Sabrina Bendjaballah UMR 6310 CNRS Université de Nantes

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Philippe Ségéral UMR 7110 CNRS Université Paris 7

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The 12 contributions to this special issue of BAALL examine different aspects of the Modern South Arabian Languages (MSAL) from various perspectives: analysis of individual MSAL, comparative analysis of various MSAL, and formal grammar.

MSAL comprise an independent branch of the Semitic family. They are spoken in Yemen, and in the Dhofar Governorate of Oman: Mehri and Hobyot are both spoken in both countries, Ḥarsusi, Jibbali, Baṭḥari are spoken in Oman, Soqoṭri is spoken on the island of Soqotra (Yemen).

The existence of MSAL has been detected only recently: Soqoṭri, Jibbali and Mehri were discovered during the first half of the 19th century (1834, 1836 and 1840 respectively), while Ḥarsusi, Baṭḥari and Hobyot were discovered during the 20th century (1937 for the first two, and 1981 for the last one).

The Austrian Südarabische Expedition at the very end of the 19th century constitutes a first, fundamental step towards the analysis and knowledge of MSAL (see the publications by Maximilian Bittner, Alfred Jahn, David Heinrich Müller etc. in the frame of the Viennese Kaiserliche Akademie der Wissenschaften).

After this step, important results have been achieved, e.g. by Wolf Leslau (Lexique Socotri, 1938) and Ewald Wagner (Syntax der Mehri-Sprache, 1953). The major breakthrough in the study of MSAL is due to Thomas Muir Johnstone (1924–1983) in the 1960s–1980s: T.M. Johnstone gathered numerous recordings, wrote about 15 major articles, and published 3 dictionaries (the Harsusi Lexicon in 1977, the Jibbali Lexicon in 1981 and the Mehri Lexicon posthumously in 1987).

Johnstone’s crucial work was followed by important contributions due in particular to the following scholars: Miranda Morris, Antoine Lonnet, Marie-Claude Simeone-Senelle, Walter von Müller, Harry Stroomer and Alexander Sima. More recently, different groups of scholars made it possible to achieve new results in the field: see the work of Sam Liebhaber on Mehri poetry, the work of Janet Watson on Mehri (The Structure of Mehri, 2012), the two reference grammars by Aaron Rubin on Mehri and Jibbali (The Mehri Language of Oman, 2010 and The Jibbali (Shaḥri) Language of Oman, 2014), the posthumous publication of the Hōbyot Vocabulary by Ak’io Nakano in 2013 and finally the work by Vitaly Naumkin, Leonid Kogan, Maria Bulakh & al. on Soqoṭri (Corpus of Soqotri Oral Literature, vol. 1, 2015).

It is in this context that the OmanSaM project was designed and initiated. This project was accepted by the French Agence Nationale de la Recherche in 2013 (ANR-13-BSH2-0001, and Between October 2013 and September 2017, this project gathered a group of linguists working on MSAL from various perspectives and coming from diverse epistemological traditions: philologists as well as formal and descriptive linguists (phonetics, phonology, morphology, syntax). The idea underlying the project was to make these different perspectives converge in a fruitful synergy to create a network of colleagues working on MSAL and make progress in the description and analysis of MSAL.

The OmanSaM project allowed for the collection of data via fieldwork in Oman and in France with invited native speakers. These data include grammatical paradigms (both nominal and verbal) as well as spontaneous speech, in three MSAL: Mehri, Jibbali and Hobyot. The corpora were constructed so as to elucidate various issues in phonetics, phonology, morphology and syntax. A dedicated database is under construction (in collaboration with Clément Plancq, Lattice, CNRS and Sylvain Pierré) and will hopefully be made available in the near future via the Huma-Num infrastructure ( To date, the project has led to more than 60 communications and publications, and to the creation of a series of annual workshops held in the autumn in France: Paris (2013, 2014), Strasbourg (2015), and Nantes (2016). The project contributed in a significant way, we believe, to the field and to the development of MSAL studies in the last few years.

On the occasion of these workshops, we had the pleasure to welcome highly respected experts in the field: Aaron Rubin in 2013, 2014 and 2015, Janet Watson and Miranda J. Morris in 2014, Leonid Kogan and Lutz Edzard in 2015, and Samuel Liebhaber in 2016. All of them readily accepted our invitation to contribute to this special issue of BAALL. The first half of the volume presents the articles offered by our guests at the OmanSaM workshops, the second half contains contributions by the OmanSaM members.

It starts and ends with the contributions of two historic figures in the field of MSAL, Miranda Morris and Antoine Lonnet.

