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On What is Attributed to Yemeni Dialects in Classical Arabic Books

A translated version of this piece is Available in: العربية (Arabic)

This article is part of a series spotlighting academic research in and on Yemen. Dr. Khalid al-Absi reviews Al-Mansoob Ila Lajahat al-Yaman fi Kutub al-Turath al-‘Arabi: DIrasah Laghawiyah Tahliliyah (On What is Attributed to Yemeni Dialects in Classical Arabic Books: An Analytic-Linguistic Study) by Professor Ali al-Mekhlafi.[1] Professor al-Mekhlafi currently lectures at the Faculty of Arts in Sana’a University. He has guided and supervised dozens of Masters and Doctorate students in language and grammar, and has held a number of administrative positions in academia, including Head of the Arabic Language Department at the Science and Technology University, Dean of the Language Center at Sana’a University, Deputy Dean for Graduate Studies and Academic Research at Sana’a University, and Vice President for Academic Affairs at Ta’izz University. He is currently a member of the academic council for the Doha Historical Dictionary of Arabic. His research publications include Textual Means of Attestation in Lisan Al-Arab by Ibn Manzur[2] (an analytic-linguistic study) and The Poetic Citations in the Tafsir of al-Shawkani.[3]

The importance of studying ancient Arabic dialects

Al-Mansoob Ila Lajahat al-Yaman fi Kutub al-Turath al-‘Arabi: DIrasah Laghawiyah Tahliliyah by Ali Mohammed Ghaleb al-Mekhlafi seeks to attain an integrated view of ancient Arabic dialects as well as understand the extent to which they contributed to the construction of the body of fusha (modern standard Arabic). It removes part of the ambiguity surrounding the Arabic of the Qur’an, and sheds light on the history of Arabic fusha and its stages of development. At the same time, it also reveals the origins of contemporary Arabic dialects. Al-Mekhlafi believes that despite Arab and European researchers approaching subjects related to Arabic dialects, they have not explored the influence of ancient Yemeni dialects on fusha, especially their verbal aspects.[4]

Despite the past significance, difficulties stand in the way of researching Yemeni dialects; primarily, the lack of sufficient dialect material that includes aspects of sound, structure and significance. There are fragments of such material in heritage books and other pieces, but they do not constitute a complete dialect; and what is attributed to Yemeni dialects in heritage books is presented in generalized form without reference to a specific tribe. This generalization and fragmentation has forced researchers to treat what was attributed to Yemen as a single complete unit of dialect, which assumes that the dialect attributes reached us in writing. Therefore an essential aspect of it had disappeared: that which is related to pronunciation. This is significant as it is important to note that our ancestors did not use a writing system with accurate symbols – which no doubt creates a gap in this body of research.

Artwork by Linah al-Amoudi

The multi-dimensional relationship between ancient Yemeni and Fusha

A famous proverb that depicts this relationship is by an Arab leader from a class of Sibawayh Sheikhs, Abū ʿAmr ibn al-ʿAlā: “Ma Lisan Himir wa Aqasi al-Yaman bi Lisanina, wala ‘Arabiyatahun bi-‘Arabiyatana” (The Himyarites and the far reaches of Yemen do not speak with our tongue, and their Arabism is not our Arabism). Al-Mekhlafi finds that this opinion is echoed by other ancient scholars, like al-Jahiz, Ibn Khaldun and al-Hamdani.[5]

Al-Mekhlafi conveys the disagreement of contemporaries on the relationship between the ancient Yemeni language and Arabic fusha,[6] mentioning that they were of two opinions. There are those who saw a clear distinction between Yemeni and Arabic, among whom is leading scholar Dr. Taha Hussein who discussed in his book On Pre-Islamic Poetry the linguistic difference between Qahtanite and Ahdanite languages. He explains that the link between Himyarite language and Arabic is similar to the link between Arabic and any other Semitic language, and that Himyarite inscriptions convey the fundamental disagreement between it and fusha. Indeed, Hussein went so far as to question the Arabism of the South Peninsula.

