Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Language endangerment: thoughts from Igli

I recently found a forum for the town of Igli, about 150 km north of Tabelbala as the crow flies. Igli's traditional language is a Berber variety called "Tabeldit", or in Arabic "Shelha" شلحة, reasonably close to the better-documented dialect of Figuig across the border but with significant differences (such as the first person singular in -ɛ rather than -γ.) In Igli, it is at least as endangered as Kwarandzyey, and is likely to disappear in another couple of generations - although I was told that it is doing better in the small neighbouring town of Mazzer. I think the reason, as in Tabelbala, is that parents started speaking only Arabic to their kids in the hope of giving them a head start in school, but all I know about Igli I heard from Glaouis in other towns. In situations like this, speakers inevitably see their language's disappearance with mixed feelings, and the following pair of posts forms a microcosm of the global language preservation debate:
The "Xiṭ Azugar" Project (posted by Shayma)

"Tabeldit Shelha is part of the fragrance of the Saoura region... a treasure inherited from our ancestors. Shall we preserve it, or let it disappear before our eyes?.... A secret weapon that saved some of us from death. How long will we remain with our hands tied as our language disappears before our eyes? Until when, until when?

I hope that these words have awakened your sleeping hearts and moved your sentiments. Therefore I present to you today this project, consisting of the establishment of an "Arabic-Shelha" dictionary to preserve our language. Therefore I ask the director and administrators and even the members to study this project; if you accept the idea, then let's start to lay down precise plans to overcome difficulties... and if you don't accept the suggestion, then we will do our ancestors an injustice... I urge you to take the matter seriously. To the administration, and all the members, let us put hand in hand. No more lamentation over Shelha, that doesn't help. What helps is effective work.

Forgive me for my harsh words, and I hope you accept the idea. The project is called "Xiṭ azugar" for historical reasons, because these words have saved a person from certain death.
This suggestion was acclaimed and adopted, and there is now a small Arabic-Shelha Dictionary forum. However, there was also some scepticism - the following post started a vigorous debate:
What would we lose if Shelha becomes extinct? (posted by igliab)

Following the increased concern with the local dialect "Shelha" from the brother members, for which thanks are due, I decided to pose the following question: What would we lose if this dialect became extinct?

It's not a language of civilisation, nor a language of science. And supposing we are able to make an "Arabic-Shelha" dictionary and lay down the rules for this language, will our sons agree to learn it? What would the motive be? It's not used at home, nor in public places. Or do we want to put it in museums and say we have "saved" it?

Moreover, by my reckoning those who speak it today are:
90% old men - 8% middle-aged men - 1.5% youths - 0.5% children. Admittedly I haven't made a study to come up with these figures but it could be worse than I anticipate, so it can be said that Shelha has no future in Igli.

I also told myself that if everyone thought the way I think then they would put down their pens and wait for the demise of Shelha, the way an ill man who has despaired of his state waits for death. But I rethought the issue, this time positively, and realised the need to put together a plan for its preservation. But what is the point of solutions if there is no logical, powerful reason, so the first question we have to answer is: why should we preserve Shelha? I urge the brothers to think deeply about this issue and put sentiments aside.
What would your thoughts be? Have you had a parallel experience?


John Cowan said...

I take it that is meant to be a baby gamma, ɤ, rather than a plain gamma, ɣ in IPA? I find it difficult to believe in a dialectal opposition between a mid-open front vowel and a voiced velar fricative!

As soon as I saw the word "igli" I immediately thought of Peanuts, where Linus says "one igloo, two igli".

Lameen Souag الأمين سواق said...

Other way around - I was using the Kabyle orthography there, in which "ɛ" = Arabic ع = IPA ʕ.

David Marjanović said...

(And I bet γ is uvular rather than velar, but I don't know.)

Lameen Souag الأمين سواق said...

You would win that bet.

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

It's so typical .. this kind of Berber language fights tinted with a little bit of ideology, religion, and inferiority complex towards "superior" foreign cultures (French and Arabic in this case).

You find always one group which gets the beauty and specialness of their mother tongue (Tamazight in this case).. and is pationate about cherishing it, developing it, and making it a part of their daily lives on the streets, in schools, on TV... to fullfill their affaction towards it, and to fulfill themselves and their identity and specialness.

The other group (usually even speaks the language) obviously failed to feel and understand their mother tongue ... they resent its very existence or at least they doubt it..

they have difficulty living with this "barbaric inferior language", believing that they would be happier and wealthier if they spoke their desired tongue.. they aspire "another life" with another "superior language" in order to reproduce a glorious "way of life" of their admired and dreamed society (French, Arab...).. these mother-tongue-relinquishers are prepared to use the simplest excuses to "prove" the obsoleteness of their mother tongue (usually that it is not a language of science and business).. but they easily ignore the fact that their beloved alternative languages (Arabic, French...) are not really thé language of science and technology today.

They can easily do away with Tamazight, but they can't do away with Arabic or French for English!

They are so attached with French or Arabic that they don't care that the importance of English is far superior than that of French in the fields of technology and science.

or that German or Italian might be a better choice for their children than classical (non-spoken) Arabic.

Thus, this "language choice" was never about science and technology, was it?

How many Francophones in Morocco or Algeria have we ever heared advocating the replacement of French by English, for science or technology or economic reasons.. ?


And that's the point.. we defend what we love, no matter what the facts say.

Moubarik Belkasim

Lameen Souag الأمين سواق said...

> we defend what we love, no matter what the facts say.

That's a great one-line summary of the issue. Ultimately, the question is: what do you love enough to keep?

Lameen Souag الأمين سواق said...

But that said, there's a good reason English isn't at issue. A lot of people in the villages want the language that will help them get ahead in Oran or Algiers (or Casablanca or Tunis or wherever); that's the reality that rationalisations about "not the language of science and business" reflect. And in those cities, Arabic (Darja/Fusha) and French are a whole lot more useful than English - Darja because it's the language of the streets, Fusha because for political reasons it's a requirement for a significant number of lower-rank government jobs like teaching, and French partly for foreign trade but mainly because it's the emblematic language of North Africa's "elite", and they sure aren't going to change their speech habits for the benefit of the "masses". Political changes could change the importance of the second two factors, but the first one will always be relevant.

Kellen Parker said...

This sort of battle among the speakers is a common theme in China. I've seen many parents who speak in their local language to adults but only use Mandarin with the children, regardless of age. There's little economic benefit to being able to speak the Shelhas of the world. Pressure from the state to speak the standard comes and goes, but pressure from the parents is often applied fairly consistently depending on the opinions of the individual families.

When studying in Jordan I saw very little social pressure to speak Fus'ha being applied. At least nothing as compared to what I see in China.

Cemmust said...

Kellen Parker, that's simply because Fus'ha Arabic (Written Arabic) is nobody's mother tongue anywhere in the world. It's a mainly written language that is pronounced only in formal speeches and by TV anchors.

So Arab governments don't even bother to force people to speak Fu'sha Arabic, because it's unthinkable.

Arabs in West Asia speak the dialects (that spun off Quraysh's Classical Arabic), and today they learn Fu'sha only at school.