Friday, April 01, 2011

Tunisian Berber and language shift

It is not that easy to find information on Tunisian Berber, so I was quite happy to come across this PhD thesis free online: Berber ethnicity and language shift in Tunisia, by Hamza Belgacem. The author, himself from Douiret, estimates that only about 60,000 Tunisians still speak Berber, and the number is dropping as their children grow up speaking Arabic. He calls the surviving varieties Douiri, Cheninnaoui, Djerbi and Matmati, and argues that they together form a single Tunisian Berber "dialect" on a par with Kabyle or Tashelhiyt. (However, he offers no opinion on whether the extinct variety of Sened belongs with the rest, and forms this opinion on the basis of comparison to Kabyle and Moroccan varieties, but not Tumzabt or Chaoui or other geographically closer varieties.) This Berber community of southern Tunisia represent the remnants of a mostly Arabised tribal confederation, the Ouerghemma, which controlled much of southern Tunisia and parts of what became northwestern Libya until the French conquest.

He paints an interesting picture of a small minority language under the impact of modernity. Traditionally, the language was preserved by a number of factors tying the community together and excluding outsiders. The women of each community would marry only within it - not just among the Ibadis, but within the Maliki villages as well (as formerly in Siwa.) Some testimonies suggest that land was not sold to outsiders (a claim I also heard about Berber-speaking villages around Bechar.) Such ties are being loosened by modernity, as people emigrate and marry out and as the national state has taken on a more active role in the community with compulsory education and mass media. On the other hand, modernity, in the form of international media, also exposes the young to pan-Berber, or at least pro-Berber, ideologies, counteracting the low value placed on it in the national context.

Berber, and more specifically village, identity seems to have been maintained, with emigrants to Tunis maintaining close ties with other emigrants from the same village. But in terms of language, the balance seems to have tipped against Berber throughout Tunisia: "Some children of five years old could not utter a coherent sentence in TuB... Hardly any Tunisian Berbers under 30 speak TuB fluently but they may be able to utter a few words or understand what is said in Berber... hardly anyone under 10 years of age uses or knows TuB except for a few words or expressions", although there reportedly remain "certain clans, where the whole population still speak TuB, including all the children." There are a couple of pithy quotes from interviewees expressing why this happened: "Our language is excellent but it does not put bread on the table", "Our children are reluctant to speak our language outside the home because the other children of Arabophones laugh at them." The author suggests that Berber may survive in Tunisia if attitudes towards Berber continue to grow more positive, but that strikes me as a bit optimistic given his observations - which adds to the urgency of producing a decent description of the language.


Aqemmud' said...

Well, I actually think that this is too late for Berber in Tunisia.

Tiny villager communities could not complete against the national language in such context.
Even if some people regained awareness towards their identity which is not bad for instance at Dwiret or even Jerba.

Are Tunisian dialects closer to Zenati dialects from Libya or to Tacawit ?

And are there some Berber-speakers left along the Algerian border such as Qasserin : I've heard that they were a part of the Lemmouchia confederation too (Ayt Lemmuc) but divided by the colonial borders.

Lameen Souag الأمين سواق said...

They look closer to NE Libyan dialects to me (especially to Zuwara), but they're pretty similar to Chaoui too.

The author never made it to Kasserine, though he did look around in the northwest without finding any Berber speakers except migrants' descendants. It could be interesting to check, but anyone who wanted to study Chaoui would probably have a much easier time on the other side of the border!

Omani Linguist said...

Hi, I just want to say that I think your blog is interesting and informative, so thank you!
It's unfortunate that many languages are dying in many Arab countries. It's even more unfortunate that not many seem to realise it or put an effort to save them.
It's interesting to know that Berber has so many dialects.

Anonymous said...

I am Shawi from eastern Algeria where our language is alive and doing well despite the agressive push of the government to arabise (arabisation) of the area, I can communicate without any defficulties with Berbers from Tunisia, libys and Rif area in Morocco. Berber language is very well spoken in southern Tunisia and the island of Djerba at local community level. Now there is a political movement trying to make our language official in Tunisian constitution and as you can imagine this is facing a stiff resistance from the arabe dominated government.
Whoever thinks that Berber laguage is on the verge of extinction is totally wrong, we survived the brutality of arab rulers for over 1000 years and we are still here.

falija said...

Hi, I can't access the thesis. Could you please provide us with another link? Thanks

Lameen Souag الأمين سواق said...

To download it from the British Library site, you have to register with them first.