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The Mehri Language of Oman.

The Mehri Language of Oman. By AARON D. RUBIN. Studies in Semitic Languages and Linguistics, vol. 58. Leiden: BRILL, 2010. Pp. xix + 362. $153.

This book represents a meticulous grammatical analysis of the 106 Mehri texts collected by T.M. Johnstone in Mehri Lexicon and English--Mehri Word-List (1987, henceforth ML), and is a welcome addition to the small body of books published on the Modern South Arabian languages. The layout is very clear, making it straightforward to use. After an introduction to the Mehri language in general and the dialect spoken in Oman in particular, the book continues with thirteen chapters: "Phonology," "Pronouns," "Nouns," "Adjectives," "Verbs: Stems," "Verbs: Tenses and Forms," "Prepositions," "Numerals," "Adverbs," "Interrogatives," "Particles," and "Some Syntactic Features." The final chapter is a brief, three-page section entitled "On Arabic Forms." There then follows a twenty-page appendix of corrections to Harry Stroomer's edition of Johnstone's texts (1996), a bibliography, an index of passages, which lists the source of the textual examples given in the book, and a useful two-page index of select Mehri words, which cross-references grammatical particles that are treated in more than one section. Disentangling the inconsistencies of transcriptions in both the texts and the ML, noting and listing these in detail for Stroomer's edition of the texts, and managing to trace the original 1970s recordings for eighty-seven of the 106 texts is a mammoth task. It must have been disappointing that these turned out to be of limited value, consisting not of recorded natural speech as hoped, but of someone struggling awkwardly to read from a transcript. We must all be very grateful to Aaron Rubin for having undertaken it and for publishing the fruits of all his hard work in the form of this valuable and user-friendly book.

For the specialized reader, I follow with some general observations, minor quibbles, specific comments, and typographical errors.

General observations:

(1) In "A Note on Transcription" (p. xix) the lack of consistency in Johnstone's transcription, in both typewritten and handwritten material, is noted, as is the fact that this is also evident in the material published by Stroomer. There is no doubt that the inconsistencies catch the eye and niggle away at the mind as one reads through the book, but no preferable alternative comes to mind, short of a unilateral decision on Rubin's part to employ one system of transcription and to impose it on another's material. Looking through my own transcriptions of Modern South Arabian material throughout the years, it is clear that I have been equally culpable in this regard. Some of my inconsistencies can be explained as reflecting a particular individual's ideolect, or they represent changing views on how to most legitimately transcribe a particular sound or group of sounds, or they are a result of forgetting earlier decisions, or they are, of course, just sloppiness. But I well remember, when working on Johnstone's handwritten material for my Ph.D., asking him why the transcription was so variable, and being taken aback by his reply that he "had not yet finally decided." Now I understand only too well what he meant. 1 am quite sure that had Johnstone been given more time he would have reached those final decisions and would have developed a consistent method of transcription.

(2) In the first paragraph of his introduction (p. 1), Rubin follows Johnstone and others in stating that Mehri is spoken in the al-Mahra governorate of Yemen as well as "across the border in Oman, in the western part of the Governorate of Dhufar, in the high desert plateau (Nagd) north of the coastal mountains." I think this is misleading; even today Mehri continues to be spoken in the coastal settlements of Zufar (at Mirbat, Sidh and, especially, in Hasik); it is also spoken in the al-Wusta region, east of Zufar, in and around Shelim and Marmul, and even as far as Jiddat al-Harasis. Also, there have long been pockets of Mahra in the Zufar Qamr and Qara mountains, mainly transhumant goat-herders but also some who have settled there. Although many Mahra also speak Sher[epsilon]t, Hcbyct and Arabic, I am not sure it is accurate to say that "compared to Yemeni Mehri, Omani Mehri is spoken by a smaller population in a smaller geographical area" (p. 2). It is also curious to read, "It is unclear if there is any dialectal variation within Omani Mehri, but it seems that there is none of any significance." Given the geographical spread of Mehri-speakers in Oman, the diverse ways of life they led in earlier years--as fishermen, sailors, traders, and warriors as well as goat-, cattle-, and camel-herders--and the variety of environmental niches that they have occupied, I would say that this lack of dialectic variation remains to be proven. Rather it seems to me very likely that it did, and perhaps still does, exist; see Alexander Sima's Mehri-Texte aus der jemenitischen Sarqiyah (2009), where dialectal differences have been noted within an area as small as Hawf.

