An Island’s Endangered Language

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Off the coast of Yemen, the island archipelago of Socotra is changing. One of the most noticeable changes is in the languages that the inhabitants speak, as more outsiders have moved to the island in recent years.

For centuries, the people on Socotra spoke a Semitic language called Socotri. The archipelago is now part of Yemen, where Arabic is the primary language. While the older people of the islands still speak Socotri, today more and more young people are choosing to speak Arabic, which has become the language of education and business, especially in the capital city. Fahd Kfayin, the secretary general of The Heritage and History Association of Socotra, told the Daily Star that:

“It became necessary for Socotris to use Arabic to communicate with others. The doctor, the teacher, the salesman, the police chief are not from Socotra, so Socotris are forced to use it [Arabic], and therefore have had to learn it.”

Socotri is especially vulnerable because it is an oral language, without a script of its own.  This makes it difficult to preserve in writing the unique sounds that make up the language. With no way of recording it and with fewer and fewer young Socotris choosing to speak it, the language could be lost forever. Equally disturbing is the loss of Socotra’s tradition of poetry, which was traditionally sung almost constantly.  According to the Daily Star:

It’s said that in the past if poetry wasn’t heard from a house when someone passed it, they tried to find out what ill had befallen its residents. Now the island appears to have stopped singing.

Per the Daily Star, while the Socotris who still sing are beginning to include more Arabic in their poems, the decline of the tradition itself is attributable to a more conservative version of Islam taking root on the island.