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AUTHOR: Rubin, Aaron D. TITLE: The Mehri Language of Oman SERIES: Studies in Semitic Languages and Linguistics PUBLISHER: Brill YEAR: 2010
Kevin Schluter, Department of Linguistics, University of Arizona
The Mehri Language of Oman, by Aaron Rubin, is a descriptive grammar of Mehri. It is based on the fieldwork of Thomas Johnstone, as published by Stroomer (1999), and constitutes one of the first comprehensive descriptive works on the under-described and understudied South Arabian languages. The Modern South Arabian languages are largely unknown to semiticists and have limited descriptions, particularly in English; this work represents more than a simple companion to Johnstone's Mehri lexicon (Johnstone 1987) and Stroomer's (1999) posthumous publication of Johnstone's texts. Written for the specialist, Semitic scholars will find a complete grammar of Omani Mehri with a familiar transcription system and the usual assumptions about consonantal roots and Semitic morphophonology. This is a detailed description of Mehri morphosyntax, though the non-semiticist may find the syntactic descriptions challenging.
The first chapter provides an overview of the Mehri language and its dialects. It places Mehri within the genetic context of the South Arabian languages and the Semitic languages in general. Chapter 1 further details previous scholarship on Mehri and the source this grammar utilizes for its description: Stroomer's (1999) publication of the late T.M. Johnstone's Mehri texts. Being textually based, the grammar focuses on the morphosyntax of Mehri, particularly that which is unique to the Omani dialect and which is not well covered by Johnstone (1987).
Chapter 2 introduces the phonological inventory of Mehri in a transcription system that is familiar to semiticists. This chapter covers the major aspects of Mehri phonology, such as emphasis (e.g. ejectivity and/or pharyngealization), some phonological alternations, and stress. South Arabian languages, Mehri included, are noted for their glottalic realization of the traditional Semitic emphatic consonants. Rubin uses Johnstone's system with six long vowels, two to three short vowels, and four diphthongs and notes that their use in Johnstone's texts is somewhat inconsistent (p. 22). Phonetic descriptions are available, however, in Lonnet and Simeone-Senele (1997), as Rubin points out. Further phonetic detail can be found in recent works such as Watson and Bellem (2010).
Chapters 3-5 discuss pronouns, nouns, and adjectives. Mehri shows the same grammatical features as most Semitic languages, including bound pronominal suffixes, number (including a dual), gender (masculine and feminine), definiteness, and the construct state (genetive). Rubin lays out these paradigms in tables. Unattested, hypothetical forms are marked and numerous examples are given for each topic, including independent and suffixed pronouns, demonstratives, indefinites, reflexives, reciprocals, and relative pronouns in Chapter 3; gender, duals, plurals (broken and sound), the definite article, diminutives, remnants of the construct state in Chapter 4; and adjective agreement, declension, substantives, comparatives, and quantifiers in Chapter 5.
Chapters 6 and 7 cover verbs. Here, we see the traditional Semitic assumptions about root consonants and stem patterns. Rubin uses the terminology familiar to Akkadian (i.e. G, D, S hacek, T, etc.) rather than the Hebrew term binyanim or Arabic term measure. Omani Mehri has six derived verbal stems. The basic (G) stem has a division similar to the active-stative distinction in other Semitic languages. The D stem is similar to Arabic forms II and III with stem-internal phonological changes and semantics denoting denominatives and causatives. The H stem is similar to Hebrew hif'il or Arabic form IV consisting of an h- prefix and a causative meaning. Two so-called reflexive (s hacek) stems exist. The first consists of a prefix, though Rubin argues it does not have a consistent reflexive meaning. This second 'reflexive' stem tends to have a comittative or reciprocal meaning (though not necessarily intransitive). Mehri has two T- stems, which are characterized by an infixed -t-. One is a reciprocal or passive of the basic G stem. The other tends to make intransitives of the D/L stem. Quadriliteral verbs are rare in Mehri, but do exist. Rubin also discusses the small number of quadriliteral and possibly quintiliteral Mehri verbs as well. Notably, the paradigms are not boiled down to inscrutable sequences of Cs and Vs, but exemplified with attested Mehri verbs from Johnstone's texts.
In Chapters 8-13, Rubin covers grammatical categories more strongly intertwined with the syntax. Mehri shows many bound and independent prepositions familiar to semiticists (i.e. b- 'in, at; with; for, on', l- 'to, for', and mən 'from'). Adverbs do not appear to be productively formed, but prepositional phrases are used instead. Topics covered include: prepositions in Chapter 8; cardinal and ordinal numbers, fractions, and days of the week in Chapter 9; demonstrative adverbs, adverbs of place, time, and manner in Chapter 10; interrogatives in Chapter 11; coordinating conjunctions, exclamations, vocatives, and the genitive in Chapter 12; and copular sentences, negation, possession, conditionals, and subordination in Chapter 13.
Finally, the very brief Chapter 14 describes some of the Arabic forms found in Johnstone's Mehri texts. An appendix details some corrections to Stroomer's edition of Johnstone's texts. Also included is a bibliography of works cited in the book as well as additional references on Mehri.
