Monday, August 21, 2006

Al Jazeera and Reuters discover Algerian Arabic

Reuters and Al Jazeera English are both carrying a story about Algerian Arabic, apparently written by Algeria's El Khabar journalist Lamine Chikhi. I suppose I should be glad to see anything at all about this in the media, but unfortunately it confirms the first law of linguistics in the media: linguistics reporting is always shaky on the linguistics.
"Unlike neighbours in Morocco and Tunisia, Algerians speak a dense patois, a mixture of Arabic, Berber, French and sometimes Turkish, that most Arabs cannot fathom."

First of all, Algerian Arabic is still overwhelmingly Arabic; but reporters rarely seem to grasp the difference between true mixed languages like Michif and extensive loanwords like English or Algerian Arabic. More importantly, what do you mean unlike? Moroccan Arabic has more Berber than Algerian, and Tunisian more Turkish; how much French is in any of those three very much depends on class, cultural/political orientation, and region.

Let's try this: A car hit Mohamed, who was taken to hospital. In Algerian patois: Mohamed darbattou tonobile, dattou direct el sbitar. In this example, the verb is in Algerian dialect, the word car is in a kind of French, sbitar is Turkish, and the intonation is taken from the Berber Kabyle language.

sbitar is quite obviously Romance (Lingua Franca?) in origin - it might have come in via Turkish, but I'd like to see evidence for that. dda "took" (I assume that's the verb he had in mind) is not just Algerian but pan-Maghreb (certainly Moroccan, anyway), and has classical Arabic roots (أَدَّى) although its meaning has shifted significantly. Claiming that "the intonation is taken from the Berber Kabyle language" is a total cop-out; some elements of Algerian Arabic intonation may well derive from Berber, but there are noticeable differences as well, with Kabyle intonation tending to have a higher pitch range (from what I recall of Chaker's analysis, anyway.)

But more to the point, when will reporters (and indeed politicians) figure out the basic issue here? Language change is normal, and not unique to Algeria; borrowing foreign words is normal, and not unique to Algeria; having a substantial difference between the literary and spoken languages is common to the whole Arab world, and not unique to Algeria; a Syrian would have as much trouble understanding Moroccans or Tunisians as they would Algerians; and having been occupied by "Phoenicians, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Turks and French" is common to half the Mediterranean! A real story would focus on what is unique to Algerian Arabic, or at least Maghreb Arabic, and provide an account of how it got that way that wasn't limited to an indiscriminate recital of the country's history; it would at least mention the noteworthy pre-Hilali/Hilali dialect distinction, the elements shared with Andalusi Arabic, the first person singular n- shibboleth, the retention of classical words lost in the east (such as Haanuut "shop"), the Lingua Franca influence, the two or three Roman loanwords, the widely differing degree of Berber influence... I mean, why not consult an academic text first?


KNL said...

Yeah, but at least they mentioned it. I don't understand how he can say that Moroccans (of all peoples) and Tunisians don't have their own unique or funky patois either. I mean, I've heard some Moroccans that are as unfathomable to me as they are to Palestinans or Jordanians. I wasn't aware that there was Turkish in Algerian (well, I figured it was there, but I never knew which words were or not; wasn't aware of them).

Good show on the article. You should send Chikhi an email.



hchicha said...

Je pense qu'il serait meme assez enrichissant que de traduire vos billet khoya ;)


Anonymous said...

I have to admit that I am personally disapointed that out spoken dialect has deviated so much from Arabic. I have found understanding other arabs very easy, but that unfortunately the opposite isn't true. I have opted for a Syrian variety as I find it the closest to Fus7a. While I can understand the historic influences, i think we should make more effort to learn good arabic.

bulbul said...

I have to admit that I am personally disapointed that out spoken dialect has deviated so much from Arabic.
What is this Arabic darija has deviated so much from?

i think we should make more effort to learn good arabic
As opposed to what, "bad Arabic" you speak now?

bulbul said...

I mean, why not consult an academic text first?
Many, many times I have asked the same question. And that was before wikipedia came around.
The only reason I can come up with is that journalists are both lazy and stupid. And the more of them I meet, the more probable this sounds.

bulbul said...

that most Arabs cannot fathom
I would venture a guess and say that the unfathomability of Maghribi dialects doesn't have that much to do with the number of loan words. Look at Lebanese Arabic, Egyptian or Iraqi Arabic with their Turkish, French and Farsi loan words.
The main reason for the uninteligibility of Moroccan, Algerian and Tunisian Arabic is their phonology. The vowel reduction alone makes it very hard for me to understand Morroccan or Tunisian Arabic, even in one of the "higher" registers.

