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A Saudi friend on our sister site, travel.stackexchange.com, was just telling me there is an isolated language in his country called "Fifa'a", but that nothing is written about it on the internet as far as he can find.

I also can't find any information on it. But it seems to have some other spellings: Fayfa, Faifa, etc.

He mentioned that some people regard it as a dialect of Arabic but others do not. He tells me it has a similar sound to Arabic but a totally different grammar.

Is Fifa'a a dialect of Arabic? Where can I even read anything about it?

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    @Flyer Unfortunately, mutual intelligibility is not a criteria for defining a language/dialect. As I assume you know, there are lots of Arabic speakers that have trouble understanding one another and that's all one "language". Do you happen to know any textbooks or historical records involving Fifa'a or the region where it's spoken? Anything that could help us establish how the language evolved.
    – acattle
    Jul 22 '13 at 8:35
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    I found two relevant discussions on the topic. This discussion about duals forms and this discussion on the linguistic diversity in Saudi Arabia/Yemen. The same user in both threads claims Fayfa is Himyaric while others argue it is Arabic. Unfortunately, neither side offers much proof.
    – acattle
    Jul 22 '13 at 8:49
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    It's the language of football! Jul 23 '13 at 13:03
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    @acattle Actually mutual intelligibility is the usual criterion in linguistics for defining a language/dialect. Dialects are mutually intelligible varieties of a language. Different languages are varieties that are not mutually intelligible. Of course, this is the technical usage of 'language/dialect' within linguistics; there are certainly other uses (eg political) that would define the terms differently. Oct 2 '13 at 21:40
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    @GastonÜmlaut The quote I see a lot is that "A language is a dialect with an army and a navy". From my understanding it's a purely political distinction and, to a linguist, almost meaningless. What I was getting at with my comment was that without historical context for how Fayfa developed we can't establish relatedness, let alone a dialect/language distinction.
    – acattle
    Oct 3 '13 at 4:18
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The Fayfa dialect is certainly not Mahri or even remotely related to it. Mahri is spoken hundreds of miles away in the far eastern regions of Yemen and the neighboring parts of Oman (along with a few related language and dialects, collectively referred to as Modern South Arabian). Modern South Arabian is a distinct langauge family in the Semitic group that is not closely related to Arabic. Its closest relatives are in Ethiopia and Eritrea.

Fayfa is in the southwest corner of Saudi Arabia. Because people from other regions find it difficult to understand, there is a common belief that it is descended from the Old South Arabian languages of ancient Yemen such as Himyaritic or Sabaic, but this is not based on any academic source. In fact, its dialect is genetically part of Arabic (whether or not you consider it a separate language based on mutual intelligibility is a separate issue) and can be largely understood by other Arabic speakers when transcribed in writing, albeit influenced to some extent by a South Arabian substrate. Many of its "strange" features (such as the definite article "am-") are found in many other Arabic dialects of that region. A detailed analysis can be found here.

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  • Hi and thanks, looks like my answer from 7 years ago was incorrect! I see there is also now a WP page on Fayfa/Faifi language. Dec 3 '20 at 21:40
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    Hippietrail, feel free to unaccept my answer... Dec 3 '20 at 21:42
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    Since Mehri is Semitic, it is obviously at least remotely related to Fayfi.
    – user6726
    Dec 4 '20 at 1:32
  • It being an Old South Arabian language is based on an academic source. The grammar cited on the wikipedia page linked above for instance gives it as a result of "hypercontact" between Sabaic and Classical Arabic. Whether that would make it a highly divergent variety of Arabic proper, or a Sayhadic variety greatly assimilated to Arabic is open to interpretation, but it's clear that there is still some academic basis for classifying it as Sayhadic
    – Tristan
    Dec 4 '20 at 9:52
  • @user6726 I should have said not particularly related to it. My point is that they are from separate branches of the Semitic tree. Dec 4 '20 at 10:09
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There isn't much information on the language referred to by the OP as "Fifa'a", but there is some information on a group of people in Saudi Arabia called the Fayfa. The Fayfa are described in this evangelical religious website as speaking Mehri. Additionally, the Missionary Atlas Project lists the "Fayfa" people and also describes them as speaking Mehri. This makes it likely that this is the language the OP (based on his informant) refers to as "Fifa'a" so I proceed on this assumption.

The Fayfa people of Saudia Arabia speak Mehri, a Yemeni language classified as a member of the South Arabian subgroup of the South Semitic group of languages (within the Semitic branch of the Afro-Asiatic family). The Arabic languages (which includes Saudi Arabic), on the other hand, are classified within the Central Semitic group (etc) so are quite distantly related to Mehri. This means that Arabic and Fayfa are definitely not mutually intelligible and can therefore be described as distinct languages.

The majority of Mehri speakers are in Yemen, but there are also a number in Oman. There is a modest body of work on Mehri, some of which is listed at OLAC.

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    It looks like you found it! (-: Oct 8 '13 at 6:17
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    I'm not entirely certain, but I think this is about a trip to the same place, but spelled 'Faifa'. Oct 8 '13 at 6:31
  • Yes I doubt Fifa'a is even a written language and my Saudi friend tells me the country's government is not interested in its minority peoples so I don't even know if it has a standard spelling in Arabic let alone English. Just writing standard Arabic in the English alphabet results in lots of variations as it is ... Oct 8 '13 at 6:38
  • I'm never sure what people mean when they say 'written language', but if you follow my OLAC link you'll see there are materials in Mehri which would have required an orthography. Most speakers are in Yemen, maybe they're more helpful to minorities? Oct 8 '13 at 6:44
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    From Wikipedia: It is primarily a spoken language, with little existing vernacular literature and almost no literacy in the written form among native speakers. Oct 8 '13 at 6:48
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I'm from Fayfa people. Our language is an old Arabic language, kholane language.

All the people around our area have similar languages but a little different, and understand our language and we understand theirs, and understand modern Arabic language.

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  • I tried to fix spelling and punctuation, but I had to guess a few things. Do you mean you call your language Kholane? (Can you explain how to pronounce this? Like kho lan eh with a pharyngeal consonant at the beginning? Like en.wikipedia.org/wiki/%E1%B8%AA%C4%81%CA%BE ?)
    – tripleee
    Dec 3 '20 at 12:34

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