Emirati professor fighting to preserve endangered form of Arabic

A retired academic is spreading the word about the need to preserve one of the oldest forms of Arabic.

Dr Maryam Bayshak spent two decades sitting within the tribes to develop dialect descriptions.  Delores Johnson / The National
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A retired academic is spreading the word about the need to preserve one of the oldest forms of Arabic.

In a university dorm decades ago, Dr Maryam Bayshak heard a young woman say “Kan Ki?” to another girl.

But little did she know then that it would take her on a journey of discovery that would ultimately become her lifelong work, one that is critical at preserving an endangered dialect.

“It is a question, a kind of like ‘what has happened?’ in the Shehhi dialect,” says Dr Bayshak, 54, an Emirati professor of linguistics.

“It intrigued me and I wanted to find out more about a language that nobody actually knew anything about, yet many would come up with unscientific theories about its origin.”

Through sheer diligence, dedication and gaining their trust, she was slowly welcomed into the exclusive and reclusive mountainous Shuhhuh tribes.

The Shuhhuh include the Shehhi, Habous and Dhuhoori tribes of the northern and eastern mountains of the UAE.

Dr Bayshak would sit for hours with the elders and younger members of the tribes to decipher and decode this old language.

She recorded everything for more than two decades and developed precise linguistic descriptions of the dialect’s sounds.

The academic is known among the tribes as “olam”, or aalem in modern Arabic, which means scholar.

What Dr Bayshak has discovered and where her research has taken her will be the heart of her lecture on Wednesday, entitled “The Linguistic Heritage of the Shuhhuh”, at the New York University Abu Dhabi campus conference centre.

“I still haven’t published my book, as it is a work in progress,” she says.

“I keep discovering new interesting links and theories. Every time there is a new archaeological find in the UAE, I ask them, ‘have you found an inscription?’”

Now retired from university work, Dr Bayshak lives in Kalba and continues her research into a language that, until recently, was mocked and dismissed as “not even Arabic”.

“The ironic part of it is that evidence is showing that the Shuhhuh are speaking one of the oldest Arabic dialects and are an indigenous tribe to this area,” she says.

Dr Bayshak has seen members of the tribe shy away from sharing their language and often end up whispering it among themselves.

“They are actually more pure Arab than most,” she says.

Their habitat, isolated mountainous terrain that is difficult to reach, has helped to preserve the old Semitic language.

“Initially, I believed it to have originated it from the Himyaritic language from Yemen (Himyarite kingdom founded in 110BC), but as I do more research, I found a connection to the Ubaid period (6500 to 3800BC) in Mesopotamia,” she says.

“So I don’t want to make any final conclusions yet. It could be that the Shuhhuh dialect is an indigenous one, a local one, born here.”

Shehhi remains widely spoken in the Musandam cape, in communities such as Ghalilah, Sha’am, Al Jir, Dibba, Khatt and Khasab. When asked about their origin, the tribes say they are related to the ancient Azd tribe of Yemen.

But one of the persistent misconceptions still around is that Shehhi dialect is not Arabic because of the pronunciation.

“We as Arabs, we pronounce the ain, the aa, and Shuhhuh don’t. The ain is a hamza, a soft a, in their dialect and so people said they can’t be Arabs since they don’t pronounce the ain,” she says.

They also use more forced sounds when they talk. The negative particular follows the verb and is la or law, unlike the mainstream Arabic, where it is ma and before the verb.

“Ma akalt [didn’t eat], versus aklat la,” she explains. There is so much material already available that Dr Bayshak is doubtful the time at tonight’s lecture will be enough to even scratch the surface.

The seed for her academic pursuits was planted before she went to university in the early 1980s, where in an article in Al Arabi Magazine, often dubbed the Arabic National Geographic, someone had written that the Shehhi “are remnants of the Portuguese”, who had occupied parts of the Northern Emirates from 1498 until 1633.

