Book Notices

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Review of The Mehri language of Oman

(posted September 29th, 2011)

The Mehri language of Oman. By Aaron Rubin. (Studies in Semitic languages and linguistics 58.) Leiden: Brill, 2010. pp. xx, 364. ISBN 9789004182639. $153 (Hb).

Reviewed by Michael W. Morgan, Indira Gandhi National Open University

Mehri is the largest of six so-called Modern South Arabian Languages (MSAL), and is spoken by well over 100,000 speakers in Yemen and Oman. These languages, although spoken in the Arabian peninsula and heavily influenced by bilingualism and long contact with varieties of Arabic, are in fact either a separate branch of West Semitic or perhaps more closely related to the Semitic languages of Ethiopia.

This book is a corpus-based descriptive grammar of Omani Mehri based on Harry Stroomer’s Mehri texts from Oman: Based on the field materials of T.M. Johnstone (1999), supplemented by T.M. Johnstone’s Mehri lexicon and English-Mehri word-list, (1987). Other published material on Yemeni Mehri dialects, Hasusi, and other related MSALs (especially interesting when the same texts exist in Yemeni Mehri or Hasusi) and comparative material from Arabic are also presented as appropriate. As much of Johnstone’s audio material still exists (albeit often of limited value), in cases of doubt the text versions were checked against the audio, and an appendix of suggested corrections to Stroomer’s edition is given (311–30). All the over 1000 text passages cited in the grammar are also indexed (341–60).

The bulk of the grammar is dedicated to morphology, organized in a traditional manner: pronouns (31–57), nouns (59–75), adjectives (77–88), verbs (stems: 89–120, tenses and forms: 121–71), prepositions (173–208), numerals (209–18), adverbs (219–223), interrogatives (225–233), and particles (235–58). The description of phonology is relatively brief (13–30) and the treatment of syntax, while somewhat longer, is also cursory (259–305). The brevity of the phonology presentation is dictated by the poor quality of the corpus data, and the chapter on syntax, entitled ‘Some syntactic features’ is a syntactic hodgepodge. Fortunately, both phonology and syntax have been treated more extensively in other works. Throughout the grammar all points are accompanied by copious examples from the corpus (Johnstone’s 106 texts).

As the Semitic languages are very similar, there will be few surprises. However, especially to those not familiar with the other literature on MSALs, there will be points of contrast. This volume is of immense value and is sure to be of great use to all Semiticists, as it is the first complete detailed descriptive grammar of a MSAL in any of our lifetimes. One also imagines its value for scholars of the Yemen and Oman dialects of Arabic, as one suspects substratal influence in the opposite direction. It is also a pleasure for those of us, Semiticist or not, who savor a good reference grammar on an unfamiliar language.


Review of Comparative grammar of the Semitic languages

(posted August 31st, 2011)

Comparative grammar of the Semitic languages. By De Lacy O’Leary. (LINCOM orientalia 5.) Munich: LINCOM Europa, 2010. Pp. xv, 280. ISBN 9783895862410. $90.72.

Reviewed by Elly van Gelderen, Arizona State University

This is a reprint of the 1923 first edition, and there is no preface justifying reprinting it. Perhaps it is because De Lacy O’Leary was a well-known author of his day on a number topics including Arabic. He was an Irish priest who taught himself Arabic (as well as Gaelic) outside of academia (Harry Bracken p.c.).

The book consists of an introduction, five chapters on phonology (a little over 100 pages), three chapters on pronouns, one on the noun, one on the verb, and a last on particles. The introduction considers Semitic as consisting of five branches, Arabic, Abyssinian, Hebrew, Aramaic, and Assyrian, and Semitic itself as belonging to a larger Hamitic group (5). The phonological chapters are quite detailed and contain much diachronic information. There are chapters on the ‘temporary modification’ of consonants, vowels, and syllables. Assimilation and dissimilation of various kinds are described, as are metathesis, insertion, and elision.

