The Mehri language of Oman

The Mehri language of Oman. By Aaron Rubin. (Studies in Semitic languages and linguistics 58.) Leiden: Brill, 2010. pp. xx, 364. ISBN 9789004182639. $153 (Hb).

Reviewed by Michael W. Morgan, Indira Gandhi National Open University

Mehri is the largest of six so-called Modern South Arabian Languages (MSAL), and is spoken by well over 100,000 speakers in Yemen and Oman. These languages, although spoken in the Arabian peninsula and heavily influenced by bilingualism and long contact with varieties of Arabic, are in fact either a separate branch of West Semitic or perhaps more closely related to the Semitic languages of Ethiopia.

This book is a corpus-based descriptive grammar of Omani Mehri based on Harry Stroomer’s Mehri texts from Oman: Based on the field materials of T.M. Johnstone (1999), supplemented by T.M. Johnstone’s Mehri lexicon and English-Mehri word-list, (1987). Other published material on Yemeni Mehri dialects, Hasusi, and other related MSALs (especially interesting when the same texts exist in Yemeni Mehri or Hasusi) and comparative material from Arabic are also presented as appropriate. As much of Johnstone’s audio material still exists (albeit often of limited value), in cases of doubt the text versions were checked against the audio, and an appendix of suggested corrections to Stroomer’s edition is given (311–30). All the over 1000 text passages cited in the grammar are also indexed (341–60).

The bulk of the grammar is dedicated to morphology, organized in a traditional manner: pronouns (31–57), nouns (59–75), adjectives (77–88), verbs (stems: 89–120, tenses and forms: 121–71), prepositions (173–208), numerals (209–18), adverbs (219–223), interrogatives (225–233), and particles (235–58). The description of phonology is relatively brief (13–30) and the treatment of syntax, while somewhat longer, is also cursory (259–305). The brevity of the phonology presentation is dictated by the poor quality of the corpus data, and the chapter on syntax, entitled ‘Some syntactic features’ is a syntactic hodgepodge. Fortunately, both phonology and syntax have been treated more extensively in other works. Throughout the grammar all points are accompanied by copious examples from the corpus (Johnstone’s 106 texts).

As the Semitic languages are very similar, there will be few surprises. However, especially to those not familiar with the other literature on MSALs, there will be points of contrast. This volume is of immense value and is sure to be of great use to all Semiticists, as it is the first complete detailed descriptive grammar of a MSAL in any of our lifetimes. One also imagines its value for scholars of the Yemen and Oman dialects of Arabic, as one suspects substratal influence in the opposite direction. It is also a pleasure for those of us, Semiticist or not, who savor a good reference grammar on an unfamiliar language.