When Melodies Gather: Oral Art of the Mahra

Mahri Language

The Mahri language is one of the few living remnants of the pre-Arabic language substrate that once stretched across the southern quarter of the Arabian Peninsula. This substrate included a number of the Ancient South Arabian (ASA) languages familiar to us from epigraphic sources as well as the ancestral language(s) that gave rise to the Ethiosemitic languages of Ethiopia and Eritrea. With the spread of Arabic speakers into southern Arabia at the cusp of the first millennium CE and the subsequent confirmation of Arabic as the prestige language of the Arabian Peninsula in the first centuries of the Islamic era, the indigenous South Semitic languages of the Arabian Peninsula began to withdraw to pockets in the mountains, deserts, and islands of Yemen, Dhofar, and the Arabian Sea.

The precise affiliation of the Mahri language within the Semitic language family remains a topic for debate. Until recently, scholarly consensus had assigned the Mahri language to the South Semitic subgroup (Faber, 1997 & Rodgers, 1991). Within the South Semitic subgroup, Mahri and its closest living relatives—communally labeled the Modern South Arabian (MSA) languages—were believed to constitute its eastern lobe, while the Ethiosemitic and ASA languages were believed to constitute its western and central lobes, respectively. More recent scholarship has reclassified the MSA languages as an independent branch of a West Semitic subgroup that is parallel to the Ethiosemitic and Central Semitic (Arabic, ASA, Hebrew, et al.) branches (Rubin, 2008).

Mahri is the most widely spoken MSA language with a nearly contiguous territory of speakers that stretches from al-Mahra in eastern Yemen to Jiddat al-Ḥarāsīs in central Oman (including diaspora communities in the Gulf states). The other MSA languages are Baṭḥāri, Śḥēri/Jibbāli, Ḥarsūsi, Hobyot, and Soqōṭri, all of which are native to either Yemen or Oman. Baṭḥāri and Hobyot are virtually undocumented (with the exception of Morris, 1983) and are likely on the verge of extinction. Although separated geographically from the core Mahri speaking territory, Ḥarsūsi is mutually intelligible with Mahri and should probably be reclassified as a dialect of Mahri (Rubin, 2010: 6). Although spoken in smaller numbers than Mahri, Śḥēri/Jibbāli and Soqōṭri speakers are consolidated in regions bounded by discrete geographical features (the mountains of Dhofar for the former and the Arabian Sea for the latter); this fact may vouchsafe their security in the near future.

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