Soqotri: a Key to the Unique Oral Semitic Archive

Soqotri: a Key to the Unique Oral Semitic Archive Connecting
Space and Times

by Vladimir Agafonov

One of the possible ways to find cultural remains of the Late Antiquity in the 
modern Yemeni cultural heritage is the paying more and more attention to
the Socotra oral folklore heritage, first of all to Socotra’s four-line temethel
verses and prosaic folktales of various kinds as well as oldest legends of Socotra,
which are mostly unknown.

However, the only right way of approaching into the Socotran unwritten
heritage archive of this Yemeni island in the Arabian Sea which is kept mostly
by illiterate cattle-breeders of Socotran highlands is to direct much more efforts
to Soqotri language study taking into account that fact that the Soqotri language,
one of MSA living Semitic languages, actually exists on the Socotra archipelago
in form of the number of local dialects. Each one of them is a real language
subsystem having a number of its own clear distinctive features.

Since the maritime activity began in the Arabian Sea region linking the
Ancient Mediterranean with Punt, South Arabia and old Indian states the island
of Socotra had a unique bridging role in its special maritime technology and old
sailors practice because:

1) until the Late Antiquity Socotra was a very important producer and
supplier of sacred resins of incense, myrrh, aloe and dragon blood and some
sea products (among them pearl and amber) which were needed by both East and
West. Thus, Socotra became a place were the merchants from the both sides
possible met (as it was at least in the first centuries of A.D. according to the
Periplus of the Red Sea) enabling not only the meeting of their own traditional
cultures but leaving signs of them in Soqotran natives folklore;

2) in the Arabian Sea sailors’ practice – from the Ancient times to at least
the beginning of the 19th century – Socotra also played an important natural
bridging role on the way from the Read Sea toward India, being a guaranteed
place of fresh water, food, repair and rest for them (even such a great
sea port of the world as Aden had hard water supply problems until the
beginning of the 20th century). As native people always closely contacted with
the visiting sailors and the native Socotran population of Suq (Sheq), Qalansiya,
Tamarida (Hadibo) and other villages of the north-western and north coast of Socotra
are fishers and local sailors themselves there was an exchange of technologies and ideas
and, what is more important for us, the exchange of words taking place, the signs of
which we are finding in Socotran seamen naval terms (for instance, some names of
ships, winds, constellations and sea products);

3) since at least four first centuries B.C. the island of Socotra was a target of
political and religious expansions, initially from Ancient India and Greece, than
from Ancient South Arabian frankincense monarchies. Finally, Then Socotra
was known worldwide as the most forwarded bridgehead of Christianity to
the south since the first century A.D. remaining in status almost until the 17th
century. Some signs of the Soqotra’s Late Antiquity Christian times could also
have leaved its signs in the island’s folklore, if a little.

Soqotri, which place still is not clear in the Semitic languages classification
tree, is now considered by some scientists as the most oldest language between
the Modern Semitic living languages and possibly the most closest – through the
West Semitic branch (or, according to Prof. A.Militarev, South Semitic branch
separated from Proto-Semitic ca. 4 millennium B.C.)* to Proto-Semitic
(previous classifications placed Soqotri likely according to the geographical
ground within South Western/South Peripheral Semitic looking at it as one of the
remaining oral dialects of the Old South Arabian Epigraphic languages). In field
research practice it means (according to our experience with Soqotri live speech
and its tape-recordings studies conducted since 1976 on Socotra and in Aden)
that Soqotri language as a language system is not far from Classical Arabic or
and not harder in mastering then any of spoken Arabic dialects like Adeni,
Hadhrami or Egyptian. May be this fact will help to encourage a new generation
of Modern Semitic field researchers to pay more attention to this endangered
language as such – not only as a source for isolated marginal examples for
traditional comparative Semitics studies.

However, our concern toward the lack of new Soqotri language field
research activity is related not only with the interests of Semitistics, which
soon can loose this unique but still living and actively functioning material. The
most urgent matter now is the Soqotri folklore heritage conservation. The reason
here is clear. A traditional isolated life of Socotrans, including highlanders, is
under a strong pressure of modernization.

And when Soqotri itself demonstrates its possibility to function even inside the
rapidly changing cultural environment, the oldest and the most valuable strata
of the Socotran folklore heritage – the Socotran oral heritage archive –
by the Socotran people through the millennia – could be lost with the loss of
traditional ways of life, old technologies of all kinds and simply – the most archaic
vocabulary and other linguistic features. Already now, difficulties in understanding
of the archaic words and idioms are a sharpening problem. All this may cause the
loss of a big oral unwritten “library” that contains the unique language corpus, the
developed folklore poetry and prose tradition and – it is important from the point
of view of the Conference theme** – the numerous evidences of cross-cultural
contacts for which Socotra played a bridging role through space and times.

* Prof. A.Militarev\rquote s Semitic Tree and more traditional Soqotri classifications:
Jushmanov, N.V. Selected Works. Vostochnaja Literatura, Moscow, 1998,
pps 108-111 (Comments by Prof. A.G.Belova).
** The International Conference – Yemen: Bridging the Gap between the Past and Present
11 – 12.06.2007 Heidelberg University, Germany

(2007)

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