Documentation of Modern South Arabian Languages - Professor Janet Watson inaugural lecture

Janet Watson delivered her inaugural lecture on 04/06/2014 in the Centenary Gallery, Parkinson Building, at the University of Leeds on Language and Culture: The documentation of Modern South Arabian.


In her inaugural lecture, Professor Watson examined 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 between 100,000–180,000 speakers, although the actual number is difficult to estimate since the language is spoken across three state borders and many ethnic 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 20,000–30,000 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; and Bathari, spoken in eastern Dhofar, has fewer than 15 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; 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 traditional cultural practices. Professor Watson stresses the significance of the languages within the larger Semitic language family, and the importance of documenting the languages and culture of the MSAL language communities at a time of intense sociological and environmental change. The lecture was illustrated with audio and audio-visual material.