Language and Nature in Southern and Eastern Arabia

A couple on a mountain.


Funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council

This interdisciplinary project examines the symbiotic relationship between local languages and nature in Southern and Eastern Arabia through a multidisciplinary network of ecosystem and humanities scholars from the UK, North America, Russia, Qatar, Oman and Saudi Arabia, and representatives from local social groups in Southern and Eastern Arabia. Our network will engage local community members in preserving biocultural diversity, holding capacity building workshops to encourage local communities to advocate instruction in their own languages, and to work on diverse initiatives to preserve local languages and local ecosystems.

Rationale and research context

Local languages are under threat in many parts of the world. This is of global concern because these languages reflect the close relationship between people and their natural environment, embodying the complex relationship with landscape and seasons. When the languages are lost, these connections are broken. Areas of the world which enjoy the greatest language diversity tend to exhibit the greatest biodiversity, and loss of the one commonly precipitates loss in the other (

We select Southern and Eastern Arabia as a case study to examine biocultural diversity for three main reasons:

a) The region shows significant and rapidly depleting linguistic and bio-diversity;

b) A significant body of linguistic and ecosystem data from the region is available to the team;

c) Within the academic field of biocultural diversity, there is little focus on Southern and Eastern Arabia.

The indigenous local languages of Southern and Eastern Arabia are the Modern South Arabian languages (Mehri, Śḥerɛ̄t, Soqotri, Harsusi, Hobyot, Bathari), Kumzari, Shihhi, and Arabic dialects. Dhofar and Mahra are unique within the Arabian Peninsula in receiving the monsoon rains; Dhofar, Mahra, Jiddat al-Harasis, Soqotra and Musandam are renowned for their ecological and linguistic variety; and parts of Saudi Arabia and the UAE are now home to resettled speakers of key local languages.

1.1 Timeliness of the work

Language erosion throughout the world has been precipitated by social change, the collapse of traditional cultural activities, and a break in the relationship people have with the natural environment. In the UK, modernisation has resulted in replacement of local terms with concise nuances by general and superregional cover terms: Shetland contrasts feevl ‘snow falling in large flakes’ with flukra ‘snow falling in large, scale-like flakes’; regional English terms for ‘icicle’ include aquabobickledagletshuckleshackle (Macfarlane 2015). Classical Arabic has a plethora of terms for ‘to go’; in Modern Standard Arabic, ‘to go’ is predominantly expressed by the cover term ḏahaba with an adverbial phrase to express time or manner.

The success of traditional Southern and Eastern Arabian communities is contingent on their knowledge expressed linguistically of the tides, winds, weather, fishing conditions and cultivation. In this region, we are experiencing a last moment in time when members of the generation of the pre-motorised past are still alive; thus we can observe the effect erosion of the environment and the human-environment relationship is having on language in real time, and can act to revitalise languages and the environment through local capacity building and production of sample interactive e-books in local languages for children.

1.1.2 Linguistic expressions of the human-nature relationship

The closer the relationship between people and the natural environment, the more linguistic expressions reflect the human–nature relationship. For example, the parrot fish, known in eastern Yemeni Mehri as ġaṣabīt hibʕayt ‘disarmer of seven’, is said to have been thus named following an incident where seven men made a vain attempt to catch it because it was so slippy. Spatial reference points are based on topographic terms and differ according to language variety and place of the speaker. The language of quantification is frequently nature-based: daylight temporal reference points depend on the relative height and position of the sun, the passing of time is measured by reference to known traditional activities, verbs of movement differ according to the time of departure, expressions of amounts or group sizes depend on object of description.

The human–nature relationship is clearly engrained in figurative language (Macfarlane 2015): cross-linguistically, expressions of beauty relate to what speakers find beautiful in nature: in Saudi Mehri, a young beautiful girl may be referred to as ṭōhī ‘large cumulus cloud’; in Kumzari as ṭērē ‘a bird’; in San’ani Arabic, as xaḏra ‘lit: green’ due to her freshness, where ‘green’ in English would be interpreted typically as naive. Much figurative language in the languages of Southern and Eastern Arabia will no longer be fully comprehensible once the human–nature relationship decays. Figurative language may in turn induce grammaticalisation of common environment-related terms: in the Modern South Arabian region, the vital importance of accurate tracking of livestock and people in the past is reflected in grammaticalisation of Mehri śaff and Śḥerɛ̄t śɛf ‘paw/foot track; print’ in the particle śaf ‘it turned out that’ in Mehri, śεf in Śḥerɛ̄t (Watson 2012).

