4 October 2008

The expansion of Arabic

abic So far, this blog has focused mainly on European languages, but it is clear that the Continuity/Hybridization Model (another name for the Continuity Theory) can be applied to other groups of languages. Today’s post is about a non-European, and also non-Indo-European language: Arabic, which belongs to the Semitic group (Afro-Asiatic family).

Arabic dialects are spoken today in many areas of the Near East and Northern Africa, as we can see in the following map:

(Source: Wikipedia. Click here for a larger image and further details)
This linguistic situation is a direct consequence of a historical fact: the emergence of the Islamic Empire, which originated in Arabia in the 7th c. AD and quickly expanded to many other territories, carrying with it both Islam and Arabic. The next image shows the extension of this empire at different stages:

(Source: Wikipedia. Click here for a larger image and further details).
Both maps look quite similar but we can spot some significant differences between them. We only find Arabic dialects in places where Semitic languages, or at least other Afro-Asiatic languages, were already spoken before the conquest (e.g. northern Africa, Mesopotamia, Arabia). On the contrary, there are some areas of the Empire where no Arabic dialects have survived, e.g. Persia, Kurdistan, south-eastern Anatolia and the Iberian Peninsula. The languages spoken in these areas before the arrival of the Arabs, and the languages spoken there today are not Semitic or Afro-Asiatic; they belong to other groups (mainly Indo-European). Historical events such as military conquest, and the dominance of an intrusive elite over extensive territories, do not seem to affect the basic pattern of continuity, at least at the language-group level. If we apply this type of analysis to other processes of expansion the conclusions are very similar, as we have seen, for example, in a series of posts about language distribution in the Roman Empire (you can read them here: What the Romans spoke; Language continuity in Europe (II): Switzerland; Romance Languages before the Romans). In the context of ancient times, the language of the conquerors (associated with social prestige and political power, and also with religion) is always a very influential factor, but there is not a generalized process of language substitution. What we find instead is a process of language hybridization. If the language of the conquered has a high degree of affinity with the language of the conquerors, i.e. if they belong to the same language group, it is much more likely that the final result will be a dialect of the new language. In the absence of this kinship, the normal scenario is the continuity of the pre-existing dialects. In fact, language continuity is always present: Afro-Asiatic dialects were spoken in northern Africa and the Near-East before the Roman conquest, and are still spoken today, in the form of Arab dialects created through a process of hybridization.

Last Edit: 13th October 2008.


D. Sky Onosson said...

Having only found your blog recently, I'm commenting rather late on this. I haven't read up on the PCT (by whatever name) but would like to learn more about it.

It seems that, and perhaps someone is already ahead of me on this, that it might be fruitful to apply some of the implications of the theory/model to contemporary linguistic situations. This post on the historical spread of Arabic got me thinking about the current state of World English, and how the PCT approach toward that topic might bear out. Do the predictions regarding language adoption/replacement/hybridization agree with actual findings? An interesting discussion, I am sure!

Jesús Sanchis said...

Hello D Sky Onosson, and welcome to Language Continuity.

Hybridization and continuity are inherent to all languages and language comunities both past and present, but the conditions in which they interact vary considerably depending on historical circumstances. One major factor of variation has to do with the emergence of stratified societies after the Neolithic revolution and particularly during the Bronze Age. Our societies of today are a further development of these stratified societies, with a much higher degree of complexity. Phenomena such as globalization or mass media are no doubt affecting the way our languages evolve or interact. Analysing the languages of today in terms of hybridization/continuity is probably a good start but there are many more aspects to be analysed. The more you go back in history the less complex the situation seems to be, with lower pressure from ruling elites and their standardised forms of language, and fewer opportunities for language 'substitution'. But yes, I think you're right: the PCT, or "Continuity/Hybridization Model" can also say interesting things about current languages.

Anonymous said...

Just a little bug with continuity:
Pure and sample replacement occure. Hunter-gatherers pushed away (in ever shrinking space) by the destruction of nature by agriculturalists is more than a possibility. In noth america there is NO continuity, native languge have been wiped out by this exact process. Same thing apply in many other place. Continuty-hybridation is a possibility but not the only one.