A Dictionary Fit for a King

When it was time to turn to long-distance travel in Feudal, Feudal World, we went east, with the Silk Road, the Mongols, and Marco Polo. But cultural and financial interchange was happening all over, and one of the best examples is a remarkable medieval manuscript from fourteenth-century Yemen.

Sultan al-Malik al-Afḍal al-ʿAbbās collected words the way other kings collected horses or falcons, and the centerpiece of his collection was what’s now known as the Rasulid Hexaglot. Historians know of a reasonable number of ancient and medieval multi-lingual glossaries and dictionaries, mostly with two or three languages in them. The Hexaglot has five languages side by side – Arabic, Persian, Turkic, Greek, and Armenian – plus a second glossary with Arabic, Persian, Turkic, and Mongol. That’s six languages in total.

The words in the Hexaglot range from the royal (king, falcon, chestnut horse) to the menial (pearl millet, goat, chopsticks), covering almost any potential topic. This breadth suggests that it was more than just a practical commercial guide, though there were good reasons to have access to all the languages in the text.

In the fourteenth-century, Yemen was on the trade routes from Egypt to Persia and India, and its markets saw a constant stream of spices, cotton, and cloth. Merchants passed through Yemen heading north-east, into what had been the vast Mongol empire, or north-west, where Turkic soldiers had seized control of Egypt from the descendants of Saladin. To the south-west was a vibrant trade with the African coast, which helps explain why another part of the manuscript containing the Hexaglot is a bilingual Arabic-Ethiopian glossary.

Western scholars first found out about the Hexaglot in the 1970s, when Tibor Halasi-Kun, a Turkic language expert at Columbia, saw a microfilm copy. Halasi-Kun put together an multi-national and multi-lingual team to edit a modern edition, but the process was arduous enough that three of the four passed away before it was finally ready for publication in 2000 (the survivor was Peter B. Golden, who handled the Greek and parts of the Arabic and Persian).

The Hexaglot is interesting for the light it sheds on cross-cultural relations in the medieval world, but its most significant information may actually be entirely inadvertent. Because it was created for an Arabic-reading king, text from other scripts is transcribed phonetically. That means that the Hexaglot is one of the very few sources on how medieval Greek and Armenian were actually pronounced at the time. Hopefully that would have amused Sultan al-Afḍal, word-collector.

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