Saturday, March 16, 2013

Ethnologue update comments

Ethnologue recently announced an update. Since, at least online, they are the easiest to find and hence most commonly cited authority on worldwide language distribution, this merits some comment. They've made some improvements in North Africa, including a much prettier map. However, there still remain a fair number of errors. This is perhaps natural given that SIL, which produces Ethnologue, is basically a Christian missionary organisation and as such is unwelcome in a number of countries. (Why is there no neutral source doing something comparable, one might ask? UNESCO has attempted a language endangerment atlas, but sadly that one is both less complete and far less reliable.) However, quite a few errors could have been avoided simply by closer attention to sources.

In Algeria, they've updated the Korandjé entry with my population estimate and endangerment classification, and corrected the Tashelhiyt one based on my thesis - although they apparently couldn't be bothered to cite the source of this estimate! They've reclassified the Berber dialects of the Southwest (Boussemghoun, Igli, etc.) as Taznatit, along with the Berber of Timimoun; in previous editions, the former were classed as part of Moroccan Tashelhiyt. The new classification is rather more tenable than the old one, at any rate; the former dialects are not called "Taznatit" by their speakers, but they are rather closely related to it, and are not at all closely related to Moroccan Tashelhiyt.

There are still a fair number of errors, though: the Tarifit of Arzew became extinct a century ago (and there is no such place as "Alteria"); "Tamazight de l’Atlas blidéen" is rather more like Kabyle than like Chenoua, and is missing from their map; the boundaries they give for Kabyle are rather inflated, annexing the Arabic-speaking areas of the Boumerdes coast to the west and half of Jijel in the east; the enormous circle they draw for Teggargarent contrasts oddly with the tiny ones they draw for Korandjé and Temacine Tamazight, which in reality occupy comparable areas (perhaps this was to take into account Ngouça, but the latter oasis is even smaller than Ouargla); Hassaniyya Arabic is still missing even though it's the primary language of Tindouf; and the curiously precise boundaries they give for "Saharan Arabic" leave me baffled as to what this "language" is supposed to be. The "Algerian Arabic" dialect of Jijel or Skikda is far more different from the Algiers koine than the "Algerian Saharan Arabic" I heard in Bechar or Timimoun or Abadla; perhaps the dialect further east is more different, but the boundaries shown are indefensible. They also seem to have misunderstood the constitutional amendment: it's Tamazight in general that is legally a national language now, although it's admittedly Kabyle that benefits the most in practice.

In Morocco, they've belatedly figured out that Ghomara and Senhaja are still spoken - for the past several editions they've been labelled extinct - but according to the entry French has no presence in the Moroccan linguistic landscape, unlike Algeria or Tunisia. For Egypt, their map ignores Gara (the other oasis where Siwi is spoken), and their population figures for Siwi are extremely optimistic. For Libya, their map (unlike their text) ignores Zuwara, while grossly inflating Ghadames and Sokna (especially in contrast to Siwi, which actually occupies a much larger oasis). For Mauritania, they still include the apocryphal Imraguen "language", whose reported existence Catherine Taine-Cheikh deconstructs in a forthcoming article, and their population figures of Zenaga are mutually inconsistent bad guesses which should have been updated based on the introduction to the latter's Dictionnaire zénaga-français.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Review: La question linguistique en Algérie

I just finished reading Benmayouf's (2009) La question linguistique en Algérie. It was... interesting.

The narrative this book presents is easy to summarise, although when stated baldly it verges on self-parody: By 1930 or so, Standard Arabic had practically vanished from Algerian life, apart from the Friday sermon. At independence, most literate Algerians were literate in French; but, tragically though inevitably, the revolutionary government opted to make Standard Arabic the official language, and tried to Arabise the educational system. The beleaguered Francophones found their job security threatened and their students demotivated, and the level of French spoken in the country dropped lower and lower. The new generation, having been deprived of the salutary effects of French culture and brought up to hate everything foreign, became Islamists and terrorists, leading to the civil war of the 1990s. "The individual produced by the Algerian school is a rigid being with no value but Islam, radically opposed to his open-minded father nourished by French school." (p. 76!) But after 1988, the government gradually woke up to the political and economic dangers of Arabisation, and started expanding the use of French; meanwhile, the satellite dish enabled millions of ordinary Algerians to watch French media. Apart from a few dangerous attacks on the position of French – such as the introduction of English as a third language in schools – the future is now bright, under the leadership of our "enlightened" president (p. 108). Eventually, she hopes (p. 118), Standard Arabic will be limited to the role of a liturgical language, while French comes to occupy an even more important place than it does today, and Algerian Arabic gets recognised as the language that binds the nation together. But it's French which is crucial: it not only "satisfies a need for modernity that none of the local languages can handle" but constitutes "a maquis in which resistance develops to every form of constraint, oppression or denial." (p. 98)

