Yemeni Arabic: A New Reference

Hamdi A. Qafisheh
Yemeni Arabic Reference Grammar
Kensington, Md: Dunwoody Press, 1992. viii, 308 pages.
([for ordering information, contact Dunwoody Press, 3910 Knowles Avenue, POB 400, Kensington, Md 20895-0400, fax - 301-949-1816]

Reviewed by Janet C. E. Watson
CMEIS, University of Durham

Yemen Update 37(1995):42-43

This is the second book by Hamdi Qafisheh on Yemeni Arabic. The first, Yemeni Arabic I, was published by Librairie du Liban in 1990. Both books are disappointing, although the one under review, Yemeni Arabic Reference Grammar,contains less errors than Yemeni Arabic I.

Yemeni Arabic Reference Grammar(henceforth YARG) provides an outline of the phonology, morphology and syntax of San'ani Arabic (SA) as spoken by semi-educated and unsophisticated male speakers. The book comprises five parts: an introduction, phonology, morphology, syntax, and texts with translations. The phonology part describes the consonants, the vowels, sound combinations, major sound changes and word stress. The morphology part describes the derivation of verbs, verbal inflection, the future, the derivation of nouns, nominal inflections, modification of nouns &emdash; i.e., construction phrases, definiteness, participles and adjectives, pronouns, and particles. The syntax part describes major sentence types, clauses, major phrase types, verb phrases, concord, and negation. The last section comprises seven translated texts. The book concludes with a bibliography.

YARG is very disappointing and would be difficult to use on a number of points. These points can be roughly divided into editorial weaknesses (including layout, transcription, repetition, lack of explanation) and substantive weaknesses. I shall deal with the editorial weaknesses first.

Many of the terms used, particularly in the phonology section (part one), are too technical for the average language learner: terms which are not explained include 'allophone'(p. 1), 'intervocalically' (p. 2), 'aspirated' and 'unaspirated' (p.2). Some of the instructions would be impossible to accomplish by all but the most competent of articulary phoneticians. For example, on p. 9 the reader is told to "narrow the pharynx by moving the root of the tongue back, and raising the larynx," while on p. 8 we are told that "in producing /x/ the back of the tongue must come near the uvula: for /h [with a dot under]/ the tongue must not approach it." Secondly, the author is very inconsistent in his use of terms: t [with a dot under] is described as both velarised and pharyngealised on p. 2, but "the allophone [d --with a dot under--] is semi-pharyngealized" on p. 3. Velarisation and pharyngealisation then continue to be interchanged in the discussion of other emphatics &emdash; on p. 34 we are told that "velarization is not limited only to pharyngealized sound ...". Thirdly, where terms are described they are sometimes not described on their first occurrence: thus velarisation is described on p. 6,but not on p. 2 where it first occurs. Fourthly, the layout is poor: the examples are given in plain type while the translations aregiven in italics. It would be far easier to read if the examples of Yemeni Arabic only were given in italics. The footnotes are not footnotes but are given as endnotes at the end of each section. This makes them difficult to locate. They would be better either as endnotes at the end of the book in one section, or as true footnotes. The transcription system is rather rough and ready in an age when computers and word-processing packages enable people to produce their own diacritics within hours, and many fonts can be purchased readymade for different word processors. Fifthly, there are a number of contradictions in the book &emdash; for example, "it was mentioned in2. VOWELS that /ee/ occurs only in the word final sequence /ee?/...",but "bride" is translated as hareeweh on p. 136 and elsewhere(hareewah on p. 28); "and not" is given as wa laa on pp. 271-72, but as wala on p. 273. Finally, under editorial weaknesses, the number of typographical errors is legion: for example, mammad for mhammad (p. 28), "vowell" for “vowel" (p. 15), ii/ for /ii/ (p. 16), bidawirfor biddawwir (p. 31), yiuhkk for yihukk [with a dot under the h] (p. 82), "tu-" for "/tu-/" (p. 65),"StaCaaC" for "staCaaC" (p. 63), habs is given for habs [with a dot under the h] (p.35), 19-35 for 19-25 (p. 132), ?ash tailis given for ?ashtaghil (p. 258), 8-10 is given for 9-10(p. 242), and "nominal" for "prepositional" (p. 242), "don’t”, doesn’t" and isn't" are all given without the apostrophe on p. 273,'alayh is given as 'alyh (p. 262), yistantug[with a dot under the t] "to interrogate (p. 73) is given as'stantig [with a dot under the t] "interrogate?" (p.74) and yistantag [with a dot under the t] (p. 271),'utus [with a dot under the t] (p. 44) is given as'atas [with a dot under the t] (p. 60), and on p. 129the broken plural pattern fu'uul with examples is repeated from p. 123. A final technical point is the inadequate acknowledgement of secondary sources &emdash; Rossi, in particular, and also Jastrow (1984), whose discussion of the feminine ending Qafisheh misinterprets on p. iii.

