UNESCO estimates that half of all languages spoken today will disappear by the end of this century if nothing is done, as speakers face pressures to abandon their native tongue in favour of dominant languages and dialects.
On a warm, spring morning earlier this year, Hussein Mohammed Ridha and his three colleagues set out by boat into the Mesopotamian marshlands of southern Iraq. Wending their way through canals of lush, arching reeds, past half-submerged water buffalo and fisherfolk casting their nets into the placid waters, the researchers were in search of speakers of the local Marsh Arab dialect.
Recurring droughts and receding water levels are making the subsistence lifestyle of the Marsh Arabs difficult to sustain. As more and more inhabitants are forced to leave, and stitch together livelihoods in cities where they feel pressure to not use their dialect, it is not just the Marsh Arabs’ culture and way of life that are vanishing; as elders die, their dialect is disappearing, too.
For several months, Ridha, a lecturer in the college of archaeology at the University of Thi-Qar (in Nasiriyah, south-eastern Iraq) and his colleagues have made regular research trips to the marshlands and surrounding areas to document for the first time ever the Marsh Arab dialect, a vocabulary rich with nuance for describing their environment, such as the ten different words they use for reeds, depending on their location, size, usage, colour and age.
Many aspects of Marsh Arab culture have previously been documented, from boat-building practices to reed architecture. But until now, their dialect has not. “Trying to root the vocabulary is very important…in protecting and preserving our heritage,” says Ridha. In doing so, researchers hope to prevent it from going extinct.
The Mesopotamian marshlands, a series of three marshes in an otherwise arid landscape, were once the largest in western Eurasia. Stretching across 20,000 square kilometres, the marshlands supported rich biodiversity and served as a key stopover area for birds migrating between Africa and Eurasia. They also provided sustenance for the Marsh Arabs, a minority group with Sumerian and Bedouin origins whose distinct culture, way of life and dialect are deeply intertwined with the ecosystem they have inhabited for thousands of years.
The Marsh Arabs — who are often referred to as the Ma’dan, a term they consider derogatory — have long experienced state marginalisation, discrimination and violence.
In the early 1990s, the marshlands were intentionally drained by Saddam Hussein to drive out Shiite rebels hiding in them following an uprising against Hussein. From an population of nearly 500,000, most fled, leaving as few as 20,000 inhabitants, while the marshlands, which shrunk to less than seven per cent of their historical extent, were nearly destroyed.
After Hussein was removed from power following the 2003 US-led invasion, reflooding efforts began. As water returned, so did the Marsh Arabs. Many live again on isolated islands in the marshlands, while others live in villages and small cities along the banks of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, which feed the marshes.
In 2016, the marshlands were added to UNESCO’s World Heritage list as part of the Ahwar of Southern Iraq but what partial recovery they have made is imperiled by regional climate change and a string of upstream dams across Turkey, Syria, Iran and Iraqi Kurdistan, both of which have reduced the water flows of the Tigris, the Euphrates and their tributaries. With less water there is higher salinity, which along with pollution, from the dumping of wastewater, harms humans, livestock, plants and wildlife alike.
A vanishing dialect
As environmental conditions in the marshlands become too dire to endure, Ridha and his colleagues have identified out-migration as one of the key factors contributing to the disappearance of the Marsh Arab dialect. “The recurring drought and receding water levels in the marshes have led to the displacement of many locals to cities, which led to very few people speaking the dialect,” he says, adding that prejudice in urban areas towards the Marsh Arab dialect has pushed younger generations in particular to use city vocabulary instead to avoid embarrassment.
It is a pattern repeated around the world. UNESCO points out that increased migration and rapid urbanisation often result in the loss of traditional lifestyles and pressure to speak a dominant language.
Nur Al Ebeid, a masters student living in Canada whose family is from the marshlands, recalls how a relative who married a man from Baghdad was disheartened by the number of people who made fun of her because of the way she spoke. She says it was brought to her attention that many of the Iraqis who travel to the marshlands for leisure, or to film videos for their social media platforms, are the same individuals who have little to no respect for the Marsh Arabs. “Non-Southern Iraqis love making fun of this accent until they want to come to the Marshes to use it as an aesthetic,” Al Ebeid wrote in a tweet.
