I used to think that Arabic was the only language native to the Arabian Peninsula. As a student of Arabic, I learned how the ancient grammarians built the rules of standard Arabic from the speech of the desert Arabs. I thought the language of the Qur’an and of classical Arabic literature was an only child: I knew it had ancestors, but I didn’t know it had any living relatives.
I learned that the story was not that simple many years later in Oman, when I travelled from Muscat to the sultanate’s southern province of Dhofar, a region separated from the capital by 1,000 kilometers of mostly featureless flat land. There I met a young man who told me he spoke a local language that was not Arabic. When I asked to know more, he obligingly, and to my astonishment, spoke a sample of a language called Shahri, a linguistic rarity spoken by a few thousand people in this part of Arabia. It sounded nothing like Arabic. He seemed delighted by my surprise, and proud of his ability.
I thought of this when I read that Unesco had started a project called the International Year of Indigenous Languages, which aims to raise awareness of languages in danger of disappearing to protect them as cultural assets and to promote the study of them.
According to the Endangered Languages Project, established by a global consortium of linguists, there are approximately 7,000 languages in the world, and 40 percent of these languages are in varying degrees of danger of dying out. Unesco estimates that there are about 2,680 languages in danger of disappearing, leading to the loss of cultural equity in local knowledge and history.
We can easily name the main languages of the Middle East and North Africa. The names of the smaller languages are the finer threads in the region’s linguistic fabric: varieties of Amazigh (Berber) and Kurdish, Aramaic, Armenian, Circassian, Mandaic, to name just a few.
A small number of scholars around the world are keeping these languages from disappearing without at least having been recorded, documented and studied, either through traditional philology or modern linguistics.
Shahri, also known as Jibbali, is language that is spoken mainly in a remote mountainous region of Dhofar province. (The name Jibbali is derived from the Arabic word for mountain.) It is one of a handful of related languages spoken in the southern part of the Arabian Peninsula that are distinct from Arabic, and are mostly unintelligible to speakers of the majority language.