Language and Nature in Southern and Eastern Arabia

A couple on a mountain.

Description

This interdisciplinary project, Language & Nature, 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.


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 (http://www.pnas.org/content/109/21/8032.long)

We select Southern and Eastern Arabia (henceforth SE 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 SE Arabia.

The local languages of SE Arabia are the Modern South Arabian languages (Mehri, Śḥerɛ̄t, Soqotri, Harsusi, Hobyot, Bathari), Kumzari, Shihhi and Arabic dialects. Dhofar & Mahra are unique within the Arabian Peninsula in receiving the monsoon rains; Dhofar, Mahra, Jiddat al-Harasis, Soqotra & Musandam are renowned for their ecological & linguistic variety; and parts of Saudi Arabia & 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 SE 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 SE 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: http://elar.soas.ac.uk/ 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 SE 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 SE 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 SE 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 SE 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.

Timetable of activities

July 2017: 1-day video conference involving all academic participants to establish research parameters and interdisciplinary research teams, discuss establishment of interdisciplinary methodology, website.

Nov 2017: Erik Anonby visit to Leeds to discuss digital mapping.

Feb 2018: JW & J. Lovett (Leeds) conduct 5-day academic visit to Qatar to provide training in ecosystem (JL) & language documentation (JW), network & discuss creation of interdisciplinary methodology.

3-day workshop at Qatar University. Setting out the problem. Day 1: Session 1: Language in SE Arabia: the Modern South Arabian languages; Kumzari; Arabic dialects. Session 2: The environment in SE Arabia: fauna, flora, topography, natural resource management; mobile peoples and conservation. Day 2: Session 1: community archiving, S. Popple. Session 2: digital mapping, E. Anonby. Day 3: Capacity building in sustainable conservation for academic and community participants, D. Chatty.

June 2018: 1-day video conference. Preparation for Leeds workshop, initial selection of texts for e-book of audio/audio-visual nature texts in the local languages, discussion of future large-scale research programme.

July 2018 – March 2019: 2–3 joint/team conference presentations at conferences dealing with biocultural diversity, SE Arabia, and endangered languages.

Aug 2018 – Dec 2019: preparation of co-authored digital and paper outputs.

Jan 2019: 1-day video conference. Preliminary evaluation of network programme; appraisal of outputs, appraisal of local community capacity building; discussion of large-scale research application.

April 2019: 3-day workshop for project participants at Leeds. Day 1: Interdisciplinary co-presentations on the language–nature relationship: Language & fauna; Language & flora; Language & topography; Figurative language & nature; Language & conservation; Language & seasons; Nature in folk literature. Day 2: Session 1: Community archiving, SP. Session 2: Digital mapping, EA. Day 3: Session 1: Capacity building in sustainable conservation, DC. Session 2: Round table.

K. al-Ghanim and D. Varisco conduct 10-day visit to Leeds to provide training in anthropological (DV) & sociological (KG) methods, network & participate in Leeds annual Endangered Languages workshop.

June 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.

Each workshop will be attended by c. 12 academic participants and c. 3 local community members in person. Additional participants will participate in the workshops by video link/Skype.

Key speakers or 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, 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, A. al-Mahri), Documentation of Modern South Arabian (JW, A. Moore, AA, Ali al-Mahri, L. Kogan, S. Liebhaber), Saudi Arabic dialects & Mehri (M. al-Azraqi, JW), Oman Mountain Atlas (DC, JW, CA, EA), endangered languages workshops, Salford, SOAS & Leeds (JW, SL, M. Seyfeddinipur), interdisciplinary workshops at QU (KA, DV, JW, AA).

J. 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 SE Arabia. She will co-present and co-author papers on Language & Nature.

K. 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.

D. Varisco brings expertise on cultural and agricultural anthropology and Arabic dialects, and will co-organise with KA the Qatar workshop. He will co-author papers on Language & Nature.

J. 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.

D. Chatty brings expertise on stewardship of the environment and set up the steering committee that launched the Dana Declaration on mobile peoples and conservation: www.danadeclaration.org. 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 & Nature.

