I used to think that Arabic was the only language native to the Arabian Peninsula. As a student of Arabic, I learned how the ancient grammarians built the rules of standard Arabic from the speech of the desert Arabs. I thought the language of the Qur’an and of classical Arabic literature was an only child: I knew it had ancestors, but I didn’t know it had any living relatives.
I learned that the story was not that simple many years later in Oman, when I travelled from Muscat to the sultanate’s southern province of Dhofar, a region separated from the capital by 1,000 kilometers of mostly featureless flat land. There I met a young man who told me he spoke a local language that was not Arabic. When I asked to know more, he obligingly, and to my astonishment, spoke a sample of a language called Shahri, a linguistic rarity spoken by a few thousand people in this part of Arabia. It sounded nothing like Arabic. He seemed delighted by my surprise, and proud of his ability.
I thought of this when I read that Unesco had started a project called the International Year of Indigenous Languages, which aims to raise awareness of languages in danger of disappearing to protect them as cultural assets and to promote the study of them.
According to the Endangered Languages Project, established by a global consortium of linguists, there are approximately 7,000 languages in the world, and 40 percent of these languages are in varying degrees of danger of dying out. Unesco estimates that there are about 2,680 languages in danger of disappearing, leading to the loss of cultural equity in local knowledge and history.
We can easily name the main languages of the Middle East and North Africa. The names of the smaller languages are the finer threads in the region’s linguistic fabric: varieties of Amazigh (Berber) and Kurdish, Aramaic, Armenian, Circassian, Mandaic, to name just a few.
A small number of scholars around the world are keeping these languages from disappearing without at least having been recorded, documented and studied, either through traditional philology or modern linguistics.
Shahri, also known as Jibbali, is language that is spoken mainly in a remote mountainous region of Dhofar province. (The name Jibbali is derived from the Arabic word for mountain.) It is one of a handful of related languages spoken in the southern part of the Arabian Peninsula that are distinct from Arabic, and are mostly unintelligible to speakers of the majority language.
The Unesco Interactive Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger identifies Shahri as one of six languages in this group. The others are Bathari, Harsusi, Hobyot, Mehri and Socotri (spoken on the island of Socotra). It’s unclear how many people speak these languages, since Oman, like many countries in the region, has never conducted a census, but experts estimate the total numbers of speakers of these languages in the tens of thousands. One of these languages—Bathari—is believed to be spoken by only 11 people.
Collectively, these languages are called the Modern South Arabian languages. Aaron Rubin, a professor of linguistics at Penn State University in the United States and the author of a grammar of Shahri/Jibbali, explains that the Modern South Arabian languages are a branch of the Semitic languages group that includes Arabic and Hebrew.
“If you look at the Semitic languages as a family tree, you will see that the Modern South Arabian languages diverged from the rest of the Semitic languages a long time ago,” he said in an interview. “Structurally, Jibbali has straightforward similarities to other Semitic languages. But the vocabulary is very different.”
The vocabulary of Shahri represents the knowledge and experience of people who lived in a dry and rocky landscape and whose livelihood was based on the husbandry of cattle, goats and camels. In the attached recording, for example, a Shahri speaker is describing the traditional skills of recognizing the tracks of the footprints of animals.
The development of Shahri as a separate language can be seen as a result of the relative isolation of the geographical area in which it is spoken: a sparsely populated, roadless region in the mountains, far from the maritime coast where most Omanis live. In the early 1970s, as Sultan Qaboos bin Said, the ruler of Oman, was consolidating the modern Omani state, the Shahri speakers of the Dhofar region at first fought to preserve their independence.
“Indigenous languages,” writes Janet Watson, Chair of Language and co-director of the Centre for Endangered Languages, Cultures and Ecosystems at the University of Leeds in the United Kingdom, “reflect the close relationship between people and their natural environment.”
Starting in 2013, Watson led a research team to document and archive the Modern South Arabian languages.
In the case of Shahri, the isolation of its speakers is reflected in the language, in words and expressions that denote things and experiences that are specific to their landscape. There are Shahri words for the plants and animals found in the region, for example. The language is the record of a unique human ecology. As an ecosystem declines, so does the language spoken in it.
“There are sounds in Shahri that we think existed in an ancestor language called proto-Semitic, but which have been lost in Arabic, Hebrew and Amharic (a language of Ethiopia),” says Aaron Rubin, of Penn state.
Shahri was an unwritten language until scholars began to document it, starting in the late nineteenth century. There is oral story-telling, but no written or printed literature. It has never been taught in schools, and economic necessity has compelled Shahri speakers to leave the highlands of Dhofar for opportunities in the coastal area. Parents are less inclined to teach the language to their children than they once were, and older speakers—more proficient in the language than younger people—are dying off.
“The situation of Jibbali is a paradox,” says Khalsa al-Aghbari, a professor of linguistics at Sultan Qaboos University in Oman whose doctoral dissertation was on the formation of plurals in the language. “The young people who speak Jibbali are proud of knowing the language, and proud of their heritage,” she said in an interview. “Yet older speakers complain that the young people don’t speak the language as fluently as their parents.”
The academic study of Shahri and its related languages proceeds at a small scale, in Oman and in Europe and the United States. Useful work remains to be done on the subject, says Rubin. “The language is evolving,” he says, and many words and expressions remain to be collected.
“You never finish studying a language: My grammar can be added to, and there is a need for further understanding of how verbs work, and of phonetics,” he adds.
As ancient cousins of Arabic and Hebrew, the Modern South Arabian languages can help scholars in deepening their understanding of the Qur’an and the Bible, Rubin says. “There’s more to learn.”
Listen to video and audio examples:
Here are two examples of Shahri being spoken. They are from the collection of recordings made by Janet Watson at the University of Leeds and are used with permission. In the first example, below, a man describes the different plants that camels eat.
In the second example, a Shahri speaker describes how people in the mountainous region of Dhofar in Oman knew how to interpret the footprint tracks of animals, and notes that this knowledge is disappearing.
“Yes, now I will tell you about people in the past. People in the past would track livestock, they would track livestock, that is to say they would look for their camels or their livestock. People would say camels have run away, they would look for them from valley to valley, they would track their tracks. That is to say the track of livestock. Some people in the past, now I don’t know how to track, but people in the past knew. They would recognise tracks, tracks of livestock, and tracks of people. They would say, ‘So-and-so can track tracks, or in order to look for something they would track and if they found the tracks of livestock, their track, for example, a camel, they would say, ‘I’ve found her track here and he would know that she had come up from that valley or gone down the valley or rested or had gone upstream, and some people would know the tracks of people too. From their knowledge. They would say that track is the track of someone who is not from here, for example, or they would say that is the track of so-and-so, when they tracked, they would say that is the track of so-and-so or the track of someone who was known. Some people would know, but not many. They would know the tracks of their livestock mainly, livestock they had and the like, they would know their livestock, and so-and-so’s camel, their track: that is the track, for example, of so-and-so’s camel, so-and-so’s male camel. Do you understand? They would also know the tracks of other animals such as such-and-such, such as leopards or wolves or hyenas. People would say that is the track of a leopard, that is the track of a wolf, that is the track of a hyena, and that is the track of, I don’t know what, a dog. People in the past knew tracks, they had lots of knowledge. Now, we of this generation, we don’t know tracks very much. We don’t know tracks and we can’t track like the people of the past. People in the past could track better. That is about tracks.”