A phonetically “unnatural” class in Central and Eastern Shehret (Jibbali)

  • Janet C.E. Watson University of leeds
  • Amer Azad Adli Al-Kathiri University of Technology and Applied Sciences, Salalah


The set of consonants /b m y/ and historical *w in the Central and Eastern varieties of the Modern South Arabian language, Shehret (Jibbali), pattern together phonologically in the following ways: all are subject to intervocalic elision; between underlying /e/~/i/ and a stressed mid vowel, /b/ patterns with /m/ in being realised as [y]~[əy] in a range of words; /y/ is the reflex of historical *b in a closed set of lexemes; and /b/ realises historical *w, rarely *y, in pre- and post-consonantal position and in a handful of lexemes word-initially.

Phonological interest in the set, /b m y/ *w, lies in the fact that the member consonants form a phonetically “unnatural” class (Mielke 2008): they do not include all and only labial consonants (lacking /f/, including /y/) nor all and only sonorants (lacking /l n r/, including /b/), including /b/), and two members of the set, /b y/, share no phonetic characteristics beyond ‘voice.’ Moreover, it is rare cross-linguistically for one obstruent to be subject to intervocalic elision to the exclusion of all other obstruents of that phonological class. Phonetically “unnatural” classes such as this are far from uncommon cross-linguistically (Mielke 2008), however; within Mielke’s (2008) Emergent Feature Theory, they can be accounted for by the pressures of phonetics and “external” factors. In this paper, we consider the patterning of /b m y/ *w, examine phonetic reasons for the inclusion of the plosive, /b/, in this set, and, based on Emergent Feature Theory, present a phonological account of the patterning of /b m y/ and *w.


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Author Biographies

Janet C.E. Watson, University of leeds

Janet C.E. Watson holds the Leadership Chair for Language@Leeds at the University of Leeds. She is co-director of the Centre for Endangered Languages, Cultures and Ecosystems (CELCE) and a Fellow of the British Academy. Her research interests lie in Modern South Arabian and Yemeni Arabic dialects, with particular focus on theoretical phonological and morphological approaches. Her key publications include A Syntax of San’ani Arabic, The Phonology and Morphology of Arabic, The Structure of Mehri and Təghamk Āfyət: A course in Mehri of Dhofar (with Abdullah al-Mahri et al).

Janet can be contacted at: j.c.e.watson@leeds.ac.uk

Amer Azad Adli Al-Kathiri, University of Technology and Applied Sciences, Salalah

Amer Azad Adli Al-Kathiri holds an MA in the phonetics of Shehret and a PhD in Omani Arabic dialects from Sultan Qaboos University, Muscat. His research interests lie in the Shehret and Mehri languages of southern Arabia and in Omani Arabic dialects. He is currently Assistant Professor of Arabic at the University of Technology and Applied Sciences in Salalah, having worked as Assistant Professor at the Department of Arabic Language, Dhofar University. He has published a book on the phonetics of Shehret, contributed to A Comparative Glossary of Modern South Arabian, and published academic articles on the verb in Shehret, the snake-bite treatment tradition of raʕbūt in Dhofar and on the Kathiri dialect of Arabic.

Amer can be contacted at: a.juffa-87@hotmail.com