Review of The Mehri Language of Oman
|AUTHOR: Rubin, Aaron D.
TITLE: The Mehri Language of Oman
SERIES: Studies in Semitic Languages and Linguistics
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
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.
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.