Phonetic, analytic and substitute writing: patterns and pitfalls in S.D. Goitein's Yemenite archive

Ori Shachmon, Tom Fogel

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The archive of the late S.D. Goitein, stored at the Ben-Zvi Institute in Jerusalem, contains hundreds of hand-written transcribed texts in Yemeni-Arabic dialects, that were recorded in the early 1950s from Jewish immigrants from Yemen to Israel. In this essay we follow the evolution of the texts in this archive, pertaining to the trail from the oral narration to the written version. We propose to analyze each of these texts as a spiral narrative event, during which the story is told, re-told and recorded several times and in diverse manners, until it assumes its final, polished form. This multi-stage process is demonstrated via a sample story, told by an immigrant from the province of Ibb in Lower Yemen. We examine the triangular relationship between the researcher, the assistant and the informant, and propose that this triangle may account for the gaps between the original transmission and its written reproduction. We define three strategies employed by the Yemeni assistant in transcribing the materials, namely Phonetic Writing, where allophones find their way into the transcript; Analytic Writing, revealing the assistant’s familiarity with Judaeo-Arabic writings; and Substitute Writing, where forms in the informant’s speech are replaced by their correlatives in the assistant’s own dialect. Finally, we point to several pitfalls that may hinder an accurate linguistic analysis of the texts, and propose ways to avoid them.

Original languageAmerican English
Pages (from-to)345-380
Number of pages36
JournalJerusalem Studies in Arabic and Islam
Issue number53
StatePublished - 2022

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
 The study presented here follows from our ongoing survey of Yemeni Arabic in Israel. The project was initially supported by the Eʿeleh BeTamar Association, then continued with a grant from the Israel Science Foundation (Grant 1009/18).

Publisher Copyright:
© 2022, The Max Schloessinger Memorial Foundation, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem. All rights reserved.


  • Arabic dialects
  • Goitein
  • Yemen
  • folktales
  • oral narration
  • transcription


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