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Selected Papers in Ethiosemitic and Neo-Aramaic Linguistics.

Selected Papers in Ethiosemitic and Neo-Aramaic Linguistics. By OLGA KAPELIUK. Jerusalem: THE HEBREW UNIVERSITY. MAGNES PRESS, 2009. Pp. xii + 579.

In this volume Olga Kapeliuk has brought together most of her articles on Ethiosemitic and Neo-Aramaic languages and dialects published over a period of nearly four decades of scholarship on these two groups, from 1969 ("Auxiliaires descriptifs en amharique") to 2008 ("Between Nouns and Verbs in Neo-Aramaic"). The articles (forty-three in total), which are written in Hebrew (one), French (four-teen). and English (twenty-eight), have been drawn from diverse and disparate peer-reviewed journals, conference volumes, and Festschriften associated with the disciplines of Ethiopian and Near Eastern Studies, as well as linguistics. This work is thus an extremely handy resource for scholars interested in these two language groups, and particularly for those interested in the broader phenomena of language change, language contact, Sprachbunde, and diachrony in what the author has deemed "Peripheral Neo-Semitic."

Kapeliuk does not employ the term "peripheral" to deprecate the subjects of her scholarship; rather, the term is purely geographical, as these two groups stand on the peripheries of the territory where Semitic languages have historically been spoken. Indeed, despite its peripheral status, Amharic (which is the primary subject of the articles on Ethiosemitic languages) is the second most widely spoken Semitic language after Arabic, even if it has received comparatively less scholarly and public attention than other widely spoken modern Semitic languages such as Arabic itself and Israeli Hebrew. The thirty-two articles dedicated exclusively to Ethiosemitic languages such as Amharic and Ge'ez, which compose the bulk of the present work, introduce the reader to a broad array of linguistic issues, particularly within the realm of syntax and morphosyntax.

The other sub-family of languages treated in this volume, Neo-Aramaic, is much less widely spoken and indeed endangered by most standards; speakers of Christian Urmi, which is Kapeliuk's primary focus among them, likely number no more than 200,000, even though figures available through the internet suggest far greater multitudes of speakers. While most of the examples are given either in their original scripts or according to the usual accepted transcription systems, the largest portion of the examples of Neo-Aramaic are adduced from texts published in the Soviet Union during the 1930s, and are consequently rendered in the so-called Novyj Alfavit, a Latin-based script which was imposed upon the languages of most of the Soviet Union's national minorities during the period from 1928-38, when it was finally superseded by the Cyrillic script. This historical artifact gives these examples an authentic and somewhat quaint quality, even though it makes them more difficult to read; a table of correspondences between the various transcription systems used for Ethiosemitic and Neo-Aramaic languages would have been a welcome addition to the front matter.

This is, however, a relatively minor matter. The only salient deficiency to this volume that deserves remark is the fact that most of the articles that compose it were reproduced by photomechanical processes that do not always lend themselves to images of the highest fidelity. The result is that the smaller diacritics (such as the dot above the letter i or those often found beneath letters in the standard transcription systems of Semitic languages) have simply disappeared from many of the pages of the volume, which wreaks havoc upon the reader. Additionally, not all of Kapeliuk's contributions have been reproduced fully intact; in "Compound Verbs in Neo-Aramaic," Kapeliuk assures the reader that "Considering the importance of [Paul Bedjan's list of 160 compound verbs in Neo-Aramaic] to our discussion and the slight chances for the readers to gain direct access either to its manuscript or printed edition, the latter is reproduced at the end of the present article," a promise which is unfortunately never fulfilled. This is a pity, because the greatest virtue of this volume is that it unites a large corpus of articles by a leading scholar on a relatively circumscribed set of topics in one place, thus making her scholarship (and a considerable body of data) much more accessible to other interested scholars.

Where Semitists and historical linguists in general have been overly hasty to attribute language change to language contact, including some very ill-conceived notions of "contact" that often involve considerable hand-waving, Kapeliuk has distinguished herself by addressing the larger picture suggested by the evidence of relatively far-flung but ultimately related languages, positing internal processes driven by their own evolution as an alternative to traditional narratives of contact, induced change ("Languages in Contact: The Contemporary Semitic World," "Some Common Traits in the Evolution of Neo-Syriac and Neo-Ethiopian," "Regularity and Deviation in Peripheral Neo-Semitic," "Is Modern Hebrew the Only 'Indo-Europeanized' Semitic Language? And what about Neo-Aramaic?"). As she enters her fifth decade of scholarship, Kapeliuk continues to combine the wisdom and experience born of a long and distinguished career with fresh insights and an innovative approach to the subject.

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Author:Haberl, Charles G.
Publication:The Journal of the American Oriental Society
Article Type:Book review
Date:Apr 1, 2011
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