And there are others who adopted a different opinion, including Dr. Abdulaziz al-Maqaleh who tackled the matter of the Arabism of the South Peninsula. He believed that Ibn al-ʿAlā’s statement was rather reckless and exaggerated. He goes on to offer justifications, including that the northern poets often addressed their praises and proverbs to the kings of Yemen in fusha, indicating that it was a mutually understood language between two parties. He goes on to say that the poems of Amr ibn Ma’adi Yakrib al-Zubaīdi, who was undoubtedly from Yemen, can be found in Arabic literature books. Al-Zubaīdi could not have learned Northern Arabic simply by converting to Islam or joining the Army of Conquest (Jaysh al-Fat’h). He mentions the undisrupted linguistic and commercial points of connection between the Northerners and the Southerners, such as the poetry and literature markets held during the pre-Islamic era, some held within Yemen, like al-Shihr Market and Sana’a Market. These points of connection no doubt shortened the distance between the two languages. Also, inscriptions that scholars used to deduce that the ancient Yemeni language differs from fusha go back to much earlier times that precede the era in which pre-Islamic poetry appeared.

Al-Mekhlafi produced additional evidence related to the issue, including that Ibn al-ʿAlā’s statement “‘Arabiyatahun bi-‘Arabiyatana” (Their Arabism is not our Arabism) serves as proof of the Himyarite’s Arabism, and that the narrators have agreed that the Tayy tribe of Yemen was among the Ihtijaj tribes. What was mentioned in the Qur’an from Yemeni Arabic is no longer considered an intrusion – as is considered of the Abyssinian, Aramaic, Syriac and the Persian languages.

While al-Mekhlafi shares the opinion of al-Maqaleh, he claims that the two languages ​​stem from the same source, Arabic. He comments on the doctrine of the ancients in the dimension between the ancient Yemeni language and the fusha, saying: “We may seek to excuse our ancient scholars who have argued that the ancient Yemeni language is not Arabic in any way. They reached this judgment by observing the superficial differences of sound, words, structures or semantics, so they rushed to a conclusion based on the contrast between the two languages ​​without taking the time to conduct a careful and comprehensive comparison to estimate the extent of this difference.”[7] One can add that Ibn al-ʿAlā’s conclusion was not generalized. Rather, we find in it two constraints, one of which is Lisan Himir (the Himyarite tongue), which does not include all of Yemen, and the other is Aqasi al-Yaman (the far reaches of Yemen), indicating the distant regions according to al-ʿAlā’.

Artwork by Linah al-Amoudi

Phenomena in the ancient Yemeni dialects

Among the phenomena attributed to Yemeni dialects that were later discovered to originate from Northern Arabic is the enforcement of muthanna alef (duality in grammar) in every case. This is often found in poetry and in Qur’anic readings, as the following excerpt from a Qur’an verse shows: “In hathani lasahirani” (These two sorcerers) [63]. It could have been phrased as “Ina hathayn lisahiran” (These two are sorcerers), thereby attaching the predicate verb to the muthanna (dual) and the jame’ (plural), indicating duality and pluralism. This linguistic phenomenon was found in poetry and Qur’anic readings, and it is a phenomenon to which the grammarians gave a derogatory description, called the language of ‘Akalooni al-baragheeth’ (Eaten fleas). An example of this is the following excerpt from the Qur’an: “Thumma ‘Amoo wa Sammoo Katheeron Minhom” (But again they turned blind and deaf, many of them) [63]. The basic statement is “thumma ‘Uma wa ‘Summa katheeron Minhom” (but again many turned blind and deaf). Al-Mekhlafi considered the interpretations of the grammarians who attempted to parse the two previous grammatical phenomena in the Qur’an and found that “these interpretations and the excessive syntactic production will not provide anything in the service of the language, its stages of development and its different dialects. This is the result of linguists refusing to acknowledge the existence of certain characteristics of the Arabic dialects in the body of fusha”.[8]

Another attribute to ancient Yemeni dialects is the definite article ‘Um’ (al-ta’rif Umm), which was mentioned in the Hadith “Laysa min ambar amsiyam fi amsafr”[9] (It is not righteous to fast when traveling). The grammarians attached the derogatory label ‘Tamtamaniyah’ to it, meaning ‘resembling the language of the Ajam’. This is a derogatory term like the many others given to certain Arabic dialects, like Kashkashah, ‘An’anah, Taltalah, and Ghamghamah.