From our ethnographic work with people in Dhofar and the Musandam Peninsula we know that in the pre-Sultan Qaboos era (pre-1970) people had no motorised vehicles and transport was by foot, by riding animal or by boat, water was collected by individuals from natural sources, and people outside the small towns on the coast lived in caves or in brushwood or stone huts they constructed themselves. People practised sustainable conservation, working with the natural cycles of weather and the tides to prevent overfishing, and relying in certain seasons on alternative food sources such as dried sardines and dates. Ethnographic texts recorded through the Documentation and Ethnolinguistic Analysis of Modern South Arabian project (Watson PI), archived with ELAR: include first-hand accounts of constructing huts and shelters for people and animals, fetching water from different sources, walking or riding great distances, producing tools from leaves, leather, bone, clay, stone and wood, and practising seasonal transhumance. Multilingualism was widespread in Southern and Eastern Arabia at this time, and throughout the region people of the interior enjoyed a symbiotic relationship with people of the coast. For many, a barter system operated: townspeople would barter dried fish and imported goods for farm produce from the mountains, and frankincense in Dhofar would be bartered for food and clothing.

Today Southern and Eastern Arabia enjoys all the trappings of the modern age, with a hitherto overwhelmingly rural population becoming rapidly urban, and a significant nomadic population becoming almost wholly sedentarised. Many small towns around the gravel desert in Dhofar came into existence in the 1980s. Since 1976 there has been gradual sedentarisation of people, with the construction of šaʕbīyāt ‘government-funded housing’ in Oman. At various times, waves of people have abandoned life in the mountains and parts of the desert around Dhofar to settle in Salalah and other coastal towns. However, many communities still live by the sea and the land: the fact that the village of Kumzar, located on Musandam’s outer coast, can only be reached by boat means that Kumzari speakers require knowledge of the land and sea for their subsistence.

Through sedentarisation, life which was once lived predominantly out of doors has become, for many, almost entirely within doors: the majority of the younger generation no longer require, have, or understand the extensive knowledge and practical skills of their elders; much earlier expertise has been lost or is disregarded when imported plastic, metal and nylon alternatives replace locally produced items. Where items do continue to be produced locally, they are often made by the large migrant labour force from south-east Asia using imported artificial materials rather than local natural materials. When a society no longer discusses and passes on traditional skills, the older generation may forget, and the younger generation never need to learn, the relevant lexical items (Thomason 2015).

In an increasingly sedentary, urban way of life, traditional methods of natural resource management are no longer passed on to the next generation; this can result in significant degradation of the environment, with overgrazing and mismanagement of increasingly scarce water supplies, and severe overfishing on the coast. One result of environmental degradation is that flora and fauna that once played a significant role in everyday human life are now extinct or rare, and where they do remain extant they no longer play the essential role in human society they once played. This loss of traditional knowledge, skills and habitat is a key factor in language endangerment in all languages of Southern and Eastern Arabia, affecting particularly, but not exclusively, the lexis: the loss of tools produced from the natural environment leads to loss of lexemes and of linguistic expressions relating to these objects.

Modernisation has led to both language loss and adaptation: Kumzari, MSAL are being encroached upon by formal education and media in Arabic, which make up the majority of the daily hours of children and youth. It also leads to the introduction of new terms from particularly, but not exclusively, Arabic and English and new practices: imported items create new ‘traditions’ and relationships between people and their environments. Where the older generation of pastoral herding social groups continue to migrate in desert areas together with hired herders from South Asia, they maintain many traditional practices, but change to meet contemporary demands. Thus camel herding has taken on a ‘modern’ face with the younger generation of these families insisting on managed camel reproduction to fall in line with annual camel racing annual heats. In our papers and presentations, we include appraisal of linguistic adaptation to changing environments and ways of life.

