Yemen’s Socotra Language.

An interesting article by Mansur Mirovalev:

Socotri is the most archaic and isolated of several archaic and isolated tongues spoken in Yemen and Oman known as “modern South Arabian languages”. Its vocabulary is immensely rich – for example, there are distinct verbs for “to go” according to the time of the day, or for “to give birth” depending on the animal involved.

Socotri’s roots are close to the oldest written Semitic tongues that died out thousands of years ago – and it has grammatical features that no longer exist in Arabic, Hebrew or Aramaic. The study of Socotri helps understand the deep, prehistoric past – and the subsequent evolution – of all Semitic tongues.

“This is a very archaic linguistic and literary system that in many ways, I think, has preserved what we, the scholars, are used to perceive as the Biblical world or the ancient Arabic world,” Leonid Kogan, professor of Semitic languages at Moscow’s Institute for Oriental and Classical Studies, told Al Jazeera.

“All of it is very much alive on today’s Socotra.”

Then how is it that Socotri’s first alphabet was invented five millennia after the cuneiform tablets in Akkadian – the first written Semitic tongue – and it happened some 5,000km north of Socotra, in Russia’s Moscow?

Fascinating stuff, and it ends on an upbeat note:

Socotrans do adopt political, technical, and religious terms from Arabic, but their language stands strong.

“What we are able to see now is a rather harmonious synthesis, and there are good chances that Socotra and Socotris find their appropriate place in a broad Arab and Islamic context without getting rid of most of their – to be sure, highly esteemed and cherished – traditional values,” said Kogan.

I don’t think I’d ever heard of Socotri, and I certainly had no idea of the background described here.

Comments

  1. The South Arabian languages are fascinating, and are also used more and more in comparative Semitic. The smallest SA language, Hobyot, spoken on the Oman-Yemen border, was unknown to linguists; I find it amazing that a Middle Eastern language could lay hidden that late.

  2. FWIW, A number of years ago while summering in Aden (doing volunteer work), I encountered an undercover British Christian missionary who was translating the Bible into Socotri. I think he was officially there as a teacher.

  3. Dravidians! Where’s John Emerson when we need him?

  4. I meant “…was unknown to linguists until 1984.” I need to hire a personal proofreader for my blog comments.

  5. David Eddyshaw says:

    It’s an interesting article. But

    “Socotri’s roots are close to the oldest written Semitic tongues that died out thousands of years ago”

    betrays a deep misunderstanding. You could with equal justice say exactly the same of any currently spoken Semitic language. Or English in relation to Indoeuropean. This is on a level with our local nonsense about Welsh being “the oldest language of Europe.”

    Some of the Wikipedia articles about the Modern South Arabian languages have a very similar slant (often invoking Akkadian), which rather looks like a trope which has arisen among speakers understandably keen to stress that their languages are not some mangled Arabic but a proud independent branch of Semitic. Which is true enough.

  6. David Eddyshaw says:

    If it’s meant to mean that Socotri is especially conservative, I must admit that I don’t know anything about Socotri; but I do have works on its relatives Mehri and Jibbali. They have some features which are lost in Arabic and Hebrew, sure, like the old imperfective/present form with geminated middle radicals (I suspect this is at the back of the spurious idea that MSA languages are especially close to Akkadian) but in general they certainly aren’t especially archaic or conservative.

    This whole notion of linguistic time capsules is nonsense. OK, nobody would claim that English is more conservative than Lithuanian (say); but this isn’t an all-across-the-board thing. For example, English preserves IE initial w unchanged; has distinct reflexes in initial position for the three stop series of Indoeuropean; shows much more of the IE ablaut system in its irregular verbs than survives in the radically simplified Lithuanian verb …

  7. David Eddyshaw says:

    The MSA languages *are* unique among modern Semitic languages in preserving the voiceless lateral (like Welsh ll) as distinct from ‘s’ and ‘sh’. (Hebrew orthography still makes the distinction though it’s not reflected in any reading tradition AFAIK.)

    But then English is unique (or nearly – not certain about German dialects for example) at the present day as preserving IE initial w unchanged.

