Meet Fabio Gasparini

Meet Fabio Gasparini

By Yasmin Al Ankar

Fabio Gasparini received his PhD in African, Asian, and Mediterranean Studies from the University of Naples ‘L’Orientale’, Italy. He currently holds a DFG-funded postdoc position at the Department of Semitic and Arabic Studies of Freie Universität Berlin, Germany. His research focuses on the Modern South Arabian languages and Semitic languages in general from a comparative and typological perspective.

Fabio will give a lecture at Kutubna Cultural Center on January 28, 2024.

He will speak about modern South Arabian languages. This talk will provide a general introduction to this endangered language group by discussing its history and current sociolinguistic situation. He will also offer a brief overview of its linguistic peculiarities, especially in comparison to Arabic.

Yasmin Al Ankar, our marketing intern, interviewed Dr. Fabio and their conversation is transcribed below.

Yasmin: How did you develop an interest in language as a typological perspective within the broader context of Semitic and Arabic studies. Could you tell me more about this?

Fabio: That is connected to my path as a scholar in linguistics in general and in Semitic studies, more specifically. When I started my bachelor's in the University of Turin. I was lucky enough to meet some very well-established and knowledgeable professors there, both working in linguistics and in Semitic linguistics, like Alessandro Mengozzi and Mauro Tosco. And through their teachings, I got more and more interested in trying to apply a more structured typological linguistic approach to the analysis of Semitic languages. At the start, when I was still a student, I worked on both my bachelor's and my master's thesis on Neo-Aramaic. And so during that time, I started to have some interest, so to say, in endangered contemporary languages within the Semitic domain. And while doing that I saw that there were, of course, already many studies dealing with typology and linguistics in Semitic languages, but I also saw that this was a sort of contemporary new trend, a newer trend at least, compared to the tradition of Semitic studies. And so yeah, I started to get very passionate about this and here we are.

Yasmin: As you progressively nurtured this passion and fascination in the typology of Semitic languages it evolved to become your entire specialization. Would you like to add anything about your academic background?

Fabio: Yeah, sure. When I was still a student, I never actually had the chance to study real models of variable languages, because simply, let's say like ten years ago or a little bit more, there were already studies and people working on it, but the scholarship was still being created, the very recent one, of course. And so, usually, these newer approaches on these kinds of languages weren't included in student program studies and so forth. But then when I started my PhD - well before starting my PhD, talking with my professor back then, he suggested the idea of trying to work on the so-called Modern South Arabian languages. I thought this to be very intriguing at the start because I, as a person, wanted to challenge myself and improve myself as a scholar, student, and researcher. When you read books on Semitic linguistics in general – back then at least (i.e. approx. 15 years ago) – the chapter which was the least researched, I would say, was always the one on Modern South Arabian languages. So, yes, I sort of recklessly decided that I would look into modern South Arabian languages and try to help, at least, in filling some gap in the scholarship on this subject. At the time of my PhD I focused specifically on Baṭḥari, called Bəṭaḥrēt by its speakers, which is the most endangered of the Modern South Arabian languages, and probably the one almost no one in the world knew anything about. So I decided to do the hardest thing I could do in an already hard field. But yeah, over the years, I developed more skills related to fieldwork, fieldwork linguistics, and documentation and I became more aware of linguistics and ethics connected to endangered languages and communities.

Yasmin: I find it very interesting that you mentioned these modern South Arabian languages are not as researched as other languages. As an Arab, I personally have never heard of Bəṭaḥrēt before coming across you and your profile. So I find it very interesting, and inspiring, that you challenged yourself to branch out into a specialization that lacks a lot of scholarship and aspired to fill in this gap in the existing literature. Did you find this intimidating at all or was it actually a motivating factor?

Fabio: Well, yes, I found it a little bit intimidating, but also exciting. The exciting part about doing something that very few people do, as in their specific specialization, is that it leaves a lot of room for you to experiment and try to find your way in a path that is not already well established. And especially my specific subject of research, which was the Bəṭaḥrēt language, there were let's say endless possibilities for research and for developing my own perspectives and methods. Of course, on the one hand, it is quite scary because you think, well, okay, if I screw up, what will happen? If there is no one to correct me and guide me, what can I do? I learned to establish what is right and wrong alone. But, along my journey, I discovered that actually there were many people who could advise me, and I also advised. My path of research led me also to discover the need for other scholars, to share work with and to discuss my analyses and line of work. I would say that my research is less about myself and more about working together with other people in academia in order for me to understand my field further. So that was a great teaching, let's say, from the scary starting point, as I think it is expected to be in the first stages.

