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The pre-literate, non-Arabic languages of Oman and Yemen

Their current situation and uncertain future 

By Miranda Morris 

Dr Miranda Morris is a distinguished linguist and ethnographer who has done extensive fieldwork in Oman and Yemen. She gave the following talk to a joint meeting of the Anglo-Omani and British- Yemeni Societies on 19 April 2007. 

A group of languages known as the Modern South Arabian (MSA), once heard all over southernArabia, are now restricted to parts of southernYemen and southern Oman (Dhufar). Even here they are steadily falling into disuse, stifled by the ever- increasing spread of Arabic. The reasons for this decay are many, but a major factor is the (admirable) development of schooling – in Arabic. As more girls attend school, the conservative effect of women and the home on language is also eroded. Today, most of those who would once have spoken an MSA language also speak Arabic. More significantly, they also read and write Arabic. And here we have the main cause of the collapse of these languages: they are purely oral, lacking any written form. This means that with the death of their speakers they cease to exist. 

History (1) The MSA belong to the Semitic group of languages, a category which includes various languages of the Middle East, some of which are no longer extant. In southern Arabia and in Ethiopia a number of Semitic languages were spoken in the pre- and early Christian era. The Semitic group includes the MSA, the Old South Arabian (OSA) and the Semitic languages of Ethiopia and are generally classed as Southern Semitic. The MSA are a remnant of a pre-Arabic substratum which is believed to have once stretched from Oman to the highlands of Yemen. Across the Red Sea, Southern Semitic extended into the highlands and littoral of East Africa, giving rise to the Ethiosemitic languages such as Ge’ez, modern Amharic and Tigrina. 

The speakers of these Southern Semitic languages were able to evolve in virtual social and linguistic independence. Sand deserts to the north inhibited the encroachment of Arabic (a Central/Northern Semitic language); the mountains of Dhufar protected the eastern flank; to the west and north lay the high plateaus and mountains of the Yemeni massif. Further west, the Red Sea and the coastal lowlands allowed the Ethiosemitic languages to develop with little interference from other Semitic languages. Separated by some 300 km. from the nearest point on the Arabian mainland, the MSA language of the island of Soqotra developed in almost complete isolation; all but the most recent efforts from the mainland to incorporate Soqotra have been ephemeral and largely limited to the coast. 

The MSA are called this to differentiate them from the OSA (or Epigraphic SouthArabian languages, as they are also called). The latter were the languages of the inscriptions of the famous Minaean, Sabaean and Qatabanian kingdoms of South Arabia which flourished between the 8th century BC and 6th century AD. There are thought to have been a number of dialects or languages which died out soon after the Islamic conquests, but so far it has only been possible to distinguish five in southern Arabia: Minaean, Sabaean, Qatabanian, Hadhrami and ancient Arabic. Unfortunately the OSA are essentially limited in attestation to monumental inscriptions whose form and content do not go far beyond solemn formulaic dedications. The inscriptions tend to be short, containing almost exclusively proper names, and tell us tantalizingly little about the structure of the language. Supplementing these inscriptions, the discovery in 1970 of inscribed palm-leaf sticks has taught us a little more about the OSA lexicon and morphology. 

The well-known 10th century Yemeni writer, Al-Hamdani, describing the linguistic situation in the Arabian peninsula, characterised the OSA group of languages as ghatamm, meaning ‘incorrect or incomprehensible’. (2) He distinguished them from those varieties of Arabic which were spoken in southern Arabia at that time (still today, the MSA languages are quite incomprehensible to an Arabic speaker). 

For many Arabs the term ‘Himyar’ came to represent all things ‘South Arabian’. Thus they commonly refer to the MSA as ‘Himyari’, and believe them to be a continuation of the OSA, also called ‘Himyari’. However, the position is not so straightforward. From Al-Hamdani’s description and from the comments of other Arab writers, ‘Himyari’ seems to have been the name given to the language spoken by those Arabs who settled in southern Arabia probably as immigrants from the north. They appear to have spoken a North Arabic dialect, but, over time, their speech became heavily influenced by the OSA languages, in particular Sabaean. (3) Significantly, their speech was described as comprehensible to Arabic speakers. So ‘Himyari’ cannot refer to those South Arabian languages which Al-Hamdani did characterise as ghatamm (incomprehensible). As for the Himyaris, they were an important tribe in the Sabaean kingdom of south-western Arabia who later became the powerful rulers of much of southern Arabia. They wrote principally in Sabaean, and this was the only language which continued to be used for writing until the end of the South Arabian civilisations in the 6th century AD. 

