‘Write it or lose it: an alphabet for the pre-literate languages of Southern Arabia’

Miranda Morris presented a lecture in January at the University of St. Andrews, Agnes Savill Club, Parliament Hall on the development of an orthography for Modern South Arabian

Write it or lose it: an alphabet for the pre-literate languages of southern Arabia?

There are some 7,800 mutually unintelligible languages spoken in the world today. It is estimated that half of these will disappear by the end of this century. However, the reality is that language is principally a tool, and people will, of course, make use of whichever tool they find the most effective.

The six Modern South Arabian languages (MSAL) have no written form. In the countries where they are still spoken, they are in competition with the highest prestige language of all, Arabic, the language of the Holy Qur’an, revered by all Muslims - nearly a quarter of the world population. 

The main aims of the Leverhulme project: “Documentation and ethno-linguistic analysis of the Modern South Arabian languages” are firstly, to try and document as much as possible of these languages before they, and the cultures in which they are embedded, disappear; and secondly, to revitalise speakers’ interest in their languages, to raise the profile and status of the languages and encourage an appreciation of their value and uniqueness in the wider Arab community.

These languages can only survive in the long term if they develop a written form: a purely oral language, once lost, can never be replaced. There are precedents for successfully invented scripts.  We made an initial decision that our script had to be easy to read and quick to learn. With this in mind, we have devised, with colleagues from the language-speaking communities, a script which is a modified form of the Arabic alphabet. We have added only five new symbols for the majority of the languages, and eight additional symbols for one of them.

At the end of the first year of the project, this new script has been tested on a variety of speakers and has already been used to transcribe some of the spoken texts we have so far recorded.  A rolling sample of these will be displayed on our website, as well as on language-community websites. The one sample already uploaded aroused considerable interest. It is this script that will be used in all publications resulting from the project.  

At the end of this three and a half year project we hope that a hard core of users accustomed to, and fluent in, this system of writing, will continue the work of the project.