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Review of  Ingham of Arabia

Reviewer: David Wilmsen
Book Title: Ingham of Arabia
Book Author: Clive Holes Rudolf De Jong
Publisher: Brill
Linguistic Field(s): Sociolinguistics
Subject Language(s): Arabic, Standard
Language Family(ies): Arabic
Issue Number: 25.2256

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This is a book of Arabic dialectology by Arabic dialectologists, most of them having spent their long careers in the study of Arabic dialects, all of them influenced by and in the debt of the scholar Bruce Ingham, whose career the book celebrates as he brings the public phase of that career to an end upon his retirement from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) at the University of London. Professor Ingham has likewise devoted his scholarly life to the study of Arabic dialects, notably, but not exclusively, the dialects of the Arabian Peninsula, as the title of the book suggests.

With contributions from the most prominent names in the field, all regularly-cited authors, their contributions building upon Ingham’s and their own earlier works, this insider’s volume cannot be fully appreciated without some background knowledge of the immense amount of work that has gone into bringing the field of Arabic dialectology to its current state of advancement. The bibliography of each contribution lists the relevant background materials for its particular dialect(s) and orientation in sufficient depth to provide anyone who is unfamiliar with the topics of the contributions themselves a thoroughgoing acquaintance with the issues at stake. This slim volume demands a much closer reading than its size alone would indicate.

Little concerned for theoretical frameworks, ‘classic dialectology’ gathers and presents raw linguistic data, generally as vocabulary lists, transcribed folktales or oral histories and their glosses, or a combination of all of these, oftentimes accompanied by detailed maps (although only one of the contributions to this volume includes a map), generally augmented with commentaries highlighting particular points of interest ensconced within the masses of data, and sometimes engaging in broad cross-dialectal comparison. Five of the eleven studies in this volume are of this type (chapters 1, 6, 7, 8, and 10). Far from disdaining theory--such incremental compiling of data being essential to its construction--dialectology arose as an independent enterprise within language study as a data-driven response to Neogrammarian theories about the regularity and exceptionless nature of sound change, such notions quickly falsified by the sheer variability found residing in the dialects of European languages (Chambers and Trudgill 2004). Nevertheless, the notion of variability in Arabic is anathema to traditionalists’ prescriptive views of the language, and here is where Arabic dialectology serves a grand purpose by expanding conceptions of what the language is.

When Arabic dialectology does concern itself with theory, it often trains its attention upon proximal explanations for the presence of the features under study in the dialects where they occur. Another three of the contributions of this volume are so oriented (3, 5, and 9), and all of those in the classic dialectology framework also embrace such an orientation to some degree. Most of this dimension of Arabic dialectology is set against a background of theories of dialect origins and their relationship to the Arabic of the literary canon (a good summary of traditional theories is Miller 1986). In other areas of Arabic study and in wider Arab discourse, the literary language is usually taken as the benchmark against which to assess and account for changes in the dialects. Most, but not all, Arabic dialectologists eschew this perspective, viewing the many Arabic dialects as descendants of older peninsular varieties related to literary Arabic as sisters, not daughters.

Most such theorizing is informed by a cognizance of the Semitic background in which Arabic is embedded. A welcome trend in Arabic dialectology is the comparative studies between Arabic and its Semitic sisters that some researchers are undertaking. This work is in the vanguard of enhancing our understanding of the development of Arabic, into the bargain introducing deeper dimensions to the study of other Semitic languages, Semiticists usually being more familiar with Akkadian, Aramaic, or Hebrew. Chapters 2, 6, and 9 offer contributions to such a comparative Semitic effort.

Historical perspectives, thus, inform any work in the field. So, too, does a sociolinguistic orientation, for if dialectology assesses variability along its geographical coordinates, sociolinguistics assesses it in the multidimensionality of social space, along such contours as age, class, gender, occupation, and also residence. As Chambers and Trudgill comment in their concluding remarks about the two areas of study, ‘one has been centrally concerned with rural communities and the other with urban centres, but these are accidental differences, not essential ones and certainly not axiomatic’ (2004: 187-8). Chapter 4, a study of gender attitudes voiced in Bedouin men’s narratives, is a sociolinguistic contribution that crosses those boundaries.