Regardless of their precise classification, it seems that by the earliest centuries of the common era the OSA languages had been replaced by a variant of Arabic and had effectively ceased to exist apart from some pre-Arabic features surviving in a few dialects of Yemeni Arabic. 

The MSA languages 

The exact relationship between the MSA, the OSA and the Semitic languages of Ethiopia remains unclear. The problem in determining such relationships arises from the fact that the MSA have no written form. Nor do many of the Ethiosemitic languages of Ethiopia, or, where they do, this is a recent development. However, isolated in the deserts, coasts and mountains of southern Yemen and Oman, and on islands in the Arabian Sea, the precursors of the MSA languages avoided replacement by Arabic, and evolved to become contemporary Bat’hari, Jibbali, Harsusi, Hobyot, Mahri and Soqotri. 

Mahri, called mehreyyet by its speakers, the Mahra people, has various dialects of its own, notably a southern dialect spoken in the south of the Mahra governorate of Yemen, and a northern dialect whose focal point is the Nejd desert, which extends both sides of theYemen/Dhufar border. Traditionally the Mahra people were semi-nomadic, rearing camels and goats, while along the coast they were also fishermen, especially of shark, and famous as sailors. The Mahra took control of the Soqotra archipelago in the latter half of the l5th century, and in the 16th century a Mahri pilot, Sulayman al-Mahri, wrote a famous guide to the waters of the region. 

Harsusi, called harsiyyet by its speakers, was the language of the Harasis tribe, most of whom live in the area named after them in central Oman, the Jiddat al- Harasis. They, too, are semi-nomadic, rearing camels and goats, though the majority of men nowadays are also wage-earners, many employed in the oil industry. Harsusi is closely related to Mahri. 

Bat’hari, called bitahreyt by its speakers, was spoken by the Batahira tribe, who live in Dhufar along a strip of coast opposite the al-Hallaniyah islands (where Jibbali is spoken). The Batahira are principally fishermen, though they also raise goats and a few camels. They are believed to be descended from the indigenous or aboriginal inhabitants of the plateau above, who were forced out by more powerful incomers. They were regarded by those who came to dominate them as dha’if, that is weak or subordinate. Given their relative lack of influence, they did not enjoy the same success as the other tribes of the area in obtaining jobs with the oil industry. Like Harsusi, Bat’hari is closely related to Mahri. 

Hobyot, called hobyot or weheybyot by its speakers, was spoken by people of different origins on both sides of the Dhufar/Yemen border. It was not the language of a specific community or tribal confederation but of a geographical area. Although it was mainly spoken in the monsoon-affected mountains on both sides of the border, there were also Hobyot-speakers in the desert areas to the north and west, and in fishing communities along the coast. This language combines elements of both Mahri and Jibbali, and thus stands in a class of its own. 

The language of what might be called Dhufar proper, namely the monsoon- affected mountains and adjacent area is called in OmaniArabic, ‘Jibbali’. Its speakers used to call it ´sheret. (The /´s/ is a sibilant consonant spoken through one side of the mouth, sounding to us rather like the Welsh /ll/; this lateral sibilant is common to all languages of the group, as well as to many of the Semitic languages of Ethiopia, and to Hebrew, for instance). Both Jibbali and sheret have the same meaning: ‘of the mountains’, the Arabic from ‘jabal’, and sheret from sher, also meaning mountain area. However, sheri (plural shero and meaning ‘of the mountains’) was also a term once applied, often pejoratively, to a particular group of people in Dhufar considered to represent the area’s indigenous inhabitants. They were subjugated by incoming groups who then came to control the Dhufar mountains. Like the Batahirah along the coast they were regarded as dha’if, weak or subordinate, and were forbidden to bear arms. Because of these potentially undesirable connotations, many Jibbali speakers themselves call the language Ahkili instead (the name commonly given to the language when spoken by tribal, i. e. non-dha’if, people), or, increasingly, Jibbali, as I shall call it here. Traditionally, Jibbali speakers were semi- nomadic pastoralists, breeding an unique species of small European-type cattle, as well as managing herds of goats and camels. Along the coast they also fished. Like Hobyot, Jibbali is not a language of a specific community or tribal confederation, but of a geographical area. Within this area most, if not all, speak Jibbali as their first or second language. Jibbali is very distinct from Mahri and the two are not mutually comprehensible. Like Mahri, Jibbali also has dialects of its own. 

