Al-Sosowah’s Study of Yemeni Dialects

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The study of modern Arabic dialects is based on a modernist linguistic awareness that can be summarized with the sentence that the founder of modern linguistics uses to conclude one of his most important works. Ferdinand de Saussure said, in the closing sentence of Course in General Linguistics, that “linguistics has as its unique and true object the language envisioned in itself and for itself”. This vision gives every language, every dialect, and every level of language the same legitimacy when being studied, because it better represents the actual human use of language. The objective of this modernist view is to discover language in itself, leading to a rejection of a preference for formal or official language over dialects, of a preference of a literature-oriented use of language over other uses, of the idea that common dialects are deviations and aberrations from the formal language, and of the idea that the formal level of language is the correct or better usage while other usages are lesser.

Photo Courtesy of Abbas al-Sosowah

Al -Sosowah’s Curriculum Vitae
Abbas Ali Muhamamd al-Sosowah was born in 1959 in the village of Yafrus in the Jabal Habshi district of Taiz governorate. He received a Bachelor of Literature degree in 1981 from the Faculty of Arts at Cairo University, then received a doctorate from the same faculty in 1989, with a dissertation on ‘The Levels of Arabic Language Usage in the Modern Yemeni Press, 1980–1984’. He is a former professor of linguistics in the Faculty of Arts in Taiz University and a current professor of linguistics at King Khalid University in Abha. His administrative positions include: Dean of the Faculty of Arts in Taiz (1996–1998), Dean of the Language Center in Taiz (1999–2001), Dean of the Faculty of Education (2001–2003), and the Dean of the Faculty of Arts in Taiz (2007–2011).

Al-Sosowah’s Approach to Yemeni Dialects
Professor al-Sosowah, as far as we know, has studied and researched Yemeni dialects more than any other Yemeni academic. His work in this field started with his Master’s thesis on ‘The Dialect of Dhamar: A Descriptive Phonological Study’. He then published two specialized books on Yemeni dialects after getting his doctorate. The first, Studies in Yemeni Dialects (Dar Ubadi, Sana’a, 2007), is divided into three sections. Each section discusses a phenomenon of the dialects, or a certain field (like the morphological level), and each section includes a number of topics in that field. The second book is titled Qad in Yemeni Dialects – Research in Structures, Grammar, and Lexical Borrowing (Dar Ubadi, Sana’a, 2012), and is divided into six sections that are similar to the sections that were presented in his first book.

His efforts in studying dialects also include his book The Description of the Seven Musha’tatat (Dar Ubadi, Sana’a, 2012), which was different from his two previous books, unique because it brings together a number of topics: folk literature and linguistics that mainly address Yemeni dialects and, to a lesser extent, classical Arabic and humor. In this book, al-Sosowah collects seven children’s nursery rhymes from folklore all over Yemen and writes them in the dialect of Taiz (where the author was born and raised). Al-Sosowah then explains these nursery rhymes and discusses the linguistic issues relating to them. The humor of the book starts with its title, where ‘al-Musha’tat’ means, in the Yemeni dialect, something that is torn or tattered, so the title of the book is a satire of the title of a classical Arabic book, The Description of the Seven Mu’allaqat.

Exploration and Examination in His Research
Al-Sosowah’s studies are unique in that they follow the phenomenon being studied in more than just its appearance, and he is keen not to fall into generalizations caused by extrapolation. This can be seen from the large number of sources and references that he uses to study these phenomena, and these references are mixed between those that are in classical Arabic or Yemeni dialects, or those that provide texts in the Yemeni dialect. These sources include references on Yemeni history, like Durar Nahwr al-‘Ain (The Pearls of Huris’ Necks) by Jahaf, Hawliat al-Na’mi al-Tahamiah (The Tihami Chronicles) by al-Na’mi, Hadiyat al-Zaman (Time Guidance) by al-Abdali, Al-Fadhl Al-Mazeed (The Ever-increasing Bliss) by Ibn al-Dayba’ al-Shaybani, Tareekh Thaghr Aden (The History of Aden) by Ba Makhramah, and others, and compilations of poetry by Yemeni poets, like Tarjee’ Al Atyar by Al Ansi, and Ful Naysan by Jahaf. His references include collections of poetry manuscripts, like Diwan al -Qarah, Diwan al- Khafanji, and The Poems of Abdullah Munqidhi by Munqidhi, as well as works that were written by contemporary Yemeni writers, like Thawrat al-Ju’ (The Hunger Revolution) by al-Dhahbani, al-Thawrah wa al-Nafaq al-Muzlim (The Revolution and the Dark Tunnel) by al-Tayyib, Ryah al-Taghiyyer fi al-Yaman (The Winds of Change in Yemen) by al -Shami, and others. There are also compilations of Yemeni sayings and idioms, like Popular Sayings in Yafi’, and Yemeni songs, either those that are written, like al-Masdar al-Mufid fi Ghinaa Lahj al-Jadid (The Useful Reference in New Songs of Lahj) by al-Qamandan, or contemporary recorded songs. The references also include books that were written on Yemeni dialects or Arab dialects in general, whether these books were academic books that were written by Arabs and orientalists, or if they were non-academic books. All this is in addition to what he used from information he was told personally by around thirty informants, who he included in the introduction to his book Qad in Yemeni Dialects, with their names and their dates of birth to show the generation that they were a part of.

