The Latin Dimension of ‘Frankish’

Ibn Khurdadhbah (d. c.300/911) provides one of the earliest Arabic-Islamic references to languages used in the Latin West. He not only distinguishes between an ancient form of Greek called ‘al-Yunaniyya’/8 and a Byzantine form of Greek called ‘al-Rumiyya’/9 but he also mentions that Jewish merchants involved in long-distance trade between the Frankish kingdom and the western parts of China spoke ‘Andalusian’ (al-Andalusiyya), ‘Frankish’ (al-Ifranjiyya), and ‘Slavonic’ (al-Saqlabiyya). Assuming that the aforementioned Jewish merchants were more in need of oral communication skills than of a literary language such as Latin, we may identify ‘al-Andalusiyya’ and ‘al-Ifranjiyya’ with regional Romance vernaculars, ‘al-Saqlabiyya’, with the language spoken by Bulgars or Slavic groups known to the Arabic-Islamic world of the ninth century/0

Authors of the tenth century did not necessarily surpass Ibn Khurdadhbah in knowledge. In his muruj al-dhahab, al-Mas'udl (d. 345/956) fails to distinguish between different ancient languages or between an ancient and a Byzantine form of Greek/1 He admits that he was only able to acquire knowledge on the Romans aurally since most history books were in the language ‘al-Rumiyya’/2 Although he dedicates entire chapters to the Galicians, Franks, Lombards, and Slavs, he does not comment on their languages.73 Copied by Ibn Hawqal (d. after 378/988), al-Istakhri (tenth cent.) at least differentiated between languages used by Christians of the western and the eastern hemisphere. Including the Franks and the Galicians in his description of Byzantine territory (balad al-Rum), he highlights that they adhered to the same religion but differed in language/4

In the tenth century, Middle Eastern Arabic-Islamic scholars also used the term ‘Frankish’ for linguistic phenomena that seem to have represented Latin. In his kitab al-tanbih, written a few years after the treatise mentioned above/5 al-Mas'udl claims that Greeks, Romans, Slavs, and Franks, as well as ‘the other peoples that lay behind them in the northern regions’, had originally formed one people, i.e. the third of, all in all, seven primeval peoples, and had originally spoken one single language.[1] [2] [3] [4] [5] [6] [7] [8] [9] [10] Moreover, al-Mas'udl employs the term ‘archaic Frankish’ (al-Ifranjiyya al-ula) to explain the titles ‘Augustus’ (Awghustus) and ‘Caesar’ (qaysar).77 Since he explains that ‘Rome is and has always been the capital of the realm of great Francia’,78 this ancient Frankish language must stand for Latin/9

More centred on the contemporary linguistic landscape, Ibn al-Nadim (d. c.385_88/995_98) from Baghdad distinguishes between various scripts which he defines as ‘Greek’ (al-khatt al-rumi), ‘Lombard’, and, possibly, ‘Saxon’ (qalam li-Nukubardih wa-li-Sakisih) as well as ‘Frankish’ (kitabat al-Faranja) in his bibliographical index al-fihrist. Since the graphic specimens originally included in the work have been lost, it is necessary to draw on the descriptions he offers instead. Written from left to right, the ‘Lombard and Saxon’ script, used by a people living near al-Andalus between Rome (Rumiyya) and the Franks (Ifranja), consisted of twenty-two letters and was called ‘Aqlstallql’/0 Considering that southern Italy in the tenth century was strongly influenced by Byzantine culture/1 only the double reference to ‘Lombard’ and, possibly, ‘Saxon’ suggests that this script was used to write Latin. No doubts arise in his description of ‘Frankish’. Ibn al-Nadim asserts that it resembled the Greek script but was more rectilinear, and that he had seen it on the hilts of Frankish swords as well as in the letter written by a Frankish queen to the Abbasid caliph al-Muktafi bi-llah/2 In the late tenth century, Romance vernaculars were still seldom written/3 inscriptions on Frankish sword hilts were often in Latin/4 whereas an official letter sent by a member of the Frankish ruling elite would have been written in this language as well. Another example for the definition of Latin as ‘Frankish’ is proffered by the Persian scholar al-Biruni (d. c.442/1050) who points to the Frankish (Ifranjiyya) origins of the title ‘Caesar’


