Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Marzouki's Tunisian language policy proposals: once more against code-switching

Following up on the previous post, my wife just sent me a link to Moncef Marzouki, the head of the centrist party that came second in the Tunisian elections, talking (in Arabic) about the language issue in Tunisia: "What language will the Arabs speak next century?" It's well worth a look for anyone wondering what democratic Tunisia's language policy will look like; his position is not far from Ghannouchi's in this regard, but he gives a lot more detail.

Marzouki warns that the language used in Facebook postings and private stations, with its undigested French loans or even phrases, freedom from prescriptive grammar, and Latin transcriptions, is a foretaste of what future Arabic may look like if we're not careful. The solution, in his view, is a Society for the Defense of the Arabic Language in Tunisia - but "will the authorities license this, when most of the parties are using dialect in their political advertising" and the state used a slogan in dialect ('وقيت باش تقيّد') to advertise the elections? If we're not careful our children may end up speaking "a language like Creole, dominant in the islands of the Caribbean and the Pacific - a strange mixture of European and African languages" and a Tunisian will need an interpreter to talk to a Yemeni (many might already!) He blasts the station-owning promoters of code-mixing as "Westernised counter-revolutionary forces who dread Islamists' and Arabists' victory and support Westernisation and separation from the Arabo-Islamic world through a narrow isolationism."

So far so familiar, you may well say. I'm not impressed with his rather authoritarian desire to restrict what language private broadcasts can use - he specifically states that he wants laws on broadcasting requiring "the exclusive use of Fusha and refined Darja" and "banning this Creole language - we don't think that the BBC would allow pub talk, or French TV teen slang." (He's definitely wrong there!) I was also surprised by the way he seems to set up dialectal Arabic as the enemy of Standard Arabic (Fusha), when in fact Fusha has stayed alive only through dialectal Arabic speakers' attachment to it; but he later clarifies that his opposition is to the use of dialect in inappropriate contexts and not to the dialect itself, which he deems worthy of "preservation and development".

He has some good proposals on language policy too, though. We need more translation into Arabic, more digitisation of Arabic books, and more use of Arabic in science; "no community has flourished in the language of another" (absolutely right, but how to pay for these?) The single-foreign-language policy that makes the Maghrib Francophone and the Mashriq Anglophone needs to be replaced by a policy of teaching different foreign languages to different pupils (this I agree with 100%, although again the cost of training is a formidable obstacle), including those of Asia and even Africa. He also takes a progressive line on minority languages, calling it "obligatory" for the state to support languages like Berber in Algeria and Morocco or Pulaar in Mauritania, and even teach them to Arabic speakers - although he doesn't have anything to say on what's left of Berber in Tunisia... And despite my reservations about the heavy-handedness of his prescriptivism, I was pleasantly surprised by his ability to summarise the opposing position; he devotes a lot of the article to answering potential challenges to his positions:
  • Isn't linguistic cross-fertilisation a longstanding phenomenon? Have our people ever spoken an unmixed language? Isn't it natural for languages to change and develop? Doesn't our dialect contain hundreds of French and Italian words anyway? (He doesn't really try to answer these.)
  • Couldn't Arabic develop into multiple literary languages just as Latin did? (But we see the opposite: more and more people are using Arabic thanks to broadcasting, education, and Islam, and the dialects are now getting closer to the standard language. "As long as the Qur'an remains, Arabic will continue to develop and to accumulate around it dialects close to it, like planets circling around the sun.")
  • Doesn't this position discriminate against the less-educated in favour of an elite? Shouldn't the revolution restore the freedom to speak the language of the masses? (Arabic was discriminated against under the dictatorship, being excluded from administration, higher education, and research; and talk of "the dialect" camouflages discrimination against regional ones. "What we hear in broadcasting is not the dialect of the northwest or the south (which are nearly Fusha) but the dialect of a few posh neighbourhoods in the capital who count it as a mark of backwardness to utter a sentence without stuffing it with French expressions, even when out of place. Franco-Arabic is the language of some bourgeois, Westernised sections who despise the public and call them 'beggars'." - Needless to say, this is a tu quoque reply: while more or less correct, it doesn't really address the question.)
The picture he paints suggests some much broader questions: do laissez-faire language policies simply amount to letting the rich impose their language preferences on the rest of us? And do democratic language policies simply amount to letting the majority force their language preferences on the minority? How can we avoid such traps, especially given the requirement of universal education?

8 comments:

John Cowan said...

Well, English is stuffed full of French and Latin, and Maltese is essentially Tunisian Arabic stuffed full of Sicilian, Italian, French, and English, and both are doing fairly well. As for "What we hear in broadcasting is not the dialect of the northwest or the south (which are nearly Fusha)", can that really be true?

But otherwise, a pretty progressive article from someone who is basically a prescriptivist.

PhoeniX said...

I'm a big opponent of prescriptivism, and I feel that every language should have a more laissez-faire approach to language regulation, but I actually think that: "do laissez-faire language policies simply amount to letting the rich impose their language preferences on the rest of us?"

is one the best arguments I've ever read in defense of language regulation. People usually don't get much farther than 'the language will become an incomprehensible garble of words!', which, as a comparative linguist, is hilariously wrong.

I take a bit of offense at his almost racist view on the 'quality' or 'legitimacy' of creoles and pidgins. At best such mixed languages give us a wonderful view how features of both languages can continue in one language (retention of tone in languages that are essentially English), At 'worst' it gives us an idea how far a language can be reduced to an incredibly simple grammar without losing any of its clarity.

Lameen Souag said...

