Arabic-speakers in Norman Sicily
By Alexander James Metcalfe
PhD Dissertation, University of Leeds, 1999
Abstract: The linguistic history of medieval Sicily is both intriguing and complex. From the classical Roman and Byzantine periods until the Arab invasions of 827, the majority of the island’s population spoke either dialects of Greek or Latin or both. On the arrival of the Normans around 1060, Arabic was the dominant language but by 1250 prestigious Romance vernaculars could be heard almost everywhere. Of particular importance is the formative period of Norman rule (1061-1194), when the key transitions from an Arab-Muslim to a LatinChristian island were made. During that time Romance dialects were spoken by many among the ruling elite but most of the indigenous population continued to communicate in Arabic except in the north-eastern corner of the island where Greek was still used.
The conventional wisdom is that, under Norman rule, Sicily became a social and linguistic ‘melting pot’. My thesis challenges this idea by showing how the extant linguistic data does not always present an accurate picture of the wider language situation and by arguing that Norman Sicilian society was often highly fragmented and characterised by a good deal of local variation. To illustrate this, the thesis traces the distribution and shifting margins of the Arabic-speaking communities and the effects that social change and religious conversion had on these groups. These findings are integrated with sociolinguistic considerations that surround language, identity and bilingualism. From a purely linguistic perspective, the thesis has a significant technical component and examines the bilingual deeds (Arabic/Greek or Arabic/Latin) that were issued by the royal administration. Particular attention is given to the type, status and consistency of this unique data and the extent to which it accurately reflects elements of vernacular speech.
As such, the research makes a number of significant contributions to our understanding of the sources for medieval Arabic and the fate of Arabic speakers in this region. It also adds to our knowledge of how a minority group of northern Europeans came to impose their control over a population of Arabic-speaking Muslims, Arabicised Christians, Greek-speakers, Berbers and Jews on the eve of the expansion that the Crusades would bring to the southern Mediterranean.