I found the chapters on pronouns very readable and providing much diachronic insight. For instance, the absolute personal pronoun is used as emphatic and in the first and second person, it is often resumed by a demonstrative `an- similar to the Egyptian ‘in- (from which we get the forms ‘ink and ntk), which led to the loss of the enclitic pronouns in later Egyptian (139). The numerous particles that are involved in the demonstrative pronoun system are described and compared (da, di, ha, ‘ay, la, ka, na,ma, ta, ya, and aga), with a treatment of their combinations in the various languages. Unfortunately, the chapter on relatives and interrogatives is only three pages long, but it has interesting short hints on the use of the article al, the root sha, and the interrogative ma as relative pronouns.

While the chapter on the noun starts by inquiring into whether nouns or verbs are the older word class (175), O concedes that this will not ‘advance the practical work of philology’. It includes a discussion of roots, affixes, gender, number, and case. The last chapter but one discusses the verb’s valency alternations, tense, mood, and aspect, and the last chapter concerns prepositions, ‘Prepositions governing clauses’, and exclamatory, negative, interrogative, and conditional particles. Of the negatives, Arabic la, bal, ma, and ‘in are discussed with counterparts in the other languages, but (again unfortunately) this chapter is short (with only nine pages).

Although this book might serve as a useful introduction for a historical linguist, the reader should check the current literature on all topics. In short, this book is valuable for reminding us how the state of the art has changed in the past century.


Review of Afroasiatic linguistics, Semitics, and Egyptology

(posted July 1st, 2010)

Afroasiatic linguistics, Semitics, and Egyptology: Selected writings of Carleton T. Hodge. Ed. by Scott Noegel and Alan S. Kaye. Bethesda, MD: CDL Press, 2004. Pp. 339. ISBN 9781883053864. $50 (Hb).

Reviewed by Benji Wald, Los Angeles, CA

A tribute to the late Egyptologist and Semiticist Carleton T. Hodge, this volume is a selection of twenty of his most creative articles originally published in a variety of specialized journals. The editors note in a brief foreword (ix) that their purpose is to bring together a number of articles that may not have received the attention they deserve because of their scattered and sometimes difficult to access places of original publication. The collection begins with ‘Life and career of Carleton Taylor Hodge’ (xv–xxi), by Alan S. Kaye, which includes a discussion of Hodge’s writings. Each of the following articles is prefaced with an introductory abstract by one of the two editors.

Hodge’s articles are organized into five sections that demonstrate his range of interests and accomplishments: ‘Afroasiatic linguistics’ (six articles; 1–114), ‘Semitics’ (five articles; 115–98), ‘Egyptology’ (seven articles; 199–318), ‘Chadic linguistics’ (one article; 319–26), and ‘Indo-European linguistics’ (one article; 327–39). The book does not contain an index and each article retains its own set of references.

The articles in the first three sections best display the depth of Hodge’s knowledge and interests. His observations on Afroasiatic as a whole will be of widest interest because of their clarity in identifying some critical problems regarding prospects for a sound reconstruction. In ‘The linguistic cycle’ (1–16), Hodge recognizes the general importance of the long documented history of Egyptian from Coptic in studying long-term linguistic change, and in this particular case, in the cycle from inflectional verb morphology to replacive (i.e. suppletive) auxiliary syntax and then to a new round of morphology. Among his most radical proposals, in ‘Afroasiatic pronoun problems’ (17–32), Hodge suggests that the pronouns in the various Afroasiatic branches evolved from an earlier set of nonpersonal deictics, which is reflected in the initial consonants, the case endings, and in the following vowels.

Also radical is Hodge’s article ‘Consonant ablaut in Egyptian’ (265–72), in which he proposes that reconstructing early word-level phonological processes of laryngealization and nasalization can help identify cognates both within Egyptian and between Egyptian and various other branches of Afroasiatic in which semantic correspondence was previously evident but sound correspondence appeared to be irregular. This device, which allows, for example, such consonant alternations as Egyptian [p] (simple [*p]), [f] (laryngealized [*p]), and [m] (nasalized [*p] via [*mb]), vastly expands the number of forms that can be considered cognates and, in some of the other articles, is used to propose cognates between Egyptian and other Afroasiatic branches. Such radical suggestions are counterbalanced in other articles with a concern for the soundness of identified cognates between branches.

