Tuesday, July 10, 2012

The Syrian Calendar: A Treasure Trove

One of the things that always puzzled me was how the names of the months in Syria were always different to those in other Arabic countries: Kanoon al Thani; Shbat Adar; Nissan; Ayar; Hzeiran; Tammuz; Ab; Aylul; Tishreen Awwal; Tishreen Thani; and Kanoon Awwal.

What on earth were these names and where did they come from? Like many things we take for granted, it was only until I decided to get to the bottom of this mystery that I came up with some very interesting facts. Firstly, the Syrian calendar is used by most Levantine countries, according to Wikipedia, but the names are also very similar to the Hebrew calendar. The reason they are similar is because of the Babylonians - who sacked Jerusalem and exiled the Jews to Babylon - and it is their calculations which gave the world the twelve month year and horoscopes.

Now the word for month in Babylonian is Arah. So, Shbat could mean the month of Aquarius. Adar is the month of Pisces, Nissan means sanctuary, Arah Aru means month of the bull and that then became Ayar as we know it today.  Hzeiran is actually from Arah Simanu - the month of Sin, the Sumerian god of the Moon. Ab is from the Babylonian Abu, so August is the month of the lion. Aylul derives from the Babylonian word for Ishtar, which is Ululu. Finally, Tishreen is from the Babylonian word Tishritum, meaning beginning, and so this was known as the month of beginning.

Now here is where the similarity stops, because Tishreen Thani, means the second Tishreen in Arabic. December and January are called Kanoon Awwal and Kanoon al Thani respectively. So November is called something else in the Babylonion calendar, and Kanoon is not mentioned anywhere. The question arises, where did they come from? So far the idea that the Syrian calendar is based on the Babylonian calendar seems to make sense, and the names largely correspond, but do they? A look at the Persian or Zoroastrian calendars gives no clues.

But if we look a bit further back, we find that the Assyrian calendar does have two Tishreens, and two Kanoons, and it seems that this is where those two words come from. Further, the names appear very similar to the meanings used by the Babylonians, so Shabat means flooding, whereas for the Babylonian calendar it is the month of Aquarius, and water. In Assyrian, Kanoon, first and second, mean the month to conceive and to rest, respectively. But that still doesn't tell me what Kanoon really means.

The answer to that might not be as difficult to find, and the clue is in the name. It is known that Kanoon was named as a month of resting and conception. In the Syrian dialect, one of the words used commonly to tell somebody to calm down is the word kin, so kin shway means calm down a bit. And if I were to hazard a guess, then this ancient Assyrian word is still in use today by us Syrians. This is not too far fetched, as till today, Arabs still refer to the Greeks as Yunani, which in English is spelt as Ionian, and this was the name that the Persians used to describe the Greeks. The Greeks referred to themselves as the people of Hellas, and Hellenes, not Ionians. If this is right, then words from thousands of years ago continue to live in the popular consciousness of Syrians today.

In this way, the mystery of the Syrian calendar becomes clear, and it tells us that this calendar is rooted deeply in who we are and how we fit into the region. This is not some cynical attempt to define some Syrian "race", but rather to help understand what it means to be Syrian and where we come from. I think we have a lot of such nuggets hidden in Syrian culture, clues from different civilizations and times. Why were the original references hidden? I don't know, but this is a bit like finding hidden traces of Arabic and Islamic influence in modern day Spain's culture only Syria, and in the very things that we Syrians have taken for granted all our lives. A fascinating subject, and one which deserves further study.


Ultra Noctem said...

A note about languages in general to whom it may concern. Indeed many words live on through millennia, but some similarities between words in different languages can be attributed to a simpler cause: Common descent. Arabic is a Semitic language, so is Hebrew, Phoenician, Akkadian, Aramaic and many others. When Arabs took over the fertile crescent, Aramaic was being spoken there (Syriac, Assyrian etc are dialects of Aramaic). Of course Aramaic itself has earlier replaced Phoenician and Hebrew in the Levant and replaced Babylonian (a descendant of Akkadian) in Mesopotamia. All these language replacements were historically made easy by the fact that these languages are all Semitic and therefore has similar vocabulary and grammar.

So when a Lebanese for example say Ras (head), is it based on Phoenician Rosh or Aramaic Rash or Classical Arabic Ra's? In the Lebanese city of Tripoli one might pronounce it as Ros making the question even more interesting.

Take the Akkadian month Arah Nisanu, the letter -u at the end is to indicate the nominative case (subject) corresponding to Arabic concept of Raf'. In the Akkadian season Resh Shatti, the letter -i at the end is to indicate the genetive case (possessive) corresponding to Arabic concept of Jarr.

Of course many words in Arabic are direct borrowings from other Semitic languages and non-Semitic languages. An interesting thing is to look for non Arabic words in the Qur'an. For example firdaws (paradise) is Persian, Qalam (pen) is Greek, Sirat (path) is Latin and Qamis is Germanic through Latin. Not to mention all the obvious borrowings from Hebrew and Aramaic.

The study of language gives me a sense of how the rich history of the region affects the very word that come out of my mouth. Thanks Maysaloon for this great article.

Son of Damascus said...

