Mahri: A language or dialect?

Published on 2 October 2014 in Culture
Ali Abulohoom (author)

Ali Abulohoom


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Professor Liebhaber published an English-language collection of poetry by contemporary Mahri poet Hajj Dakon, as well as other Mahri poems and information on his website. [Visit: http://sites.middlebury.edu/mahripoetry/publishedpoems/diwanhajjdakon/]

Professor Liebhaber published an English-language collection of poetry by contemporary Mahri poet Hajj Dakon, as well as other Mahri poems and information on his website. [Visit: http://sites.middlebury.edu/mahripoetry/publishedpoems/diwanhajjdakon/]

“My father told me that [in his village in Mahra] back in the day, they did not use any language but Mahri in their daily lives, as there was no need to use ‘formal language’ [Arabic],” said Saeed Bin Basheer, 52, who lives in Al-Ghaiyda, the capital city of Mahra governorate.

Basheer still speaks the Mahri language and urges his four sons to do the same.

“I always tell my sons not to forget Mahri as it is part of our culture and identity. Arabic, English, and other languages have become easy to learn anywhere, whereas Mahri [is in danger of dying],” Basheer added.

In 2009, the Yemeni Central Statistical Organization estimated the population in Al-Mahra governorate at 101,701—many of whom speak the region’s traditional Mahri language.

Like Arabic and Hebrew, Mahri is a Semitic language. Unlike its two Semitic counterparts, however, it lacks a written tradition. Except for a few short lines and word lists, which have been published in Arabic, the Mahri language has only been written down for scholarly audiences.

Considering that Arabic has effectively erased and replaced a great number of spoken languages in the Middle East, the survival of Mahri can be considered impressive.

According to Samuel Liebhaber, a professor at Middlebury College in the US who published a collection of Mahri poetry in 2011, Mahri was only formally recognized in the mid-19th century. While classical and medieval Arabic scholarship acknowledged the existence of living pre-Arabic languages like Mahri, contemporary Arabic scholarship is divided on the issue.

Some have denied that Mahri is an independent language, instead labelling it as a divergent dialect of Arabic. They often argue that Mahri, like other dialects, is only spoken and not written.

Others, who regard Mahri as a language, widely emphasize its ancient character.

Yahya Salama, a linguist at Sana'a University, explains that Mahri dates back to 1000 BC.

He describes Mahri as a “Himyari” language, thereby associating Mahra with the prestigious, pre-Islamic kingdoms of Saba, Qitban, Ma’in, and Himyar. While that glorious history continues to fill Yemenis with pride, calling Mahri a Himyari language also assigns it to the distant past.

For young Yemenis like Sabri Al-Bahr, the language’s ancient character renders it somewhat obsolete.  The 22-year-old Sana’a resident and student is originally from Mahra. He considers the Mahri language as a part of Yemen’s cultural heritage that should be admired and kept in historical documents, but he prefers not to use it in his daily life.

“My studies are either based on English or Arabic and communication with the people surrounding me never requires anything beyond these two languages. So there is no need for Mahri. It is useless. I prefer to study beneficial languages, like English,” Al-Bahr explained.

Mahri language has become endangered, according to the Global Language Association (GLA), with its influence being limited to people in Mahra and the western border of Oman.

Of the approximate 6,500 languages spoken around the world, as many as 90 percent may be gone by the end of the 21st century, according to the GLA. While languages have come and gone over the course of human history, the present rate of extinction is unprecedented. On average, one language dies every two weeks, the GLA reported.

The globalization of finance, communication, and culture has had a profound effect on the type and rate of language change.

At the moment, over 50 percent of the world’s population speaks one, or more, of ten languages, namely Mandarin, English, Spanish, Hindi-Urdu, Arabic, Bengali, Russian, Portuguese, Japanese, and German.

According to Liebhaber, the ultimate test of viability for the Mahri language rests on the current generation of children and teenagers in Al-Mahra.