(3) I have slight reservations about the title of the book. Rubin specifies that his analysis of Mehri grammar is based on the published Johnstone texts (though he was able to supplement the published material by listening to the majority of the original recordings) and he clearly states his objective: "to deduce as much as possible directly from the texts, without the interference of previous descriptions of Mehri" (p. 10). However, the texts on which Rubin's analyis is based were almost entirely the work of a single informant, Ali Musallam of Bayt Thaw`dr. He left his Zufari home in Jibjat (or Gibgabet, as it is known locally) in his teens, and by the time Johnstone first met him he had been working as a policeman in Dubai for some time, and speaking Arabic. They worked together intensively when All was given leave to travel to London, and then again when Johnstone was on study leave and came to stay with us in Salalah to work with All, now back in Zufar. So I feel that perhaps a more specific or qualified title might have been chosen for this book. In making this point my intention is not in any way to minimize the value of the book as a grammatical study of Mehri as spoken by All Musallim, but only to suggest that there may well be other books on Mehri grammar to come that will analyse the Mehri of other speakers in Oman or compare different dialects of Mehri.

(4) It seems that more irregularities are observed when terms are taken from the ML rather than from the texts (for example, p. 80 n. 5). Might this represent one of the problems associated with elicited forms? An intelligent and enthusiastic teacher is often keen to help, and so perhaps has a tendency to produce theoretically possible forms, even to impose a regularity of pattern on his own language which would not survive informal, everyday discourse.

(5) I found "Some Syntactic Features" (chapter thirteen) especially useful and illuminating. The all too brief "On Arabic Forms" (chapter fourteen) goes into little detail, and I can only agree with Rubin when he says, "This is an area for fruitful research and it is hoped that someone else will make a study of the subject" (p. 307). However, I cannot agree with the second half of the sentence that concludes the book: "We can only hope that Mehri can stave off its total replacement by Arabic, as it is not only a captivating and rich language, but is also at present the most vibrant representative of an ancient branch of the Semitic family" (my italics). I am sure each researcher in this fascinating field has a favorite (or favorites), but I would certainly class Sher[epsilon]t and Soqotri as just as vibrant, and in the case of Soqotri, less in need of a chapter called "On Arabic Forms."

Minor quibbles: I am not sure why proper nouns are transliterated without diacriticals, e.g., p. 69, hom selot', 'heading for Selot' (rather than Selot); p. 125, kadet 1-ad yesancs, 'Kadet didn't yet dare'; or pp. 212, 297, Manasir (rather than Manasir). Initially I found the practice of capitalizing Mehri terms when they start a sentence a bit disconcerting, for example, "Bad is found also in the idiom ..." (p. 179 [section]8.3), "Kelayt is the feminine form of 'both' (p. 211 n. 2); or "Ham is the particle ..." (p. 279 [section]13.4.1). And it might have been useful to have cross-references to pp. 89 and 91 where "foll. Ga-/Gb-/H- stem verbs" (p. 23 [section]2.2.1, etc.) and "Q" (p. 96, standing for quadriliteral verbs), respectively, are explained, or to have included them in "Abbreviations and Symbols" on p. xv.

