A New Era for Language Diversity in Yemen: Mahri and Socotri in the new Yemeni Constitution

By Sam Liebhaber
Submitted to Session P4124 (Turmoil and Tolerance: Unpacking the Current Crisis in Yemen, 2015 Annual Meeting
Lang
Yemen;
Sociolinguistics;
At least one item in the draft of the new Yemeni constitution (published 1/15) stands out both for its pre-eminent placement and unexpected content. Immediately following the declaration of the identity of the Yemeni state (Section 1 Article 2: “Islam is the religion of the state and Arabic is its official language”), Article 3 takes an unexpectedly pluralistic turn: “The State shall pay special attention to (tawallī al-ihtimām) the Mahri [Mehri] and Soqotri languages.” Article 3 in the proposed constitution thereby displaces its 2001 predecessor – “Islamic Sharia is the source of legislation”– to Article 4. In offering non-Arabic indigenous languages constitutional recognition, Yemen joins a small club of Arab nations to do so: Morocco (Amazigh in the 2011 constitution) and Iraq (Kurdish in the 2005 constitution). However, unlike Amazigh and Kurdish speakers, the political leverage available to Mahri and Soqotri speakers is limited due to their small numbers and peripheral location. From outside the constitutional drafting process, the rationale for the inclusion of Article 3 Section 1 is not self-evident. Drawing from interviews and social media sources, I will attempt to reconstruct the decision-making processes that led to the inclusion of Article 3 Section 1 in the draft of the new Yemeni constitution. My talk will further attempt to situate this decision within the framework of local Yemeni politics as well as within the broader language politics of the MENA region. Finally, drawing from interviews with Mahri and Soqotri speakers who will be most effected by Article 3 Section 1, I will explore its potential impact on the preservation and future development of the Mahri and Soqotri languages, including the significance of this article for minority language preservation efforts elsewhere in the Arab world.