Dictionary of Post-Classical Yemeni Arabic

Moshe Piamenta
Dictionary of Post-Classical Yemeni Arabic
Leiden, Brill, two parts, xxiv, 541 pp.

Reviewed by Daniel Martin Varisco

Yemen Update 34(1994):34-36,44

The Yemeni dialects of Arabic have until quite recently received little scholarly attention. Apart from the important work of Count Land berg at the start of the century and Ettore Rossi in the 1930s, there was a major hiatus until the publication of Werner Diem's Skizzen Jemenitischer Dialekte(Wiesbaden: Steiner) in 1973. In recent years serious attention has been given to Yemeni dialects by Peter Behnstedt, Otto Jastrow, Hamdi Qafisheh, Janet Watson, and others. Yet in all of this no one attempted a dictionary of Yemeni Arabic until the recent (1990-91)publication by Moshe Piamenta (Dictionary of Post-Classical Yemeni Arabic. Leiden, Brill, two parts, xxiv, 541 pp.).

Piamenta, Professor of Arabic Language and Literature at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, "presents the vernacular vocabulary and phraseology of mediaeval and modern Yemen complementing R. Dozy's Supplément aux dictionnairesarabes" (p. v). In short, the coverage would seem to apply to the Islamic era in Yemen. Well over 250 sources are cited in the bibliography, consisting of major dialect studies, published books and articles on Yemen, and a considerable amount of material from Judaeo-Arabic. The compiler has also compared many, but certainly not all, of his terms with the well-known Arabic-English lexicons of Lane and Hava, as well as Dozy's supplement. The choice of Hava's dictionary is somewhat odd, since it has no bearing on Yemeni usage. The terms are arranged according to the Arabic order of the alphabet, with Arabic script and transliteration provided throughout.

The purpose of the compilation, according to the author, is to preserve the "post-classical Yemeni vernacular before it is regrettably late" (p. vi). It would thus seem to be a worthy goal that should result in a major contribution to the field of Yemeni Studies. But at the risk of being labeled an incurable iconoclast, I must say that I regrettably find this effort a disservice to the field. I am also curious as to why Piamenta assumes that Yemeni dialects are on the road to extinction. Apart from Judaeo-Arabic, I see no evidence that less "Yemeni" Arabic is being spoken these days. I realize that it is convenient to have so many Yemeni terms documented in one source, but my examination of the work reveals so many errors, questionable judgment on choice of sources, and such an incompleteness that I hardly know where to begin in this review. Given the rather hefty price Brill has placed on these two volumes, this is a book many scholars will want to think twice about before buying.

My specific objections to the present volume relate both to the rationale for the volume and the technical and printing errors. These may be summarized as follows:

1. Lack of first-hand experience with dialect :

Of the many problems I intend to discuss in this review, perhaps the most offensive in my view, is the outdated, close-minded "orientalist" (as Edward Said might use the term) attitude of the compiler. It seems ludicrous to me that a scholar would seek to put together a major dictionary of a living dialect without ever having studied this dialect in the field. I am well aware that Prof. Piamenta has not had the opportunity to visit Yemen. But this work is not presented as a dictionary solely of the Judaeo-Arabic dialect of Yemen, which is its main value. While a wide variety of sources written by Yemenis or individuals who have worked in Yemen (including one of my own articles) have been consulted, this gives the work a derivative scope where the potential for transcription error or simple misunderstanding is high and quite readily found. While the author thanks a number of researchers whom he has visited, this is hardly a substitute for studying the dialectic context. To be frank, the author has attempted to do something without what he needs to pull it off. This results in a very poor scholarly product.

2. Failure to consult major Yemeni lexicons:

In point of fact there are many more sources, particularly the hundreds of books published in Yemen, which would be invaluable for this dictionary. What is striking is that the major Yemeni lexicons have been completely ignored. The compiler seems to think that it is enough to consult the derivative lexicons of Lane, Hava and Dozy, none of which are particularly useful for Yemeni Arabic. I find it hard to imagine that a dictionary of post-classical Yemeni Arabic would not consult the superb 18thcentury lexicon of Muhammad Murtadâ al-Zabîdî(Tâj al-'arûs), or the 15th centuryal-Qâmûs al-muhît ofal-Fîrûzâbâdî, or the seminal Shamsal-'ulûm of the 12th century savant Nashwân ibn Sa'dal-Himyarî. These works are essential for any proper understanding of the history of Yemeni dialects. A work is not “richly documented" (p. v) simply because it has a large bibliography. Nor is a dictionary justified by relying on derivative sources, such as Lane's lexicon. Lane, it should be noted, quoted quite a lot from Tâj al-'arûs, although this hardly renders the Arabic source as something that can be ignored.

