LINGUIST List 28.4754

Thu Nov 09 2017

Review: Dhofari Arabic; Semitic; Language Documentation: Davey (2016)

Editor for this issue: Clare Harshey <>

Date: 04-Mar-2017
From: David Wilmsen <>
Subject: Coastal Dhofari Arabic
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Book announced at

AUTHOR: Richard J. Davey
TITLE: Coastal Dhofari Arabic
SUBTITLE: A Sketch Grammar
SERIES TITLE: Studies in Semitic Languages and Linguistics
YEAR: 2016

REVIEWER: David Wilmsen, American University of Sharjah



Richard J. Davey states that his book, “Coastal Dhofari Arabic: A sketch grammar” is “a comprehensive sketch grammar of a hitherto neglected dialect of Arabic” (p.1). Indeed, the Arabic dialects of Oman have suffered scholarly neglect, especially those of southern Oman. A few isolated articles have addressed certain features of a few Omani dialects. Yet, since Brockett’s 1985 partial description of a northern Omani coastal dialect, Davey’s is one of only two book-length descriptions of any variety of Omani Arabic. The second is a dissertation defended in the same year as Davey’s book release (Bettega 2016), the volume under review being a published version with little change or revision of Davey’s own 2013 University of Manchester dissertation. The only other complete grammars of Omani Arabic were produced at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries (Reinhardt 1894; Rhodokanakis 1908 & 1911), Rhodokanakis being the sole description of a southern Omani dialect. Each of those was conducted outside Oman and relied upon only two informants. In contrast, Davey’s study has the merit of having been conducted in situ with informants residing in the coastal areas of Dhofār.

The book comprises ten chapters: An introduction, in which Davey delineates the aim and scope of the study, gives a brief overview of the geography and history of the Dhofār region; discusses its linguistic diversity, conducts a critical review of the literature, especially of the work of Rhodokanakis, and ends with a description of methodology, and participant demographics. The eight succeeding chapters present a characteristic descriptive grammar of coastal Dhofari Arabic (CDA), beginning with chapter 2, which presents the phonology of CDA. Chapters 3 and 4 examine CDA morphology, with 3 dedicated to nominal morphology and noun phrases and 4 presenting verbal morphology. Chapter 5 addresses local relations, temporal relations, and prepositions; 6 adverbs and particles; and 7 syntax. Chapter 9 is a relatively short presentation of lexical matters. Chapter 10, the final, provides four sample texts in CDA and their English glosses. Appropriately sandwiched between syntax and the lexicon is Chapter 8, devoted to grammaticalization in CDA. It is only here that Davey enters into the realm of theory. This is appropriate and typical of dialect grammars, which oftentimes involve purely descriptive presentations of their data free of any overt theoretical orientation. Accordingly, Davey admits to saving “comment for any theoretical frameworks … to the relevant chapters where appropriate” (p. 2).

Accordingly, the book, while directed primarily at Arabic linguistics, will also furnish a representative introduction to the linguistic structures of Arabic in general. Davey’s stated intentions intimate as much:

One of my key intentions in carrying out this study was to provide a set of linguistic data which could be accessed by other researchers, and presented in such a way as to promote the inclusion of coastal Dhofari Arabic data in any wider linguistic study. (p. 3)

With that, his workmanlike presentation of the basic functioning of CDA phonological, morphological, and syntactic features should be easily assimilable to general linguists as an introduction to spoken Arabic in general.


Arabic dialectology has by default taken the work of Rhodokanakis as the definitive account of the main Arabic dialect of southern Oman. With Davey’s more complete work, we now have a coherent description of a second major southern dialect. Just in time, too. For, as Davey describes it, the Arabic dialect spoken in the coastal areas of the southernmost governorate of Oman, Dhofār, is on the wane. It is not exactly going extinct; rather it is being supplanted by or absorbed into an Arabic lingua franca that has, with the introduction of education in the 1970s and the influx of Arabic-speaking migrants from other locales, come to prevail in social interactions outside the home.

