Arabic and Latin, Cosmopolitan Languages of the Premodern Mediterranean and its Hinterlands

24 January, 2022
Interior shot of the Alexandria Library today, Alexandria, Egypt.


Lives of the Great Languages, Arabic and Latin in the Medieval Mediterranean, by Karla Mallette
University of Chicago Press 2021
ISBN 9780226796062


Justin Stearns


Over the past decade I have been working, very slowly, on a translation of a 17th-century work of Arabic literature written by an Amazigh Moroccan scholar from the Middle Atlas, al-Hasan al-Yusi (d. 1691).  Al-Yusi was steeped in Arabic learning and his Discourses, a collection of essays, selections of poetry, and historical and personal anecdotes, draws broadly on an Arabic literary tradition that goes back to pre-Islamic Arabia. This rootedness in this tradition was such that the editorial team at the Library of Arabic Literature, where the first volume of my translation appeared in 2020, suggested that I include a map of Arabia with all of the places al-Yusi mentioned. Al-Yusi had not traveled to Arabia when he wrote the Discourses and ethnically, he was of the Ait Yusi, an Amazigh tribe; his first language was Tamazight, which was rarely used for writing during his day and when it was, used the Arabic alphabet.  Learning was Arabic and mastering Arabic and the various sciences it contained was the source of al-Yusi’s fame and prestige during his lifetime; Arabic allowed his works to travel throughout North Africa, West Africa, and the Middle East.  It was Arabic’s cosmopolitan nature that made such success possible for al-Yusi, as it had for generations of scholars before him in the Islamicate world, Arab and non-Arab, Muslim, Jewish, and Christian. At the same time, reading the Discourses it is at times hard not to think that al-Yusi’s devotion to the language exacted a high price. In what I have found to be one of the most striking passages, he writes:

Lives of the Great Languages is available from UC Press.

Before I mingled among my countryfolk, I used to think that the Arabs were the only ones who cared for it [i.e. genealogy].  I would say, “The Amazigh are like goats: There is no bond between mother and son other than his being looked after, and then going his own way. As for the father, no one even asks after him.” When I asked my countryfolk about this, I found the matter to be different from what I understood. I discovered that they remembered their lineage as I have described previously, with genealogists ascertaining the branches and groups in the fashion of the Arabs (The Discourses, 47.)

In mastering Arabic, al-Yusi had become distanced from his own kinship group and their customs. It is both the price and the opportunities of the cosmopolitan language that I was reminded of when I was reading Karla Mallette’s delightful and evocative Lives of the Great Languages: Arabic and Latin in the Medieval Mediterranean.


Mallette takes as the subject of her book a comparison of Latin and Arabic, the two great cosmopolitan languages of the premodern Mediterranean and its hinterlands.  For some two thousand years, these languages have allowed educated writers and readers from distinct ethnic and geographical backgrounds to interact as part of transregional communities with roots that went back centuries. At the same time, these languages were no one’s mother tongue, and Mallette prefers to call them Alexandrian with reference to their having complicated grammars and rich literary histories — aspects that demanded formal study (though not necessarily literacy in the case of Arabic) for any who desired access. The juxtaposition of Latin and Arabic may seem a strange comparison to some readers, for whom Latin is generally considered dead, in contrast with there being over 300 million people who are native speakers of Arabic. But Mallette is drawing attention here to the effort required historically to read and write formal Arabic, distinct in both syntax and vocabulary from regional spoken variants, and while she begins the book drawing on the evocative power of the contrast between dead and living languages, she quickly moves past such an anthropocentric approach to take the languages themselves as her subject.  What makes a language Alexandrian? Mallette suggests a certain register of language that is both removed from the mother tongue and yet which also which achieves a life unavailable to the vernacular: “This book is a ballad for a language that is dead — and yet lives, in the mouths of its practitioners, wherever literary life is pursued (14).”

Lives of the Great Languages is structured into four parts and thirteen chapters, following Arabic and Latin from Latin Antiquity to the Early Modern period, by which point Latin has been definitively superseded by European vernaculars while Arabic’s continued vitality is increasingly seen as a sign of decadence from within the aforementioned vernaculars, now spoken by colonial powers.  There are a number of tensions here that Mallette embraces and which complicate what could in different hands have been a straightforward celebration of literary heritage. The effort that it takes to acquire the Alexandrian languages is precisely what also limits them to a small elite, one almost entirely male, and which distances them from the immediacy of the vernacular — they achieve space, as Mallette puts it, rather than evoking place. Mallette emphasizes the separation these languages create from the quotidian to such an extent that, on first reading, I felt an urge to list exceptions, to argue for greater nuance:

I argue that the strength of the cosmopolitan language is not mimesis but performance: the creation of a world parallel to but separate from this one, an arena in which writers and readers meet and tango and spar, one that changes over time but much more slowly than the sublunary world (16).

Al-Hasan al-Yusi’s The Discourses, translated by Justin Stearns, recently published by the Library of Arabic Literature.

But this would be to miss the evocative force of the argument, one that works hard to bring linguistic worlds close to us that may today seem outmoded, even irrelevant. In the book’s first chapters, Mallette moves between the eighth-century Baghdad of Bashshār ibn Burd (ca. 714-83) to Petrarch’s (1304-74) 14th-century Italy. In the first case, she shows how Arabic enabled the former as an ethnic Iranian to achieve prominence (for a time, before his execution for heresy) under both Umayyad and ‘Abbasid dynasties while mocking the Arabs themselves. In Petrarch’s case, she suggests that we set aside his renowned late poems in the Italian vernacular and appreciate that it was with the vast majority of his verse written in Latin that he achieved his literary stature and fame. These were imperial languages — these is how they had spread after all — but they were also languages “with heft and reach” (41) that once mastered by men, some of the most humble origins, granted them power and the ability to speak with kings and come away successful.

The power of Alexandrian languages is directly tied to their geographic spread, they are the tongues of the road, of routes, of — here Mallette draws on Wansbrough – orbits, they extend outwards but are never rooted. With compelling readings of both Dante’s search in the 14th century for a new vernacular in his Latin De vulgari eloquentia, and Sībawayhi’s foundational work of Arabic grammar in the eighth, she argues for them also being languages of exile — places one can find home even after one has been driven out, away, into the broader world, away from home.

This insight pushed me at first to think of the German intellectual class pushed to the United States during World War Two, Thomas Mann writing Doktor Faustus in Los Angeles or Theodor Adorno’s comment, “To those who no longer have a homeland, writing becomes home.”  Yet there is an important difference, for not every writing in exile is the same — the languages Dante and Sībawayhi turned to were themselves deracinated in a way perhaps only English could lay claim to in the 20th and 21st centuries, when it is spoken by more as a second than as a first language (German does appear, however, in this book as a 20th-century cosmopolitan language in the case of Kafka; here too we have an author mastering a tongue that is not his first — which was most likely a vernacular ethnolect of the Jewish community of Prague).

I live in Abu Dhabi, where my son goes to a British school and is one of two students in his year who study Latin, a language I associate with my own secondary schooling, and which I had to dust off during my graduate work to read about Christian responses to a different pandemic, the bubonic plague of the 14th century. He expresses doubt about Latin — How is this useful? — and looks askant at my protestations that it will help him understand language in general. Perhaps I clutch at Alexandrian ghosts.  His school also teaches him Arabic, but the particular social context of the Gulf where Arabic speakers are a distinct minority has rendered this study more symbolic than substantive. I have been to meetings at his school with parents whose native tongues are regional vernaculars of Arabic and who are anxious that their children are losing access to all registers of the language.

 Their, and my son’s, cosmopolitan language is English, one comfortably born into in his case, its reach taken for granted. At New York University Abu Dhabi, where I teach premodern Middle Eastern history, the majority of my students, coming from over 110 countries, have had to work to master English as their second or third language. They know the effort that Mallette describes and admires, and even as I push them with pedantic marginalia on their marked essays towards clarity, coherence, concision, I know that they are achieving something I never have — the move from fluency in their mother tongue to mastery of a cosmopolitan language.

Map of the modern Islamic world (courtesy Islamic Foundation, Leicester UK).

If the first two sections of Lives of the Great Languages sketches the possibilities offered by cosmopolitan languages, the second two are devoted to their limits and their strategies of survival. The chapters in part three, Translation and Time, deal with the ways in which translation both challenged and bolstered Latin and Arabic. Mallette takes up here the extraordinary case of Old Church Slavonic — a regional vernacular turned lingua sacra in Cyril’s hands in the ninth century, a controversy that allows her to explore the anxieties caused by a new language attempting to break into the trilingualism of Christendom: Latin, Hebrew, and Greek, with Latin the primus inter pares. This case is also a useful way for her to explain a reoccurring theme throughout the book, the different relationships of languages to religious traditions. For, where both Christians and Jews would read, write, and pray in Arabic, as the language of Islam’s initial revelation, the Qur’an, Arabic held a special relationship with that third Abrahamic monotheism, structurally similar to the role played by Hebrew in Judaism. Christianity’s difference, or genius as Mallette calls it at one point, is that it splits the link between historical origin and linguistic context — Jesus spoke Aramaic after all, the books of the New Testament were written in Greek — and confers sacrality on a multiplicity of language, Latin most prominently during the Middle Ages. A gift of tongues.

In the remainder of this section, Mallette uses translation to trace the ways in which both Arabic and Latin continued to grow and shift as they absorbed and learned from other languages. The fate of Aristotle’s Poetics in Abū Bishr Mattā’s (d. 940) Arabic translation of a Syriac translation of the text — here she dwells with intention on Mattā’s rendition of mímēsis as ḥikāya, removing action and thus plot from the original and replacing it with mimicry without narrative — is one such case study. The word’s significance continued to shift in successive centuries, through the 11th-century Ḥikāyat Abī al-Qāsim of Abū al-Muṭahhar, where it becomes literary performance, and then later, story, narration. These are not linear transformations. Instead their transformations might have more in common with the growth of crystals – formed following the introduction of an irritant, through nucleation; growing through agglomeration rather than evolution – that with the parenting of a human child or with the maturation of an individual human being (111).

Exterior of the great Alexandria Library, Egypt.

In a subsequent chapter, we follow Ibn Rushd’s (d. 1198) commentary on Aristotle’s Poetics into Latin, with mimesis this time translated not as ḥikāya but as khurāfa into Hermannus Alemannus’ 13th-century choice of fabula. Mallette is interested here not in the accuracy of translation, or even in tracing particular shifts in her chosen languages’ development, so much as she is in giving us the sense of the texture, the taste of these languages. While any such evocation of one cosmopolitan language in another will necessarily fail, her writing leaves us with a taste of the texture of the languages under discussion. The section ends with a comparison of the 19th-century efforts of Edward Lane and Aḥmad Fāris al-Shidyāq to explore the depths and expansive possibilities of Arabic in an effort to modernize the language — a study in contrasts as much as one of comparable passions for the Arabic language. Of the two, Arabic is the Alexandrian tongue that makes it to modernity. What, then, of Latin? How does a cosmopolitan language if not die — a trope that Mallette alternatingly rejects and succumbs to — then fade away? This is the book’s final turn.


There is a dark side to this story, alluded to in passing above. A language becomes cosmopolitan through power, through empire, the pushing aside of local vernaculars, a process that almost inevitably goes along with patriarchy and a preponderance of male authors (none of Mallette’s case studies are devoted to women). At a time period in human history when we are witnessing the extinction of perhaps more languages than ever before, it is worth keeping the price of this acquired power in mind, one which is paid not only by those who work to acquire a cosmopolitan language.

By the end of the Middle Ages, Latin had lost the assurance that it was the medium of choice for the writers of Western Christendom, and the vernaculars had developed their own rich traditions. Mallette notes that loss of Latin as a cosmopolitan language is often related to the victorious emergence of new national traditions, but she is more interested in the silences that followed its decline, and the emergence of the original lingua franca in the Mediterranean.  Even as this unwritten, uncoverable tongue of the ports — named for the Franks but drawing on other languages, including Arabic – functioned as a faint “shadow” or “ghost” of the connectivity offered by Latin itself, it also emphasized a nostalgic looking back at what had been lost with Latin’s vacating the stage. Mallette could be accused here of being nostalgic, but she acknowledges that, “There can be no argument that the Alexandrian language is a bad fit for European modernity (163). ” And while the book itself is an unabashed ode to the demanding languages that once bridged difference and gave voice to those writers who would otherwise have been condemned to marginalized vernaculars, it is also frank about the limitations of the elite, ornate cosmopolitan languages the praises of which it has come to sing. Its arc is not so much nostalgia so much as the recovering of extraordinary moments when men (yes, men! women are not part of this story) mastered languages not their own and became part of a conversation and art that transcended place, time, nation, and faith. Not looking for a way back, but rather a way to push language forward to regain heights once possessed.

Mallette ends her book with glowing praise for the achievement of Michael Cooperson in his recent Impostures, an extraordinary translation feat in which Cooperson took a masterpiece of classical Arabic rhetoric, al-Ḥarīrī’s (d. 1054-1122) maqāmāt, and rendered it into 50 different registers of English, from that of Margery Kempe to P. G. Woodhouse. Cooperson’s energetic pushing of English into as many registers as he can gives the English language reader a sense of the acrobatics of the original Arabic and shows how English can claim the status of both new cosmopolitan language and local vernacular. “Language,” Mallette notes in concluding remarks, “is a public good, an instrument that each individual uses only by the grace and with the consent of a larger community, which counts among its citizens the dead along with the living (184).”

I attended Swiss primary and middle schools, where we would daily switch between the unwritten vernacular of Swiss German in the breaks and the language of writing — “Schriftsprache” (High German) — in our classes, the cosmopolitan language in miniature that had so attracted Kafka. In my first Latin class in gymnasium or high school, our — as we would soon discover, somewhat eccentric — teacher entered the classroom and addressed his bemused audience in a fluent version of the cosmopolitan tongue so praised by Mallette.  The dead language came alive; I was reminded that our school textbooks had a whole series of exercises we had always been told to ignore, those where we were supposed to translate from German to Latin, a glimpse of a past not too far removed when Swiss students had been expected to produce the language, not just absorb it.  While I remember understanding little if anything he said, the class briefly saw what only one generation before us had been more commonplace: a closer relationship with the cosmopolitan language in which in the 19th century university dissertations were still written. But that avenue was no longer open to us — now it was English, the import of a different empire that presented the opportunities al-Yusi had once found in Arabic in the global early modern Islamicate world.

Readers who are already familiar with some of the contexts and figures that Mallette deals with will find Lives of the Great Languages a delightful revisiting of things known in part but now understood with greater depth and richness — the author is a warm and insightful travelling companion, equally rooted on northern and southern shores of the Mediterranean. For those who haven’t studied these premodern cosmopolitan languages or the worlds of experience they preserve, I can think of no better doorway through which to walk.


Justin Stearns received his BA in English and History from Dartmouth College in 1998, and his PhD in Near Eastern Studies from Princeton University in 2007. He is Associate Professor of Arab Crossroads Studies at New York University Abu Dhabi.  His research interests focus on the intersection of law, science, and theology in the pre-modern Muslim Middle East. His first book was a comparative intellectual history of Muslim and Christian understanding of contagion, especially in the context of the plague, entitle Infectious Ideas: Contagion in Pre-Modern Islamic and Christian Thought in the Western Mediterranean (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2011). His book on the social status of the natural sciences in early modern Morocco entitled Revealed Sciences: The Natural Sciences in Islam in Early Modern Morocco (Cambridge University Press) was published in 2021, and the first volume of his edition and translation of al-Yusi’s (d. 1102/1691) Discourses appeared with the Library of Arabic Literature in 2020. He is currently working on the second volume of The Discourses and together with a group of students is engaged in a long-term project to establish a searchable database of all catalogued Moroccan manuscripts.


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