Kurdish

The Languages of Berkeley: An Online Exhibition

Kurdish
Facing pages from Grammatica e vocabolario della lingua Kurda (1787). Source: Internet Archive (Wellcome Library) 

Kurdish is an Indo-European language spoken by approximately 30 million people in the Kurdistan region, and many others in diaspora.[1] Kurdistan spans eastern Turkey, northern Iraq, and western Iran and smaller parts of northern Syria and Armenia.[2] In 1992, Kurds in northern Iraq established the autonomous government, Kurdistan Regional Government, while Kurds in Iran are still seeking official recognition especially in the inhabited Iranian province of Kordestan.[3]

According to Philip Kreyenbroek in the Encyclopedia of Language and Linguistics (2006), “Kurdish is spoken in three main variants: Northern Kurdish, comprising Kurmānjī in the west and dialects spoken from Armenia to Kazakhstan; Central Kurdish, spoken in northeastern Iraq (called Sōrāni) and adjacent areas in Iran (called Kordi or Mokri), as well as in Iranian Kurdistan (called Senne’i); and Southern Kurdish, spoken in Kermanshah province in western Iran (including Lakki and Lori of Posht-e Kuh).”[4] The two widely spoken dialects of Kurdish language are Sōrāni and Kurmānjī; where Sōrāni dialect is written in Perso-Arabic script, the Kurmānjī dialect is written in Latin script.[5]

For most its history, Kurdish was not used as a written language. Those who aspired to contribute to the elevated, written culture of their times wrote in Arabic, Persian or, later, Turkish.[6] Sharfnama, or The History of Kurdish Nation, a famous book about the history of the Kurds in the medieval period, was written originally in Persian in 1597, and later translated into many languages including Turkish, French, German, Russian, Arabic, Kurdish and English. The first Kurdish translation of Sharfnama was carried out in Russia in 1858, published in Moscow as a book entitled Tawārīh-i ḳadīm-i Kūrdistān by Mahmud Bayazidi in 1986, in Kurmānjī dialect. A new translation in Sōrāni dialect entitled Sharafnāmah-yi Sharafkhānî Bidlīsī by Hejar was published in Iraq in 1972.[7]

Grammatica e vocabolario della lingua Kurda, which was published in 1787 by Maurizio Garzoni as the first grammar and vocabulary book, was used for a long time among scholars as the standard reference tool for the Kurdish language.[8] More recently in the West, the doctoral thesis of David Neil Mackenzie, which was later published as a book in two volumes entitled Kurdish Dialect Studies is considered a groundbreaking study, especially for Kurdish dialects of Iraq.[9]

Kreyenbroek writes: “Kurdish poetry and prose narratives were transmitted orally. However, the form, language and imagery of the earliest known Kurdish written poetry effortlessly follows the models offered by Arabo-Persian poetry, which suggests that the tradition had been perfected before the known early poets appeared.”[10]  One of the examples of popular classical Kurdish poets was Ahmad Khani (1650-1707). He wrote what is considered, the most famous romantic epic Mamu Zayn, which is likened to Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet.” It has been translated and reproduced widely in different languages, works and films.[11]

Recent histories of literary Kurdish literature varies based on different national accounts of the lands of Kurdish speaking people. In 1991 the Turkish government recognized the existence of the Kurdish language, which led to the publication of more literary works in Turkey. In Iraq, the first printing press of Kurdistan was established in Sulaymaniyah in 1919. The printing press helped in establishing various Kurdish newspapers and the production of literary works especially in Sōrāni. In Iran, at least two of the Kurdish poets were recognized nationwide as the “national poet of the Republic of Kurdistan.” These are Abd al-Raḥmān Sharafkandī (Hazhar or Hejar), and Hemin Mokriani. In Armenia, there is a small but active community especially in producing poetry and prose.[12]

At Berkeley, in the Near Eastern Studies Department, with funding support from the Center for the Middle Eastern Studies, Kurdish language and culture classes have been offered sporadically in the last decade. In addition to language classes, Kurdish is included in such courses as the “Sociolinguistics of the Greater Middle East” class, which was offered in 2019 and 2020.[13] In the Library, scholarly works for the study of Kurdish are one of the Library’s distinct strengths for the region.

Contribution by Mohamed Hamed
Middle Eastern & Near Eastern Studies Librarian, Doe Library

Sources consulted:

  1. Encyclopædia Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/topic/Kurdish-language (accessed 8/3/20)
  2. Encyclopædia Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/topic/Kurdistan (accessed 8/3/20)
  3. The Kurdish Project, https://thekurdishproject.org/kurdistan-map (accessed 8/3/20)
  4. Encyclopedia of Languages & Linguistics / Keith Brown, editor-in-chief; co-ordinating editors, Anne H. Anderson … [et al.]. 2nd ed. (Boston: Elsevier, c2006), 265-266.
  5. Kurdistan Regional Government, http://cabinet.gov.krd/p/page.aspx?l=12&s=050000&r=305&p=215 (accessed 8/3/20)
  6. Encyclopædia Iranica, http://www.iranicaonline.org/articles/kurdish-written-literature (accessed 8/3/20)
  7. Anwar Soltani, “The Sharafnama of Bitlisi: Manuscript Copies, Translations and Appendixes” in Kurdistanica.com, http://kurdistanica.com/the-sharafnama-of-bitlisi-manuscript-copies-translations-and-appendixes (accessed 8/3/20)
  8. Encyclopedia of Languages & Linguistics / Keith Brown, editor-in-chief; co-ordinating editors, Anne H. Anderson … [et al.]. 2nd ed. (Boston: Elsevier, c2006), 265-266.
  9. Encyclopædia Iranica, http://www.iranicaonline.org/articles/mackenzie-david-neil-1 (accessed 8/3/20)
  10. Encyclopædia Iranica, http://www.iranicaonline.org/articles/kurdish-written-literature (accessed 8/3/20)
  11. Encyclopædia Iranica, http://www.iranicaonline.org/articles/meme-alan (accessed 8/3/20)
  12. Encyclopædia Iranica, http://www.iranicaonline.org/articles/kurdish-written-literature (accessed 8/3/20)
  13. Kurdish – Berkeley Academic Guide (accessed 8/3/20)

~~~~~~~~~~
Title:
Grammatica e vocabolario della lingua Kurda
Title in English: Grammar and vocabulary of the Kurdish language
Author: Garzoni, Maurizio, 1730-1790.
Imprint: Rome, 1787.
Edition: 1st
Language: Kurdish
Language Family: Indo-European, Indo-Iranian
Source: The Internet Archive (Wellcome Library)
URL: https://archive.org/details/b28777086/page/n3/mode/2up

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Akkadian

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Akkadian
11th Tablet of the Epic of Gilgamesh (Neo-Assyrian, 7th Century BCE). Courtesy of the British Museum.

Akkadian is a member of the eastern branch of the Semitic language family. This is a large family, with languages spoken today throughout the Middle East and North Africa. The most widely-known Semitic languages are Arabic, Hebrew, Aramaic and Amharic. Each of these has a long literary tradition.

The first Akkadian texts were written perhaps as early as 2500 BCE. Akkadian thus has the honor of being the first Semitic language to leave us records. The earliest texts come from the northern region of ancient Mesopotamia, modern-day Iraq. The language spread from there, and was eventually spoken throughout much of the Ancient Near East until the 7th century BCE, when it was gradually replaced by Aramaic. As time passed, knowledge of the language became more and more limited to priests and scholars. The latest Akkadian texts date to the first century CE. By that time, no one had spoken Akkadian as a native language for over five hundred years. These last texts were composed by Mesopotamian religious scholars, preserving their ancient culture.

Akkadian was written in the cuneiform script, which it adopted from the Sumerians, who preceded the Akkadians in Mesopotamia by centuries. Ancient Akkadian scholars were aware of the cultural debt that they owed to the Sumerians, and so studied Sumerian in their school system. In addition to composing texts in Akkadian, Akkadian scholars composed texts in Sumerian a thousand years after Sumerian had died out as a spoken language.

A host of texts in Akkadian has been preserved. This ranges from the most mundane accounting records to works of high literature. Some of the many other genres include legal texts, prescriptions, letters, omen texts, grammatical studies, and religious compositions of all kinds. This wealth of compositions can be seen by the fact that the standard dictionary of Akkadian—The Assyrian Dictionary of the Oriental Institute of University of Chicago—is 21 volumes long.[1] (The word “Assyrian” reflects an early name that scholars used.)

Assyriology—the study of texts written in Akkadian and Sumerian—is now a field of studies in its own right. In the early days of the field, however, scholars were mostly interested in reading Akkadian texts in order to prove the veracity of the Bible. The most famous Akkadian composition is the Epic of Gilgamesh, which consists of approximately 3600 lines written on 12 tablets. While earlier versions of Gilgamesh stories were written in both Sumerian and Akkadian, the version as we know it today comes from the 1st millennium BCE. An ancient Akkadian catalogue of texts credits this version to a man named Sin-leqi-unninni. Modern scholars debate about the role that he played in the writing of this text—author, editor, or compiler. Because of its treatment of timeless themes, including death and friendship, the Epic remains popular even today.

Perhaps the best-known cuneiform tablet in the British Museum is K. 3375 (illustrated above, courtesy of the British Museum), which contains a portion of Tablet 11 of the Epic, known as the “flood story.” E.A.W. Budge, the Keeper of Egyptian and Assyrian Antiquities at the British Museum, recalled the excitement that the decipherment of this tablet caused, when after some preliminary study it was given to George Smith, Senior Assistant at the Museum:

Smith was constitutionally a highly nervous, sensitive man…Smith took the tablet and began to read over the lines…and when he saw that they contained the portion of the legend he had hoped to find there, he said, “I am the first man to read that after more than two thousand years of oblivion.” Setting the tablet on the table, he jumped up and rushed about the room in a great state of excitement, and, to the astonishment of those present, began to undress himself![2]

Smith presented his findings in a public lecture at the Society of Biblical Archaeology on December 3, 1872, announcing his discovery of what was a Mesopotamian version of the biblical flood story. He then read his translation of the entire fragment to the audience which was greeted with enthusiasm.

Many have heard of the Epic of Gilgamesh or the Code of Hammurapi. While not the first recorded law code, the Law Code is by far the longest and most complete.[3] The very first “law” (for want of a better word) reads:

Hammurapi
Autograph of the Code of Hammurapi, courtesy of the Pontificio Istituto Biblico.
If a man accuses another man of homicide,
but cannot prove the charge, that man shall
be executed.

While works such as the Epic or the Law Code have captured public attention, many people are unaware of the vast amount of Akkadian that has been preserved. Letters—between rulers and their subordinates, and between private individuals—form a primary source for the writing of history. A typical short letter from the Old Babylonian period (approximately 2000–1600 BCE), now in the Louvre, chosen at random, states:

May the god Shamash keep you well.
Prepare for me the myrtle and the sweet-smelling reeds that I spoke to you about
earlier, and a boat for shipping wine to the city of Sippar. Purchase and bring with
you ten sheqels worth of wine, and meet me here in Babylon tomorrow.

It is such texts that enable economic historians to help reconstruct many different facets of the ancient Mesopotamian economy.

One of the reasons why people in general know less about Mesopotamia than about ancient Egypt is because the physical remains of Mesopotamian civilization are not nearly as spectacular as those of Egypt. There is very little hard stone in Mesopotamia, especially in the south, so the Mesopotamians built in mud-brick. They took mud from the rivers, shaped it into bricks, and made those bricks into buildings. Mud-brick buildings aren’t very durable: temples and palaces fall apart. So the archaeological remains of Mesopotamia are not nearly as well preserved as in Egyptian. Visiting ancient ruins in Syria or Iraq is not like wandering through the remains of Karnak or Luxor in Egypt today, where buildings are all around. Nor does cuneiform writing have the same aesthetic appeal that Egyptian hieroglyphs do. This means, unfortunately, that the study of the Ancient Near East—whose history and culture are known to us through Sumerian and Akkadian—has never had the same cachet among the general public that the study of Ancient Egypt has enjoyed. Nevertheless, both Sumerian and Akkadian have been taught at Cal for many years, and continue to enjoy a coterie of dedicated students.

Contribution by John L. Hayes
Lecturer, Department of Near Eastern Studies

Sources consulted:

  1. The Assyrian Dictionary of the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago / editorial board, Ignace J. Gelb … [et al.] Chicago, Ill.: The Institute, 1956-
  2. Budge, E. A. Wallace. The Rise & Progress of Assyriology. (London: Clay & Sons, 1925), 152–153.
  3. Hammurabi, King of Babylonia. Codex Hammurabi. Roma: Pontificium Institutum Biblicum, 1950-53.

~~~~~~~~~~
Title:
Epic of Gilgamesh, tablet 11, story of the Flood (K-3375)
Author: unknown
Imprint: Excavated at Kouyunjik in northern Iraq. Understood as the remains of the great library collected by King Ashurbanipal (668-c.630 BC) of Assyria at his capital of Nineveh.
Language: Akkadian
Language Family: Afro-Asiatic, Semitic, Northwest Semitic
Source: The British Museum
URL: https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/object/W_K-3375

Other online editions and resources:

Select print editions at Berkeley:

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Coptic

The Languages of Berkeley: An Online Exhibition

Coptic
Psalter manuscript, 6th century. Source: HathiTrust (University of Michigan)

Coptic Christians constitute the largest indigenous Christian community in the Middle East, concentrated primarily in Egypt, but more recently extending to growing diaspora communities in the United States, Canada, Europe, and Australia. The vast majority of Coptic Christians are members of the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria, one of the six Oriental Orthodox churches that was outcast by other Christian churches as a result of theo-political disputes during and following the Council of Chalcedon in 451 CE. The Coptic language has been a source of communal belonging for Egyptian Orthodox Christian communities, and of special concern to Orientalists of the modern period interested in the ancient languages of the Middle East.

Fundamentally, Coptic is the last written phase in the evolution of the language of the ancient Egyptians. The Coptic language may therefore be defined as the late Egyptian vernacular inscribed in the Greek alphabet, to which are juxtaposed multiple additional characters from demotic that number seven in the current surviving dialect, Bohairic. The rapid spread of Christianity in the fourth and fifth centuries CE influenced how and in what form Coptic was transmitted. Christians, in their missionary approach, revived the use of the local vernacular dialects. They primarily served as vehicles for transmitting Scripture. There are six major dialects of Coptic: Sahidic, Bohairic, Fayyumic, Akhmimic, Lycopolitan, Mesokemic, with multiple subdialects or minor ones.[1]

Early on, the language was primarily a translation tool for Christian literature originally written in Greek, such as the Scriptures; as well as a mechanism to mask the heterodox literature of Gnostic and Manichean communities from the eyes of agents of the Orthodox authorities in Alexandria. Following the Great Persecutions of the early fourth century, known as the “Era of the Martyrs,” two large-scale changes took place: the accelerated Christian conversion of the Egyptian countryside and the rapid growth of monasticism. These changes helped to elevate and expand the role of Coptic from a mode of translation to a complete literary language.[2] Following the Arab Conquest of Egypt, Arabic slowly took precedence as a language of government and administration, and became the lingua franca of literary composition among the elite Copts of the time a few centuries later. Consequently, Coptic literature became restricted to hagiographic and liturgical compositions. Even hagiographic works were adapted for liturgical use.

Coptic persisted as a spoken and liturgical language until approximately the 13th century which was marked by the emergence of native scholars who composed Coptic grammars in Arabic as well as Arabic-Coptic dictionaries to help preserve the language. Among these were Aulad al-‘Assal and Abu al-Barakat ibn Kabar who flourished under the rule of the Fatimid and Ayyubid dynasties of Egypt.[3] Nevertheless, Coptic steadily declined, but European travelers to Egypt of the 17th and 18th centuries would briefly note the continuance of the language among Copts in Upper Egypt.[4] [5] Preeminent Coptologist Hany Takla (2014) of the Saint Shenouda the Archimandrite Coptic Society has called the period between the 15th and 18th centuries the “dormant stage,” whereby the use of Coptic was at an all-time low. Through Orientalist and colonial influence, as well as Coptic initiative, a revival took place in the mid-19th century where the essence of reform was to “modernize” the Coptic language through its standardization. Historian Paul Sedra has argued that educated Copts initiated processes of textualizing Coptic heritage, and advocated for reform’s civilizing and disciplinary capacity.[6]

During fieldwork between 2014-2015 at the Coptic Cathedral in Cairo, I sat in on a number of Coptic language courses. One of the central drivers of Coptic language retention like these courses has been the institutional authority of the Coptic Orthodox Church. Church sponsorship has been vital in reintroducing Coptic classes in order to familiarize Coptic youth with liturgical terminology as well as cultivate a living heritage among contemporary Egyptian Orthodox Christians. Anthropologist Carolyn Ramzy has examined the continued importance of Coptic language to identity in 20th and 21st century Egypt and within its contemporary diasporas through the lens of church hymnody known as alḥān. Before the Sunday School movement of the early 20th century, Coptic Orthodox worship was largely limited to Church services, where parishioners traditionally practiced all of their official church rites accompanied by alḥān. As alḥān texts are in Coptic, few people—clerics, and educated cantors and laymen—sung and understood the genre. (Although, Coptic literacy in general declined at a faster rate in Lower Egypt than in Upper Egypt.) In the push for reform, though, parishioners increasingly joined Orthodox liturgical services in song, along with educated cantors and clergy. With the rise of digital archives, alḥān have become more widely sung and broadly understood by deacons and choirs, as well as laity in Egypt and in diaspora.[7] The Coptic Orthodox Church in Egypt has emphasized the importance of alḥān as an integral part of Coptic heritage and a means to claim indigeneity—to distance Copts from Western missionary and contemporary political efforts at structural and cultural transformation.[8]

As diaspora communities have grown, discussions of the necessity of Coptic language to the Alexandrian Rite of Orthodox Christianity—in its hymns and liturgical practice—have been ongoing, as the Coptic Orthodox Church expands and seeks to evangelize outside of Egypt’s national boundaries.[9] For all intents and purposes, the Coptic language is a “dead” language—one not in vernacular use today. Instead, the Coptic language is kept alive through liturgical practice and the academic field of Coptology. Language preservation in the Coptic community has historically been about community preservation. During my own dissertation research between Egypt and the United States, Copts described extinction of the Coptic vernacular as a “failure of the community.” For those in the diaspora, studying Coptic, whether at a theological seminary or through local parishes, has forged a new kind of ethos—leaving behind the physical place of Egypt as a space of belonging.

The retention of Coptic in the United States has taken on the language of survival. At the 2014 North American Mission and Evangelism Conference (N.A.M.E.) in Florida, one diaspora priest described the importance of language to communal belonging in Egypt in this way: “We were fighting for our survival. The Church became a haven for the culture, spirituality, etc. Once the Ottoman empire weakened and the missionaries came to Egypt, the Coptic Church created a defense mechanism that has been carried over with our immigration leading to…an island. The belief that we have to teach people the language and culture in order to survive….”[10] Many in the Coptic diaspora have contended with the continued liturgical use of the Coptic language, debating whether it is the role of the Church to hold the remaining remnants of Coptic language’s persistence among this transnational community. Yet, the language’s significance continues to be pregnant with meaning.

As poet Matthew Shenoda writes:

“Time      a question

only the Nile can answer

meandering through papyrus fields & baqara expanse

her sediment the testament of Coptic”[11]

The Coptic language, while now secluded to liturgical and academic circles, still maintains communal importance in Egypt and in diaspora as a mode of perseverance and sedimented belonging. 

Contribution by Candace Lukasik
PhD, Department of Anthropology
Postdoctoral Fellow, Washington University in St. Louis

Sources consulted:

  1. Rodolphe Kasser. “Language(s), Coptic.” In Coptic Encyclopedia, 8 vols. Edited by Aziz S. Atiya. New York: Macmillan, 1991.
  2. Hany Takla. “The Coptic Language: The Link to the Ancient Egyptians.” In The Coptic Christian Heritage: History, Faith, and Culture. Edited by Lois M. Farag. London: Routledge, 2014.
  3. Samuel Moawad. “Coptic Arabic Literature: When Arabic Became the Language of Saints.” In The Coptic Christian Heritage: History, Faith, and Culture. Edited by Lois M. Farag. London: Routledge, 2014.
  4. H. Worrell. A Short Account of the Copts. Ann Arbor, University of Michigan Press: Oxford University Press, 1945.
  5. Aziz S. Atiya. History of Eastern Christianity. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1968.
  6. Paul Sedra. From Mission to Modernity: Evangelicals, Reformers, and Education in Nineteenth Century Egypt. London: Bloomsbury, 2011.
  7. Carolyn Ramzy. “Autotuned Belonging: Coptic Popular Song and the Politics of Neo-Pentecostal Pedagogies.” Ethnomusicology 60(3), 2016.
  8. Heather Sharkey. American Evangelicals in Egypt: Missionary Encounters in an Age of Empire. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008.
  9. Nicholas Ragheb. “Coptic Ethnoracial Identity and Liturgical Language Use.” In Contemporary Christian Culture: Messages, Missions, and Dilemmas. Edited by Omotayo O. Banjo and Kesha Morant Williams. Lanham: Lexington Books, 2018.
  10. Michael Sorial. Incarnational Exodus: A Vision for the Coptic Orthodox Church in North America. Washington D.C.: St. Cyril of Alexandria Society Press, 2014.
  11. Matthew Shenoda. Somewhere Else. Minneapolis: Coffee House Press, 2005.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Title: 
Psalter manuscript
Author: unknown
Imprint: 6th century
Edition: n/a
Language: Coptic
Language Family: Afro-Asiatic, Egyptian
Source: HathiTrust Digital Library (University of Michigan)
URL: https://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/101703234

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Biblical Hebrew

The Languages of Berkeley: An Online Exhibition

Biblical Hebrew
Page from Genesis (left) and title page (right) from the second Rabbinic Bible.

שער ה’ החדש
“The new gate of [the house of] the Lord.”

The son of an Antwerp merchant, Daniel Bomberg (born c. 1480) came to Venice to pursue the family business, and, having obtained a license to print Hebrew books, established a printing house. Among Bomberg’s first imprints were a Hebrew Pentateuch (1516) and the first Rabbinic Bible (1517).

The Rabbinic Bible was a new printed form, presenting the Hebrew text with full vowel and cantillation marks, and accompanied by Aramaic Targums and medieval commentaries. The four-volume second edition was produced by Bomberg in 1524; edited by Jacob ben Ḥayyim ibn Adonijah and containing an impressive critical apparatus of Masoretic notes, the second Rabbinic Bible has been the prototype for Hebrew Bibles to the present day.

The image of an ornate edifice fills the title page of volume one; between its decorated pillars, at the entry way, is a description of the book’s contents. Title page images such as this one—often accompanied by the phrase, “this is the gateway to the Lord,” from Psalm 118:20—establish the text as a place: a sacred place to be entered with care. Yet here, above this particular doorway, a somewhat different text (from Jeremiah 26:10), declares this to be “the new gate [of the house] of the Lord.” However venerable the site, the Rabbinic Bible (its publishers indicate) constitutes a novel approach.

Indeed, the Rabbinic Bible was a product of its time, a period in which Hebrew printing flourished in Italy, a time in which Christian study of the Hebrew Bible fomented and shaped its publication. Yet the Rabbinic Bible also made palpable Jewish textual culture, in which study of the Hebrew Bible closely entwined it with translation, commentaries, and other texts.

UCB scholars—and scholars from around the world—can pore over the pages of the 1524 Bomberg Rabbinic Bible​ at UC Berkeley’s ​Bancroft Library​.

Come delve into Hebrew at Berkeley:

Study ​Hebrew and Hebrew literature​ in the ​UCB Near Eastern Studies Department​:

Choose the undergraduate ​Minor in Hebrew.

Pursue advanced study in UCB’s ​Near Eastern Studies​ or ​Comparative Literature​ graduate programs.

Contribution by Ruth Haber
 Judaica Specialist, Doe Library

~~~~~~~~~~
Title: שער ה’ החדש … 

Title in English: [The Rabbinic Bible]
Author: Jacob ben Hayyim ben Isaac ibn Adonijah or Jacob ben Chayyim (c. 1470 – before 1538)
Imprint: Venice: Daniel Bomberg, 1524-1535.
Edition: 2nd
Language: Biblical Hebrew
Language Family: Afro-Asiatic, Northwest Semitic
Source: The Internet Archive
URL: https://archive.org/details/The_Second_Rabbinic_Bible_Vol_1

Other online editions:

Select print editions at Berkeley:

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Azerbaijani (Azeri)

The Languages of Berkeley: An Online Exhibition

Poster of Vagif play by Samad Vurgun. Kirovabad State Theater. 1939.
Publicity poster for the play Vagif. Kirovabad State Theater, 1939. (Wikimedia Commons)

Azerbaijani or Azeri is the term that is used interchangeably for the language throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. It is also known as Azerbaijani Turkish and retains most of the traditional grammatical endings of the pre-Republican era Turkish language that was spoken in the Ottoman Empire. However, in a certain sense, it is also influenced heavily by the Persian vocabulary. The language is currently spoken in the Republic of Azerbaijan that was a part of the Czarist Empire in the 19th century as well as in Southern Azerbaijan that is the part of modern-day Iran. In the Republic of Azerbaijan, the language script was changed several times. Currently the Latin script is used. The Iranian Azerbaijan continues to use Arabo-Persian script. 

Samad Vurgun was a well-known Azerbaijani poet and playwright. The first work of Vurgun—the poem “Address to Youth”was published in 1925 in the Tbilisi newspaper New Thought. Today every Azerbaijani schoolchild is familiar with his poetry. It is often set to music and performed by leading Azerbaijani artists. Featured in this entry is the play Vagif written in 1937 and which pays homage to the 18th-century Azerbaijani poet Molla Panah Vagif.

During his youth, Vurgun lived through the tough years of World War II. This challenging period had a very significant impact on his poetry, which was a real weapon against the enemy in that difficult time. He wrote over 60 poems on the theme of the Great Patriotic War. It was not an easy task, but in his works, the young poet managed to inspire an optimistic mood amongst the people, who were suffering from the hardship of war. 

He was calling on people to be patient and hardworking to attain victory. Vurgun’s popularity grew during the propaganda campaignleaflets with his creation “Ukrainian partisans” were dropped from planes over local forests to maintain the high spirit of the guerrilla fighters.

His poem “Parting Mother” was highly appreciated as the best anti-war work during a contest held in the US in 1943. It was published in New York and distributed to military personnel after it was selected among the best 20 poems of world literature about the war.

During World War II, Vurgun created poems dedicated to the deeds of Azerbaijanis in the fight against fascism. In the poems “Nurse”, “Bearer”, “The story of the old soldier”, “Brave Falcon”, and “Unnamed Hero”, he describes the selfless struggle against the invaders, the heroism of Azerbaijani soldiers and their contribution to the liberation of people from fascism. Due to his patriotism and unique talent, Samad Vurgun became a poet of the nation.

In 1943, Vurgun was awarded the title of Honorary Artist of Azerbaijan SSR. Two years later he was elected to the Azerbaijan National Academy of Sciences. His works have been translated into many foreign languages. For many years, he headed the Azerbaijan Union of Writers, was repeatedly elected a deputy of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR and Azerbaijan and was awarded many orders and medals. His early lyric poems were published only after his death, in a compilation called “Chichek” (“Flower”).

Living in the era of a communist dictatorship, Vurgun had to praise the regime in his works, but in spite of this, the creativity of Vurgun, the restrained style of his poems had a tremendous impact on the development of the Azerbaijani poetry. Samad Vurugn died in May of 1956 and is buried in the Alley of the Heroes in Baku. 

The Azerbaijani Studies collections in the UC Berkeley Library represent the current research interests of our faculty and students. One of the well-known scholars of Caucasus Studies, Professor Stephan H. Astourian, interrogates the historical realities of Caucasus, Armenia, and Azerbaijan in the context of the Armenian Genocide. The Azerbaijani collections are also supported through the donations of books by the Azerbaijan Cultural Society of Northern California. One prominent mathematics professor of Azerbaijani descent was Lotfi A. Zadeh. The focus of current collections on Azerbaijan revolves around the history of Azerbaijan and Caucasus, Armenian Genocide and the Frozen conflict of Artsakh/Nagorno-Karabakh.

Contribution by Liladhar Pendse
Librarian for East European and Central Asian Studies, Doe Library

Source consulted:

Gadimova, Nazrin. “Samad Vurgun: A Poet With Pen as Sharp as Weapon,”AzerNews (May 28, 2013), (accessed 5/1/20)

~~~~~~~~~~
Title: “Vagif” in Səməd Vurğun : Seçilmiş əsərləri.
Title in English:
Author: Vurghun, Sămăd, 1906-1956.
Imprint: Bakı : “Şərq-Qərb”, 2005.
Edition: n/a
Language: Azerbaijani (Azeri)
Language Family: Turkic
Source: Sabunchu District Central Library, Central Libraries of Azerbaijan
URL: http://sabunchu.cls.az/front/files/libraries/54/books/831431433401352.pdf

Other online editions:

Select print editions at Berkeley:

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Turkish

The Languages of Berkeley: An Online Exhibition

Turkish
Cover for 1974 edition of Bir Avuç Gökyüzü.

The Turkish writer Çetin Altan (1927-2015) was a politician, author, journalist, columnist, playwright, and poet. From 1965 to 1969, he was deputy for the left-wing Workers Party of Turkey—the first socialist party in the country to gain representation in the national parliament. He was sentenced to prison several times on charges of spreading communist propaganda through his articles. He wrote numerous columns, plays, works of fiction (including science fiction), political studies, historical studies, essays, satire, travel books, memoirs, anthologies, and biographical stories.[1]

His novel Bir Avuç Gökyüzü (A Handful of Sky), was published in 1974 and takes place in Istanbul. A 41-year-old politically indicted married man spends two years in prison and then is released. Several months later he is called into the police station where the deputy commissioner has him sign a notification from the public prosecutor’s office. This time, the man will serve three more years and he has a week to surrender to the courthouse. The novel chronicles the week of this man’s life before he serves his extended sentence. Suddenly, an old classmate with thick-rimmed glasses appears with the pretense to help. The classmate convinces the main character to petition his sentence and have it postponed for four months so that he can make the necessary arrangements to support his family. Unsurprisingly, the petition is rejected on the grounds of the severity of the purported offense that led to conviction. His classmate then urges the protagonist to take a freighter and flee the country, but instead he turns himself in. From the prison ward’s iron-barred windows he can only see a handful of sky.[2] The protagonist experiences lovemaking with his mistress mainly as a metaphor for freedom lost; the awkward and clumsy sex he has with his wife, on the other hand, seems an apt metaphor for the emotionally inert life he leads both in and outside of prison.[3]

Çetin Altan was well aware of language’s power and wrote articles on the Turkish language in the newspapers where he was employed as a journalist. At the age of 82 and during his acceptance speech at the Presidential Culture and Arts Grand Awards in 2009, Mr. Altan said, “İnsan kendi dilinin lezzetini sevdiği kadar vatanını sever’’ (A person loves the homeland as much as he loves the flavor of his own language). He loved Turkish and wrote with that love. In his works, as he put it, he “never betrayed the language and the writing.”[4]

An argument can easily be made to study Turkish. There are 80 million people who speak Turkish as their first language, making it one of the world’s 15 most widely spoken first languages. Another 15 million people speak Turkish as a second language. For example there are over 116,000 Turkish speakers in the United States, and Turkish is the second most widely spoken language in Germany. Studying Turkish also lays a solid foundation for learning other modern Turkic languages, like Kazakh, Kyrgyz, Tatar, Uzbek, and Uighur. The different Turkic languages are closely related and some of them are even mutually intelligible. Many of these languages are spoken in regions of vital strategic importance, like the Caucasus, the Balkans, China, and the former Soviet Union. Mastery of Turkish grammar makes learning other Turkic languages exponentially easier.[5]

Turkish is not related to other major European or Middle Eastern languages but rather distantly related to Finnish and Hungarian. Turkish is an agglutinative language, which means suffixes can be added to a root-word so that a single word can convey what a complete sentence does in English. For example, the English sentence “We are not coming” is a single word in Turkish: “come” is the root word, and elements meaning “not,” “-ing,” “we,” and “are” are all suffixed to it: gelmiyoruz. The regularity and predictability in Turkish of how these suffixes are added make agglutination much easier to internalize.[5] [6] At UC Berkeley, modern Turkish language courses are offered through Department of Near Eastern Studies.[7]

When I was asked to write a short essay about the Turkish language based on a book, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the UC Berkeley Library has many of Çetin Altan’s books in their original language. While he was my favorite author when I was in high school and in college in Turkey during the 1970s and 1980s, my move to the United States and life in general caused these memories to fade away. Now I am excited and feel privileged with the prospect of reading his books in Turkish again and rediscovering them after all these years.

Contribution by Neil Gali
Administrative Associate, Center for Middle Eastern Studies

Sources consulted:

  1. http://www.turkishculture.org/whoiswho/memorial/cetin-altan-953.htm (accessed 3/10/20)
  2. https://www.evvelcevap.com/bir-avuc-gokyuzu-kitap-ozeti (accessed 3/10/20)
  3. “İnsan kendi dilinin lezzetini sevdiği kadar vatanı sever,” (October 21, 2017) P24: Ağimsiz Gazetecilik Platformu = Platform for Independent Journalism. http://platform24.org/p24blog/yazi/2492/-insan-kendi-dilinin-lezzetini-sevdigi-kadar-vatani-sever (accessed 3/10/20)
  4. İrvin Cemil Schick, “Representation of Gender and Sexuality in Ottoman and Turkish Erotic Literature,” The Turkish Studies Association Journal, Vol. 28, No. 1/2 (2004), pp. 81-103, https://www.jstor.org/stable/43383697 (accessed 3/10/20)
  5. https://names.mongabay.com/languages/Turkish.html (accessed 3/10/20)
  6. https://www.bu.edu/wll/home/why-study-turkish (accessed 3/10/20)
  7. http://guide.berkeley.edu/courses/turkish (accessed 3/10/20)

~~~~~~~~~~

Title: Bir Avuç Gökyüzü
Title in English: A Handful of Heaven
Author: Altan, Çetin, 1927-2015
Imprint: Kavaklıdere, Ankara : Bilgi Yayınevi, 1974.
Edition: 1st edition
Language: Turkish
Language Family: Turkish, Turkic

Recommended Online Resource:
“İnsan kendi dilinin lezzetini sevdiği kadar vatanı sever,” (October 21, 2017) P24: Ağimsiz Gazetecilik Platformu = Platform for Independent Journalism. Blog post of tribute to the writer with photos, videos, etc.
http://platform24.org/p24blog/yazi/2492/-insan-kendi-dilinin-lezzetini-sevdigi-kadar-vatani-sever (accessed 3/10/20)

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Yiddish

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Yiddish
Portrait of the author in 1907 (Wikimedia Commons) and title page of Alṭ-nay-Kas̀rileṿḳe (1919)

דער גרויסער וועלט-פּראָגרעס האָט זיך אַהין אַרייַנגעכאַפט און האָט איבערגעדרייט די שטאָט מיטן קאַָפּ אַראָפּ, מיט די פֿיס אַרויף.

 The great progress of the world has reached Kasrilevke and turned it topsy-turvy.

– From narrator’s foreword to the Kasrilevke stories (1919)

אַיין אַיינשרומפּעניש!  ווען האָט געקאָנט ארויס דער צאַפּען, אַיינגעזונקען זאָל ער ווערען? … אַ, ברענען זאָלסט דו, שלים־מזל, אויפ’ן פייער! און גרונם … דערלאַנגט דעם אַ רוק מיט’ן בייטש־שטעקעל אין זייט אַריין.  דאָס פערדעל טהוט אַ  פּינטעל מיט די אויגען, לאָזט־אַראָפּ די מאָרדע, קוקט אָן אַ זייט און טראַכט זיךְ׃ פאַר וואָס קומט מיר, אַשטייגער, אָט דער זעץ? גלאַט גענומען און געבוכעט זיךְ! ס’איז ניט קיין קונץ נעמען אַ פערד, אַ שטומע צונג, און שלאָגען איהם אומזיסט און אומנישט!

The driver of the wagon with the water barrel was beside himself! “An empty barrel! … May my helper shrivel up! How could that plug, may it sink into the earth, have come out? May you burn up, wretch that you are!” The last remark was addressed to the little horse, as he struck it with the whip handle. The horse blinked, lowered its chin, and looked aside, thinking, “What have I done to deserve this whack? It’s no trick, you know, to hit a dumb animal for no reason whatsoever.”

– From the story “Fires”

Yiddish is the thousand-year-old language of European (Ashkenazic) Jews. Written from right to left in Hebrew characters, it is derived from German and includes many Hebraic and Slavic elements. It is used for everyday purposes as well as for a rich variety of religious and secular literature, ranging from medieval times to the 21st century. Most Yiddish users were annihilated during the Holocaust of World War II, yet the language continues to thrive in the United States, Israel, and Europe.

Arguably the best-known Yiddish writer, Sholem Aleichem (Sholem Rabinovich, Ukraine 1859 – United States 1916) was a founding father of modern Yiddish literature. A supreme humorist, he created the literary persona of “Sholem Aleichem” and tapped into the energies of the Eastern European spoken Yiddish idiom. In a variety of genres, he invented modern Jewish archetypes, myths, and fables of unique imaginative power and universal appeal. Sholem Aleichem’s “Tevye” stories provided the basis of the popular mid-20th century musical Fiddler on the Roof.  He founded the Folks-bibliotek publishing house (Kiev, 1888) to encourage writers he admired, and identify new talent. In his satirical, yet warm Kasrilevke stories of the 1900s, he created the quintessential fictional shtetl. Its poverty-stricken residents aspired to modernity. Though plagued by backwardness, they continued to dream of redemption.

Following the death in 1916 of the beloved Sholem Aleichem, multi-volume editions of his collected works were published widely. This 1919 edition is printed in the Yiddish spelling prevalent at the time, with transliterations of Germanic linguistic elements; this was meant to help “legitimize” Yiddish (then considered a “jargon”). These transliterations are not used in modern standardized Yiddish orthography. The story “Fires,” from which this selection is taken, underlines the actual lack of progress in the fictional town of Kasrilevke, which prides itself on striving for modernity. The aside, giving voice to the abused horse in the midst of this municipal crisis, is typical of the creative yet plainspoken genius which made Sholem Aleichem so popular.

While the number of native speakers of Yiddish continues to dwindle, Yiddish at Berkeley is thriving. In addition to the esteemed annual conference on Yiddish Culture, we have a wide range of courses dealing with the life and culture of Ashkenazic Jewry, a diverse faculty committed to the preservation and scholarly investigation of Yiddish, and an ever-growing number of students who are pursuing academic futures exploring Jewish culture in the traditional languages of the Jewish people. Students interested in Yiddish at Cal can pursue their interests in the departments of German, Comparative Literature, History, or through the program in Jewish Studies.

Contribution by Yael Chaver
Lecturer in Yiddish, Department of German


Title:
Alṭ-nay-Kas̀rileṿḳe  
Title in English: Old-New Kasrilevke
Author: Sholem Aleichem, 1859-1916
Imprint: Nyu-Yor : Shalom-ʻAlekhem fols-fond, 1919.
Edition: in Ale Verk, Sholom Aleichem
Language: Yiddish
Language Family: Indo-European, Germanic
Source: The Internet Archive (Yiddish Book Center)
URL: https://archive.org/stream/nybc200084

Select print editions at Berkeley:

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Sumerian

The Languages of Berkeley: An Online Exhibition

Sumerian
Photograph of royal inscription on clay tablet with permission of the British Museum (left) and autograph (right).

This inscription is divided into two columns. The left-hand column is read first. Each column is divided into lines, each of which includes a noun phrase or a verb phrase. The individual cuneiform signs are read from left to right.

Col. I. 1 Inanna For Inanna,
2 ninani his lady—
3 UrNammu Ur-Nammu,
4 nitah kalaga the mighty man,
Col. II. 5 lugal Urima the king of Ur,
6 lugal Kiengi Kiurike the king of Sumer and Akkad—
7 eani her temple—
8 munandu built.

Sumerian was spoken in the most southern part of ancient Mesopotamia. With its oldest texts dating to no later than 3000 BCE, it has the distinction of being the first attested language known to us. After its death as a spoken language, about 2000 BCE, it continued to be studied in the Mesopotamian school system for another thousand years. Sumerian literature is the oldest preserved literature in the world, and some of its compositions still have the power to move us today.

Sumerian also has the honor of being a “language isolate.” It has no obvious relatives, living or dead. It must have had relatives in the past, but these have all died out, without any of them being recorded. Sumerian is regularly taught at Cal. As might be expected, it is primarily studied by those interested in the history and culture of Mesopotamia. But it is also of interest to general linguists, for whom it offers a number of interesting features.

Most Sumerian texts were written on clay “tablets” created when a scribe would go to the river, gather some clay, form it into a convenient shape, take a reed to use as a stylus, and inscribe right onto the clay. These tablets were then put out into the sun to dry. Important tablets, ones that scribes needed to keep for whatever reason, were baked in ovens.

The writing system for Sumerian is called “cuneiform,” because of the wedge-shaped form of the characters. It was probably invented by the Sumerians. It is a complicated system, with hundreds of signs, some representing syllables, others representing words. The cuneiform writing system was eventually adopted for languages unrelated to Sumerian, including Akkadian (a Semitic language) and Old Persian (Indo-European).

The vast majority of Sumerian texts are administrative and accounting records. The text reproduced here is a “royal inscription.” These are relatively short texts in which a ruler broadcasts his accomplishments, often the building of a temple. This particular one was inscribed on a mud-brick. These bricks formed part of the structure of a temple or palace. They would not have been visible to on-lookers: their function was to proclaim a ruler’s accomplishments to the gods, not to contemporary mortals. In many cases, the same text was recorded on dozens of bricks. This particular brick was commissioned by one Ur-Nammu, who ruled in the city of Ur from 2112 to 2095 BCE. It records the dedication of a temple in Ur to Inanna, the most important goddess in the Sumerian pantheon. Some dozen bricks with this same inscription have been preserved.

The first brick found bearing this inscription was uncovered in an excavation at the city of Uruk, in the 1850s. Now held in the British Museum, it was “published” in 1861 by Sir Henry Rawlinson, the most important figure in the decipherment of cuneiform writing. His edition appeared in the first volume of an important series entitled The Cuneiform Inscriptions of Western Asia, published by the British Museum.[1] The brick reproduced here is also from Uruk. It was published in 1905, as part of a long series of volumes called Cuneiform Texts from the British Museum.[2]

Because it is expensive to publish photographs, most cuneiform texts have traditionally been published in “autograph” form. This means a copy hand-drawn by a modern-day scholar. The editions of texts published in Cuneiform Inscriptions and in Cuneiform Texts are all in autograph. A photograph of this particular exemplar first appeared in 1910. The analog photograph given here was created by the British Museum in 1990. Eventually, the British Museum will make available high-quality photographs of all their holdings online. But given that their holdings include many many thousands of cuneiform texts, this will take a while.

Hundreds of thousands of texts in Sumerian have survived. Many were unearthed by professional archaeologists; some were found accidentally; many others were illicitly excavated or stolen. They are scattered throughout the museums of the world. In order to keep track of them, the Cuneiform Digital Library Initiative led by Robert Englund at UCLA is an attempt to organize an online catalogue of all these texts, assigning every cuneiform text known a unique number.[3]

Contribution by John L. Hayes,
Lecturer, Department of Near Eastern Studies

Sources consulted:

  1. Rawlinson, Henry, Edwin Norris, George Smith, and Theophilus G. Pinches. The Cuneiform Inscriptions of Western Asia. London: Lithographed by R.E. Bowler, 1861. vols. 1-5
  2. British Museum. Department of Western Asiatic Antiquities. Cuneiform Texts from Babylonian Tablets in the British Museum. London: Published by the Trustees of the British Museum, 1959. vols. 1-58
  3. Cuneiform Digital Library Initiative (CDLI)


Title:
Brick of Ur-gur (BM 090015  or CDLI P226650)
Author: unknown, autograph by Sir Henry Rawlinson
Imprint: Uruk (mod. Warka), Ur III (ca. 2100-2000 BCE)
Language: Sumerian
Language Family: Language isolate
Source: Cuneiform Digital Library Initiative (British Museum)
URL: https://cdli.ucla.edu (search by CDLI  no.)

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Ancient Egyptian

The Languages of Berkeley: An Online Exhibition

Ancient Egyptian
Letter to the Dead, recto (left) and verso (right), Papyrus Hearst 1282

Ancient Egyptian is a language that was spoken in and around the Nile River valley from the 4th millennium BCE through the 11th century CE. The earliest form of this language was written in the Hieroglyphic script. Soon after the development of Hieroglyphs, the availability of papyrus as a light, portable writing material and the complexity of drawing complete Hieroglyphic signs led to the development of Hieratic. This cursive form of the ancient Egyptian script is what an individual named Heni used to write a letter to his deceased father, Meru, sometime between 2160 and 2025 BCE. Heni’s composition is one of a handful of texts known as “Letters to the Dead,” which have been found throughout Egypt written on materials as diverse as pottery, figurines, linen, and stone stelae. Although this genre of text is attested for a period of nearly two thousand years, only a handful of examples survive, all of which share the common goal of communicating a wish or desire from the living to the dead.

The letter of Heni, written in vertical columns, as was typical for Hieratic of this time period, opens with a greeting to Meru before imploring him to intercede on his son’s behalf and offer aid. Heni believes he is being falsely accused of harming someone, insisting the wrong was instigated by other parties. Unfortunately, the details of the event are lacking. These letters are frustratingly vague, as it was assumed that the intended audience — usually a close relative or acquaintance — knew the specifics of the situation. The letter was folded and addressed like letters sent among the living. That is to say, the address was written on the outside (the two short lines written horizontally towards the bottom of the verso of the papyrus): the nobleman (iry-pat), count (haty-a), overseer of priests, Meru. In order to ensure the message was delivered, Heni deposited the small papyrus in his father’s tomb. Whether or not his father (or the living judges) recognized his plea of innocence, we will never know.

Several millennia later, Heni’s papyrus was found during the archaeological excavations of George A. Reisner. Working under the patronage of Phoebe A. Hearst, Reisner excavated the site of Naga ed-Deir between 1901 and 1904. The letter was found in the tomb of Meru (N.3737), which was decorated with images of him enjoying everyday life. The papyrus was shipped by Reisner to Germany for conservation, where it remained until after World War II. When financial difficulties compelled Phoebe Hearst to withdraw funding for the Berkeley Egyptian Excavations in 1905, George A. Reisner was appointed to the faculty at Harvard University and to the curatorial board at the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA), Boston. A young, enterprising curator at the MFA, William Kelly Simpson, knew of papyri excavated by Reisner and later sought them out in Germany. With Simpson’s help, the papyrus — along with several others — traveled from West Berlin to the MFA. After securing them in Boston, Simpson published the first translation of this text. Despite earlier inquiries from faculty at UC Berkeley, it was not until the 2000s that Professor Donald Mastronarde of the Berkeley Department of Classics ascertained the whereabouts of these papyri and engineered their return to Berkeley. The Letter to the Dead, along with numerous other ancient Egyptian papyri, are now housed in the Center for the Tebtunis Papyri at The Bancroft Library, as part of the Egyptian collections acquired by Phoebe A. Hearst between 1899 and 1905.

Courses in Ancient Egyptian are taught at UC Berkeley in the Department of Near Eastern Studies as part of a program in Egyptology. Students can take classes in several phases of the language, including Old, Middle, and Late Egyptian, and Demotic.

Emily Cole, Postdoctoral Scholar
The Center for the Tebtunis Papyri, The Bancroft Library

Source consulted:

Simpson, William Kelly. “The Letter to the Dead from the Tomb of Meru (N 3737) at Nag’ Ed-Deir.” The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology, vol. 52, 1966, pp. 39–52. JSTOR.


~~~~~~~~~~
Title:
Letter to the Dead
Author: Heni
Registration Number: Papyrus Hearst 1282
Imprint: 9th or 10th Egyptian Dynasty. First Intermediate Period  (Between 2160 and 2025 BCE)
Language: Ancient Egyptian
Language Family: Afro-Asiatic, Semitic
Source: The Center for the Tebtunis Papyri, The Bancroft Library (UC Berkeley)
URL: http://dpg.lib.berkeley.edu/webdb/apis/apis2?invno=P%2eHearst%2e1282&sort=Author_Title&item=1

 

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Medieval Hebrew

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First page with text in hebrew, latin, and arabic.
First page of De idololatria liber with text in Hebrew, Latin, and Arabic.

Dionysus Vossius’s Latin translation of Maimonides’s Laws of Idolatry, first published in 1642, is self-evidently the product of many cultures. On some pages, you can find four different alphabets: Hebrew, Latin, Arabic, and Greek. Yet the text itself aims to protect the singular, true religion from all other pretenders. A paradoxical work of cosmopolitan xenophobia, this version of “Laws of Idolatry” sheds light on the contradictions and complexities of 17th-century Christian Hebraism, and it places a canonical Jewish text in a surprising, unfamiliar context.

Maimonides had long been a favorite among Christians (“the only Jew to desist from talking nonsense,” as the scholar Joseph Scaliger wrote), and his philosophical masterpiece, The Guide to the Perplexed was translated to Latin in the thirteenth century. But his law codes remained more obscure. Only after Christian knowledge of and interest in Hebrew exploded in the sixteenth century did scholars begin mining them — for philological tidbits, interpretations of scripture, and mythographic lore. That’s because while the Laws of Idolatry mainly contains practical restrictions on Jewish interactions with idolaters, it also contains Maimonides’ capsule history of various forms of idolatry. This history and typology proved immensely important in a nascent scholarly discipline, what we would call today the comparative history of religion.

Dionysus Vossius, a Dutchman, was probably inspired to translate and annotate Maimonides by the great English scholar John Selden. Selden had used Maimonides to write De Diis Syriis, a comprehensive treatment of the pagan gods which heavily influenced John Milton’s Paradise Lost. Dionysus’s father Gerardus Vossius, himself a great scholar and friend of the Dutch jurist and historian Hugo Grotius, took Dionysus to England, where he met Selden and studied. Dionysus was a precocious scholar (he wrote an Arabic dictionary at sixteen), but he died at 21, and the Laws of Idolatry is consequently bound with his father’s complete works.

I am drawn to this volume by its incredible synthesis of religions and cultures: the English, Dutch, and Continental European republic of letters; the text’s many learned languages; the mixed Christian, Jewish, and pagan histories. To be sure, the combination is not without tension. The famous passage in which Maimonides proclaimed Christians idolaters (9:4) is of course absent here, as even in Hebrew it was a favorite target for Christian censors. And indeed, Vossius’s translation was itself banned, placed on the Catholic Church’s Index Librorum Prohibitorum in 1717. Yet there is a remarkable irony in this most avowedly parochial of books becoming a source of wisdom for Christian scholars. This odd jumble of languages, prejudices, agendas and mistakes is a little glimpse of early modern globalization; its yellowed pages contain a world that is shockingly interconnected, mixed-up, and vibrant.

Leaf through the pages of the 1668 edition of De Idololatria Liber at UC Berkeley’s Bancroft Library, or read it online.

Contribution by Raphael Magarik
PhD Student, Department of English

Title: De Idololatria Liber
Title in English: The Laws of Idolatry
Author: Maimonides, Moses, 1135-1204; Latin translation and notes by Dionysius Vossius
Imprint: Amsterdam: Joan Blaeu, 1668.
Edition: uncertain
Language: Medieval Hebrew
Language Family: Afro-Asiatic, Northwest Semitic
Source: Google Books (Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale di Roma)
URL: https://books.google.com/books?id=sZ4PtQEACAAJ&pg=PA1#v=onepage&q&f=false

Select print editions at Berkeley: 

Maimonides, Moses, and Dionysius Vossius. De idololatria liber. Amsterdami: apud Ioannem Blaev, 1668. Bancroft Folio f BL200.V6 D3 1668 v.2

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The Languages of Berkeley is a dynamic online sequential exhibition celebrating the diversity of languages that have advanced research, teaching and learning at the University of California, Berkeley. It is made possible with support from the UC Berkeley Library and is co-sponsored by the Berkeley Language Center (BLC).

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