This view, of course, ignores a long history of Standard Arabic in Algeria – the zaouias' continued presence even after the French confiscated most of their land, the manuscripts and imported books of my grandfather's generation, the excellent work of Ben Badis and the Association of Ulema starting in 1931, the expanding ranks of Arabophone intellectuals and writers since independence (tellingly, she finds time to mention Jean Amrouche but not Ahlam Mostaganemi), and even the satellite dishes tuned to Arabic channels. If Francophone professors and officials have felt threatened by institutional Arabisation, their extremely successful efforts to hold it back in turn denied (and deny) positions to the much more numerous Arabophone graduates. The social tensions caused by this did help set the stage for the violence of the 1990s, but that can hardly be blamed on Arabic, let alone caricatured in the terms above.

As for her vision of the future, I would consider it close to a worst-case scenario. Her tactical and qualified support for Algerian Arabic does not entail actually using it for anything important; while rather hostile to Standard Arabic as a medium for university education, she takes it for granted that French is appropriate in that context, and indeed is the perfect vehicle for anything related to modernity. But, frankly, I do not want a French-language-mediated "transfer of modernity from the north shore to the south shore of the Mediterranean" (p. 118); I want an Algeria with the self-confidence and self-awareness to learn from a variety of examples and choose its own path, not mechanically follow in France's footsteps. Nor do I believe that relegating "modernity" to a foreign language is likely to help Algeria achieve it!

Nonetheless, I'm glad I read the book. It's fascinating – if sad – to discover that there exists an Algerian intellectual prepared to take a position this extreme in favour specifically of French; I don't believe I've ever met one. Could one find a corresponding phenomenon in France, I wonder – some professor eagerly advocating for more English in the bureaucracy and the universities, and condemning supporters of French as narrow-minded nationalists? It's difficult to imagine... But what this book mainly leaves me wondering, to be frank, is: why on earth does the author feel this way? And that points the way towards a more anthropologically oriented book that I really would like to see. A person's feelings towards a language are shaped by memories – a mother's voice or a teacher's scolding, a story you couldn't put down or a tedious manual, a group that you hung out with or couldn't stand. To really understand the wide variation in Algerian language attitudes, we need to go beyond the political history and into experiences of learning and living the languages.

Friday, March 08, 2013

The language of academia: Algeria and France

I work in France now. When I give an internal lecture, I normally do it in French - poor French, to be sure, but French. If I attend a local conference, I can usually assume that at least some of the presentations will be in French. The handful of classes I've taught here, I taught in French. Needless to say, all the internal paperwork (of which, thankfully, there isn't that much) is written in French, and I am expected to fill it out in the same language. This is not particularly convenient for me, but I expect it and approve of it. Most French academics have to speak English to be able to do their jobs well, of course. But if they shifted to using English in all contexts and relegated French to informal conversation in coffee breaks, then French academia, while it would be more hospitable to Anglo-Saxon academics, would become far less hospitable to its own citizens, who after all are the ones paying for it!

This experience is one reason why I feel very little sympathy towards complaints of the following type about Algerian academia:

"[W]e have come to a point where Arabisation is used as a means to exclude Francophones from the management of the country's affairs, with an eye towards expelling them from their posts, as seems to be the case at the university level. [T]he requirement for occupying a position of responsibility is no longer ability, but mastery of the literary language. Events such as the following confirm this state of affairs: during the strike that affected the University of Constantine in December 1988, among the demands made was a demand to replace the Chancellor and his team, bilingual, with Arabophones. [A]. Debbih [r]ecalls that already in 1975 'a movement brandished the slogan "Arabisation + Bread"... In this strategy there appear the signs of a real takeover: posts would go not to those who merit them, but to those who use Arabic, the "language of authenticity", the "language of the people".'" (Benmayouf 2009:67; my translation)

Let's shift perspectives for a second. Since 1988, the large majority of every new year's crop of university students has gone through their whole prior education being taught in Arabic, whether you approve of that or not. This was expected since well before 1988, so there was plenty of time to prepare for it; in fact, the policy of Arabising education had been consistently proclaimed since before independence, and has enjoyed widespread popular support in most parts of the country. A primary job of a university professor is to teach these students. Under the circumstances, is it really plausible to suggest that knowledge of Arabic is just an irrelevant distraction from academic ability? Yet, not just in 1988 but now, 25 years later, at least half the subjects on offer are still being taught in French. How would an ordinary English-speaking freshman - even one who had studied German in high school - react if he heard that all national universities' courses in medicine were henceforth to be taught in German?

References Benmayouf, Chafia Yamina. 2009. La question linguistique en Algérie : enjeux et perspectives. Biarritz: Séguier.