Languages of the Eastern Mediterranean

Languages of the
Before it was the “Mediterranean”…
• Despite the large number of peoples living on its Eastern shores and
later expanding West, this Sea did not have a dedicated name from
the start and for centuries to come.
• For the ancient Egyptians, it was Uat-Ur (Wadj-Wer) = the “Great
• In Biblical Hebrew, it is called ‫(הים הגדול‬HaYam HaGadol) = the
"Great Sea”, "The Sea”; also "Hinder Sea” (due to its location on the
west coast of the Holy Land, and therefore behind a person facing
East), "Western Sea”; the "Sea of the Philistines”, from the people
occupying a large portion of its shores near the Israelites.
• Ancient Greek historian Herodotus used the names of sub-parts of it
while other Greek authors called it “the sea within Hercules’ Pillars”
(=Gibraltar) or “our sea,” names echoed in later Latin “mare
nostrum,” “mare internum,” and “mare insentinum” (=internal sea).
Naming the “Mediterranean”
• The name Mediterranean Sea
is due to the Latin grammarian
Gaius Julius Solinus (3rd c. CE),
who coined the term Mare
Mediterraneum meaning “the
sea between two continents,
sea situated in the middle of
land, landlocked” (from
medius “middle” + terra
• However, the Romans
themselves continued to call it
Mare Nostrum ("Our Sea"),
and occasionally Mare
Map of Hecataeus (ca. 550-476 BCE)
based on an older map by Anaximander
(ca. 610-546 BCE)
The Mediterranean in its languages
From classical Latin mediterrāneus, we get Italian mediterraneo (1282), Spanish
mediterráneo (c1440), French méditerranéen (1569 in Middle French), as well as
calques (semantic translations) in several languages, e.g., Albanian Deti Mesdhe,
Armenian Միջերկրական ծով (Mitchergragan dzov - Midjerkrakan tsov), Berber Ilel
Agraka, Bulgarian Средиземно Море, Catalan Mar Mediterrània, Corsican Mare
Terraniu, Croatian Sredozemno more, Greek Μεσόγειος (Mesogeios), Modern Hebrew
HaYam HaTikhon ( ‫הַ יָּם הַ תָּיכֹון‬from German Mittelmeer), Macedonian Средоземно
Море, Maltese Baħar Mediterran, Occitan mar Mediterranèa, Romanian Marea
Mediterană, Russian Средиземное море, Serbian Sredozemno more (Средоземно
море), and Slovenian Sredozemsko morje.
The Ottoman Turks called it Akdeniz, "the White Sea”, to distinguish it from the Black
Sea to the North East – they used to designate the four cardinal directions by color:
black for the North, red for the West, green or Yellow for the East and white for the
The Turkish name is replicated in modern Arabic al-Baḥr al-Abyaḍ al-Mutawassiṭ ( ‫البحر‬
‫)األبيض المتوسط‬, "the White Middle Sea", while in Islamic and older Arabic literature, it
was referenced as Baḥr al-Rūm (‫)بحر الروم‬, "the Roman/Byzantine Sea."
A short (pre-)history of language
contact in the Mediterranean
• Perhaps because it was easily navigable and “friendlier” than the
Ocean, as well as close to some of the earliest documented
civilizations (Egyptian, Sumerian, Mycenean Greek), wherein
important innovations such as writing also originated, the
Mediterranean has been a center of intense language contact from
the start, yielding some of the world’s earliest “global” languages.
• Some linguists have proposed the idea of a pre-Indo-European
Mediterranean substratum spoken throughout the European and
African lands bordering the Mediterranean basin, whose traces are
found principally in the names of places, plants, mountains and
• With Proto-Greek (the first IE language to reach the Mediterranean)
being documented by 2,500 BCE, that places any pre-IE substratum
to a time before the 3rd millennium BCE.
Language contact during historic times
• Language families involved
– Indo-European
Latin > Romance (Italian, French, Spanish,…)
South Slavic (Croatian, Slovenian,…)
– Afro-asiatic
• Semitic (Hebrew, Arabic, Maltese…)
• Berber (aka Tamazight, officially spoken in Algeria & Morocco,
also found in Libya & Tunisia)
– Turkic
• Turkish
Products of language contact:
Koiné Greek and koiné languages
• From Greek κοινή (διάλεκτος), "common dialect”; Koine
Greek spread from its birthplace, the port of Piraeus near
Athens, eastward and southward following the path of
Alexander’s conquests.
Products of language contact:
Koiné Greek and koiné languages
• Spoken approx. between 300 BCE and 300 CE, it is the
language into which the Old Testament was translated
and in which the New Testament (the Gospels) were
originally written. Originally derided by grammarians as
a debased form of Classical (Attic) Greek, it is also the
form of Greek on which Modern Greek is based.
• Since then, the term koiné in linguistics stands for a
simplified version of a language that emerges as a
product of contact between speakers of mutually
intelligible varieties of that language and serves to
mark their common sense of identity and belonging.
Products of language contact:
Sabir and Lingua Franca
• Contrary to Koine Greek, which was first and foremost a written
language of the administration, medieval Sabir (named after a
Romance root meaning “to know”) was a spoken, non-codified
language of communication between “Franks” (=Christians) and
Arabs and later Turks during the crusades that was proliferated by
sailors across the port cities of the Mediterranean starting in the
11th c. CE.
• Historically the first to use it were the Genoese and Venetian
trading colonies in the eastern Mediterranean after the year 1000.