Anonymous said...


Thanks for your response, and for requesting clarifications.

1. I mean that our spoken Darija has deviated from Fus7a. I admit that many other Arabic dialects, probably most, have certain quirks that do not originate in Arabic, but generaly, I find that they maintain strong similarities to fus7a. From personal experience, the the majority of the Arabic world can understand each other, while they find difficulties with the maghreb dialects.

2. By "good Arabic", I mean Arabic that is closer to fus7a, Arabic that is understandable accross the Arab world.


Lameen Souag said...

The Maghreb is a third of the Arab world by population, and probably more like half by area. If we can take the trouble to figure out the nearly incomprehensible, rapid-fire delivery of Egyptians, let alone Kuwaitis or Lebanese, they should darn well be able to take the trouble to learn to figure out what we're saying. If Algeria had a decent media industry, and the Arab world were being flooded by Algerian films and soap operas and television preachers the way it is by Egyptian ones, I guarantee you Mashriqis would figure out what we were saying soon enough.

Bear in mind, a lot of the differences between North African and Middle Eastern Arabic dialects are because they've lost a term that we still have. حانوت، حفّاف، سقسي، دير، زعف, for example, are all purely Arabic in origin; but these words have remained in North Africa and disappeared from the Middle East. Other differences simply reflect borrowings from different languages: there is nothing more Arabic about طماطم، بطاطس، شاي than طوماطيش، باطاطا، لاتاي.

شايis from Persian, the other two from Western languages.)

bulbul said...

If Algeria had a decent media industry, and the Arab world were being flooded by Algerian films and soap operas and television preachers the way it is by Egyptian ones, I guarantee you Mashriqis would figure out what we were saying soon enough.
My point exactly. It's all about what one is used to hearing, not about unsurmountable obstacles of linguistic nature.

Anonymous said...

Borrowing from Tamazight isn't a problem. Tamazight and Algerian Arabic complement each other. It has always been the case. However, I worry about the frenchifying of Algerian Arabic. Algerian Arabic is being polluted by French and that is bad. A word here, a word there is ok, but what is happening is a different story.

Lameen Souag said...

That I agree with. From an academic perspective, I can regard the increasing number of French loanwords as a natural outcome of the current social and cultural situation of Algeria; but personally speaking, it really annoys me to hear people interjecting mangled French into a conversation when they could be using Arabic words (be they Fus'ha or Darja) instead, precisely because it reflects Algeria's overall inferiority complex, its elite's constant efforts to imitate instead of innovate - and the extremely unwelcome persistence of French forty years after independence. The privileged status of French ghettoises Algeria, locking it into French textbooks at a time when English is essential for keeping up with the latest in science and technology, and unnecessarily closes off large sections of the job market to Arabophone graduates.

KNL said...

I hate when I look in French textbooks and I see Algeria highlighted as a "French speaking nation". What an insult; no offense to the French, but it is time for Algeria to move on from colonial times and enter the modern world. English in the language of today, it should take French's place in terms of foreign language usage. I'm not just saying that because I'm in the States, it's really useful for money making.

I'd love to see people watching Algerian movies and listening to our music. There is a Maghrebi television station coming about:
I don't think there's anything wrong with Darja (if it's so bad, tell the Egyptians to stop using their dialect so much!), but it is important to have both fusha and darja, so we have both the formal and colloquial; local color is important. Stardard Arabic is not my favorite, but you need it, it's not like its Latin or whatever. Maghrebi dialects should be up there with Egyptian Arabic, like Lameen said, we are a lot of the Arab world.

Carmen said...

Algeria is enjoying its unique language now. It is not alone. Many countries all over the world have languages that are mixtures of the languages of their invaders. I think that would make things easier. Imagine, English words have many French, Spanish, German, and even Asian influences. With a little imagination, we can understand a lot of people in this world.

jilal said...

La langue darja en algerie c'est un mélange de tout..on peu dire que c'est une langue batarde. voici un exemple:
"Salam alaikoum,z'mith themourth,t'hab an'àwnek pour la valise?"
C'etait l'accueil d'un agent a l'aerrport d'alger l'année derniére.
Un toute petie phrase,qui contient
1-l'arabe fosha
2-le kabyle
3-l'arabe local"darja"
4-le français
With regards

bulbul said...


