Grammar and Lexicography

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In the period before Islam the Bedouin tribes in the Arabian peninsula held poets (sing. sha˓ir) as well as soothsayers (sing. kahin) in the highest esteem. Both delivered their message in a fixed form of meter or rhyming prose and they occupied an important position in their own tribe, while they were feared and respected by other tribes. This shows how much power was assigned to language and the spoken word in Bedouin society. When the prophet Muhammad brought the message that had been revealed to him, it was therefore only fitting that this message emphasized its sacred force by referring to the linguistic and rhetorical qualities of the revealed book: The Qur˒an was delivered in a clear, eloquent language (qur˒anan mubinan), which was the language of the Arabs. At the same time, the message emphasized the difference between the revelation and other literary productions: the Prophet was not a poet and the fact that he had never learned to read or write demonstrated the miraculous nature of the revelation.

Right from the start, the believers were concerned with the preservation of the revealed book. According to Muslim tradition, during the life of the Prophet parts of the message were written down on scraps of writing material, and the Prophet himself sometimes employed scribes to whom he dictated the revelations. It was not until the third caliph ˓Uthman (r. 644–656) that a codified text of the Qur˒an was made, the so-called mushaf. Although this codex became the canonical text for all later generations, the presence of a large number of variant readings forced the believers to concentrate not only on the contents of the text, but also on its form.

After the death of the Prophet, the Islamic conquests led to a drastic transformation, not only of pre-Islamic values and customs, but also of the language of the Arabs. The inhabitants of the conquered territories had to acquire the new language in a short period of time, and their mistakes affected Arabic to such a degree that a new type of Arabic arose, which eventually became the basis for the modern dialects. As a result of this process, which was regarded by the Arabs themselves as a process of corruption of speech (fasad allugha), the text of the Qur˒an became difficult to understand.

Because of the central place of the Qur˒an in Islamic society it is not surprising that specialists came forward in the community to help the common believers understand the text. The name most often cited in this connection is that of Ibn ˓Abbas (d. 687), but we may be sure that each city in the empire had its own experts. The earliest commentaries all shared a semantic approach, since they focused on the implications of the text for religious, legal, and ritual purposes. Yet, the existence of variant readings and the discrepancies between the language of the text and everyday vernacular speech also led to an interest in formal elements in the text as well. For instance, signaling the presence of foreign loanwords in the Qur˒an and discussing the tribal provenance of some of the lexical items were not essential for the understanding of the text, but nevertheless most of the commentaries provide such information.

Some of the earliest commentators, such as Mujahid (d. 722) and Muqatil (d. 767), used conventional terms in discussing, for instance, the various text types that are found in the Qur˒an or the vowel-endings of words. The terms for the vowel-endings, which were probably derived from the Syriac grammatical tradition, provided a starting point for later grammarians and may therefore be regarded as the beginnings of the discipline of grammar in Islam.

From Text to Language

The preoccupation with the formal properties of the text of the Qur˒an inevitably led to an interest in the structure of the language in which the revelation was couched. The sources have preserved the names of some scholars in the second century of Islam, who dealt with the Arabic language on a professional basis, not only in order to study the revealed book, but also to understand the structure of the language, to find out the qiyas al-˓arabiyya "the rules of Arabic." Since what is known about these grammarians comes only from later sources (chiefly the quotations in the first complete grammar of Arabic, Kitab Sibawayhi), it is difficult to say with any certainty what their opinions were, but so much seems to be certain that they did not hesitate to correct the text of the Qur˒an whenever they thought it was contradicted by the linguistic usage of the Bedouin.

This attitude toward the text and the language of the Qur˒an was to change with Sibawayhi (d. c. 793), a Persian, who became the first grammarian to compile a book encompassing the entire structure of the language. For Sibawayhi the text of the Qur˒an had been established once and for all by the ˓Uthmanic codex, compiled by order of the third caliph, and he did not feel the need to concern himself with the text itself. Instead, he turned to the structure of the language of the Arab Bedouin, which was assumed to be identical both with the language of the revelation and with that of the pre-Islamic poems. In his Kitab, Sibawayhi set himself a task that went beyond the explanation of the text and aimed at a much larger scope: the explanation of grammar. He dealt with all possible constructions in the language and accounted for their structural differences in terms of the different case endings found in them.

Sibawayhi introduced a framework that was truly innovative, the system of declension (i˓rab) that became one of the central notions of Arabic grammar. Nouns, and to some extent imperfect verbs, were assumed to have a series of endings whose function differed from that of the permanent end vowels of other words such as the perfect verbs or the particles. The declensional vowels were the result of the action of an ˓amil, an operator governing the case endings. This function could be performed either by a verb (e.g., in the sentence daraba zaydun ˓amran "Zayd hit ˓Amr" the verb is the operator of the nominative in the agent, zaydun, and the accusative in the object, ˓amran), or a particle (e.g., the particle fi is the operator of the genitive in fi l-bayti "in the house").