Later, its epicenter moved West to Algiers, where it was widely used
by Christian slaves (up to 25,000), Barbary pirates and European
outlaws alike. An example of Sabir is found in Molière's comedy, Le
Bourgeois gentilhomme (“The Would-Be Noble”, 1670).
Medieval trade routes
Lingua Franca and lingua francas
• Based mostly on Northern Italian languages and OccitanoRomance languages in the eastern Mediterranean at first,
this original Lingua Franca, lisan al-afrang or lisan al-farang
in Arabic, later came to have more Spanish and Portuguese
elements, especially in North Africa, and has been
hypothesized to be at the origin of later pidgin varieties
emanating out of West Africa.
• Sabir also borrowed from Turkish, French, Greek and Arabic
and was used widely for commerce and diplomacy.
• Today, the term lingua franca in linguistics denotes any
language systematically used to make communication
possible between people who do not share a mother
tongue, often as a third language (cf. working language,
vehicular language).
The limits of contact:
Infinitive avoidance in Balkan languages
• A common feature of several Balkan
languages, including some that border on the
Mediterranean (Albanian, (Modern) Greek), is
infinitive avoidance. This means that:
“I want to go” is rendered as “I want that I-go”
• The phenomenon of infinitive avoidance has
been crucial for defining a Balkan Sprachbund
or Balkan linguistic area.
What’s in an infinitive?
The ethnic identity of the Greeks
• The lack of an infinitive in Modern Greek has been a particular
source of chagrin for (modern-day) Greeks. This is because it
was used by the Tyrolean scholar Jakob Philipp Fallmerayer in
the early 1800’s to deny a link between Ancient and Modern
Greek, and by implication between ancient and modern
Greeks, whom he saw as a Slavic people.
• At a time when Greeks were fighting for their independence
from the Ottoman Empire with the support of Philhellenes
from the West who sought to reinstitute Greece to its earlier
glory, Fallmerayer found support for his theory of the Slavic
origin of the Greeks in the modern language’s lack of an
infinitive, which he castigated with the phrase “a language
without infinitive is no better than a human body without a
hand” (Fallmerayer 1845: 2.451-2).
What’s in an infinitive?
The ethnic identity of the Greeks
• With the obsolescence of the infinitive from Modern Greek
put down to influence from neighboring Bulgarian and
Albanian (although the ancient language itself was veering
toward analytic forms already, i.e. the influence may well
have gone the other way), Greek scholars were relieved to
hear of the putative survival of the infinitive in Pontic, a
Greek dialect originally spoken on the southern shores of
the Black Sea in modern-day Turkey, before Pontic Greeks
were displaced to modern-day Northern Greece.
• The story of the Greek infinitive is an opportune example of
how linguistic phenomena can be “recruited” to prove
larger ideological points, often with ambivalent results.
… but also in Southern Italy and Malta
• However, infinitive avoidance is not limited to the
Balkan languages, It is also found in Italo-Albanian and
Italo-Greek, as well as (more surprisingly) Romance
dialects of Southern Italy (Calabrian, Salentinian).
• While all of the above might be explained as a case of
contagion from the Balkan mainland (during Byzantine
times or even earlier), the same is not necessarily the
case for Maltese, where infinitive avoidance also
occurs. Now, if this were a result of language contact,
that would be interesting, since Maltese is a Semitic
language (like Arabic).
Parallel developments in the same
geolinguistic area
• However, Arabic has its own pattern of infinitive avoidance
(characterized by the absence of a subordinating
conjunction that) which it has exported to a variety of
unrelated neighboring languages, such as Persian (an IndoEuropean language) along with Islam.
• A contact explanation is, thus not necessary to explain
infinitive avoidance in Maltese. This is a feature that the
language derives quite independently from its Semitic
origins and need not have borrowed from its Romance
neighbors – despite the reality of long-standing contact on
the island, with Malta having been a Roman possession for
centuries and then under Byzantine rule until the advent of
the Arabs in the 9th century CE.
The lesson to be drawn from all this?
• “Infinitive avoidance… crosses quite a few linguistic
boundaries and thereby connects languages from
Romanian up North to Arabic in the South, from
Calabrian in the West to Persian in the East. All seems
perfect, because the languages form some kind of
homogeneous geolinguistic agglomeration.
Undeniably, there has been cultural and linguistic
contact across the board for centuries. Nevertheless,
diachronically speaking, we are not dealing with one
phenomenon. Rather, we have to make allowances for
two absolutely independent processes which
accidentally happen to have similar results in
neighboring languages.” (Stolz 2002: 272).
Conclusion: Convergences among
smaller, genetically defined subgroups
• The present stage of inquiry suggests that, as far as language
structure goes, there is no “Mediterranean linguistic area” in
the same way we can speak of a Balkan linguistic area.
Instead, what we find are some subareas which to a great
extent reflect the genetic origins of the languages concerned.
We find, for instance, a Romance as well as an Arabic area,
admittedly with fringes, i.e. contact zones.
• “This is certainly not surprising: a strong linguistic integration
presupposes a high number of bilingual, or even multilingual,
speakers, as was the case in Anglo-Norman England. After the
fall of the Roman empire, such a situation never occurred on a
comprehensive Mediterranean scale. Even the largely diffused
Greek koiné [before that] was not able to form the basis of an
East Mediterranean Sprachbund: it remained the written
language of a cultivated but restricted minority.” (Ramat 2002:

similar documents