A NATIVE OMANI LANGUAGE UNDER THREAT
Since the emergence of Islam, the Arabs have predominantly concerned themselves with Arabic, particularly because a comprehensive understanding of the Holy Quran can only be attained via a thorough knowledge of the Arabic language. The result of this focus on Arabic has meant that unfortunately the other languages native to the Southern Arabian Peninsula and specifically to the Sultanate of Oman, have gone undocumented.
Dhofar is famous for its monsoon rains and green mountains, however little is known about either Shehri or Mehri, two Semitic languages native to the region that are still widely spoken in the south. Even within the Sultanate something of a mystery surrounds the languages of Dhofar.
Shehri, which is also known as Jibbali, is a language spoken in the southernmost tip of the Arabian Peninsula which long pre-dates modern Arabic. As a matter of fact Shehri, along with various other Semetic languages native to this region, some of which no longer exist, are considered to be the precursors to modern Arabic. At one point in history Shehri was spoken in an area spanning from Yemen’s Hadhramaut region to Ras Al Hadd in eastern Oman. Although it does not have a written form, Shehri is a comprehensive language complete with grammar.
Until around as little as forty years ago, Shehri was spoken by all of the inhabitants of Dhofar as the common language, including by the native Arabic speakers in Salalah who spoke it fluently. The remainder of Dhofar’s inhabitants all spoke Shehri as their mother tongue. Today however Arabic has taken over as the form of mutual communication in Dhofar and is now exclusively spoken by those to whom it is their native tongue.
Atheer met with Ali Al Shehri, a Shehri language researcher who has written a number of books about Shehri and its origins. He notes that the majority of the Dhofari population are still native Shehri speakers and hence the language is still widely spoken in many households. A number of the older generation of Shehri language speakers, particularly those who live in the mountains, don’t even speak Arabic and it was only around fifty years ago that most of Dhofar’s Shehri speaking population began to learn it. “I remember that it was only when I was an adult that I started speaking Arabic. Until the year 1964 I did not know a single word of Arabic. Not a single word,” recalls Al Shehri.
Ali Al Shehri says that the use of Shehri among the new generation is declining, citing a lack of interest in speaking it, as they turn to Arabic instead. His fear is that if efforts are not made, the language will soon disappear. “We speak Shehri at home, as do most Shehri families. Our kids speak it too, albeit with mistakes, yet the new generation favour Arabic. If things remain as they are, the language will die out,” he says. Al Shehri explains that there are efforts, from among some of the younger generation of native speakers and even from non-Shehri speaking Omanis, to preserve the language by establishing an institute in Dhofar for it to be taught.