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Cambridge University Library

Throwback Thursday: Armenian and Romance vocabulary for the discerning traveller

T-S NS 163.57
T-S NS 163.57: A Judaeo-Romance/Judaeo-Arabic word list.
Melonie Schmierer-Lee
Thu 3 Jun 2021

Our Throwback Thursday this week is taken from issue 49 of the printed edition of Genizah Fragments, published in April 2005, by Avi Shivtiel:

A number of talmudic sages seem to have favoured the learning of languages, since the Talmud records several statements to the effect that this was a skill to be encouraged among scholars.

An early and important midrash claims that God gave the Torah to Israel in four languages - Hebrew, Latin, Arabic and Aramaic (Sifrey, Ve-Zot Ha-Berakhah).

Another source states that a father is allowed to teach his daughter Greek because it can adorn her like a piece of jewellery (Talmud Yerushalmi, Shabbat 6.1; 7d and Sotah 9.16; 24c). It was also permitted to translate the Torah into Greek and Aramaic, as was clearly done from as early as the Second Temple period.

The Jews of the Genizah world knew at least three languages - Hebrew, Arabic and Aramaic; some even understood Coptic, Greek and Persian. That there was an eagerness to learn even more is now documented in two word-lists that I have recently discovered among the Genizah treasures.

T-S NS 38.79 contains twenty words and phrases written in Judaeo-Arabic and Judaeo-Armenian: "bread", "meat", "water", "wine", "rose", "apple", "pear", "woman", "virgin", "mother", "father", "beautiful face", "female singer", "white", "black", "tax collector", "come in", "go on", "sit down" and "how are you".

T-S NS 38.79

T-S NS 38.79: An Armenian/Judaeo-Arabic word list.

T-S NS 163.57 features ninety-one phrases written in Judaeo-Arabic and Judaeo-Spanish. The list includes nouns, names of food products, colours, and adjectives concerning taste ("sweet", "bitter", "salty", "hot") but is unfortunately incomplete, with only around half of the Judaeo-Arabic words offering their Spanish equivalents.

Since we know neither the identity of the compilers nor their location or period, we may only assume that they were businessmen who needed some such phrases to help cope with linguistic requirements.

The choice of words in the Armenian list suggests that it was more likely prepared in a social context, while the Spanish phrases seem aimed at fulfilling business needs, with the addition of a few general words such as "love", "hatred", "praise", "beating", and "killing".

Although the phrases in the Armenian list are arranged more or less by subject, those in the Spanish list are more clearly methodical.

The latter contains no verbs or particles but a few verbal nouns, such as "eating", "drinking", "standing", "sitting", "giving", "taking", "selling" and "buying".

While trading in spices was a popular Mediterranean activity in the Middle Ages, neither list refers to any known spice. And although both contain useful words for daily communication, they lack many expected practical expressions.

That the Spanish list is incomplete suggests that the compiler had only begun his linguistic project but, for unknown reasons, never finished it. It is always possible, however, that other folios will one day be discovered, an eventuality not unheard of in Genizah research.

One way or another, the lists testify once again to a medieval Jewish interest in foreign languages and a related enthusiasm for cultures other than the Jewish and Muslim.

Edited texts of both lists will shortly be published in the Journal of Semitic Studies.

What happened next? Avi published the fragments in the following articles: ‘Judaeo-Romance and Judaeo-Arabic Word-List from the Genizah’, focussing on T-S NS 163.57, appeared in the British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies, Vol. 34, No. 1 (Apr., 2007), pp. 63-74; and 'A Judaeo-Armenian and Judaeo-Arabic Word-list from the Cairo Genizah,' in Philip S. Alexander et al., eds., Studia Semitica: The Journal of Semitic Studies Jubilee Volume, Journal of Semitic Studies Supplement 16, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005, pp. 139-143, which focussed on T-S NS 38.79. T-S NS 38.79 also attracted the attention of James Clackson, 'An Armenian/Judaeo-Arabic Word-List in Cambridge,' in Barlow Der Mugrdechian, ed., Between Paris and Fresno: Armenian Studies in Honor of Dickran Kouymjian, Costa Mesa, CA: Mazda, 2008, pp. 241- 246, and James R. Russell, 'On an Armenian word list from the Cairo Geniza,' Iran and the Caucasus, Vol. 17, No. 2 (2013), pp. 189-214. 

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