Author Archives: manager

(Linguistic) Knowledge is Power: al-Tahtawi and de Sacy.

It can be very difficult to judge someone else’s competence in a language, especially if a) you yourself do not know the language in question; and b) the person is long dead.  The matter is still more complicated in the case of Europeans learning Middle Eastern languages.  Orientalist scholarship, and the learning of ‘Oriental’ languages, has historically been bound up with power relationships between cultures and empires (if you haven’t already read Edward Said, now would be a good time).  In this tradition, a scholar’s knowledge of an Oriental language qualifies them to know (and control) the Orient, and to interpret it to the less linguistically-gifted.  But what if their Arabic isn’t as good as everyone thinks it is?

This is where Arab perspectives on European Orientalists are so valuable.  The Jordanian historian Suleiman Mousa’s T.E. Lawrence: An Arab View (لورنس والعرب: وجهة نظر عربية), published in English translation in 1966, is a landmark work of social history, which gathers first-hand testimony from those who lived and fought with ‘Lawrence of Arabia’.  One of the many things Lawrence’s Arab colleagues comment on is his ability in the language.  His Arabic was excellent, but it wasn’t nearly as impressive to a native speaker as it was to an armchair adventurer in Britain.

Lately I’ve been reading Daniel Newman’s translation of the Egyptian scholar Rifa’a al-Tahtawi‘s (1801-1873) highly entertaining and enlightening account of his stay in Paris among the ‘Franks’, in 1826-1831.  (Here’s al-Tahtawi sitting comfortably, on a Frankish chair, outside Sohag University.)


In Paris, al-Tahtawi got to know the great French Orientalist Antoine Silvestre de Sacy (1758-1838).  The two men evidently had a great deal of respect for one another.  De Sacy had studied and published authoritative works on a range of ancient and modern ‘Oriental’ languages.  He had been a professor of Arabic since before al-Tahtawi was born.  Here is al-Tahtawi’s respectful, but frank, evaluation of the Frank’s Arabic:

“Among his other works, which bear out his great ability, there is a grammar book, which he called al-Tuḥfa al-saniyya fi ‘ilm al-‘Arabiyya (‘The Splendid Gift in the Science of Arabic’). In this book he discussed the science of grammar through a strange arrangement, which nobody had done before him. … He collected the texts [in an anthology] and translated them from Arabic into French. He also wrote other works and translations, especially in the field of Persian, in which he is highly proficient. His fame as an eminent scholar throughout Europe cannot be denied, and numerous honours and distinctions have been bestowed upon him by the great kings of the continent. … ”

“His proficiency at Arabic is such that he summarized a commentary of the maqāmāt by al-Ḥarīrī … He learned Arabic, so it is said, by his powers of understanding, his keen intelligence and wide erudition – and without the help of a teacher, except at the beginning. He did not have instruction on, for instance, Shaykh Khālid – not to mention al-Mughnī, which he can read. Indeed he several times taught classes on al-Bayḍāwi. However, when he reads, he has a foreign accent and he cannot speak Arabic unless he has a book in his hands. If he wants to explain an expression, he uses strange words, which he is unable to pronounce properly. But let us here include the preface to his commentary of al-Ḥarīrī’s maqāmāt in order to give an idea of his writing and his style, which is eloquent, even though it has slight weaknesses owing to his familiarity with the rules of European languages, as a result of which he tends to use expressions [from those languages] in Arabic.”

al-Tahtawi, who had recently been through a French immersion course, and later established a prestigious school for translators in Cairo, is a canny observer of linguistic foibles.  There is a big difference between having a good grammatical command of a language and speaking it.  De Sacy, the renowned Orientalist, was in fact imperfectly placed to act as a mediator between the Franks and the Arabs.  We can only assume that he remained unaware of al-Tahtawi’s assessment of his Arabic, and was unaware of the irony in a letter of recommendation he later wrote for the Egyptian scholar, praising a work which “does not always comply with the rules of Arabic grammar.”  Sylvestre de Sacy: Reviewer No. 2.