Some more specific comments or notes that I made as I went through the book are (1)

p. 1, the Kuria Muria islands are now officially called the al-ljallaniyyat islands.

p. 33, de-hc 'my', "This is an unusual phenomenon for a Semitic language": see also S. di-ho, 'my', di-het, 'your' (m.s.), etc.

p. 68 n. 15, with regard to the variant plural forms in the ML and in the texts: in my experience it is not unusual to find variability in plural forms, both elicited and those in recorded speech.

p. 75, kalew sxcf 'a bucket of milk': kalew is a milking bowl made from goatskin and the woven fiber of the desert palm, Nannorrhops ritchiana.

p. 79, nekay 'innocent': is this correct? See B neki, nekiyet 'pure, clean, cleansed': (S) nik 'pure; pleasant. truthful' (JL); H nekew, nekayyet 'pure' (HL) [M nekay]; H neki 'pure; likeable; truthful'.

p. 86 [section]5.5.3, "Before suffixes, the base kall- (kal- or kalle- before the heavy 2p and 3p suffixes) is used": it is not clear what "heavy" means in this context.

p. 118 n. 25, with regard to enhebub 'shriek (of camels)': "This verb appears in the ML under the root [check]nhbb/ (p. 291) but the form of the perfect suggests that it belongs to this class, perhaps from the root [check]hybb/." But see S nelthib 'frighten s.o. by making a sudden, loud noise' as well as intlebib 'moan, groan, as a camel mare or cow for her calf; to let out a sudden cry, to bellow': see also HL enhebuh under [check]hbb/ referred to [check]nhb/, and S enljyeb.

p. 126, the first example (and indeed some of the others) could also perhaps be interpreted as an example of the historical/dramatic/narrative present.

p. 126, in the third example, w[epsilon]l is an ibex, I believe, not an oryx.

p. 136, agennay hesrona arhebet 'the jinnee will destroy the country'; p. 175, yasuken b-arhebet 'he was living in a country', and h-arhebet [eth]e [eth]e-bis tet 'to the country in which the woman was'; p. 240, be-rhebet [eth]e-haybes 'in her father's country'; p. 301, t[epsilon] nuka b-arhebet [eth]-amher[epsilon] ...'then when he got to the country of the Mehri ...': here "town" instead of "country" might be expected (see ML, p. 320, rahbet 'town').

p. 153 [section]7.2.6, with regard to the verb gar 'fall' as an exception (see n. 27: "... this verb, which goes against the pattern of all other G-STem II- verbs. ..."), could this be because the root is [check]g'r, as in S, and not [check]g'r (which in S means 'be unwell, sicken')?

1. B for Bathari, H for Hobyot, S for Sher[epsilon]t (also called Jibbali), (JL) for Johnstone's Jibbali Lexicon, M for Mehri, S for Soqotri, and H for Harsusi from (HL), Johnstone's Harsasi Lexicon.

p. 157, with regard to verbs from the II-w [check]swb, which "behave as it they were from me root wsb"--it is indeed a problematical root. For example, in H I have den menduk yeswcb la 'that gun will not fire straight'; esyeb yesyeben yesyeb 'straighten; to heat (usually wood) to straighten, shape it' (d-isyeben darb 'he's straightening a stick'); esteycb 'be(come) straight; be(come) well-mannered; stand erect'; mesteb, 'erect; straight(ened)'; and in B eswcb, 'hit, shoot, fell'; satteb 'be hit, wounded', and seswcb 'be (able to be) hit, wounded'; and in S seb yesob l-iseb 'go straight to a place (and not be diverted); to make well, do properly; to erect, set upright; to straighten' (seb 'ir[epsilon]ba 'he constructed a good, even wall'; yeseben mithel 'he speaks in a thoughtful and measured way'; and esebins kor yist[epsilon]b 'I work away at it until it is quite straight'. All of which does little to clarify the problem of the original root, but neither do the comparative forms demonstrate metathesis of the first two root consonants.