Only rarely do Arabic dialectology or sociolinguistics stray into the realm of pure theory. Nor for that matter does theoretical linguistics often take notice of Arabic, and when it does, it gets its facts wrong (cf. the errors in Roberts and Rousseau 2003: 31-32, 155 & 160, elucidated in Wilmsen 2014: 181-184). This is unfortunate, for Arabic dialectology, with its tremendous wealth of language data amassed over more than a century of applied effort, has much to offer linguistic theory. A concerted effort is needed to bring the riches of Arabic into the mainstream currents of the field. Chapter 11 is such an effort, marshalling much phonological data gleaned from earlier dialect studies to apply them to pure theory.

The chapters, being few, are not organized by theme, instead being arranged alphabetically by author’s name (an error appears in the placement of Herin before Henkin). Those are as follows (chapter numbers, not provided in the book, are added here for ease of reference):

(1) About Bedouin Tents and other Tents, or “Tent Terminology as an example of Semantic Shift”, Peter Behnstedt and Manfred Woidich.

A painstaking presentation of lexical data culled from over thirty years of B&W’s work along with that of other researchers into Bedouin dialects, this is a treatment of the lexical sources and implications of tent terminology, including an in-depth excursus on a particular term (qayṭūn), perhaps derived from the root √qṭn ‘to dwell’, and a possible origin of the word for cotton (shelters of that type often being made of cotton tenting). Not merely an indulgence in the diversions of etymologies and lexicography, such examinations of domestic/livelihood nomenclatures can enhance the tracking of population movements and are sometimes the sole means of doing so, especially as such movements are traced backwards in time to attempted reconstructions of the supposed Semitic and Afroasiatic homelands. A testament to the inclusivity of B&W’s work, the extensive reference section takes up four and a half pages, about a fifth of the article’s length.

(2) Tense and Aspect in Semitic: A Case Study Based on the Arabic of the Omani Šarqiyya and the Mehri of Dhofar, Domenyk Eades and Janet C. E. Watson.

Arabic is often described as possessing only two true tenses, perfect and imperfect, meaning that those two must bear the burden of all subtleties of temporality that speakers wish to express. After a brief discussion of the concept of aspect, in which they note that the issue has been much discussed in the literature about Arabic, E&W undertake a thoroughgoing examination of the manner in which various time references are expressed in a largely Bedouin variety of Omani Arabic (Šarqiyya Arabic or ŠA) and the modern South Arabian language Mehri of southern Oman and the Yemen.

A workmanlike treatment of tense and aspect in two distinct Semitic language groups--the modern South Arabian languages (MSA) by some accounts being a branch of West Semitic and Arabic belonging to Central Semitic which branched from there (Rubin 2008)--this is a valuable contribution to the ongoing discussion about aspect in Arabic as well as an advancement of typological Semitic studies. In this and other work conducted separately, especially Watson’s comparative studies of Yemeni Arabic and Mehri (e.g., Watson 2011), E&W set the scene for and contribute to much needed comparisons between Arabic and its Semitic sisters.

(3) From Phonological Variation to Grammatical Change: Depalatalization of /č/ in Salti, Bruno Herin and Enam Al-Wer.

An analysis of a feature of an urban Jordanian dialect, albeit one dynamically influenced by Bedouin dialects, this contribution demonstrates the pathways by which the sound [č], a palatalization of the parent *k, has entered and spread through the dialect of the Jordanian city of es-Salṭ. A feature of southern and eastern Arabian dialects, this phone reappears as a de facto theme of the book in several papers of the volume.

In a phonological and lexical analysis of the feature, H&W demonstrate that the sound is lexically conditioned and not the product of a systematic sound change. They also show that younger speakers of Salṭi, influenced by contact with the dialect(s) of the capital city Amman, are beginning to replace [č] with [k]. They then turn in an unexpected direction: younger speakers having lost the feminine plural agreement /-čin/ of the Salṭi and other Jordanian Bedouin dialects, appear independently to have also lost that variety’s feminine plural agreement patterns with non-human plural nouns to replace them with the feminine singular.

That some Arabic dialects of Jordan continue to exhibit feminine plural agreement with non-human nouns is a noteworthy observation begging further investigation.

