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Shehri: A Native Omani Language Under Threat

Atheer – Oliver Allan

Since the emergence of Islam, the Arabs have predominantly concerned themselves with Arabic, particularly because a comprehensive understanding of the Holy Quran can only be attained via a thorough knowledge of the Arabic language. The result of this focus on Arabic has meant that unfortunately the other languages native to the Southern Arabian Peninsula and specifically to the Sultanate of Oman, have gone undocumented.

Dhofar is famous for its monsoon rains and green mountains, however little is known about either Shehri or Mehri, two Semitic languages native to the region that are still widely spoken in the south. Even within the Sultanate something of a mystery surrounds the languages of Dhofar.

Shehri, which is also known as Jibbali, is a language spoken in the southernmost tip of the Arabian Peninsula which long pre-dates modern Arabic. As a matter of fact Shehri, along with various other Semetic languages native to this region, some of which no longer exist, are considered to be the precursors to modern Arabic. At one point in history Shehri was spoken in an area spanning from Yemen’s Hadhramaut region to Ras Al Hadd in eastern Oman. Although it does not have a written form, Shehri is a comprehensive language complete with grammar.

Until around as little as forty years ago, Shehri was spoken by all of the inhabitants of Dhofar as the common language, including by the native Arabic speakers in Salalah who spoke it fluently. The remainder of Dhofar’s inhabitants all spoke Shehri as their mother tongue. Today however Arabic has taken over as the form of mutual communication in Dhofar and is now exclusively spoken by those to whom it is their native tongue.

Atheer met with Ali Al Shehri, a Shehri language researcher who has written a number of books about Shehri and its origins. He notes that the majority of the Dhofari population are still native Shehri speakers and hence the language is still widely spoken in many households. A number of the older generation of Shehri language speakers, particularly those who live in the mountains, don’t even speak Arabic and it was only around fifty years ago that most of Dhofar’s Shehri speaking population began to learn it. “I remember that it was only when I was an adult that I started speaking Arabic. Until the year 1964 I did not know a single word of Arabic. Not a single word,” recalls Al Shehri.

Names of towns such as Dhalkut are derived from Shehri

Ali Al Shehri says that the use of Shehri among the new generation is declining, citing a lack of interest in speaking it, as they turn to Arabic instead. His fear is that if efforts are not made, the language will soon disappear.  “We speak Shehri at home, as do most Shehri families. Our kids speak it too, albeit with mistakes, yet the new generation favour Arabic. If things remain as they are, the language will die out,” he says. Al Shehri explains that there are efforts, from among some of the younger generation of native speakers and even from non-Shehri speaking Omanis, to preserve the language by establishing an institute in Dhofar for it to be taught.

As mentioned, Shehri does not have a written form, however according to Ali Al Shehri an ancient writing system was recently discovered in a series of caves in Dhofar. Although the inscriptions are yet to be deciphered, linguists and historians believe that this was at one point the written form of Shehri. In the rare instances in which Shehri is written down, Arabic letters are used. The fact that there are a number of Shehri letters that don’t exist in Arabic makes conveying the pronunciations somewhat difficult. There is evidence of this in many of the town names in Dhofar, whose meanings all originate from Shehri. Dhalkot, Rakhyut and Raysut for example are all Arabised versions of the towns’ original Shehri names. A number of Shehri speakers even communicate via text in this way, typing using Arabic letters.

Ancient inscriptions believed to be an old written form of Shehri

It’s worth noting that some speakers of the language refer to it as Shehri, whereas others call it Jibbali, which translates to ‘of the mountain.’ Ali Al Shehri explains that the language has traditionally been known as Shehri and that it is only in recent times that the term Jibbali has been ascribed to it.

Yet another of the Semetic languages native to the Southern Arabian Peninsula that is still spoken today is Mehri. Linguists tend to agree that Mehri and Shehri originally stem from the same route, both branching off to form distinct languages. Traditionally Mehri was spoken by the tribes of the Mahra region in Yemen as well as in pockets of Dhofar, such as Mazyuna, where it is still spoken today. There also remain speakers in southern central Saudi Arabia. There exists debate as to whether modern Arabic is derived from Shehri or Mehri, however both predate the former. Due to the fact that little of the history of this region of the Arabian Peninsula has been recorded thoroughly, it is not known exactly how old either language is, although they are estimated to stretch back thousands of years. Despite both being Semetic languages, like Arabic, both Shehri and Mehri are unintelligible to Arabic speakers.

Such inscriptions have been found in Dhofar

Similarly to Shehri, Mehri lacks a written form, as do Bathari, Harsusi and Hboyot. The latter three are also spoken in southern Oman, yet according to Ali Al Shehri, they are merely dialects of Mehri, as opposed to separate languages. Bathari originates from the coastal towns close to Shuwaymiya, Hboyot is spoken on both sides of the Omani Yemeni border and Harsusi is spoken in Jiddat Al Harasis, a stony desert in the Al Wusta governorate.

As mentioned, the use of Arabic in Dhofar has grown over the past generation or so. The fact that Arabic has a written form and is not merely an oral language like Shehri or Mehri has of course significantly contributed to this. “The fact that the new generation have little interest in speaking their mother tongue means that it is only a matter of time before Shehri becomes extinct. When the older generation of speakers pass on they will take their language with them,” Ali Al Shehri says regretfully. “This is why I am putting great effort into documenting the Shehri language now, so that something remains even after it dies out.

 

References:

Al Ma’shani, A. Ma’ajem Lisan Dhofar

Al Mehri, M. (2006). Takalim Al Lahja Al Mehria

Al Shehri, A. (2000). The Language of Aad

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