Foundation for Endangered Languages

Home | Manifesto | Membership details | Proceedings | Grant Applications | Newsletter | Links | Bibliography


5. Fieldwork Reports Report from Mark Donohue: The languages of Wasur: archivists and activists

Mark Donohue
University of Sydney

Time and resources May and June 1998 saw my return to the Merauke area, in South-east Irian Jaya, Indonesia, in order to conduct work with speakers of the endangered languages in the area in accord with the funding provided by the Foundation for Endangered Languages and the Endangered Languages Fund. Our aim was to conduct literacy work with the Yei and Moraori communities and to assemble additional grammatical survey work.

There are four ethnolinguistic groups indigenous to the area, the Yei, Kanum, and Morori (earlier spelt Moraori). A fourth group, the Marind, was initially excluded because they have a large population base (minimally 8,000), and had already established an internationally-funded self-help organisation, with a base in Merauke and funding from The Netherlands. Recent changes in 1997 (detailed below) have forced a change in this original decision.

The last couple of years have seen a sharp increase in local awareness of the plight of their languages and cultures (due mainly to the forced acquisition of 85% of the traditional land in the area by logging concessions and by transmigration developers). In 1997 the first of a series of self-funded balai adat (culture centres) were built by the Morori, Yei and Kanum, and at the end of that same year the Marind-organised self-help organisation became reorganised as the Forum komunikasi masyarakat adat Marind, the Communications forum for the peoples of the Marind cultural type. This restructured organisation includes members of the Kimaama, Marind, Yei, Kanum and Morori ethnic groups, and aims at representing them in the event of further forced acquisitions of land by the government transmigration contractors or logging consortiums. As a result of this development, it was felt that the most appropriate way to interact with the targeted communities was to work through and with the FKMAM, who were most amenable to this suggestion.

While in Merauke and surrounding districts we conducted a series of workshops to produce basic orthographies that were acceptable to the communities, with the aim of having standardised literacy materials; as a result of this investigation we have now got

• more extensive lexical documentation,
• a growing series of archives of local stories
• the organisation for locally-led advances in the production of written materials
• extended grammatical work for the wider linguistic community
• a better idea of the language and dialect situation on the ground

Each of these points shall now be discussed in turn.

Lexical documentation
The workshops which were initiated during the trip have resulted in preliminary picture dictionaries being produced in both Morori and Southern Yei. These are to be used in the local primary schools, with children who are proficient in the spoken language (at least passively), as a means of extending the sphere in which the language is used to include national-government institutions like schooling and education.

In addition to the preliminary production of these general picture dictionaries, initiatives have been started to collect lists and definitions of subject-matter specific lexical groups, with the aim of producing Department of Education approved booklets on this in the next few years. Topics that have been proposed include birds (which can draw on the many good ornithological studies in the New Guinea area as a source of illustrations), housing construction, and agriculture. This has only been made possible as a result of the developmental work that has been carried out, in full and continuous community consultation, to produce workable orthographies. While it is most likely that there will be some orthographic revision in the following years, importantly this is now a community issue, and is being discussed at a broad community level.

Archival work
In the course of the orthography development several local fork tales, or clan stories, have been recorded and written down as examples of the use of a local writing system. This has started the long process of amassing cultural materials that will be a benefit for the children in their schooling, since most current materials are unchanged Javano-centric propaganda leaflets, and do not make the process of acquiring literacy much easier.

For ongoing work the purchase of several tape players, batteries and blank tapes, with instructions for use and practical demonstration, will hopefully lead to a collection of stories and folk tales being gathered in the continuing future.

Linguistic findings
In addition to the locally-relevant work, we have now gained ann improved perspective on language use and the language situation in th Wasur area. The Yei language has been shown to be split into (at least) two languages, northern and southern Yei, with orthographic consequences (Northern Yei has an extra vowel that needs to be distinguished, as well as contrastive vowel length for the low vowel).

Materials in Morori and Yei have been extended, in the fields of phonology, morphology and basic morphosyntax, and will presently find their way into the wider linguistic community, with some interesting results in the fields of lexical transitivity in Yei, and pronominal agreement marking in Morori.

The continuing work shows that the hypothesis that the Kanum languages and Yei are possibly related to the Pama-Nyungan family in Australia is at least tenable, and awaits further development sin both the investigation of Australian linguistic prehistory, and ongoing work in the linguistic relations in the New Guinea area.

