Following Ennahda's plurality in the recent Tunisian elections, its leader Rashed Ghannouchi commented that "We are Arabs and our language is Arabic... We have become Franco-Arab; this is linguistic pollution. We encourage the learning of all languages, especially the most alive ones, without losing our identity. He who is not proud of his language cannot be proud of his country." (AFP, can't find the original quote on Express FM) A party activist clarified that "We have no problem with French - many of our activists speak it perfectly. The problem is with mixing it with Arabic." (Slate Afrique)
The Slate article quotes a source identifying this as an implicit attack on the Francophone elite of Tunisia, "notably those who did their studies in France and are most at ease in French both in private and in public." While identity politics has its dangers, such statements should not be surprising: a core constituency for Ennahda, like its Turkish counterparts, is people who want to succeed and become middle class without having to reject their own principles and origins to adopt the highly Westernised identity of the elites that emerged in the early 20th century, and defending Arabic amounts to defending that choice. In any Francophone country, teaching English is an obvious long-term strategy for connecting the country to the wider world while bypassing the Francophone elite (and possibly creating a new one?); "all languages, especially the most alive ones" is obviously intended to refer mainly to English. This seems to have caused some concern among supporters of French even in France (it is remarkable that Google turns up the press release on the French Department of Defense website!)
Linguistically rather than politically speaking, though, does this make sense? Well, up to a point:
- "our language is Arabic" is true, and truer of Tunisia than of any other country in North Africa: barely half a dozen small villages in the entire country speak Berber, and many of them are abandoning it (for much the same reasons that impel the elites towards French.) But, in the context of a very large difference between Classical/Standard Arabic (fusha) and Tunisian dialect(s), it also slides over the question of what kinds of Arabic count as "our language".
- "Linguistic pollution" combines a factual statement with a value judgement: it is true that French words show up commonly in Arabic contexts to the point that people have trouble thinking of a corresponding Arabic word, and calling that "pollution" just amounts to saying that this is bad.
- He's quite right to link language to identity: in the words of Andrée Tabouret-Keller, "The language spoken by somebody and his or her identity as a speaker of this language are inseparable: This is surely a piece of knowledge as old as human speech itself." Tunisian identity would not be lost even if every Tunisian shifted to French - but it would be profoundly changed.
- "He who is not proud of his language cannot be proud of his country" is not correct: of course you can be proud of your country in the abstract without even liking its language (I don't know about Tunisia, but there are, sadly, plenty of vehemently patriotic Algerians who have nothing positive to say about the Algerian dialect!) However, it's obviously intended less as a factual statement than as a call for Tunisians to be proud of their language - a call I would enthusiastically endorse.