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Black Language: Racio-Linguistics and Representing Afro-Asian Languages in Abbasid Writings
At the height of the ‘Abbasid period, two seemingly mutually exclusive projects of knowledge unfolded. First, there was the documentation through travelers’ and merchants’ reportage, Greek forebears, and contemporary mapping traditions of the dimensions, peoples, and resources of the known world in geographies; second, descriptive theories of eloquence and rhetoricity were formulated by lexicographers who were grappling with an evolving aesthetics of Arabic poetry and prose. Little work–beyond noting such elements as the relationship of terms for social kind such as ‘ajam, or non-Arab, and barbar, or Berber, with intelligibility of speech–has addressed how logics of acceptable and beautiful communication, oral and written, were mapped onto transregional civilizational standards and embedded in structures of imperial domination, commercial venture, notions of enslaveability and religiosity, and more. This paper specifically addresses how African and South/east Asian languages, both grouped as proprietary of “Black” peoples, are represented in ‘Abbasid-era writings. Using the works of lexicographers and litterateurs such as ‘Abd al-Qahir al-Jurjānī, al-Jāḥiẓ, and Ibn al-Nadīm alongside geographers such as al-Idrīsī, Ibn Ḥawqal, and Abū Zayd al-Sīrāfī, I argue that Arabophone scholars in central ‘Abbasid lands troped Black authenticity not just through location and embodiment, but through patterns of speech and writing, practicing what Jonathan Rosa and Nelson Flores have termed “raciolinguistic enregisterment.” I also present evidence for the familiarity of certain amongst these figures with languages and grammars used on the East African coast, and their cognizance of the linguistic impacts of Indian Ocean mobilities. Ultimately, I build both on analyses of othering in the premodern Arabic context and on those of transregional and interlinguistic intimacy, showing, in the words of Paul A. Hardy, that “Race [becomes] apparent when it is revealed to whom [authors] considered worth listening as well as whom they allowed to speak.”
Geographic Area
Africa (Sub-Saharan)
All Middle East
Indian Ocean Region
Islamic World
Sub Area