2 Aims and objectives

We aim to spotlight the complex symbiotic relationship between language and nature in Southern and Eastern Arabia within the region and the academic world. We will create a multidisciplinary network to examine the issue in the short and longer term with 4 video conferences and 2 workshops. In year two, we will prepare a proposal for a large-scale research programme to examine the language–nature relationship in other areas of the world where local languages differ from the lingua franca, including Mexico, Taiwan, and Tanzania, identified by project members. We will develop a mixed methods interdisciplinary methodology to address the language–nature relationship, the extent to which erosion of language and the environment are mutually reflected and reinforcing, and to interrogate the concept of value in language and nature. We will engage local community members in preserving biocultural diversity, holding capacity building workshops to encourage local communities to advocate access to instruction in their own languages in formal schooling, and to work on diverse initiatives to preserve their local languages and local ecosystems. We will produce interdisciplinary academic and outreach publications, and on-line educational tools for different levels.

3 Activities

July 16, 2020: Beauty in Diversity: Language, Culture and Nature in Southern Arabia. Anglo-Omani Society online Zoom lecture by Janet Watson and Ali al Mahri on the concept of beauty in relation to Southern Arabia, with a focus on Dhofar.

July 2017: Network meeting with network participants who attended the Leeds Endangered Languages workshop: Alec Moore, Dawn Chatty, Jon Lovett, Janet Watson, Ali al-Mahri. Presentation by Alec Moore on historic decline of biodiversity across Arabia, how this relates to language decline, and the apparent correlation of biological diversity/endemicity with rare/threatened languages.

Oct 2017–July 2018: Sadler Seminar Series, Language and Nature, University of Leeds. Organisers: Janet Watson, Jon Lovett, Thea Pitman, Diane Nelson

Nov 2017: Erik Anonby visit to Leeds to discuss digital mapping. Presentation 10 November for Sadler Seminar Series Language and Nature group: Reimagining the Atlas: From the languages of Iran to the language of nature in Arabia

January 2018: Cultural Issues in Dhofar: Mehri language in nature: 10-day workshop held in Salalah. Trainers: Ali al-Mahri and Janet Watson.

Feb 2018: 3-day workshop at Qatar University. Setting out the problem. Day 1: Session 1: Language in Southern and Eastern Arabia: Modern South Arabian; Kumzari; Qatari Arabic. Session 2: The environment in Southern and Eastern Arabia: fauna, flora, topography, natural resource management. Day 2: Session 1: Community archiving, Simon Popple, Tom Jackson (video link). Session 2: Digital mapping, Erik Anonby, Adam Stone, Amos Hayes, Kumiko Murasugi. Day 3: Capacity building in sustainable conservation: Languages: Stephanie Petit, Mandana Seyfeddinipur, Sophie Salffner. Sustainable conservation: Dawn Chatty.

Feb 2018: Janet Watson conducts 2-day academic visit to Qatar to provide training in language documentation, network & discuss creation of interdisciplinary methodology.

July 2018: Language and Nature workshop, University of Leeds. Joint AHRC-Network team presentations by Shahina Ghazanfar, Erik Anonby, Christina Anonby, AbdulQader al-Kumzari and Yousef al-Kumzari, by Janet Watson and Leonid Kogan, and by Jon Lovett and Deryn Rees-Jones.

July 2018: 3-day Mehri language workshop, University of Leeds. Led by Janet Watson.

Aug 2018: Language Documentation and Nature: 5-day workshop held in Salalah for Omani academics from Nizwa University, SQU and Ministry of Education. Trainers: Janet Watson and Ali al-Mahri

Oct 2018: 1-day video conference. Preliminary evaluation of network programme; discussion of large-scale research application; discussion of digital mapping.

January 2019: Mehri Language in Nature: 10-day workshop, Salalah. Trainers: Janet Watson and Ali al-Mahri.

April 2019: 3-day workshop for project participants at Leeds. Day 1: Interdisciplinary co-presentations on the language–nature relationship: Naming: When you name a thing you see it. Day 2: Digital mediation of language and place. Key-note: Dawn Chatty: Bedouins, movement and environmental change. Day 3: The role of popular literature: Narratives and literature around nature. Round table.

