Marie-Claude Simeone-Senelle who, with colleague Martine Vanhove, found Dahlak island fishermen conversing in the unusual vernacular nine years ago, said: “Dahaalik is part of humanity’s heritage and must be preserved.”
Puzzled by words and usage that did not correspond to the two main languages of the region – Afar and Arabic – the pair at first thought it was a dialect of Tigre, but later ascertained it was a distinct entity, she said.
Although close to Arabic and Tigre, Dahaalik was determined to be a language in itself due to its markedly different phonetics, morphology and syntax, but had languished in obscurity on the isles off the port of Massawa.
No written tradition
“Before 1996, no one had heard of Dahaalik,” said Simeone-Senelle, an Afro-Asiatic language specialist at the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS).
“We have to find out how it appeared,” she said. “For the moment, we don’t know when it emerged.”
Now spoken by only about 3000 people on the three islands, and not currently taught in schools, Dahaalik, whose origins remain a mystery, is in danger of dying out, she said.
“Before 1996, no one had heard of Dahaalik”
“The understanding of this language, which has an oral but no written tradition, will … provide us with a better knowledge of Eritrean history and its human components,” said Simeone-Senelle who recently returned from another research trip to the islands to study the language.
In her bid to preserve Dahaalik with the help of Eritrean authorities, Simeone-Senelle has been collecting “tales, poems, riddles, stories of traditions and vocabulary concerning daily life, animals, boats and fishing techniques”.
With these snippets, she has begun to compile a Dahaalik dictionary and grammar book, creating a written version of the language in the Roman alphabet by mimicking its sounds.
“It’s a long job,” Simeone-Senelle said. “I have already listed 1500 words, but in all it will take several years.”
The nascent dictionary is currently limited to Dahaalik into French, but she hopes the as yet unfinished lexicon will become more multilingual, from Dahaalik into English, Arabic and Tigre.
Because it was not discovered until 1996, after Eritrea outlined its policy of linguistic pluralism, Dahaalik is not taught in Dahlak schools now, but Eritrean officials say they intend to introduce it into the curriculum, adding it to Arabic.
“The plan is that one day Dahaalik will also be taught in schools,” said Zemehret Yohannes, head of research and documentation at Eritrea‘s sole political party, the People’s Front for Democracy and Justice.