Three Excerpts from Ibn Khaldūn's Muqaddima

Below are three excerpts, translated freely as the stylistics and cultural context of modern English require, from Ibn Khaldūn's muqaddima; specifically the last chapter which concerns language and literature. Few realize what a genius the guy was: a once-in-a-millennium mind that singlehandedly invented sociology almost from scratch. Furthermore, centuries ahead of his time in thinking, the guy seems to have been one of the very few to describe the social distribution of colloquial dialect features in detail without lamenting their existence outright. His notion that the colloquial Arabic dialects are actual lineal descendants of Classical Arabic is probably false, but who even cares? Although he uses the accepted word of his time, "corruption" fasād, to describe the shift from inflected to uninflected Arabic, and at times shows a preference and greater appreciation for the former, he gives an impression as though such descriptions are more dutiful than sincere. 
But the truly awesome bit is his attitude toward grammar-snobbery, the idea that colloquial arabic has no grammar, and the unmitigated jackassery behind any claim that the standard version of a language is the only serious medium for serious business. He would no doubt have cringed to hear modern Arab Nationalists, Littérateurs and other grammarrogant folk refer to colloquial versions of Arabic in terms such as these used by Naguib Mahfouz:
«أن اللهجة العامية من جملة الأمراض التي يعاني منها الشعب والتي سيتخلّص منها حتماً عندما يرتقي وأنا أعدّ العامية من عيوب مجتمعنا مثل الجهل والفقر والمرض تماماً , والعامية مرضٌ أساسه عدم الدراسة»"
The colloquial dialect is one of the many diseases from which the people suffer, and of which they shall rid themselves as they develop. I consider the dialect to be one of our society's flaws, exactly like ignorance, poverty and disease. Colloquial Arabic is an illness caused by lack of schooling.
Centuries before Western Arabists had begun the systematic study of the dialects, Ibn Khaldun already made the case that colloquial Arabic is not bereft of grammar. Unlike Western scholars, who could be seen as privileging dialect study to divide and subdue the Arabs by denying them the unity of the classical register, Ibn Khaldun cannot be written off as an evil little orientalist. 

On Bedouin verse composed in colloquial rather than classical Arabic:

Most modern scholars, but philologists especially, frown on such poetry if they hear it, refusing to think of it as verse when sung or recited. They hold to the belief that such verse offends their sense of good taste because it lacks desinential vowel inflections. This, however, is merely the loss of a habit in the dialect in question. If these connoisseurs possessed the same habits as the dialect's speakers, their own taste and natural sentiment would testify to these poems' eloquence and excellence, assuming there to be nothing critically askew in their own natural senses and views. The existence of case-endings hasn't a thing to do with eloquence. Eloquence is the conformity of speech with what one wishes to say, and the  exigencies of the situation in which it is said, and this is true whether the nominative is marked with a "-u" and the accusative with "-a", or the reverse. These things are expressed syntactically, not morphologically, in this speech variety of theirs. The meanings are determined by the lexical conventions of people with a particular speech habit. When the conventions of a speech habit are widely known, the meaning comes through soundly. When the meaning conforms to what one wishes to say and the exigencies of the situation in which it is said, then we have sound eloquence. The rules of grammarians haven't a thing to do with that.

On the classification of Arabic dialects:

Let the reader note well that the usual means of communication among the urban and sedentary Arab populations is not the language of ancestral North Arabia, just as it is not that of today's Bedouin. Rather, it is a totally different, independent linguistic variety, far removed from that of the old North Arabians and that of modern-day Bedouin Arabs. But of these two, it is much farther from the old North Arabian. It constitutes an independent variety, an obvious fact that can be demonstrated through the changes it has undergone, changes which the grammarian tradition continues to regard as mere speech errors.

On the status of the colloquial vs. Classical:

Eloquence and aptness of speech have continued to be a part of Arab tradition and custom, right up to the present day. No attention need be paid to the buffoonery of professional grammarians, endowed with only the most limited ability to grasp the facts, who claim that eloquence is a thing of the past and that the Arabic language itself has become degenerate, a conclusion which they draw based on the fact that inflectional vowels, whose prescribed usage they specialize in, have eroded from the ends of words. Such a position bespeaks partisanship and  unmitigated incompetence. For we do in fact find that much of the Arabic lexical stock retains the original meanings. Moreover, Arab speech, to this very day, has remained capable of expressing whatever one wishes to express with different degrees of clarity. Arabic orations still employ the arts and methods of poetry and prose. There are still eloquent orators at parties and gatherings, poets gifted in the manipulation of their language, as well as such things as good taste and linguistic disposition, all of which attest to this fact. The standardized, codified language has not actually lost anything at all save the desinential inflections, the vowel endings which were used in the old North Arabian language in a delineated, predictable manner and which are an integral part of its proper usage.
Keen interest in the old language only arose when it became heavily divergent and adulterated through contact with foreign peoples, at a time when Arabs had assumed control of Iraq, Syria, Egypt and the Maghreb. Its patterns took on a form quite unlike the original state of affairs, and thus was transformed into another language.
But it so happened that the Qur'an had been revealed in that language and the Sunna transmitted in it, both of which are fundamental to the Faith and its community. There was fear that these might be forgotten and grow indecipherable should the language of their revelation be lost. Therefore its laws had to be codified, its morphological possibilities catalogued, and its rules derived. Thus, this language became an arcane science- complete with its subfields, treatises and points of dispute- whose practitioners dubbed it Arabic Grammar and Philology. It became a discipline to be absorbed through rote memorization and calcified in writing, a ladder leading up to the comprehension of God's book and the sayings of His prophet.
Perhaps if we direct our attention to the Arabic language in its modern-day form, extracting its rules by inductive reasoning, we might find other features present in it and characterized by their own rules, indicating that which the vowel-endings once indicated before degrading. It may even be that the endings of words today are governed by different rules than those of the ancestral North Arabians. Languages and human speech-habits are, after all, not matters of chance