Just as out-migration has played a role in the dialect’s disappearance, the migration of new people into the marshlands over recent decades has also diluted and changed local speech, says Ridha.
Jassim Al-Asadi, who grew up in the marshlands and now works to preserve them as the managing director of the local organisation Nature Iraq, attributes the linguistic shift to the significant changes the marshes have undergone. “The disintegration of the semi-isolation in which locals [lived], the effects of social media channels and the mixing of marshlands locals with city dwellers,” have all played a role, he says. “I think future generations will speak less in the local dialect.”
Around 250,000 people are thought to have returned to the marshlands after the area was partially reflooded, but due to a lack of data it is unknown how many people live in them today – Al-Asadi estimates between 300,000 and 500,000 – which in turn makes it difficult to estimate how many people are thought to speak the dialect. Based on their research, Ridha estimates that only between 25 to 30 per cent of the population have a knowledge of the dialect, most of whom are elders. “As the older generation fade out, the language is fading away as well,” he says.
With so few speakers, the risk posed by the Covid-19 pandemic has added further urgency to the importance of documenting the dialect while those who have knowledge of it are still alive.
Losing languages, losing knowledge
Of the world’s more than 7,000 languages, over 40 per cent are at risk of vanishing. UNESCO estimates that half of all languages spoken today will disappear by the end of this century if nothing is done, as speakers face pressures to abandon their native tongue in favour of dominant languages and dialects. It is often claimed that only 23 languages account for over half the world’s population.
Gabriela Pérez Báez, a linguist who directs the Language Revitalisation Lab at the University of Oregon in the United States, says the reasons we are losing so many languages at such a rapid pace are complex but come down to marginalisation and oppression. This can range from the conditioning of education, healthcare or other critical services to the use of a particular language, to more extreme cases of physical harm or even death in association with a language, she says.
Even when there is no explicit policy intended to reduce the number of speakers of a language, a community’s negative perception of their own language can also be decisive to language extinction.
The loss of languages is of concern because it shrinks the pool of knowledge we can draw upon. When a languages dies, irreplaceable knowledge often dies with it, from wisdom about local ecosystems to medicinal plant remedies to cultural practices. As the traditional and indigenous knowledge embedded in languages is increasingly recognised as vital to biodiversity conservation and climate change adaptation, keeping languages alive – or at the least, documenting them – has become more critical than ever.
The drying of the marshlands has already altered Marsh Arab women’s traditional roles, and with less marsh-specific knowledge being transmitted from women to younger generations, a loss of valuable ecological knowledge and cultural practices related to agriculture, animal husbandry and reed utilisation is occurring.
The disappearance of the Marsh Arab dialect could, in turn, hasten further loss of their traditional knowledge and cultural practices.
Ridha and colleagues aim to document 1,000 words from the Marsh Arab dialect, which they will compile in a dictionary with their equivalent in standard Arabic. The team was surprised to learn how many words have roots in the ancient Sumerian and Akkadian languages, and hope raising awareness of the dialect’s clear links to the past will spark a shift in how Marsh Arab youth in particular feel about, and use, their dialect. “It is vital that Iraqis understand the significance of the dialect, particularly the young inhabitants of the marshes, hoping that this knowledge will allow them to take pride in their language rather than be ashamed of it,” says Ridha.
According to UNESCO, creating favourable conditions for speakers to use their language and teaching it to younger generations are key to keeping a language from disappearing, with the attitude of a community toward its own language being the single most crucial factor.
By mid-summer, Ridha and colleagues had to put their research on hold because of drought; the boat trips made in previous months were no longer possible. Ridha acknowledges that changing perceptions of the Marsh Arab dialect is only part of what is needed to preserve it. So too are addressing the region’s chronic water issues and the provision of basic services that make it tenable for Marsh Arabs to continue their way of life.
Water will allow them to remain, until it does not. And if, one day, their dialect ceases to be spoken, having it documented will ensure that it does not disappear without a trace, thus allowing for the possibility of revival.
This story was originally published in Equal Times