Cambridge University Library

Fragment of the Month: response to March 2012

Goitein's alleged simplistic linguistic analysis of T-S 13J24.22

by M. A. Friedman

Scholarship by definition precludes unquestioning acceptance of the findings of eminent predecessors. This rule by necessity applies to Genizah research, and even the scholarship of such towering figures as S. D. Goitein beckons for critical reassessment, a point well-taken by Esther-Miriam Wagner in her recent FOTM piece. Unless such seemingly daunting challenges are confronted, scholarship is liable to stagnate. In the attempt to demonstrate the superiority of a new analysis the burden of proof rests heavily on the challenger, and this rule too must be self-evident.

Wagner demonstrates the first principle with her criticism of Goitein's posthumously published discussion (5:222, 569n17) of T-S 13J24.22. This is a late, 16th (?)-century Judaeo-Arabic letter, in which Najmiya, whose family emigrated from Spain to (Old) Cairo, writes her father, and reports that her mother said that he should come home quickly, since she had entered her last month of pregnancy.[1] Goitein commented that ‘the specifically Semitic sounds of Arabic were impossible for the Spanish girl to pronounce, wherefore she mercilessly mixed up k and q, t and , ʾalif and ʿayin, and was unable to discern between short and long vowels, so absolutely vital in Arabic.’

Specific examples of this ‘merciless mix’ were not cited by Goitein in his book. This notwithstanding, in Wagner’s opinion ‘from a linguist’s point of view' his analysis was ‘simplistic’ and reflected the prejudices of his time. Since this letter is part of the India Book collection (VI, 54) on which I have been working, I have Goitein's rough-draft transcription at my disposal. Nevertheless, I enter into the discussion with trepidation, as I have not studied such late Judaeo-Arabic materials and am hardly a linguist.

Najmiya—Wagner speculates that a male relative might have written the letter for her—clearly writes q instead of final k, especially for the singular pronominal suffix. But since the writer spells the plural pronominal suffix -kum with k, Wagner deduces that she ‘knew perfectly well how to write the suffixes’ and concludes that ‘this feature can in fact only be interpreted as a misreading of the final k.’

While final ך and ק are in fact often indistinguishable, Goitein’s supposed misreading is fantastic here. Unless the situation is different in the period concerned, to the best of my knowledge those two letters may be identical in form—if and when ק is drawn with one stroke. But in this document, which is written in a rather handsome hand, all the examples of ק are clearly penned with two, disconnected strokes. This appears to preclude a misreading. Is it not possible that the writer distinguished between the pronunciation of final k (without following vowel) and medial k, and that the former was realized like q? Furthermore, in lines 18–19 Goitein read: ואסתעגל פי אלמגי כאד מא תכדר ‘come as quickly as you can,’ with tkdr = tqdr (‘you can’). Besides this expression being more idiomatic in my opinion, from the shape of the letters alone I consider this reading preferable to תבדר (‘hurry’), even though there is only a slight difference between ב and כ.

Wagner notes that ‘the spelling of  for t, the so-called tafḫīm, occurs commonly from the 15th century onwards.’ I suggest that the opposite spelling t for occurs in the clause ולא זאיד במא נתואל עליק סואה בי אלכיר ואלעפיא ושלום in lines 19–20, which I understand to mean ‘I shall not burden you with more prolixity, except (to wish you) well-being, health and peace,’ with nutawwal<nuṭawwil. I am not familiar with such a spelling (a loose tarqīq?) from the classical period of Judaeo-Arabic and do not know how common it was from the 15th century onwards.

As to the interchange of ʾalif and ʿayin, Wagner correctly assumed that Goitein may have interpreted אדמנא in line 6 as עדמנא (‘we missed’). In his draft copy the equivalence is marked with a question mark. This reading was undoubtedly intended in his A Mediterranean Society where ואדמנא מנו עפיתכם וסמענא אנא הונק צ׳עף כיתיר in lines 6–7 was paraphrased: ‘he forgot to say in his letter, “I am well,” as usual, and the climate of Mocha, where he stayed was not salubrious’. Wagner prefers identifying אדמנא as a derivative of adāma ‘to make long lasting,’ but neither ‘we made long lasting’ nor ‘it made (for?) us long lasting’ fits the context.