A particularly rigorous exercise in the quantitative assessment of cognates is ‘An Egypto-Semitic comparison’ (175–97), in which Hodge devises a numerical scale for confidence in cognate pairings from apparently ‘genuine […to…] marginal’ (194). He deduces that less than half of a list of 170 individually rated and discussed cognates between Egyptian and Semitic are confidently paired and concludes optimistically that further research may raise the rating of some of the less-well-supported pairings.

In sum, the editors succeed in providing a thought-provoking sample of Hodge’s writings. Even if his more radical proposals are unlikely to be accepted by other Afroasiatic scholars, the quality and informativeness of Hodge’s discussions are bound to add impetus to the research. At the very least, this volume is instructive in the development of Afroasiatic linguistics and in problems that the field continues to deal with.


Review of Qur’anic stylistics: A linguistic analysis

(posted September 30th, 2009)

Qur’anic stylistics: A linguistic analysis. By Hussain Abdul-Raof. (Languages of the world 32.) Munich: LINCOM Europa, 2004. Pp. 251. ISBN 3895868175. $106.68.

Reviewed by †Alan S. Kaye, California State University, Fullerton

This volume is a detailed description of stylistic variation in the Qur’an. The author states that this phenomenon ‘is a prototypical feature of Qur’anic genre’ (236). To cite an example, let me mention tense (or, better, aspect) shifting (Arabic ʔiltifaat), illustrated by the following verse (Q25:10): tabaaraka llaðii ʔin šaaʔa jaʕala laka xayran min ðaalika . . . wa yajʕalu laka quuuran ‘Blessed is He, if he willed, could have made for you something better than that . . . and could make palaces for you’. Here it is important to note that the first verb jaʕala ‘made’ is in the perfect (author’s ‘past tense’), while the second yajʕalu ‘makes’ is in the imperfect (author’s ‘present tense’). While I agree with Abdul-Raof that ʔiltifaat is ‘frequently encountered’, I am reluctant to accept his analysis that it ‘is employed as a rhetorical means that aims to achieve psychological comfort for the reader’ (236). The reason for my skepticism is that the term ‘psychological comfort’ is vague, difficult to describe and explicate, and therefore unscientific.

The next example A-R discusses of the very same stylistic shift, however, is explained in more convincing terms (Q22:25): ?inna llaðiina kafaruu wa yuadduuna ʕan sabiili llaahi ‘Indeed, those who have disbelieved and avert people from the way of God’. As in the first example, the first verb is in the perfect, but through the use of the second, imperfect yuadduuna, ‘the componential feature of [+Continuity of Action] can be attributed to the subject’ (236). Here, English is capable of rendering this stylistic shift; however, there are numerous occasions where English does not translate the stylistic flavor of the original Arabic. This has been pointed out by A-R, who correctly asserts: ‘This is due to the fact that Arabic and English are linguistically and culturally incongruous languages’ (12), although this is not explained in detail here or elsewhere in the publication.

Let me take up a general conclusion, viz., that each and every instance of stylistic variation ‘occurs for a good reason and is context and co-text sensitive’ (8). In Q 16:70-83 ‘And God created you . . . and God has favoured some of you over others . . . and God has made for you from yourselves mates . . . and they worship besides God that which does not possess for them . . . God presents an example’ (15), we note that the first three sentences begin with Allaah ‘God’, the next three start with a verb, and the following three begin with a noun Allaah, and the tenth with a verb. I do not believe much can be made of this variation. Even A-R himself states that ‘stylistically, the Arabic sentence starts with either a verb or a noun’ (15).

The book abounds in typographical and other errors. Let me mention but a few instances: ‘semantically-oriented’ should not be hyphenated (8); ‘situaltionally-distinctive’ for ‘situationally distinctive’ (9); ‘pbonetic’ for ‘phonetic’ (10); ‘agiven’ for ‘a given’ (10); ‘stylsitic’ for ‘stylistic’ (11); ‘sigular’ for ‘singular’ (11); ‘reads’ should be ‘read’ in ‘In order to make the English sentence reads smoothly’ (11); and so on. As for the short bibliography (247–48), the transcriptional diacritics are left off, rendering the Arabic inaccurate.

