Ancient ‘Kumzari’ language under threat of extinction in Oman


Home to 4,000 people and overlooking the strategic Straits of Hormuz that Iran has threatened to close, Kumzar village has a thousand year-old language of its own that no one else on earth understands.

Nestled on the northernmost tip of Oman’s Musandam peninsula and hidden by spectacular mountains that plunge into the Gulf’s aquamarine waters, tiny Kumzar is a simple fishing village that is a haven for dolphins and teems with marine life.

But with the arrival of television and the Internet not many years ago, its people are very much aware of the growing speculation that their lives could be shaken by a war involving Iran, which lies just 50 kilometres (30 miles) away.

These same outside influences are also threatening the survival of the ancient Kumzari language, a mix of Indo-European languages and Arabic, remarkable in that it is the only non-Semitic language spoken on the Arabian peninsula in the past 1,400 years.

For centuries, Kumzaris have had front row seats to history. They have witnessed and even assisted invading armies of the world’s great empires that have sought control of the Straits, a chokepoint crucial to global marine trade and through which most of the world’s seaborne oil passes today.

At first inspection, Kumzar seems entirely cut off from civilisation. But looking more closely one can see signs of the march of time in the past 10 years or so besides electricity, running water, a school and a hospital, a helipad, satellite television and Internet access have been established.

These new-found luxuries are a welcome change for the village’s resident teenagers, but according to experts, they are contributing to the extinction of their unwritten language.

“The schooling in Kumzar is in Arabic, and they get a lot of influence from the (United Arab) Emirates and Oman, so children don’t speak Kumzari as well as their grandparents did,” says Christina van der Wal, a researcher at Leiden University in the Netherlands who has lived in the village.

The Kumzari word for oven is “forno”, likely picked up from the Portuguese who ruled the region in the 16th and 17th centuries, says Van der Wal.

“There’s a lot of vocabulary from Arabic and Persian as well but they have made it their own,” adds Van der Wal, who says Iranians and Arabs cannot understand it.

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