The author of a set of multilingual vocabularies known under the name of ‘Rasulid Hexaglot’ is a Rasulid ruler of Yemen, al-Malik al-Afdal al-‘Abbas (r. 764-778/1363-77) who was more a man of letters than a statesman. It is true that he authored not only this dictionary, but also several treatises on astronomy, astrology, calendar systems, geography, medicine, etc. All these works attest of his taste for sea trade, and for commerce in general. The ‘Rasulid Hexaglot’ must be considered inside the vast geographical and political context of Eurasia, Yemen having for long played the role of a centre for trade in the Indian Ocean and a point of contact with Western Asia and the Mediterranean. Many testimonies of this situation can be found in the writings of great travellers, for instance in Marco Polo’s.
The edition and translation of the text are preceded by a long, very erudite introduction by P. B. Golden (“The World of the Rasulid Hexaglot,” 1-24), in which the author explains that the creation of the Mongol Empire has brought about deep ethno-linguistic change in Eurasia (1-13). Then P. B. Golden proposes a survey of all the bilingual or multilingual dictionaries written before the Rasulid Hexaglot, resituating them in the historical context of their composition. Beside oral sources on which al-Malik al-Afdal has relied, these dictionaries may have been used as sources for the latter’s own vocabularies (13-8). The introduction continues with a development on the languages represented in the Rasulid Hexaglot: Qipchaq and Oghuz Turkic, Mongol, Persian, Greek, Armenian and, indeed, Arabic. Because Al-Malik al-Afdal’s goal was to offer to an Arab readership, composed mainly of merchants, a dictionary of all the languages use during his time in international trade, with their transcription into Arabic alphabet.
The introduction is followed by an excellent contribution by Thomas T. Allsen, resituating the composition of the dictionary in its large cultural context (“The Rasulid Hexaglot in Its Eurasian Cultural Context,” 25-49). The author remarks that this dictionary, unique in its genre by the amount and diversity of the languages represented, is totally representative of its time. The thirteenth and fourteenth centuries have been marked in Central Eurasia by an overall interest in foreign languages and writing systems. This interest, if not this fascination was diffused to the whole Eurasia: Given its dimensions, the Mongol Empire was the sole pre-modern state confronted with the solution of such problems of control and communication over a vast territory. This new situation has linguistic consequences, one of which being the circulation of certain terms through the whole continent. One example will suffice, since it is very telling: the Persian word ‘alafa which means, among others, “attribution of food” (by local populations to emissaries travelling through all the regions of the empire) became in the fourteenth century a technical term largely diffused in Mongol, Turkic and even Russian language. It is particularly interesting to note that this word appears for the first time in a Latin text in the form “alafa” in a letter written in 1326 by a Christian missionary stationed in a city of China’s southern coast. What’s more, it is really fascinating to see written on the same line in the same Arabic script words in Turkic, Mongol, Persian, Greek and Armenian.
From a linguistic and cultural viewpoint, the edition and translation of this multilingual dictionary, with all these erudite comments and its overall situation in its historical and cultural context is a significant contribution to the history of that period of time. The reader will find, beside the texts already mentioned, an edition and English translation of the text itself, a selected bibliography and abbreviations (329-34), an index of the words registered in the dictionary with reference to page, column and line numbers (335-48) and the facsimile reproduction of several pages of the manuscript.