Published online by Cambridge University Press: 23 October 2020
This essay aims to contribute to current studies of language and empire by considering arabic and persian in the ninth and tenth centuries. Following the lead of Edward Said on colonial empires and translation, I focus on the political aspects of language and translation in “premodern” trans-Asian societies, which have not received the nuanced attention they deserve. Accentuating the act of adopting and supporting a language as political, I argue that the wax and wane of imperial languages were predicated on two usually simultaneous dynamics: intra-imperial interests and, to use Laura Doyle's term, inter-imperial competition. Imperial patronage aimed, on the one hand, to consolidate power, exercise control, stabilize administration, and order lived reality for imperial subjects and, on the other hand, to create a discourse to fashion and project an image of rule capable of competing with rival claims in Afro-Eurasia. On both fronts, the promotion of one vernacular as “high language” entailed resisting another one in an already filled political, sociocultural, and linguistic space. The new language thus proceeded in an intrusive and even disruptive way since it involved a construction of new meanings to conform to alternative sociopolitical and cultural norms and priorities and to tame the multiplicity of language. Yet, such a political engagement or competition with existing language(s) and discourse(s) also led to new forms of hybridity of language and discourse, as was the case for Persian when the Samanids (819-999) adopted the script of the Arabic language and much of its vocabulary and idioms to express their thoughts.