“Do they speak the Mahri language amongst themselves or shift to Arabic and its dialects for informal conversations?  If young Mahri men and women shift to Arabic for informal interpersonal communication, then they will pattern this linguistic behavior to their children, who will be the first generation of Mahra to grow up in Arabic-monolingual households,” Liebhaber told the Yemen Times.

This, he warns, would break the generational chain of the Mahri language, “resulting in the sudden disappearance of the Mahri language in two generations’ time.”

How to preserve Mahri?

Locals in Mahra governorate seem to be aware of the danger their language is facing.

Saleh Murad Amlas, 35, a local from Mahra, explains that “even though the whole family speaks Arabic, my father, who is 66 years old, refuses to speak Arabic with us, using Mahri instead. He always tells us that the Mahri language will be done-for one day if we keep speaking Arabic.”

Indeed, “Mahri people prefer to speak Mahri to each other,” observed Naji Hussein, assuming that it is for the purpose of “preserving the language.” The 35-year-old teacher, who is originally from Ibb, came to Mahra ten years ago.

Although Hussein learned many Mahri words, he says he does not often have use for them, as many of his Mahri friends address him in Arabic as a token of respect.

While based on good intentions, this move is criticized by Liebhaber. Arabic-speaking monolinguals who relocate to Mahra need to discover a need, interest, and desire to learn the Mahri language to assure its long-term viability, he explains.  As long as there is no real need to learn and speak Mahri, both for Arabic-monolinguals and Mahri speakers alike, the question of language extinction is not a question of “if” but “when.”

A central role in the survival of Mahri is played by poetry, which is popular throughout Yemen and the Arab world.

However, given the oral tradition of the Mahri language, few Mahri poems have been written down so far.

 Even those poets who wish to spread Mahri poetry outside Mahra, by using modern print technology, are facing difficulties. Essa Hezam, 41, a poet from Mahra, has had many poems written in Mahri, but remains unable to print them due to his difficult financial situation and a lack of interest in Mahri literature outside the governorate.

“I have written 50 poems in Mahri so far and I look forward to distributing them through books in different places,” he said.

Since Mahri literature does not enjoy wide popularity among Yemenis, especially in the major cities like Sana'a, many Mahri poets are writing in Arabic, Hezam explains. “They are struggling to write in Mahri to preserve Mahri literature.”  

Hajj Dakon, a contemporary Mahri poet, is one of the few who writes and indeed manages to publish Mahri poetry written in Mahri script.

In fact, Liebhaber has published a collection of Dakon’s poems, which he translated into Arabic as well as English. Together with an English introduction, his work introduces Mahri poetry well beyond a Yemeni and Arab audience.

 According to Liebhaber, it is difficult to predict whether or not Mahri will survive in the long-run as the state of endangerment for any minority language can shift quickly.  His overall impression, however, is that the “Mahri language is a thoroughly ‘living’ and vital language… that benefits from a strong sense of ‘ownership’ and esteem amongst  Mahri speakers—despite their overwhelming bilingualism in Arabic and Mahri.”

A further advantage for the survival of the Mahri language is that neither the Yemeni nor Omani governments prohibit or discourage its use (as was the case in Libya and Tunisia with regards to the native Tamazight language before the Arab Spring).

“One way to stave off a generational discontinuity is to encourage the use of Mahri in elementary and high school settings and for other official purposes, such as local radio broadcasts,” Liebhaber says. Linked to this would be the development of a written practice for the Mahri language, not just for poetic texts, but for everyday usage, such as newspapers, contracts, short stories, and interpersonal messages like emails and text messages.

Already now, young Mahri are exchanging instant messages in their native language, using the Arabic script. However, practices like these have not yet translated into the development of a written form of the Mahri language, with the Mahra still preferring Arabic for most forms of written communication.

Indigenous languages in the Middle East that have inherited written traditions, such as Aramic, Coptic, or Hebrew, have widely gained prestige and respect. As long as Mahri is unwritten, Liebhaber argues, it will continue to be widely perceived as a dialect, with minimal political and social capital being spent to ensure its survival.