JC: "nearly Fusha" is of course an exaggeration, but I think it is fair to say that the southern dialects preserve all sorts of Fusha features (eg feminine plural subject agreement) lost in the northern ones, and that the rural dialects in general are less heavily influenced by French.

Phoenix: Yes, creoles are wonderfully fascinating languages in their own right, and arguably they're the most efficient ones around. But I think he's still right to be scared of them. The thing about creoles is that their emergence invariably reflects a profound identity shift among their speakers, in which a vast amount of their original culture(s) is lost - which is precisely what he's afraid of.

Lameen Souag said...

Oh yeah, forgot to post this wonderfully illustrative comment from David Mack, at MEI Editor:

"The younger generation of Tunisians has a much better education in Arabic and, I suspect, less of an education in French than was true of the elite when I served there from 1979-1982. Coming from Baghdad, where intensive use had honed my Arabic and being years away from my one academic year of French, I though erroneously that I could get away with speaking Arabic. At my first diplomatic reception, a Tunisian lady put that idea to rest: "Monsieur Mack: Nous ne parlons pas l'Arabe. Il n'est pas une langue serieuse." Even in those days, however, younger Tusisians veiled political criticism of the regime by allegations like, "All the ministers are married to French women, and they keep us down by not speaking to us in Arabic.""

Anonymous said...

Why is it very necessary to be able to talk to a Yemeni without a translator? I don't mean to be rude, but I think we NWAs are very ungrateful to the truth that our dialect has served (in some way) to isolate us from certain negative tendencies that are prevalent in the Mashriq? What do I mean by negative tendencies? I will not be too concise about answering that question because it may unintentionally appear as racism or mean-spiritedness; so let me put it differently: Do you want Tunisia to turn into Yemen? Remember, ideas underlie the condition of a society, and a common language allows for the easy traffic of ideas: why risk allowing blood-to-their-name ideas enter our area? Glance at the state of the Middle East; bloodshed, sectocide, hate and fanaticism. I see nothing that impresses me there. (Yes there is stability and prosperity in petro-nations, but they are also the heartlands of a conservatism that an average Tunsian would recognise as backward.) Again why widen the already existing bridge to that region - what do you expect will come our direction?

Marzouki's and his fossilized generation throughout the Maghreb is heading to the grave, and they objectively have failed society with the ideas they passed around; in my conciousness they are attached to the regime that fell, so they are disreputable even if they rise to consider the antithesis of their own positions. The Tunisian revolution was achieved not by his generation but by the youth - why does HE pontificate?! He should sit back and not criticise the communicative choices of the youth, the same choices that allowed revolutionaries to communicate and organise an effective revolution.
Tunsia for some odd reason suffers a few who harbour this inferiority complex vis a vis the Mashriq. Marzouki exemplifies it. That, in my estimation is what spurs people like him to advocate for the "purification" of the language. Embedded there is the calumny that implies that our region, its history, peoples, and interactions etc are filthy! Once again an inferiority complex.
Please, people, take the opposite view. And that goes for those who wish to wipe the word 'Arab' out of our history - it is self-hate too.
Notwithstanding the argument for standardisation is very convincing, but its scope should only concern the Maghreb countries.

Lameen Souag said...

The bridge that connects the Maghrib to the Mashriq - Fusha - is also the bridge that connects the Maghrib to the past 1400 years of its own written heritage; you can't cut yourself off from the one without cutting yourself off from the other. I don't think it's fair to dismiss his ideas as the usual Maghrebi inferiority complex either: Marzouki makes a point of criticising the same code-mixing trends in the Mashriq (and it's pretty common there too in some places - look at Lebanon or the Gulf.)

As for the spectre of Mashriq-ization: I think you're overstating the (real) problems of the Middle East and understating those of North Africa. Despite being lucky enough not to have the kind of longstanding sectarian rivalries that the Mashriq suffers from, the Maghrib has still managed two rather bloody civil wars in the past 20 years. And in terms of bloodshed, neither the Maghrib nor the Mashriq have ever done anything to compare to what Europe managed over the past century.

John Cowan said...

Well, the Turks dumped their whole civilized (as opposed to nomadic) history when they switched to the Latin script and purged much (though by no means all) of the Persian and Perso-Arabic elements in their language. Perhaps that was the only way to build a modern nation out of the wreck of empire; I don't know, I wasn't there at the time.

Etienne said...

1-"Creolization" is very different from heavy foreign influence: a look at Malta would indeed be more fruitful than a look at creoles.

2-In the David Mack quote, "il n'est pas" should be "ce n'est pas"

3-Claiming that the convergence of dialects towards the standard means that the dialects couldn't become separate "neo-Arab" languages is too simplistic. The rise of the (Western) Romance languages took place in a context where all borrowed very heavily from Latin.

4-This rise of written Western Romance standards took place in (mostly) Catholic societies where Latin was closely associated with Catholicism, over a period of time (The Renaissance especially) when religious fanaticism in Europe was more extreme than anything the Muslim world ever experienced (I am a Romance-speaking Catholic myself, but I quite agree with Lameen's point).

Hence I doubt that the status of Fusha as the language of the Qur'an would suffice, in and of itself, to ensure the status of Fusha in Tunisian society.

5-Despite the above criticism, I agree with Lameen: Moncef Marzouki has plainly given real thought to this issue. If such thoroughness is typical of the next generation of Tunisian politicians, that country can expect a bright future.

6-Indeed, considering how poorly some of Tunisia's Northern Mediterranean neighbors are faring, let me offer an imaginary newspaper headline from the year 2050: "Italian illegals and refugees still defeating the Tunisian navy's best efforts", and an imaginary linguistics article title: "The Arabic pidgin of Spanish guest workers in Tunis: some preliminary findings".