Thanks for the informative article Maysaloon, and the comment above by ultra Noctem is so as well.

Do you happen to know if there is a book or public study that discusses this matter further?

I would be very interested in reading it if so

أُمنيّة said...

wow .. never knew there are voc in Quraan derived from other languages. Interesting !

أُمنيّة said...

could u please share all the "obvious borrowings" coz i have no idea about them :)

Maysaloon said...

Ultra Noctem,
Thanks for taking the time to write that amazing and illuminating comment. And you're always welcome.

Son of Damascus,

I'm glad you liked the article. I don't know of any books off the top of my head. I used Wikipedia to do some basic research because I wanted to find out about this calendar. I'll see if I can find anything more and will share it on this blog.

Neither did I. That the Qur'an is using words from different languages opens up all sorts of exciting paths to investigate. I don't know of any other borrowings but I'll share them here as and when I find them. Glad you enjoyed the post and glad to hear back from all of you.

poshlemon said...

Several years back when I was in France, I met this researcher/historian from Lebanon and expert on the Syriac language. He would explain to me the origins of certain words we still use today and their phonetic/structural differences as per geographical location. I always wondered, for example, why in Tripoli and other parts of mountainous Northern Lebanon (like Bcharré) and the coast, the sound [o] was used instead of [a] as Ultra Noctem mentioned above with the Rosh/Rash/Ra’s example. The answer is not always clear. Still, we should not stop to search and probe deeper. We learn a lot about who we were and who we have become from language.

I wanted to add that Arabic is highly influenced by Aramaic/Syriac, and so of course there are Aramaic/Syriac and even foreign words in the Quran. But, this is where it starts to get complicated and controversial. I believe it is quite difficult to trace the origin of certain words and they will always remain open to interpretation. Plus, the assimilation of words from Aramaic/Syriac (and other dialects) is not easy to evaluate especially when they stem from the same Semitic root. Also, many of these words may derive from cognate languages but their usage and meaning has changed within the Quranic context, and as such, have become very Arabic.

I came across this great article, where historian/linguist Walid Saleh expounds on the prevalence of Syriac and foreign words in the Quran and how some medieval and current scholarship have addressed this topic. It employs an exhaustive list of books and sources for your interest.


Thank you for writing this beautiful post and reminding me of a topic that has long interested me (and for the little break from politics).

Ultra Noctem said...

Wow, thank you Posh Lemon for the post and the link, it will make for a very interesting read. As you said, when it comes to borrowing into Arabic from another Semitic language, it is hard to tell if the word in question is a borrowing, an influence or something that happened to be in Arabic too. For example in Arabic we have the word Shaytan (Devil) supposedly from the root sh-T-n meaning to be far, but it is probably based on Hebrew Satan with the same meaning (the Hebrew word literary means 'the opposer'). Now who can tell if Shaytan was only influenced by Hebrew or if the word existed in some form before that?
I am trying to find a comprehensive list of non-Arabic terms in the Qur'an but all I am finding is partial lists. There are a lot of religious discussions on the significance of the topic and I don't see why. Borrowing is natural in languages and once a word is borrowed it becomes part of the language, it doesn't degrade the Qur'an, and actually it makes it more interesting for me.
In my previous comment I mentioned obvious borrowings from Hebrew and Aramaic. I meant that since the Qur'an is a religious text and it represents a continuation of Judaism and Christianity, is bound to be filled with religious terms starting with Proper nouns such as names of prophets which are mostly Hebrew. The name of the prophet Isma'il comes for Hebrew Yishma'el which means 'God hears'. A literal translation to Arabic would have given us Yasma'-il (يسمع إيل). Zakariyya comes from Hebrew Zekarya meaning 'God has remembered'. A literal translation to Arabic would have given us Thakar-Ya (ذكر يا), where Ya is short for Yahweh. I am pretty sure Malakut (Kingdom) is Hebrew, as is Tur (mountain). The Arabic word Jahannam (Hell) is based on the Hebrew toponym Ge Hinnom (Valley of Hinnom), a historical place in ancient Jerusalem.
Searching Google for (الكلمات الأعجمية في القرآن) leads to shorts list of words including the usual suspects: القسطاس السجل السندس الإستبرق صراط الفيل أساطير فردوس قلم أباريق بروج. These are all non-Semitic borrowings and I don't think they are contested.
An interesting topic indeed!

Anonymous said...

I am reading a Sufi book, " the Sufi Book of life"by Neil Douglas-klutz, and it mainly goes through the 99 names of God as per the Quraan and their roots are mostly Aramiac and Hebrew. Finally All holy books are anchored in the history of the place and it's languages.

a fed up linguist said...

The pronunication of ros for ras, Aramaic and tripoi, is also a feature of some Syrian coastal Arabic, as in some parts of tartus, all of Arwad, and some parts of Latakia city (only natural because of geo vicinity in this case) but it's also a feature of Bahraini Sunni Arabic, and Persian, so it is Mehron not Mehran, and so on. I think the case is 'ros' is the substrate feature here, and it's become ras as a result to lang/dialect contact and change. Of course research evidence in the above areas is needed. Just a thought.