Sunday, June 30, 2013

Was al-wabr first hyrax, or rabbit?

(See also this post at Rationalist Judaism, within the general topic of hyraxes.)

This post is an elaboration of a point I merely alluded to in an earlier blogpost, about That Wascally Wabr:
There is good evidence that where Saadia Gaon was (Egypt, Eretz Yisrael, etc.), it meant hyrax, which is indigenous to the area and was indeed referred to as al-wabr.

However, the Arabic language spread throughout the world, since the Arabs were conquering and converting the entire world. And in other places, they did not have hyraxes, but they did have other animals, which required an Arabic name. And so, the name wabr could be reused to apply to the similar local species.
Assume for a moment that back in early medieval times, we have attestations of al-wabr as hyrax and al-wabr as rabbit. Why should we think that it is the hyrax meaning which is more original, and not the rabbit meaning?

There are several reasons, but here is one of them, which is most convincing to my mind.

In the development of language, items which are local would logically be named earlier than items which are foreign.

Is this the original jurthik?
This horse is indigenous to England.
For example, pretend that in England, there are horses but no zebras. And in Africa, there are zebras but no horses. Now, pretend further that in the English language, both horses and zebras are called by the same name, "jurthik", and are not referred to as "horse" or "zebras" at all.

To which animal would the name "jurthik" have applied first?

As the English language developed, in England, they would have cause to refer to the horse but not the horse. It makes little sense that the common horse had no name but the foreign zebra had a name ("jurthik"). And so, it makes more sense that first the horse was called by its name ("jurthik") and, as the British empire spread to places such as Africa, shared characteristics of the horse and zebra led to the application of "jurthik" to the zebra species as well.
Or is this the original jurthik?
This zebra is indigenous to Africa.

That appears to be the case with the hyrax and rabbit. The Arabic language developed in areas in which, according to archaezoologists, the hyrax existed but the rabbit did not. And in Spain, where the Arabic language did not first develop, the rabbit existed but the hyrax did not.

If both the hyrax and rabbit are called al-wabr at some point in time X, then what would you guess was called al-wabr first?

I would guess that the hyrax was called al-wabr first, because as an indigenous species to the area in which the Arabic language developed, it would need a name before  the rabbit, a non-indigenous species, would need a name.

This ends the reason, which is convincing all by itself.

However, we could add a further detail. The somewhat early reference to al-wabr as (probably) rabbit appears not in a text composed where hyraxes lived and where the Arabic language first developed. It occurs in a dictionary of the Hebrew language written by someone living in Spain, where there are rabbits but no hyraxes and where the Arabic language spread. This is precisely where we would expect the secondary meaning to develop.

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