Soqotri, called by its speakers saqatari, is spoken only in the islands of the Soqotra archipelago in Yemen (and by the first generation emigrés in the Gulf, mainly in ‘Ajman), and also has regional dialects. The islanders are fishermen and pastoralists. They raise sheep, goats and the same unique, small, European breed of cattle as in the Dhufar mountains, and breed camels and donkeys as pack animals. Where there is sufficient water, they also cultivate date palms. The inhabitants of the smaller islands of Samha and Abd al-Kuri (in 2000, Samha had less than 150 inhabitants, and Abd al-Kuri just under 400) (4) rely on fishing and the rearing of sheep and goats for their livelihood. They, too, speak Soqotri: the people on Samha speak the dialect of the southern coast of Soqotra, while those on Abd al-Kuri, who used to speak a dialect which was difficult for many Soqotrans to understand, now mainly speak the Arabic of the Yemeni coast opposite. The fourth island, Darsa, is not inhabited. 

While clearly related to the other MSA languages, Soqotri is the least comprehensible to the speakers of the other five. If anything, it is closer to Jibbali than to any of the others (not to Mahri as has appeared in various publications whose authors are presumably influenced by the long years of Mahra domination of the islands). Thus the six MSA languages fall into two main groupings: a ‘Mahri group’, which includes Mahri, Bat’hari and Harsusi; and a second group of much less closely related languages: Jibbali and Soqotri, with Hobyot falling somewhere between the two groups. 


While Soqotri remains unintelligible to speakers of the other five languages, intra- comprehensibility was more common amongst the MSA languages of the main- land. This was due largely to proximity, intermarriage and shared interests. Physical proximity was a major factor. For example, the Batahira on the coastal plain interacted with Mahri and Harsusi bedouin groups of the plateau above. I was able to observe the results when working in the area in the 1970s and 1980s: there was a high degree of intra-comprehensibility between the three groups. I noted, too, that Bat’hari was considerably interpenetrated by the Arabic dialect spoken by their neighbours and co-fishermen from the large Jeneba tribe to the east. Likewise, Hobyot speakers came into regular contact with Jibbali speakers in the mountains, and with Mahra along the coast and in the desert interior. Indeed, much of the Hobyot lexicon was borrowed from the more socially prestigious Mahri language (Sam Liebhaber noted that people of African origin living in Hawf were more wiling to speak Hobyot in public than Arab Hobyot speakers). 

Intermarriage between groups was another factor contributing to intracomprehensibility. 

While Harsusi and Mahri men freely married Bat’hari women, Bat’hari men were not usually permitted to marry Harsusi and Mahri women. The same was the case for the shero men, who would not be given the women of the dominant tribe. Of course the children of such marriages spoke their mother’s language as well as that of the dominant group to which their father belonged. Consequently fluency in more than one MSA language was not uncommon. Shared interests were another factor. Speakers of these languages lived similar lives as pastoralists or fishermen. The need to determine water use, or grazing and fishing rights, and to settle boundary disputes or to co-ordinate transhumance obliged them to work together and to make themselves understood. 

Until fairly recently, the central importance of the frankincense trade meant that people from different language groups travelled to harvest the trees, spending months at a time living and working together. The Harsusi and Batahira were not involved in this trade in the same way, and it was very noticeable in the late 1970s, when ordinary people from both these groups first began to visit Salalah (the capital of Dhufar), that they were completely unable to communicate with Jibbali speakers. (5) (Their tribal shaikhs had always travelled to Salalah to pay their respects to the Sultan or to represent their tribes, and used to talk amusingly on their return about the oddities of language or behaviour of the other groups which they had observed on their travels). 

In addition, mutual intelligibility was reinforced by the continual cycle of barter and trade between the triad of desert, mountain and coast. As indeed was mutual mockery. It was quite common to hear Mahra in the east mocking the ‘appalling Mahri’ of Harsusi and Bat’hari speakers, or Jibbali speakers ridiculing the ‘infantile Jibbali’ spoken on the Al-Hallaniyah islands or by Arab merchants in the towns. And both enjoyed making fun of speakers of Hobyot, that disconcerting language which was neither one nor the other. The Batahira and the shero would console themselves with their conviction that they were the true, indigenous inhabitants of Dhufar, and that theirs was the original language. Meanwhile, speakers of Hobyot would claim that theirs was the original Ahkili from which both Mahri and Jibbali were derived. And, of course, all joined in poking fun at the gibberish spoken on Soqotra by people who were little known except for their fame as sorcerers, and who, anyway, were too far away to retaliate. 

