Friday, 21 March 2014

The Harsusi language in Oman: another treasure slipping away?

Picture by Dr Andrew Spalton
Oman has yet to offer another linguistic treasure to the world- the Harsusi language. The language is spoken in Jiddat-Al Harasis in Al Wusta Governorate. I attended a talk organised by the Historical Association of Oman a few weeks ago about Harsusi. The talk was delivered by Domenyk Eades from the University of Salford in the UK. Harsusi is one of a few Modern South Arabian languages spoken in Oman along with Mehri and Jabbali and some others. It is a Semitic language and the UNESCO classifies it as being ‘definitely endangered’. According to the UNESCO there are about 3000 speakers but updated statistics suggest even fewer numbers today- hardly 600-1000 speakers. Harsusis are generally also speakers of Arabic. They’re Bedouins (nomads) and many of them, according to Eades, have only settled in villas in the year 2004. Before that, they were constantly travelling and were living a far from modern lifestyle.

The phonological inventory of the Harsusi language is unusual. Eades gave us an insight on some sounds of the language which could be biologically difficult to produce even by speakers of Arabic - a ‘cousin’ language. The sounds sounded so ancient to me that the idea of the language still being spoken until today is incredibly fascinating.

Eades and a group of other linguists from the UK are racing against time to document Harsusi and other Modern South Arabian languages spoken in Oman. As the numbers of speakers shrink at a rapid pace, we can only hope that the intricacies of the language are saved and the knowledge is passed on for the future generations. Having settled in the early 2000s only, one can only imagine that the knowledge and wisdom the Harsusis have is valuable and it would be a great loss to see it slip away without doing anything.