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Academic Minute

Dr. Ross Brann, Cornell University – Linguistic Similarities of Hebrew and Arabic

In today’s Academic Minute, Dr. Ross Brann of Cornell University traces the similarities of Hebrew and Arabic to a time when they were considered a single language.

Ross Brann is the Milton R. Konvitz Professor of Judeo-Islamic Studies at Cornell University. He is the author of The Compunctious Poet: Cultural Ambiguity and Hebrew Poetry in Muslim Spain, recipient of the 1992 National Jewish Book Award in Sefardic Studies. Professor Brann studied at the University of California, Berkeley, the Hebrew University, Jerusalem, New York University, and the American University in Cairo. He has been a member of the Cornell faculty since 1986.

About Dr. Brann

Dr. Ross Brann – Linguistic Similarities of Hebrew and Arabic

In pre-modern times Jews living in Islamic lands from Morocco to Iraq spoke Arabic as their mother tongue. They also corresponded, conducted their economic ventures and communal affairs and composed religious, scientific, and philosophical works in Judeo-Arabic, that is, Arabic written in Hebrew script. Indeed, nearly all of the Jews’ most significant literary and religious intellectual achievements from the post-talmudic to the early modern age attained their classical formulation in Arabic during the period when the majority of Jews lived in the region comprised by the southern Mediterranean, the Levant, and Yemen.

Jewish scholars were well aware of their deep engagement with Arabo-Islamic learning and its pivotal role in stimulating rethinking and reworking of Jewish culture. For example, Jewish religious and literary intellectuals testify repeatedly to the closeness of the languages of the Qur’?n and the Jewish Scriptures. Beginning with the rabbinic leader Sacadia Gaon in turn of the tenth century Baghdad and extending across North Africa and into Islamic Spain, Hebrew philologists and grammarians privileged Arabic learning as an essential tool in the production of Jewish scholarship precisely because of its resemblance to Hebrew. The greatest Jewish scholar of the entire pre-modern period, the polymath Moses Maimonides in the 12th century asserted that Hebrew and Arabic are actually the same language: “and as for the Arabic and Hebrew languages, all who know both of them are agreed that they are one language without a doubt.” Penetration of Arabo-Islamic terms, ideas and structures of thought was so deep and rich that Jewish texts in the Arabic language sometimes refer to Jewish law as “shar?cah” and to the Hebrew Bible as “al-Qur’?n.”

The modern political conflict between Jewish and Arab nationalist movements in the land west of the Jordan River has made it all too common to think of Jews and Arabs as historically opposed and separate. Yet from a linguistic-cultural perspective, such thinking actually represents something of a historical aberration.

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