When Melodies Gather: Oral Art of the Mahra

Linguistic Features

Thanks to its isolation on the southern margin of the Semitic world, the Mahri language has preserved some conservative features that have been lost in the more centrally located Semitic languages of the Levant, the Syrian plateau, and the northern reaches of the Arabian Peninsula. For instance, Mahri distinguishes verbal mood by means of an opposition between monosyllabic and bisyllabic verbal stems (e.g., subjunctive yektēb [“he should write”] vs. indicative ykūteb [“he writes”]), which corresponds to aspectual or tense distinctions reconstructed for Proto-Semitic. This retained archaism has been lost in all Semitic languages except for two other languages of the Semitic periphery: Akkadian and Ethiosemitic.

The conservatism of Mahri is most evident in its phonology. Mahri and the other Modern South Arabian languages are unique among the living Semitic languages in that they preserve reflexes of nearly all the consonants that have been reconstructed for Proto-Semitic. For instance, the Modern South Arabian languages are the only living Semitic languages to maintain a three-way distinction between the lateral sibilant /ś/, the alveolar sibilant /s/ and palato-alveolar sibilant /š/. In addition to the Modern South Arabian languages, the phonetic distinction between these three sibilants {s, š, ś} is indicated in the Ancient South Arabian monumental and cursive scripts.

Complementing the lateral sibilant /ś/, the Modern South Arabian languages have retained an emphatic lateral phoneme /ź/ that corresponds to the  Arabic phoneme /ḍ/ (Ar. ḍād). In fact, it is the original lateralized articulation of ḍād that earned for Arabic the moniker of “The Language of Ḍād” (lughat ḍād), rather than its contemporary articulation as a pharyngealized counterpart to /d/ (Ar. dāl).

The Modern South Arabian languages have also preserved a glottalized articulation for the emphatic consonants (unlike their pharyngealized articulation in Classical Arabic), another retained archaism shared by the Akkadian and the Ethiosemitic languages.  The staccato pop of the glottalized emphatic consonants and hiss of the lateralized sibilant give the Modern South Arabian languages their distinctive sound, for which local Arab monolinguals likened them to “the language of birds” (Thomas, 1932: 105).

Not all of Mahri’s unique South Semitic features are retained archaisms. For instance, Mahri has generalized a /-k/ suffix in the perfective verbal conjugation rather than the /-t/ suffix found in Arabic and the Northwest Semitic languages of the Levant. In this regard, Mahri and the other Modern South Arabian languages have evolved along the path of the Ethiosemitic languages and a number of Yemeni Arabic colloquial dialects that were likely influenced by pre-Arabic, South Semitic substrate languages.

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