May 2019: Hidden Voices of Arabia: Language documentation in the Arabian Peninsula. Language documentation workshop organised by Roberta Morano, presentations and workshops by Professor Clive Holes, Tom Jackson and Janet Watson.

Late 2019: 1-day video conference: Evaluation of Leeds workshop and the network; Discussion of large-scale research programme on language and nature; Discussion of MOOC on Language & Nature.

July 16, 2020: Beauty in Diversity: Language, Culture and Nature in Southern Arabia. Anglo-Omani Society online Zoom lecture by Janet Watson and Ali al Mahri on the concept of beauty in relation to Southern Arabia, with a focus on Dhofar.

4 Key participants

This project has identified and brought together leading researchers in the field and ensured that all major research areas are covered. It draws together scholars on natural resource management, flora, fauna, conservation & mobile peoples, language documentation, oral literature, anthropology, sociology, digital communication, and linguistics, and representatives of local communities. Collaborations have been established with several members of the team in: MOOC on Language & Nature, Leeds (JL, JW, Abdullah al-Mahri), Documentation of Modern South Arabian (JW, A. Moore, AA, Ali al-Mahri, L. Kogan, S. Liebhaber, Miranda Morris), Saudi Arabic dialects & Mehri (M. al-Azraqi, JW), Oman Mountain Atlas (DC, JW, CA, EA, MM), endangered languages workshops, Salford, SOAS & Leeds (JW, SL, MM, DC, Ali al-Mahri), interdisciplinary workshops at QU (KA, DV, JW, AA).

Janet Watson brings work on language documentation and ethnographic methods. She will co-organise the Leeds workshop, and lead on preparing sample children’s e-books on nature, and e-book of nature texts in the local languages of Southern and Eastern Arabia. She will co-present and co-author papers on Language & Nature.

Kaltham al-Ghanim brings expertise on intangible heritage, and the role of indigenous knowledge and culture in sustainable development. She also provides the viewpoint of Qatar and the Gulf States. She will co-present and co-author papers on Language & Nature, and collaborate in production of e-books for children.

Jon Lovett brings expertise on nature resource management. He will co-organise the Leeds workshop, lead on development of an interdisciplinary methodology and on-line educational materials, and co-author/present papers on Language & Nature.

Christina and Erik Anonby provide the language–nature perspective from Kumzari and the Musandam Peninsula at the workshops. Digital training will be led by Simon Popple and Tom Jackson in community archiving and Erik Anonby and the team from Carleton University in digital mapping. Erik will co-author with Miranda Morris and Janet Watson a book about fish and fishing practices in Dhofar and Musandam entitled Harvesting the Sea.

Dawn Chatty brings expertise on stewardship of the environment and set up the steering committee that launched the Dana Declaration on mobile peoples and conservation: She will conduct capacity building workshops in sustainable conservation among mobile local social groups in Oman and the UAE, and co-author/present papers on Language and Nature.

Shahina Ghazanfar works at the Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew and brings expertise on flora in Oman and Saudi Arabia. She will present and co-author papers on Language & Flora at the Qatar and Leeds workshop, and the Leeds workshop on endangered languages.

Tom Jackson is Lecturer in Digital Media at the University of Leeds. His primary area of research is sensory ethnography. Bringing together interests in cross-modal perception, anthropology, cultural geography and digital media, he proposes new sensory research methods. Through the design and development of digital tools, such as multisensory, spatial and participatory virtual archives and immersive and embodied audiovisual recordings, his work aims to explore the relationships between sensory experience and cultural phenomena. Tom’s commercial experience in graphic design, photography and interactive programming has informed his largely practice-led approach to research.

Leonid Kogan brings expertise on Soqotri language and oral literature. He will co-present with Watson and Abdullah al-Mahri at the Qatar workshop and present on flora in Soqotri at the Leeds workshop.

Sam Liebhaber specialises in Mahri poetry and provides insight into nature-related figurative language in poetry. He will co-present with Ahmed al-Mashikhi on Figurative language & Nature at both the Qatar and Leeds workshops.