My own preference is to translate the clause: ‘From it (reading your letter) we felt relief because of your health, since we had heard that there was much sickness there.’ Relief afforded by the good news of a letter and by word of a loved one’s good health is a common theme in Genizah letters. (For צ׳עף, ‘illness,’ see Dozy, II, p. 9; Hava, p. 418. Cf., e.g., ENA 4020.1, lines 3–4: וכאן קד בלגה אן כאן תם צ׳עף ‘He [ = I] heard there had been sickness there [= in your home]’: India Book III, p. 381; India Traders, p. 776.) If so, אדמנא is a phonetic spelling of אטמנא, also known from Spanish Arabic (Corriente, p. 334: mud/tmán).

In line 20 עתית could be understood ‘I gave,’ either as an equivalent of עטית (as noted by Goitein) or אתית (from IV אתי) (see, e.g., Wehr, p. 3; Hava, p. 3; there is also evidence for this in Judaeo-Arabic texts from the classical period). Accordingly, the phrase ואוסלתני אלה׳ בנדיקא ועתית אלג׳ לרחמה should be translated ‘I received the 5 bndyks and gave 3 to Raḥma,’ and it was so understood by Kraemer (p. 249). (Bndyk might be a garment or piece of cloth, so bndqy Piamenta, p. 41).

I think that Wagner's questioning Goitein’s reading Mocha (the Yemenite port city) is well taken (his copy indicates some uncertainty on the decipherment). But her conclusions that Goitein’s linguistic analysis was simplistic, reflected the prejudices of his time, and that the writer was a native Arabic speaker have not been adequately demonstrated in my opinion and require further consideration.

The letter itself is fascinating both because of its contents and language. It merits a detailed analysis and full edition, and I hope that these will be engendered by the discussion initiated by Wagner.

*I would like to thank Dr. Wagner for having shared with me observations on her reading of the text.


[1] I assume that is what ‘entered her month’ means, but Goitein remarks that the writer forgot to mention which month it was.

[2] Najmiya’s concern for her father’s health resurfaces later in the letter, in an apparently disconnected fashion (in line 11 ועפיתכם באס ‘and your health is poor’).

Supplemental bibliography

Corriente, F., A Dictionary of Andalusi Arabic, Leiden 1997.
Dozy, R., Supplément aux dictionnaires arabes, I–II, Leiden–Paris 1967 [reprint].
ENA = E. N. Adler Collection, Jewish Theological Seminary of America
Goitein, S. D., A Mediterranean society; the Jewish communities of the Arab world as portrayed in the documents of the Cairo Geniza. Vol. V: The Individual (Berkeley, 1988).
Goitein, S. D. and Friedman, M.A., India Book III – Abraham Ben Yijū India Trader and Manufacturer (Hebrew). Jerusalem 2010.
Goitein, S. D. and Friedman, M.A., India Traders of the Middle Ages: Documents from the Cairo Geniza (‘India Book’). Leiden–Boston 2008.
Hava, J. G., Arabic-English Dictionary, Beirut 1970.
Kraemer, J. L., ‘Spanish Ladies from Cairo Genizah’, in A. Meyuhas Ginio (ed.), Jews, Christians, and Muslims in the Mediterranean World after 1492 (London, 1992), pp. 237–266.
Piamenta, M., Dictionary of Post-Classical Yemeni Arabic, I–II, Leiden 1990–1991.
Wagner, E. M., ‘Goitein and girlish prose: T-S 13J24.22’,
Wehr, H., A Dictionary of Modern Written Arabic (J. M. Cowan [ed.]), Ithaca 1966.

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