(4) Representation of Women’s Language in Negev Bedouin Men’s texts, Roni Henkin.

That this is a study of Negev Bedouin narratives marks this contribution as dialectology; that it addresses gender attitudes reflected in those narratives marks it as sociolinguistics, handily demonstrating the compatibility of the two sub-disciplines. Unusual for the sociolinguistics of gender is that instead of addressing women’s speech, as most studies of the genre do, it assesses men’s attitudes toward women as reflected in their narrative representations of women’s speech. Arabic sociolinguistics needs much more of this sort of evaluation of the embedded gendering of speech.

(5) An Arabic Text from Ṣūr, Oman, Clive Holes.

This is a piece of classic dialectology, consisting of a transliterated and glossed text with footnotes and commentary on some salient grammatical features, including an intrusive [n] ‘obligatorily inserted between the active participle with verbal force and object pronoun suffixes’ and the thematic palatalization of [k], here as [š] (elsewhere as [č]), both being “basically (and historically) south Arabian features” (p. 89). In his introductory remarks, H raises another recurring theme of the book: that the traditional binary metric of Arabic dialectology, that between Bedouin dialects and sedentary (often abbreviated B and S), is too simplistic; that even Bedouin ways of life include in their kin networks sedentary populations and that population movements and the vicissitudes of pursuing livelihoods have brought speakers of the putatively separate dialects into contact throughout their histories and, by extension, their prehistories, as well.

(6) Grammaticalization of the Verb kāna in Arabic Dialects, Otto Jastrow.

Like the first contribution to the volume, this paper collects data from the breadth of the Arab world, here to demonstrate not semantic shifts but grammatical shifts, specifically how the verb ‘to be’ [kān] has developed into various grammatical markers in the various dialects, all of which, of course, continue to retain the verb itself. Much of this material is well known (and has already been adumbrated in this volume, p. 47), but it is good to have it all collated in one place. A happy consequence is that J is thereby able to continue a discussion with Müller Kessler (2003), who derives a peculiar Syro-Mesopotamian existential particle [aku] ‘there is’ from Aramaic. Because J is intimately familiar with both Arabic and Aramaic, he is able to answer Müller Kessler’s data, posing a more straightforward reconstruction from fewer elements, notably the progressive marker [ka/kū], derived transparently from [kān/yakūn].

(7) Texts in Sinai Bedouin Dialects, Rudolf de Jong.

This is another classic dialectology contribution, with a discussion of notation--the lexical and grammatical highlights coming largely in extensive and informative footnotes--and a treatise setting the dialects of the area into their regional perspective. The accompanying map of tribal ranges of the Sinai enables researchers to situate the provenance of the linguistic data that J provides and presents graphic illustration of the complexities of population movement and dialect contact, for example, placing in the western Sinai a branch of the Ḥwēṭāt, whose north western dialect the annals of Arabic dialectology have properly treated as Jordanian Bedouin.

(8) Lexical Notes on the Dialect of Mayadin (Eastern Syria), Jérôme Lentin.

In a doubly-embedded work of classic dialectology, a reworking of the notes of the great French dialectologist of Arabic Jean Cantineau, L provides historical and geographical background to the little-studied dialect (or dialect grouping) Šāwi Bedouin. Continuing with remarks about Cantineau’s notes, he concludes by reiterating the theme that dialects are notoriously difficult to classify as purely B or S, in the process drawing attention to a third taxon: rural dialects, those being spoken by populations sedentary but not urban, in the countryside but non-nomadic. This is followed by a ten-page glossary from Cantineau’s heretofore-unpublished notebooks, the bulk of the contribution.

(9) Chapter 504 and Modern Arabic Dialectology: What are Kaškaša and Kaskasa, Really?, Jonathan Owens.