Mousa, Suleiman (1966) T. E. Lawrence: An Arab View. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

al-Ṭahṭāwi, Rifā‛a Rāfi‛ (1834) Takhlīṣ al-Ibrīz fī Talkhīṣ Bārīz aw al-Dīwān al-Nafīs bi-Īwān Bārīs تخليص الإبريز في تلخيص باريز (trans. Daniel L. Newman, London: Saqi 2004 as An Imam in Paris: Account of a Stay in France by an Egyptian Cleric 1826-1831). Būlāq: Dār aṭ-Ṭibāʻa al-Hidīwīya.



Understanding the Importance of Interpreters Through ‘Game of Thrones’

Every linguist’s favourite Game of Thrones character is (or should be!) Missandei, Daenerys Targaryen’s interpreter.  Neil Payne, in the Huffington Post, explains why Missandei’s mediation of the negotiations between Daenerys and the Masters of Astapor makes her a great diplomatic interpreter:

Within the book, although not explicit in the TV series, we see that one of the Masters speaks enough of the Common tongue that the negotiations are being conducted in to be able to understand exactly what Missandei is saying. For Missandei she first must understand the intent of Master Khaznys words, and change them to a respectful statement that still conveys his message. In the TV series we watch as she pauses to try and work out what to say when Master Khaznys state he will give Daenerys 10 extra unsullied because he likes her looks; she decides to merely say he is generous. Imagine the horror on both sides had she just translated his words exactly!

Understanding the Importance of Interpreters Through ‘Game of Thrones’, Huffington Post Blog, 13 September 2014.

More examples are reviewed in A Geek’s Guide to Fictional Interpreters.

Learning Latin in Hebrew

A while ago, I re-blogged a piece from Princeton Rare Book Collections, Teach Yourself Arabic – in Yiddish!  There were many reasons for people of many backgrounds to learn languages in Palestine/Israel in the first half of the twentieth century.  As well as the obvious (Arabic, Yiddish, Hebrew, French, English, German…), a neglected early publication by the linguist Haiim B. Rosén (né Heinz Erich Rosenrauch: 1922-1999) gives an insight into the teaching of Latin and Greek.

Rosén was a prominent member of the ‘Jerusalem School’ of Linguistics, a colleague of the famous (well, famous to Egyptologists…) linguist of Egyptian, Hans Jakob Polotsky.  Early in his career, before earning his PhD (Hebrew University of Jerusalem: 1948), he taught high school Latin and Hebrew.  His Latin textbook (1947) must be a product of this scholastic experience; and the Latin dialogues from which students are to learn suggest that he taught in a girls’ school.

So how is a 1940s Hebrew grammar of Latin different from all others?  Well, it opens from both covers, which is always fun: Latin from the (European) front, Hebrew from the (Middle Eastern) front.


Just as the story of the Cambridge Latin Course (spoiler alert!) has Quintus move to Britain in Books II and III, Rosen has also worked in some material on the Roman province of Judaea.  Lesson 1 is about Italy, but in Lesson 2, the dialogue moves east:

Magistra: Salvete, puellae, hodie tabulam novam spectamus, hic Iudaeam videtis.  (Teacher: Hello, girls.  Today we are looking at a new map.  Here you see Judaea.)

Puellae respondent: Videmus terram parvam.  (The girls answer: We see a small country.)

Magistra: Quid mostro, Iulia?  (What am I showing, Julia?)

Puella: Iudaeam mostras terram parvam.  (Girl: You’re showing Judaea, a small country.)

By Lesson 13, students can cope with more complex sentences – and political situations:

Etiam patria nostra olim provincia Romana erat; imperatoris Romani servi erant Iudaei.  Imperator dominus erat terrae nostrae.  Iugum Romanorum deicere frustra cupiebamus.  (Our homeland was also once a Roman province. The Judaeans were the slaves of the Roman Emperor.  The Emperor was master of our land.  We strove to cast off the Roman yoke in vain.)

Later (Lesson 30), students learn about the sack of Jerusalem in AD 70, the destruction of the Second Temple, and how the city’s treasures were taken back to Rome to be paraded in triumph – and commemorated on a triumphal arch.