p. 164, concerning the anomalous verb tek 'drink'--it is interesting that whereas the B I have recorded is close to the Mehri (tek yeteken yetek: hawil her sekta'an we-mgare kcsen a'anet moh we-taken teh 'we were desperately thirsty at first, but then we found a little water and drank it'), H presents the forms hutki yehtoki yehtek: zim tiy hemuh l-ethtek! 'give me the water to drink!'; hutki bis dcr'she was stiff, cramped' (lit, her blood was drunk). In S, verbal forms from [square root [check]hky mean 'give s.o. water' only in the western dialect(s); elsewhere on the island they refer to the watering of plants and livestock only.

p. 164, another anomalous verb discussed here "whose root is uncertain" is fuk 'give in marriage' and sefuk 'get married'. I would suggest a possible root [check]fky: in S, as well as the basic meaning of 'dress s.o.; cover s.o.', it has the additional meaning of 'one of a virtous nature "to cover" the inadequacies of another', and 'give in marriage'. Similarly, 'be dressed' can also mean 'be married; stay close to, with s.o.', and sfeke, as well as meaning '(clothing) have been worn, not be new', also has the meaning 'be, get married; be covered by or s.o.'. Traditionally the basic bride-gift on Soqotra was a length of cloth, and even within living memory the minimal marriage gift was a length of material from which a dress and a shawl could be made. Compare B axeyar menho darha genyet yesefke beh 'the better off among them had a sack to cover himself with', but also geyg ya'gab be-tet we-seh ta'gab beh we-haskansa yehemuw teh la. neke'es tad men harba'tsa we-geleb[epsilon]t meneh, teham 'ar emekwers. we-ncka' hebs we-hekemes leh. geleb[epsilon]t leh. geleb[epsilon]t seneti terti w-el-sefekat la "Once a man loved a woman, and she loved him, but her family didn't want him (as a son-in-law). One of her people came to ask for her hand, but she refused him, because she only wanted (to marry) her lover. Her father came and tried to force her (to agree to the marriage) but she still refused. She refused, and for two years she did not marry," and hem thamek la, hc maffeke tck briti "if she doesn't want you, I'll give you my daughter in marriage." Compare also H na'senu d-ifek! 'now he's decent (i.e., properly covered)!'; medes teffek l-ebres! 'she'll overlie her baby!' and sefkc yesfoke yeseffek 'be (able to be) covered, dressed'. I do not know whether this was the case in northern Oman, but in Zufar it was customary for young Bedouin girls to wear a cache-sexe (called mistereh or xabit), which consisted of a flap of soft leather or woven fiber held in place by ties or hooked into the waist-thong; at the bottom of the flap was a thick fringe of leather which hung low to cover much of the upper thigh (see Morris and Shelton, Oman Adorned [Muscat 1997], 195). Hence, the possible link between [check]fky and marriage is that, in marrying, a girl becomes 'decently covered'.

p. 165 [section]7.3, "The Irregular Verb hcm 'want'": compare H yexcm 'want (to); to be about to' (yexcm xedemet la'er hayweruniha 'he wants no other job than looking after his goats'; texcm teser si?/texim tiser si? 'do you want to come with me?' (m.s./f.s.); axc, bis 'I want it/I love, want her'; and B yeham 'wish, like, want; to need to; to be about to' (eham la! 'I don't want to!'; hem eb[epsilon]li yham 'if God wills'; etet el 'ad sefekat la, el had yams la 'the woman is not yet married, noone wants her'; a'abu yhemuw ytiw 'people want to eat').

p. 193 n. 5, with regard to leb l- 'be fond of': see B lub, halbib, pl. halbcb, hcbabten 'heart; spirit, vital force' (elub yentehesen, yeka' axeyr "he is beginning to make breathing sounds, perhaps he's recovering"); H elbeb (halbib) 'heart; spirit' and S ilbib 'heart, soul, spirit'. But 'be fond of' is perhaps from the root [check]ib': M, B, H, S '(animal, person) feel sexual desire; (female animal) to be in heat, in season'. As for verbs from [check]lbb (the telbub clearly heard on audio) 'be fond of', the comparative material offers no solution: in H elbeb '(blood, etc.) congeal', B elbeb 'wrap around the waist, hips' (as a waistcloth, waist-string worn from babyhood by the male sex), and S ilbib, 'put s.o. off (especially food) by describing its defects, or by doing disgusting while s.o. is trying to eat'.

