New considerations on the Arabic Dialect of the Bani Ṣaḫar Tribe
The Bani Şaḫar (in the plural form Ṣḫūr) are among the most important Arab Bedouin tribes in Jordan. According to Frederick Peake (1958, p. 215), they claim to descend from al-Ḥarb, one of the most powerful tribes of the Ḥiǧāz and Naǧd, and migrated to Jordan from Western Arabia in the late 18th century. They are divided into two groups: al-Ṭwaga and al-Čaˁābna. Their traditional tribal area (dīra in Arabic) extends from the southern hinterland of ˁAmmān to the wells of Bāyir (located about 150 km south-west of ˁAmmān). The western border of this area follows the line Wādi es-Sīr, Mādaba, Umm al-ˁAmad, Ḏībān, while the eastern border can be traced along Qaṣr el-ʔAzraq and Wādi as-Sirḥān. In the North, they settled in al-Mafraq and in some areas of ʔIrbid as well.
The first attempt to explore the Arabic dialect of the Bani Ṣaḫar was carried out almost ninety years ago. It is to be found in Jean Cantineau’s Études sur quelques parlers nomades d’Orient, published between 1936 and 1937. Cantineau (1937, pp. 116–117) typologically classified the dialect of the Bani Ṣaḫar as belonging to the group Bc, i.e., dialects of the Šammari type (group B) but with many similarities to the dialect of the Syro-Mesopotamian sheep-rearing semi nomads (group C). However, since the result of this inquiry was not comprehensive, Cantineau himself stressed the importance of further study.
Almost fifty years after Cantineau, in 1980, the great Finnish dialectologist Heikki Palva published the article Characteristics of the Arabic Dialect of the Bani Ṣaxar Tribe. He collected the materials for his study on the dialect of Bani Ṣaḫar tribe from January 1970 until January 1979, almost half a century ago. In his study, he selected some phonological, morphological, syntactic, and lexical features to define the main characteristics of the dialect. However, Palva (1980, pp. 114 and 137) also pointed out that “a more comprehensive study is highly desirable” since several features of the Bani Ṣaḫar dialect “deserve further study based upon extensive material”.
This Jordanian variety is in fact of enormous interest for the study of Arabic dialects in general and the bedouin-type dialects in particular, because the speech of the camel-breeders is said to be very archaic and conservative in comparison to other Arabic dialects. However, this state of affairs has not yet been confirmed due to the lack of study on this subject (Younes, 2018, p. 265). Thus, what is very much needed in the field of Arabic dialectology is to gather ample linguistic data to corroborate such assumptions.
This brought me to dedicate my doctoral research to the analysis of the vernacular spoken by the Bani Ṣaḫar. In order to provide a robust basis for understanding the grammatical structure of this dialect, a six-week field study was carried out during August and September 2021. Thanks to the contacts which I established with some native speakers in 2017 while studying at the University of Jordan, it was possible to interview and record the speech of some members of different branches of the tribe: al-Ḫadēr, al-Zeben, as-Sabīla, and Dahāmeš. This first sample of data, which covers a geographic area that includes Ruǧm aš-Šāmi al-Ġarbi, Manara (Ǧiza), Quṣayr ˁAmra, Muwaqqar, Umm al-Walīd (al-Ǧīza), and Nitl, provides ethnographic data on the costumes and manners of the tribe (wedding, funerals, tribal laws, food and hospitality), the history (fights and main events that involved the tribe in the last decades), its specific lexicon (concerning tents, agriculture, clothing, animals, etc.), and information on the phonology, morphology and syntax of their dialect.
The range of speech samples gathered during the first field study allows us to account for distinct degrees of linguistic conservatism within the tribe, which involve various dialectal features. Part of those found in the recordings more recently processed are:
- the realization of Old Arabic (OA) /q/ as g [ɡ] in ngūl “we say”, gāyid “commander”, gabīla “tribe” or as ǧ [dʒ] in a front environment, Aḷḷa yabǧīk “may God keep you (m.) alive”, ǧiddām “in front of” (in older sources also a reflex ǵ [dz] is reported, but so far this has not been attested in my data).
- the reflex of OA /k/ in the vicinity of anterior vowels is č [ʧ] or ć [ts]: ex. wēneč “where are you (f.)?, čīf “how”, abūć “your (f.) father, ćān fi “there was”, ratćbān “riding”.
- the retention of some traditional interrogative forms by the oldest speakers, such as wiš/šnū for “what” and their loss by the youngest members, who use more frequently the equivalent šū/ēš “what”.
