will be discussing the development of rocket ships.”)
But it’s pretty cool anyway. See, Semitic languages in the 10th century had diverged a long time ago, but unlike lots of other language families, they were still spoken in close cultural and geographic proximity to each other. Hebrew had already died out, Aramaic was splintering into dialects used in every register from the priestly to the interethnic vernacular, and Arabic was coming into global dominance, but people were still reading commentaries that had been translated from Aramaic into Arabic on Hebrew texts and talking about them in Ge’ez. If you were a globally minded dude, and it was hard not to be globally minded in the Muslim world considering its strong effort at taking over the, uh, globe, you noticed some similarities.
So first we have Yehudah ibn Quraysh, the rabbi in Algeria in the early 900s who wrote a letter to his contemporaries freaking out because people weren’t studying Aramaic anymore. This would ruin the Bible, he explained, because the Bible was absolutely FULL UP on Aramaic expressions, or ones that were clearer if you ran ‘em through Arabic Google Translate first. This is true, by the way; the Old Testament certainly does have a strong Aramaic influence, including at least half of one entire History. The scientific part comes in when he notes that in many of Arabic’s strangest expressions there’s a ton of Hebrew
to the point that there is no difference between the Hebrew and the Arabic except the interchange of ṣād and ḍād, and gīmel and jīm, and ṭet and đ̣ā’, and `ay(i)n and ghayn, and ḥā’ and khā’, and zāy and dhāl
thereby reconstructing the main points of Hebrew and Arabic sound change a thousand years before linguistics did it.
But that’s not all, true believers! (Continued in part 2.)