p. 198 [paragraph]1, "... as shown by the Yemeni Mehri form beyn or bin, Harsusi ben, and Soqotri em-bin": add B and H ben, emben 'between; amongst'.

p. 203, "l-sayb [eth]- 'in the direction of (sayb 'direction?' is not attested)": I have not recorded sayb either in B (where 'side, direction' is sawb), H, or S.

p. 209, 'nine': compare H so', sa', (m., f.) (but tisa' yum 'nine days'); B sa', sa'et (and sa' ycm 'nine days')

p. 215 n. 5, on hawil: compare B hawil 'first, firstly, initially; once', a very common form, and ahawla 'the ancients, ancestors, forbears'.

p. 217, 'aser [eth]e-l-etnayn translated as 'Sunday night' in ML and by Stroomer. Rubin writes, "This would mean that to a Mehri speaker, each day starts at sundown of the previous day." Indeed this is so, and not only for a Mehri speaker. I had the shaming experience once of turning up at the wrong time, arriving on Friday evening when invited for laylat al-juma', not then understanding that the invitation was for Thursday night. 'aser [eth]e-l-etnaya means 'the evening before, that precedes Monday', and indeed, as Rubin goes on to write, 'aser [eth]-agemet does mean Thursday night and not Friday night, and (p. 218) 'aser [eth]e-rebayt is Tuesday night.

p. 221, discussing ewxayw, in men sadkes ewxayw he-sadkes 'alew "across its jaw from top to bottom": see B [check]lxy, lxa 'lower, lower down, lower place, bottom' and elxi (m.); elxet, elxeyct (f.), elxo (cpl); H selxc 'go below, take a lower track', and S loxi (west)/lehe (east) 'lower down, below' suggest that the root of ewxayw is [check]lxv (with 1 > w, Phonology [section]2.1.4) and that a better translation might be "from the lower to the upper."

p. 229 [section]11.4, ho 'where': compare S o'o, hc (B han, hane, hu(n); H hcn, ho).

p. 230, kc etem kefedkem "why have you come?" should be perhaps "why have you come down?" (ML, p. 225, kefud, 'to go down, come down, descend, disembark').

p. 254 [section]12.5.12, mc: possibly compare H mor 'well, well then, so'.

p. 258 [section]12.5.18, wat5-: could this not be we-taww 'must, ought to, have to, it is necessary that' (see p. 255 [section]12.5.15) and the single example be written: we-tckem (= we-tawwkem > we-tckem) 'ar tsemihem lay "you really should allow me"?

I came across very few minor typographical errors. Those having to do with Mehri that I noted are p. 23, teti 'women (dual)' for teti; p. 105, H segbur 'give help' for H hegbur 'give help'; p. 123 (in the box demonstrating imperfect prefixes and suffixes), the 2m singular and 2f singular should be transposed, thus 2m te- and 2f te-(...-i); p. 126, fifth example, tehurek for tehurek; p. 194, rehak men for rehek men; also p. 196; p. 201, nuka heynit for nuka heynit; p. 145, haybi [eth]-yebayd buk "father was lying to you" for "my father was lying to you"; p. 148, hc [eth]-gerebk tik dar azayga "I know you are in the pen": surely "on" or "above the pen"?; p. 153, sehatk danced' for 'I slaughtered'; p. 261, senet tayt wekct hawret "one year there was a draught" for `drought'; p. 263, k-seweher for k-seweher; p. 264, hebre [eth]edsus for hebre [eth]e-dsus.


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Author:Morris, Miranda
Publication:The Journal of the American Oriental Society
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jul 1, 2012
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