Earliest publications on the MSA languages 

Lexical data for the MSA languages first appeared in 1835 when Lieutenant James Wellsted of the British Indian Navy visited Soqotra; he collected around 250 words in Soqotri. In 1840 he published 37 words in Mahri. In the same period Fulgence Fresnel, the French Consul in Jidda, recorded grammatical information about Jibbali, a language he called ‘Ehhkili’. Bat’hari and Harsusi were not documented until much later. They first appeared in 1937 in an article written by Bertram Thomas: ‘Four Strange Tongues from South Arabia’. Here he lists Mahri, Harsusi and Bat’hari as belonging to one group of closely related languages, and another language, which he calls ‘Shahri’, as the sole constituent of a second group. The discovery of Hobyot would have to wait even longer. Tom Johnstone first mentioned it in a publication in 1981, where he wrote that he believed it to be a mixture of Mahri and Jibbali and not a distinct language. It would not definitively be described as a separate language – not a dialect of either Mahri or Jibbali – until 1985, when Marie-Claude Simeone-Senelle of the Mission Francaise collected enough data to establish that it was a language in its own right. The first full texts of Mahri and Soqotri (rather than lexical lists or grammars) were collected in 1898 by the Sudarabische Expedition from Vienna, and published by Jahn, Muller and Hein between 1902 and 1909. In 1936 Wolf Leslau published a comparative dictionary of Soqotri based on materials which they had collected. The study of MSA philology and linguistics had taken off. 

The early 20th century 

I think we can assume that all six MSA languages were in a healthy state at this time: that is, they were spoken as first languages by a significant number of people. Schooling in the areas where these languages were spoken was, for all practical purposes, non-existent. Religious education was available, in Hadhramaut especially, and, in the larger coastal settlements, there were small Qur’anic schools. However, these schools were principally for the children, usually the sons, of the merchant classes (primarily Arabic speaking), or of those close to the rulers and their courts. Indeed, in both Salalah and Soqotra, for example, it was expressly forbidden for children from the interior and the mountains to attend such schools. In south Yemen, a small number of schools had been established by the British and some of the more enlightened Sultans, but these were accessible either only to people near or in Aden, or were for the sons of shaikhs and the wealthier families. Only emigration to the Gulf or Saudi Arabia offered any chance of education or training for the other male members of the population. Then, within a single decade all this began to change. The British left Aden and were succeeded by a Socialist government with an almost evangelical attitude to education; and in Oman, Sultan Qaboos took over from his father and showed no less zeal in offering his people every opportunity to become literate. From this point, the MSA languages were bound to undergo modification. 

Later published studies of the MSA languages 

Tom Johnstone of S. O. A. S. led the field in major publications in this later period: in 1977 he published a lexicon of Harsusi; then in 1981 a lexicon of Jibbali in which he distinguished three dialect groups – eastern (including the dialect of the Al-Hallaniyah islands), central and western. In 1987, after his death in 1983, his lexicon on the Negd dialect of Mahri was published. (6) Published work on Bat’hari remained restricted to the material gathered by Bertram Thomas, and a few words mentioned in Johnstone’s Mahri and Jibbali lexicons. (7) Hobyot remained poorly represented: some words in Johnstone’s lexicons, and in articles written by the members of the Mission Francaise. 

Current research 

Most research in recent years has been carried out by European researchers, in particular the Russian-Yemeni Mission in the 1980s and 1990s, and the Mission Francaise from 1982 to 1991: the former’s best known members in terms of MSA languages being Vitaly Naumkin and Victor Porkhomovsky; the latter’s being Antoine Lonnet and Marie-Claude Simeone-Senelle. Mention should also be made of Dr Alexander Sima of the University of Heidelberg who was preparing a Mahri grammar and studying Hobyot when he was tragically killed in a road accident in Yemen recently. 

To turn to work being carried out by Omanis and Yemenis themselves, in Oman, while there is no specific programme to study or preserve the country’s five MSA languages, a few speakers of Jibbali or Mahri are presently carrying out research on their language or are planning to do so. Similarly, a handful of Yemenis are engaged in writing about either the Mahri or Soqotri language or culture. I have certainly not read everything written in Arabic by such researchers, but what I have read leads me to conclude that they are writing to promote a specific – and usually non-linguistic – point such as the antiquity or greater historical importance of their own linguistic group. If writing specifically about language, they tend to do so with the intention of demonstrating the close relationship between their particular tongue (i. e. Mahri or Jibbali or Soqotri) and that most prestigious language of all, the Arabic of the Qur’an. Since all languages concerned are related Semitic ones, there are indeed equations to be found, but this alone is of little linguistic significance. And the absence of an index or reliable bibliography makes such studies less useful. However, these are still early days for such research in the two countries. Moreover, the problem of obtaining relevant publications from Europe and the USA is a serious one, and even when available these require a high level of fluency in European languages to be intelligible, as well as training in the terminology and methodology used. Most interesting, perhaps, for linguists is the fact that a Dhufari, Ali Ahmad Mahash al-Shahri, has for some years been collecting graffiti in a South Arabian script painted on cave walls, or sometimes scratched or pecked onto rock. Similar graffiti have been found in the Mahra governorate of Yemen, as well as on Soqotra. But their overall number has so far been insufficient to make a reliable interpretation possible. 

