Language and culture: the documentation of the Modern South Arabian languages

Janet Watson with Ali al-Mahri will discuss initial findings of the MSAL project at the workshop: Arabic and Semitic Linguistics Contextualized, at the University of Erlangen, Germany, on 11th April.

Language and culture: the documentation of the Modern South Arabian languages

EALL workshop, 11th April 2014, University of Erlangen, Germany  

Janet C.E. Watson, University of Leeds

Ali al-Mahri, Dhofar

In this paper, we examine links between language and culture within the context of a three-year community-based project which is currently documenting the Modern South Arabian languages (MSAL) spoken in Oman and mainland Yemen.

The six languages of the MSAL group are in varying stages of endangerment: Mehri, spoken in Oman, Yemen and southern Saudi Arabia, is said to have some 100,000 speakers, although the actual number is difficult to estimate since the language is spoken across three state boundaries and many Mehris no longer speak Mehri; Soqotri, spoken on the island of Soqotra (and by a few hundred who have emigrated to the Gulf), has some 50,000 speakers; Shahri, also known as Jibbali, spoken within the Dhofar region of Oman, has some 20-30,000 speakers; Harsusi, spoken in Jiddat al-Harasis of central Oman, and Hobyot, spoken in the far east of Yemen and the far west of Oman, each have under 1,000 speakers; Bathari, spoken in Dhofar, has fewer than 10 fluent speakers. Nowadays almost all speakers of MSAL also speak Arabic.

Language and culture are inextricably linked – language reflects and describes the culture of the community, cultural gestures rarely lack communicative function, and when a culture comes under threat, the linguistic elements associated with that culture begin to be lost. The traditional culture of MSAL communities is becoming increasingly fragile, a significant contributive factor to language endangerment: urbanisation, rapid commercialisation, compulsory education in Arabic and a rise in living standards has resulted in the collapse of many aspects of the culture which used to characterise the region. This rapid economic and socio-political change has also resulted in the MSAL languages increasingly falling into disuse. And where younger generation speakers may still understand the language, many can no longer practise or describe many cultural practices.

In this paper, we stress the significance of the languages within linguistic research on Semitic, and the importance of documenting the languages and culture of the MSAL language communities at a time of intense sociological and environmental change, illustrating the talk with audio and audio-visual material.