Since it is not always possible to explain the structure of the actually spoken sentence, it is sometimes necessary to have recourse to an underlying level of speech (taqdir). Thus, for instance, in the sentence an-najdata! "help!" the grammarian posits an underlying verb ad˓u "I call for, I ask" in order to explain the accusative in the noun. With the help of the notion of taqdir grammarians built a large explanatory framework that was neither intended as normative (after all, the Bedouin were native speakers and did not need correction), nor as a simple description, but as an explanation of the rules of grammar. Exceptions were not allowed in this analysis, since language was regarded as part of God's creation, of which even the minutest detail must find an explanation.

Even though after Sibawayhi competing schools arose in Basra, Kufa, and Baghdad, the theoretical framework remained the same for all grammarians. Both the grammarians in Basra, such as al-Mubarrad (d. 898), and those in Kufa, such as al-Farra˒ (d. 822) and Tha˓lab (d. 904), used the principle of ˓amal to account for the case endings in the language, and although they differed as to the scope of the examples they allowed as a basis for their qiyas, essentially they may be regarded as belonging to one linguistic paradigm.

The science that worked with this paradigm is called in Arabic nahw (which also means "syntax"). Almost right from the beginning a strict distinction was made between this science and that of lexicography ( ˓ilm al-lugha). The earliest beginnings of lexicography are found in the commentaries of the Qur˒an, some of which concentrated on the lexical meaning of words that had become archaic by that time. These early attempts at compiling word lists of the Qur˒an or the hadith culminated in the Kitab al-˓ayn, initiated and perhaps partly based on the notes of al-Khalil ibn Ahmad (d. 791), Sibawayhi's teacher in grammar. Like the Kitab Sibawayhi, this dictionary no longer concentrated on the Qur˒an but on the language itself, as is evident from the fact that poetic quotations are far more frequent in it than quotations from the Qur˒an. The Kitab al-˓ayn set the trend for a long line of ever larger dictionaries that attempted to encapsulate the lexicon of the entire language, culminating in Ibn Manzur's (d. 1311) famous lexicon, Lisan al-˓Arab.

From Language to Language Use

A new development in Arab linguistics was initiated by the introduction of Greek logic and philosophy in the Islamic world. The translation of Greek texts that had already started under the Umayyad caliphs, usually through Syriac, started in earnest under the Abbasid caliph al-Ma˒mun (d. 833), who personally supported this development by founding the Bayt al-Hikma (an academy of translators in Baghdad). The influx of new ideas in Arabic had a profound influence on Islamic thinking, especially in the theological system of the Mu˓tazilites, who for some time enjoyed official recognition of their ideas.

Thanks to the Mu˓tazilites rationalist logic became the cornerstone for theological thought. Because of their emphasis on the unity of God, they refused to accept an eternal status for the revealed book, which they regarded as created (khalq al-Qur˒an). Through the discussions on this topic the Mu˓tazilites became interested in questions about the status of God's speech, the relationship between word and meaning, and the intricate question of the origin of speech. This last issue had always been connected with the revelation of the Qur˒an, but was discussed now as a logico-philosophical problem.

Although grammarians in general avoided any contact with the "Greek sciences," they could not avoid some of the topics that had become popular in general debate, such as the relationship between words and the things they referred to or the logical correlates of grammatical categories, as in Zajjaji's (d. 949) Kitab al-idah. Greek influence also manifested itself in the debate about the status of grammar vis-à-vis logic and about the competence of logicians and grammarians. Significantly, many grammarians in this period adhered to Mu˓tazilite ideas. Apart from its influence on the public debate Greek logic also insinuated itself in the general format of grammatical treatises. Contrary to the earlier tradition, it became customary to define grammatical notions and to devote special attention to the division of their treatises into separate topics. Likewise, grammarians started to write introductory treatises, such as Zajjaji's Kitab al-jumal or Farisi's (d. 989) Kitab al-idah.

In the third/fourth centuries of Islam, grammar had become a technical discipline with its own terminology and apparatus. Although grammarians such as Ibn Jinni (d. 1002) showed a vivid interest in all matters pertaining to language in his linguistic encyclopedia al-Khasa˒is, most grammatical treatises in this period were concerned with repeating and refining the contents of Sibawayhi's Kitab rather than innovating the discipline.

This situation started to change with grammarians such as Jurjani (d. 1078) who combined their interests in rhetoric and grammar and criticized their predecessors for not having taken into account the semantic aspect of speech by focusing exclusively on the syntactic parameters. This new interest in a comprehensive science of language, including style and poetics, may be yet another example of Mu˓tazilite thinking in linguistics. Their influence is certainly evident in the field of the ˓ilm usul al-fiqh, in which the epistemological value of linguistic utterances was studied for its relevance to legal reasoning. These new developments meant effectively a separation between grammar in the strict sense and other language-related sciences.

See alsoArabic Language ; Arabic Literature ; Qur˒an .


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Kees Versteegh

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