  8. South Arabian alone preserves the Proto Semitic /ɬ/-/s/-/ʃ/ contrast. Elsewhere they are distinguished only in Hebrew orthography, as שׁ-ס-שׂ respectively (reading from left to right), but שׂ and ס are both pronounced as /s/ in post-biblical Hebrew.

  9. jinx!

  10. David Eddyshaw says:

    Y: If my children are any guide, we have to perform an apotropaic ritual.
    Standing on one leg while saying “Brockelmann, Brockelmann, Brockelmann” nine times …?

  11. David Eddyshaw says:

    Fell over …

  12. @David Eddyshaw: You mean English is unique within all IE in doing that? Huh.

  13. SFReader says:

    Yemen is a very unstable country. It is quite possible that it will disintegrate completely in the near future (some say that this already happened – large parts of the country are no longer controlled by the government)

    In that case, island of Socotra would have pretty strong case for independence (historically it was a separate sultanate under British protectorate and got attached to South Yemen only in late 1960s).

  14. There’s a short discussion of the voiceless lateral and its shift in Hebrew here.

    Money quote: The difference in sound between the samech, a voiceless alveolar fricative ([s]) and sin, a putative voiceless lateral fricative ([ɬ]), is hypothesized to have been lost as early as Biblical Hebrew, with its remnants still evident in transliterations like “Chaldean” for “כשדי” and “balsam” for “בושם”. In each case, the sin that we would conventionally pronounce as [s] was ostensibly closer to [ɬ], which is, in a way, halfway between /s/ and /l/.

    (The Hebrew word for Chaldean is pronounced casdi; the word parallel to balsam, which today means perfume, is pronounced bosem.)

  15. Angel Saenz-Badilos in the very scholarly “The History of the Hebrew Language,” says in the chapter on pre-exilic Hebrew:

    “. . . the most important changes, mainly phonetic, which can be detected in Hebrew after 600 BCE. Among the most signifcant of these, including some which had already begun to take place before the exile, are the following: . . . neutralization of /s’/ and /s/ . . .”

  16. “Socotri’s roots are close to the oldest written Semitic tongues that died out thousands of years ago”

    betrays a deep misunderstanding. You could with equal justice say exactly the same of any currently spoken Semitic language. Or English in relation to Indoeuropean.

    Yeah, I guess I take that particular misunderstanding so much for granted in nonscholarly writing about language I just roll my eyes and move on. It seems to be very hard for people to grasp why it’s nonsense.

  17. SFReader says:

    -betrays a deep misunderstanding. You could with equal justice say exactly the same of any currently spoken Semitic language.

    Wouldn’t Hebrew be an exception?

    After all, compared to all other currently spoken Semitic languages, it is closer to the oldest attested Semitic language by 2500 years

  18. marie-lucie says:

    words for “to give birth” depending on the animal involved

    How unusual! As in to calve, to foal, to farrow

  19. The smallest SA language, Hobyot

    I see it’s spelled with a ó, Hobyót; does anybody know what that means?

  20. “Vowels
    The transcription employs six vowels, the standard five plus schwa.
    Length is indicated through double writing of the vowel. An acute accent is
    used to indicate stress. In long vowels this stress mark is sometimes
    written over the first vowel sign and sometimes over the second. The editor
    has been unable to determine what, if any, significance is to be attached to
    this.” (c) “Hobyōt (Oman) Vocabulary with Example Texts” by Nakano, Akio, (edited by Robert Ratcliffe),
    Research Institute for Languages and Cultures of Asia and Africa, Tokyo University of Foreign Studies, 2013

  21. David Eddyshaw says:

    @SFReader:

    True. Modern Hebrew certainly is exceptional.

    Mind you, if you didn’t know anything about its amazing back-from-the-dead history and were approaching it naively as a newly discovered Semitic language with no standard written form and no known history, you wouldn’t even then put it down as particularly conservative; you’d note that it had undergone profound phonological changes of a kind sufficient to make it almost unique among modern Semitic languages, that much of its lexicon seemed to have no obvious Semitic origin, and that its syntax was unusual for a Semitic language too, and seemed to have travelled far from the Ursprache …

    @Lazar:

    Dunno if English is unique in this; I just can’t think of another modern IE language which preserves initial w as such. I have a feeling there may be still some among the many dialects of German that do, and perhaps some of the many modern Iranian languages, though very cursory searching on my part doesn’t show up any obvious candidates.

