Tuesday, June 02, 2015

The irrelevance of the standard in Algeria

I recently came across a nice little study of language attitudes among Kabyles in Oran, inheriting Kabyle from their parents and kin but living in an overwhelmingly Arabic-speaking context: Ait Habbouche 2013. The results will not come as a huge surprise to anyone familiar with Algeria, but they stand in stark contrast to a curiously widespread idea about Berber language endangerment: the notion that Berber is under threat from the government-imposed hegemony of Standard Arabic. What the survey answers reveal, time after time, is in fact the utter failure of government policies to create any meaningful space for Standard Arabic in daily life. It is no surprise to see that Standard Arabic is used by 0% of respondents with other Kabyles in the cafe or at home. But seeing that only 4% speak it even at work, and 0% in university, should be a shock to anyone who still imagines that Standard Arabic occupies a position analogous to, say, Standard German. The taboo on speaking Standard Arabic in any but the most formal quasi-academic conversation remains nearly absolute; 73% rated it as the language they used least. The only topics surveyed for which this option was selected by any significant number were religion and politics, and actual usage in both cases would probably reveal a mix of Standard words into a basically dialectal matrix. There are absolutely no signs that this group is shifting to Standard Arabic, or even sees this as a viable possibility. The language that has attained a large usage among these speakers, even with other Kabyles, is not Standard Arabic but Algerian Arabic - a language with no official status taught in no school, which was the least likely (2%) of any of the available languages to be rated as most beautiful or richest, and was rated by 42% as the language they liked least (nearly tied with Standard Arabic). Yet this little-loved language, dismissed as much by its speakers as by their rulers, is not only the main language they use with non-Kabyles but is extensively used even with fellow Kabyles (42% with their own siblings).

The utterly marginal status of Standard Arabic in conversation within this group (and elsewhere in Algeria) contrasts sharply with that of French. 22% of the sample claimed to address Kabyle strangers in French, and 26% to speak it with their friends. More tellingly, 38% chose it as the language they spoke in at work, and no less than 68% for speaking about science. It's interesting to find an official language that doesn't dominate even in contexts like that! In short, while Standard Arabic is taboo for conversation, French is not. There are of course circumstances where it could be inappropriate, but there is no blanket ban as with Standard Arabic.

What does this imply for language policy? I'm no policy analyst, but here are my thoughts...

As far as the linguistic majority goes, only a spoken language can hope to displace French from the spoken domain, and long-standing efforts to break the taboo on speaking Standard Arabic have been utterly futile. Maybe it's time for those who want Arabic to be official in practice and not just in theory to acknowledge and support the existing complementary distribution of functions between Standard and Algerian Arabic, rather than treating the latter as some kind of unfortunate necessity. Demanding that officials consistently speak to the public in Standard Arabic instead of French is not always realistic, but demanding that they speak in a high register of Algerian Arabic could be. But that will only happen if people learn to value the language they speak, rather than dismissing it.

For the minority, it suggests that the main threat to Berber comes not from school, but rather from daily life in non-Berber-speaking environments. If so, solutions should focus less on making sure that Berbers can study Berber at school (though that is certainly desirable for other reasons), and more on getting non-Berbers in linguistically mixed contexts to study Berber and use it in conversation - almost the opposite of existing policy.


David Marjanović said...

But seeing that only 4% speak it even at work, and 0% in university, should be a shock to anyone who still imagines that Standard Arabic occupies a position analogous to, say, Standard German.

Standard German where? :-) In Austria (broadly speaking) and even more so in Switzerland, I can't imagine much SG is spoken in any workplace, and while university lectures proper will be in SG, much of the rest – including the professor's own comments – won't be. In much of Germany, on the other hand (and also the latest 2 generations in Vienna), people don't natively speak a dialect but a... mesolect – SG with a big fat noticeable substratum of related dialects – which transitions seamlessly into the standard as a matter of register.

Eva said...

I'd like to read a study like this in Morocco. It seems the situation is more or less the same here (but I don't have any scientific evidence; I speak from my experiences).

Peter Norman said...