The Roman Senate and people erected a great and beautiful arch in the Roman Forum for the Emperor Titus … decorated with images of captive tribes and spoils.

If 1940s Jerusalem had had the Research Excellence Framework, this would have made an excellent Impact Case Study for Rosén…

Further Reading:

Rosén, Haiim B. (= Rosenrauch, Heinz Erich) (1947) Yesodot ha-lashon ha-romit / Elementa Linguae Latinae in usum scholarum Hebraicarum. Tel Aviv: Omanuth.

Swiggers, P., & Rosén, H. B. (2005). Haiim B. Rosén: Bio-bibliographical sketch. Leuven: Centre international de dialectologie générale.

On the Trail of Rolla Floyd in Jerusalem

Rolla Floyd (1832-1911), an American, was one of the principal dragomans and tourist contractors in Palestine in the late nineteenth century.  I’ve spent a lot of time getting to know him through archival documents over the past few years, so it was time for a ‘pilgrimage’ to Jerusalem to find more tangible remains of the man.

After a long and successful career, marred only by a long-running feud with Thomas Cook & Son, Floyd retired to Jerusalem, to a house he built just off Jaffa Road.  Its prime location in downtown Jerusalem (near the corner of King George V Street and Agripas Street, on the same plot as the old Eden Cinema) means that it has been demolished to make way for a new development.  Sad though it is to find Floyd House gone, the magnitude of the hole in the ground where it once stood is actually quite impressive.  There is some nostalgic Cinema Eden graffiti on the wall surrounding the site.




There’s nothing like a trip to a musty old antiquarian bookshop to lift the spirits after discovering the building you came to see has been demolished.  I found a copy of John Cunningham Geikie‘s 1887 The Holy Land and the Bible, where Rolla Floyd gets an honourable mention, and some other dragomans less than honourable mentions.  (Anyone who has ever read a Victorian Middle Eastern travelogue or devotional book will be able to guess its tone and contents fairly accurately.)  This copy bears the stamp of the London-based Jewish Agency for Israel, and can’t have been a popular read, since the pages are uncut.

File 14-05-2016, 13 12 25

Floyd is buried in the Alliance Church International Cemetery on Emek Refaim Street, in the German Colony district of Jerusalem.  (Not to be confused with the German Templar Cemetery next door.)  It’s often closed, but I was fortunate not only to find it open when I visited, but to meet cemetery guide and historian Mero Aaroni, a fount of knowledge on Floyd and the cemetery’s many other fascinating ‘residents’ (contact details below).


Further Reading:

Rolla Floyd does not have a Wikipedia entry in English, but there is one in Hebrew.  Floyd House in Jerusalem may be gone, but the Times of Israel (2 March 2014) has a great, illustrated article on the present-day remains of the American Colony in Jaffa, of which Rolla Floyd had been a member.

For more on Floyd and other dragomans, see Mairs and Muratov, Archaeologists, Tourists, Interpreters (Bloomsbury, 2015) and Mairs, From Khartoum to Jerusalem: The Dragoman Solomon Negima and his Clients (Bloomsbury 2016).

To visit the Alliance Church International Cemetery:

Aaroni 1Aaroni 2


Teach Yourself Arabic – in Yiddish!

From the Princeton Rare Book Collections Blog:

Rachel Simon, Senior Librarian and specialist for Middle Eastern languages in the Library, has just published “Teach Yourself Arabic — In Yiddish!” in the most recent MELA Notes: The Journal of the Middle Eastern Librarians Association. [For full text of the illustrated article] She details the fascinating story of Getzl (George) Zelikovitz (1863-1926), a linguistic prodigy born in Lithuania, educated at the Sorbonne, and served as an interpreter under Lord Kitchener in the Sudan. He settled in the United States in 1887. He remained in the US until his death, working chiefly as a journalist for the Yiddish press in New York and prolifically publishing fiction, poetry and works of scholarship. In 1918, he separately published in Yiddish an instruction book for learning Arabic — certainly a first of its kind and surely the sort of publication that could only come out of melting pot America.