  22. “I see it’s spelled with a ó, Hobyót; does anybody know what that means?”

    I tried to find the word in Arabic which would help with an explanation. But, alas. I would be interested if anyone has an Arabic link.

  23. P.S. The /-iot/ prefix looks very Hebrew

  24. ” . . . that much of its lexicon seemed to have no obvious Semitic origin, and that its syntax was unusual for a Semitic language too, and seemed to have travelled far from the Ursprache …”

    Modern Hebrew syntax, to a degree, reminds me of Egyptian Arabic where some of the older Biblical Hebrew reminds me of classical Arabic.

  25. SFReader: Thanks!

  26. I recall having learned a long time ago that Socotra is stressed on the final syllable, but the Wiki article says nought, except for the rendering ‘Socotora’ deep down in the article, which has an acute on the -a- (I take the third -o- to be an erroneous intrusion). Does anyone know? And would that be the same with Socotri?

    I also learned somewhere that the alien vegetation found on the island is not unique, but has counterparts in a Madagasarene national park, and is Gondwanalandish in origin. I suppose the otherworldishness has little chance of survival in this day and age, unless the UN and EU are successful in their intentions.

  27. . . .the otherworldishness of both land and language.

  28. David Marjanović says:

    But then English is unique (or nearly – not certain about German dialects for example) at the present day as preserving IE initial w unchanged.

    West Flemish retains it (I don’t know if the Dutch of Suriname should be counted); this thing in Sweden does; and at least one of the southernmost Walser dialects, spoken above the Aosta valley, also retains it.

    Both Sorbian languages, fascinatingly, have [w], and there are Iranian languages that have a [w], for instance Wakhi; I have no idea if that’s a back-and-forth sound change via [ʋ]… some Nuristani languages seem to retain [w] in some positions.

  29. If you count back-and-forth, then there’s lenited /w-/ in Brythonic < /gw/ < /*w/.

  30. David Marjanović says:

    I also forgot that West Frisian w is prononced [w] behind u; at least sometimes this u seems to come out of nowhere, etymologically speaking. In short, I’m confused. 🙂

  31. David Eddyshaw says:

    @David Marjanović:

    I was hoping you would know about the Germanic dialects, and was not disappointed …

    Elfdalian is interesting. I came across a reference to it just recently somewhere but was too lazy to follow the links.

    The Wiki article is tantalizingly brief, and doesn’t tell you how the “w” in their orthography is actually pronounced, but presumably it contrasts with their “v” anyhow.

  32. Here’s a brief article about Socotra’s unique flora http://www.thenational.ae/world/socotra-paradise-quickly-becoming-lost

  33. @marie-lucie says: How unusual! As in to calve, to foal, to farrow …

    You beat me to it. And to whelp, to spawn, to lamb, to litter, to pup, to kid, to yean …

  34. dainichi says:

    ““Socotri’s roots are close to the oldest written Semitic tongues that died out thousands of years ago”

    […] You could with equal justice say exactly the same of […] English in relation to Indoeuropean. ”

    Ok, let’s try that:

    The roots of English are close to the oldest written Indoeuropean tongues that died out thousands of years ago

    I am not a linguist, but as far as I know the oldest written Indoeuropean tongues are Akkadian and Greek, with Germanic writings not showing up before a couple of millennia later. So is this really true?

  35. Il vergognoso says:

    to spawn

    To this furrinner, to spawn mainly means “to give birth” for VMS processes.

  36. David Eddyshaw says:

    @dainichi:

    Yes. Exactly as true as the claim about Socotri in relation to Semitic, viz basically meaningless.
    The presence or absence of written records has no bearing on the issue at all. (Though as a matter of fact English has of course been documented for a lot longer than Socotri.)

    The oldest-written Indoeuropean language is Hittite with some of its Anatolian relatives. Greek (as Linear B) is not all that far behind, though of course not extinct. Vedic Sanskrit goes back a long way but not in actual contemporary written form.

  37. David Eddyshaw says:

    Akkadian is the oldest written Semitic language, with records going back a good bit before Hittite – indeed before anything, apart from Sumerian and Egyptian. It’s probably the first language where we might stand much of a chance of producing a spoken sentence that would have been comprehensible to the original speakers.

