Tuesday, June 24, 2014

From Figuig to Igli: Berber in the Algerian-Morocco borderland

The number of good Berber descriptive dictionaries has been slowly but steadily increasing in recent years, but Hassane Benamara's new Dictionnaire amazigh-français : Parler de Figuig et ses régions (Rabat: IRCAM, 2013), which I was lucky enough to be lent a copy of lately, is surely one of the best. Apart from being quite unusually large (800 pages), it incorporates examples, multiple senses, pictures of items difficult to describe, an appendix with encyclopedic information on culturally specific words such as festivals and childrens' games. It incorporates a few neologisms useful for schooling, but takes a fairly inclusive attitude towards Arabic loanwords. There are barely 15,000 people in Figuig, but, astonishingly enough, this is actually the second dictionary of Figuig Berber published by a native speaker; the first, Ali Sahli's معجم أمازيغي-عربي (خاص بلهجة أهالي فجيج) (Oujda: Al Anwar Al Maghribia, 2008), was a good effort, but is substantially shorter and used a less accurate transcription. (There's even another linguist from Figuig, Mohamed Yeou, threatening to make a third dictionary – if he goes ahead with the project, he'll have a high hurdle to clear.)

Across the border in Algeria, the situation is rather different. A number of towns across a wide area around Bechar and Ain Sefra speak Berber varieties closely related to that of Figuig, collectively imprecisely termed "Shelha". Some of them seem to be shifting to Arabic (on my latest trip, I was told that in Lahmar they had stopped speaking Berber with their children, and for Igli I had heard the same much earlier.) But little effort – and no official effort, as far as I know – is being made to document them. The only (very) partial exceptions of which I am aware are Igli and Boussemghoun.

For Igli (population 7000), I have already described the local Scouts' efforts to put together an online dictionary. More recently, however, I came across a laudable local attempt at approaching the problem academically: Fatima Mouili's The Berber Speech of Igli, Language towards Extinction. After a very brief summary of Igli grammar and phonology, unfortunately made frequently illegible by font problems, the author discusses the reasons for language shift. Corresponding to my impressions for the region, including Tabelbala, she cites emigration and the desire to ensure educational success as important drivers; others are more surprising, including the immigration of refugees expelled by the French from a nearby village during the Algerian War of Independence. Apparently, her thesis discusses similar issues, for those with 59€ to spare...

For Boussemghoun (population 4000), a few articles and a book by Mohamed Benali may be cited, all focusing – as far as I can see – exclusively on the sociolinguistic situation of Berber in the town. A local Berber-language poet billed as "the Ait Menguellet of Boussemghoun", Bashir Oulhaj, has a considerable presence on YouTube, eg here; he's even been interviewed, by Figuig News. It seems to be treated as the centre for Amazigh identity in the region; the HCA has even organised a symposium there. Nevertheless, little if any descriptive work has been published on its variety of Berber.

Taken together, there are probably more speakers of Berber in southwestern Algeria than in and around Figuig. Why the difference, then? Is it because linguistics is better represented in Moroccan universities than in Algerian ones? (Notwithstanding some interesting work coming out of Algeria, I think that is fair – it would be hard to think of any linguist working in Algeria with a profile comparable to Abdelkader Fassi Fehri, for example.) Or is it because the Amazigh movement in Morocco is less closely associated with one side in the "culture war"? (Benali observes that, while most Semghounis wanted Berber to be taught in schools, they rejected the installation of an HCA office due to distrusting their politics.) Or are there more specific, purely local factors explaining the difference? That would be worth a study in itself – though perhaps not as much so as the Berber varieties in question!


Anonymous said...

I'm under the impression that the "official Algeria" is not interested in its fringes, they do not seem interested at all, in cultures such the one you mention+Tuaregs or even the culture of the Tlemcen area, where, very sadly, they seem to be increasingly losing their Arabic to an Oran-Style Arabic. (Same thing could be said of Fes vs Rabat-Casablanca but on a lesser scale).

The academic/political mood in Algeria also seem to be suffering from remnants of pan-Arabic/Socialist ideals, with their normative attitudes.

Lameen Souag الأمين سواق said...

I wouldn't worry too much about Tlemcen – there's hardly another city in Algeria so conspicuously favoured by the government, and at least one genuinely good linguist working in Algeria, Zoubir Dendane, speaks the dialect natively and publishes on it. As for the Tuaregs, certainly there's been no recent language documentation, but they get their own radio and TV broadcasts, which is pretty good considering how small their number is. The problem, really, is that descriptive linguistics in general is missing from the Algerian scene. There isn't even any locally produced grammar of Algerian Arabic, much less of minority languages; the only real exception is Kabyle, and there the efforts are much more focused on neologism-creation and standardisation than on description.

Anonymous said...

Well "Official Algeria" does not seem to care about language issues, as they're busier dealing with their various businesses (sigh).

If the Tlemecen's dialect is kind of losing ground to the Oran one, maybe you can blame it on Rai music or the simple economic/cultural domination of Oran, which makes it "hip" and the old language quite obsolete or a "peasant thing".
It is even more strikingly illustrated for neo-Algerois pidgin (not the good old Algérois : I do not hear any of dyali these recent years but rather the Bedoui "Ta'") which takes every town away around : who really speaks Kabyle nowadays in inner Tizi-Ouzou ? Barely anyone (I speak for those under 30/25 years old).

Buzedjif said...

- How would you classify the Berber of Figig and Igli and Busemghun? Zenati?

- I still don't understand how parents "stop" speaking Berber to their kids. Do they just decide to stop or not speak Berber with their newborn? Or is it that parents were themselves brought up in a bilingual family or environment that emotionally and psychologically favored Arabic?

- Do they teach Berber in western Algerian schools in places like Wehran and Tlemsan?

Lameen Souag الأمين سواق said...

Yes, this dialect is Zenati.

I don't know in detail how it's happened in these cases, but as I understand, the parents were already bilingual, and they heard that children coming into school speaking only Berber had trouble understanding the lessons, so they wanted to give them a better chance of success by speaking Arabic to them from the start.

Anonymous said...

If only those parents knew that the remedy is not in talking to their children in Arabic. They need to understand that mastering Berber well first is key to learning Arabic and many other languages afterward. This really hurts, I don't know what to do to reach out to those parents and tell them to use Berber with their kids.