Chaos Before Order?:

A Quantitative Approach to Variation in the Arabic Papyri (7th-9th Centuries CE)

Fokelien Kootstra

ISAW Visiting Research Scholar

In the 7th century CE, Arabic was catapulted onto the world stage following the Arab-Islamic conquests. Within a few centuries, it transformed from a mostly oral language to the international medium of science and communication. This period in the history of Arabic is well documented through everyday documents, such as letters and administrative texts, written on papyrus. Thousands of such documents have survived, most of them from Egypt, but also from Palestine and the Khurasan region.

One of the intriguing features of these documents is that they contain a lot of linguistic variation. This is usually explained as the mixing in of features of spoken language into the formal written register of Classical Arabic. However, this written standard was only fully canonized in the 10th century CE. Besides being anachronistic, lumping all variation together as colloquial features glosses over a lot of interesting aspects of the language use in the papyri.

In this lecture I will focus on the distribution of variation in the Arabic papyri to help understand the nature of the differences between Arabic’s earliest written form and the Classical Arabic standard, which developed centuries later. The results will eventually bring into focus the landscape of written Arabic in the Islamic world before the canonization of Classical Arabic and pave the way towards understanding the evolution of Arabic as a written language.

Fokelien Kootstra is a visiting research scholar at the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World at NYU. She received her PhD in linguistics from Leiden University (2019). She holds an MA in linguistics and a BA in Arabic from Leiden University.

Kootstra's current project concerns the linguistic variation attested in the early Arabic papyri form the 7th-9th centuries CE. Using insights from socio-historical linguistics she will investigate how linguistic variation correlates with extra-linguistic features such as such as time, place and register. This will shed light on the development of Arabic in these everyday written documents, and lay the groundwork for understanding the development of the Classical Arabic standard and its interplay with everyday written practice.

This project builds on insights from her PhD research, which focused on linguistic variation in one of the epigraphic corpora from the Arabian Peninsula known as Dadanitic. These inscriptions are found in and around the ancient oasis of Dadān (modern-day al-ʿUlā) and were written between 6th-1st centuries BCE. Kootstra used a combination of methods from historical linguistics and quantitative analysis to investigate the linguistic variation attested in the inscriptions. As a result, new insights into the diachrony of the language and its associated scribal culture have come into focus. This provided our first glimpse of how language was deployed in official context in pre-Islamic Arabia.

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