Wednesday, February 11, 2015

It Is Known.

For all my complaining about the disconnect between the medieval and the medievalism of Game of Thrones, I think I have identified the medieval Hebrew origins of the Dothraki citation system, much appreciated for its brevity by wise men throughout the Seven Kingdoms and in the cities across the narrow sea: "It is known."

As he was translating Jonah ibn Janaḥ's two-part lexicon of the Hebrew Bible out of Arabic into Hebrew, Judah ibn Tibbon would often omit much of the discussion of terms when it relied too heavily on points of Arabic lexicography or language or grammar. He would remove Ibn Janaḥ's detailed discussions and prooftexts when they would lack cultural significance for his non-Arabophone readers, and would substitute Ibn Janaḥ's commentary with a single, knowing word: Yadu'a. It is known.

In truth it grates a bit. I'm sitting a stone's throw from the manuscript collections where I want to begin my next project and the only thing between them and me is the fact that I have to fix the footnotes in the manuscript for my first book. I've consistently gotten  advice that for a first book, to avoid making it sound dissertationy, one should strip out anything that looks like a lit review. I clearly took that advice a little too far, and ended up getting, quite rightly, slammed for not acknowledging my place in the scholarly universe. Better to be slammed for that pre-publication rather than in reviews or in a tenure file, but I'm in Madrid, fixing footnotes that I could just as easily fix in New York but for the timeline and the clock ticking in the background.* (At some point the tenure track starts to feel a bit like Captain Hook's nightmares...) And I'm writing footnotes about a guy who was creating resources for readers by, among other things, deliberately omitting everything that came before him, substituting the sum total of human knowledge about the meaning of words in the Hebrew Bible with a wink and a nod to only the most educated and most polyglot of his readers: Yadu'a. It is known.

It tells us, of course, that standards for scholarly discourse have changed in the last eight hundred years. I think some of that's for the best, but some of it is stifling and makes us sound weasely and indecisive. More interesting, and it's the point that I'm making in one of those footnotes (clearly I've not fully learned my lesson about not mentioning here work pre-publication — but what a dreary existence that would be, and how tedious!) is that it is in fact an affirmation of the validity of Arabic biblical lexicography and an affirmation of the comparative method.

The portrayal of the Dothraki is done through the worst, most simplistic Orientalist stereotypes, so egregious that even as someone who takes some issue with Edward Said's analysis, as is becoming increasingly acceptable, this is a case where I would wholeheartedly and simply fall back on his one word as a condemnation of it. It is a cartoon of a vaguely Bedouin tribe, no longer the guardians of God's language but backwards savages. Their vocabulary is small and lacks words to express gratitude or aspiration. When they say it is known, they are superstitious and silly, believing things that medieval Arabic astronomy could easily disprove.** But when Judah ibn Tibbon says that it is known, he is in effect venerating the Arabic linguistic tradition and making it the ultimate, authoritative source. He is telling his readers, both those who could recognize his rhetorical technique and those who were already so far removed from the Islamicate world that they could not, that there is knowledge out there and that it is so completely trustworthy as to not need repeating or verification. For Judah ibn Tibbon to say: yadu'a, it is known, is to affirm the language of the Bedouins and its scientific study by later intellectual Arab elites.

It is known.

*Yes, I am complaining about whether I have to fix my footnotes in New York or Madrid. Disappointed though I am in the missed opportunity, I do know that it's the first-tieriest of first tier academic problems.

**And yes, I know I'm conflating two different categories here — Bedouins and Abbasid astronomers. I'm trying to sound like a human being before sounding like an academic and that's not a sentence that could easily accommodate both voices. And if anybody gives me a hard time about it from a Chicago IP address, I will scream. And then revert this to being a password-protected blog for good.)

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