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
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

Why the Kumzari tongue consists of ancient words with a future



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.

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Basquiat in Abu Dhabi

One of Basquiat’s paintings, the vibrant Cabra (1981–82), now hangs in Louvre Abu Dhabi temporarily, on loan from the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi. 

The latter museum is not open physically, but has assembled a collection and puts together a series of events called Talking Art, such as this discussion, moderated by writer Chaedria LaBouvier. 

It's something of a Basquiat season in Abu Dhabi at the moment. Last week, The Radiant Child, a documentary on Basquiat was shown at Manarat Al Saadiyat, and tonight (April 18) the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi is throwing the re-creation of a party tonight, of the legendary Canal Zone party thrown in 1979, which epitomised the collaborative scene of the time. It was at Canal Zone that Basquiat met prominent members of the art world and moved from unknown graffiti artist into someone in the spotlight.  

“We’ve invited local resident arists, we’ll have spray cans at the ready,” says curator Maisa Al Qassemi of the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi. 

Guggenheim Abu Dhabi's Canal Zone Remix is at Manarat Al Saadiyat, Thursday April 18, from 8pm. Free entry to all. Basquiat's Cabra is on view at Louvre Abu Dhabi until October

ILT20 UAE stars

LEADING RUN SCORERS
1 Nicholas Pooran, 261
2 Muhammad Waseem (UAE), 248
3 Chris Lynn, 244
4 Johnson Charles, 232
5 Kusal Perera, 230

BEST BOWLING AVERAGE
(minimum 10 overs bowled)
1 Zuhaib Zubair (UAE), 9 wickets at 12.44
2 Mohammed Rohid (UAE), 7 at 13.00

3 Fazalhaq Farooqi, 17 at 13.05
4 Waqar Salamkheil, 10 at 14.08
5 Aayan Khan (UAE), 4 at 15.50
6 Wanindu Hasaranga, 12 at 16.25
7 Mohammed Jawadullah (UAE), 10 at 17.00

COMPANY PROFILE

Company name: Almouneer
Started: 2017
Founders: Dr Noha Khater and Rania Kadry
Based: Egypt
Number of staff: 120
Investment: Bootstrapped, with support from Insead and Egyptian government, seed round of
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The years Ramadan fell in May

1987

1954

1921

1888

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3. Denmark
4. Ireland
5. Hong Kong
6. Sweden
7. UAE
8. Taiwan
9. Netherlands
10. Norway

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Author: S Frederick Starr
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Pages: 290
Available: January 24

How to wear a kandura

Dos

  • Wear the right fabric for the right season and occasion 
  • Always ask for the dress code if you don’t know
  • Wear a white kandura, white ghutra / shemagh (headwear) and black shoes for work 
  • Wear 100 per cent cotton under the kandura as most fabrics are polyester

Don’ts 

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Middleweight: Impa Kasanganay v Johnny Eblen
Featherweight: Jesus Pinedo v Patricio Pitbull
Catchweight: Ray Cooper III v Jason Jackson

Showcase Bouts
Heavyweight: Bruno Cappelozza (former PFL World champ) v Vadim Nemkov (former Bellator champ)
Light Heavyweight: Thiago Santos (PFL title contender) v Yoel Romero (Bellator title contender)
Lightweight: Clay Collard (PFL title contender) v AJ McKee (former Bellator champ)
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Lightweight: Biaggio Ali Walsh (pro debut) v Emmanuel Palacios (pro debut)
Women’s Lightweight: Claressa Shields v Kelsey DeSantis
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Amateur Flyweight: Malik Basahel v Vinicius Pereira

EMIRATES'S REVISED A350 DEPLOYMENT SCHEDULE

Edinburgh: November 4 (unchanged)

Bahrain: November 15 (from September 15); second daily service from January 1

Kuwait: November 15 (from September 16)

Mumbai: January 1 (from October 27)

Ahmedabad: January 1 (from October 27)

Colombo: January 2 (from January 1)

Muscat: March 1 (from December 1)

Lyon: March 1 (from December 1)