Arabic texts:

 و الكثير من المنتحلين للعلوم لهذا العهد و خصوصا علم اللسان يستنكر صاحبها هذه الفنون التي لهم إذا أسمعها و يمج نظمهم إذا أنشد و يعتقد أن ذوقه إنما نبا عنها لاستهجانها و فقدان الإعراب منها. و هذا إنما أتى من فقدان الملكة في لغتهم فلو حصلت له ملكة من ملكاتهم لشهد له طبعة و ذوقه ببلاغتها إن كان سليما من الآفات في فطرته و نظره. و إلا فالإعراب لا مدخل له في البلاغة إنما البلاغة مطابقة الكلام للمقصود و لمقتضى الحال من الوجود فيه سواء كان الرفع دالا على الفاعل و النصب دالا على المفعول أو بالعكس. و إنما يدل على ذلك قرائن الكلام كما هو في لغتهم هذه. فالدلالة بحسب ما يصطلح عليه أهل الملكة. فإذا عرف اصطلاح في ملكة و اشتهر صحت الدلالة و إذا طابقت تلك الدلالة المقصود و مقتضى الحال صحت البلاغة و لا عبرة بقوانين النحاة في ذلك.


اعلم أن عرف التخاطب في الأمصار و بين الحضر ليس بلغة مضر القديمة و لا بلغة أهل الجيل بل هي لغة أخرى قائمة بنفسها بعيدة عن لغة مضر و عن لغة هذا الجيل العربي الذي لعهدنا و هي عن لغة مضر أبعد. فأما أنها لغة قائمة بنفسها فهو ظاهر يشهد له ما فيها من التغاير الذي يعد عند صناعة أهل النحو لحنا


وما زالت هذه البلاغة و البيان ديدن العرب و مذهبهم لهذا العهد. ولا تلتفتن في ذلك إلى خرفشة النحاة أهل صناعة الإعراب القاصرة مداركهم عن التحقيق حيث يزعمون أن البلاغة لهذا العهد ذهبت وأن اللسان العربي فسد اعتبارا بما وقع في أواخر الكلم من فساد الإعراب الذي يتدارسون قوانينه. و هي مقالة دسها التشيع في طباعهم و ألقاها القصور في أفئدتهم و إلا فنحن نجد اليوم الكثير من ألفاظ العرب لم تزل في موضوعاتها الأولى و التعبير عن المقاصد و التعاون فيه بتفاوت الإبانة موجود في كلامهم لهذا العهد و أساليب اللسان و فنونه من النظم و النثر موجودة في مخاطباتهم وفيهم الخطيب المصقع في محافلهم و مجامعهم و الشاعر المفلق على أساليب لغتهم. و الذوق الصحيح و الطبع السليم شاهدان بذلك. ولم يفقد من أحوال اللسان المدون إلا حركات الإعراب في أواخر الكلم فقط الذي لزم في لسان مضر طريقة واحدة و مهيعا معروفا و هو الإعراب و هو بعض من أحكام اللسان. و إنما وقعت العناية بلسان مضر لما فسد بمخالطتهم الأعاجم حين استولوا على ممالك العراق و الشام و مصر و المغرب و صارت ملكته على غير الصورة التي كانت أولا فانقلب لغة أخرى.

و كان القرآن منزلا به و الحديث النبوي منقولا بلغته و هما أصلا الدين و الملة. فخشي تناسيهما و انغلاق الأفهام عنهما بفقدان اللسان الذي نزلا به فاحتيج إلى تدوين أحكامه و وضع مقاييسه و استنباط قوانينه. و صار علما ذا فصول و أبواب و مقدمات و مسائل سماه أهله بعلم النحو و صناعة العربية. فأصبح فنا محفوظا و علما مكتوبا و سلما إلى فهم كتاب الله و سنة رسوله صلى الله عليه و سلم وافيا.
و لعلنا لو اعتنينا بهذا اللسان العربي لهذا العهد و استقرينا أحكامه نعتاض عن الحركات الإعرابية التي فسدت في دلالتها بأمور أخرى و كيفيات موجودة فيه فتكون لها قوانين تخصها. و لعلها تكون في أواخره على غير المنهاج الأول في لغة مضر. فليست اللغات و ملكاتها مجانا.


  1. There was a lot more material in this post back on the other blog...any chance of it coming back here?

    1. Yes, I do in fact plan on putting that other stuff on in a separate post that deals with the sociolinguistic phenomena of Modern Arabic as such. It made little sense, upon reflection, to include that with Ibn Khaldūn's historical linguistic musings as if they had a great deal in common.

      I'm planning on revising the other stuff. Once I do, it'll reappear here. So yes.

    2. I've just started reading backwards through your blog and I've found a lot that is interesting. A question on your translation of Ibn Khaldun - does he really use terms like "North Arabic", or are you "updating" him for contemporary readers? My Arabic doesn't go beyond knowing the Alphabet and a few beginners' lessons, so I quickly get lost in longer texts like that.