Exploring Arab Folk Literature

By Pierre Cachia | Go to book overview
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The Transcription of Both Classical and
Colloquial Arabic

When–following a precept of the Prophet’s and the orders of Egypt’s ruler–RifāTaxlīṣu l->Ibrīz Talxīṣi Bārīz, he attempted a quick survey of leading centres of civilisation all over the globe. In so doing, he stumbled on languages which, unlike Arabic, tolerated digraphs that sometimes produce a sound unlike that of either component, and words that crowd strings of consonants into a single syllable, as in his carefully vocalised Was-hin-xi-tūn in al->Ītzūniyā. Yet the direction taken made it inevitable that he or his immediate successors would have to familiarise themselves with a widening range of Western writers on kindred subjects, such as David Chisholme. What manual of orthography or morphology would enable any of them to work out how such a name was to be pronounced? Might they have been tempted to spare themselves the guesswork by resorting to transliteration instead of transcription? And would the result have been any less befuddling?

The European pioneers of Arabic studies had more enticing reasons for adopting transliteration.

Enshrined in Scriptures, classical Arabic had been stable for centuries, its syntax and morphology meticulously codified, and–though this was precept rather than reality–it was to be spoken exactly as it was written. And in it had been written all the masterpieces of Arab-Islamic culture that were the main attraction to scholarly Arabists. It was therefore to Standard Arabic, letter for letter, that the European pioneers of Arabic studies bound themselves.

And the transliteralists served their purposes well, not least when they allowed common sense to sideline the principal article of their faith. None so lost sight–or hearing–of the realities of language that he found it necessary to provide a parallel for the silent >alif which literate Arabs add to the masculine plural parts of the conjugation of verbs, or to insert a long ā in the name of Allāh where no >alif is written into its Arabic form. But the truly committed transliterator, even at the cost of disrupting the metre if he is dealing with verse, will write al-šams for ‘in the sun’ even if he knows that no Arab has ever pronounced it except as fi š-šams.

The great gap in the work of the transliterators is their cold-shouldering of the distinctive features of spoken Arabic, although echoes of it were sometimes committed to writing. Here again the Arab elite must bear some of the responsibility

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