- the adoption of the widespread Levantine analytical exponent tabaʕ instead of the iḍāfa (construct case).
- and the use of specific lexicon: sibər “costumes”, siyāg “dowry”, yridd an-nizla “he reciprocates the invitation”, mánga ʕ ad-damm “blood puddle judge”.
Some of the differences reported in the aforementioned list are to be found between (1) different generations of Ṣḫūr speakers within the same branch, while others (2) among entire clans.
For what concerns the shifts found in the first case mentioned above (which I would label as intraclan), they are to be attributed to a great extent to age, level of education and contacts with outsiders. These three elements are to be considered as interrelated since most of the time one is the consequence of the other(s). In fact, in the last 40 years, a wider number of younger speakers had access to higher education which brought them, first, to study and then to work in the bigger cities with people coming from very different linguistic background. This pushed them to converge to more intelligible speech habits causing, over time, a shift in their idiolects.
Regarding the second case (interclan changes), two hypotheses have arisen according to the data processed:
- These differences are to be explained in a diachronic sense: they may in fact be a product of the different migration waves that brought the Bani Ṣaḫar to Jordan (the first from the Bani Muḥammed of Beni Salim, who have for instance only the č [ʧ] reflex of OA /k/, the second from the Aḥamida, who also use a palatalized reflex of OA /k/), which left traces in the variety of dialect they speak nowadays, and would thus explain the divergencies attested in the data;
- The various clans spoke the same variety when they arrived from Arabia (since they are all supposed to descend from the Ḥarb tribe), but new features may have been introduced at a later time, when the tribe settled in different locations and abandoned its nomadic lifestyle. These changes may be a result of contact-induced linguistic changes that are likely to occur when contacts with other linguistic communities are increasing (Rosenhouse 1984, Giles and Ogay 2007, p. 296, Giles et al. 1973, p. 179, etc). Thus, the clans with major interactions with the šāwi-type tribes of this area and the population of the bigger cities, such as ʕAmmān and Salṭ, may have given up the traits that were considered more obscure by their neighbors, while those living in the peripheries or in more remote localities such as Umm ar-Raṣāṣ, may have preserved the most archaic and conservative features.
This being said, the actual causes of these differences are yet to be proven through the collection and analysis of more extensive linguistic data. The final findings concerning this issue will be included in my forthcoming PhD thesis, which is intended to contribute to the field of Arabic Dialectology with a comprehensive grammar of the dialect of the Bani Ṣaḫar.
Cantineau, Jean. 1936. Études Sur Quelques Parlers de Nomades Arabes d’Orient 1. Annales de l’Institut d’Études Orientales 2: 1–118.
Cantineau, Jean. 1937. Études Sur Quelques Parlers de Nomades Arabes d’Orient 2. Annales de l’Institut d’Études Orientales 3: 119–237.
Giles, Howard, Taylor, Donald M., and Bourhis, Richard. 1973. Towards a Theory of Interpersonal Accommodation through Language: Some Canadian Data1. Language in Society 2: 177–92. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0047404500000701.
Ogay, Tania. 2007. Howard Giles et Tania Ogay. Communication Accommodation Theory. In Explaining Communication: Contemporary Theories and Exemplars. Edited by Whaley, Bryan B. and Samter, Wendy. Available online: https://www.academia.edu/35366642/Howard_Giles_et_Tania_Ogay_2007_Communication_Accommodation_Theory (accessed 10 December 2021).
Palva, Heikki. 1980. Characteristics of the Arabic Dialect of the Bani Ṣaxar Tribe. Orientalia Suecana 29: 112-139.
Peake, Frederick. 1958. A History of Jordan and its Tribes. Miami: University of Miami Press.
Rosenhouse, Judith. 1984. The Bedouin Arabic Dialects. General Problems and a Close Analysis of North Israel Bedouin Dialects. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz.
Younes, Igor. 2018. Linguistic retentions and innovations amongst a camel-breeder tribe of northern Jordan. Wiener Zeitschrift Für Die Kunde Des Morgenlandes 108: 265-274.
Antonella Torzullo is PhD fellow of the Austrian Academy of Science and associate member of the WIBARAB project. She writes her PhD thesis at the Orientalistic Institue of the University of Vienna. Her research focuses on the Arabic bedouin dialect of the Bani Ṣaxar tribe (Jordan). She completed her bachelor degree at the University of Torino with a thesis on the Jordanian short story, and her Master at INALCO (Paris) with a thesis on the Arabic dialect of the Bani ʕAbbād tribe (Jordan).