Friday, June 16, 2006

North African language policy

MoorishGirl has an interesting post on an article on a round-table debate on Moroccan Arabic, or Darija, as "a medium of cultural expression". She comments:

I'm fully in favor of using Darija, because of the huge impact it would have on the creation of a reading culture. Imagine: All children's books right now are in Modern Standard Arabic, which is a language no one learns until first grade (i.e. age 6 or 7), by which time reading habits are already in place for many kids.


I think this is a crucial point. Developing a literature of sorts in Darja would allow kids to get into the habit of reading way earlier. A fair number of kids in the West are reading by the age of three; for an Algerian or Moroccan kid to even understand much of the language his/her books are written in at that age would be unheard of. With Darja literature for them to use, they could start reading before they ever started school; it might even lead to them acquiring literary Arabic faster. Moreover, an oral literary tradition already exists, best exemplified by the traditions of melhoun poetry and chaabi lyrics; the language used in these is recognizably a literary register, and all that would be needed would be to write it. My puristic instincts would also rejoice in a move with the potential to stem the tragic loss of inherited vocabulary, and overuse of French, now afflicting Darja. And after all, why should Arabic-speaking kids continue to be deprived of the chance to read in their native language now that Tamazight-speaking ones are finally getting that chance?

However, I would envision Darja as a supplement to literary Arabic, not a replacement. Arabic connects Algeria (and no doubt Morocco), not only to the Arab world but to its own past, not to mention allowing it to engage more fully with its religion. The language in which Amir Abdelkader and Ibn Khaldun wrote - and of which generations were deprived by French rule - should always be a crucial part of an Algerian education. Also - as the ongoing struggle to get adequate higher educational textbooks published even in literary Arabic reminds us - a written Darja would take centuries at least to build up a literature comparable to major languages.

As long as I'm pondering educational policy, what should be done with foreign languages is obvious: end the domination of French. Nothing wrong with French per se, but an all-French policy is a handicap in a global context, isolating Algeria in the ghetto of Francophony at a time when English is a prerequisite to serious scientific work even in Paris, and an embarrassment at home, where it remains a scandal in conservative eyes. From 3rd grade on, have a choice between French and English (and maybe even Spanish) as the second language, and raise a generation of educated North Africans that do not all share a single foreign language; only thus can the domination of French in North Africa, with all its attendant sociological divisions and economic problems, be ended. Of course, in an educational system that has a serious shortage of good teachers as it is, this is a distant dream... but dreaming can be useful.

28 comments:

KNL said...

I agree very much. Derja is every where in Algerian life, and the way it is denied is a handicap in so many different ways. It is like many of the people that run the schools or Islamic institutions are ashamed to be Algerians and want to get rid of their culture. It is much easier to learn to read and write a language after one has learned to speak it. Nobody really speaks Literary/Standard Arabic in the home (I certainly do not), and so having children learn this first is just stupid. Of course we have to be connected to the Arab world and Islam for those to whom it is of paramount importance, but we cannot deny ourselves.

Lameen, as a linguist you should check out this Lebanese blog, called Ecce Libano, it is very interesting. The author is a Lebanese linguist and he has very interesting opinions about the standard Arabic language, I think you should check it out. It is rather contraversial (he contends that Arabic is a "dead language" and that MSA is "repressive") it would be interesting to see your thoughts on it.

Here is the link:
http://eccelibano.blogspot.com/

Cheers,

Nouri

Lameen Souag said...

I've seen that blog before, and the short answer is that his opinion of Arabic is pseudo-scientific, ideologically motivated rubbish. I'll try and give a longer answer sometime when I have more free time.

As for Darja, the situation is not as simple as it might seem. What language a child will learn to read in most easily is one important factor in the choice of a written language, but not the only one by any means; for a good analogy, you might want to think about the compelling reasons why English doesn't change its obsolete and bizarre spelling system to make it much easier for kids to learn to read.

KNL said...

That's an interesting comparison. I have heard the argument against Derja as a literary language that it is unfit for print as it were because it lacks a subjunctive and has too many French loan words to be useful. What' your take on that?

Best,
Nouri

Lameen Souag said...

The absence of a subjunctive is irrelevant - not having one hasn't done Chinese any harm. (Darja actually does have some traces of a subjunctive - you say bash ykun rather than *bash rahu, for instance - but that's not the point.) The French loan words are a relatively recent problem, and it's not too late to stop using them; the language of chaabi or melhoun poetry, or of our grandparents, is virtually free of them. However, even if they do stick (I hope they don't) Darja will still have fewer French loanwords than, for example, English.

KNL said...

I had no idea Chinese had no subjunctive. Do you have any examples of melhoun poetry? I think it would be useful to have these in case some people decide that Derja is unnatural or whatever, as is often the case on my blog (I like Derja very much :)). Do you know what the rough % of French loan words is in Derja as compared with English?

Also, I have been meaning to ask you this for a while, what is your opinion of Algerian rap music. A lot of it seems to be rather, eh, terrible to me, but some I think is really good. My dad and older relatives all hate it though. From a linguistic point of view, what do you think of it?

