Is the Memon/Memoni language endangered?

Posted on Sat 03 February 2024 in Language

بِسْمِ ٱللَّٰهِ ٱلرَّحْمَٰنِ ٱلرَّحِيمِ

Is the Memon (or Memoni as some call it) at risk of becoming endangered or extinct? In this article I discuss the very real possibility of the Memon language becoming endangered or even extinct due to various factors related to our culture and other elements.

The only other person to bring up the risk of Memon being endangered is Fatema Motiwala in this article: Language Past, Present and Future: Being Memon, Expressing Life in Kutchi

Why is Memon at risk of being endangered?

Unlike other at-risk languages, the Memon community is not dealing with a shrinking population nor are we dealing with systemic issues like war or ethnic-cleansing.

One might then wonder how this language is at risk of becoming endangered? The simple reasons, I believe, are related to something we are famous for and standardization.

The Memon people are renowned for their business acumen. As such, in the world of business, the languages of trade become more important than the languages of the culture. In this case, English is the predominant language of trade, and as such many Memons opt for this language - even in their households.

Regarding standardization, many Memons are learning the language of their host country. Consider that Memons in India and Pakistan will learn Hindi and Urdu respectively. Memons in the UK and parts of Africa will learn English primarily.

The standardization issue raises a related matter. Many sub-cultures, like Memons, don't exactly have a 'homeland' of sorts. While we could claim that we originate from India, many of us have never been and we are generations of people living and born out of India.

Is the endangered language status acknowledged?

It does not appear that Memon is thoroughly-acknowledged as endangered. Wikipedia only identifies Kutchi as endangered but not Memon. The endangered languages project does not identify Memon at all.

A website called Ethnologue and UNESCO do identify Memon is endangered.

Is Memon the native language anywhere?

It is highly possible that Memon remains the native language of rural villages in India. With that in mind, the other place where I have seen first-hand of Memon being the native language is somewhere the average reader would not expect. This place is actually Malawi.

Unlike their counterparts in South Africa, UK and even the USA, the Memons of Malawi primarily speak in Memon. This includes the younger generation too.

Efforts to preserve the language

Memon is primarily a spoken language. We have no known writing system. We have also not adopted any other letters for our writing system, be they Latin nor Arabic nor Sanskrit.

With that said, here are some notable attempts to preserve the Memon language:

Why efforts at preservation are limited

Other philanthropy

The Memon people are not financially limited/restricted. In fact, due to our fame for being trades-people, we have also developed a reputation for being highly philanthropic.

However, this philanthropy is usually reserved for charitable efforts. Through my limited knowledge, I'm not aware of any purely academic or arts-focused philanthropy being done by the Memon community. Even in instances where the philanthropy is done towards education, it is mostly in the form of grants, bursaries and charity-like structures for the Darul Ulooms.

A negative drawback of a culture of 'show' (otherwise known as 'riyaa' - fame in Arabic) may play into this issue. An investment into the preservation of the Memon language requires a prolonged investment that may not yield the desired results. Investment into academic and linguistic experts, who also happen to be Memon, may yield just a website or even a book. This would not compare to the construction of a new masjid or the graduation of 100 Islamic scholars or the graduation of 100 university students.

This shows a sense of short-sightedness. The very essence of being a Memon, according to many of us, is strongly preserved in our language.

The efforts of just a few

When looking at many of the resources I listed above, a curious reader will pick up that these efforts are being made by mostly middle-aged or senior men. I personally got the feeling that these were sincere men trying to preserve their language, but they are not linguists nor academic experts.

Limited technical know-how

A simple proof of the fact that the language is severely lost within this generation is that it is only the older generation trying to preserve the language. The older people have knowledge of Memon but somewhat lack technical capacity to develop websites or other digital resources; whereas the younger generation may have many software developers but they lack the linguistic knowledge.

No order nor end-goal

Precisely because we have no linguistic experts, it is unclear what the goals are or should be when preserving the language. Are we attempting to create dictionaries? Are we attempting to codify the grammar and morphology? Are we attempting to develop language-learning tools in order to teach the next generation how to speak Memon?

When having a clear goal in mind, it becomes easier to develop the required resources to achieve that goal.

Can preservation be achieved?

The premise of this question is flawed. I say this because even large languages like English, Arabic or Chinese are constantly being preserved. Preservation is an ongoing effort and should be the work of the many. If that is not possible, it should at least be the work of a few experts backed by the many.

An idea is born

The simplest manner I can think of to preserve Memon is to adopt the work of people who wrote the Arabic series: Arabiya Bayna YaDayk.

This Arabic series has developed the necessary infrastructure to get someone who does not know Arabic to the point of having intermediate fluency. Were the Memons to simply borrow the structure of this textbook and convey even a limited form of it into our own textbook, we should be able to achieve speaking proficiency at a lower-intermediate level.

As the old saying goes: Ideas are cheap

I unfortunately have limited time at the moment, but if possible, I will look into this in the near future.

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