Thursday, February 15, 2018

"Don't impose on me a language that isn't a vehicle of science": the Salhi scandal

Two years ago, the Algerian state finally decided to make Tamazight (Berber) an official language. In practice, this has not by any means implied giving it the same status as Arabic (much less as French). It has encouraged an expansion of Tamazight teaching, which is being extended to all wilayas (provinces) rather than just the ones with large numbers of Berber speakers. But Tamazight lessons - unlike Arabic, French, or English - remain completely optional. Most parents have no desire for their children to learn Tamazight, and were regularly complaining even before the question arose that the curriculum was too packed. Nevertheless, the very idea that Tamazight might someday be a required school subject seems to have been enough to drive at least one MP - the now-notorious Naima Salhi - into a ranting fury.

I've been reluctant to post about the Naima Salhi scandal, since it's obviously being used by this nonentity as a way to inflate her public profile. But when I heard the actual words of her paranoid rant against Berber, I realized I had to. Her words, thankfully, have been overwhelmingly repudiated by her peers. But her "reasoning" is a perfect specimen of a linguistic ideology that many people all over the world subscribe to, with a few instructive twists coming from the diglossic context of Algeria. As such, it's worth a closer look. Here's what she said, translated from - dialectal - Algerian Arabic into English:

"So don't impose on me a language - it's not a language anyway - don't impose on me a language that isn't a vehicle of science; don't impose on me a language that isn't recognized, isn't understood by people outside; what good is it to me? Study science with it? It doesn't have - it isn't a vehicle of science. Study technology with it? It isn't a vehicle of technology. Go abroad with it, to speak to people abroad? They don't know it and don't understand it. For God's sake, what good is it to us?
When it comes to the Arabic language - and oh, what a language! - which is the world language, which more than a billion people speak, they say we won't study it; a language which has billions of books, and billions of manuscripts, and billions of - everything - you say you won't study it and don't need it. Then you bring me a dead language, which doesn't have letters, and doesn't have meanings, and doesn't have words - you want to hold me back with it so you can make progress - and you go off, and eventually you get to the point, and you tell me: Me, I'm studying English, and I'm studying German, and Spanish, and Turkish, and you all don't know them. You're going to hold me back with this?
My little daughter was studying in a private school where most of them were Kabyles. She naturally learned the language with them, because her classmates' parents taught them to speak Kabyle, so it would continue and spread. So my daughter, with the best of intentions, learned with them. She'd come and speak it, and I never asked her "Why?" I didn't shut her up; I left her free to do as she likes. But now that we've gotten to the point where it's obligatory, I told her: Say another word in Kabyle (Berber) and I'll kill you, I'll discipline you if you say another word.
And I'm saying it plainly and challenging everyone: When we were going by intentions / naive, we didn't say a thing; now that it's become "push me and I'll step on you", don't push me and I won't step on you. Now we're going to make it about who's stronger? And the most for the stronger one? The majority is stronger. You'd have been better off leaving it down to intentions. Now that you think you're so smart and coming out with insults against us, now I'll insult you.
People like me, and people who are real men, and those who don't accept humiliation and aren't used to it, and whose family aren't used to it, won't accept from you something like this. And I now forbid my children from pronouncing a single word in Tamazight. I mean the Frenchified Kabyle made by the MAK and the treasonous terrorist MAK movement. And we need to demand that the MAK is a terrorist movement."
Let's pass over the bizarre misconceptions and factual errors for now (it doesn't have words???), and go to the heart of the matter. It's not an unusual phenomenon anywhere to find speakers of a majority language objecting to having to learn a supposedly useless minority language - look at Swedish in Finland, or Welsh in Wales, or even Irish in Ireland. In this case, however, diglossia introduces a further twist, making her very examples undermine her ideas.

She presents Kabyle as useless for what seem like bluntly utilitarian reasons: it's only spoken by other Algerians and it won't help you study science and technology. Yet most Algerians spend most of their lives in Algeria, and most people anywhere don't study science and technology past high school. By her own testimony, Kabyle is widely enough spoken that her daughter could pick it up in a private school even in a non-Kabyle area. Had her daughter failed to do so, she would presumably have had fewer friends, and found herself excluded from routine social interactions. Yet somehow, for Salhi, that fact doesn't even register as relevant to the question of the language's usefulness. The dialectal Arabic she's speaking is not taught in any school, and the idea of teaching it would no doubt drive her to even greater fury. Dialectal Arabic is by far the most widely used language in Algeria, without which she would find herself deaf and dumb in her own country - just ask any Kabyle outside Kabylie whether it's worth learning - yet that doesn't enter into her definition of "useful" either. A language is "useful", in fact, only if its presence in daily life is so limited as to make it useless in most contexts. Only then can speaking it be a valuable accomplishment that gives you access to coveted jobs, rather than a routine ability that remains invisible until you run into someone who lacks it. Only then is it an appropriate subject for study.

But Tamazight activism threatens to upset that basic rule. If Tamazight ever does become part of compulsory education, that would lead to children studying and getting graded on a language that some of them already speak. How hideously unfair! The Kabyle-speaking children won't need it, and the Arabic-speaking children won't want it. Clearly the only possible explanation for such a move is that Kabyle speakers want to give themselves an unfair advantage at school, and handicap the Arabic speakers. (/sarcasm) The idea that there might be another side to this - that Kabyle speakers would still have to learn dialectal Arabic on their own as they always have, getting no extra credit for that effort, whereas Arabic speakers would be getting government help in learning Kabyle - doesn't even seem to cross her mind.

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