As for "une langue bastarde", please go and reread Lameen's post.
As for your quote, it proves nothing. All it shows is how one particular person deals with diglossia (or rather, multiglossia). Only kabyle is most likely not involved, since it is represented by a loan word. On occasion, I find myself using French words when I speak English (occassion, second, veal - hmmmm, veal...). Does that mean that English speaking people speak a bastardised language consisting of German, Celtic and French?

Shaden said...

I am an Egyptian linguistics student and have been interested in Arabic dialectology for a while. The lack of a nuanced understanding of the Arabic dialects is symptomatic of a wider rigid, anti-dialect attitude throughout the Arabic-speaking world. It's unfortunate that Arabophones are taught from an early age that their mother tongues are worthless, "corrupt" versions of "superior" classical Arabic, instead of celebrating and preserving this diversity. Have you read Owens' Linguistic History of Arabic yet?

Incidentally, I happen to be listening to Cheb Khaled as I am typing this (total coincidence!) and understanding almost nothing of what he so beautifully utters. I worked in an environment where I was exposed to practically all the Arabic dialects and was always amazed at just how diverse Arabic really is. Anything beyond Sudanese for me requires considerable effort to understand, inc. the supposedly "close" Levantine/Shami dialects.

Egyptians and maybe Lebanese in my experience tend to the most "proud" of their vernaculars (compare e.g. the articles on Egyptian and Algerian Arabic on wikipedia--very little is written on Algerian) but even then there is considerable prejudice and misunderstanding. I think the real question is how long the Arabophone world is willing to sacrifice the rich diversity that makes up its linguistic landscape for the sake of a romantic attachment to an earlier age.

There was a good article about this in the Guardian by a linguistics professor a while back:,,977260,00.html

bulbul said...

Thank you very much for your perspective, shaden.

The lack of a nuanced understanding of the Arabic dialects is symptomatic of a wider rigid, anti-dialect attitude throughout the Arabic-speaking world.
That is certainly true as far as the Arab world is concerned and might very well explain why Lamine Chikhi did not even consider consulting an academic text. Well, that, and the famous journalistic laziness.

Have you read Owens' Linguistic History of Arabic yet?
Heh, I wanted to ask the same :o) I got only as far as chapter one and there were several points I would disagree on. While most items on the
list of truisms in Arabic historical
linguistics hit the mark, the specific point on dialect (1.6.5 Dialects are mistakes, not languages) hardly applies to modern European scholarship, especially the Russian and German schools. I am not sure about the French, though. I still can't forgive them for creating the concept of "patois".

Incidentally, I happen to be listening to Cheb Khaled as I am typing this
It's Rachid Taha here :o)

Lameen Souag said...

Shaden: Sounds like an interesting book - I'll keep an eye out for it. Personally I'm in favour of both Classical Arabic and the dialects, as I've said on earlier posts (

Yaser said...

It is unfortunate that they are taught it is "corrupt," nonetheless I find it depressing that most are not at least taught or cannot understand classical 'Arabic. Many non 'Arabs devote their lives to learning the language. Nonetheless, from a purely 'modern' linguistic stand point, i guess your comment makes some sense. Though instead of adopting total rejection of classical Arabic, why not look at all the work done by classical Linguists, it is suprisingly modern in methodology and conclusions.

Lameen Souag said...

Practically all Algerians are taught classical Arabic throughout school nowadays - which makes it all the sadder that, to tell the truth, they tend to be rather bad at it. Still, real progress is being made. At independence little over a generation ago, bear in mind, literacy was under 10%, and much of that 10% was French; now it's over 60%, mostly in or including Arabic.

Yaser said...

Sorry, I spoke out of ignorance. I have had no contact with Algerians. I was just stereotyping Arabs, I have spoken to Egyptians (who are taught quite well in school I've noticed, but their colloqial totally gets me lost, then again my only contact with Arabic is through people not through the media), Syrians (not bad), Yemenis (I don't know why but I follow them the most), and Morrocans (I know French...It kind of helps...kind of, but they swallow vowels like Parisians).

I reread the top of the post again, and it is quite depressing to see that linguistics is addressed so...not in terms of linguistics. No present day linguist would say a rule is languageless. That basically destroys the notion of universal grammar.

On a side note, how much work has been done in Modern Linguistics in terms of Arabic (by Arabs)? I have been wondering about this for a while, since the work I've mostly read have all been done by English speaking fellas (& females of course). Please keep me in your du'aas.

مع السلامة

Lameen Souag said...

