Why the Kumzari tongue consists of ancient words with a future

Linguists are fighting to save a unique language spoken only in one tiny, isolated Omani village, but not all is at it seems.

A group of young Kumzari boys cool off by playing and swimming with scrap pieces of wood in a small water hole. Razan Alzayani / The National
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The world is rallying to save Kumzari, a unique language spoken only on the tip of the Musandam peninsula and thought to be a mix of Farsi, Arabic, Baluchi, Portuguese, English and some uniquely local words.

UNESCO categorised it as severely endangered, it was listed on Google's Endangered Languages Project for those on the verge of extinction, and linguists fear Kumzari will be among the half of world languages that will be extinct by the end of the century.

There's just one problem: nobody seems to have bothered to inform the residents of Kumzar that their language is in danger.

The first hint that reality did not tally with the concerns about the language came as we approached the village, as everyone does, from the sea. In front of a crowded cluster of houses taking up nearly every square metre of flat land where a steep-sided wadi emerges from the mountains, Kumzar's children are playing in a tidal pool.

They're using a collection of construction offcuts to use as makeshift toy boats. Anywhere else on the Arabian peninsula, they would be jabbering away excitedly in Arabic.

Not here. There's plenty of animated chatter - and it's entirely in Kumzari. Arabic is a language they only encounter once they start school.

Their parents later explain to us in clear Omani Arabic that their language is strong. But what really validates the point is that whenever they confer before answering our questions, it is always in Kumzari.

All this defies what has been an otherwise one-way process in which the overwhelming majority of the more than 6,000 languages spoken globally are headed for extinction, pushed into obscurity by the dominance of the top five languages: English, Mandarin, Spanish, Arabic and Hindi.

At first blush, Kumzari ticks every box on the checklist for languages that should be facing extinction: it's a purely verbal rather than written language, it's only spoken by a few thousand people, its speakers are all bilingual, it cannot be used to communicate with the outside world, the education system is only in Arabic, and the children have access to satellite television and the internet.

So why is Kumzari doing well when so many other languages are not?

The way village elders such as Abdullah Kumzari react to the question makes it seem faintly irrelevant. His explanation boils down to this: it's just Kumzari. They don't know for certain where it came from but they've always spoken it and they will always speak it.

"It's not going to be extinct, because when a child is born and finds the mother, father, siblings and everyone else talking the same way, of course it won't be lost," he says.

"Children … have many years at home before they go anywhere. So [Kumzari] will always be around.

"It hasn't changed. It's the same from our ancestors' time, we inherited it from them, but where they got it from we don't know.

"We can't give you a date. It could be hundreds or thousands [of years], maybe millions of years ago. We can't give a day but it was a long time ago. This is proof that there were a lot of people living here for a long time."

Another elder, Mohammed Abdullah Kumzari, says the origins of the language remain obscure but only those from Kumzar can speak or understand it.

"Some say [it's from] Portugal, some say French, even we don't know where it came from," he adds.

"An Englishman came to us once, took a small can, filled it with rocks and shook it, then gave it to us saying: 'This is your dialect - it's everything.'

"There isn't anywhere else that speaks Kumzari but here. In all of the Gulf countries, it's only here, in this village. You can't find it anywhere else."

Even trained linguists struggle to determine the language's exact origins, other than it's a reflection of Kumzar's location right on the Strait of Hormuz, one of the crossroads of civilisations for millennia.

Early theories included that it was the aboriginal pre-Semitic language of this part of Arabia that was supplanted by the spread of Arabic, or that it was related to the now-extinct Himyaritic language of Yemen.

The first serious analysis was in 1930 by Bertram Thomas, an English civil servant who worked throughout the region. He dismissed the earlier theories and determined Kumzari was "largely a compound of Arabic and Persian, but is distinct from them both [and] as spoken is comprehensible neither to the Arab nor to the Persian visitor of usual illiteracy".

He assessed more than 500 words of Kumzari and decided 44 per cent had a Farsi origin, 34 per cent had an Arabic origin and another 22 per cent could not be traced to either. The grammatical structure was more like Farsi than Arabic.

