A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

The Endangered South Arabian Languages of Oman and Yemen

This may be my only post today, but it's a very long one on a complex subject, and with a lot of links.

In March, the irregular Exploring Oman's Linguistic Treasures blog had a post, "The Harsusi Language in Oman: Another Treasure Slipping Away?" This is as good a reason as any to do a major post on the surviving pockets of Modern South Arabian languages, spoken in Oman and Yemen and in some Gulf diasporas of their peoples.

I realize the vast majority of my readers have never heard of Harsusi, or probably of Hobyot or Bat'hari either, but they are real, living, if endangered languages of Oman (with Hobyot extending into Yemen). Along with the Soqotri and the much healthier and widely spoken Mehri (or Mahri) and Shehri (or Shahri or Jebali/Jibbali/Jibali) in Oman, these are the surviving Modern South Arabian languages, . They are quite distinct from Arabic, and are usually classed as part of the Southern Semitic subgroup of Afro-Asiatic, while Arabic is more closely related to Northwest Semitic. Even if you've never heard of these six languages, this post will not only make sure you hear of them, but will give you a chance to actually hear three of them.

A seventh language may deserve inclusion. Razihi, spoken in the Jabal Razih in the extreme north of Yemen, is sometimes classified as the only direct survivor of Old South Arabian, rather than as Modern South Arabian. UNESCO lists it as an endangered language, but others consider it an Arabic variant; Ethnologue doesn't list it.

The Modern South Arabian languages have many affinities with the Ethiopic languages, including Classical Ge'ez and Amharic, but they are also distinct. Though it was long assumed the Modern South Arabian languages were descended from Old South Arabian, some linguists say they are distinct even there; I'm not qualified to judge.

Let's start with some maps from Wikipedia and the language reference site Ethnologue.com:



Endangered languages are a key issue in the 21st century. This may be, for example, the fatal century for Native North American languages. Of 3000 or more languages spoken when Columbus landed, only about 175-200 survived at the turn of the 21st century, mostly in Canada, Alaska, and Hawaii. In the "lower 48" US states, the scene is bleak, except for Navajo, Cherokee, and Cree. In 1997 it was estimated that 55 languages in North America had between one and six native speakers. That was 17 years ago, and many of those are likely now extinct.

Linguists around the world are racing to record endangered languages before the last native speaker dies. Today we usually know even their names. Ned Mandrel, the last native speaker of Manx, died December 27, 1974. Wikipedia lists close to a dozen languages that have only one living native speaker. 

And UNESCO says that one half of some 6000 languages in the world today will be extinct by the end of the century.
When any language dies, a part of its culture is lost; not everything translates. When a written language dies, it doesn't die forever; there are still web pages published in Latin, and we have learned to read Ancient Egyptian, Sumerian, Akkadian, Ugaritic and even Linear B Mycenean Greek again, awakening long silenced voices. Even Mayan is now re-emerging. There are efforts to revive Manx and Cornish, and many on the Isle of Man and in Cornwall are learning them, but they are not native speakers and it will never be their first language.

The Middle East, of course has seen what is as far as I know the only example of a language that once had no native speakers not just revive but become a language which is the only language of many: Hebrew. But it's a unique case: it was always the liturgical language of Jews everywhere,a nd Israel was created from immigrants whose first languages were as different as Yiddish, Ladino, Arabic and many others. Israeli Hebrew is not just an exception; so far it's the only exception.

Some languages that once seemed moribund like Irish, Welsh, Scots Gaelic, Provencal etc. have had a new lease on life, while others that once were endangered by a dominant language have strongly rebounded (notably Catalan and at least up to now, Ukrainian). In the Middle East, Amazigh (Berber)  has been one of the big winners in the Libyan and Tunisian revolutions; if "Arab Spring" has withered, "Berber Spring" survives. Kurdish has always held on, and Aramaic continues to survive. But (with asterisks on Amazigh) those are all written languages.

But when an unwritten language dies, its words are gone forever, except what anthropologists or explorers may have written down. All of the Modern South Arabian languages (unlike Old South Arabian), lacked a writing system, though Arabic, English transliteration systems, and the International Phonetic Alphabet have been used to record them. This is a disadvantage.