S. Ghazanfar works at Kew Gardens and brings expertise on flora in Oman and Saudi Arabia. She will co-present and co-author papers on Language & Flora.

L. Kogan brings expertise on Soqotri language and oral literature. He will contribute to a presentation on Nature in Folk Literature. S. Liebhaber specialises in Mehri poetry and provides insight into nature-related figurative language in poetry. He will co-present on Figurative language & Nature.

C. & E. Anonby provide the language–nature perspective from Kumzari and the Musandam Peninsula at the workshops, and will co-author the e-book of nature texts in the local languages of SE Arabia. Digital training will be led by S. Popple in community archiving and E. Anonby in digital mapping.

A. Moore is a marine fauna researcher with academic knowledge of terrestrial fauna of the region. He has worked in Dhofar with JW on fish and shark terminology. He will co-present on fauna and language at one of the workshops, and co-author a paper on Language & Fauna.

M. al-Azraqi has been working on Saudi Arabic dialects since 1994, and now works on the Mehri spoken in eastern Saudi Arabia. She will contribute insights into the language–nature perspective from a Mehri-speaking community that has relatively recently settled in a Saudi city.

M. Seyfeddinipur is director of the ELDP at SOAS, London. She works on gesture and will collaborate with JW on examining the gestural encoding in MSAL and Arabic of the human–nature relationship. She will co-conduct with DC the capacity building workshop in Leeds.

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.

Management and co-ordination

The PI will run the programme, coordinate with academic & non-academic participants, co-organise the Leeds workshop in 2018, conduct a 10-day academic visit to Qatar to provide training in language documentation, and host a 10-day academic visit to Leeds by Qatar participants. The CI and named contact for the Project Partner will organise the Qatar workshop in 2017, host a 10-day academic visit by PI and JL, and conduct a 10-day academic visit to Leeds with D. Varisco to network & provide research training on sociology & intangible culture of SE Arabia.

The initial video conference to be held in July 2017 will establish research parameters and interdisciplinary research teams. Interdisciplinary research teams will be formed from humanities, social science and ecosystem scholars and will coordinate activities through email, phone and Skype, and face-to-face meetings where possible, reporting to the PI at agreed review points throughout the project.

Dissemination

We will disseminate through workshop papers, conference papers, academic articles, an e-book of audio and audio-visual texts on nature in the languages of SE Arabia, sample interactive e-books on aspects of nature for children in the local languages, and preparation for a MOOC on Language & Nature. Workshop papers, workshop training and some conference presentations will be captured by video and uploaded onto the project website to increase visibility. Other conference presentations will be uploaded as podcasts. Pre-publication versions of academic articles will be posted on the website. In order to reach the broadest academic audiences, articles will be submitted to journals dealing with the region and different areas of biocultural diversity: Langscape Magazine, Biodiversity & Conservation, Mountain Research & Development, Journal of Semitic Languages. Abstracts will be submitted to conferences dealing with Arabia, endangered languages, biodiversity, and geography: Royal Geographical Society Annual Conference, Seminar for Arabian Studies, International Conference on Biodiversity, and Cambridge Conference on Language Endangerment.

The interdisciplinary methodology developed by the team will benefit others working within biocultural diversity across disciplines. The e-book of transcribed, translated and annotated texts on nature in the local languages will enable comparison with earlier texts from SE Arabia to shed light on the changing relationship between people & the natural environment, and provide ethnographic insights into the reduction of biodiversity. Co-presentations and co-production of digital and paper outputs with local community members will valorise local knowledge and enhance the status of community members within and beyond their communities.

Consent to Joint Processing

Consent is given for the joint processing of the application by AHRC and FAPESP.

1.1.3 The effect of socio-economic change on language and the environment


People



Janet C.E. Watson FBA is PI on the project. Janet 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 an e-book of nature texts in the local languages of Southern and Eastern Arabia. She will co-present and co-author papers on Language and Nature.

Kaltham al-Ghanim is Co-I on the project. She works at the University of Qatar and heads the Centre for Humanities and Social Sciences. Kaltham 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 and Nature, and collaborate in production of e-books for children.