    The dates for the ancestral languages of Indoeuropean and Semitic involve a lot of guesswork and are bedevilled by essentially unanswerable questions of definition, but they were probably kinda more-or-less coeval give or take a few millennia.

    Unlike Indoeuropean, Semitic as a whole has generally-accepted relatives, including Egyptian, potentially taking us into the world of very ancient protolanguages indeed.

  38. “Dravidians! ”

    They are branch Dravidians. Call Janet Reno!

    ” I suppose the otherworldishness has little chance of survival in this day and age, unless the UN and EU are successful in their intentions.”

    Iakon, when it comes to the flora of an island the biggest threat is invasive species. (This is just as true for fauna, too, I guess.) In that regard it is very fortunate that Soqotra is as arid and inhospitable as it is. The Hawaiian islands were swamped by non-native plant species, but that was Hawai’i. There are not going to be as many random species adapted to the climate and soil of Soqotra.

  39. Trond Engen says:

    David Eddyshaw: Elfdalian is interesting. I came across a reference to it just recently somewhere but was too lazy to follow the links.

    Probably right here. We discussed it in the Norn thread.

  40. The Hickory Wind says:

    @SFReader

    I don’t see much future for Socotra as an independent country. It has few resources, recent improvements are due to investment by the Yemení government, and if unprotected it would fall quickly to Sudanese pirates who already cause a great deal of trouble in the area. Or it would be directly annexed by the Sudanese government, as a useful base. Either way, they have a lot to lose.

  41. The Hickory Wind says:

    Err, by Sudanese I mean Somali. Apologies.

    @iakon

    Socotora is an unusual, and I think obsolete, variant spelling. As is Soqotra, because of the Arabic.

  42. David Marjanović says:

    I was hoping you would know about the Germanic dialects, and was not disappointed …

    To be fair, you would have been disappointed if you had asked just two years ago. I do still have a lot to learn. 🙂

  43. As do we all!

  44. @David Eddyshaw

    Oops, I confused Hittite and Akkadian, thanks for pointing that out.

    Still, I understand how the statement in question can be (more or less) true or false, and I do not know how true it is for Socotri, but why is it meaningless? Is it meaningless because it’s untrue?

    If it is indeed true (i.e. the language is close to being a direct descendant of an old written language), why is that not linguistically interesting? For example contrasted with how Hindi is not a direct descendant of Sanskrit (in my limited understanding).

    I’m not trying to be argumentative. I would just like to understand what the misunderstanding you mention is all about.

  45. -The Hickory Wind

    Well, there is that issue of reestablishing Russian naval base on Socotra. That would ensure pretty good protection against pirates and some source of stable income.

  46. David Eddyshaw says:

    @dainichi:

    I see what you mean; I haven’t been distinguishing very clearly between the general point that there isn’t in reality any such thing as a “linguistic time capsule” at all (hence “meaningless”) and the specifics of Socotri.

    Socotri is not descended from Akkadian, or especially closely related to it within Semitic. Claims to the contrary are either simple ignorance or inspired by linguistic chauvinism. There is considerable uncertainty about the relationship between the different branches of Semitic, especially over the precise position of Arabic, but it’s common ground among proper scholars that the primary division is between East, which contains Akkadian and Eblaite, and West (everything else.) Within West Semitic, the Modern South Arabian languages are probably an independent branch of their own, though possibly closer to Ethiopic. Features the MSA languages share with Akkadian are thought by mainstream linguists to be common retentions from the protolanguage, notably the present/imperfective with a geminate middle radical. Ethiopic has that too. Common retentions are not a sign that languages make a single branch of a tree, only common innovations are. The replacement of this older form by the yaqtulu imperfect is a common innovation in the branch which comprises most of the more familiar Semitic languages like Hebrew, Arabic and Aramaic.

  47. The Hickory Wind says:

    SFReader

    Hadn’t heard about that, but if it happens it would indeed do a lot of good for the economy and the stability of the place. There’s only so much you can do with fish and incipient tourism. Though I think it would dilute independence a bit, which probably wouldn’t bother anyone much except the Imams. The influence of Islam has become very great in the last few decades and they wouldn’t be too happy about losing it.

  48. John Emerson says:

    Damn, I missed the fun.

