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The casualties resulting from the wars raging in the Middle East are not only individuals, families, and cities, but entire languages.

Sometimes conflict can help spread language and culture. The vast majority of Syrians and Yemenis fleeing the wars in their country are, for example, taking their Arabic dialect with them, and producing music, literature, and film where they settle. This is not the case, however, for those languages spoken by minority groups, such as the South Semitic language Soqotri, which is spoken on the Yemeni island of Socotra, the neo-Aramaic languages of Iraq, and the Indic language of Domari, which is spoken by Dom groups throughout the Levant and concentrated in Syria and Turkey. As with many endangered languages, the fate of these minority language correlates with that of their speakers, who have been stigmatized by government and society alike. Already threatened by Arabic, Kurdish, and Turkish in peacetime, war puts additional pressure on these minority tongues by dispersing their speakers and detaching them from the territories where they have long lived.

In Iraq, minority language speakers have experienced both continued religious persecution, which has haunted them for decades, as well as killings at the hands of the Islamic State, who forced them to either convert to Islam or face execution. These forces have devastated these communities, which include the Chaldeans and Assyrians, forcing them to disperse and flee to different parts of the region and globe. As a result, the Neo-Aramaic languages of these groups have lost the population centers that have long sustained them.

Linguist Yaron Matrasat the University of Manchester suggests that, even though there may well be many more speakers of neo-Aramaic in the diaspora, these emigrants do not usually pass their languages on to their children. This accelerates the process of language shift, whereby a community’s native language is replaced by another within two or three generations.

In Yemen, a creeping Emirati military presence has changed the face of the island of Socotra, which Independent reporter Bethan McKernan describes as having been “all but annexed” by the Emirates. The UAE has not only established a military base and communications network on the island, but also made lucrative offers to re-settle Socotrans in the Emirati state. If the island’s people leave en masse, the continued existence of their language will be threatened. Soqotri’s vitality is attributed, in large part, to the geographic isolation and concentration of its 70,000 speakers. In fact, until 2014, it was an unwritten language. As such, the language’s existence is very much dependent on verbal exchange. If Soqotri speakers are dispersed, then there will be fewer opportunities for them to speak the language, thus endangering its future. 

The loss of a culture and language can be much less visible or initially traumatizing as the extinguishing of human life—but its depletion has profound consequences. Through language comes the documentation of life; with its loss, the entire history of a people can disappear.

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