3. Sloppy methodology:

The compiler says he has chosen to preserve the form of the English transcriptions derived from other sources, which I read as his simply copying terms verbatim as they appear in sources. While Piamenta thinks this is a "scientific impartial view"(p. vi), it strikes me more as one of convenience and laziness. I can not quite understand what would be the problem in standardizing the chaotic forms found in a literature stretching across several languages and well over a century. It appears that the compiler cannot decide if he wishes to point out dialectal varieties (a rather delicate task to do from afar) or simply put together a dictionary of the written language. The end result is an uneven and virtually unanalyzed mishmash of Yemeni words often through the eyes of on-Yemeni recorders.

A number of words are included in this dictionary even though they have nothing to do with Yemeni dialect. Piamenta includes a reference to tûnî as a "fabric made in an Egyptian town in the island of [tûna] near Damietta" (p. 55). The source for this is a work of Goitein, published in Hebrew in 1983. All well and good, but what does this have to do with Post-Classical Yemeni Arabic? Should one include every foreign word that Yemenis have ever been exposed to in the past millennium or so? Compare the inclusion of this word to the fact that the word bunn (for coffee) is not recorded. Which word has been used more often in Yemen: the esoteric tûnîor the everyday bunn? I'll take a cup of coffee; how about you?

4. Wrong title for the book:

As is clear both from the introduction and the bibliography, the primary focus of this dictionary is Judaeo-Yemeni Arabic. However, rather than stick to this focus, which is a contribution the compiler can make, Piamenta deludes himself into thinking that a dictionary of the Yemeni Arabic dialect can be made simply by adding in a range of vocabulary from secondary sources on Yemen. While I believe the present book will be useful to those who work on Judaeo-Yemeni Arabic, it is not satisfactory for Yemeni Arabic in general. The scholar who is looking for vocabulary apart from the Judaeo-Yemeni sources will be frustrated rather early on. The beginning student will be often misled as to the nuance and range of meaning of the terms cited in this dictionary. I most definitely would not recommend these two volumes for lexical purposes, except for the indication of a source where one might find more information on the word.

5. Out-and-out errors, printing and otherwise:

While time prevents me from going over every line of the book in detail and checking with relevant source material, a cursory reading results in a plethora of errors, some printing but many misreadings by the compiler or his assistants. Perhaps the first page of the General Introduction was skipped by the proofreader? In the second paragraph the comma is missing after “quite unknown beyond its boundaries" and formerly appears as "fomerly." The term San'ânî is given with an i instead of an î (also on p. vi, xiv). The Arabic rendering of al-Yuhûd is missing the letter "h" on p. x. These are minor irritants, but the lack of careful proofing so early on calls into question the usefulness of the dictionary as a reference tool.

There are also a number of errors in the Bibliographical Reference Abbreviations (pp. xv-xxiv). Under AD, Muhammad becomes Muhammad (!), târîkh (!) under ASDY'T, LAM, de Slane, WTY, Hûth [with a dot under theh] is mispelled under KQ, Bîr (!) under Leiden Or. 2377,etc. The compiler also misreads Brinkley Messick's name (under BTI), assuming that the last name was Brinkley. Muhammad 'Al al-Akwa'al-Hiwâlî is cited in one place as al-Akwa' and in another as al-Hiwâlî. The author under ZL should be Zaydb. 'Al 'Inân, not 'Affân (!). Should I continue?

As an example of the arrogance of the compiler, consider a misreading he makes of the glossary provided by Abdulla Maktari in his 1971 study (Water Rights and Irrigation Practices in Lahj, Cambridge University Press). Maktari correctly notes that nasd [with a dot under the s] is a term used in Lahj for the act of cutting a crop, but Piamenta apparently assumes this is a error on Maktari's part (in this I find great irony given the proofed state of his dictionary) forhasd [with a dot under the h and s] (p. 96). The correct term in the southern dialect is in fact nasd[with a dot under the s], a term I have documented in the mediaeval Rasulid agricultural texts. This term is also referenced in Landberg's Études sur les dialectes de l'Arabieméridionale (1901-1913), published by Brill at a time when this company apparently had more diligent proof readers. This invaluable source of Landberg is not mentioned in Piamenta's bibliography; perhaps he is unaware of it. Landberg's study is an interesting parallel, because it was also based on working with Yemeni speakers outside of Yemen! But Landberg seemed to know what he was doing.

If you would like yet another example of the compiler’s ignorance of Yemeni Arabic, take a look at his treatment of the term matlam (p. 52), used for a sowing season. Both Serjeant and I refer to the variant reading matnam found in the Rasulid sources, yet Piamenta places a ! after this term to indicate that it is in error in our readings. In fact the transition from the l to the n is well known in the Tihama dialect. This reading can hardly be called an error, since it is a known feature of the dialect and appears as such in written texts from the medieval period. Had Piamenta actually been to a village in the Tihama, this sort of mistake might not have been made. Similarly, the reference to bayzara as agriculture (p. 46) is totally wrong. The footnote referred to in Serjeant's article does not equatebayzara with filâha [with a dot under theh], but simply suggests that the term in the book title mentioned in a manuscript may be bayzara, which as any competent Arabist should realize is in reference to falconry! Are Yemenis supposed to plant their falcons? With constant misstatements of the sources he quotes, Piamenta does a disservice to the scholarly community. There are so many careless mistakes that it is hard to trust anything.