Yasmin: I like that you mentioned collaboration because I am currently in the process of understanding the value of collaboration. As a student, I think the further I get into my studies the more I realize that collaboration is at the core of great, impactful projects. Which one of your collaborations do you think has led to the most impactful contributions?

Fabio: There are many people I am indebted to. I cannot deny that it has been hard, and I appreciate all their advice. One of the people I am most indebted to is probably Miranda J. Morris, who is a great and very well-known anthropologist and expert on the Modern South Arabian-speaking people from Scotland. She was the only one to succeed in interacting with the  Baṭāḥira tribe back in the late ‘70s, the tribe who speaks Bəṭaḥrēt. Without her help to get in touch with people on the field, I would never have been able to work on the language since it is spoken by only a few elders. So without her knowledge of where the people of this tribe reside and without her fluency in the language, I would not have been able to know where to start. For a few years now we have been working on a descriptive grammar of Bəṭaḥrēt, which we are finalizing now. This work is based mostly on her 40 years of documentation material on the language. So she is one of the people I owe an awful lot to. There are also other people I collaborate with a lot, for example, Janet C. E. Watson from the University of Leeds. She has intensely been fostering collaborations between scholars and local members of the communities. We also network among scholars and native speakers of Modern South Arabian languages. Janet has been very supportive of my research. The list of scholars I have collaborated with and I feel indebted to would be far too long, but these are just a couple of the people I am appreciative of in regard to my work.

Yasmin: Now, I would like to shift the focus to speak on the linguistic group you specialize in, Modern South Arabian. Can you provide an overview of these languages for our readers who may not be familiar with them? And, in your opinion, what makes these languages unique compared to other Semitic languages?

Fabio: The modern South Arabian languages are pretty interesting because they developed in the area between the Yemeni alMahra Province, Dhofar in Oman, and the island of Soqotra, where in the past, there wasn’t much contact with outsiders. This means any central systems of education, mass media, etc. arrived relatively late, after the 60s – after the revolution and unification of Oman. Up to that point, “traditional” ways of life and local languages were vital and less conditioned by, albeit in constant contact with, the Arabic-speaking communities. It is only with the recent enhancement of life conditions and lifestyle changes that these languages emerged into a state of relative endangerment, with Arabic progressively taking over. To an extent, this has to do with the lack of recognition of minority languages, which affects their preservation.

To answer your second question, Modern South Arabian languages are traditionally oral languages. So, they do not have written documentation whatsoever. In the past, whereas today they are sometimes written with the Arabic script, but there is no official orthography yet. However, they have a very rich oral tradition. From a linguistic perspective, the modern South Arabian languages have many distinct features, setting them apart from other Semitic languages, and they diverge consistently from other more known Semitic languages, such as Arabic, Aramaic, Hebrew, etc. They have an important position from a scholarly perspective, because they allow us to further investigate the history and development of the Semitic languages in general, the way we find these languages today provides us a comparative perspective of the history of Semitic languages themselves. To sum it up, there are different aspects that are very interesting. On the one hand, there is the cultural aspect. These languages and cultures are very distinct, even when comparing them to the other local cultures of the countries where they are spoken today. So, cultural anthropology and anthropological insights are very important. On the other hand, from the linguistic and academic perspective, they occupy an important place within the reconstruction of Semitic languages.

Yasmin: Your work draws on the endangered status of these modern South Arabian languages. So, could you elaborate on the current sociolinguistic situation of these languages and the challenges they face? Could the lack of written documentation catalyze the process of endangerment or is it something else?