“It annoyed me to read this,” says Dr Bayshak. “The elders would not share or talk initially, as they felt resentful to what has been said about their tribes, and it was only after I had published articles documenting proper research that they opened up to me.”

She hopes to see more research grants provided for the Shuhhuh so they can document their histories and stories.

“We need to include more special segments just for them and about them at the heritage festivals around the country, and need to encourage them to share and preserve their legacy,” she says.

This dialect, like many others – especially of remote communities such as the mountain tribes – is fading with modernisation and dominance of English and modern Arabic.

“It is an endangered language,” Dr Bayshak says. “There should be more awareness and endorsement for its preservation.

“We need to make sure to protect it, especially as the new generation is starting to lose this very special dialect and the stories it carries.”

• Dr Bayshak will deliver her lecture at NYUAD on Wednesday between 6.30 and 8pm


Other endangered dialects/languages in the Middle East


Maaloula, a Syrian village, is said to be the last place on Earth where people still speak the language of Jesus.

About 60 kilometres north-east of Damascus, its residents are fluent in Aramaic, with a national initiative to preserve the ancient language.

While the language has survived for centuries, an attack on the village three years ago in the Syrian war destroyed its homes and ancient monuments and left its people displaced. Aramaic is now in serious danger of becoming extinct.

It is also categorised as “definitely endangered” on the Unesco list of languages, which estimates that only about 2,000 people still speak it.

Aramaic is one of six languages flagged by Unesco in Syria. One, Mlahso, became extinct in 1998 after the death of the last person who spoke it, Ibrahim Hanna.


Only a few hundred people in small areas of Yemen and Oman speak Hobyot. An endangered Semitic language, it is a modern South Arabian language, closely related to Ethiopic languages.

It is spoken by Hobyot people and some members of Mahra tribes, who live in the mountains or on the shores as fishermen. It is marked as “severely endangered” by Unesco and is one of four languages flagged in danger of loss in Yemen.


Classified as a member of the Iranian Luri subgroup, Kumzari is a ‘severely endangered’ language mainly spoken by a few thousand people living on the tip of Musandam Peninsula, in the far north of Oman, which is separated from the rest of the country by the UAE. It is also thought to be a mix of Farsi, Arabic, Baluchi, Portuguese, English and unique words.

Kumzari is one of eight languages flagged by Unesco in danger in Oman, each linked to certain tribes. The worry is that as the new generations speak mostly mainstream Arabic, they may lose their ancestral language.


Only a few thousand people speak Mehri, which is categorised as ‘definitely endangered’ by Unesco. It is spoken by the Mahra tribes in the south-eastern province of Mahra in Yemen, the Dhofar in Oman, and the city of Sharourah and the border area of the Empty Quarter in Saudi Arabia.

It is considered prestigious and the best-known language within the modern South Arabian group because of the history of the region and of its rich literature, including stories and poetry.

Semi-nomadic palm tree farmers, the Mahra tribes were known before 1990 as traders or shopkeepers in Kuwait and later most settled in Saudi Arabia. There are now initiatives on the way in Saudi Arabia to study and preserve the language.


Laz is one of 18 languages listed in Turkey by Unesco as endangered. It is related to the Kartvelian languages, which are tied to the Caucasian tongues, an array spoken by those in and around the Caucasus Mountains between the Black and Caspian seas. Laz is spoken in parts of Turkey and Georgia, and there are also Laz villages founded by refugees of the 1877-1878 war, in the western parts of Turkey, mainly in Sakarya, Kocaeli and Bolu province.

Some of the other endangered languages in Turkey have Russian, Greek and Armenian origins and mixes.


Domari is also known as the language of the Ghajar or Nawar, Arabic for Gypsy, and often called the “Middle East Romani”.

An Indo-Aryan language in danger of being lost, it is spoken in parts of Jerusalem, Gaza, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria, but believed now to be extinct in Egypt and elsewhere in North Africa.

It is one of two languages flagged by Unesco in Jordan. The other is Adyge, a western Circassian language that originated from Adygea, a federal subject of Russia.