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Source: Emirates

Women’s World T20, Asia Qualifier

UAE results
Beat China by 16 runs
Lost to Thailand by 10 wickets
Beat Nepal by five runs
Beat Hong Kong by eight wickets
Beat Malaysia by 34 runs

Standings (P, W, l, NR, points)

1. Thailand 5 4 0 1 9
2. UAE 5 4 1 0 8
3. Nepal 5 2 1 2 6
4. Hong Kong 5 2 2 1 5
5. Malaysia 5 1 4 0 2
6. China 5 0 5 0 0

Final
Thailand v UAE, Monday, 7am

ROUTE TO TITLE

Round 1: Beat Leolia Jeanjean 6-1, 6-2
Round 2: Beat Naomi Osaka 7-6, 1-6, 7-5
Round 3: Beat Marie Bouzkova 6-4, 6-2
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Quarter-final: Beat Marketa Vondrousova 6-0, 6-2
Semi-final: Beat Coco Gauff 6-2, 6-4
Final: Beat Jasmine Paolini 6-2, 6-2

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Started: 2023
Co-founders: Arto Bendiken and Talal Thabet
Based: Dubai, UAE
Industry: AI
Number of employees: 41
Funding: About $1.7 million
Investors: Self, family and friends

The five pillars of Islam

1. Fasting

2. Prayer

3. Hajj

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While you're here
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Developer: SCE Studio Cambridge
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment
Console: PlayStation, PlayStation 4 and 5
Rating: 3.5/5

TWISTERS

Director: Lee Isaac Chung

Starring: Glenn Powell, Daisy Edgar-Jones, Anthony Ramos

Rating: 2.5/5

JOKE'S ON YOU

Google wasn't new to busting out April Fool's jokes: before the Gmail "prank", it tricked users with mind-reading MentalPlex responses and said well-fed pigeons were running its search engine operations .

In subsequent years, they announced home internet services through your toilet with its "patented GFlush system", made us believe the Moon's surface was made of cheese and unveiled a dating service in which they called founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page "Stanford PhD wannabes ".

But Gmail was all too real, purportedly inspired by one – a single – Google user complaining about the "poor quality of existing email services" and born "millions of M&Ms later".

CONFIRMED LINE-UP

Elena Rybakina (Kazakhstan)
Ons Jabeur (Tunisia)
Maria Sakkari (Greece)
Barbora Krejčíková (Czech Republic)
Beatriz Haddad Maia (Brazil)
Jeļena Ostapenko (Latvia)
Liudmila Samsonova
Daria Kasatkina 
Veronika Kudermetova 
Caroline Garcia (France) 
Magda Linette (Poland) 
Sorana Cîrstea (Romania) 
Anastasia Potapova 
Anhelina Kalinina (Ukraine)  
Jasmine Paolini (Italy) 
Emma Navarro (USA) 
Lesia Tsurenko (Ukraine)
Naomi Osaka (Japan) - wildcard
Emma Raducanu (Great Britain) - wildcard
Alexandra Eala (Philippines) - wildcard

SPECS

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Abdul Jabar Qahraman was meeting supporters in his campaign office in the southern Afghan province of Helmand when a bomb hidden under a sofa exploded on Wednesday.

The blast in the provincial capital Lashkar Gah killed the Afghan election candidate and at least another three people, Interior Minister Wais Ahmad Barmak told reporters. Another three were wounded, while three suspects were detained, he said.

The Taliban – which controls much of Helmand and has vowed to disrupt the October 20 parliamentary elections – claimed responsibility for the attack.

Mr Qahraman was at least the 10th candidate killed so far during the campaign season, and the second from Lashkar Gah this month. Another candidate, Saleh Mohammad Asikzai, was among eight people killed in a suicide attack last week. Most of the slain candidates were murdered in targeted assassinations, including Avtar Singh Khalsa, the first Afghan Sikh to run for the lower house of the parliament.

The same week the Taliban warned candidates to withdraw from the elections. On Wednesday the group issued fresh warnings, calling on educational workers to stop schools from being used as polling centres.