Fabio: The languages of the modern South Arabian communities are endangered firstly because they are minorities, numerically speaking, even though they may be large in numbers in the areas where they are spoken. Secondly, they have no official recognition by the central government. The endangered languages in Oman, like Baluchi or Luwati, are not met with any safeguarding programs. Arabic is the only officially recognized national language of Oman. Of course, unifying the country under one language was very important for the process of unification of the Sultanate and the creation of a national identity. Thirdly, they are currently particularly endangered at different levels as they face different threats specific to their socio-political conditions. Mehri, for example, is a language group that probably has more than 100,000 speakers across Oman and Yemen and is still very vital. Bəṭaḥrēt however is spoken by only 15 elder speakers and can be considered a dead language already. So, the numbers vary, affecting the future of the language. But, the factor that endangers them the most is the fact that education, mass media, policies, etc. is only in Arabic. Education is pursued in Arabic and the social domain of modern South Arabian languages is reducing, since the possibilities to apply them in different contexts outside of the domestic environment will be progressively affected. This triggers people speaking these endangered languages to lose interest in maintaining them since they are not useful for developing a career and finding a job, for example. So, they gradually drop it and use Arabic instead. This unbalanced nature of the social linguistic power between these varieties is what really puts these languages in danger, as happens with minority languages in other parts of the world.

Yasmin: I am assuming it would be very difficult to trace the modern South Arabian languages spoken in the smaller communities. So, how do you cope with this difficulty? How do you track the languages that are spoken in smaller communities, in terms of numbers?

Fabio: Well, it might seem hard at first, but if you ever visit Salalah and especially the small towns up in the mountains, you will notice that people around the city usually speak Śherēt or Mehri. So, the languages can actually be heard in the streets, in the malls, in stores, etc. Other times, if you go past the mountains towards the Nagd, you can find larger quantities of people speaking Mehri. Whereas other languages are rapidly falling off (like Hobyōt) or are virtually dead languages (Bəṭaḥrēt). The only ones who remember for example Bəṭaḥrēt are a few elders from the tribe. They would use only Arabic or other Modern South Arabian languages in their daily life. The younger generations of the tribe simply avoid speaking Bəṭaḥrēt and dropped the language already, since it was not transmitted to them. So, the only way to reach speakers of such a small language community was by asking around and networking. In my case, as I told you earlier, it was fundamental to get in touch with Miranda J. Morris, who introduced me to Khalifa Hamoud alBathari, who was my main field collaborator. Through his help, I was able to get in touch and visit those speakers. I would say that most of the job is networking and talking to people and seeing who is available and interested in working on the language with you. I need to say that it is not only Western scholars who are now working on the languages of Oman, but many local researchers and members of the communities are actively involved in the documentation and in research projects, as well, and are actually getting more and more involved in these kinds of studies. There is a high degree of collaboration and networking between Western researchers and local researchers. I would say this is a necessary step for enhancing and improving the research and understanding of what the communities actually want and need.

Yasmin: Are people usually very willing to discuss these things with you? Has the outreach and networking process been easy or difficult?

Fabio: Well, speaking from my perspective, I would say it is as you would expect when you are in a foreign place, you do not know anyone and you try to connect. Some people will accept you and help you, others will think you are just some strange guy trying to speak their language. Many people have appreciated my interest and showed such great kindness in bearing with my endless questions, wanting to teach me and help with my research. I don’t think this is something specific to Oman – you would feel the same in Italy.

Yasmin: Given the endangered status of modern South Arabian languages, what steps do you believe can be taken to preserve and promote these languages within their communities? As you mentioned, these communities are not recognized as prominently by the state, so how can this be changed?

Fabio: I don’t think a direct solution should come from non-members of the community. I am always very aware of this because I don’t think it would be a beneficial approach for me at least, as an outsider, to give solutions. This could be built only from community-driven initiatives. But what can help the future of these languages is to promote them in the public social domains, such as mass media and social networks. This would have a huge impact on the preservation of these languages. Also, if there were recognized programs to safeguard language minorities, these minorities could be empowered and develop better programs to at least mitigate the effects of language erosion. For example, introducing these languages at school could help preserve them: bi-, tri-, or multilingual education would be a great asset for people in general. Although I don’t feel necessarily equipped to give policy recommendations as a foreigner, my colleagues and I always try to involve more and more people outside of academia and involve them in our studies. By doing so, we try to raise awareness to the general public. I think this is the ethical approach to research. There is a concept that is used sometimes in language documentation, which is the so-called helicopter researcher. It typically implies that there is an outsider who comes in as a helicopter, gets in touch with the community, stays there for a while, takes whatever he wants, then goes away and no one ever sees him again. Simply put, this researcher is the one who works for his own benefit, gets whatever he wants to be done, then bye, ‘ma'a salama’. I am against that. Although I am not an activist in relation to my job, I still try to spread awareness about these languages in the most ethical way.