Moraori is all but confirmed as a linguistic isolate, having survived for an unknowable period of time with large neighbours on all sides, yet maintained its linguistic uniqueness. The grammar is proving challenging.

Modern South Arabian Languages: an overview by Anda Hofstede

Dr Hofstede writes: At the conference in Edinburgh (25-27 September), I gave a paper on the position of the Modern South Arabian languages. Due to time constraints, this paper was very short and many things had to be left out. In this article, to which I had committed myself already before the conference, some comments from participants at the conference have been included.

(The editor regrets that diacritics used in the names of the languages could not be reproduced. A fuller version of this work is available from Dr Hofstede.)

The Modern South Arabian languages are spoken in the south of Oman (Dhofar) and the southeast of Yemen. The name is slightly misleading as they are not dialects of Arabic. The languages are grouped together with the Semitic languages of Ethiopia and the Sayhadic languages (also called Epigraphic South Arabian or Old South Arabian languages) in the South Semitic branch. To the MSA languages belong Mehri, Socotri, Jibbali, Bathari, Harsusi and Hobyot. The extent to which research has been carried out, varies from language to language. Around l900 many stories and some poems in Mehri (Southern dialect group), Jibbali and Socotri were collected and published (Jahn 1902, Müller 1902, 1905, 1907). Recently, extensive research has been carried out on Socotri and Mehri, and to a lesser extent on Jibbali and Harsusi.

In this article, I will give first an overview of the languages, the estimated number of speakers and the traditional occupations of the speakers. Then a discussion of possible writing systems and the influence of Arabic on the languages follows. Finally, some remarks concerning the attitude from the governments to the MSA languages, and the necessity of research on the languauges will be made. The references follow at the end of the article.

Overview of the languages
As noted before, to the MSA languages belong Mehri, Socotri, Jibbali, Bathari, Harsusi and Hobyot. The following is an overview of each language.

Mehri is spoken in Southern Oman (Dhofar) and in Southern Yemen. The number of speakers is estimated at about 100,000. There are two main dialect groups: a Northern group, rather called Negd dialect, which is spoken in Dhofar (Oman), and a Southern dialect group, which is spoken in Southern Yemen. The dialect of Qishn, the former centre of the Mahra, is the prestigious Mehri dialect in Yemen. In 1902, a word-list of the Southern dialect group appeared (Jahn 1902). A dictionary of the Negd dialect is published in 1987 (Johnstone 1987), but the most recent research is on the Southern dialect group (see inter alios Simeone-Senelle 1997).

Jibbali is spoken in Dhofar, Oman. The number of speakers was estimated by T.M. Johnstone at about 5,000 (Johnstone 1975:94). However, Dr W. Arnold (University of Erlangen, Germany, in personal communication) estimates the total number at about 30-50,000. Traditionally, three dialect groups are distinguised: Eastern dialects (including the dialect of the al-Hallaniyyat Islands), Central dialects, and Western dialects (Johnstone 1981:xii). A dictionary of a Central dialect was published in 1981 by T.M. Johnstone (Johnstone 1981). Two publications on Jibbali poetry have been published (Johnstone 1972 and Morris 1985). A Ph.D. thesis has been written on the culture of Dhofar. This thesis also contains many poems in Jibbali (Tabook 1997). I myself have just written a Ph.D. thesis entitled Syntax of Jibbali (Hofstede 1998).

Socotri is spoken on the island of Socotra. There are four dialect groups: the dialects spoken on the north coast, the dialects spoken on the south coast, the dialects spoken by Bedouins in the mountains in the centre of the island and the dialect spoken on cAbd al-Kuri. The dialect spoken on the island Samha seems to be the same as the one on the west coast of Socotra. The inhabitants of Socotra are estimated at 50,000, those of cAbd al-Kuri at about 250 and those of Samha at ten or a dozen (Simeone-Senelle 1997:379, following Naumkin 1988:342, 359). In 1938, W. Leslau published a dictionary on Socotri (Leslau 1938). Recently, more research has been carried out on the language and culture (see inter alios Simeone-Senelle 1997, and Naumkin and Porchomovskij 1981).



