Publique, public, öffentlich? Historical semantics of *al-ʿumūm* in late Ottoman *Bilād al-Shām* (1875-1914)

By Till Grallert
Submitted to Session P4253 (Constructing Memory: Archives, Antiquity, and Archaelogy, 2015 Annual Meeting
Hist
Fertile Crescent; Israel; Jordan; Lebanon; Ottoman Empire; Palestine; Syria;
19th-21st Centuries; Arabic; Middle East/Near East Studies; Modern; Modernization; Ottoman Studies; Sociolinguistics; Turkish;
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Salīm Sarkīs’ famous 1896 polemic against the *mektupçu* of Beirut implicitly forwarded a theory as to the origin of the usage of *al-ʿumūm* as “the general public”. His claim that *al-ʿumūm* replaced *al-jumhūr* due to prohibition of the latter term by the censor was evidently wrong. There is, nevertheless, substantial evidence that the modern Arabic usage of *al-ʿumūm* and *ʿumūmī* to designate all things public was heavily influenced by Ottoman semantic choices.

The proposed paper argues that the period between 1875 and 1914 witnessed a shift from *ʿumūm al-ahālī*, or the “entirety of people”, to *al-ʿumūm*, “the public”. I will show how the meaning of *al-ʿumūm* as the public was introduced and gradually established through the translation of Ottoman laws into Arabic, the proliferation of Arabised Ottoman terminology through official bi-lingual gazettes, and the publication of official announcements to *li-l-ʿumūm*. I further argue, that the adjective *ʿumūmī* / *ʿumūmiyya*, in addition to its original meaning as “general”, “universal” or “common”, equally acquired the meaning of something being “public” in the sense of being either open to the use of the public (both *ʿumūm al-ahālī* and *al-ʿumūm*) or as being state-sponsored and state-run (as in *al-manāfiʿ al-ʿumūmiyya* or *al-maʿārif al-ʿumūmiyya*) through the adaptation of Ottoman parlance.

The analysis is based on some 7.000 news reports from eight Beiruti and Damascene newspapers between 1875 and 1914, as well as a corpus of some 30 contemporaneous Arabic, Ottoman, Persian, French, and English dictionaries and multi-lingual collections of Ottoman legal texts. I propose that by specifically focusing on news reports instead of opinion pieces and editorials or other canonical works (“Höhenkammliteratur”), it is possible to grasp a broadly accepted everyday usage resonating with the contemporaneous reading audience as a matter-of-fact description. The focus here is the resilience of certain terms and the gradual shifts of semantics instead of the programmatic ruptures and utopian spaces of political ideologies. In order to scrutinise the historical *a priori* and the semantic field for possible attempts to speak about *a* or even *the* public in the late Ottoman *Bilād al-Shām* in both its onomasiologic and semasiologic dimension across such a large dataset, I turn to quantitative methods once the individual terms and concepts were inductively established.