AbdulQader AlKumzari comes from, and lives in, Kumzar. He received his M.Ed degree in TESOL (2015) from the University of Exeter, UK. He is a speaker of Kumzari, Arabic and English. He is working for the Ministry of Education as a regional educational supervisor of English Language. He is supervising and training teachers across the Musandam governorate. He will co-present with Erik Anonby on papers relating to fishing and language, and at the Leeds Endangered Languages workshop with Shahina Ghazanfar, Erik Anonby et al on the flora of Musandam.

Alec Moore is a marine fauna researcher with academic knowledge of terrestrial fauna of the region. He has worked in Dhofar with Janet Watson and Miranda Morris on fish and shark terminology. He will co-present with Erik Anonby on fauna and language at the Qatar workshop.

Miranda Morris is an independent researcher, whose interests focus on the ethnography and languages of southern Arabia, in particular the Modern South Arabian Languages. She will present two papers at the Leeds workshop on the significance of naming, and co-author with Erik Anonby and Janet Watson a book about fish and fishing practices in Dhofar and Musandam entitled Harvesting the Sea.

Abdullah al-Mahri is a speaker of Mehri. He has been working on the documentation of Mehri with Janet Watson since 2010. He will co-present at the Qatar workshop, co-author a paper on Language and Nature in Dhofar, and work with Janet Watson on producing e-books for children.

Ali al-Mahri is a speaker of Mehri and Śḥerɛ̄t, who has been working on the documentation of Mehri with Janet Watson since 2010. He will co-run the language documentation and language in nature workshops in Salalah with Watson.

Ahmed Al Mashikhi has been working at the department of Mass Communications, Sultan Qaboos University, Muscat since 1998. He completed his BA and MA at Belarus State University, Russia, and his PhD at the University of Exeter, UK. He teaches a number of courses, including radio and television, mass media in Oman, mass media and crisis management, and the role of mass media in national development. From 1987–1998 he worked as Advisor to the Under-Secretary Office, at the Ministry of Information. He is a native speaker of Śḥerɛ̄t and Arabic. He will present jointly on figurative language in Śḥerɛ̄t poetry at both the Qatar and Leeds workshops, and on toponyms in Śḥerɛ̄t at the Leeds workshop.

Stephanie Petit works at ELAR within the ELDP at SOAS, London. She has been instrumental in archiving the Modern South Arabian material collected by Watson and Morris et al. She will present on documentation of endangered languages at the Qatar workshop.

Simon Popple is senior lecturer in Photography and Digital Culture and Director of Impact in the School of Media and Communication at the University of Leeds. His work has increasingly focussed on the co-production of digital tools, which allow communities to develop independent access to cultural and historical resources as a means of storytelling, campaigning and social advocacy. His research is concerned with the relationships between communities, institutions and concepts of democratic exchange, open space and the digital sphere. He has worked with a range of community and arts organisations and national institutions including the BBC and the Science Museum Group and has led several AHRC/EPSRC funded projects in this area.

Mandana Seyfeddinipur is director of the ELDP at SOAS, London. She will co-present at the Qatar workshop on language documentation.

Adam Stone is the Executive Director for the Foundation for Endangered Languages of Canada (, a newly-fledged charity responsible for safeguarding intangible cultural heritage for future generations by enabling the documentation, protection, revitalization and promotion of First Nation, Inuit and Métis languages in Canada, and endangered languages throughout the world. With a background in formal linguistics, cognitive science, and GIS mapping, Adam is PhD student of Applied Linguistics and Discourse Studies at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada. Working closely with Erik Anonby, Adam is involved in the production of maps for the documentation of languages in Iran, and is engaged in providing assistance to Dr. Marie-Odile Junker in the production of linguistic maps of Indigenous languages in Canada. In his current work and studies, Adam hopes to advance the field of digital language mapping, with specific regard to the development of maps as powerful tools of research, communication, language revitalization, and education. 

Amos Hayes is the Technical Manager at the Geomatics and Cartographic Research Centre at Carleton University. He is the architect of the Nunaliit atlas framework ( and oversees its development and deployment in partnership with dozens of community, faculty, and student researchers in Canada and internationally. Amos has extensive experience co-designing and deploying knowledge collection, mapping, and visualization systems based on Nunaliit. This includes working with linguistic scholars on a small number of language atlases including the Atlas of the Languages of Iran, the Inuktut Lexicon Atlas, and an upcoming atlas of English on the Canadian prairies.