According to Davey, this lingua franca is what he calls “Modern Standard Arabic” (MSA), identifying that variety as the language of education, officialdom (p. 9), and the media (pp. 11 & 19–20) in Oman (as, indeed, it is in all Arabophone countries). What he fails to make clear is that MSA is not the natively spoken language of anyone but is acquired through education and used primarily in writing or in declamation. A direct descendent of a formal language of elocution, oratory, and oracle, codified in the early centuries of the Arab/Islamic civilization, it has changed little since then. Yet, to the uninitiated, Davey’s presentation of the uses of MSA in Dhofar would likely give the impression that this “standard” Arabic might be a de-regionalised spoken dialect (in Arabic linguistics, called a “koine”).

Complicating this picture is that southern Arabia is home to several Semitic minority languages, collectively called Modern South Arabian, the designation “Arabian” indicating their location and not their distant relationship to Arabic. These languages are oftentimes also abbreviated MSA. To distinguish between the two, Davey uses the abbreviation MSAL for the Modern South Arabian languages. The speakers of these languages, who by necessity must use Arabic for daily interactions outside their own homes and communities are, he says, “competent if not fluent speakers of what can best be described as Modern Standard Arabic, most notably in the generations who have received formal education since the 1980s” (p. 19).

Yet Davey seems to say of the native speakers of other dialects of Arabic, who have migrated into the region from northern Oman, Yemen, and the other Gulf nations, that their lingua franca is not quite MSA. Instead, “the register of spoken Arabic appeared raised to a more formal level of features which approached Modern Standard Arabic” (p. 20). As for the native speakers of CDA themselves, they apparently only speak their local dialect at home or in social gatherings in which most participants are locals. Otherwise, they, too, speak MSA, according to Davey:

All Dhofari Arabic dialects … are quickly being supplanted by MSA. The process of modernisation, and the introduction of education and government using a standardized, formal register of Arabic since the mid-1970s, has restricted the domain in which coastal Dhofari Arabic is now spoken. Arguably, its social and economic function is also waning as a result, as MSA becomes the more influential variety outside of the home. (pp. 20–21)

Davey appears to imply that, although no one is a native speaker of MSA, most Dhofaris educated since the 1970s speak it conversationally outside the home. This is simply unheard of elsewhere. If it were true, it would be a remarkable success for the Omani education system, unique in the Arabophone world, being an achievement that has eluded the ministries of education of any other country in the region, most of which have been attempting to attain such a goal since well before the mid-1970s. This cries out for further investigation from linguists interested in standard languages; from education specialists of the Arabophone world, who are keen to enforce MSA as the standard written and spoken language in their respective bailiwicks; and certainly from Arabic sociolinguists, who have been positively obsessed with the interplay between the Arabic of writing and the Arabic of speech since before sociolinguistics became a named discipline.

Against this, Holes, whom Davey’s cites frequently, sees “no likelihood … of [MSA] ever becoming the everyday form of spoken Arabic for ordinary people” (2012: 248) in Oman. Rather, there is an emerging “regional standard dialect” predominating in all the major cities of the Gulf, including Muscat, “increasingly marked by … the ‘levelling out’ of local peculiarities in favour of a form of speech that is recognizably ‘Gulf’ but not readily identifiable with any particular Gulf country” (2016: 268). Johnstone, whose work Davey also acknowledges, was, in the nineteen-sixties, already aware of a “local version of the pan-Arab koine … based on one of the high-prestige dialects or on literary Arabic” (1967: xxviii). So, too, have Arabic sociolinguists long been familiar with the usage of educated speakers of the language, who hew assiduously to their native spoken dialects when conversing, the while eschewing particularly localised vernacularisms and, depending upon the topic of conversation, resorting to technical vocabulary lifted from the more formal registers of written discourse. Perhaps this is the situation that Davey is trying to describe.

What is more, on the operating assumption that MSA is analogous to an older form of Arabic, Davey frequently poses it as a point of comparison for CDA. This remains a matter of debate within Arabic linguistics. Nor does the analogy always hold. It is likely true of most of the consonant inventory of CDA, which, with few exceptions does share its consonants with MSA (Watson 2002: 13), when declaimed aloud, including the interdentals [ð] and [θ], realized in many other dialects as [z] or [d] and [t] or [s] respectively. Likewise that pronounced in CDA and declaimed MSA as a voiceless uvular stop [q] (p. 45). This one of the most variable amongst Arabic dialects, commonly exhibiting the reflexes [q], [g], [k], [ʤ], and [ʔ]. It is generally reconstructed to a Proto-Semitic [q] (Watson 2002: 17), meaning that its realization as [q] is likely an original feature. On the other hand, the voiced velar stop [g] of CDA (ibid), variously realized in the dialects as [g], [ʤ], [ʒ], or [j], among others. Often characterized as an emblematic feature of Egyptian Arabic, sometimes considered innovative in that locale (Woidich and Zack 2009), its presence in Yemen and Oman marks it as the older form, likely original to Proto-Semitic (Watson 2002: 3 & 15–16). That would mean that the [ʤ] as it is realized in declamations of MSA is the later innovation. The presence of these two consonants and the interdentals marks CDA as an ancient variety of Arabic, perhaps predating the variety that eventually became MSA.

