KUMZARI TONGUE CONSISTS OF ANCIENT WORDS WITH A FUTURE
Their parents later explain to us in clear Omani Arabic that their language is strong. But what really validates the point is that whenever they confer before answering our questions, it is always in Kumzari.
All this defies what has been an otherwise one-way process in which the overwhelming majority of the more than 6,000 languages spoken globally are headed for extinction, pushed into obscurity by the dominance of the top five languages: English, Mandarin, Spanish, Arabic and Hindi.
At first blush, Kumzari ticks every box on the checklist for languages that should be facing extinction: it’s a purely verbal rather than written language, it’s only spoken by a few thousand people, its speakers are all bilingual, it cannot be used to communicate with the outside world, the education system is only in Arabic, and the children have access to satellite television and the internet.
So why is Kumzari doing well when so many other languages are not?
The way village elders such as Abdullah Kumzari react to the question makes it seem faintly irrelevant. His explanation boils down to this: it’s just Kumzari. They don’t know for certain where it came from but they’ve always spoken it and they will always speak it.
“It’s not going to be extinct, because when a child is born and finds the mother, father, siblings and everyone else talking the same way, of course it won’t be lost,” he says.
“Children … have many years at home before they go anywhere. So [Kumzari] will always be around.
“It hasn’t changed. It’s the same from our ancestors’ time, we inherited it from them, but where they got it from we don’t know.
“We can’t give you a date. It could be hundreds or thousands [of years], maybe millions of years ago. We can’t give a day but it was a long time ago. This is proof that there were a lot of people living here for a long time.”
Another elder, Mohammed Abdullah Kumzari, says the origins of the language remain obscure but only those from Kumzar can speak or understand it.
“Some say [it’s from] Portugal, some say French, even we don’t know where it came from,” he adds.
“An Englishman came to us once, took a small can, filled it with rocks and shook it, then gave it to us saying: ‘This is your dialect – it’s everything.’
“There isn’t anywhere else that speaks Kumzari but here. In all of the Gulf countries, it’s only here, in this village. You can’t find it anywhere else.”
Even trained linguists struggle to determine the language’s exact origins, other than it’s a reflection of Kumzar’s location right on the Strait of Hormuz, one of the crossroads of civilisations for millennia.
Early theories included that it was the aboriginal pre-Semitic language of this part of Arabia that was supplanted by the spread of Arabic, or that it was related to the now-extinct Himyaritic language of Yemen.
The first serious analysis was in 1930 by Bertram Thomas, an English civil servant who worked throughout the region. He dismissed the earlier theories and determined Kumzari was “largely a compound of Arabic and Persian, but is distinct from them both [and] as spoken is comprehensible neither to the Arab nor to the Persian visitor of usual illiteracy”.