This is a full-blown treatment of one of the emergent themes of the book, palatalization or affrication of [k], here called by the name that medieval grammarians of Arabic came to use for the phenomenon. Documented in the earliest complete treatise on Arabic grammar from the eighth century AD, that of Sibawaih (c. 760--796), this is another robust dialect feature (actually a set of features), as O argues, essentially unchanged from its earliest attestations. Through an analysis of chapter 504 of the treatise, including some sociolinguistic observations about language attitudes of the day as found in that and later grammatical works, and reasoning from comparative data from the languages with which pre-diasporic peninsular Arabic varieties are “either related to genetically and/or in contact with” (p. 187), O demonstrates that all of the chapter’s various and unsystematically classified proscribed affricates are present in modern dialects, and that their representation as [-kiš] or [-kis] is incorrect. Although they are, as O notes, often overlooked, such historically documented attestations are essential to reconstructing parent forms of the modern Arabic dialects.

(10) Interesting Facts on Ancient Mounds--Three Texts in the Bedouin Arabic Dialect of the Harran-Urfa Region, Stephan Procházka.

This paper forms the fifth and final contribution from the classic dialectology genre, complete with cultural background; commentary on linguistic items of interest (including the k > č theme and the survival of a parent form of the verb ‘to give’ [ʾanṭa] found in Mesopotamian dialects); and annotated, transcribed, and glossed texts. It is a continuation of the research that P has been conducting on the dialects of Urfa, the Edessa of antiquity, significant because these dialects “on the opposite fringe of the Šāwi continuum” (p. 203)--itself now become a theme of the book--are the northernmost of Bedouin Arabian dialects. Of note is P’s documentation of an existential particle [šī], attested from the southernmost extent of the Peninsula, including analogues in the MSA languages and Yemeni Arabic (Watson 2011: 31), through the Levant (Wilmsen 2014 123-124), and now by P into Anatolia (pp. 206 & 211, 6).

(11) Antigemination as Morphosemantic Integrity in Arabic Dialects, Kirsty Rowan.

A purely theoretical contribution ends the book, demonstrating the utility of culling data from dialect studies, in this case, largely from a grammar of 1960s Baghdadi Arabic, for the formulation of theory, all the while cautioning that blithely accepting the data presented in published grammars as representative hinders theory. By including the iconicity--defined as “the semantic association of phonemes and/or their combination” (p. 227, n. 19)--of consonant and vowel doubling as indicating plurality of action or effect, R resolves the unsuccessful attempts of previous formal explanations to pose unified accounts of antigemination in form II and III verbs, arguing that a unified account has remained elusive because formal explanations tend to disregard morphosemantics.


This volume represents continuing contributions from the authors to their oeuvres and to the work of the general enterprise of a fully formed Arabic dialectology. It is a welcome addition to a growing body of increasingly useable Arabic dialect data and should further augment theorizing about them.

A note of caution: An oft-discernible habit of mind, one towards which even the best are prone to default, against which Arabists should gird themselves, is that pre-classical Arabic is of an older pedigree than the dialects. This may still be seen in (6) which references Old Arabic (OA), meaning that language preserved in the canons of Arabic writing, represented, especially in AD 8th-century records of pre-Islamic poetry, the Quran, prophetic literature, and narratives accounts of the feats of pre-Islamic Arabian heroes, which became the model for the language of modern writing. Echoed in (11), which compares dialect data against modern written Arabic, the assumption that Arabic writing is the measure against which to assess the dialects has outlived its usefulness. Hopkins has asserted “that the present form of the a faithful representation of pre-normative Arabic has very frequently been assumed; it has, however, never been demonstrated” (1984: xxxvii).

In (6) and (11), the theoretical consequences are minimal. They are greater in (2), when E&W label ŠA ‘conservative’ (pp. 23, 26 & 27) in contrast with other Arabic dialects (pp. 23 & 26). E&W propose (citing Holes 2004: 232) that (presumably older) written Arabic was primarily aspectual, whereas, in many modern Arabic dialects, “this system has evolved to varying degrees into tense systems” (p. 26). This risks fostering the impression in the uninitiated that ŠA, along with pre-classical Arabic and its later manifestations as the Arabic of writing, retains older features lost to other dialects--those by implication progressive. Yet some of the major urban Arabic vernaculars do share features of their aspectual systems with ŠA. In a study of largely urban vernaculars from Morocco to Kuwait, Brustad argues for “the primacy of aspect to the verbal system of spoken Arabic” (2000: 202), and Holes himself has actually stated that the system in both modern written Arabic and the dialects “is evolving into a tense/aspect system but at different speeds in different varieties of Arabic” (2004: 217 & 246 n. 21). This does not undermine E&W’s analysis, as they prudently delimit their conclusions to the two local systems under consideration.

