A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Lameen Souag vs. Wikileaks on "Algeria's Language Crisis"

Less than two weeks ago I was delighted to note that the Algerian SOAS linguist Lameen Souag, who studies Berber and Saharan African linguistics, had returned from a hiatus (including getting married, apparently) to return to his blog Jabal al-Lughat (Arabic for "the mountain of languages"). As it happens, I'm linking to him yet again.

Scholars, bloggers, and the just plain curious have been struggling to cope with the mountain of document dumps Wikileaks dumped because its password protection had been compromised. The people who have time to comb through this stuff have a lot more time on their hands than I do, so I hope to always credit them when I use something they've found. He's noted a Wikileaks cable from the US Embassy in Algiers, dated 2008, entitled "Trilingual Illiterates: Algeria's Language Crisis."

He has done a careful deconstruction of the cable, which deserves your close attention, since the cable itself seems based on misinformation and misconceptions.

Regular readers know I'm interested in language issues in our region, in Arabic itself and the whole issue of diglossia, the distinction between spoken Arabic dialects and the literary/written language; as well as minority languages, such as the Tamazight spoken by the North African Berber population. So this memo is irresistible to me, but unlike Lameen Souag, who's an Algerian linguist, I've never even  set foot in Algeria. Nor do I want to pile on in criticizing American diplomats' linguistic naivete: a very old friend of mine whose Arabic, in classical and multiple dialects, is superb and who also can speak in scholarly terms about comparative Semitics (now his main focus in retirement), once served as Public Affairs Officer at the US Embassy in Algeria. Not, however, as late as 2008; the linguistic generalizations in this memo suggest a rather superficial understanding he would never have conveyed.

First, read the memo linked above; then, read Lameen Souag's excellent deconstruction. What follows are my own thoughts: again, I've never even visited the country, though there are similar issues in Morocco and Tunisia, which I know.

I was struck by this:
Algeria's language crisis is unique in the Arab world, given the country's turbulent history and the existence of an entire generation fluent only in a linguistic collage known as "Algerian." Diplomats coming to Algeria after serving elsewhere in the region are amazed that Algerians rarely finish a sentence in the same language they started it in. 
As Lameen notes, this is not only an issue in most of the Francophone Arab world (I once heard a Lebanese get three languages into four words — "Pourquois are you za‘lan?" — but that's hardly news); it also profoundly misunderstands what "Algerian," apparently meaning the spoken language of daily life, actually is. Assuming he means darja, spoken Algerian, it is no more a "collage" than spoken Egyptian, or Moroccan, or Iraqi, or (perhaps most relevant), Lebanese. As Lameen notes:
The idea that Darja is "useless" I already addressed above: how can the primary language you need for everyday life almost everywhere in the country be dismissed as "useless"! Darja itself, in general, is not a particularly mixed language: it's a coherent Arabic dialect with an unusual number of words taken from French, but with its grammar essentially unchanged from the dialect of Arabic already spoken in Algeria before the French arrived. If it's a "linguistic collage", what are we to say of English, more than half of whose vocabulary derives from French or Latin?

However, there are some parts of Algeria - mainly Algiers and its surroundings - where many people commonly practise code-switching and code-mixing, ie the incorporation of whole phrases and sentences from French into a conversation whose main language is Darja. I personally find this practice irritating, and inconsiderate when directed towards strangers: you can usually take it for granted that another Algerian will be fluent in Darja, but many Algerians speak French haltingly or not at all, and peppering your speech with French phrases tends to make them feel unwelcome. But it's certainly not "useless" from an educational perspective; to the contrary, it causes Algerois who would otherwise have little occasion to use French to maintain a fairly high level of conversational fluency in it, and keeps them in practice. Nor is it "useless" from a practical perspective: being able to comprehend this mix is a fairly essential skill in Algiers, as important in commercial contexts as in social encounters. And, in my experience, the most persistent language-mixers aren't the uneducated at all: they're the ones who speak the best French, and either find it easier to express some thoughts in French or want to make very sure you don't take them for country bumpkins. It's also worth emphasising that code-switching isn't some kind of uniquely Algerian pathology: it happens in almost every genuinely bilingual society, all over the world.

Adding to the seeming lack of understanding of the role of colloquial Arabic (darja or darija in North Africa; lahja or ‘amiyya farther east) is the cable's conclusion: the need to teach everybody English. The Maghreb as a whole would open new vistas for business an tourism, but is adding a "fourth" language the real solution to "trilingual illiterates"?

And I must comment on this passage in the cable:
Over an iftar dinner at the Ambassador's residence towards the end of Ramadan, several Algerian business representatives lamented what they called the "lost generation" of Algerian workers, who are left out largely because of their inability to function at a professional level in any single language. Ameziane Ait Ahcene, Northrup Grumman's deputy director for Algeria, complained that he had to recruit in francophone Europe to find skilled accountants and engineers who were fluent in spoken and written French.
My first note is that a US diplomat seems (unless the typo is Wikileaks') to not know how to spell Northrop Grumman.

My second is to note that, 1) of course, the business community is going to want better French, even in a country like Tunisia that hasn't downplayed its role so much; and 2) "Ameziane Ait Ahcene" might strike even a non-Arabist as not looking very Arabic. That's because all three parts of the name are Berber. (Though I think Ahcene may be related to Ihsan.) And Berbers have always resisted the Arabization program and clung to French. As I've noted multiple times, I've never set foot in Algeria and I knew that immediately. Did the author of this cable?

1 comment:

homesicksoul said...

I do not see any language crisis at all. It is a normal natural linguistic process. language, when fossilized, is dead. It needs to change and to fit and embrace its context to be alive. Algerian dialect is the best possible language the algerians could ever have to voice who they are. As a matter of instance, relexification, being the most common linguistic form of language adaptation and appropriation in algeria, is the deepest and most precise way to carry Algerians' current experience. a relexified french word is more powerful and evocative than its standard correct neat counterpart. though we may have a perfect mastery of french, french will always remain hollow for us because it does not speak for us because it is the product of another experience. only something local and tuned with the current situation could be expressive. Plus, why should any dialect be any less? or inferior just because it does not conform to the standards of the dominant languages. some languages do not have vocabulary at all like dilbo gomero and they are still languages and some others have poor vocabulary but depend more on their intonation to differentiate the meaning. Not to mention latin and its language varieties, but Every language, known to be a language today, used to be a dialect at some point in history. heterogenious experience and its resulting hybridity are part of human nature ever since the creation of the world. The process of creolization is not only found in algeria but everywhere and with every language and not only due to colonial experiences. French people themselves, though they do not live in a bilingual context, they find their language invaded by english vocabulary today because there are no french words in stock for what is new. and in their case it is a real collage because they do not appropriate the words the way algerians first done with arabic and then with french (first there was a berberization of arabic and then algerianization of french). [not to mention other mediterranean influences] We speak languages not ours but we appropriate them and personalize them and the berber spirit survives. Personally at the surface level i don't speak berber but my thoughts, my grammar, my syntax, my phonetics, and a consequent percentage of my vocabulary is dictated by a berber spirit. It is a language I long for and I am sure it would be the most natural thing for me to speak it one day. I feel very familiar with that language i do not speak yet.