A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Friday, September 4, 2009

BBC Piece on Tamazight

An interesting BBC feature on Tamazight-learning in Morocco. The article refers to the language as "Amazigh" and I'm a mere ignorant Arabist, but I thought that was the name for an individual (Amazighen or Imazighen as the plural and Tamazight as the language). Anyway, a useful contribution to the minority languages theme. My Algerian and Moroccan readers often jump in to correct my ignorance, and I welcome them if they do so again.

[UPDATED: Thank The Moor Next Door for the link to this fierce critique of the BBC post by the ‘Aqoul blog. Even Later Update: Lameen Souag, mentioned below, responds to the same BBC post. Read these posts, and the comments thereto, since these people actually know what they're talking about. When it comes to Berber, I'm repeating things I've heard or read.]

On a related subject, the Algerian blogger who blogs at Jabal al-Lughat and studies linguistics at SOAS, Lameen Souag, has done a number of posts on the (now vanished) Nile Valley Berber of Upper Egypt: here and here; though I rather doubt that serious scholars of Berber linguistics don't already know about these links, and wonder whether anyone else cares. I find it interesting, and it's my blog. What else can I say? It's my party and I'll post if I want to.

Berber is still spoken in Egypt, by the way, in the Siwi dialect spoken in the Siwa oasis. Here's a Souag post on Siwi, and the stubbiest of stubs at Wikipedia. Ethnologue isn't much better.

My impression — underscore impression — is that outside of Algeria and Morocco (and perhaps Mauritania and the Sahelian states with big Touareg populations) Berber language speakers are just too minor: Djerba and a few minor enclaves in Tunisia, Jabal Nafusa and a few other spots in Libya, Siwa in Egypt: these are historical artifacts, not significant linguistic minorities, or are viewed that way by their central governments. Morocco and Algeria are entirely different cases. There the language has been thriving in reaction to the Arabization campaigns that followed independence (which, intended to reduce the influence of French, often ended up limiting Tamazight).

Enough. If I say much more The Moor Next Door or some other seriously knowledgeable Maghrebis are going to come correcting me again, as they often do when I venture into Maghrebi minority affairs, and I just wanted to point to an article. But, of course, people who actually know this subject are more than welcome to comment.


Anonymous said...

You're certainly correct that the numbers of Berbers outside of Algeria and Morocco are too small to be considered significant by their governments, there is something beside that at work, particularly in Tunisia and Libya: active Arabization that took place very soon after independence and did all but to entirely wipe out the language there. In Tunisia, social stigmas and education policies destroyed the south western dialect (which is close to Algerian Chaouia). Nowadays you meet many Tunisians who say their grandparents "were Berber" or spoke Berber but they consider themselves Arabs and know next to nothing about Berber language. In Libya, Qadhafi has been very aggressive in dispersing Berber communities so that they cannot speak it together. Because those communities were small in the first place, this is quite devastating. The communities left in tact are remote and small, shells of what they used to be. 40 years of Qadhafi, 40 less years of Berber.

Aqoul has a good post on this same article, though he critiques it rather harshly. The comments are worth reading as well as they speak to the popular perceptions of the Moroccan government's Berber language policy.


Anonymous said...


Here's the Aqoul link I mentioned earlier.

Michael Collins Dunn said...

The great thing about comments are that the commenters often know the subject a lot better than the blogger. Thanks as always.

The Lounsbury said...

Regarding your question /obs in passing on Amazigh, the Berber activist community has been pushing the term as a replacement for Berber, on the grounds that the etymology of Berber comes from Greek for Barbarian....

I find that a silly argument as no lay person would even realise that were it not pointed out. But whatever, no great harm, just a trifle silly and special.

The only problem is in my experience a good number of Chleuh see Amazigh as referring to the Central Atlas Amazigh people, while they are Ichelhine... so why go by the other guy's name? Rather along the same lines as the "standard berber" being pimped... or the oddly precious adoption of the Neo Tifinagh (I don't believe that Moroccan Berbers are recorded as ever actually using Tifinagh, but they did adapt Arabic script to Tachelhite).

xoussef said...

I just would like to point out that if there is a distinction between Berber and barbare(fr)/Barbarian(En), the word for berber in Arabic is indeed barbari, a homonym (synonym?)of barbari, barbarian. Sure, the plural for one is barbar and the other barabirah, but it doesn't help much. I have a notion that the usage of the two was interchangeable up to some point, the distinction being quite recent, but not sure of this.
So no, it's not quite as silly from the point of view of an Amazigh who is certainly arabophone to some estent as well, striving for recognition from a mostly arabophone community, not english, not french.