By South24 Center

Socotri Language: An Identity Preserved Through Generations


Sat, 19-08-2023 10:27 AM, Aden Time

It is the language of body and soul before being the language of pronunciation and speech.

Abdullah Al-Shadli (South24) 

People of Socotra Island (in the Gulf of Aden in South Yemen) have their distinctive language called ’Socotri‘, which is descended from the southern Semitic family of languages. It is a part and parcel of the culture and heritage of the people of this famous archipelago.

Ahmed Al-Rumaili, a researcher specializing in Socotri heritage and history, identifies Socotri as being currently a "non-written oral language which belongs to the Semitic family of languages. It is spoken by the people of the main island of Socotra and the islands of Abd al-Kuri and Samha". 

He told ’South24 Center‘: "The Semitic family includes many living languages such as Classical Arabic, Hebrew, Mehri, Shehri, and others. It also includes extinct languages such as South Arabic, Aramaic, Syriac, and others."

Over the past decades, Socotri has been neglected by successive Yemeni governments, threatening the very existence of this unique language. This was confirmed by current Socotra Governor Rafaat Al-Thaqli who told ’South24 Center‘: "Unfortunately, over the past around 50 years, there has been a lack of interest in our Socotri language."

Characteristics of Socotri:

Al-Rumaili pointed to a number of features that distinguish Socotri from other languages. This includes "letters that don't exist in many Semitic languages such as the 'side shin' letter or 'the third shin' as some call it, as well as the ’side lam’.”

He added: "It also has many features which complicate its pronunciation for non-Socotris. It is among the oldest languages of the Semitic family. This is evidenced by the existence of many characteristics that died out in some of these languages while Socotri still retains them."

Spread and resilience

Along with Socotri, the use of Arabic language also spread in the archipelago as it is the official language in Yemen. Commenting on the prevalence of the two languages in Socotra, Al-Rumaili said: "Both languages co-exist in Socotra. Socotri is the language of parents and grandparents. It is inherited. While Arabic is the language of the Quran, of worship, religion, science, and knowledge."

"Socotra people are worried that their language may become extinct, as it has become endangered due to several reasons. The new generation no longer cares about its distinctive identity, especially in terms of the language. Moreover, Socotra is opening up to the world in all fields, which is a major factor that has affected the Socotri language," he added.

Despite the many challenges, Socotri has survived. This, says Al-Rumaili, is due to many reasons, including that "the Socotra people love their language as they consider it the identity and trademark that distinguishes them from others. It is the language of body and soul before being the language of pronunciation and speech.”

He pointed out that "Socotra's isolation for many decades, the non-infiltration of other languages into the archipelago, and its deep roots within the Socotra people have helped the language to survive. Children here inherit the Socotri language. However, when they grow up, they have to study in Arabic."

Socotri journalist Abdulrahman Jasfi explained that the Socotri language is "much easier than Arabic". He told ’South24 Center‘: "Socotri children have to undergo a lot of suffering to learn Arabic, especially in their early stages."

According to him, the teacher has to be a local resident in order to translate many of the Arabic terms into their native Socotri.

Neglect and Threats

Governor Rafat Al-Thaqli said: "Central regimes have not cared about Socotri language. All successive regimes have neglected Socotri though this language is rooted back to tens of thousands of years, if not more." 

"We haven't seen any support for the Socotri language, whether through the studies of the governorate's people or through other means. We have not even seen any kind of interest by the Ministry of Information toward this aspect," he added. 

Jasfi agreed with him, saying: "Being an oral language is a factor that threatens the existence of Socotri, especially amid the lack of interest by organizations and supportive parties."

Socotri journalist Saeed Al-Jadmahi said: "There are concerns that some of the Socotri vocabulary would be lost or that external lexicon would be added to it." He told ’South24 Center‘: "The most important way to maintain Socotri is to preserve and archive everything related to the language and to consider it a national language."

On October 7, 2017, former Yemeni Prime Minister Ahmed Obaid bin Dagher instructed the Ministry of Culture to establish a research center for Mahri and Socotri languages. However, these directions have remained "on paper", according to Socotri officials and activists who spoke to ’South24 Center’ in this report.

Center for Socotri Language

On May 9, 2023, Socotra Governor Rafat Al-Thaqli issued a directive to establish ‘The Socotri Language Center‘ headed by Dr. Noah Abdullah Al-Alimi. The order stated that the center would be responsible for "collecting and studying Socotri language, and approving any studies and research related to it”.

Al-Thaqli ratified an operating budget for the center funded by the local authority in Socotra Governorate. The move came days after the holding of the Southern Consultative Meeting in the capital city of Aden and the announcement of the Southern National Pact. The latter recognized Mahri and Socotri as official languages in their areas in the "next state".

Governor Al-Thaqli expressed his optimism about the role of the Socotri Language Center. He told ’South24 Center‘: "This center is a big victory for the preservation of Socotra's unique cultural heritage, especially for the Socotri language which has been largely impacted by many infiltrating languages over the past years. While it isn't a radical solution but it will serve as the first building block."

"We are very confident that Socotra will move towards restoring its distinctive identity through this center and regain the special status of the Socotri language and the identity of its people. We will do our best to support this center which will collate everything related to the language, including poetry, prose, and ancient Socotri stories. We urge benevolent people and decision-makers to provide complete support to this center," he added.
Al-Thaqli pointed out that the center will scout for old transcripts, and added that "more than 400 archaeological sites have so far been discovered in the archipelago”.

Journalist Jasfi believes that the center will play an important role to boost Socotri. He added: "This language will see the light of day with the establishment of the Socotri Center. We can preserve this language through the center's recommendations, which include adding it as a basic subject in the curricula of primary school classes."

Notwithstanding Socotra’s isolated geographical location in the Arabian Sea near the Gulf of Aden, Socotri people have been vocal about their concerns regarding the impact of waves of displaced persons arriving from outside the archipelago on their culture and language. Those who participated in this report pointed out that the governorate has received displaced persons coming from the war zones of North Yemen over the past years.

Besides the unique language spoken by the people of Socotra, people in the governorate of Al-Mahra (easternmost region of South Yemen) speak a special language known as "Mahri". This language too faces major challenges due to the arrival of Yemeni displaced people as a result of the war. This comes amid the fear of demographic changes, highlighted by ’South24 Center’' in a previous field report.

Related: Are Demographic Changes Taking Place in Al-Mahra?

Abdullah Al-Shadli 

Journalist at South24 Center for News and Studies

South YemenSocotraSocotri languageSemitic familyHeritageArabic language