There are some notable scholars from the Arab world working on Arabic; I guess Jamal Ouhalla (who is Berber) is probably the best known, and probably Joseph Aoun. I'm sure there are plenty of others that aren't coming to mind.

Anonymous said...

For all you guys intent on recovering
the language of your oppressors for 14 centuries, Just find the few words that are still in your veins and replace them with beautifull ones from the language of Koreich.
For example if your kid says Fertettu
teach her to say Faracha, Al tatawur for twiza etc... A guy called Vuk Karadzic did just that. He taught his countrymen to ignore Serbian in favour of Slavonic.
Then you will be happy and right in your boots bacause some syrian will understand you.


Anonymous said...

Thanks, I have read many articles from this Lamine Chikhi and I have not seen one that said a good thing about Algeria.
I am Algerian and I have friends from both Morocco and Tunisia. Moroccan language is very close to Algerian speaking Arabic. It is true that in Tunisia their spoken Arabic is closer to the real Arabic, however, they also use words that we use in Algeria.
I also have friends from Lybia, their problem is different, I was told that they mix a lot of Italian in their language (I would not elaborate further about Libya because I have never been there and I cannot confirm this statement).

You (Mr. Chikhi) should not forget that Algeria was a French colony for 130 years where Tunisia and Morocco where on "protectorate" status.

Reading from the rest of your articles and looking at your track record (always shouting "here" when there is a bad event such as a car bombing or such) you should not forget where you have come from yourself.

Merrrci Ya Kho, N'roh n'akhdam dourk.


Abbas said...

yes, a lot of words in Algeria date from old Arabic and I find most of those saying we've got turkish, silly. They say the word sbetar is a mix of arabic, berber and turkish, it's not true at all, it is arabic and hardly used even in the gulf and most of them don't know it anyways, but yes like I said, it's pure arabic, and we shouldn't forget that algeria has many dialects.
Lamine and KNL you both reflected a lot of what my mind says, it annoys me too to hear french words...
and our words are arabic, it's just the way people pronounce things, also sometimes words have a slight change. I have a yemeni friend and some saudis and they understands algerian and speak it sometimes too, apart for the french part. and like lamine said, if our dialect was mediatised people would understand it.
as for me i understand any kind of dialect apart for the egyptian, i noticed one thing also, the shami dialect sounds more like turkish to me than anything, you know how turkish people add "eh" at the end of names and other words, well they do the same. i speak algerian with anyone with the wordings and all that, but i don't have these french words, mostly due to my heritage, and everyone understands me, but i don't know why i got stuff from an algerian who asked me if i spoke algerian, don't know what he meant by that lol. i do speak algerian!

Yasser said...

First off, i want to say what a wonderful topic/discussion this is. Secondly I almost felt a tear drop in my eye realizing that im not the only algerian who cant stand this French/Algerian lingo intermingal. I agree that as far as darja goes, no other arab nationals should have the right to say anything because i have egyptian, iraqi, qatari and saudi friends. And my saudi friend even told me that when he first met the qatris he couldnt understand what they were saying (both were fluent in arabic). Which comes to show that algeria tunis and morocco arent the only ones facing this problem. As far as the french in our "new" language;THIS HAS GOT TO STOP. me personally, i get sick when i hear it,i think its utter insanity that our own people are polluting our gorgeous language with this. As far as for the economic and political stand point for speaking french completely makes no sense. Our brother in teh Khaleej have managed to become economic and reginal powers by speaking arabic alone.

best regards

Anonymous said...

Hi. My name is Andrei Filip, I'm from Romania and I study the spoken dialect from Algiers. Please excuse my low-level english. Sincerely I preffer to write in MSA.
I want to congratulate the owner of this blog and mister Lameen Souag for his study about Dellys dialect.
Regarding what was spoken (Bulbul).
Dialects are not Classical Arabic deviations. Fusha coexisted with the dialects,supra-regional dialects before islam. (see AL-Jahiz). Dialects have own grammatic rules, prononciacion rules.

Anonymous said...

Very belated, but better than never (I guess). Shaden, i think your views reflect the compartmentalized western viewpoint about Arabic dialects, As a nation, and the borders established by the west don't change that, we will become like the Latin speakers, with no better communication than exists among French, Romanians, and Italians. If the dialects are not held in check by (classical) Arabic, this is what lies in store. This would greatly appease our enemies, as well as those who have inferiority complexes vis-vis the West... Diglossia, and the link to our common heritage that Classical arabic provides, is far better than that situation! European colonialists in the last century were pushing this idea, especially in Egypt and Lebanon...let's not do their work for them!