Roberta Morano, Fabio Gasparini, Giuliano Castagna and Hammal al-Balushi, PhD students from Leeds, Turin and Texas working on Omani Arabic dialects, Mehri, Bathari and Harsusi respectively will participate in, and assist in preparation of, the Leeds workshop. Roberta Morano will organise, and Fabio Gasparini and Giuliano Castagna participate in, the Hidden Voices of Arabia workshop in May 2019.

5 Impact and dissemination

The first conference in the Language and Nature in Southern and Eastern Arabia network was held in Doha at Qatar University between 18 and 20 February. PDFs of selected presentations and video presentations by Simon Popple and Tom Jackson can be viewed in the Publications and outputs section below. Janet Watson spent an additional five days at Qatar University in February 2018 to provide workshops in language documentation to staff and students at the University. She also conducted a five-day workshop on language documentation and the Mehri language for staff and students associated with Nizwa University, Oman in Salalah at Dar al-Kutub in August 2018, and a two-day workshop at Qatar University in September 2018 on documentation of language and ecosystems in Qatar.

The second conference in the Language and Nature in Southern and Eastern Arabia network was held at the University of Leeds between 24 and 26 April 2019. View the conference programme. PDFs of selected presentations and abstracts can be viewed in the Publications and outputs section below.

Further events include:

Publications and outputs

PDFs of presentations at Qatar Conference

Please see below for PDF versions of some of the presentations from 'The symbiotic relationship between language and nature in southern and eastern Arabia' conference in Qatar 18-20 February 2018:

Conference Programme

Sam Liebhaber

Ahmad al Mashikhi

Janet Watson and Abdullah al-Mahri

Photos and PDFs of presentations at Leeds Conference

Photos of participants and some presentations available here (Yahoo / Flickr login required).

Please see below for PDF versions of some of the presentations from 'The symbiotic relationship between language and nature in southern and eastern Arabia' conference in Leeds 24-26 April 2019:

Conference Programme

Janet Watson - introduction

Janet Watson and Kaltham al-Ghanim

Suad al-Manji and Janet Watson

Dawn Chatty

Adam Stone

Sam Liebhaber

Leonid Kogan

Fabio Gasparini and Said alMahri

Erik Anonby et al

Kumiko Murasugi


These videos were produced by Simon Popple and Tom Jackson and shown at the conference ‘The symbiotic relationship between language and nature in southern and eastern Arabia’ held at Qatar University, 18-20 February 2018.

Policy pieces written by Jon Lovett with relevance to ecological dynamics, storytelling, and institutional economics.

Climate and Society

Two cultures and tragedy of the commons

Recent publications by team members

Anonby, Erik, Kumiko Murasugi & Martín Domínguez. 2018. Mapping language and land with the Nunaliit Atlas Framework: Past, present and future. In S. Drude, N. Ostler & M. Moser (eds.), Endangered languages and the land: Mapping landscapes of multilingualism, Proceedings of FEL XXII/2018 (Reykjavík, Iceland), 56–63. London: FEL & EL Publishing. 
Morris, Miranda, Janet Watson with Domenyk Eades & community members. 2019. A Comparative Cultural Glossary of Modern South Arabian. Journal of Semitic Studies Supplement series 43: OUP: Oxford. 
Watson, Janet, Miranda Morris, Abdullah al-Mahri, Munira al-Azraqi, Saeed al-Mahri and Ali al-Mahri. 2019. Modern South Arabian: Conducting fieldwork in Dhofar, Mahrah and eastern Saudi Arabia. In W. Arnold & M. Klimiuk (eds), Arabic Dialectology: Methodology and Field Research. 83–99. Harrassowitz.  


Interesting links will be added here, so please do feel free to send links.

A Landscape Glossary: When we lose an evocative lexicon of the land, when we forget, we lose what Barry Lopez calls the “voice of memory over the land.” This is an attempt to keep that lexicon alive.

How @wikitonguesis saving languages from linguicide. The young company, powered by an ever-expanding volunteer base, seeks to provide safe refuge for all dialects - not just the endangered ones.

The digital project Sam has been working on for a number of years, When melodies gather: Oral art of the Mahra, has just been opened to the public.