Sbahtu! A Course in San'ani Arabic

Janet C. E. Watson, Sbahtu! A Course in San'ani Arabic. Semitica Viva: Series Didactica, 3. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 1996. xxvii, 324 pp., glossary, index ISBN 3-447-03755-5

Reviewed by Daniel Martin Varisco

Yemen Update 40(1998)#1

Interested in learning the Sanaa dialect? You can, of course, go to Sanaa and enroll in a course or find a willing teacher. If you have access to an excellent Middle East collection, you might try brushing up on your Italian to sift through Ettore Rossi's L'Arabo Parlato a San'a. Or, you can buy this recent book by Watson from Harrassowitz and learn at your own pace,either where you are now or in Yemen.

Janet Watson has established herself as one of the major contemporary linguists of Yemeni dialects. This is a companion volume to her justly acclaimed A Syntax of San'ani Arabic, published in 1993 by Harrassowitz. [See Yemen Update #37, p. 34 for a review.] One of the really pleasant features of this primer is that it provides real conversations Watson taped in the field. One will not find material here to bolster Tim MacIntosh Smith's (Yemen. Travels in Dictionary Land, Murray,1997, p. 1) lamented experience in learning Arabic from Cowan's Modern Literary Arabic on the dual: "'The two beautiful queens,' it said, 'are ignorant.' The odds against uttering the sentence were high: grammars, like theatre, call for a suspension of belief."Believe it, the phrases in Watson's text will get you around Sanaa.

The arrangement is systematic. Each chapter includes dialogue, thematic vocabulary, grammatical points and exercises. For example, lesson 4 (pp. 28-40) is entitled "Ant min'ayn? Where are you m.s. from?" The dialogue begins with a common refrain in a dialogue between Samira and Ahmad:

Samira: sbahtu!

Ahmad: sabbahkum allah bi-l-xayr!

Samira: ant min ayn ya 'ahmad?

Ahmad: ana min al-yaman.

Samira: s'am ant yamani.

Ahmad: aywih ana yamani, w-antõ min ayn ya samirih.

Samira: ana min masr, ana masriyuh.

OK, so Samira shouldn't be flirting with this Yemeni guy by using San'ani Arabic. There are actually four dialogues provided here. The last features Muhammad and a Frenchman named Jean (perhaps Jean Lambert, whose San'ani Arabic is certainly up to it). The key words used in the dialogues are given in the vocabulary section. The grammar in this lesson consists of eight parts: adjective formation, plural formation, adjective predicates,prepositional predicates, topical sentences, negation: 'no' and 'not', definiteness and verbs: the imperfect aspect. The thematic vocabulary covers a number of Arab countries, major towns in Yemen and terms for administrative areas. The exercises involve substitution, question and answer, singular > plural, negation,gender change and finding the plural.

This book is best used by someone who already knows some Arabic. There is no hand-holding here, no answers to exercises at the back of the book. While the information needed to do the exercises is straightforward for someone who already knows some Arabic, it might be difficult to learn on your own from scratch without a teacher to point out errors. Certainly, this would be a fine text to use in a classroom situation, especially one taught in Yemen itself.

For ordering information on this book,contact Harrassowitz Verlag, Postfach 2929, Taunusstrasse 14, D-65019Wiesbaden, Germany (fax in Germany 611/53 05 70).


Book Excerpt: Preface

This book is intended primarily for students of Yemeni Arabic. It will also be of interest to Arabic dialectologists and to linguists with a general interest in Arabic. For readers who wish to consider aspects of San'ani syntax in more detail frequent reference is made to my Syntax of San'aniArabic published in 1993 by Otto Harrassowitz (Semitica Viva).

The book is a complete course in San'ani Arabic and can reasonably be used either for self study or in the classroom. It comprises an introduction, twenty lessons with graded exercises, a glossary and an index. The introduction provides the inventory of consonants and vowels in San'ani Arabic. The lessons consist of three major sections: dialogue(s) and vocabulary, grammar(and thematic vocabulary), and exercises. The dialogues in lessons1-7 and 12 are constructed from real text; at least one of the dialogues in each of lessons 8-11 is taken directly from transcriptions of real text; and all the dialogues in lessons 13-20come directly from real text (though personal names have been changed in some cases). As a result of this the dialogues exhibit typical features of everyday speech: principally repetition, emphasis and elaboration; though, on the whole, hesitations and speech errors have been removed or corrected. The dialogues are largely organised according to cultural themes: for example, in the market; food in Yemen; learning in Yemen; Yemeni houses; San'ani games; marriage in Yemen; birth and wedding parties; gat cultivation andgat chewing; the old city; and death and mourning in Yemen. The grammar section takes a semantically orientated view of the syntax, and discusses aspects of pronunciation, set phrases (such as greetings), word structure and word order which are thrown up by the dialogues in any one particular lesson. The thematic vocabulary section provides lists of practical and culturally relevant vocabulary; for example, major towns in Yemen; areas of the market;food and drink; parts of the body; traditional dress in Sanaa; weddings and births; travel; buildings and places; communications;the house; Yemeni games. The exercises are designated to practice the grammar and the vocabulary of the lesson at hand, and to revise aspects of the grammar and the vocabulary of the lesson at hand, and to revise aspects of the grammar and vocabulary from previous lessons. The glossary at the end of the book draws together the 1400vocabulary items from the dialogues and the thematic vocabulary sections; additional vocabulary used to illustrate grammatical points in the grammar section are only included in the glossary if they are required for the exercises. By the end of the course the reader should have a good grasp of both San'ani Arabic and crucial aspects of the culture and cultural norms and expectations (p.vii).

1. Greetings: at a gatchew

Specific greetings are used on specific occasions. At a gat chew people entering will often not greet everyone, but will give a general greeting. The people sitting will then all reply. The following greetings and replies are common atmen's gat chews. In the reply to the first and second greetings huis used in place of ant 'you m.s.' or antu 'you m. pl.' to mean'you'. In the second greeting hum is used in place of kum:

greeting reply

1. rihkum wa-huwa-l-kull

'may you be contented!' 'and you too!'

2.rihhum wa-hu

'may you be contented!' 'and you too!'

3. salamthiyyih ablaght

'greeting of welcome!' 'you m.s. have conveyed [it]!'

On leaving a gat chew a man will again give a general greeting to which the people sitting will reply:

greeting reply

annas allahbil-hayatkum w-antu al-uns

'may God give you pleasure in your lives' 'you m.pl. are the pleasure [i.e. you are the one who has given pleasure.]'

At a wedding, the person entering will use one of the greetings given above, but will add the phrase ma 'adal-hariw 'except for the groom' and will greet the groom separately. The reply will remain the same (p. 248).

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