The main substantive weaknesses of the book occur in Part One on the phonology. Table 2 gives a four-vowel system for San'ani Arabic: a,i,e,u. In itself a four-vowel system is rather unstable (either a five-vowel or a three-vowel system would be more stable), but from Qafisheh's transcriptions and discussion of the vowel sounds in San'ani Arabic it appears that e is, in fact, an allophone of either /a/ or /i/: the ta marbutah ending he gives as either -eh or -ah (p. 10 taageh[with a dot under the t] "window", hilbeh[with a dot under the h] "fenugreek", sagtah [with a dot under the t] "epilepsy"), and on p. 16 /a/'s quality is said to range "between the e in pen and a in pan". On p. 36 under discussion of stress the syllable CVC is said to be a lightsyllable, though phonologists (notably J. McCarthy) describe CVC in Arabic (and many other languages) as heavy. Under the discussion of epenthesis (p. 27), it is incorrectly said that no epenthesis occurs between a word ending in a doubled consonant and a word beginning with a single consonant (see Watson 1993:9-10). Underthe discussion on germination it is said that while "any double consonant may appear in an intervocalic position -gg-[and] -dd- are rare" (p. 22). This is also incorrect since hagg [with a dot under the h] "of; amounting to; belonging to" is a very common word in the dialect, and examples of-dd- are many &emdash; in baddal "to change",ad-dihlîz "the hall", jaddî "my grandfather", haddâd [with a dot under the h]"blacksmith", m'addab "well-mannered", ad-daktûr"the doctor", etc. The author tells us that pausaldipthongisation is "unique" to San'ani Arabic (p. 31), however, it is also found in dialects spoken outside Sanaa. Other dialects of Yemeni Arabic exhibit pausal dipthongisation, though suchdipthongisation usually differs from the -u > ow/aw and -i >ey/ay dipthongisation in the central plateau (for example, pausalnasalisation of î or î and û in certain dialects of the Tihama and the western mountain range (Behnstedt 1985:57, Diem1973:78) can be analysed as a type of dipthongisation. Jastrow alsonoted slight dipthongisation of final high vowels in the dialect of Yarîm (Fischer and Jastrow 1980:111).

The morphology part of the book does have some interesting points. In section six on the discussion of sound verbs the author says that "verbs of the fu'ul type usually have a velarized consonant" (p. 44), though the interesting relationship between emphatic consonants and the vowel u in this dialect is not followed up. The author also points out that verbs of the fu'il type are unstable in SA. On the whole, though, Part Two degenerates into lists of single-word examples with their translations, again replete with errors, and with very little explanatory or analytical text. The morphology and syntax parts contain substantially nothing that is not mentioned in Rossi (1939),and in very many cases what has been said by Rossi has been inaccurately reanalysed &emdash; or just badly copied &emdash; by Qafisheh. In places it seems fairly clear that examples have not been taken from real text: consider the improbable verb strings ofkaan saar [with a dot under the s] yisthîyhaawil [with a dot under the h] yibga yi'mal "he would have been able to try to keep on working"(p. 262), and kaansaar [with a dot under the s] yigdar yhaawil[with a dot under the h] yibga yi'mal "he would have been able to try to go to work", and laazim 'alayh (ykuun)saar [with a dot under the s] yigra? "he must have gone to study" (p. 264) and (kaan) laazim 'alayhysiir(yigra?) "he had to go to study." There are also unexplained inconsistencies in this part: we are told that "the perfect [of yishtî]/(?i)shta is rarely used in SA; /kaan yishtî/ is very commonly used" (p. 220, note24), yet on p. 129 we are presented with seven examples of shtabefore one or two imperfect verbs with no explanation of whyshta can be used in the perfect in these cases. From my fieldwork the perfect of yishtî can be used, but tends to be used in conditional or conditional-like structures, as inayyahîn-ma [with a dot under the h] shta"whenever he wants" and ka-ma shtaytî "as you"

At times I find it rather difficult to see why the book was produced at all since it has apparently very little primary source material in it and offers no coherent theoretical analysis. The sample texts section at the end of the book is barely usable. It contains 75 proverbs with following translations, presumably taken from one of the many proverb books in San'ani Arabic, followed by seven sets of texts. Of these, texts VI and VII appear to have been taken from Rossi (without acknowledgement) and include many errors and hyper connections inserted by the author. The remaining texts II-V appear to have been constructed from real text, but contain many improbable phonological and syntactical structures. To cite two examples, word-initial hamza intervocalically, as in gad ana ?ashti ?agdif [with a line under the d] "I could throw up" and gad-li shahrayn wa ?ana ?atlubak... [with a dot under the t] "I have been asking you to... for two months," (p. 294) and three entrance halls is incorrectly given as thalaathat madaaxil (p. 298) with the number taking.

I found the book tedious and annoying. The number of typographical errors often means that it is impossible for the reader to decide between a typographical and a substantive error. The number of substantive errors makes the book practically unusable for anyone attempting to learn Yemeni Arabic, or for comparative dialectologists working on Arabic. The fact that the book fails to adopt a coherent theoretical approach to the analysis of either the phonology, morphology or the syntax reduces its value still more.


Behnstedt, P. (1985) DieNordjemenitischen Dialekte. Vol. 1. Atlas. Wiesbaden.

Diem, W. (1973) Skizzen Jemenitischer Dialekte. Beirut.

Fischer, W. and O. Jastrow (1980) Handbuch Arabischer Dialekte. Wiesbaden.

Jastrow, O. (1984) "Zur Phonologie und Phonetik des San'ânischen," in H. Kopp and G. Scweizer (editors), Jemen-Studien. Vol. 1:289-302, Wiesbaden.

Rossi, E. (1939) L'Arabo Parlato a San'a. Rome.

Qafisheh, H. (1990) Yemeni Arabic I. Beirut.

Watson, J. C. E. (1993) A Syntax of San'ani Arabic. Wiesbaden.

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