In response, first of all, to Eva's comment, NO, the Moroccans have quite a different policy, which involves young schoolchildren who have no plausible contact with Tamazight-speakers learning a version of Tamazight. On top of learning French, Spanish and Arabic. Hmmm...
To the wider subject, my stepson Yassin is just coming up to his school-leaving exams in Belgium at the ridiculously old age of 20. A big part of him being "held back" is due to his mother's insistence that he attend every weekend at what she was pleased to call "Arabic school". Do you imagine that he learned there to read Fusha, or to speak fluently any version of Arabic? I would be a little impressed if he could quote chunks of the Qu'ran, but even this goy can do that better than he. His father (my boyfriend) was also opposed to him wasting his tine in that way, but had little say.
I can't tell the governments of Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia what to do, you've had more than enough Europeans telling you that. But as people, I can ask you to judge me and my monolingual boyfriend and his son (fluent in French and Dutch, but sadly not Arabic) with indulgence.

Lameen Souag الأمين سواق said...

The easy way to teach someone to speak a language fluently is well-known: speak it at home. Sadly, North African emigrants tend to have particular trouble with this idea, in large measure because they're convinced that what they speak is not a language. Failing that, however, a Sunday school can certainly help, if well-taught, and plenty of students all over the world go to Sunday schools and still do fine academically. I don't know the specifics of the situation you describe, but I find it hard to believe that even the worst weekend school would set anyone's education back 2 years.

Lameen Souag الأمين سواق said...

David: interesting - I hadn't realized that Austria was so different from Germany in this regard, though I had some idea of the Swiss situation. Where does English fit into the local language ecology?

Eva said...

My comment was about language attitudes, not about official politics. Sorry if I didn't express it clearly.

Lameen Souag الأمين سواق said...

Eva: I suspect you're right; whatever its extent, the introduction of Tamazight into the school system in Morocco is too recent to have affected language attitudes much. However, I would guess that the place of French is smaller there.

David Marjanović said...

Where does English fit into the local language ecology?

Basically not at all; it remains foreign. The younger generations (in Germany, Austria and probably Switzerland alike) know it well enough to mock politicians (for their occasional troubles at e.g. international conferences) and to have /ɹ/ as a loanword phoneme*, but apart from the occasional pun that's it. There's occasionally talk of having certain university courses in English, but that's not getting very far; I had a course in English, but that's because the teacher was a guest professor from the US.

* Rock is a minimal pair: with /ʀ/ it's "skirt", with /ɹ/ it's the music style.

John Cowan said...

In the 20C Europe saw a general regression of diglossia from the political center to the periphery. German was fully diglossic until about 1945, and Austria and Switzerland remain so. Greek diglossia was dying out by 1900 already, though its H form didn't utterly perish until 1974; but in Crete it's in full swing, with the former L language of Greece functioning as H in the Cretan context. Italy went from independent regional standards to Standard Italian diglossia to bilingualism in Standard Italian (which is written) and local varieties (which aren't) within one long human lifetime, the more so the further from the Tuscany-Rome axis.

David Marjanović said...

but in Crete it's in full swing, with the former L language of Greece functioning as H in the Cretan context

I'm pretty sure you're confusing Crete with Cyprus. There's not a lot left of the Cretan dialect.

to Standard Italian diglossia to bilingualism in Standard Italian (which is written) and local varieties (which aren't)

Where's the difference? It's normal for L varieties to be unwritten; that's the case with basically all nonstandard German.

John Cowan said...

Yes, of course, Cyprus.

My point is that in Italy there are now plenty of situations in which Italians who know another language of Italy will speak the standard language in conversation (and never mind the large fraction who speak only Standard or mesolect aka italiano regionale). IOW, it's somewhere between Austria and Germany. I shouldn't have mentioned writing: it was a distraction, as some of the Romance languages of Italy, despite their L status, have standard written forms now.

Peter Norman said...

Lameen, in principle I agree with you. I know many Jews, Christians and Muslims who have benefited enormously from "Sunday school", not just linguistically, but in acquiring a deeper knowledge of their own culture and religion. But the one my stepson attended (until at 14/15 he simply refused to go any more) seemed to be more concerned with indoctrinating children in (a particular version of) Islam than in broadening their education; it took up four hours of his time on Saturday, then another four hours on Sunday. Belgian teachers (mistakenly, in my view) set their pupils an awful lot of homework, which (understandably) Yassin often failed to complete.

As to speaking the language in the home, Yassin's father (my partner) is, to all intents and purposes, a monolingual French-speaker. His mother does speak Darja, but has never done so with any of her children. Her daughter (a school teacher of French!) both reads and speaks Fusha - impressively, since presumably self-taught, but disdains Darja as a very low-status dialect. I'm struggling to find a reference that everyone will understand, but think of "Cletus, the gap-toothed yokel" in The Simpsons.

