A Detective Story: Emphatics in Mehri

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Until 1970, Ethio-Semitic was believed to be the only Semitic language sub-family in which the main correlate of "emphasis" is glottalization, a feature said at the time to be due to Cushitic influence. Since the work of T.M. Johnstone, however, it has been argued that glottalization is a South Semitic feature, attested not only in Ethio-Semitic, but also in the Modern South Arabian languages. Two statements in the literature on Modern South Arabian, however, suggested to us that the original evidence needed to be re-investigated: first, some of the "ejectives" are described as at least partially voiced, not a phonetic impossibility, but so far unheard of in the phonological system of any language; and secondly, the degree of glottalization is frequently described as dependent on the phonological environment, although details of the environment in which emphatics are always realized as ejectives are not given. In this paper, we consider acoustic data from Mahriyōt (a Mehri dialect spoken in the easternmost province of Yemen), we examine descriptions of emphatics in other dialects of Mehri and other Modern South Arabian languages, we look at phonological environments in which emphatics are realized as ejectives and those in which they are not, and we conclude that the file on emphasis in these languages needs to be re-opened to fresh judgement.


Proceedings of the Seminar for Arabian Studies