Mahri Poetry Archive

Endangerment

 

Until fifteen years ago, the vitality of the Mahri language was vouchsafed thanks to its geographic isolation.  Bounded to the north by the Empty Quarter and the Arabian Sea to the south and by mountains and desert to the east and west, the tribes of al-Mahra made their home in an isolated corner of Arabia that neither attracted outside attention nor enabled casual commerce.  When the market for frankincense dwindled away in the pre-modern era, the Mahra turned to fishing, rearing camels and working abroad in the Gulf States for their livelihood.

Yemeni Unification in 1991 put a sudden end to the isolation of the Mahra.  Paved roads, cell phones and effective central governance have pulled al-Mahra into the orbit of the Republic of Yemen whose sole recognized language is Arabic.  Schooling, civil administration, military affairs and business are all conducted in Arabic; indeed, tacit policies exclude the Mahri language from the public arena. At worst, the Mahri language is perceived by many Arabic-monolingual Yemenis to threaten the unity of the modern Yemeni state in which a communal, Arab identity presupposes a communal, Arabic language.  Confronted with an overwhelming need to speak Arabic and educational and religious institutions that inculcate its usage, most young Mahra born after Yemeni Unification are more comfortable expressing themselves in Arabic than in their maternal language.

Secondly, powerful language ideologies are at work to undermine the status of the Mahri language as a distinct language worthy of preservation.  Throughout the Arabic speaking world, only the written and oratorical register of Arabic (al-ʿarabiyya) is held in esteem; the unwritten languages of daily life are regarded as inelegant and chaotic patois.  Since the Mahri language lacks a literary tradition, it fails to achieve the status of “language” (Ar. lugha) that is awarded to the other written, indigenous languages of the Middle East, such as Aramaic or Coptic.  Instead, the Mahri language is relegated to the status of “dialect,” (Ar. lahja), a term of sociolinguistic disparagement for the unwritten, regional idioms of Arabic.  Coupled with the disappearance of vital, indigenous languages in the Middle East (excluding North Africa) in the last half of the 20th century and the success of Arab nationalism in advocating a communal Arabic language, linguistic diversity in the Arab world has come to be viewed as laying exclusively within the dialectal continuum of spoken Arabic.  This has led to the overall neglect of the Modern South Arabian languages (and Mahri amongst them) in popular and academic descriptions of language diversity in the Middle East.

Mahri Language      Linguistic Features      Number of Speakers      Key to Transcriptions      Mahri or Mehri?

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