Monday, September 07, 2009

BBC Berber report

A couple of people have forwarded me this BBC article: Trail-blazing for Morocco's Berber speakers. It's a rare instance of Anglophone media noticing North African developments - in this case, the gradual establishment of Berber as a subject in Morocco's educational system. The phenomenon is rather interesting, and their efforts to create a common Tamazight "Fusha" would be a great subject for debate. But this article, sadly, is a pretty poor effort. Some of the errors of fact:

"previously oral-only language": Berber has been written, on and off, for 2500 years or more. The biggest single source of surviving Berber manuscripts (in the Arabic script) is southern Morocco. While Arabic has been - and still is - the main language of literacy for Berber speakers, Berber has not been "oral-only" in Morocco for millennia.

"an alphabet based partly on the mystical signs and symbols of the Tuareg found inscribed on tombs and monuments" - the Tifinagh characters of the Tuareg, on which Moroccan Neo-Tifinagh is based, are not "mystical signs and symbols", they're a perfectly normal consonantal alphabet, used mainly for graffiti and short letters.

"Berbers, until recently excluded from jobs in education and government": no. Their language has been excluded from both, but Berbers have held posts in both positions for as long as Morocco has existed. (The first prime minister of independent Morocco, Mbarek Bekkai, is one of many examples.) Negative attitudes towards Berber language and culture can disadvantage Berbers, but a statement like this one is frankly dishonest.

"young Moroccans either listen to Western music, or to rap in Amazigh" - I won't swear this is wrong, but that sure isn't the impression I got last time I was in Morocco. As far as I could tell, most popular Moroccan Berber music is not rap (thankfully), and certainly much (probably most) Moroccan popular music - including rap - is in Arabic.

Also, they quote Abdallah Aourik saying "Most Moroccans grow up speaking Berber" - this is possible, but is probably no longer true. Most recent-ish estimates on Berber speakers for Morocco (like within the past 50 years) hover around a third. (Wikipedia, for once giving reasonable references.)

For a more opinionated/less polite takedown, try Lounsbury. I guess the lesson is the usual one that the past decade has really drummed in: treat all reporting with scepticism.


The Lounsbury said...

I'm rarely very polite about Journos and their idiocies.... I should have emphasized the presence of Berbers in gov't though come to think of it.

And agreed, Berber Rap is not the dominant form of music; that ungodly screeching of strangled voices the Chleuh call traditional music remains the music one hears most.

(I do love the Chleah, but an appreciation of their music escapes me)

John Cowan said...

Basically the article randomly scrambles up Berbers, the Berber language, and the study of the Berber language.

Cemmust said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Cemmust said...

Nice review.

I get happy whenever I read or hear English-speaking media say something about North Africa or the Berbers. The Berbers are like a "blind spot" to the Anglosaxons, they still can't "see" us; and vice versa.

Thus, I can easily forgive the inaccuracies in this BBC report on the Amazigh cause. They've got a lot to learn about Tamazgha.

If you follow Moroccan newspapers or TV you're gonna easily notice the numerous inaccuracies about the English-speaking countries. Without mentioning faulty name spellings and false translations.

I don't agree with you Mr Souag when you say that much of or most of Moroccan popular music is sung in Moroccan Arabic. There is a huge pop Amazigh music production too, maybe 40% or 50% of Morocco's output.

About the percentage of the Amazigh-speakers, the available numbers and references are very old and maybe not even accurate really.
If we accept the claim that only a third of Moroccans speak Amazigh, what would be the percentage in Algeria? 10% ?

The 2004 census conducted by the Moroccan government claimed that only a 28.4% of the population speaks Amazigh. Nobody took this figure seriously, because the government couldn't be trusted especially on the Amazigh issue.

One funny "statistical" incident that reflects the misleading practices of the Moroccan government was when its official website ( stated that Berbers (usually they mean: Berber-speakers) make up 75% of the population (this website was created after the 2004 census). This number (75%) was removed from the website when it was noticed and discussed by Amazigh activists and bloggers.

Shortly later, the 28.4% figure was claimed by the census. In the same census the government claimed that the Berber-speakers constitute only 5% of the Al-Hoceima province!!

Lameen Souag الأمين سواق said...

I think we're saying the same thing about the music. If 40% is Amazigh, then most is Arabic; if 50% is Amazigh, then much is Arabic.

As for the census, it seems reasonable to be sceptical (though I would be interested to see the results - all I can find online are statistics about the language of literacy, which is not quite the same thing!) But even so, all the way back in 1952 Basset, who if anything would be likely to exaggerate the figure, only estimated that "a small majority" of Moroccans spoke Berber; given the realities of language shift in big cities, do you really think it hasn't decreased since then?

Cemmust said...

Thanks for taking the time and bothering with this.

Yes of course, I agree that the use of Amazigh was and still is on the decline. Basset's estimates remain estimates because he didn't base them on any exact statistics, I believe. What makes you think he would be exaggerating the numbers in favor of Tamazight? What if he was being careful in his estimates?

Here are the figures of Morocco's HCP census on the use of Amazigh language:

- For Meknes-Tafilalt region they say 46.5% of it speaks Amazigh (page 30). And it's on this regional report only where they inserted the national average of 28.3% !! :

- Here on page 106 they say 20.4% of the region of Rabat-Sale-Zemour-Zaer speaks Amazigh:

- For the region of Tetouan-Tanger they stated 5.9% speaks Amazigh (page 63):

Data about the regions of heavy Amazigh-speaking majorities (Nador, Hoceima, Agadir and the Souss, the south-east, the Atlas) is missing from the website and from all the regional HCP reports I could find.

The fact that the national average of Amazigh speakers was not even mentioned, let alone studied, in the main (national) report, and was briefly mentioned in a regional report (Meknes) tells us that the government / HCP does not care much about the matter of natural languages, while they gave, in the reports, huge attention to measuring foreign language knowledge and the knowledge of written Arabic.

I don't rule out the probability that critical data about Amazigh use was kept from from being published for the obvious political reasons, especially when we know that the census workers were in fact asking every Moroccan citizen about the language they speak daily.

Lameen Souag الأمين سواق said...

Yes, it is remarkable that such a fact should be left to a regional report - and that so many regional reports should be missing from the website, four years after the census.

One way to estimate would be to go through regional population data - eg - and assign each wilaya to Arabic or Berber depending on which is generally though to predominate there. There's a lot of room for error in such a procedure - especially when it comes to the cities; when I try that, I get about a third, but I'm no expert on Moroccan geography.

Cemmust said...

In your estimates, did you get one third for Morocco or for Algeria?

I am really interested in knowing about any Algerian statistics.

I mean I am aware of the three Amazigh blocks and their common estimates: Kabylia (6-8 million), Chawia (1.5 - 2 million), Algerian Tuaregs (1.5 - 2 million), and the other small blocks.

But are there any better number or estimates you're aware of?

Lameen Souag الأمين سواق said...

My estimate was one third for Morocco - for Algeria about a fifth to a quarter.

The Chaoui estimate is about right - maybe a little low. The Algerian Tuareg estimate is rather too high - maybe if you include all the refugees from Mali and Niger, but their number varies a lot from year to year. 6-8 million might just be possible for "ethnic" Kabyles, if you include all those 4th-generation Algerois and emigrants to France and so on, but I doubt the language is spoken by anywhere near that many people. The Wikipedia article again has some good references.

Lameen Souag الأمين سواق said...

Oh, and Eid Mubarak!

Panu said...

Personally, I have had a soft spot for Berbers since I saw this page: