Friday, May 09, 2008


In every field of research, there is a number of terms which are often misunderstood and/or used incorrectly not just by laymen (the people call the staff of Language Log and languagehat as expert witnesses), but quite often by knowledgeable experts as well. Karšūnī is one of the terms which just beg for such treatment and often receive it. Having recently waded through a number of documents looking for texts in karšūnī, the whole thing gives me a real a headache. Here is why.

First, there's the many ways of spelling it. Karshuni, carshuni, carchouni, carschouni, karschuni, karšūnī, karshūnī, karschūnī, garshuni, garschuni, garšūnī, gerschuni, gershuni, geršūnī or even akaršūnī and akarschūnī - you name it, it's somewhere out there. Which is the correct one is anybody's guess. According to Julius Assfalg's brief yet exhaustive and even after 26 years unsurpassed overview of the subject (3:297-298), this is a much debated question among eastern Christians. Eminent scholars like G.S. Assemani and Alphonse Mingana believed it should be garshuni/garšūnī and considered the form karšūnī a Maronite corruption. On the other hand, many believe the correct form is gershuni, as it derives from Geršūn, the Syriac form of the name Gershon / Gershom, Moses' firstborn son, who is supposed to have invented this practice. The form with initial k- is firmly established in French and German traditions, while the English-speaking scholars seem to prefer garshuni and its derivations. To each his own, I would normally say, but in this digital age, a line has to be drawn somewhere. Searching for the same term with small variations over and over again just isn't fun. I'm taking this up with the European Commission, they should be able to settle the matter in no time at all.

Then there's the many meanings of the term - especially when it comes to manuscript catalogues. In the strictest sense, karšūnī is a term for manuscripts or printed works in Arabic language in Syriac script. Simple enough: language - Arabic; script - Syriac. Makes sense, right? Well, no, not really. It does not refer to a different variety of Arabic language the way the term Judeo-Arabic does - moreover, Arabic-speaking Christians used both Arabic script and Syriac script when writing Arabic. Nor does it describe a variety of the Syriac script adapted for writing Arabic (as is the case with the term bosančica, Cyrillic and Bosnian/Croatian) or a ductus used more or less exclusively for writing Arabic (as with nastaʿlīq and Persian/Urdu). The best way of defining karšūnī would be saying it's a practice of writing Arabic texts in Syriac script. This practice did not require any modification of the script (the way Cyrillic used for Turkic or Uralic languages did) nor did a separate ductus develop for writing Arabic. And thus in many manuscript volumes written in Syriac script, a text in Syriac is often followed by a karšūnī text written by the same hand in the exactly same serṭō. Add to that the formerly standard practice of Western libraries to catalogue manuscripts by script and not by language and it's 'Hello, Mr. Aspirin' every time you consult one of the older ones.

The Judas apocryphon mentioned recently at the Apocryphicity blog and the respective entry in the Cambridge Syriac collection catalogue is a classic example of the mess this can create. The physical description of the volume in question (Add. 2881) includes the following:

The writing is usually an unsightly cursive Karshuni, but some pages are written in a better Egyptian Arabic hand (e.g. ff. 175 b, 176 a, 245 a, 247 b —249 a, 258 b, 281 b, 282 a, 290 b, 291 a, 299 a— 301 a).

First off, "unsightly cursive" is definitely out of place here. "Unsightly cursive serṭō / jacobite " would be fine and so would "unsightly cursive madnḥāyā / nestorian". Even "unsightly cursive esṭrangelā" would be perfectly OK, though somewhat remarkable, since karšūnī texts were very rarely written in esṭrangelā. But "unsightly cursive Karshuni" just isn't right - "cursive" is an adjective used almost exclusively of writing and as I pointed out earlier, karšūnī is not a type of script. But never mind, I can live with that. The author of this particular entry apparently thought Karshuni was a designation of a type of Syriac script, which is why they also included the bit about "better Egyptian Arabic hand". We can thus assume that ff. 175b, 176a, 245a etc. are written in Arabic language in Arabic script while the rest is written in Arabic language in Syriac script, right? Well, no. According to the catalogue, folios 2b through 298b are written in Arabic language and Syriac script. This also includes ff. 175b, 176a, 245a, 247b —249a, 258b, 281b, 282a, 290b, 291a - all of which are supposed to be written in that "better Egyptian Arabic hand". Only ff. 299a — 301a are, as expected, written in the Arabic script, as are some notes on f. 307b. The rest seems to employ serṭō. At this point I'd like a glass of water with my medication, please. And I can consider myself lucky not dealing with texts in languages other than Syriac or Arabic written in Syriac script, such as Turkish, Armenian, Persian or even Malayalam (although to be fair, writing in Malayalam required some adapting and the script itself is legitimately referred to as "gerisoni"). Once we include those, karšūnī takes on a new meaning very similar to ajami.

And finally, there is the issue of the original meaning and the etymology of the term - though unlike the previous ones, this one is more theoretical than practical. We've already seen one attempt at an explanation (derived from Gershon / Gershom) and if you did not find it very convincing, I can't blame you. Other alternative etymologies proposed do not fare any better with regard to credibility:

- karḵūnē (a diminutive plural of ܟܰܪܟܐ [karḵā] = "rolled", also "codex") meaning "small round (i.e. letters)" - which, again, refers to a type of script or a ductus
- Syriac verb ܓܪܰܫ [graš] meaning "to draw away", hence "foreign, imported writing"
- Persian kār + Šūnī, i.e. "the work of Šūnī" (why Persian?)
- a diminutive form of Syriac ܟܰܪܣܐ [karsā] = "belly", i.e. "(letters) with small bellies" (again with the type of script)
- and finally, the trusted option of a derivation from a personal name.

As you can see, we're drawing a blank so far. It would help a lot if we knew where the practice was started and who first used the term, but we don't. All that can be said for certain is that the Wikipedia entry is quite wrong: there is no evidence that Eastern Christians wrote in Arabic before the end of the 8th century AD when (according to Graf) Maronites took the point and Nestorians and Copts followed suit. Nor is there evidence that Syriac script was used to write Arabic when "Arabic script was not yet fully developed and widely read". Such use of Syriac script cannot be ruled out, of course, but it simply doesn't matter: when Eastern Christians adopted Arabic language, they also adopted Arabic script. Up until the 13th century, karšūnī was reserved for titles, chapter names, notes and such, while most of what was written was written in Arabic script (such as the production of the Palestinian Melkites analyzed by Joshua Blau [1]). Karšūnī manuscripts grew in number in the 14th century and the next century marked the beginning of karšūnī's golden era which lasted well until the 19th century and survived even the introduction of printing machines. This is what we know for a fact. The rest, like the origin of the practice and the meaning and the origin of the term - not so much.

And so we are left with Assfalg's (3:298) observation to that effect and his brief remark that the earliest recorded usage of the term in European sources is the preface to Gabriel Sionita's and Faustus Naironius' edition of Novum Testamentum Syriace et Latine printed in Rome in 1703. Well, we were, until 1991. This was when Hartmut Bobzin published a brief yet fascinating article [2] antedating the term by at least 146 years. It was found in a manuscript by Johann Albrecht Widmanstetter who prepared the first European printed edition of the Syriac New Testament. The manuscript in question contains, among other things, a fragment of a Latin translation of Kitāb al-ādžurrūmīja, a famous compendium of Arabic grammar (original here). A translation of one of the first lines of Kitāb al-ādžurrūmīja ("Partes orationis sunt tres...") is followed by a brief excursus into comparative Semitology which includes these comments on the Aramaic language (pardon my very bad translation):

... Aliter syros scribere, babilonios aliter, et differentes ab utrisque hebreos qui e babilone in patriam redierunt. Deinde aliam esse scribendi rationem Jonathe, Onkelo, aliam Danielj et Jobis historie authori Mosj, aliam postremo Christianis quos Maronitas vocant, qui Chaldaico sermone in sacris utuntur, arabico vulgo passim, hunc ipsi vocant קרשוני illum chaldaicum quem Syrum adpellant.

... The Syrians use a different writing, so do the Babylonians, and the Hebrews who returned from Babylonia to their homeland use a writing different from both those. And thus one should mention first [targum of] Jonathan and [targum of] Onkelos, then the story of Daniel and Job written by Moses and finally the Christians who are called Maronites who use the Chaldaic language in their services and colloquial Arabic elsewhere, and this they themselves call קרשוני in that Chaldaic which they term Syriac.

As Bobzin points out, it is interesting to note that Widmanstetter speaks of language and not writing. It is also interesting to note that his version of karšūnī (I lost count, sorry) begins with a qoph and not a gimel, which may rehabilitate the form with initial k-. Or not, as it depends on where the form originated. Unfortunately, Widmanstetter's notes are not helpful in this regard and so the etymology and the origin of the term karšūnī are still lost in the mists of time. Ah well, maybe I'll find something. And while I search, remember: Arabic language, Syriac script. Like this:

[1] BLAU, Joshua: A Grammar Of Christian Arabic (Fasc. I-III). - Louvain : Secretariat du CorpusSCO, 1966-1968
[2] BOBZIN, Hartmut: Über eine bisher unbekannte Europäische Bezeichnung des Terminus 'Karšūnī' . - Journal of Semitic Studies, 1991, XXXVI/2, pp. 259-261
[3] FISCHER, Wolfdietrich (Hrsg.): Grundriss der Arabischen Philologie. Band 1: Sprachwissenschaft. - Wiesbaden : Harrassowitz, 1982, xiii., 362 p.


John Cowan said...

Perhaps by "Egyptian Arabic hand" is meant "the handwriting of an Egyptian Arab who is writing Arabic in Syrian script."

bulbul said...

Hm, then they should have included that Egyptian Arab's name, social security number and current address in Damascus :)

komfo,amonan said...

I humbly submit that the link labeled "Alphonse Mingana" leads one astray to the page of Assemani. I might have gotten a headache myself from this post, had I understood the half of it.

bulbul said...


link fixed, thanks.
Is it my writing style? Can I help? :)

komfo,amonan said...

Haha! Certainly not! I'm just unversed in the topic. I've always liked your writing style.

maxqnz said...

(I hope this post isn't a duplicate, I don't know what hapepned to my last attempt.)

Thanks for introducing me to the words "ductus" and "serto" (I'm still nto clear on that one). As a mere pieriansipist, am I completely off-base in thinking that Karsuni could be called a system of transcription, like the trend for Hindi and Punjabi to be written in Roman character on message boards. in IJMs, and SMS texts these days? Also, is it just me, or does it look a lot like a kind of RTL Tengwar?

bulbul said...


you're onto something here, on both counts: serṭō, esṭrangelā and nestorian (madnḥāyā) are three different styles/types of the Syriac script. In German/Russian orientalist schools, each of these styles/types/forms etc. would be called a ductus, and so would each of the many forms of the Arabic script (kūfī, naskhī, dīwānī, nastaʿlīq, ruqʿa etc.). I'm not sure, but it seems that this is a rare usage of this term in English.
As for the transcription, I think your comparison is valid, though here is the interesting bit: writing Hindi (or Russian or Chinese) in Roman script makes sense not only for technical reasons, but also as another example of acculturation. Same thing happened with Arabic script and Persian, Turkish, Urdu, Malay, Hausa - basically any language the speakers of which converted to Islam. Interestingly enough, Arabic-speaking Christians and Arabic-speaking Jews both adopted Arabic, but kept the script. I guess this only understrikes Joshua Blau's point re to Judeo-Arabic: in the Medieval Middle East, script was a much more important identifier of religion than language.
It is also interesting to note that while the rabbinic Jews used the Hebrew script exclusively (Karaites also wrote in Arabic script and so did the Samaritans), the Eastern Christians adopted the Arabic script and only later switched to Syriac script as well. I'm assuming it has something to with the preservation of Syriac language and tradition - even if Syriac was replaced by Arabic for everyday purposes by 800, the Syriac learning survived well into the 13th century (Bar-Hebraeus).

Etienne said...

First: welcome back to our blogger! Second, your point about script as a more important marker of religion in the Medieval Middle East than language brings up a historical matter I've often wondered about: why is it that, whereas Jews wrote Arabic in Hebrew script and Middle Eastern Christians in Syriac script, North African Christians, who still made some (limited!) use of written Latin in the centuries following the Arab conquest, seem never to have written Arabic in Roman script?

David Marjanović said...

in the Medieval Middle East, script was a much more important identifier of religion than language.

Two words: Croatian, Serbian.

North African Christians, who still made some (limited!) use of written Latin in the centuries following the Arab conquest

:-o I had no idea...

David Marjanović said...

Two words: Croatian, Serbian.

Also Turkish written in Greek and Armenian letters.

David Marjanović said...

Forgot yet something else:

'Hello, Mr. Aspirin'


Partes orationis sunt tres

Omnis oratio est divisa in partes tres, quam unam...

bulbul said...

'Hello, Mr. Aspirin'
I get these headaches...

North African Christians ... seem never to have written Arabic in Roman script?
Honestly, I have no idea. Maybe they never adopted Arabic for purposes other than communication with outside world. Maybe Latin script was not as intrinsically connected with their religion (as Hebrew is with Judaism and Syriac is with Christianity) that they felt they had to hang on to it as a part of their identity.

David Marjanović said...

So Aspirin is now a Mr.? That's what I didn't get. Was there a TV ad that personified it?

Roger Pearse said...

I believe that there is a Karshuni where Turkish is written in Syriac letters, in the Turoyo community around Mardin and Tel Abdin in Turkey.

Anonymous said...

29047126483369175 I play dofus Replica Watches for one year, I Replica Rolex Watches want to get some Replica Watch kamas to buy Replica Chanel Watches item for my character. So, I search "Replica Swiss Watches" on google and found many website. As Exact Replica Graham Watch the tips from the forum, I just review the Swiss Replica Watches websites and choose some Replica Montblanc Watches quality sites to Replica Cartier Watches compare the price, and go to their Replica Breguet Watches online support to make Replica Breitling Watches the test. And Last Chaos Gold I decide to use Replica BRM Watch at the end. And Tag Heuer Replica Watch that is the Replica IWC Watch beginning..

Bruce said...

Today,we are proud to announce the launch of the new wedding support service sell ffxi gil,packed with features sure to sell ffxi gils delight adventurers across Vana'diel looking to exchange eternal vows with their beloved!Responding to player demands for greater customization,the new service will grant brides and grooms freedom in choosing location,timing,dialogue,and sell Final Fantasy XI Gil more for their ceremony,allowing them to create a truly memorable event all their own.Information on all the features,including in-game sell ffxi gil item vendors and wedding certificates,can be found on the new wedding support site,so head on over sell ffxi gils and get started planning the wedding of your dreams sell Final Fantasy XIGil!

Hua Cai said...

chrome hearts sunglasses
uggs on sale
michael kors outlet
coach outlet
pandora outlet
true religion uk
louis vuitton handbags
michael kors outlet store
nike outlet store
cheap nike shoes sale
adidas outlet
ray-ban sunglasses
air max 90
ugg boots
coach outlet online
polo ralph lauren
louis vuitton outlet online
michael kors outlet
adidas shoes
fitflops shoes
ugg boots
michael kors handbags
ugg uk
chicago blackhawks
michael kors outlet
lebron shoes
uggs outlet
tods shoes sale
air max 90
michael kors outlet
michael kors outlet
ferragamo shoes
coach outlet online
nike free running
nike free running
20160804caihuali said...

louis vuitton outlet
basketball shoes
kobe bryant shoes
replica watches
coach outlet
uggs australia
supra sneakers
rolex submariner watches
air jordans
ray ban sunglasses
hollister clothing
rolex watches outlet
michael kors handbags
christian louboutin shoes
jordan 4
insanity workout
fitflops sale clearance
jordan retro
longchamp bags
lebron james shoes 13
polo ralph lauren
michael kors outlet
hermes birkin bag
canada goose coats
ugg boots
nike roshe run
michael kors uk
louis vuitton

raybanoutlet001 said...

ed hardy uk
nike air force 1
cheap michael kors handbags
michael kors handbags outlet
birkenstock sandals
michael kors outlet
supra shoes sale
michael kors handbags
michael kors handbags wholesale

dong dong23 said...

basketball shoes
hollister uk
rolex watches
canada goose jackets
louboutin shoes
jordan retro
polo ralph lauren
uggs pas cher
giuseppe zanotti
canada goose outlet

John said...

red bottom shoes for women
canada goose jackets
kd shoes
coach outlet online
toms outlet
true religion jeans outlet
cheap jordan shoes
hugo boss suits
louis vuitton factory outlet
canada goose sale

Unknown said...

cheap nfl jerseys
nike huarache
michael kors handbags outlet
packers jerseys
nike huarache trainers
jaguars jersey
north face outlet
cheap nba jerseys
mlb jerseys
gucci sale

琐事 said...

oakland raiders jerseys
michael kors outlet online
louis vuitton pas cher
cheap jordans
omega watches
new york knicks jersey
ravens jerseys
nike trainers uk
bills jerseys
atlanta falcons jersey

dong dong23 said...

oakley sunglasses
michael kors outlet
canada goose jackets
michael kors outlet
louis vuitton handbags
adidas nmd r1
mbt shoes
polo ralph lauren
louis vuitton
pandora bracelet

chenmeinv0 said...

roshe run flyknit
cheap ugg boots
ugg australia
instyler max
adidas yeezy 350
ralph lauren
ralph lauren polo
adidas nmd runner
michael kors handbags
pittsburgh steelers jerseys

Hua Cai said...

north face jackets
oakley sunglasses
moncler outlet
tiffany outlet
ray ban sunglasses
michael kors outlet
canada goose outlet
celine outlet
yeezy boost
nike uk store

Gege Dai said...

oakley sunglasses
longchamp handbags
louis vuitton
polo ralph lauren
los angeles lakers
ferragamo shoes
michael kors handbags
reebok trainers
rolex uk
lululemon outlet