    In Marco Polo et al Socotra is a mysterious and rather sinister land suspected of harboring witches and pirates. At one time there were many Greeks there.

    Socotra also is a biological refuge with many uniques species.

    The early Indian Ocean sea trade is not studied enough and has to be full of fascinating stuff.

  49. Rodger C says:

    I just confirmed that the name is Indic: Sukhadaradvipa., the Happy Isle.

  50. Well, that’s what G.W.B. Huntingford said. I don’t have his translation of the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, so I have no idea what he based it on.

  51. David Marjanović says:

    Sukhadaradvipa

    Then where does its q come from? It’s Suquṭra, says the Pffft.

  52. The note in Huntingford’s translation actually has less information than Schoff’s did.

    The idea seems to have originated with Lassen.

  53. Thanks to all. It’s great to make a casual, ignorant remark on this site and see people pursue it to the wellspring.

  54. Gesenius was apparently unaware of Socotri.

  55. David Marjanović says:

    So… Lassen claimed it was sukhatara, Schoff claimed sukhadara, and Huntingford claimed sukhadhara.

    Which, if any, is it?

  56. That’s nobody’s business but the Turks Socotrans.

  57. Trond Engen says:

    Which, if any, is it?

    It may be relevant that Soqotri merges dental stops. Wikipedia:

    In all the known dialects of Soqotri, there is a lack of distinction between the original South Arabic interdentals θ, ð, and θˁ and the stops t, d and ṭ: e.g. Soqotri has dərh / do:r / dɔ;r (blood), where Shehri for instance has ðor; Soqotri has ṭarb (a piece of wood), where the other South Arabian languages have forms starting with θˁ; Soqotri trih (two) corresponds to other South Arabian forms beginning with θ.

    But I don’t find the Sanskrit etymology especially convincing except maybe as a folk etymology by Gujarati seafarers. Chances are that the etymology is forever lost with a pre-Semitic substrate. The Soqotri language, however archaic in its semiticity, is apparently a fairly recent arrival on the island.

  58. But I don’t find the Sanskrit etymology especially convincing except maybe as a folk etymology by Gujarati seafarers.

    That’s my thought as well.

  59. David Marjanović says:

    It may be relevant that Soqotri merges dental stops.

    It merges dental fricatives into dental stops; it does not merge different dental stops with each other.

  60. Trond Engen says:

    You’re right, of course.

  61. I remember reading somewhere that Qatar and Socotra have same root.

  62. I remember reading somewhere that Qatar and Socotra have same root.

    The last three consonants of Socotra and the consonants of Qatar are identical in Hebrew. That’s relevant, because c/k/q can be represented by two consonants as can t, and Modern Hebrew would have transcribed the country names from Arabic.

    Socotra = סוקוטרה
    Qatar = קטאר

  63. “The last three consonants of Socotra and the consonants of Qatar are identical in Hebrew.”

    And in Arabic. But the initial /s س/ would not be a common prefix and there is a hamza on the end. I suspect this is just coincidence.

  64. SFReader says:

    It’s not a common prefix in Semitic, but I assume these names are remnants left by pre-Semitic population of Persian Gulf and Arabian Sea.

    Wasn’t Sumerian origin somewhere in the southern part of Persian Gulf?

  65. Wasn’t Sumerian origin somewhere in the southern part of Persian Gulf?
    Does anybody even know? Do they need to come from somewhere? (Well, everyone does come from somewhere, and then Southern Mesopotamia must have veen un-settled at some point, but you know what I mean). I remember reading about a theory that they built ziqqurats because they originally came from a mountainous areas and were used to worship their gods on mountain tops. But is there any evidence, archeologically or otherwise, that the Sumerians are immigrants to the area?

  66. Genetically they must have come from somewhere, of course, but Sumerian culture surely arose in situ.

  67. SFReader says:

    I think that’s what the Sumerian tradition says, that they originally came from Dilmun, that is south of Persian Gulf (Bahrain, Qatar, Oman)

  68. David Marjanović says:

    Genetically they must have come from somewhere, of course, but Sumerian culture surely arose in situ.

    But maybe not their language…

  69. @GeorgeW

    Please could I get your email address? I would like to send you an email asking some questions. thank you

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