SOAS University of London

Department of the Languages and Cultures of the Near and Middle East

Early and Medieval Arabic Linguistic Thought: Scholarship and Literature

Module Code:
Module Not Running 2020/2021
FHEQ Level:
Year of study:
Taught in:
Full Year

This is a text-based module which seeks to examine the scholarship and literature of early and medieval Arabic linguistic thought through the study, translation and analysis of a representative selection of the tradition’s original literary sources. While reviewing the content and context of key literary works, specific emphasis will be placed upon encouraging students to develop a critical understanding of the dynamics of grammatical and lexicographical discourses and their function within the wider framework of Islamic thought and the production of knowledge.

It is expected that the module will provide not only a clear sense of the sophistication, significance and fecundity of the scholarship associated with the tradition of Arabic linguistic thought, but also demonstrate the critical role played by grammatical and philological theories in the fleshing out of legal, exegetical and theological concepts.  


Given that this is essentially a text-based module, it is expected that students should be able to read and comprehend classical Arabic material.

Objectives and learning outcomes of the module

On successful completion of the module, a student should be able to demonstrate the ability to: 

  • understand the overall theoretical thrust of the epistemological arguments, methodologies, debates, and technical discourses which lie at the heart of medieval Arabic linguistic abstraction
  • discern key aspects of the history of Arabic linguistic ideas and the significance of nuances within them
  • comprehend the conceptual importance of the seminal literary texts and treatises of the early and medieval Arabic linguistic tradition
  • appreciate the broader intellectual significance of the Arabic linguistic tradition within the context of the classical Islamic sciences and trace the impact of ideas between disciplines and spheres of learning
  • evaluate current academic discourses on the mediaeval tradition of Arabic linguistic thought, and show an awareness of the overarching context of current debates, arguments and methodological frameworks applied in its study


This module will be taught over 20 weeks with 2 hours of classroom contact per week, consisting of a 1-hour lecture and a 1-hour seminar.

Scope and syllabus

The module readings and lectures are constellated around a critical analysis and fleshing out of selected aspects of the major themes and topics outlined below.

  1. Historical genesis of Arabic linguistic thought: biographical literature and the construction of history
  2. Hypotheses of influence: Greek, Syriac and Pahlavi antecedents
  3. Analytical methods of the grammarians: legal and ethical analogues
  4. Sources of the grammarians and philologists: the status of poetry, variae lectiones and Prophetic dicta
  5. Towards a theory of language: the verb as a nexus-complex
  6. Major themes in grammatical and philological study
  7. Critical objectives of linguistic thought
  8. Morphology, morphophonology and aspects of phonetics in medieval Arabic thought
  9. The Production of literature: surveying seminal linguistic texts and treatises
  10. Schools of language: historical reality or myth
  11. Frameworks for the transmission of knowledge: contributions of the Arabic grammarians
  12. Lexicography: form and content of the literature
  13. Religious strictures and the development of linguistic ideas
  14. The Semantic nexus: rhetoric and the study of grammar
  15. The Function of commentary and super-commentary: medieval linguistic discourses
  16. Discourses on the origins of language: an arcing of theological and linguistic trajectories
  17. Logic and the study of grammar
  18. Linguistic scholarship in the service of law
  19. Grammatical and philological abstraction in the service of theology: the architecture of dialectical procedures
  20. Contextualising meaning and context: language in the service of exegesis:

Method of assessment

• One 3000 word essay submitted on day 1, week 1, term 2 (50%)
• One 3000 word essay submitted on day 1, week 1, term 3 (50%)

