Modern South Arabian languages

The Modern South Arabian,[1][2] also known as Modern Ṣayhadic languages or Eastern South Semitic languages, are a group of endangered languages spoken by small populations inhabiting the Arabian Peninsula, in Yemen and Oman, and Socotra Island. Together with the modern Ethiopian Semitic languages, the Western branch, they form the South Semitic sub-branch of the Afroasiatic language family's Semitic branch.

Modern South Arabian
Yemen, Oman, Kuwait
Linguistic classificationAfro-Asiatic
Modern South Arabian Languages.svg


In his glottochronology-based classification, Alexander Militarev presents the Modern South Arabian languages as a South Semitic branch opposed to a North Semitic branch that includes all the other Semitic languages.[3][4] They are no longer considered to be descendants of the Old South Arabian language, as was once thought, but instead "nephews".


  • Mehri: the largest Modern South Arabian language, with over 165,000 speakers. Most Mehri speakers, around 76,000, live in Oman, but around 50,000 live in Yemen, and around 40,000 speakers live as guest workers in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. Mehri people are referred to as Mahra.
  • Soqotri: another relatively numerous example, with speakers on the island of Socotra isolated from the pressures of Arabic on the Yemeni mainland. In 2015, there were around 70,000 speakers.
  • Shehri: frequently called Jibbali, "of the Mountains", with an estimated 25,000 speakers; it is best known as the language of the rebels during the Dhofar Rebellion in Oman's Dhofar Governorate along the border with Yemen in the 1960s and 1970s.
  • Bathari: Under 100 speakers in Oman. Located on the southeast coast facing the Khuriya Muriya Islands. Very similar to Mehri, and some tribespeople speak Mehri instead of Bathari.
  • Harsusi: 600 speakers in the Jiddat al-Harasis of Oman.
  • Hobyót: 100 speakers est., in Oman and Yemen.


Modern South Arabian languages are known for their apparent archaic Semitic features, especially in their system of phonology. For example, they preserve the lateral fricatives of Proto-Semitic.

Additionally, Militarev identified a Cushitic substratum in Modern South Arabian, which he proposes is evidence that Cushitic speakers originally inhabited the Arabian Peninsula alongside Semitic speakers (Militarev 1984, 18-19; cf. also Belova 2003). According to Václav Blažek, this suggests that Semitic peoples assimilated their original Cushitic neighbours to the south who did not later emigrate to the Horn of Africa. He argues that the Levant would thus have been the Proto-Afro-Asiatic Urheimat, from where the various branches of the Afro-Asiatic family subsequently dispersed. To further support this, Blažek cites analysis of rock art in Central Arabia by Anati (1968, 180-84), which notes a connection between the shield-carrying "oval-headed" people depicted on the cave paintings and the Arabian Cushites from the Old Testament, who were similarly described as carrying specific shields.[5]


Proto-Modern South Arabian reconstructions by Roger Blench (2019):[6]

Gloss sg. pl.
one *tʕaad, *tʕiit
two *ṯrooh, *ṯereṯ
three *ʃahṯayt
four *ʔorbac, *raboot
five *xəmmoh
six m. *ʃɛɛt, f. *ʃətəət
seven m. *ʃoobeet, f. *ʃəbət
eight m. θəmoonit, f. θəmoonit
nine m. *saʕeet, f. *saaʕet
ten m. *ʕɔ́ɬər, f. *ʕəɬiireet
head *ḥəəreeh
eye *ʔaayn *ʔaayəəntən
ear *ʔeyðeen *ʔiðānten
nose *nəxreer *nəxroor
mouth *xah *xwuutən
hair *ɬəfeet *ɬéef
hand/arm *ḥayd *ḥaadootən
leg *faaʕm *fʕamtən
foot *géedəl *(ha-)gdool
blood *ðoor *ðiiriín
breast *θɔɔdɛʔ *θədií
belly *hóofəl *hefool
sea *rɛ́mrəm *roorəm
path, road *ḥóorəm *ḥiiraám
mountain *kərmām *kərəəmoom
rock, stone *ṣar(fét) *ṣeref
rock, stone *ṣəwər(fet) *ṣəfáyr
rock, stone *ʔoobən
rock, stone *fúdún
fish *ṣódəh *ṣyood
hyena *θəbiiriin
turtle *ḥameseh *ḥoms(tə)
louse *kenemoot *kenoom
man *ɣayg *ɣəyuug
woman *teeθ
male child *ɣeg
child *mber
water *ḥəmooh
fire *ɬəweeṭ *ɬewṭeen
milk *ɬxoof *ɬxefən
salt *məɮḥɔ́t
night *ʔaṣeer *leyli
day *ḥəyoomet PWMSA *yiim
net PWMSA *liix *leyuux
wind *mədenut *medáyten
I, we *hoh *nəhan
you, m. *heet *ʔəteem
you, f. *hiit *ʔeteen
he, they m. *heh *həəm
she, they f. *seeh *seen


  1. ^ Simeone-Senelle, Marie-Claude (1997). The Modern South Arabian Languages. In Hetzron, R. (ed.). 1997. The Semitic Languages. London: Routledge, p. 378-423.
  2. ^ Rendsburg, Gary A. Modern South Arabian as a source for Ugaritic etymologies.
  3. ^ "СЕМИТСКИЕ ЯЗЫКИ | Энциклопедия Кругосвет".
  4. ^ Militarev, Alexander, "Once more about glottochronology and the comparative method: the Omotic-Afrasian case". Moscow, Russian State University for the Humanities.
  5. ^ Blažek, Václav. "Afroasiatic Migrations: Linguistic Evidence" (PDF). Retrieved 9 May 2013.
  6. ^ Blench, Roger (2019). Reconstructing Modern South Arabian. Paper presented at the Workshop on Modern South Arabian Languages, Erlangen, Germany, 19 December 2019.


  • Johnstone, T.M. 1975. The Modern South Arabian Languages. Afroasiatic Linguistics 1/5:93-121 [1-29
  • Johnstone, T.M. 1977. Ḥarsūsi Lexicon and English-Ḥarsūsi Word-List. London: Oxford University Press.
  • Johnstone, T.M. 1981. Jibbāli Lexicon. London: Oxford University Press.
  • Johnstone, T.M. 1987. Mehri Lexicon and English-Mehri Word-List. London: School of Oriental and African Studies.
  • Nakano, Aki’o. 1986. Comparative Vocabulary of Southern Arabic: Mahri, Gibbali, and Soqotri. Tokyo: Institute for the Study of *Languages and Cultures of Asia and Africa.
  • Nakano, Aki’o. 2013. Hōbyot (Oman) Vocabulary: With Example Texts. Ed. Robert Ratcliffe. Tokyo: Research Institute for Languages and Cultures of Asia and Africa.
  • Naumkin, Vitaly, et al. 2014b. Corpus of Soqotri Oral Literature. Volume 1. Leiden: Brill.
  • Rubin, Aaron D. 2010. The Mehri Language of Oman. Leiden: Brill.
  • Rubin, Aaron D. 2014. The Jibbali Language of Oman: Grammar and Texts. Leiden: Brill.
  • Watson, Janet C.E. 2012. The Structure of Mehri. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz.

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