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Cosmopolitan philology


This essay studies the Arabic-English Lexicon (1863–1893), a monumental dictionary of classical Arabic created by Edward William Lane (1801–1876), in order to discuss the constitution of Arabic as a cosmopolitan language. And it examines parenthetically the efforts made by novelist and newspaperman Aḥmad Fāris al-Shidyāq (1804–1887) to rejuvenate Arabic as a modern cosmopolitan language. Because it is not connected to contemporary usage in a specific region, a cosmopolitan language – like literary Arabic – is able to maintain a dynamic connection between multiple historical eras. Its historical scope is viewed as a weakness by national language ideology, which promotes the mother tongue as the only viable literary language. The essay focuses instead on the celebration of the historical richness of the cosmopolitan language by its champions and practitioners, like Lane and al-Shidyāq.

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  1. 1.

    I have quoted Lane’s definition faithfully, leaving out only the sigla he uses to cite the lexicons he consulted. These pose a further source of fascination and a further disruption for the scholar consulting the dictionary.

  2. 2.

    The term ‘classical Arabic’ refers (somewhat imprecisely) to authoritative linguistic practice as established during the early Islamic centuries based on the pre-Islamic poets, the Qur’an and the corpus of hadith (or sayings of the Prophet).

  3. 3.

    On Lane’s biography, see the exhaustive and authoritative Thompson (2010), and also Ahmed (1978).

  4. 4.

    In its fulsome style, Lane’s Lexicon is the opposite of J.G. Hava’s Arabic-English Dictionary for the Use of Students (first published in Beirut in 1899). The terseness of Hava’s Dictionary struck John Julius Norwich – who also, apparently, reads dictionaries for fun: ‘Almost every entry gives additional proof – if such were needed – of the impossibility of the Arabic language.’ And he cited a sampling of Hava’s telegraphic definitions: ‘Shroud. Fancy. Black stallion. Owner of a th[ing]. Self-magnified. Caliphate. Lonely place …’ (Norwich and Blake, 2002, 46).

  5. 5.

    The first English translation of Leg over Leg has just appeared (al-Shidyāq, 2014), and should make al-Shidyāq better known in the English speaking world. English-language scholarship on al-Shidyāq includes: Alwan (1970), el-Ariss (2013, 53–87), Rastegar (2007, 101–125), and Sawaie (1990).

  6. 6.

    Sir Thomas Urquhart (1611–1660) was himself an extraordinary individual: the spendthrift scion of a ruined aristocratic family who bounced in and out of debtor’s prison; by all accounts, an exceptionally difficult man; a Scotsman and writer of English prose during an era when Scots literature was in decline.

  7. 7.

    The word conatus denotes a ‘virtue,’ ‘vitality,’ ‘power’ or capacity – present ‘in every body,’ human or non-human, animate or inanimate – that allows them to sustain their existence and to exert an influence on other bodies. It comes from Spinoza by way of Bennett (2010, 2).

  8. 8.

    In the monograph in progress from which this essay is extracted, I propose the word hauntology to describe some of the implications of the complex temporality of the cosmopolitan language: first and foremost the challenge it poses to the supposed vitality and vivid presence of the mother tongue.


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Mallette, K. Cosmopolitan philology. Postmedieval 5, 414–427 (2014).

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