According to Dr. Simon, “The introduction [of Arabish-Idisher Lehrer] explains the purpose and method of the book. Its goal is to teach colloquial Palestinian Arabic—namely, not literary Arabic—to Jewish Legionaries, settlers [kolonisten], merchants, tourists, learned people [maskilim], laborers in Palestine, and maybe even Hebrew teachers abroad. This aim and the target population dictated the method, structure, and style of the book: a practical teaching aid in Yiddish, so that following a short study period the student would be able to talk with Arabs.” (p. 4-5)

She concludes: “The book does make the student somewhat aware of Arab customs, but it reflects more Jewish and Western views and issues. Although it was intended to serve as a guide for Jews as to how to reach out to Arabs, it is more reflective of Western Jews, their beliefs, customs, and modes of expression.” (p. 14-15)

Ex Libris Harold Meek

Meek Persian Spine

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about books as (inanimate) interpreters.  Instruction books for languages such as Arabic, Persian and Hindustani in the nineteenth century were produced in a colonial context and often directed explicitly at soldiers, administrators and other agents of empire.  Annotations by previous owners can offer an insight into the social history of these books’ production and use.  Such ‘object biographies’ can be telling.

I recently acquired some books whose history is written in their pages in the form not only of the printed text, but of ink and pencil marks and bookplates of their owners over the years.  One is an 1810 abridgement of Richardson’s Dictionary of Arabic and Persian, designed “For the use of Gentlemen in the Army, in the Service of the Honourable East India Company, and others, going out to India, who may think Richardson’s Dictionary too bulky or expensive.”

Richardson 1810 title.jpgDSCN2633.jpg

In 1844, a William Manchester wrote his name on the title page.  (It is possible that he is a member of the family of the Dukes of Manchester, but I have no further information on him.)  Inside the front cover is the bookplate of one Harold Meek, with the date April 1971.

Meek Bookplate.png

I found what I thought was a good identification of a ‘Harold Meeks’ (1922-2015), an architectural historian (hence the bookplate’s Baroque flourishes) and translator (of many languages).  I mentioned this to my father, who said “It’s not Meeks: it’s Meek.”  Meek had taught him in the department of Architecture at Queen’s University, Belfast, in the 1970s.  So this book has followed an interesting trajectory: from colonial administrator (or a person of that ilk), to historian and translator, to historian of translation (who happens to be the daughter of the former’s student).

Meek passed away only a few months ago.  I picked up several nice things in the same antiquarian bookshop at the same time as the 1810 dictionary, at least one of which was also part of his collection.  This is A. H. Bleeck’s 1857 Concise Grammar of the Persian Language, inside which Meek pencilled his name on 3 June 1940.  Bleeck (1829-1877) worked at the British Museum and served in the Crimean War, using his languages in both capacities.


The Preface notes that “there are many who devote themselves to linguistic pursuits chiefly with a view to qualify themselves as interpreters, or sometimes merely for the purpose of making their way through a foreign country, yet even to these it cannot be altogether a matter of indifference whether the dialect they acquire is as rich in literature as, for example, the German, or as poor as the Bulgarian or the Gaelic.”  For this reason, he gives a brief introduction to Persian literature.

What drew me to this book was Bleeck’s advertisement that it contained, in addition, ‘A New Plan for Facilitating the Study of Languages’, with specimen text for this method applied to fourteen other languages: from Arabic to Turkish, by way of Georgian and Swedish.  Bleeck was not the first or the last to promise a new technique for learning languages quickly and easily.


The method is not revolutionary: it consists of short passages with translation and vocabulary.  Having these contained in a single book, however, shows not just how similar teaching methods were employed for languages from very different families (Afro-Asiatic, Indo-European, etc.), but how a comforting regularity could thereby be given to the acquisition of any language – whether one intuitive for an English speaker, or one more daunting.

The section on Arabic shows something of the book’s life over the past century and a half.  A tear has been carefully repaired with new paper, and the missing text neatly inked in.