Though the largest of the surviving South Arabian languages, Mehri, has over 100,000 speakers, all of them are endangered. As with Native American and other minority indigenous languages, as rural, mountain, or nomadic peoples move to the cities, or as central governments provide schooling, there is great pressure to adopt the dominant language to succeed. The younger generation are likely to prefer Arabic, and literacy is only possible in Arabic. All the languages are already heavily influenced by Arabic vocabulary.

Before providing some comments and examples of the six Modern South Arabian languages, here are some resources dealing with them as a group:
Except for Soqotri, separated by sea from the others, there is reportedly some mutual comprehensibility among these languages.
For the individual languages themselves  many of the published grammars and such are published by E.J. Brill or other high-end publishers and are only found in specialist libraries. Leaving aside the uncertain case of Razihi, mentioned above, here are brief descriptions for he other six, along with estimates of the number of speakers from 1) UNESCO, 2) Ethnologue, the language reference work by the Summer Institute of Linguistics (a Christian missionary endeavor),  3) the SOAS Endangered Languages Archive cited earlier, and 4) Wikipedia. I also include related links,  and videos where I found them. I am taking the languages alphabetically.


One of the most endangered is Bat'hari, spoken by a few hundred fishermen along the Bay of Khuriya Muria on the coast of Oman. UNESCO  estimates 300 speakers, Ethnologue 200, and Wikipedia "about 200." SOAS gives no estimate.


Spoken in the Jiddat al-Harasis area of Central Oman. Estimates of speakers vary dramatically: UNESCO says 3000 in 1996, 3500-4000 today, both based on fieldwork by Dawn Chatty; Ethnologue says 600; SOAS says between 600-1000; Wikipedia says 1000-2000.

Some further reading on Harsusi:
Hobyot (or Hobyót)

Hobyot is spoken on either side of the Yemen-Oman border. It may have fewer than 100 speakers today. UNESCO puts it at 400; Ethnologue says 100 in Oman, not citing Yemeni figures; SOAS says under 1000; Wikipedia says 100 in Oman.

Jibbali/Jibali/Jebali or Shehri/Shahri

The two sets of names are respectively from the Arabic and Shehri words meaning "of the mountains." The second largest of the Omani South Arabian languages, Jibbali or Shehri is spoken in several areas off Dhofar, including the capital Salalah, and on the Khuria Muria islands. UNESCO, Ethnologue, and Wikipedia all put the number of speakers at 25,000, based on the 1993 (21 years ago!) Omani census, while SOAS puts it at 30,000, and the previously cited blogger Susan Al Shahri, a Dhofari whose name is the same as the language, says
Contrary to what our ever-so-useful Wikipedia says, general consensus seems to be that Shahri (Jebbali) is spoken by approximately 50,000 or more Dhofaris from mountain tribes as well as a large number of individuals from town tribes. Mahri is also spoken by a decent percentage of the Bedouin population of Dhofar.
Other materials on Jibaali/Shehri: Lameen Souag, "Plural-Breaking in the Mountains of Oman."
The two videos below show general scenes of Oman (not just Dhofar, but the background audio is recordings of Jibbali speakers, including a recitation of numbers.


Mehri, or Mahri, is by far the most widely spoken of the surviving South Arabian languages, and by dar the most studied. Though unwritten historically, it has a rich poetic tradition (see songs below). It is spoke on the coast and inland in the Mahra Province of eastern Yemen and in Dhofar in Oman. UNESCO puts its speakers at 100,000; Ethnologue at 115,200, of whom 50,000 are in Yemen and the rest in Oman; SOAS estimates 180,000; and Wikipedia gives 120,000.

Lameen Souag has noted in "Why They Thought Berbers Came From Yemen" a tradition in Arabic that Berber and Mehri were linked due to some common features not shared by Arabic. Though both part of the Afro-Asiatic family of languages, Mehri belongs to  the Semitic group, not the Berber.

Some Mehri songs:


Last alphabetically but no means least is Soqotri.  It is spoken on the Yemeni island of Soqotra in the Yemeni island of Soqotra, and while is second only to Mehri in number of speakers, being hundreds of miles from the others and insular, there is said to be no mutual comprehensibility with the other languages.

UNESCO says 50,000 speakers; http://www.unesco.org/culture/languages-atlas/en/atlasmap/language-id-1949; Ethnologue 64,000 overall, 57,000 in Yemen; and Wikipedia 64,500. SOAS does not appear to have an entry for it.

Soqotri Poems:

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