Another example of his exploration of these subjects is his research into two Yemeni verb forms and measures, fi’yl and tifi’al. He examined their use in the 4th century Hijri in the standard Arabic poetry by al-Mutannabi and a number of his contemporaries, like Abu Firas al-Hamdani, Abu Alabbas al-Na’ami, al-Sirri al-Rafa’a, Kushajim, and Yatīmat ud-Dahr by al-Tha’labi, and could not find a trace of these two Yemeni verb forms. Among his survey work, he mentioned research on Indian Words in Yemeni Dialects from when he visited a number of Yemeni governorates.

Artwork by Maha al-Omari

Diversity in Addressing Yemeni Dialects
The levels at which al-Sosowah addressed Yemeni dialects were diverse. For example, he addressed phonology in his Master’s thesis, ‘The Dialect of Dhamar: A Descriptive Phonological Study’, and addressed phonology in his research on Yemeni dialects borrowing from Turkish and Indian languages when writing on the transformation that happens to sounds and pronunciation when borrowing.

He has conducted a lot of research in the field of morphology. He conducted research into the verb forms of fi’yl and tifi’al, which are forms that have been specific to Yemeni dialects for a long time. He also researched the plural form fi’eel, which is specific to Yemeni dialects, and he researched the forms of mif’al and mif’alah as names for a place or source, showing that these two forms are present and at times overlap in classical Arabic, but they do not compare to the prevalence in Yemeni dialects. The use of the form of mif’al comes to signify a place, like how mihwat means a place to sell howt (fish). This form can also be used to signify a natural phenomenon, like midhyah (meaning smooth rocks that people might slip on), and the form can also be used to signify an area that has a lot of a specific thing, like mitlah (which means an area that has many talh, acacia trees), among other meanings. Al-Sosowah has conducted research on the structures of plural forms and sources, where he discusses the forms of morphological phenomena that are specific to Yemeni dialects, including when the letter ya’ (ي) is used to signify a singular noun, such as buqri meaning a single cow and ghurabi meaning a single crow. This research also included use of the form fa’oul as plural, like turouq for the plural of roads, and the use of taf’oul to signify the source, like tas’our to signify price, or tas’ir.

In the field of grammar, al-Sosowah discussed the use of the letter shin to signify negation, and there are three forms for this. The first form is the use of ma + the verb + shin, like ma aqbalsh to mean “I will not accept this”. The second form is mafish/mabish + the verb, and the third form is mish + the negation. He has also researched additions in Yemeni dialects, and he addresses two topics. The first is keeping the letter nun that is added to plural forms, like mudariseen and muharibeen. The second form is the removal of additional structures using the tool haqq.

In the lexical field, he researches smoking terminology in Smoke in the Yemeni Dialect – A Lexical Study. This research examines words mentioned in the earliest usage that he found, and it presents the words, along with the resources that they were mentioned in, whether this resource is Yemeni poetry or a book on Yemeni history. These words include al-mada’ah, which is the name for hookah or narguile, al-qarqarah, which is the sound made by a hookah, al-nakhs, which is a single inhalation of smoke from a hookah, and mawla’i, which is a term used for someone who is addicted to al-mada’ah. If the word is borrowed, the author mentions the language that it is borrowed from, including titin, which means tobacco leaves, which has its origins in the Turkish tütün, and bouri, which means the clay pot that the tobacco is placed in, with its origin from the Turkish buruzan and burizn.