Miranda Morris has conducted fieldwork on MSAL since the 1970’s. Her intimate knowledge of these languages and of the people who speak them is probably unique among today’s scholars. (Miranda’s contribution to the field also extends to the environment where MSAL are spoken, see e.g. her work on the botany of Soqotra and Dhofar). In her article, entitled “Some thoughts on studying the endangered Modern South Arabian Languages”, she considers the fact that today MSAL are all endangered. She focuses on the case of Baṭḥari, “the most critically endangered language of the group”, and a language for which nearly all data available are those that she has collected herself. She insists on the fact that it is necessary to study MSAL on the basis of continuous speech rather than elicited data. She describes lexical impoverishment in Baṭḥari, Hobyot and Soqoṭri, in particular regarding the “living quarters”. She then takes stock of the situation of mono- and plurilingualism and their consequences. Finally, she underlines the complexity of specialized lexicons concentrating on the activities of the people, and concludes with an examination of judgments produced by the native speakers.

Antoine Lonnet’s work includes a number of reference publications and linguistic surveys of MSAL, which have considerably improved our knowledge of these languages. His work is based on a large set of fieldwork data he elicited in Yemen (Mahra and Soqotra) between 1983 and 1995. His article, entitled “Modern South Arabian ikōtəb is not necessarily iparras or yənaggər”, considers the longstanding issue of the analysis of the MSA basic stem imperfect form (e.g. Mehri 3ms ikōtəb “he writes”). His aim is to show that this form is not necessarily to be viewed as sharing the same proto-pattern as the Akkadian basic stem imperfect (3ms iparras “he decides”) or the Ethiopic basic stem imperfect (Gəˁəz 3ms yənaggər “he speaks”). He concludes that the MSA imperfect patterns with other Semitic languages like Arabic or Hebrew in having an underlying -C1C2vC3-stem. The surface form with a vowel between the first two root consonants results from a phonetic evolution.

In a direct continuation of his PhD Bedouin Without Arabic: Language, Poetry and the Mahra of Southeast Yemen (2007), Sam Liebhaber has published various books and articles on Mehri oral poetry, and created the Mahri Poetry Archive (, an extensive online resource dedicated to the poetic traditions of the Mahra. His contribution, “Acoustic Spectrum Analysis of Mahri Poetry: An Empirical Approach to Bedouin Vernacular Prosody”, provides some preliminary results based on spectrograms, comparing the same lines of Mehri poetry performed in two different modes: chanting and recitation. The author observes that the two modes differ, and concludes that the organizational rhythm of this poetry is contingent on performance and is not intrinsic to the poetic text itself.

Aaron Rubin is the author of many articles on MSAL as well as of two reference grammars on Mehri and Jibbali (see the references above; a new, largely revised version of his Mehri grammar is expected to appear very shortly). A new, meticulous listening of Johnstone’s recordings, as well as a thorough examination of Johnstone’s transcription play a fundamental role in his work. His article, “The Reliability of Published Mehri Texts”, corrects various errors that were left in Johnstone’s transcriptions, on the basis of a careful examination of the corresponding audio recordings. The author shows that in many places where there was an apparent exception to a rule, this is in fact due to a mistake in the published texts. He provides some examples of such errors, and illustrates how a re-examination of Johnstone’s Mehri texts significantly affects our understanding of the grammar. The corrections highlighted by the author concern both the lexical and the grammatical domain, e.g. the morphological form of the definite article, verbal morphology, and the use of prepositions and other particles.

Janet Watson, next to her expertise in the Arabic dialects of the Arabian Peninsula, dedicates herself to studying MSAL. She contributed to the posthumous publication of Alexander Sima’s work, and is the author of several articles on the phonetics and syntax of MSAL, and of a reference grammatical study of Mehri (see the reference mentioned above). Her work, based on continuous fieldwork experience, significantly added to the data available on the Mehri language. In their contribution, “Gesture in Modern South Arabian Languages: variation in multimodal constructions during task-based interaction”, Janet Watson and Jack Wilson, a specialist in co-speech gestures (i.e. of meaning gestures that accompany language use), explore, for the first time ever, the role of gesture in communication in two MSAL, Mehri and Jibbali. They first underline the importance of the digital revolution for linguistic documentation and stress the fact that many orally delivered texts can only be fully understood with an acknowledgement of the gesture component. Then, they present the two series of tasks (map tasks and shape tasks) that they applied in order to characterize gestural semantics in the domain of orientation and direction. They argue that these two domains are dissociated in speech, as well as in gesture.

Leonid Kogan and Maria Bulakh are a driving force of the Russian team that is contributing, in the footsteps of Vitaly Naumkin, so much to the description and analysis of Soqotri. Their article concerns two specific Soqotri verb forms: the imperative and the n-conditional. These forms are attested in other MSAL, however their presence in Soqotri has been hitherto denied. The authors show that these forms do exist in the language. Their argument is based on an exhaustive examination of the data available in the literature: the ones stemming from the Südarabische Expedition and the ones collected by the Russian team. (Part of these data was published in the first volume of the Corpus of Soqotri Oral Literature in 2015). The authors provide a detailed morphological and functional analysis of the imperative and the n-conditional as well as an appendix on unreal conditional sentences in Soqotri.