Such objections are likely of more concern to the dialectology and historical linguistics of Arabic than they are to the wider field of linguistics.

Accordingly, Davey’s presentation of CDA phonology and morphology is a straightforward treatment of the root and pattern system of Arabic in general, but he is always keen to remark features of interest to Arabists that general linguistics might find unremarkable. One of these is the elision of unstressed vowels in open syllables, yielding word-initial two-consonant clusters (discussed in sections 2.7 – 2.7.3): CCVC. This is a shared feature of many of the spoken Arabic varieties of Oman (Holes 1989: 448–9 & 452–4; 1996: 39–40 & 43). It applies to nouns as well as verbs, resulting in the reduction of the characteristic basic verb template CaCaC to an initial consonant cluster and a lengthened second vowel: CCāC (pp. 111–112). This is rare in other Arabic varieties and impermissible in MSA. So, too, are the CDA three-consonant clusters at morpheme boundaries, of the shape CvCC-Cv(C), discussed in 2.7.4.

Likewise, the treatment of demonstratives in section 3.5.2., will add to the inventories of such things attracting attention in Arabic historical linguistics (cf. Magidow 2016), but would likely be of purely typological interest to general linguistics. So, too, would the discussion of the obscure existential particle šē (section 7.1.4). This, too, will add to the inventory of numerous existential particles known to Arabic (Eid 2008: 84), again, just in time, as it, too, appears to be on the wane in favour of another common Arabic existential deriving from a preposition (fī), meaning ‘in’ (Holes 1990: 71). Davey appears to be aware of this (p. 171, n. 2).

With the discussion of grammaticalization, general linguists will feel themselves more at home. Davey begins the chapter with a summary overview of grammaticalization theory, illustrating it with examples from Arabic, then narrowing the discussion to Semitic languages first, followed by the particulars of CDA, justifying this by claiming rightly, ‘the provision of further data [i.e., from CDA] adds to the existing corpus of data” (p. 226). Even here, however, the grams that Davey addresses fit themselves more readily into the dialogue about Arabic, even while his clear discussions of them will certainly achieve his aim of making them accessible to linguists attentive to grammaticalization theory. This is especially so of the analytic genitive construction (AGC), a widely discussed phenomenon in Arabic dialectology, familiar to general linguistics for its prominence in English. Davey eschews the term, almost exclusive to Arabic linguistics, “genitive exponent” in favour of the more general “linker” precisely “in order to facilitate clearer cross-linguistic comparison” (p. 227, n. 4). Contrary to the conclusion of the major work on the AGC in Arabic dialects (Harning 1980), basing itself upon Rhodokanakis, that, “the AGC is essentially absent from the dialect” (p. 228), which Davey attributes “to the lack of published data on Omani dialects as a whole” (ibid), he finds:

The AGC is far more common in CDA than was previously thought, and can express a variety of different possessive relationships. Perhaps what is more striking is that … [two forms] … are used in AGCs, whereas in other Arabic dialects only a single possessive linker occurs. The existence of two possessive linkers in CDA may be the remnants of a more complex historical system. (ibid)


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David Wilmsen is Head of the Arabic and Translation Studies Department at the American University of Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates. He has spent more than twenty years in the Arabophone world, at the American University of Beirut and the American University in Cairo. His research interests encompass the history of the Arabic dialects; their relationship to MSA; and the development of various syntactic features, especially object markers, interrogatives, negators, and existential particles. He is currently involved in documenting the Levantine Arabic features in the peripheral Arabic variety Maltese and in exploring manifestations of the Arabic negative existential cycle.

Page Updated: 09-Nov-2017