Language survival and writing 

Unless MSA languages develop a written form they are surely doomed. Languages can be revived and re-invented: we have only to look at the case of modern Hebrew (though of course in this case the relevant alphabet already existed). 

MSA languages are transcribed in one of two ways: using the Arabic alphabet, or a modified version of the Latin alphabet. The former is problematical in that the number of consonantal forms is inadequate; nor is the limited Arabic vowel system able to cope with the more complex vowel system of the MSA languages. Where the Arabic alphabet is modified (with additional diacritics) to extend the range of consonants, there is still the problem of insufficient vowelling. And, most problematic of all, no standardised system for modifying the Arabic alphabet has yet been devised, and each writer invents his or her own. Consequently, these various transcriptions are hard for a reader to interpret, and their value is thereby lessened. 

The system based on the Latin alphabet has been standardised, and is called the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA). Using this system, the whole range of speech-sounds that the human voice can produce can, in theory, be reproduced on paper. Conventions have long been established for transliterating Semitic languages, and these can be understood and applied by anyone who has had the necessary training. 

The likelihood of encouraging the survival of the MSA languages by introducing a study of basic phonetics and transliteration into the school curricula of Oman and Yemen seems small at present. But let us hope that at some time in the not too distant future a system of transcribing these languaages in a modified Arabic script will be seriously discussed in both countries, and a standardised system devised. There is a precedent, and not too geographically distant: a standardised system for writing the dialect of Swahili, referred to as Standard Swahili, was established and adopted in 1930 by the Inter Territorial Language Committee. 

The oral art of Soqotra 

I am currently working on a project on the oral poetry and song of Soqotra. (8) I believe that, more than any of the other MSA languages, Soqotra had an extremely rich poetic tradition. Most everyday tasks were accompanied by song, and jokes were made, secret messages sent, and puzzles set in poetry. Herders sang to guide and control their livestock, and no animal was slaughtered without an introductory and lengthy poetic invocation chanted by the men present. Poetry recorded island history and was the medium for communication with the divine. Men and women sitting around a fire in the evening would engage in poetic contests, and the island- wide poetry competitions were a regular event, where different poets competed to interpret and respond to a poetic challenge set by one of their number. 

However, under the influence of a rather unbending form of Islam propagated from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf, this tradition has come under criticism. Consequently, both the poets and those who transmit the poetry have become increasingly reticent, with the result that this valuable heritage is being eroded even more rapidly than the language itself. Other factors have also contributed to the decline of the poetic oral tradition. Among these are: the increasing penetration of the island by the Arabic language; the arrival of new types of poetry from the Arabian mainland whose form and language, even subject matter, are not native to Soqotra; the influence of strict Islamic norms of separation of the sexes (thus, for example, itis no longer acceptable formen andwomen to gather together in public to challengeoneanotherinevening-longpoetrysessions); thedecline andtransformation of the major celebrations at which poetry played a major role, in particular the feasting and ceremony formerly associated with circumcisions and weddings (circumcision is now largely a private family affair, and at weddings the sexes are separated and often sing the types of Arabic song popular on the mainland). 

While the new developments are undoubtedly of interest in themselves, they can only accelerate the impoverishment of Soqotran poetry. Yet this oral art is an unique storehouse of the language and culture. Many of the poets and those skilled in memorising and transmitting the poetic corpus are becoming increasingly aware of what they are losing. Some want to record the poetry in a more permanent way, and are keen to document and preserve for posterity what their poetic tradition represents in terms of language, cultural reference and traditional island expertise. 

Much of the vocabulary and many of the allusions are now opaque to the younger generation, and detailed discussion with older members of the community is necessary to reveal the many layers of meaning which are a striking characteristic of this cryptic and allusive poetry. 