Not that many people would note or care, but the reference to my Arabian Studies article on p. 55 (underthâbir) mispells al-Ahjur, my fieldwork site, asal-Ahjûr. "Picky, picky," you might say, but this is symptomatic of the errant trend within this dictionary. Sometimes it looks as if the compiler simply gave his notes to his secretary and asked her to make the corrections.

6. Incompleteness:

One of the disturbing things about a dictionary, especially when it is the only one of its kind, is that it becomes by default an authoritative source. I regret that Piamenta's volumes will be consulted for some time in reference to Yemeni Arabic. One of the aspects that is especially poor concerns the identification of Yemeni plant names. Since this is a subject I have been interested in for over 15 years, I naturally looked up a few of the plant names mentioned in the dictionary. Piamenta recognizes that many of the terms noted in the earlier text of Schweinfurth, published in 1912, are inconsistent and "phonetically unreliable" (p. xvii) yet many of these terms are simply repeated as Schweinfurth lists them without serious effort at validating or updating the information. Piamenta notes that he will use an * when referring to the unreliable terms in Schweinfurth. While I am not anal enough to check each reference, a random choice ofblêsemân (p. 39) shows no evidence of an *. Is this reading then reliable?

Unfortunately, many of the scientific designations given by Schweinfurth at the start of the century have been superceded. Nowhere in the dictionary is the reader warned that these identifications are often out-of-date. It is also not surprising, given the haphazard way in which the dictionary has been put together, that a number of important Yemeni plant names have been left out. For example, I see no reference to 'affâr,used in Yemen for the butterfly bush or Buddleya polystachya, nor to 'ar'ar for the important juniper tree. The compiler records (p. 306) mitlâh(î) [with a dot under the t and h] as "thorny (thicket)," but fails to note thattalh [with a dot under the t and h] is one of the more common terms for acacia in the highlands. I am not familiar with the spelling tîl for Cynodon dactylon; in my experience this nasty and well-known weed is referred to asthîl or, more commonly, wabal. In fact, Piamentafails to define wabal as Cynodon (p.516).

A variety of published information is available on Yemeni plant names, but this may be rather difficult to access outside of Yemen (hence the need to do this kind of project in Yemen itself). Had the author actually been in Yemen, he would have been able to consult several sources which give details on significant Yemeni plant names, such as Al-Hubaishi and Müller-Hohenstein's Introduction to the Vegetation of Yemen (Eschborn, 1984), published through GTZ. The point is that the coverage of plant names is out-of-date and hardly representative of Yemeni dialect. The same could be said of agricultural and irrigation terminology, which is poorly represented in this dictionary.

I find it incredible that anyone would attempt a dictionary of Yemeni Arabic and not examine most, if not all, of the references of R. B. Serjeant on Yemen (only four articles and two joint publications are listed in the bibliography); surely this is one of the richest sources on actual usage. Similarly, the compiler has not used the work of Eduard Glaser, whose publications are quite useful for Yemeni dialects, especially regarding star names. By the way, the Yemeni month name tis' (literally "9,"which the compiler does not bother to point out) is not "the month of March" (p. 51); this is a misreading of the comments of al-Akwa' on the proverb. The point is that the compiler has no clue about this traditional Yemeni star calendar, which is based on the conjunction of the new moon and the Pleiades. Piamenta could have profitably consulted a number of the sources listed in the bibliography to my Arabian Studies article which he consulted.

Another shortcoming of the text is its confused inclusion of geographical terms. Although the compiler understandably has not set out to produce a gazetteer, there are scattered and incomplete references to tribes and place names. The reference to Bakîl (p. 37), one of the major tribal confederations of the highlands (Hâshid [with a dot under the h] is not mentioned), refers twice to the "robbery" of this tribe, as though somehow this is a defining element. The importance of Bakîl on the Yemeni tribal map is not indicated. The reference to al-Ta'kar (p. 51) glosses this as a tribal name or mountain; it was in fact an important medieval fortress in Yemen. This could have been easily verified by looking at the lexicon of Yâqût or the important geographical text of al-Hamdânî's Sifat jazîrat al-Yaman. Needless to say, this invaluable linguistic source of al-Hamdânî was not consulted. To ignore al-Hamdânî (the only reference is to the English version of Book Eight of al-Iklîl) in constructing a dictionary of Yemeni Arabic is similar to ignoring Shakespeare in compiling the greatest plays in English literature.

The compiler stated as his goal a desire to preserve a dialect used in a country he has never visited and apparently has little familiarity with apart from the Judaeo-Yemeni Arabic, about which I am not qualified to speak. With preservers like this, who needs enemies? If you have need to consult this dictionary, please do so with a grain of salt. Actually, take the entire salt shaker with you to the library. Whatever you do, think twice before you buy it.

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