Lutz Edzard is a specialist of comparative Semitic and Afroasiatic linguistics, in particular Hebrew and Arabic. Unlike many other colleagues in this field, he carefully examines the evidence coming from MSAL for the internal classification of the Semitic languages. In his article, “On the role of Modern South Arabian within a comparative Semitic lexicographical project”, he aims at detecting specific lexical peculiarities and semantic shades in the South Semitic lexicon. His ultimate goal is to determine the value of this branch for the genetic classification within Semitic. The data are taken on the one hand from the material collected in the course of a large comparative Semitic lexicographic project, and on the other hand from reference work in MSAL studies (mainly the dictionaries by T.M. Johnstone and Wolf Leslau).

Rachid Ridouane specialises in experimental phonetics and laboratory phonology, with particular expertise in the study of laryngeal activity. For this reason, he joined the OmanSaM team to investigate MSAL next to his specialization in Berber. MSAL are indeed well known for using ejective frivatives, some of which are particularly rare crosslinguistically (the lateral ejective fricative ɬ’ and the post-alveolar š’). His article, co-authored by Cédric Gendrot, who shares the same interests, provides an acoustic analysis of Mehri ejective fricatives. The fact that these segments are rare cross-linguistically is generally ascribed to the fact that they involve two aerodynamic requirements that are incompatible: an airflow to create noise frication, and a high intraoral air pressure to implement ejectivity. Based on data from 5 Mehri speakers, the authors show that ejective fricatives in Mehri display a high degree of variability in the way ejectivity is implemented. They furthermore show that this variability is to a large extent shaped by the position of the segment in the word.

Sabrina Bendjaballah and Philippe Ségéral initiated the OmanSaM project in 2013. They specialise in formal phonology and morpho-phonology, in particular in various branches of the Afroasiatic family (Semitic, Berber, Cushitic). They are the authors of several articles on the phonology of Omani Mehri. In their contribution, “The vocalic system of the Mehri of Oman: stress, vocalic length and syllabic structure”, they start from the observation that existing grammars and descriptions of the Mehri of Oman usually deal with a presentation of the surface vocalic system only, and aim at clarifying the phonological structure of this system. They examine the nature of stress and its interaction with vocalic length and syllabic structure, and conclude that the vocalic system of the Mehri of Oman does not include any opposition of quantity at the phonological level. All superficially long vowels are the product of one of two processes: lengthening of open syllables under stress, and compensatory lengthening after the deletion of consonants in the coda.

Julien Dufour conducted fieldwork in Soqotra between 2008–2010, but interrupted it because of the degradation of the political situation in Yemen. He turned to Jibbali, Mehri and Hobyot within the OmanSaM project. His work led to the elicitation and analysis of important fieldwork data, in particular in Jibbali. The results are developed in his Habilitation Recherches sur le verbe sudarabique moderne (2016), whose publication is expected in the near future. In his article entitled “Nouns and adjectives of the shape C1V́C2(ə)C3(-) in Jibbali (Śḥri) and Mehri”, he examines the class of Jibbali and Mehri nouns and adjectives that are characterized by the fact that (i) the stressed vowel is located between the first two root consonants and (ii) ə or Ø appears between the second and the third root consonants. The aim of the article is to define the phonological status of this second vowel, and, on the basis of that, the templates underlying the corresponding forms. The analysis is based on a careful synchronic examination of the data and includes a comparative perspective. It contributes to the clarification of various phonological issues involving nasals, labials, sonorants, and glides in both languages.

After having completed her PhD Vowel length in Egyptian Arabic: a different view (2013), Radwa Fathi joined the OmanSaM project to examine some understudied aspects of the Mehri language of Oman, in particular, the rich array of nominal and adjectival templates, which are not sufficiently known as of today. In her article, “To probe or not to probe in Omani Mehri; the difference between a noun and an adjective”, she aims at identifying the morphosyntactic structure of a class of plural nouns and a class of plural adjectives. Both are characterized by the fact that they display a glide that is absent in the root and the corresponding singulars. She argues that both classes share the same morphosyntactic architecture, and that the differences derive from the application or non-application of a probing mechanism.

Ur Shlonsky is a specialist of syntactic theory and comparative syntax. Based on his expertise in the syntax of Semitic languages, he contributed to the OmanSaM project in the domain of formal syntax. In his article entitled “A note on phrasal movement in Modern South Arabian and its consequences”, he establishes a relationship between two apparently unrelated properties of Mehri and Jibbali: a) the post-VP, frequently clause-final position of clausal negation and b) the ban on pronominal object suffixation on perfective verb stems with a subject agreement suffix. He argues that these two properties follow from a more abstract characteristic of MSA, namely: a verbal projection rather than a verbal head, is probed by T(ense) or by a higher functional head. As a consequence, this verbal projection moves to a position above T.

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