I also believe that a wider knowledge and understanding of the singular culture of Soqotra has a relevance and value beyond the archipelago. One of the aspects of its unique nature is that, in contrast to that of the Arab mainland opposite, the islanders have traditionally been unarmed and non-violent. The archetypical Arab tribesman values himself as a warrior, and has expected and been proud to fight, and to train his sons to take up arms to defend their honour. On Soqotra, however, there is little tradition of glory through the use or force of arms (although there are references to the subject in some of the poems and songs). Instead, individuals were praised for their verbal skills and their powers of persuasion, and particularly for their ability to defuse tension before it flared into anger. Here, children are brought up to be sensitive to atmosphere and to become adroit at diverting potential combatants. We surely all have something to learn from this. 

With support from the British Academy and the American Institute of Yemeni Studies I have been working with Soqotran islanders and poets to gather a sample of what remains in the island memory. The book will be accompanied by a CD of some of the sung and recited material. I decided at the outset to concentrate on poetry and song composed in Soqotri for the book (though there is a lot of material available today composed in a mixture of Arabic and Soqotri; I have collected many of these and some will appear in the book). Together we have assembled a corpus of material what includes poems, prayers, lullabies, work-songs, messages in code, riddles, island wisdom enshrined in poetic couplets, and stories centred on a short poem or an exchange of poems. The original plan was to produce this corpus transcribed in the International Phonetic Alphabet which would then be translated (in a severely literal fashion) into English by me and into Arabic by the islanders. The more complex footnotes, glossary and introductory chapter would be translated by a specialist. However, it became clear during fieldwork sessions in 2005 that there was strong feeling on the part of those working with me that the material should also be presented in Soqotri transcribed in Arabic characters. This was the only way, they said, that their children and children’s children would be able to read and learn something of their own poetic inheritance. 

However, as we have seen, there is no agreed standardised system for transcribing Soqotri using the Arabic alphabet. Many versions have been used: on the island itself, in Yemen and in the Gulf. There was certainly no time now to try and establish an acceptable system for doing this, nor indeed was it appropriate for this important and major task to be undertaken by our small group. It was therefore decided that each translator should use his or her preferred system. In the final publication each translation would appear under the name of its Soqotri translator, so it would be clear that the method used represented an individual preference rather than a standardised system. This is an unsatisfactory compromise and has already thrown up some interesting variants, with individual sounds and even elements of morphology being transcribed differently by different translators. 

My first job was to convince the poets and those with the skill and memory to transmit poetry that it was indeed possible for me to reliably reproduce their work on paper. They were very doubtful but intrigued, and many were the tests they contrived for me. However, once they were convinced that it was indeed possible to record the material in this way, they seemed to be genuinely pleased. 

When working on this project I live in a coral-rag house in the fishing quarter of Hadibo beside the sea. I work with the poetry experts and the translators under the shade of date-palm matting at a large home-made table in the courtyard. Before and after work, and during the break for lunch, a stream of visitors comes and goes, each keen to give his or her view about the work in progress. Anyone can sit in on our work sessions, as long as he or she does not interrupt too often or for too long. Reactions to the project – seen as highly unusual, if not downright peculiar – on the island have been mixed, and have changed over time. 

Some Soqotrans, including a few of the poets whose poetry is more influenced by Arabic, feel that the Soqotri language and culture are embarrassingly primitive and backward. Worse, they believe both to be un-Islamic. They think that it is much more important for Soqotrans to strive to join the wider, modern Arab and Muslim community, and that all Soqotrans should be glad to turn their backs on their dubious past. Others feel that, whereas a lot of my material is acceptable, many pieces are most definitely not: pieces which allude to earlier belief systems, for example, or to witchcraft, or to much looser relations between the sexes. While they are on the whole keen that the project should continue, they would prefer a more sanitised version, and are quick to propose what they consider to be more suitable material. And then there are the growing number of Soqotrans who are proud of their heritage and keen to preserve what remains of their vanishing past. Though some were initially uneasy about the appearance of tribal names in some satirical pieces, nervous of possible unpleasantness which this might provoke, they were reassured by others pointing out that tribes from all over the island were subject to the same treatment; that such poems existed and had given enjoyment and entertainment to many; and to ignore them would be to misrepresent the island’s poetic tradition. Soqotrans such as these are keen that the world reflected in their oral art is recorded accurately, warts and all. 

Over time, I am pleased to say, the numbers of those encouraging the work has grown. Best of all, our project seems to have played a part in starting a renewed enthusiasm for poetry in general. There is now talk of a special poets’ club, and officially sponsored poetry events and competitions. A group of enthusiasts are keen to try and work out an agreed system for transcribing Soqotri. All this is encouraging, and suggests that some cautious optimism about the future of the Soqotri language and its poetry might be permissible. 