What became common in Yemeni dialects is the conjugation of ‘af’ool’, indicating the plural form. This has been used in countries and tribes as well, such as A’boos, Ahkoom, Ashmoor, and A’roosh. Some find this conjugation in the Qur’an: “Qutila ashab al-akhdood” (Woe to the people of the ditch) [Surah Al-Burooj /4]. But the speakers of Northern Arabic have utilized this plural form in accordance with their grammar rules by combining the first vowel. An example would be ‘ahboosh’, used as a plural form of ‘al-habash’ as it appears in al-Ajaj’s diwan: “Bil-ramli ahboosh min al-anbati” (The people of al-Nabat gathered in the desert).

Also attributed to the Yemeni dialects is the conjugation of ‘fa’aal’, indicating source. An example would be “Wa kazhaboo bi ayatina kizzhaban” (And they rejected our signs as false) [Surah Al-Naba’/28] and “La yasma’oona fiha laghwan wala kizzhaban” (No vanity shall they hear therein nor deception) [Surah Al-Naba’/35]. And the conjugation of Arabic words as “takzheeban” (made false)—such as, “kassarah takseeran” (broke into pieces) and “’attalah ta’teelan” (rendered inoperative)—in fusha would still be conjugated as ‘fa’aal’ in many Yemeni dialects today: Kassaar, sillaah, kinnaas, sibbaan, ghissaal, tillaa’, nizzaal, and so on.

Artwork by Linah al-Amoudi

Yemeni words included in classical Arabic books[10]

At the end of his study, al-Mekhlafi provides a list of words he found in books on Arab heritage, but that originated from Yemeni dialects. He lists over 300 words, including:

Al-Azib: Southerly winds.

Al-Bu’ar: Adult buckthorn plant.

Al-Jaribah: A piece of land with limited features.

Al-Hulbah: A plant with yellow seeds, a food of the people of Yemen.

Al-Khirbash: Mixing.

Al-Khoo’: A type of tree.

Daras al-Ta’am: Stepped on.

Al-Sukkham: Charcoal. A popular saying is ‘Sakhhama al-lahu wajhahu’ (God turned his face black), that is, punished him, an indication of anger.

Al-Sanbooq: A small boat operating off the coast.

Al-Shanteerah, al-shuntaray: A finger, a piece of meat.

Al-‘Aqr: Land irrigated only by rain water.

Al-Firsak: Peach fruit.

Al-Quhab: A cough.

Al-Naqeel: An obstacle.

Al-Hurar: Grapes falling before they can be picked.

Artwork by Linah al-Amoudi

Positioning this research in the context of the study of Yemeni dialectsm 1980-2010

Arab universities were established at the beginning of the 20th century, but academic studies (PhD, MA) in contemporary Arabic dialects did not appear until the end of the 1950s.[11] Undoubtedly the delay in the emergence of this type of study is due to the traditional view that had even impacted the Arab academic sphere. This view considers dialects a deviation and distortion from the original representative of our identity: Arabic fusha. It is related to a phobia that sees the study of dialects as a colonial ploy to fight Arabic, “the language of the Qur’an and the nation”, and it calls to colloquialisms. There also appears to be political reservation by academics who consider that the study of dialects reinforces minor identities and threatens the collective national identity.

We find that these reasons played a role in the scarcity of contemporary dialect studies among Yemeni researchers, the first generation of which went abroad. We were presented with two published works in the first half of the 1980s. One was by Abdel-Wahab Rawah, Al-Sawt wal-Dalalah fi al-Jihhat al-Yamaniyah al-Qadimah wal-Mu’asirah (The Voice and the Significance of Yemeni Dialects, Both Ancient and Contemporary).[12] This study combined ancient written and contemporary spoken dialects. The second is Abbas Ali al-Sosowah, Lahjat Dhamar – Dirasah Sawtiyah Wasfiyah (The Dialect of Dhamar: A Descriptive Phonological Study).[13] This research is an introduction to the study of specialized and contemporary spoken Yemeni dialect. Al-Mekhlafi’s 1987 study, discussed in this article, came to be, as far as we know, the third contribution to this field. It was also produced at the University of Sana’a. In the 1990s, we find two studies in this field: the first is Ahmed Salem Al-Dari’s dissertation Al-Lahjah al-Odhaliya wa al-Lloghah al-Fosha (The Odhalyah Dialect and the Fusha Language: Contrastive Study).[14] The second is a Master’s thesis by Abdullah Muhammad al-Qudsi, Lahjat Mintaqat al-Waazi’iyah (The Dialect of the Region of al-Waazi’iyah).[15]