Bathari is spoken in Oman on the coast facing the al-Hallaniyyat Islands, previously called the Kuria Muria Islands. Bathari is closely related to Mehri. The number of tribe members is estimated at about 300 (Morris 1983:130). Not all of them speak Bathari, some of them speak only Mehri. The research carried out on this language is rather limited. The standard work on Bathari is written by B. Thomas (Thomas 1937), but this should be treated with caution, as the transcription is sometimes misleading. More recently, M. Morris has published an article discussing a Bathari poem (Morris 1983). Some Bathari words are mentioned in Johnstone's Mehri Lexicon and Jibbali Lexicon.

Harsusi is mainly spoken in the Jiddat al-Harasis, Oman. The estimated number of theH arasis is not more than about 600 (Johnstone 1977:x). M.-Cl. Simeone-Senelle suggests that the number is very likely larger as at the time of Johnstone's visit manyH arasis had left the region to go and work in oil wells (Simeone-Senelle 1997:379). The language is, like Bathari, closely related to Mehri. Johnstone has published a dictionary of Harsusi (Johnstone 1977) and also B. Thomas gives some information (Thomas 1937).

Hobyot is spoken around the border between Yemen and Oman. The estimated number of speakers is less than 100. The language displays characteristics of both Mehri and Jibbali. W. Arnold concludes in his article that it can be regarded as an independant language (Arnold 1993:24). A few Hobyot words are mentioned in Johnstone's Mehri Lexicon and Jibbali Lexicon.

Depending on where the speakers live, the traditional occupation is breeding camels, cows and goats, or cultivating palm trees. In villages alongside the sea, it is fishing. Of course, speakers are now also working in governmental offices, the university and private companies.

Writing system
The languages possess a rich oral tradition, but not a written tradition. Presently, there exist two systems for writing the languages: one is the Arabic alphabet, the other is a modified Latin alphabet.

The system in which the Arabic alphabet is used, has two variants.
· In the most commonly used variant, only unmodified Arabic letters are used. This leads sometimes to problems as some letters are used for two phonemes. Users of this system are aware of this problem. Also the way in which Arabic vowels are written, does not suffice for the wide variety in the MSA languages.

· In the other variant, a modified Arabic alphabet is used. Dots are added to or omitted from an original Arabic letter. The system for vowels is the same as in the first variant. (One example of this kind of system is given in Simeone-Senelle and Lonnet 1986:265.) Attempts to create such a system have come from native speakers and non-native speakers. Even in this modified system it is sometimes not possible to have a one-one representation. (For example, it does not provide a letter for the Central Jibbali phoneme s.) Two other problems: the system is not standardized; and it is not always understood by outsiders.

At present, only the first, unmodified, system is used in publications and other writings.

The second system, the modified Latin script, is the result of the mixture of modified Latin letters and IPA. There are some differences between languages/dialects with regard to occurring vowels and consonants. Eight colours of short vowel are distinguished. Special graphs are used to mark labialized and lateral variants of dental obstruents, and diacritics for ejective and fricative consonants, as well as for nasalized, long and accented vowels. This system is now standardized. But, depending on the purpose of an article, one can decide to use a more phonetic script, i.e. closer to IPA, or a more phonological script, i.e. one closer to the Latin script.

The choice between the Arabic and the modified Latin alphabet depends on the circumstances. The (unmodified) Arabic alphabet is used by the native speakers, and in publications written in Arabic. The modified Latin alphabet is used in publications which are not written in Arabic.

Language Situation
The MSA languages are spoken in countries in which Arabic is the official language. Arabic is the medium of instruction in schools and universities and it is used for communication between speakers of different languages. Therefore, it is not surprising that Arabic has a strong influence on the MSA languages. At a young age, children learn both one of the MSA languages and the local dialect of Arabic from their parents. This natural process of the influence of Arabic on the MSA languages is very clear in the vocabulary of children. I have noticed this during my fieldwork on Jibbali, and M. Morris has noticed it for Bathari (Morris 1983:142). There is no doubt that this phenomenon occurs also in the other MSA languages. Most speakers of these languages are aware of this process.

There is some awareness among the population that something has to be done in order to preserve their languages and their cultures. In Oman, only the preservation of the culture is actively supported by the government. There is a special Ministry of National Heritage and Culture with a department and a museum in Salalah. There does not exist a specific governmental programme to preserve the languages. But there is no objection to linguistic research. There are a few Omani students, speakers of Jibbali, who are presently carrying out research on their language or intend to do so. However, up to now most research projects have been carried out by European researchers.