The work has thrown up other problems, some of which should have been foreseen by me. For example, whereas I had little trouble finding Soqotran men and women prepared to translate the material into Arabic, the quality of their Arabic has varied alarmingly. A second language for all of them, they have learned what Arabic they know under different educational systems and to different standards. The older ones learned theirs under the previous socialist government of the PDRY, the younger ones under the present government. However, the schooling available on Soqotra has always been of varying quality and availability, and the only secondary school has been in the capital, Hadibo. This lack of fluency has meant that the extensive and nuanced vocabulary possessed by the translators in Soqotri is in no way matched by that which they possess in Arabic. The myriad different Soqotri terms used to describe markings of livestock, for instance, or to capture distinct shades and density of raincloud, different types of vegetation or verticality of slope, are simply not available to them in Arabic. As a result, the Arabic version of a poem has none of the vibrancy or subtlety of the original. It seems to me now that it will be necessary to leave specific or many-layered terms like this in their original Soqotri, and supplement translations with an explanatory glossary at the back. I have also decided that I shall need the assistance of an Arabic editor to smooth the rough edges of some of the translations, and hope I have found one in the daughter of an old Soqotran friend now living in Oman. She has completed her degree in Arabic literature and is now starting her PhD on the work of a Zanzibari poet. 

The future of the MSA languages 

Sam Liebhaber, who is working on a diwan (poetry collection) of the Mahri poet Haag Daakone (who is unusual in his determination to publish his diwan in Mahri transcribed in Arabic characters, in a system he has devised himself) is pessimistic. He has written: ‘In terms of prospects for the future of MSA languages, the presence or absence of poetry is a good measure of a language’s vitality. When a minority language is used for higher register expressions, it maintains the prestige necessary to ensure its retention amongst native speakers. By this measure, Hobyot is clearly at the cusp of language death since my attempts to elicit poetry in Hobyot were answered with Mahri poetry or shrugged off entirely. Jibba1i may remain vital for some time yet since young Jibbali speakers are proud of their oral traditions and would occasionally try to draw me away from Mahri sources in favour of their own poetry. Though Mahri-language poetry is still being composed, I am not optimistic about the future prospects of Mahri, since talented young Mahri poets and performers prefer Arabic over Mahri, even denying the capacity of Mahri to handle modern poetic modes and themes’. 

The intimate relation between language and culture, and the importance of maintaining a healthy diversity in both is increasingly appreciated. UNESCO, in recognition of this, has established the UNESCO Endangered Languages Program. Its website states: ‘Linguistic diversity is the store of knowledge about how to maintain and use sustainably some of the most diverse, but also vulnerable environments. With the death of each language our knowledge dies too’. Depressingly, it goes on to say: ‘50% are predicted to disappear by the end of the century, as are 50% of our plant and animal species, and so our ability to sustain life on earth. There are six or seven thousand languages: every week or two, one small language dies. It dies because it has become irrelevant, only a few people speak it. 95% of languages have less than one million speakers, while Mandarin Chinese has 874 million native speakers and English 341 million’. 

In Oman, Bat’hari could be said to be a dead language. Even when I was living with Bat’hari families in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the older members of the family would often sit around their own, separate fire at night. The younger ones, whose Bat’hari was now largely confined to everyday phrases and snippets of humorous poetry would sit at another fire nearby, chattering away in Arabic. They were no longer capable of – or interested in – joining the elderly in their trips down memory lane. 

Harsusi is moribund, despite being a higher prestige language than Bat’hari. Some observers believed that the delay in sending children to school until they were 8 or 9 meant that they would still speak Harsusi at home with their uneducated mothers. But nearly all the girls have attended school for some years now, and the children of these literate young women will surely not still be speaking Harsusi at home. The geographical position of Jiddat al-Harasis also means that they are surrounded by Arabic speaking tribes, and the jobs available to Harsusi men are in an Arabic-speaking environment. Hobyot in both Oman and Yemen is struggling. From my own experience, all the children of those with whom I worked on the Hobyot language speak fluent Arabic. Jibbali (in Oman) and Mahri (in both Yemen and Oman), even though much interpenetrated by Arabic, continue to survive. Soqotri continues to be spoken by nearly all the inhabitants of the archipelago, partly because active schools here are still few, partly because the islands have remained isolated from outside influence until relatively recently. 

The continued survival of those MSA languages which are still spoken depends on their ability to hold their own against the Arabic which dominates their societies, and to do so with little or no official support. It also depends on the enthusiasm of those who speak these languages to use them amongst themselves and in the home, and on the interest and will of enough native speakers, both men and women, to study and record them. School, the media, and the drift towards the towns where Arabic is the lingua franca, have already weakened these preconditions for survival. Any useful linguistic research will have to be done soon while the older generation who speak the relevant tongue as their first language are still alive. I have been struck by how quickly Soqotri, for instance, has lost ground to Arabic since I first began to visit the islands in the late 1980s. 

