SĪBAWAYHI AND THE KITĀB

Although little is known for certain about Sībawayhi's life, his position as the author of the founding text of Arabic grammar is unchallenged.

Of Persian origin, Abū Bišr ῾Amr ibn ῾Uṯmān ibn Qanbar Sībawayhi, to give him his full name, came to Baṣra some time in the second half of the 2nd/8th century to study legal topics, but turned to grammar, it is said, after publicly making a mistake in Arabic, which was for him a second language.

In Baṣra he studied Arabic with the greatest masters of the time, notably al-Ḫalīl ibn Aḥmad (who died perhaps a year or two before him) and Yūnus ibn Ḥabīb (d. 182/798), and he died after returning to his homeland at the age of about 40, around 180/796.

Detailed biographical and bibliographical information will be found in F. Sezgin, Geschichte des arabischen Schrifttums, Leiden 1984, vol. ix, 51ff, 241ff, with some updating in the article "Sībawayhi" in the Encyclopaedia of Islam.

His one work is known only as "Sībawayhi's Book", Kitāb Sībawayhi, possibly because at the time of its composition there was as yet no literary convention of providing titles or even prefaces and conclusions, all of which the Kitāb lacks. It is, in fact, one of the earliest books in Arabic at all, and was probably dictated informally to Sībawayhi's principal pupil al-Aḫfaš, who then issued it as a book after his master's death (see further in the work of G. Humbert mentioned below).

For further discussion of the immediate and long-term fate of the work, the following studies are recommended:

Geneviève Humbert, Les voies de la transmission du Kitāb de Sībawayhi, Leiden etc., 1995

Monique Bernards, Changing Traditions, al-Mubarrad's Refutation of Sībawayhi and the Subsequent Reception of the Kitāb, Leiden etc., 1997.

Ramzi Baalbaki, The Legacy of the Kitāb. Sībawayhi's Analytical Methods within the Context of the Arabic Grammatical Theory, Leiden etc., 2008.

A short account of Sībawayhi's life and works is available in: M. G. Carter, Sībawayhi, Oxford 2004. The Kitāb is impressive in size, more than 900 pages in the 19th century printed editions, and is all the more remarkable for the lack of clear antecedents for much of its contents. It seems likely that, despite considerable evidence in the Kitāb itself of prior grammatical debate, Sībawayhi has justly been credited with the achievement which has immortalized his name: his personal insight into the nature of language and his analytical genius alone enabled him to create an exhaustive and systematic description of Arabic which became and has remained the reference point for all subsequent grammatical speculation to this day, and for which it very soon earned the title of the "Qur᾽ān of grammar".

As might be expected, the name of Sībawayhi lives on in popular speech as a symbol of erudition. There is a fascinating collection of sayings involving grammar and grammarians Y. Lefranc and S. Tahhan in the Bulletin d'Etudes Orientales 43, 1991, 47-75. Constructing this Demo only made it more obvious what an enormous task still lies ahead, and one can only echo the heartfelt cry "šoġle baddā Sībawē!".
Although it lacks the superficial features of a "book", the Kitāb is constructed in a very systematic manner which leaves us in no doubt that Sībawayhi had a holistic concept of the entire undertaking. It begins with seven chapters setting out the basic presuppositions of grammar, and it proceeds to examine syntax, morphology and lastly phonology, in an order obviously reflecting Sībawayhi's own notion of the appropriate sequence for linguistic analysis: there is a clear division of the work into two halves, vol. 1 dealing with syntax and vol. 2 with morphology and phonology. In this Demo we offer those first seven introductory chapters of vol. 1, the first chapters of the morphology section in vol. 2, and the concluding seven chapters of vol. 2 dealing with phonology.

History confirms that as a work on a specific language it is unsurpassed within its own culture, but it is the hope of this Project that the Kitāb will also achieve its rightful place among the masterpieces of general linguistics.

Contents of the Demo | Base Text Ch. 1 | Base Text Ch. 285 | Base Text Ch. 565


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