The government of Yemen allows research on the languages and culture. I do not know to what extent they give active support.

Further research on the MSA languages is necessary. There are two reasons for this. The first reason is to preserve the languages. It is still possible to record the languages as they are spoken by elderly people. Their language is the least influenced by Arabic.

The second reason is rather academic. Compared with research on other Semitic languages and related topics, only very little research has been carried out on these languages. Further research will contribute to a better understanding of the relation between the South Semitic languages. At the same time, one can observe how the languages are changing under the influence of Arabic.

In this article, I have given an overview of the language situation of the MSA languages which are spoken in Yemen and Oman. Readers who are interested in linguistic aspects of these languages are referred to two articles which give an outline of the various languages (Johnstone 1975 and Simeone-Senelle 1997). I will also be pleased to give further information.

Anda Hofstede
41 Athol Road
Whalley Range
Manchester M16 8QW, UK
phone: +44(0)161-881 5867
e-mail: a.i.hofstede(at)

Arnold, W. 1993. 'Zur Position des Hóbyót in den neusüdarabischen Sprachen".
Zeitschrift für arabische Linguistik 25 : 17-24
Hofstede, A.I. 1998. Syntax of Jibbali. Ph.D. thesis (unpublished). University of Manchester.
Jahn, A. 1902. Die Mehri-Sprache in Südarabien: Texte und Wörterbuch. Südarabische Expedition. Kaiserliche Akademie der Wissenschaften. Band III. Wien:Hölder Johnstone, T.M. 1972. 'The Language of Poetry in Dhofar'. Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies XXXV/1 : 1-17
1975. 'The Modern South Arabian Languages'. Afroasiatic Linguistics 1/5 : 93 - 121
1977.H arsusi Lexicon and English-Harsusi Word-list. Oxford:Oxford University Press
1981. Jibbali Lexicon. Oxford:Oxford University Press
1987. Mehri Lexicon and English-Mehri Word-list. With Index of the English definitions in the Jibbali Lexicon compiled by G. Rex Smith. London:School of Oriental and African Studies
Leslau, W. 1938. Lexique Soqotri (sudarabique moderne) avec comparaisons et explications étymologique. Paris:Klincksieck.
Morris, M.J. 1983. 'Some Preliminary Remarks on a Collection of Poems and Songs of the Batahirah'. Journal of Oman Studies 6 : 129-144
1985. 'A Poem in Jibbali'. Journal of Oman Studies 7 : 121 - 130
Müller, D.H. 1902. Die Mehri- und Soqotri-Sprache I: Texte. Südarabische Expedition. Kaiserliche Akademie der Wissenschaften. Band IV. Wien:Hölder
1905. Die Mehri- und Soqotri-Sprache II: Soqotri-Texte. Südarabische Expedition. Kaiserliche Akademie der Wissenschaften. Band VI. Wien:Hölder
1907. Die Mehri- und Soqotri-Sprache III: Shauri-texte. Südarabische Expedition. Kaiserliche Akademie der Wissenschaften. Band VII. Wien:Hölder
Naumkin, V.V. 1988. Sokotrijtsy: Istoriko-etnograficeskij ocerk [The Socotrans: A Historical and Ethnographical Study]. Moscow:Nauka
Naumkin, V.V. & V. Ya. Porchomovskij. 1981. Ocerki po etnolingvistike Sokotry [Ethno-linguistic Studies of Soqotra]. Moscow:Nauka
Simeone-Senelle, Marie-Claude. 1997. 'The Modern South Arabian Languages'. The Semitic Languages. R. Hetzron (ed.) London:Routledge : 378 - 423
Simeone-Senelle, Marie-Claude & Antoine Lonnet. 1986. 'Lexique des noms des parties du corps dans les langues sudarabiques modernes'. Matériaux Arabes et Sudarabiques (GELLAS) 3-4 : 259 - 304
Tabook, Salim Bakhit Salim. 1997. Tribal Practices, and Folklore of Dhofar; Sultanate of Oman. Ph.D. thesis, thesis no. DX196290 (unpublished). Exeter University.
Thomas, B. 1937. 'Four strange tongues from central south Arabia - the Hadara group'. Proceedings of the British Academy 23 : 231 - 331