Early Middle Eastern scholars of the ninth to eleventh centuries only seem to have had a vague and inconsistent notion of the languages written and spoken in the northwestern hemisphere. Employing the ethnonym ‘al-Rum’ for the inhabitants, the term ‘al-Rumiyya’ for the languages of the ancient Roman and Byzantine Empires, their linguistic terminology lacked a clear distinction between ancient and Byzantine Greek on the one hand, Greek and Latin on the other hand.[11] [12] Only some of them classified ancient Greek as ‘al-Yunaniyya’ or pointed to a linguistic divide between the east and the west. With regards to the languages of medieval Europe, the term most frequently employed was ‘Frankish’, with al-Mas'udi distinguishing implicitly between an ‘ancient’ and a ‘modern’ form of this language. The popularity of this term cannot be explained only with reference to Frankish dominance in early medieval Western Europe.8[13] [14] [15] One must also consider that all sources dealt with so far had been written by Middle Eastern authors who presumably heard languages of the Latin West less frequently than their colleagues from the Muslim West did.

  • [1] The treatise muruj al-dhahab was finished in 336/947, the kitab al-tanbih in 345/956, the yearof his death, cf. al-Mas udi, muruj, ed./trans. Pellat, § 30, p. 29 (AR), p. 19 (FR); § 3628, pp. 282—3(AR); al-Mas'udi, al-tanbih, ed. de Goeje, p. 6.
  • [2] 76 Ibid., pp. 77, 83: wa-man ittasala bihim min al-umam fi l-jarbi’.
  • [3] Ibid., pp. 123—4.
  • [4] Ibid., pp. 181—2: ‘wa-Rumiyya dar mamlakat al-Ifranjiyya al-'uzma [sic] qadiman wa-hadithan’,trans. Carra de Vaux, pp. 246—7, 429. See Chapters 4.2.1. and 6.4.1.
  • [5] Note that, in his translation of al-Mas udis kitab al-tanbih, Bernard Carra de Vaux (Ma^oudi,Livre de l’avertissement, p. 173) uses the term ‘les Latins’ although it never appears in phonetical transcription (i.e. al-Latiniyyun) in the works of al-Mas'udi.
  • [6] Ibn al-Nadim, al-fihrist, ed. Fluegel, p. 18.
  • [7] Kreutz, Normans (1996), pp. 62—7, 150—1.
  • [8] 82 Ibn al-Nadim, al-fihrist, ed. Fluegel, p. 20. Al-Rashid b. al-Zubayr, al-dhakhair, ed. Hamidullah,pp. 48—54, claims that the caliph drew back on two persons to read the letter—a ‘Frank’, capable ofreading ‘the writing of his people’ (yaqra5 kitabat ahlihi), who translated the letter into Greek(tarjamahu bi-kitabat al-rumiyya), and the scholar Ishaq b. Hunayn who rendered the letter fromGreek to Arabic. The authorship and authenticity of this document, commonly ascribed to the eleventh century, is debated, see ibid., pp. 9—17, trans. al Hijjawi al-Qaddumi, pp. 11—13; Christys,‘Queen’ (2010), pp. 149-70.
  • [9] Wright, Latin (1982), p. 144, describes a period of ‘experimentation in Romance writing’.
  • [10] Zeki Validi, ‘Schwerter’ (1936), p. 26.
  • [11] al-Biruni, al-athar, ed./trans. Sachau, p. 29 (AR), p. 33 (EN). Al-Birunis linguistic definitionslack consistency. In ibid., p. 92 (AR), p. 103 (EN), he claims that Caesar’s name ‘Julius’ meant ‘rulerof the world’ in the language ‘al-Rumiyya’.
  • [12] Cf. Marin, ‘Rum’ (1984), pp. 109—18; el-Cheikh and Bosworth, ‘Rum’ (1995), p. 601; Serikoff,‘Rumi’ (1996), pp. 169—94.
  • [13] See Chapter 6.
  • [14] Wasserstein, ‘Situation’ (1991), p. 4; Gallego Garcia, ‘Languages’ (2003), p. 108.
  • [15] Millet-Gerard, Chretiens (1984), pp. 49—62; Fierro, Al-Andalus (2001), pp. 13—24, esp. 16—21;Vicente, Proceso (2007). See Chapter 2.2.1.
< Prev   CONTENTS   Source   Next >