So, too, are H&W (3) too hasty in concluding that “plural feminine agreement represents the old, native pattern and the appearance of the singular feminine is an innovation” (p. 71). Called variously ‘deflected’ or ‘impoverished’ agreement and attested widely in Arabic, its most in-depth treatment is not Brustad, as H&W assert (p. 66), but Belnap in his 1991 dissertation, as Brustad herself acknowledges (2000: 57). H&W apparently see deflected agreement as arising in Jordanian dialects through contact with the standard Arabic of writing, but before they can label one older and another innovative, they must address the earliest attestations of the phenomenon. Belnap and Gee (1994) document both deflected and plural agreement in pre-Islamic Arabic poetry and the Quran. In the latter, feminine singular agreement occurs with masculine human plurals in verbs (e.g., Q 14: 9—11), as well as plural agreement with non-human plurals in demonstrative and resumptive pronouns (e.g., 2:252, 3:108, etc.), subject pronouns (e.g., 3:6), and adjectives (3:24), along with deflected agreement in otherwise similar contexts (e.g., 2:80).

Largely suppressed in later writing, the variability in the older texts likely reflects ancient dialect diversity. Belnap comments: “the robust survival of such patterns in many, if not most, varieties of spoken Arabic...attests to the conservative nature of Arabic dialects, which are popularly believed to be much corrupted descendants of Classical Arabic” (1999: 179-182). This in itself gives good reason to believe that modern Arabic dialects descend from pre-diasporic ancestors and is good reason to pay the dialects attention.


Belnap, R. Kirk. 1999. “A New Perspective on the History of Arabic Variation in Marking Agreement with Plural Heads,” Folia Linguistica, XXXIII/2, pp. 169-185.

Belnap, R. Kirk and John Gee. 1994. “Classical Arabic in Contact: The transition to near-categorical agreement patterns,” in Eid, Mushira, Vicente Cantarino, and Keith Walters (eds.) Perspectives on Arabic Linguistics VI. Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 121-149.

Brustad, Kristen. 2000. The Syntax of Spoken Arabic: A comparative study of Moroccan, Egyptian, Syrian, and Kuwaiti dialects. Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press.

Chambers, J. K. and Peter Trudgill. 2004. Dialectology (Second edition). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Holes, Clive. 2004. Modern Arabic: Structures, Functions, and Varieties. Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press.

Hopkins, Simon. 1984. Studies in the Grammar of Early Arabic: Based upon papyri datable to before 300 A.H./912 A.D. London Oriental Series, volume 37. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Miller, Ann M. 1986. “The Origins of the Modern Arabic Sedentary Dialects: An evaluation of several theories.” Al-ʿArabiyya 19, 47-74.

Müller Kessler, Crista. 2003. “Aramaic ʾkʾ, lykʾ and Iraqi Arabic ʾaku, maku: The Mesopotamian Particles of Existence,” Journal of the American Oriental Society 123/3, 641-646.

Roberts, Ian and Anna Roussou. 2003. Syntactic Change: A minimalist approach to grammaticalization. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Rubin, Aaron. 2008. “The Subgrouping of the Semitic Languages,” Language and Linguistics Compass 2/1, 61-84.

Watson, Janet. 2011. “South Arabian and Yemeni Dialects,” Salford Working Papers in Linguistics and Applied Linguistics 1, 27-40.

Wilmsen, David. 2014. Arabic Indefinites, Interrogatives and Negators: A linguistic history of western dialects. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
David Wilmsen is associate professor of Arabic at the American University of Beirut. He is interested in pre-diasporic Arabic features residing in the modern spoken vernaculars, especially insofar as they can assist in solving the question of dialect origins and their relationship to the pre-classical variety that became the vehicle for most Arabic writing. His recent publications explore such relationships in the Arabic object marker iyyā- and analogues in sister languages. He is author of a forthcoming book demonstrating that the grammatical šī of Arabic and Modern South Arabian analogues provide more evidence for the antiquity of the Arabic dialects.

Format: Hardback
ISBN-13: 9789004256170
Pages: 258
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