He has also conducted research in the field of lexical borrowing in Yemeni dialects, like Indian Words in Yemeni Dialects. In the introduction, he says it is “the first study that addresses foreign words in Yemeni dialects and studies them from various aspects”. It also, as he refers to it, differs from research that only lists the words or shows the pronunciation as it is without showing the origin of the term, showing that the English or Italian words might have been borrowed from Indian. He also had a title called The Remains of Turkish Words in the Yemeni Dialect, which addresses Turkish words and their significance, including evidence of its meaning, what has changed, and how it has changed. The research also mentions the fields of the borrowed words: military (bayadah, lughm, qunbulah, and tabour), construction (kuraik and kharasanah), household items (jardal, tawah, and burduq), food (shawarma and buraik), government administration (jumruk, damghah, and basmah), as well as a few other fields.

Among the most important and largest studies that al-Sosowah conducted is Linguistic Variations in Yemen. It starts with a lengthy theoretical introduction to linguistic levels and the concept of ‘diglossia’. The study takes a critical look at previous studies in the same field and addresses “the overall context affecting language-related life in Yemen”. It starts by showing the role of the September 1962 revolution in ending the internal and external isolation of the country, by making it easier to move around inside the country and spread modern forms of media, the oldest and most dangerous of which is the radio, as well as public education in cities, villages and formal gatherings. Formal gatherings here meaning people from different areas gathered in the same place, such as in the army or military colleges. It can also mean government employees moving from one area to another. Then the study discusses the outcome of the division of linguistic levels in Yemen, which is divided into five levels: classical Arabic, contemporary Arabic, the vernacular used by intellectuals, the vernacular used by the enlightened, and the vernacular used by the illiterate. The author discusses the characteristics of each level, in vocabulary and method, and provides texts from each level, especially the last levels (the vernacular used by intellectuals, the vernacular used by the enlightened, and the vernacular used by the illiterate), which are the ones most mixed in with Yemeni dialects.

Another Aspect of Attention to Yemeni Dialects
Another aspect of al-Sosowah’s attention to Yemeni dialects can be seen in his supervision of a number of researchers during their Master’s and doctorate thesis work in the field of Yemeni dialects, or in the field of contemporary Yemeni dialects. Graduate students are usually influenced by their professors in their choice of topics, and this is reflected, in many cases, with that professor being appointed as their advisor during their research. Among the theses that al-Sosowah was an advisor to, alone or in partnership with another professor, are:

1. The Language of the Yemeni Market – A Sociolinguistic Study, Master’s Degree Thesis, by Muneer Abdoh Ahmad Ali, 2008.
2. The Language of Yemeni Proverbs, Master’s Degree Thesis, by Tareq Fadhl Ali al-Hajj, 2011.
3. The Dialect of al-Baydha – A Study into Morphological and Grammatical Phenomena, Ph.D. Thesis by Abd Rabboh Taher Ahmad al-Humaiqani, 2011.
4. The Dialect of Yafi’ – A Study into Morphological and Grammatical Phenomena, Ph.D. Thesis by Sanad Muhammad Abdulqawi Salem, 2013.
5. Idiomatic Expressions in the Language in Humaini Poetry Until the End of the 13th Century Hijri, Master’s Degree Thesis by Itab Abdulqadir Ahmad al-Futaih, 2014.
6. Agricultural Expressions in Parts of the Taiz Governorate – Study and Lexicon, Ph.D. Thesis by Muneer Abdoh Ahmad Ali, 2014.
7. Morphological Phenomena in the Dialects of Tehama – Using the Al Hashabirah Dialect as an Example, Master’s Degree Thesis by Ahmad Ali Hasan al-Hushaibiri, 2014.

A final aspect of his attention to dialects is his examination of a number of Master’s and doctorate theses on Yemeni dialects in Yemeni and Arab universities. He also wrote critical articles and book reviews in the study of Yemeni dialects, specifically, and Arabic dialects, in general.

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Khaled al-Absi

A Yemeni writer, poet and academic. He got his Master’s degree in Arabic Language and Literature from Sana’a University, then got his Ph.D. in the field of linguistics from the College of Languages in Sana’a University. His Ph.D. thesis was on Monosystemic Principle and Its Effect on Arabic Grammar. Al-Absi has published a number of books: Stress in Arabic (2010), and two travel books, A Trip to Cuba (2010) and A Yemeni in Southeast Asia (2006), a story collection, Wa Alam Adha’at Hasrataha, and ‘Pains that Lost their Magicians’, which won the Dubai Cultural Award in 2013. Khalid is a member of the Yemeni Writers’ Union.

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