The whole Arabic language situation maddens the hell out of me. Maghrebi, Mashriqi, and whatever the other ones may be, should have been recognized and promoted as independent "descendent" languages of Arabic centuries ago, just like French and Spanish and Romanian are "descendent" languages of Latin. You can buy (a few) books in Darja, but it's a bit like buying books rather whimsically written in Dorset dialect. Oy, vey!

Peter Norman said...

John - You may not have been entirely wrong in mixing up Crete with Cyprus. I'm told by colleagues there are plenty of things in neo-Cretan dialect that at least hint at inheritance from paleo-Cretan, but this is way outside my area, I would have no idea about verifying or disconfirming that.

Peter Norman said...

Far be it from be to confirm anything David Marjanović says, but in this case (hold on to your hats) I think he's right. In Alsatian too, there's a "Rock" minimal pair, a French "r" (however articulated) being used for German "Rock" or French "roque", but something like the English approximate for the style of music.
But in Alsatian it's clearly an "exo-phoneme", like when English people pronounce "loch" with a gutteral fricative, in deference to the Scots. /x/ has no role to play in the southern English phonemic system. So maybe I don't agree with David after all. Phew, that was close!

David Marjanović said...

So maybe I don't agree with David after all. Phew, that was close!

Curses! Foiled again!

Moroccan Berber said...

Why would anybody speak a language (Standard Arabic) that nobody speaks?

Let's go back to the basics. People speak the mother tongue of their parents and the language of the streets. In most cases, the language of home and the streets is the same. That's why people favor that language despite it not being taught or even banned in Algeria or Morocco. Standard Arabic is not the language of any home or of any street on this planet. That's why nobody speaks it despite it being taught in schools and broadcast on 300 satellite channels 24/7. Even the real Arabs of Arabia don't speak Standard Arabic. They love their Arabian languages. They're easier and more intimate. Standard Arabic possibly never was anybody's language. It was developed largely in religious manuscripts of Syria and Iraq with the rise and evolution of Islam and remained for centuries a written language only.

The Arabs of today's Saudi Arabia and the Arabized nations of Egypt, Syria, Lebanon ...etc speak their mother tongues which are the Arabic vernaculars (with a sub-layer of Syriac, Coptic...). It's the logical easy thing to do. Why would a Lebanese or Egyptian person abandon their easy mother tongue for Arabic? Never gonna happen.

Algerians also are never going to abandon Algerian Darija or Berber for Standard Arabic. But many of them do abandon Berber for Darija, because Darija is a popular mother tongue and is supported tacitly or automatically by the government, as it is genetically and lexically close to written Arabic. Speaking Standard Arabic is rediculous and unnecessary because there are better and popular alternatives.

The claim that "Berber is under threat from the government-imposed hegemony of Standard Arabic" still stands because the Governments of Morocco and Algeria are still crushing and eroding Berber using Arabic. Whether Standard Arabic benefits from that on the street level and on the informal level is another issue.

It's like someone hitting you on your face with a stick. The stick breaks but you still get injured. The Government is damaging Berber using the Arabic stick. Standard Arabic doesn't benefit from the downfall of Berber but the vacuum left by Berber is filled by a popular spoken language like Algerian Arabic or French.

French can be driven out of Algeria and Morocco by a POPULAR SPOKEN and WRITTEN language taught in schools, i.e. Berber and/or Darija. So only a written mother tongue can drive French out. Arabic is nobody's mother tongue and will never be spoken by anybody. The huge multi-billion dollar support that Stadard Arabic gets from 22 countries had succeded only in improving Arabic in written use (administration, press...) not in spoken use.

Darija will never be written taught because Islamists and Arabists won't allow it. Berber won't be official nor compulsory in Algerian schools because Islamists, Arabists and the Government don't want that, while schools continue teaching Arabic and French. French keeps attracting young and educated Algerians for the obvious reasons.

This status quo makes Berber the biggest loser and French the biggest winner and Darija acquires some new speaking territory from Berber, while Arabic's position remains unchanged.

Anonymous said...

Hi Lameen,

Your link to Ait Habbouche's thesis returned a 404. I believe this might fix it:


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