A few notes on the newly discovered Hasaitic-Aramaic bilingual from Mleiha in the UAE


Many thanks to the The British Foundation for the Study of Arabia for sharing a photo of the partial bilingual Aramaic-Hasaitic inscription from Mleiha (UAE) (see the following popularizing article: http://timesofoman.com/article/76572/Oman/Tourism/Archaeological-team-discovers-Ancient-Omani-ruler’s-tomb-at-Mleiha-in-UAE’s-Sharjah-emirate). From what can be read on the photograph, which is not of the highest quality, the Hasaitic text states:

nfs w- qbr ʿmd bn
gr bn ‘ly bqr mlk
‘mn ḏy bn…. br
-h ‘md bn …. d
bqr m…

The memorial and grave of ʿmd son of Gr son of ʿly bqr of the king of ‘mn, which his son ‘md son of …. bqr of the [king] constructed [for him]…

The text is composed in the Ancient South Arabian (Musnad) alphabet, in a particular variety used in eastern Arabia known to scholars as Hasaitic.  The inscription is not particularly informative from a linguistic point of view, but nothing contradicts its interpretation as Sabaic, with the exception of perhaps an important linguistic deviation, the word for “son” in line 3. The name of the deceased is spelled as ‘md bn gr bn ‘ly, where bn is the normal word for ‘son’ in Ancient South Arabian, and indeed in most Semitic languages. However, in line 3, the building formula uses the word br for “son”. Br (probably pronounced bar) is the normal word for son in Aramaic, but why an Aramaic intrusion here and not in the genealogy? It is possible that building formula was taken directly from the Aramaic portion of the text, but written in Ancient South Arabian letters. The inscription is damaged following the second letter of the word “built”, so it is impossible to comment on the spelling. One objection to this is that the word “which” ḏy agrees with the Ancient South Arabian form, namely, a dual referring back to nfs ‘memorial’ and qbr ‘grave’. In general, however, the Aramaic text is shorter and seems dependent on the Ancient South Arabian one, so the importing of an entire clause from the former seems unlikely.

Another, more tantalizing explanation is possible. The use of br may reflect the spoken language of the inhabitants of ancient Mleiha. While bn is used in the genealogies, the common formula no doubt assured the use of the correct Ancient South Arabian form. However, in the building portion, the scribe may have subconsciously used a word from his spoken language. Aramaic was surely foreign to the area, so unless we imagine a colony of northern immigrants, Aramaic seems like an unlikely source. There is one other group of Semitic languages that uses the word br for son, the so-called Modern South Arabian languages, such as Mehri, Shehri, Harsusi, etc. which are still spoken in Oman today, yet not this far east. The word br for son is attested, as far as I know, in one early Sabaic inscription (Y.85.AQ/11 Eryani 57) from Shiʿb al-ʿAql near al-Jafnah (https://goo.gl/maps/vFVG1Sxq8ZF2). Could it be that in former times the ancestor of the Modern South Arabian languages was spoken as far east as Mleiha and as far west as Dhamar, but receded under the spread of the Ancient South Arabian languages first, and ultimately Arabic? It is an exciting possibility that must await further discoveries to confirm. Nevertheless, each new epigraphic find will shed important light on the rich linguistic landscape of pre-Islamic Arabia.