Let me conclude with some stylistic remarks of my own. Many sentences in this tome detract from its overall usefulness and effectiveness and contribute to a wordiness, causing the reader to lose interest in the subject matter. Consider the opening and closing sentences of the work: ‘Language is a complex entity’ (9). Of course it is! And: ‘Variation in Arabic linguistic structures is an intriguing stylistic phenomenon that merits a linguistic analysis’ (246). A good editor would have clipped both of these statements as ‘stylistically infelicitous’.


Review of Consonance in the Qur’an: A conceptual, intertextual and linguistic analysis

(posted September 29th, 2009)

Consonance in the Qur’an: A conceptual, intertextual and linguistic analysis. By Hussein Abdul-Raof. (Languages of the world 34.) Munich: LINCOM Europa, 2005. Pp. 339. ISBN 3895868019. $204.12.

Reviewed by † Alan S. Kaye, California State University, Fullerton

This interesting, well-researched volume uses the framework of text linguistics, largely following Teun A. van Dijk’s Text and context (London: Longman, 1977) and M. A. K. Halliday and Ruqaiya Hasan’s Language, context, and text: Aspects of language in social-semiotic perspective (Victoria: Deakin University Press, 1997) to analyze the Qur’an in Arabic. It focuses on consonance (translated inconsistently by the author as Arabic nasq (22), but also as munaasabah (25)), which is defined as a ‘text linguistic term that refers to the sequentiality and connectivity of propositions’ (16). This phenomenon refers to the cohesion and coherence of the sentences of the text of the Arabic Qur’an, the holy book for Muslims no matter what the native language of the Muslim happens to be. A significant point for non-Muslims to realize is that the faithful believe that the Qur’an is kalaamu llaah ‘God’s word’, and thus it cannot be translated into any other language (but paraphrases in another language are possible). The author is correct in his observation that although the Qur’anic text was revealed in both Mecca and Medina over a period of approximately a quarter of a century, there are conceptual and intertextual connections of ideas that have influenced consonance throughout the tome ‘at both micro and macro levels’ (16). The author has found the following types of consonance: between chapters; within one chapter; and at parable level, word level, phrase level, letter level, semantic level, phonetic level, and so on (17).

As illustrative of the methodology of text linguistics employed, the author compares two Qur’anic verses (ayahs) with identical lexical and semantic content (37): Q6:102 reads laa ’ilaaha ’illaa huwa xaaliqu kulli shay’in ‘There is no deity [‘god’—ASK] except Him, the Creator of all things’, and Q 40:62 has the reverse word order, xaaliqu kulli shay’in laa ’ilaaha ’illaa huwa ‘The Creator of all things, there is no deity [‘god’—ASK] except Him’. The first verse is embedded in a context of monotheism as major theme. Therefore, ’ilaaha ‘god’ occurs in first position (the author’s wording is: ‘made communicatively more salient in terms of information output’). The latter ayah has a ‘context of situation’ dealing with creation. Thus, xaaliqu ‘Creator’ occurs initially. Then the author adds the following explanation: ‘These variations are deliberately made for good communicative functions [sic]’ (37).

The tome is wordy in many places, and thus difficult and frustrating to read. Consider the following not untypical example: at the beginning of a section entitled ‘Consonance in text linguistics’ (25) we read: ‘In Arabic, the expression [sic] consonance means al-munasabah [sic] which is one of the derivative forms of the verb nasaba meaning “related or linked to someone or something” ’ (25). The next section, entitled ‘Consonance in Qur’anic studies’, begins: ‘The notion of consonance in Qur’anic studies is called al-munasabah [sic]. This word is derived from the verb yunaasibu “to be a relative to someone, to have a resemblance to someone, like two brothers, a cousin, a brother-in-law” ’ (25).

Occasionally, the author’s English is ungrammatical or awkward. Consider but two examples. He says that his book consists of seven chapters: ‘The book falls into seven chapters’ (17). And he writes: ‘The findings of this work is [sic] highly vital for text analysts as well as for those interested in text linguistics’ (20).

Finally, it should be noted that the bibliography lacks the diacritics necessary for an accurate Arabic transcription. Hopefully, these types of stylistic infelicities will be corrected in a subsequent edition.