The Mehri Language of Oman is a descriptive grammar, which is easily accessible to semiticists and somewhat accessible to linguists in general. This volume expands upon the works of the late T. M. Johnstone in terms of Omani Mehri morphosyntax, and represents a valuable advance in the description of the endangered Modern South Arabian languages.
The depth of this work is commendable, as it is a complete descriptive grammar of Omani Mehri. Most other recent English-language works on South Arabian languages, such as Simeone-Senelle (1997), tend to be limited in scope and space. Recent and forthcoming work by Watson and Bellem (e.g. Watson 2009, Watson and Bellem 2010, 2011) focuses on the Yemeni (and Eastern Yemeni) dialect of Mehri, and complement this work as well. As such, this is a monumental contribution to the study of South Arabian languages and the Semitic languages in general. The formatting and typeface are clear and the content covers all of the elements one expects to find in a Semitic grammar. This work will be helpful to anyone trying to navigate Mehri texts (Sima 2009; Stroomer 1996, 1999) for further work on documenting Mehri and other South Arabian languages or in comparative work on Semitic morphology and syntax.
While this detailed volume serves as an excellent entry point for the Mehri language in general, and the Omani dialect in particular, it suffers from two major issues: 1) a lack of detailed phonological description; and 2) a lack of interlinear glosses and morpheme separation.
The lack of phonological detail is understandable, given the grammar's reliance on texts. Still, this lack of detail is unfortunate, precisely because Semitic grammars so often ignore distinctions in vowel quality and stress in favor of consonantal distinctions and morphophonology.
The lack of clear morpheme segmentation and interlinear glosses, however, is detrimental to the non-specialist. While the morphosyntax is well-covered and described, the syntactic descriptions are often opaque due to limited morpheme segmentation (e.g. bound prepositions are segmented, but pronominal suffixes and verbal agreement inflections are not) and the lack of a clear indication of what particular words in a sentence mean. Rubin's discussion of tenses, moods, and participle forms in in Chapter 7, for example, suffers from this lack of interlinear glosses and morpheme segmentation. While the lack of exhaustively segmented glosses follows from Stroomer (1996), this lack of glosses makes it difficult to identify the complexities of the sentences with which these topics are illustrated. General linguists and non-semiticists may need to consult Johnstone's Mehri Lexicon and English-Mehri word list (1987) in order to fully understand cited examples. Ungrammatical examples are generally not provided, as the examples all come from a closed corpus.
One unfortunate typo hinders the discussion of the second 'reflexive' (s hacek) stem on page 102 since its templatic form doesn't correspond to the given occuring forms.
Overall, this volume is a solid description of Omani Mehri morphology for semiticists, which goes beyond Johnstone’s (1987) original description. Hopefully this publication will lead to more interest in the endangered South Arabian languages and provide a springboard for further documentation and preservation efforts as well as work on the influence of Arabic on Mehri and other South Arabian languages.
Johnstone, T. M. 1987. Mehri lexicon and English-Mehri word-list. London: School of Oriental and African Studies.
Lonnet, Antione & Marie-Claude Simeone-Senelle. 1997. La phonologie des langues sudarabiques modernes. In Alan Kaye (ed). Phonologies of Asia and Africa, Volume 1. 337-372. Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns.
Sima, Alexander. 2009. Mehri-Texte aus der jemenitischen Šarqīyah. Janet Watson and Werner Arnold (eds). Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz.
Simeone-Senele, Marie-Claude. 1997. The Modern South Arabian languages. In Robert Hetzron (ed). The Semitic Languages. 378-423. London: Routledge.
Stroomer, Harry (ed). 1996. Mehri texts collected by the late T. M. Johnstone. In Shlomo Izre'el & Shlomo Raz (eds). Israel Oriental Studies XVI. Studies in modern Semitic languages. 271-288. Leiden: Brill.
Stroomer, Harry (ed). 1999. Mehri texts from Oman. Based on the field materials of T. M. Johnstone. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz.
Watson, Janet. 2009. Annexion, attribution and genitives in Mahriyyot. In: Watson, Janet & Retsö, Jan (eds.) Relative clauses and genitive constructions in Semitic. Oxford: Oxford. 229-244
Watson, Janet & Bellem, Alex. 2011. Glottalisation and neutralisation in Yemeni Arabic and Mehri: An acoustic study. In: Hassan, Zeki Majeed and Heselwood, Barry. Instrumental Studies in Arabic Phonetics. Benjamins: Amsterdam, Holland. 436-452.
Watson, Janet & Bellem, Alex. 2010. A detective story: Emphatics in Mehri. Proceedings of the Seminar for Arabian Studies 40. 345-356.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
Kevin Schluter holds a BA in Religious Studies and Classical and Near
Eastern Archaeology, an MA in Linguistics from the University of Minnesota,
and an MA in Linguistics from the University of Arizona. He is currently a
PhD student in Linguistics at the University of Arizona. His research
focuses on theoretical and experimental approaches to complex and
non-concatenative morphology, particularly as found in the Semitic languages.