In the 2000s, we find a few studies on dialects produced in Yemeni universities, including: Abdullah Zaid Al-Houthi’s Lahjah Sa’dah – Dirasah Ta’siliyyah (The Saada Dialect: A Fundamental Study),[16] and Yahya Ibrahim Qassem’s Lahjah Wa Saab – Dirasah Laghawiyah Dalaliyah (Dialect and Saab: A Semantic Linguistic Study),[17] and Qasim Mahdi Ahmad Al-Nafi’i’s Lahjat Banee Nafee’ – Dirasah Taqabuliyah ma’ al-Fusha fi al-Saref wal-Tarkib (The Dialect of Bani Nafeh: A Contrastive Study of Fusha in Morphology and Structures).[18]

Other research has adopted modern approaches, whether in the study of sound, morphological structures, syntax or semantic ligatures. Nevertheless, this number is very small when compared to the hundreds of research books produced in Yemeni universities in various language studies from the end of the 1990s until today, indicating that studies in Yemeni dialects remain on the margins of academic achievements.


[1] Al-Mekhlafi, Ali Muhammad, 2004, Al-Mansoob Ila Lajahat al-Yaman fi Kutub al-Turath al-‘Arabi: DIrasah Laghawiyah Tahliliyah (On What is Attributed to Yemeni Dialects in Books on Arab Heritage: An Analytic-Linguistic Study) (The Ministry of Culture and Tourism, Sana’a).

[2] Lisan al-Arab (The Arab Tongue) is a well-known comprehensive classical Arabic dictionary completed in 1290 CE by the Arabic lexicographer Ibn Manzur (1233-1312 CE).

[3] Al-Mekhlafi, Ali Muhammad Ghaleb, 1996, Al-Shahed al-Shi’ree fi Tafsir al-Shawkani (The Poetic Witness in the Interpretation of Al-Shawkani), Journal of Social Studies, The Science and Technology University, Sana’a, Yemen, vol: 1, pp: 1, pp: 150-186.

[4] See Al-Mekhlafi, Al-Mansoob Ila Lajahat al-Yaman fi Kutub al-Turath al-‘Arabi, pp. 5-6.

[5] See Al-Mekhlafi, Al-Mansoob Ila Lajahat al-Yaman fi Kutub al-Turath al-‘Arabi, pp. 62-63.

[6] See Al-Mekhlafi, Al-Mansoob Ila Lajahat al-Yaman fi Kutub al-Turath al-‘Arabi, pp. 66-67.

[7] See Al-Mekhlafi, Al-Mansoob Ila Lajahat al-Yaman fi Kutub al-Turath al-‘Arabi, pp. 63-64.

[8] See Al-Mekhlafi, Al-Mansoob Ila Lajahat al-Yaman fi Kutub al-Turath al-‘Arabi, p. 116.

[9] See Al-Mekhlafi, Al-Mansoob Ila Lajahat al-Yaman fi Kutub al-Turath al-‘Arabi p. 122.

[10] See Al-Mekhlafi, Al-Mansoob Ila Lajahat al-Yaman fi Kutub al-Turath al-‘Arabi pp. 189-201.

[11] Dr. Al-Sosowah mentions relying on the ‘Thesis Guide to the Faculty of Arts at Cairo University’, that the first study in dialects at Cairo University appeared in 1958, and it was a doctoral thesis entitled Lahjat al-Jazeera wa Adaabiha fi al-Sudan (Gezira Dialects and Literature in Sudan) by Abdel Hamid Al-Sayed Talab. See: Al-Sosowah, Abbas Ali, Study of Saudi dialects; Nathra ‘An Qurb (A Closer Look), the magazine of the Arabic Language Academy in Makkah, Sixth ed., Issue 16, March-April 2018, p. 320.

[12] Faculty of Arts, Ain Shams, Egypt 1982.

[13] MA, Faculty of Arts, Cairo University, Egypt 1984.

[14] Ph.D., Faculty of Dar Al-‘Uloom, University of Cairo, Egypt 1998.

[15] MA, Faculty of Arts, Sana’a University, 1997.

[16] PhD, Faculty of Languages and Translation, University Sana’a, 2007.

[17] Ph.D., Faculty of Arts, University of Sana’a, 2007.

[18] MA, University of Aden, College of Education, 2009.

Translated by Nicole Fares
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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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