San'ani Arabic: The Definitive Guide

Janet C. E. Watson
A Syntax of San'ani Arabic
Wiesbaden, Harrassowitz, 1993, xxi, 454 pp., ISBN 3-447-03392-4

Reviewed by Daniel Martin Varisco

Yemen Update 35(1994):31-32

When it comes to books on Yemen, some are interesting, some are important and some are absolutely necessary to have on hand. A recent example of the absolutely-necessary variety is A Syntax of San'ani Arabic by Janet C. E. Watson(Wiesbaden, Harrassowitz, 1993, xxi, 454 pp., ISBN 3-447-03392-4). If you intend to do any kind of research (or travel) using the major dialect of Yemen's capital, this definitive guide to the dialect must be in your possession. This is indeed a reference book, not a how-to trainer. For that you must wait for the author's forthcomingPedagogical Grammar of San'ani Arabic, also to be published by Harrassowitz.

When I was preparing to go to Yemen in the late 1970s I found Ettore Rossi's L'Arabo Parlato a San'a',published in Rome in 1939. I can well remember sitting down in the village, with a xerox copy of Rossi in one hand and a paperback Italian-English dictionary in the other, as I tried to fathom the dialect that I now had to function in on a daily basis -- through filtered Italian. At one time I thought someone should translate Rossi, but despite my Sicilian ancestry this was not a task I contemplated. Even at that time Rossi was no doubt out of date and, according to Qadi Isma'il al-Akwa', prone to errors. Someone, arguably more than one person, needed to do an in-depth study of the contemporary dialect of the central highlands. While several scholars have since focused on San'ani Arabic, this in-depth and invaluable reference guide by Watson more than fulfills my wishes as I pieced my way through Rossi by lantern light.

At the very start of the book, Watson addresses the perennial linguistic problem: what exactly is a dialect? It is common to speak of spoken Arabic in terms of broad regionally based dialects, Egyptian as opposed to Hejazi, for example. In the not-so-remote past isolation of large segments of the population coupled with lack of formal education tended to the continuity of dialects. The Yemenis that Rossi worked with, for example, had no systematic exposure to other ways in which Arabic might be spoken. Watson's informants, on the other hand, have routinely been exposed to other dialects, especially those living in Britain. Radio and television have put a wealth of linguistic difference in the hands of the most isolated rural Yemenis. Egyptian troops, and later elementary teachers from Egypt and Sudan, provided a very visible contrast. Thousands of Yemeni workers in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf brought back new words and new ideas about the old ways of saying things. I shall refrain on commenting about the possible influence of Egyptian films now rampantly available on video.

Change may be the order of the day, but dialects do not simply fade away. "A dialect is a dialect, not more or less, but discretely, because it exists as a psychological reality in the minds of its speakers and in the minds of speakers of other dialects in relation to other dialects," argues Watson (p. 1). She has assembled a comprehensive guide to this surviving dialect from field research in Sanaa between 1985 and 1992, as well as from Yemeni informants living in Britain. Most of the informants were adult women, but she also interviewed men of various ages and children. The primary data, comprising hours and hours on tape, were collected in a variety of everyday settings &emdash; from kitchens and cabs toqat chews.

To a non-linguist, such as myself, the range of detail is dizzying. When is the last time you read about "cataphora" (p. 408). The information is arranged in an accessible and orderly fashion. Of special value is the definition of syntactic terms such as morpheme, word, phrase, clause, etc. After the introduction, the basic outline of the book covers: syntactic definitions, parts of speech, predication, complementation, annexion, attribution, negation, coordination, supplementation and co-referentiality in discourse. There is also an index to key grammatical terms in English. The bibliography is quite useful, although inexplicably the various articles and major book by Rossi are missing. We can only look forward to more publications by the author and more works of this quality on other Yemeni dialects.

To test your San'ani word power, see if you know the English equivalent of the following phrases. The answers, taken from examples in Watson's book, are provided on p.47.

1. 'ana d-dimm hagg ams

2. as-sayyarat tustumyawmi

3. w-allah inti 'arifih ma'ani shughlxayrat

4. 'ana shti 'a'raf la shi bih hananiswan

5. 'alf da'wih min iblis ma tuxzuggamis

6. hayyak allah

7. galu ya Dhamari ... gad an-nujumxarrat fawg kisak

8. ad-dunya hakadha

9. bass hilbih safimathun

10. al-injliz mu'addab£\inal-adab


1. I am the cat from yesterday.

2. Cars crash daily.

3. By God, you know that I have a lot of work.

4. I want to know whether there are any women here.

5. A thousand curses from Iblis will not pierce a shirt.

6. Welcome.

7. They said, "Dhamari ... the stars haves hat on your bag.

8. The world is like that.

9. Pure ground fenugreek.

10. The English are very polite.

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