Lameen of Jabal al-Lughat (who has finished his dissertation, hurray!) has a new post about Tamazight (Berber) language activism:

To my mind, this is perhaps the single biggest problem of some branches (certainly not all) of the Tamazight movement: they talk about developing Tamazight, but they talk and write and think in French. Tizi-Ouzou’s walls are covered in aza signs (the Tifinagh letter resembling a man that has become a symbol of Amazigh activism), but its shopfronts and signs are covered in French, even though Arabic signs are regularly vandalised. This gives many other Algerians who would otherwise look more favorably on the idea of developing Tamazight the impression that it’s simply a cover for maintaining or extending the (frankly negative) role of French in public life – an impression that is not always false. Personally, I favour a coherent policy: more use of Algeria’s native languages – Arabic and Tamazight – in all spheres of life, and less use of foreign ones except in dealing with foreigners.

He links to a cartoon showing a guy making a fiery speech about the need to preserve Tamazight; unfortunately, the speech is in French, and the audience can’t understand it.


  1. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the use of Tamazight, the oppression of the Berbers, their language and music, and often political leaders, by the Arab leadership of Algeria since independence has, I think, not been widely reported outside France, unfortunately. It is strongly parallel to the Kurdish language problem in Turkey, which has had much more attention.
    It is another of the African continent’s long-standing problems between racial and language groups that, I suggest, throw an unfavourable light on many complaints from that continent about First World attitudes.
    I’m sure readers interested in Africa can cite their own examples.
    (This comment is my own personal opinion and in no way engages the Languagehat website).

  2. In what sense is Arabic but not French native to Algeria?

  3. In a somewhat artificial sense, clearly, but it’s been the native language of more people for a lot longer, so I don’t think it’s too misleading a formulation. Excellent question, though!

  4. In what sense is Arabic but not French native to Algeria?
    In the same sense English is native to Britain or Slavic languages are native to Central Europe, but Russian is not native to Georgia and Chechnya.

  5. My impression of the cartoon and of Lameen’s comments is that the audience understands most of the French, but one person has trouble with the the non-colloquial word “inéluctable” (= fated to happen) (which the speaker pronounces erroneously, as “inélucatable”). It the audience did not understand French at all, they would not be able to single out this word. But the general point is the same: people are being addressed by their compatriots who share the same language, in one that is basically foreign to all of them.
    The situation of Tamazight is similar to that of other endangered languages – people will thunder about the necessity of preserving them, but in the dominant language. One problem is that people who are bilingual but have been schooled in a dominant language, and who therefore remember having a hard time at school, want to spare their children this unhappy experience and therefore use the dominant language when speaking to them – the idea being that the local language is easy, or the children will speak language X naturally just because they are a member of group X, whereas the dominant language is hard and unnatural and children need an early start. This has happened in many places, notably with the regional languages of France and with Gaelic in Scotland and in Nova Scotia (Canada), and with many of the native languages of the Americas, but even where there has not been official pressure, linguistic minorities tend to react in the same way.
    Often the community does not realize there might be a problem until no children are able to speak the local language any more. Usually the adults blame the children and if there is a movement for language revitalization, adults start to tell the children “Speak your own language!”, without themselves speaking that language to the children – or so minimally that the children never have a chance to learn it even if they want to.
    Re Tamazight in particular, I don’t know this language myself but about a year ago I had the opportunity to speak with Tamazight-speaking Moroccan educators about their situation. It seems that in the last few years Morocco has been making an effort to educate Tamazight-speaking children in their language, and also to teach the language to other children as well, so that the whole population will have at least a basic knowledge of Tamazight. The king is supposed to be very supportive of this program, which is growing at a fast pace. I watched a presentation showing some of the materials being designed for school use, with attractive children’s books showing a modern image of Tamazight, in urban as well rural contexts, and also with a mix of boys and girls and of different skin colours, emphasizing that Tamasight is for everyone.
    A few years ago I also met a speaker of Amazight (a variety of the same language) who told me about the lively communication that is taking place nowadays between Amazight-speaking immigrants in France and their relatives back home, who were mostly illiterate in their language and could not write to each other before but now send tape cassettes back and forth. He himself was trying to set up web resources for the Amazight-speaking expatriate community.

  6. It’s pretty common for nationalists to be educated in the language they oppose. Gandhi was successful in his English-language career bfore he returned to India, and a little work could find dozens of examples. There are even cases of cosmopolitan nationalists who were not even fluent in their supposed mother tongue. (The only one I can think of is Liszt, who is not a very good example.)

  7. How recent is it that we can be confident about the languages Great Men spoke? Or how well? Who was the first King of England to speak good English (post-Conquest)? Which languages did Robert the Bruce speak? Could Henry VII of England speak Welsh? Who was the last King of Scots to speak Gaelic? How good was Napoleon’s French? I’m sure your readers must know the answers to some/most of these questions.

  8. I believe the last Scottish king to speak Gaelic was James IV (1488-1513). He also knew Latin, French, Flemish, German, Italian, Danish and a little Spanish (according to Magnus Magnusson’s popular history of Scotland). Plus Scots/English of course.

  9. “Who was the first King of England to speak good English (post-Conquest)?” I have a feeling this was Richard II. He certainly encouraged Chaucer & Co..Don’t know if Henry Tudor spoke Welsh. I suspect not. His Welshness was exaggerated (he was only one-quarter “Cambro-Briton”). Another question: he spent around 14 years (or more?) in exile in Brittany – did he pick up any Breton there? Apparently, Nabulione Buonaparte’s French wasn’t up to much when he arrived at military school. Don’t know how much it subsequently improved. According to Robert Conquest (IIRC) Stalin’s command of Russian was also somewhat lacking.

  10. According to Wikipedia: “We can presume that [Robert] Bruce was raised speaking all the languages of his lineage and nation and was almost certainly fluent in Gaelic and Norman French, with Latin. Although there is no direct evidence, it is perfectly plausible that he also knew English.”

  11. Update: according to this:”[Napoleon’s] first language was Italian, he spoke French with a heavy accent and never learned to write it properly.”
    Shame Hollywood never made a Napoleon biopic starring Chico Marx.

  12. Siganus Sutor says

    The New Yorker, you mentioned Gandhi but the case of Jinnah isn’t bad either. The founder of Pakistan wanted a separate country for the Muslims of India while being himself an alcohol drinker and a pork eater who could barely say a few words in Urdu.

  13. Thanks, JC.

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