The lexical violence of imperial culture

This article studies the history of a single word and its movement from pre-Islamic Arabia to the languages of modern Europe. It focuses on the key moment of the early nineteenth century when the Arabic ‘ghazwā’ served as the root and model of the French ‘razzia’ in the early Algerian colony. Tracing the history of the ghazwā through Islamic history and its subsequent emergence in Romance forms, the essay is comparative in the sense that it asks what happens in the movement of ideas and practices through loanwords. It suggests that the violence of modern empire was linguistic in a sense which encompasses the connections between thoughts, words and deeds, whilst critiquing literatures on lexical borrowing which tend to assume the innocence of linguistic exchange. A broader conclusion on transnational history is essayed through a consideration of the razzia in the context of the so-called ‘langue franque’: that métissage of Romance languages and Arabic which prevailed amongst traders across the Mediterranean in the early modern period, and which disappeared in the imperial Mediterranean of the nineteenth century.