Suggested reading

  • Abed, Shukri. Aristotelian Logic and the Arabic Language in Alfārābī. Albany: State University of New York Press. 1991. [ISBN: 9780791403976]
  • Auroux, Sylvain, E. F. K. Koerner, Kees Versteegh, and Hans J. Niederehe, eds. History of the Language Sciences: An International Handbook on the Evolution of the Study of Language from the Beginnings to the Present. Vol. 1. Berlin and New York: Walter de Gruyter, 2000. [ISBN: 9783110111033]
  • Baalbaki, Ramzi, ed. The Early Islamic Grammatical Tradition. Aldershot, UK and Burlington, VT: Ashgate/Variorum, 2007. [ISBN: 9780860787181]
  • Baalbaki, Ramzi. The Legacy of the Kitāb: Sībawayhi’s Analytical Methods within the Context of the Arabic Grammatical Theory. Leiden, The Netherlands and Boston: E. J. Brill, 2008. [ISBN: 9789004168138]
  • Bernards, Monique. Changing Traditions: Al-Mubarrad’s Refutation of Sībawayh and the Subsequent Reception of the Kitāb. Leiden, The Netherlands and New York: E. J. Brill, 1997. [ISBN: 9789004105959]
  • Bohas, Georges, and Jean-Patrick Guillaume. Étude des théories des grammairien arabes. Vol. 1, Morphologie et phonologie. Damascus: Institut Francais de Damas, 1984.
  • Bohas, G., J.-P. Guillaume, and D. E. Kouloughli. The Arabic Linguistic Tradition.  London and New York: Routledge, 2006. [ISBN: 9780415019040]
  • Carter, M. G. Sībawayhi. London and New York: I. B. Taurus, 2004.  [ISBN: 9781850436713]
  • Daniels, Peter T., and William Bright, eds. The World’s Writing Systems. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996. [ISBN: 9780195079937]
  • Endress, Gerhard. “Handschriftenkunde.” In Grundriss der arabischen Philologie. Vol. 1, Sprachwissenschaft. Edited by Wolfdietrich Fischer, 271-313. Wiesbaden, West Germany: Reichert, 1982. [ISBN: 9783882261448]
  • Gacek, Adam. The Arabic Manuscript Tradition: A Glossary of Technical Terms and Bibliography. Leiden, The Netherlands and Boston: Brill, 2001. [ISBN: 9789004120617]
  • Gilliot, Claude. Exégèse, langue, et théologie en Islam: L’exégèse coranique de Tabari (m. 311/923). Paris: J. Vrin, 1990. [ISBN: 9782711610334]
  • Gully, Adrian. Grammar and Semantics in Medieval Arabic: A Study of Ibn-Hishām’s “Mughni l-Labib.” Richmond, UK: Curzon, 1995. [ISBN: 9780700703029]
  • Haywood, John A. Arabic Lexicography: Its History, and its Place in the General History of Lexicography. 2d ed. Leiden, The Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 1965.
  • Marogy, Amal. Kitāb Sībawayhi: Syntax and Pragmatics (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 2010).
  • Moscati, Sabatino, Anton Spitaler, Edward Ullendorff, and Wolfram von Soden. An Introduction to the Comparative Grammar of the Semitic Languages: Phonology and Morphology. Wiesbaden, West Germany: Otto Harrassowitz, 1964.
  • al-Nassir, A. A. Sibawayh the Phonologist: A Critical Study of the Phonetic and Phonological Theory of Sibawayh as Presented in his Treatise al-Kitāb. London and New York: Kegan Paul International, 1993. [ISBN: 9780710303561]
  • Owens, Jonathan. The Foundations of Grammar: An Introduction to Medieval Arabic Grammatical Theory. Amsterdam and Philadelphia: John Benjamins, 1988. [ISBN: 9789027245281]
  • Owens, Jonathan. A Linguistic History of Arabic. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2006. [ISBN: 9780199290826]
  • Schöck, Cornelia. Koranexegese, Grammatik und Logik: Zum Verhältnis von arabischer und aristotelischer Urteils-, Konsequenz- und Schlusslehre. Leiden, The Netherlands and Boston: E. J. Brill, 2005. [ISBN: 9789004145887]
  • Shah, Mustafa. “The Arabic Language.” In The Islamic World. Edited by Andrew Rippin, 261–277. London and New York: Routledge, 2008. [ISBN: 9780415366465]
  • Shah, Mustafa. ‘Arabic Language and Islam.’ In Oxford Bibliographies Online: Islamic Studies. Editor in Chief, Tamara Sonn. New York: Oxford University Press, June 2010.
  • Shah, Mustafa. ‘Classical Islamic Discourse on the Origins of Language: Cultural Memory and the Defense of Orthodoxy’. Numen: International Review for the History of Religions (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 2011). April 2011 (volume 58, issues 2/3), pp. 314-43  10.1163/156852711X562335
  • al-Sharkawi, Muhammad.  The Ecology of Arabic : a Study of Arabicization / by (Boston, Mass. ; Leiden : Brill, 2010).
  • Suleiman, Yasir. The Arabic Grammatical Tradition: A Study in Ta’līl. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1999. [ISBN: 9780748606979]
  • Talmon, Rafael. Eighth-Century Iraqi Grammar: A Critical Exploration of Pre-Khalīlian Arabic Linguistics. Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2003. [ISBN: 9781575069128]
  • Versteegh, C. H. M. Arabic Grammar and Qur’ānic Exegesis in Early Islam. Leiden, The Netherlands and New York: E. J. Brill, 1993.
  • Versteegh, Kees. Landmarks in Linguistic Thought III: The Arabic Linguistic Tradition. London and New York: Routledge, 1997. [ISBN: 9780415140621]
  • Versteegh, Kees. The Arabic Language. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2001. [ISBN: 9780748614363]


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