Yasmin: Those seem like very well-informed and considerate approaches that ensure that the sensitivity of the conversation is maintained and approached cautiously. I appreciate this approach and this mentality. Of course, however, there are positives and negatives. So, could you share some challenges or obstacles you have encountered during your research journey and how do you overcome them? How do you deal with them?

Fabio: Well, the negative side of my approach is that I am not a member of local communities. I do not have an organic connection with this place, or with the people living here, so this is something I am trying to work on. At the start, it was quite difficult for me to understand the social norms and social practices in this unfamiliar place. That requires a lot of observation on the field, which I guess is the hard/fun part of field research. The other difficult part was understanding the languages themselves, especially at the start, when I started my research here. Inevitably, I would not be able to understand anything. I could only understand a few words here and there, especially because there was no scholarship on Bəṭaḥrēt when I first started, aside from a few articles written by Miranda J. Morris. So it was a very intense communication struggle. It was also difficult to find people who had any interest in working and collaborating with me, for the reasons I mentioned earlier. But the way I overcome all of this is to just keep pushing myself, trying harder, and getting out of my comfort zone as much as I can. It can get frustrating, but I think this is applicable to any field, right? So, I would advise everyone to keep trying. 

Yasmin: Thank you for your vulnerability. You put this process of overcoming internal fears beautifully and I really think this is applicable to anything in life when you are starting a new project. Moving forward, I wanted to know, given that you are a postdoc researcher at the Department of Semitic and Arabic Studies at Freie University Berlin, could you share some insights into the research projects you are currently involved in?

Fabio: Well, since I completed my work on Bəṭaḥrēt, I am now focusing on a new project which is actually funded by the German Research Center for postdoc research projects. My newest project is called ‘Naming the Landscape in the Modern South Arabian Languages’. It is a three-year-long project that revolves around the idea of understanding more about the relationship between landscape and language and traditional culture. So, the main idea is trying to linguistically understand how movement and interaction with the environment are encoded in Modern South Arabian languages. I am talking about these from a semantic, linguistic, and cognitive perspective. So, I am trying to see patterns in verbal derivation and use of prepositions and this is the very hardcore linguistic part of my work. On the other side, I also want to see how local groups and communities interact with the environment in relation to the huge changes we are facing in the whole world due to climate change, especially in Dhofar, Oman given the progressive desertification and excessive exploitation of the land, which brought to dramatic changes in the last decades. Traditionally, people would live according to a nomadic or semi-nomadic lifestyle. Whereas after the unification of Oman, the process of centralization brought on by the government to promote better, safer environments with stronger infrastructures meant that many traditional inhabited areas would simply be abandoned or not used anymore. So, I would like to understand how things have changed from all these perspectives for people. So, for example, how do younger speakers and older speakers encode language and the environment differently? What is the difference between the systems they use, if any?

Yasmin: That sounds amazing. I am really excited to see how this progresses further. The longer we speak the more interested I get in the topic, especially considering that you are using language as a tool to observe change. So, I wanted to know, in your opinion, why is language an important approach to observing these fluctuations and changes in society?

Fabio: Well, there is a lot of information that I simply would not be able to understand successfully if I did not know anything about the languages spoken by the people here. Basic knowledge of the language of any group you are trying to observe and interact with is very important and will greatly improve your work. That is the main reason. But, language also allows you to connect more smoothly with people who share these kinds of interests. It is undeniable that many linguistic features of any language are often intrinsically influenced by the culture of the people who speak it. And the language without any sort of cultural system of reference feels sort of one-dimensional, right? Language and culture are intrinsically connected elements and influence each other. Having a cultural perspective in the study of linguistics and languages helps researchers to understand data and extract better data while meeting the interests of people more efficiently.

Dr. Fabio Gasparini will give a lecture about endangered South Arabian languages at Kutubna on Sunday, January 28, 2024 at 4:30 pm. Buy your ticket here.


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