Nouri

Lameen Souag said...

I put a little bit of chaabi poetry up on a previous posting: http://lughat.blogspot.com/2006/06/little-algerian-arabic-folk-poetry.html .

The percentage of French loanwords varies so much from speaker to speaker I couldn't venture a percentage - I've known people who scarcely ever used them, and people who can scarcely get through a sentence without one. It depends on political orientation, place of upbringing, educational background, topic of conversation, all sorts of things.

I haven't actually listened to any Algerian rap, so I won't venture an opinion...

Lameen Souag said...

In English, about 40% of dictionary words come from French; although many of these are relatively rare, they include such common words as flower, flour, guard, beef, pork, mutton, plant, polite, important, brave, city...

bulbul said...

I have heard the argument against Derja as a literary language that it is unfit for print as it were because it lacks a subjunctive and has too many French loan words to be useful
That has got to be the most ridiculous thing I have heard in months (and that's saying something, since the campaigning for general elections only ended yesterday). Hundreds of languages have no subjunctive and thousands of them have a large number of borrowings and yet they serve their communities more than adequately.

Thank you for reminding me of Ecce Libano, I almost forgot about it. I essentially agree with Lameen's evaluation of it, only I would use much stronger words. I'd start with, let's say, romantic delusional crap and go from there.

John Cowan said...

Is it clear that North African Arabic should be treated as a single language? It is clearly a dialect continuum, but there are few really sharp isogloss bundles in the Arabophone world.

Someone should look at the Ethnologue pages for Libyan, Tunisian, Algerian, and Moroccan Spoken Arabic (all reachable from the Arabic page), and try to figure out whether they are really usefully separate or should be merged; Ethnologue tends to be a splitter.

bulbul said...

The way I see it, John, Lameen does not call for treating Maghribi Arabic as a "separate language". He speaks in favor of a broader role of the vernacular in the education - and these are two different things. As I have said previously, I support this stance and let me just add that I believe that same 'privilege', if you will, should be extended to Egytpian, Lebanese, Jordanian, Yemeni and Omani children.
I have sorta taken a vow no to engage in the "is X a separate language or just a dialect of Y", so with your permission I will leave it at that.

caffeind said...

Does English have a subjunctive?? I think distinctive subjunctive forms are dead in current colloquial except for "I/he/she/it were" (and that not consistently) and fixed phrases.

bulbul said...

That's a good question, caffeind, though the example you provided is a conditional, rather than a subjunctive. What is usually classified as the subjunctive in English are the sentences like "The authorities requested THAT HE BE reprimanded" and certain set phrases like "God SAVE the Queen" and "Heaven forbid". See for example here.
It all depends on your definition of a subjunctive. If by subjunctive you mean inflectional/synthetic subjunctive like the one in Spanish or Italian ("Tu hablas Espanol" vs. "Quiero que tu hables con ella"), then the answer to your question is no.

caffeind said...

"were" with singular subject is given as an example of past subjunctive in that link, as well as in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Subjunctive#The_subjunctive_in_English.

bulbul said...

Forgive this mother of all non sequiturs, but I just found this on proz.com. I could not believe my tired overworked eyes and I just have to share it with someone. Note the explanation provided.

Anonymous said...

In a few decades, only two languages will be used in the scientific, economic, political....life in the world: english and chinese. All other languages will become family languages. Standard arabic will disappear. I think standard arabic is a link to a dead culture. What does a North African have in common with Al-Mutanabbi or Imru'Ulqays? So why not investing in Darja? It is the language of the majority of the population, especially children and teenagers. Standard arabic is read and written by a minority and nobody speaks it at home.

caffeind said...

Yes, but with standard Arabic you can chat with bored students in the Gulf.

Lameen Souag said...

If you think Arabic, or French or Spanish or Hindi or Russian (for example), will disappear from the public sphere within a few decades, the politest description I can find for this belief is naive. If you think the cultural preferences that motivate the use of standard Arabic are dead, you need to get out of the capital more often... and if you think standard Arabic has nothing to do with North Africa, I prescribe authors such as Ibn Khaldun, Ibn Battuta, al-Idrisi, al-Bakri, Amir Abdelkader, Ibn Badis, even Ahlam Mostaganemi. Standard Arabic is an essential part of Algerian culture, without which we would lose a crucial link both to our own past and to a wider Arab world. I'm all for Darja literacy, but not at the expense of Standard Arabic.

KNL said...

Excellent response.

caffeind said...

To play the devil's advocate for a minute, Europeans can't read their medieval Latin literature either. Neither do Indians use Sanskrit for contemporary life, nor Chinese use Classical Chinese.

Anonymous said...

An illiterate British citizen understands at least 70% of what he hears in a British Court of Justice. How much do you think an illiterate Algerian can understand in an Algerian tribunal, where the judge questions him in standard Arabic? Any language that is understood only by an elite becomes an instrument of domination in the hands of the ruling class.

Lameen Souag said...

