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South Arabian languages face threat

British linguist Bruce Ingham presents his paper, left, and KAU President Osama Tayyeb opening the conference.

By Ibrahim Nafee / Arab news / 6 Dec 2013

It would be difficult to save several endangered south Arabian languages, including one spoken only by a small community in the far southeast of Saudi Arabia, a renowned linguist said Wednesday.

Janet Watson from the University of Leeds made this observation at the first Linguistics in Arabia Conference held at King Abdulaziz University (KAU) in Jeddah. She said a major problem was that these languages have no literature and would therefore not survive for another 50 years.

The two-day conference, which marked the beginning of a new research enterprise in the field in Saudi Arabia, was inaugurated by KAU President Osama Tayyeb.

The most widely spoken of these endangered languages is Mehri with about 150,000 speakers, said Watson during her presentation. The city of Sharourah and the border area of the Empty Quarter are considered the home of this language in Saudi Arabia. There are also speakers in Yemen and Oman, she said.

However, Watson said she was optimistic that the language would last a little longer because several speakers now feel more comfortable learning and speaking it. This language only has oral traditions and no literature, she said.

The people of this community trace their lineage through their fathers. She said the Mehra people can recall 20 generations.

During her presentation, Watson made a phone call to a native speaker of Mehri, Ali Al-Mahri, who urged her to study and help revive the language.

Watson told Arab News that researchers have been trying to find ways to prevent this endangered language from becoming extinct, but it would be a challenge to deal with a language without a writing system.

Veteran British linguist from the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London, Bruce Ingham, said that there was a danger these languages would disappear because they do not have a written form.

“We are working to revive these languages but it is an uphill task because the youth don’t want to learn these languages as part of their modern literature,” he said.

The conference saw participants discuss various language issues in the Arabian Peninsula including Najdi Arabic, tent terminology, the dialect of Sakaka city, the Mehri language, and ways to apologize in Hijazi Arabic.

The conference aims to provide a platform for linguists to provide research-based insights into the linguistic setting of the Arabian Peninsula.


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