Language is principally a tool, and people will, of course, use whichever tool they find the most effective. Nevertheless, in Oman and Yemen interest in these languages is growing among native and non-native speakers alike. Under pressure of rapid change, with all the accompanying feelings of dislocation which follow, added to uncertainty about what the future holds, there is a growing (nostalgic?) interest in the cultural heritage of MSA language speakers. However, if this renewed interest is to result in anything solid and enduring, the necessary training needs to be available, and there have to be students willing to undergo it. For, while there is a certain amount of rushing around with tape recorders and video cameras, and even the commercial production of cassettes (cassettes of Mahri and Jibbali poetry and song can be bought in the market, and tapes of Soqotri poetry cross back and forth between Soqotra and the Gulf), the willingness and the ability to embark on the hard slog of collating and accurately transcribing the material is not visible; indeed the very necessity for doing so is not yet sufficiently appreciated. Making the necessary linguistic training available is not a priority in either Oman or Yemen, but without it the value of the cassettes and tapes is limited, and they will not last for ever. 

From a rather more selfish, academic point of view, this group of languages is of great interest. They are important for the study of the Semitic language: phonetically and phonologically, in syntax morphology and lexicon, they have preserved elements which have disappeared from other Semitic languages. Further research will contribute to a better understanding of the relation between the South Semitic languages and the historical development of the earliest Semitic languages. For many scholars it will be interesting, too, to observe how the MSA are changing and evolving under the influence of Arabic. 

Personally, I believe that the loss of the MSA languages and of the particular and idiosyncratic view of the world that each embodies is equivalent to the loss of biodiversity which we regularly deplore. As long as these oral languages are still spoken by someone, a certain amount of material can be recorded. But such recordings are never more than an extremely limited sample of that vast spectrum which is the living language. I have a recording of an old Bat’hari man making mouth music and chanting a poem whose purpose is to entice cormorants to roost near him so that hungry fellow tribesmen can climb the cliffs to catch them. The old man is long gone, the recording remains. But the knowledge and understanding of the context in which he performed this song has also gone and is irrecoverable. There is no longer any need to enchant the birds: the desperate poverty of the Batahira that made such a song necessary is thankfully at an end, and has been replaced by a time of plenty. This does not stop us regretting the fact that a purely oral language such as this, once lost, can never be replaced. 


(1) This section on History is heavily indebted to the masterly first chapter (Linguistic Overview: The Modern South Arabian Languages: Background, Discovery and Sources) of Dr Sam Liebhaber’s (unpublished) thesis entitled Bedouins Without Arabic: Language, Poetry and the Mahra of Southeast Yemen, 2007. Dr Liebhaber is Assistant Professor, Middlebury College (slieb@berkeley. edu), and I am grateful to him for his generous permission to quote from his summary in this way. 

(2) I was rather taken aback when an old and illiterate Bat’hari, Zifena, used the same term with the same meaning to describe the languages spoken in India: ‘ai-hind: diyret alghatamm, herba’athen hawil ghatamm’, ‘India: the land unintelligibility, the people there used to be quite incomprehensible’.

(3) Unfortunately for us, for a variety of historical, cultural and religious reasons, the earliest Arab scholars and linguists were principally interested in studying the language of the Qur’an rather than any other languages spoken in the south of the Arabian peninsula. 

(4) Figures collected by me on the islands when working on the EU project Socotra Archipelago Masterplan 2000–2010 YEM/B7/3000/IB/97/0787. 

(5) The Batahira at this time even discovered a branch apparently of their tribe living in the Dhufar mountains who called themselves the Bit Bit’ha. Although they were Jibbali speakers and not able to speak or understand Bat’hari, representatives later went to visit the Batahira and relations were established. 

(6) Unpublished but significant works include the 1997 PhD thesis of a Jibbali, Salim Bakhait Taboo, on the culture of Dhofar, which contains some poems; and the following year the PhD thesis of Anda Hofstede on the syntax of Jibbali. 

(7) Two articles on Jibbali poetry were published: Johnstone (1972) and Morris (1985), and one on Bat’hari poetry (Morris 1983). 

(8) I shall hereafter mainly refer to ‘poetry’, though most poetry was in fact sung, except where it was part of a story. This is in contrast to the more modern Arabic-influenced poetry which is recited. 

Vol 15. 2007