Jon Lovett is Chair of Global Challenges at the University of Leeds. He 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 and Nature.

Dawn Chatty FBA is Emerita Professor of Anthropology and Forced Migration at the University of Oxford and former Director of the Refugee Studies Centre, 2011-2014. She brings expertise on stewardship of the environment and set up the steering committee that launched the Dana Declaration on mobile peoples and conservation: www.danadeclaration.org. 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 Kew Gardens and brings expertise on flora in Oman and Saudi Arabia. She will co-present and co-author papers on Language and Flora.

Leonid Kogan is Professor of Semitic languages at Moscow's Institute for Oriental and Classical Studies. He brings expertise on Soqotri language and oral literature. He will contribute to a presentation on Nature in Folk Literature.

Sam Liebhaber is Associate Professor of Arabic at Middlebury College. He specialises in Mehri poetry and provides insight into nature-related figurative language in poetry.

Christina Anonby is guest researcher at the University of Leiden. Erik Anonby is Associate Professor of French at the University of Carleton, Canada. They provide the language–nature perspective from Kumzari and the Musandam Peninsula at the workshops, and will co-author the e-book of nature texts in the local languages of Southern and Eastern Arabia. Digital training will be led by Simon Popple in community archiving and Erik Anonby in digital mapping.

Simon Popple is Senior Lecturer in Photography and Digital Culture. He will lead on community archiving.

Alec Moore is an Honorary Research Fellow at Bangor University. Alec is a marine fauna researcher with academic knowledge of terrestrial fauna of the region. He has worked in Dhofar with Janet Watson on fish and shark terminology. He will co-present on fauna and language at one of the workshops, and co-author a paper on Language and Fauna.

Mandana Seyfeddinipur is director of the ELDP at SOAS, London. She works on gesture and will collaborate with Janet Watson on examining the gestural encoding in MSAL and Arabic of the human–nature relationship. She will co-conduct with Dawn Chatty and Stephanie Petit the capacity building workshop in Leeds.

Ali al-Mahri is a native speaker of two Modern South Arabian languages. He is based in Salalah and has been working on the documentation of Mehri and Śḥerεt since 2010. He is currently working on running courses on Cultural Tourism relating to Dhofar. These courses include introductions to Mehri, the most widespread Modern South Arabian language in Southern Arabia.

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 is a native speaker of Śḥerεt and Arabic. He is also a fluent speaker of Russian and English. His academic interests include media policies, mass media and society, and new media.

AbdulQader AlKumzari currently lives in Khasab and originally comes from 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 works for the Ministry of Education as a regional educational supervisor of English Language.

Roberta Morano and Giuliano Castagna are PhD students studying northern Omani dialects and Modern South Arabian respectively at the University of Leeds. Fabio Gasparini has just completed his PhD from the University of Turin on Bathari. Hammal al-Balushi is working on his PhD at the University of Texas, looking at Harsusi. The PhD students will participate in, and assist in preparation of, the Leeds workshop.

Impact

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. Janet Watson is spending an additional five days at Qatar University to provide workshops in language documentation to staff and students at the University.

Language and Nature in Southern and Eastern Arabia Symposium Agenda

 

Further events include: 

ورشة عمل في تدوين اللغة والثقافة في جامعة قطر من 18 إلى 19 سبتمبر 2018 

 

  • ورشة عمل في اللغات العربية الجنوبية بصلالة تحت إشراف جامعة نزوى وجامعة ليدز من 26 أغوستوس إلى 1 سبتمبر 2018
  • Language and Nature: Fourth workshop on Endangered Languages, University of Leeds, 02 July 2018: Organised by Diane Nelson, Jon Lovett, Janet Watson, Thea Pitman 

Publications and outputs

Pdfs of presentations at Qatar Conference

Pdfs of some of the presentations presented at The symbiotic relationship between language and nature in southern and eastern Arabia conference in Qatar 18-20 February 2018 are available here.

Sam Liebhaber

Ahmad alMashikhi

Janet Watson & Abdullah al-Mahri

Videos

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.

Links

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.