The Kumzari word for oven, for example, is "forno", the same as in Portuguese and most likely harking from when they ruled his area in the 16th and 17th centuries. The word for car (there are four cars in Kumzar, notwithstanding there are fewer than two kilometres of roads) is "motor", a direct lift from English. Other words are traced to Kurdish, Urdu and Hindi, all languages used in trading.

One recent theory is that the closest language to Kumzari - which, to be fair, is not very close - is the Minabi dialect of southern Baluchistan, and another is that Kumzari is a dialect of Luri, which is spoken by around four million people in Iran and Iraq.

The latter connection led to Kumzar's most recent intense assessment. Erik Anonby, a professor of linguistics at Carleton University in Canada who specialised in Luri, moved with his wife, Christina Van Der Wal Anonby, and their children to Kumzar in 2008 and learned the language.

Mohammed Abdullah Kumzari, the village elder, said by the time Anonby left, he was fluent in Kumzari.

"Erik and Christina, they came and were writing our Kumzari dialect," he said.

"They'd sit with one of us and would ask us what this means and write down each word and its meaning and translated them; not in Arabic, he translated them in Kumzari.

"He would ask 'Where would this word go and how could it be used', like a dictionary. Erik would ask us how to pronounce it and what it all meant.

"After translating the words from us, Erik learned the dialect and could talk with us in Kumzari. He learned everything he needed from us and then he left with his family.

"When he talked with us, he talked using the Kumzari dialect and we replied to him in Kumzari. There was no need to talk differently, he got educated here.

"I can't say if they're coming back or not, but they stayed for three or four months, and could speak Kumzari when they left."

He dismissed the Luri connection, saying some Luri people lived in Kumzar and influenced the village and its language, just as other visitors had over the centuries.

But like all visitors, they didn't stay, leaving Kumzar to the Kumzaris.

"The Luri clan were here long back. They came, didn't find a living and went back to their own villages," he added.

"We can't recall how many people visited here, only God knows. Maybe 20 or 15 people came here. [This was] maybe 80 or 60 years ago these people came.

"They had small abras when they came. They didn't live on the land, they just fished and left.

"Just like Erik and his wife, they got what they wanted and left to another land to look for other new languages.

"The real Kumzari wont leave his land."

And that in a nub explains the health of Kumzari. For most endangered languages, the threat of extinction is merely a symptom of something greater: the loss of a culture.

In other places where intensive efforts are made to protect endangered languages, such as for the native tongues of Canada's First Nation tribes, the path to success is seen as bolstering the culture behind the language.

One such organisation, Language Revival, cites two key points in saving a language: making the language and culture visible so people feel comfortable speaking it in public and ensuring that children are exposed to it from a very early age so it becomes hardwired into the brain.

In Kumzar, both of those occur naturally without the need of outside intervention. And it would be difficult to find a village with a stronger culture, which exists not because of the lack of knowledge of the outside world - as the profusion of Barcelona and similar football shirts worn by many of the young men demonstrates - but because the local way of life is robust enough to withstand the competition.

Depopulation is a trend throughout Oman's remote communities but the elders said Kumzar's population is growing by about 300 a year and is closing in on 5,000, which has caused the village to run out of free land so that every home has between three to five families sharing it.

Many Kumzaris, especially those with professional jobs, are based part of the year in Khasab but all of them live next to each other in a suburb known locally as Little Kumzar.

Mohammed Abdullah Kumzari said while some people leave the village, it is only ever temporary.

"The originals from this land won't ever leave, I guarantee it," he said.

"They only go to get a living, but always come back to their country, to their homeland.

"Even if they live abroad for 20 or 30 years, they always come back home.

"So the other clans, they didn't find a living and went back to their homes, but the real Kumzari won't ever leave and not come back, no matter what.

"We're family, that's why we stay here in our village. Because we don't get any problems from outsiders, and if we do fight, we're quick to make up with each other.

"Brothers and family don't fight for long, two or three days and we made up. But with outsiders, when they fight their fight lasts forever."

Maybe the biggest proof of that is demonstrated a few hours later. The village has satellite television and, in the last few years, the internet, but as the afternoon merges with dusk, the villagers head to the beach and sit around chatting in groups.

Gaggles of children sing and play games they've invented themselves rather than updating their Facebook accounts or watching the Cartoon Channel.

And the chatter, of course, is in Kumzari.