You think a judge would question an illiterate Algerian in standard Arabic? It's possible, I suppose, but I very much doubt it.

That said, the pernicious practice of giving all political speeches in (poor attempts at) standard Arabic should be stamped out; that really is a case of mystification, with the added bonus that even the politicians often don't speak much of the language they're using.

As to Latin, Latin and the vernaculars coexisted for a good 500 years before people started to give up on Latin; even now quite a few Europeans schools require their students to learn it. There's a very good reason for this: it takes a long time to build up a corpus of vernacular literature worth reading. Once that's been done, maybe one can debate giving up standard Arabic. Even then I would prefer to keep it - but then, I've always had a soft spot for Latin...

KNL said...

I like Latin, one of the easier languages to learn, I think.

I agree about the speeches by the way...there are a lot of politicians that make me question whether or not they actually know much MSA, not that I'm that great with it, but I do wonder sometimes...

David Boxenhorn said...

Moreover, an oral literary tradition already exists, best exemplified by the traditions of melhoun poetry and chaabi lyrics; the language used in these is recognizably a literary register...

What do you mean by this? Actually, I know (thinking about Robert Burns...) but I want you to articulate it, since I'm having trouble.

Lameen Souag said...

Well, I didn´t have in mind a very precise definition, to be honest. But here´s a first approximation:
- it avoids all but the most integrated loanwords;
- it uses vocabulary which, while understandable, is not in common conversational use;
- its vocabulary is relatively standardised, varying rather less across the Maghreb than the conversational register does.

David Boxenhorn said...

Thanks!

Your 2nd and 3rd points are true of literary English too.

Panu said...

So it is possible to write Tamazight now? Is there a literature?

Lameen Souag said...

It's been possible for a while, but it's now actually getting taught in a number of schools. In Kabyle, there is a limited literature, mainly poetry but including at least one novel; in Tashelhiyt, there is a rather older literary tradition, mainly long Islamic poetry, from the 1600s.

Amadal said...

Derja ought to be an official language. It has all the required cresentials for it. With Tamazight, it is the
most natural vernacular product of North African societies. Official Arabic has behind it the might of the Holy Koran and centuries of social and cultural conditioning through mosques, zawiyas and marabutism. Not to mention the institutional arsenal deployed by the post-colonial STATE . It is analogous to Latin in the Middle Age. I surmise, it will eventually know the same fate. Most Algerians, even though of known and obvious Amazigh (Berber) extraction, would demean their origin, native culture and symbolic values so as to promote arabian ones. Alienation , self-denial and eccentricity of representation of self/identity are so rife that mention of any endogenous reality is taken as a threat to national cohesion and unity.
As a scientist (Medical and Physics background) with interests
in genetics and ancient History, I
was rebuffed and disciplined during my tenure at an Algerian university for exposing my students to scientific material expounding the stability of the diversity of the North African gene-pool and the insignificance of the Middle Eastern and arabian impact -and of any other before or since. Making references to genetic markers, timing and dating of evolutions,nutations and mutations as undeniable and conclusive tools that further our knowledge of our nations and humanity as a whole since time immemorial contravenes official dogma.

My point here: my experience, a short spell in an academic institution in a city birthplace of my parents, was enough to convince me that repressive political systems and the ideology of hegemonism/monolithism of all out arabism are responsible for the present state of economic and cultural regression. Linguistic conflicts and tensions are artificial. They are fomented and fanned by the State itself. At the grass-roots level, in the countryside, I noticed a remarkable level of coexistence between darja(berbrya as it was called in Constantine area) and Tamazight Chawia speakers. These two groups were often of the same tribes straddling both linguistic systems. Once in th city, the Tamazight Chawia retreats though these groups make up a significant proportion of the population of Constantine,Annaba and Setif . The 'hadra' Kabyles with a peculiar vernacular form the second most important group in the first two named cities . Some reading from the studies published by Fanny Colonna and M. Mouagal helped me understand the psychology of self-depreciation of indigenous values and the absolute sublimation of anything Arabic or Islamic.

May I suggest to any budding linguist keen to further his/her research on North African arabic vernaculars to acquaint themselves with the fundamentals of Tamazight(Berber). Knowledge of Tamazight would shed light on many of the so-called quirks or idiosyncracies of derja. The weakness of what is called Maghrebi Dialectology is this absolute denial of reference to Tamazight-Derja connections, interferences and little known symbiotic exchange. No academic institution in Algiers, Casablanca or Rabat offers studies in Tamazight and Derja studies. Through the backdoor comparative studies and dissertations may be allowed within Foreign Languages departments. This exception may be the act of an independent and brave Director or senior lecturer. Dogma and unscientific approches have prevailed in this field as in many others.
Self-imposed alienation and mystification of history and reality to fit a romantic political
mould continue to accentuate the manyfold of distortions that cut across North African societies. The situation is more acute in Algeria and Lybia.
That's another topic...
Language and identity and the absence of freedoms and democracy are at the heart of the problems of our vast and diverse region.

All the best,

Amadal


PS: Pleased to have come across this informative little blog-forum. Great!