Sunday, 8 June 2014

The Tamazight Question and Bloody Hell

The High Commission for Amazigh identity*  is currently holding a three day conference, started on 7 June, to review the situation of Tamazight in the public sphere, specifically in the media, and generally in terms of communication in Tamazight.

The very formal opening (with the Minister of Communication Hamid Grine, the HCA's High Secretary, police, a stand up ovation for Qassaman and a two-hour lunch) began on a frontal political footing (in my opinion not necessarily welcome for a conference based on science and research, away from emotion) and on a two-fold demand or the reiteration of one: 1) the officialisation of Tamazight 2) making Tamazight tuition in school (primary and secondary) obligatory.

1) The officialisation of Tamazight

No definition of what officalisation means in concrete terms was given. Maybe everybody in the audience knew what this is expected to involve except me. Still, it was spoken about, in an emotional way, invoking officialisation as a gesture of 'reconciliation' that a government otherwise seen as illegitimate should make, and that, once adopted, will "work like magic" on every other endeavour. This, it was said, would naturally lead to the safekeeping of Amazigh culture and the tuition of Tamazight. How? Well, no one knows, it's magic.

What is Tamazight? Hamid Grine pointed out that several languages are concerned when "Tamazight" is spoken of, he counted 8 - another conference speaker added that we could easily double the figure if we wanted to be precise about the number of Berber languages spoken in Algeria. Tamazight, this collective-noun-made-entity, exists and existed, but speaking of Tamazight in this 'collective' way blurs the vision of what is really going on.

Tamazight is taught in primary and secondary school as well as university. It does not mean that 8 Berber languages are taught at school - whether we take 8 as a representative number - nor even that one Berber language over the other 7 is taught at school. It means that a form of Berber was agreed upon (reminding one of Eucumenism), a form that took its inspiration from the Berber languages present in Algeria, essentially, a form engineered to recuperate a supposed authentic former (pure?) stage of Berber, but which is at the same time modern enough to contain vocabulary and grammar still in use, or not long gone, a salty mix made of one or another Berber language. At this hour, I do not know 1) how this school-aimed Tamazight was worked out, 2) what is taught at university, 2) nor who decided upon what Tamazight should constitute - if it was an amalgamation of a current form - i.e. born out of a synchronic consideration, or a recuperation of an actual historical stage of the language, i.e. born out of a diachronic consideration. I'll write about this in another post.  Questioning what is meant by Tamazight and what constitute the Tamazight taught at school is to pose the question : what are we doing and with what tools?  

2) The Script Palava

Books on Tamazight (grammars, dictionaries bearing a subscript specifying "Kabyle" or "Chaoui" as far as I've found) and in "Tamazight" with the same subscript (such as a collection of poems I have in Tumzabt (Mozabite) called "Amazigh Poetry", or with a straightforward presentation of what 'Tamazight' is involved: for instance Slimane Azem's poetry in Kabyle and marked as such, a children's story book in Figuig (a small Berber region 400 km south of Oujda), etc. 

All these books are written using the Latin script whose letters are reworked to bear marks indicating a near enough sound to the original French Eldorado Latin letter. In some primary Tamazight schoolbooks, Tamazight is written with Arabic letters and I suspect some books are written in Tamazight using the Arabic script, I've so far seen none.

A script is a set of graphemes (marks) used to record a language. A script can be alphabetic, syllabic, it can be logographic, pictographic, it can be a bit or a mix of all of this. It records information and will transfer information, speech as well as ideas, but its basic function is not that of representing sound faithfully. 

The common factor of the scripts I know (Akkadian, Sumerian, Ugaritic, Ethiopic, and soon Libyque and Tifinagh not to mention the Latin-inspired letters used here) is that their functioning is a support to the morphology of a language.  The decision of what script to use should not be based on what script represent best the sound of 'Tamazight' but what works best as support to and carrier of the language.  By this I mean that tweaking a foreign alphabet to ship-shape it into a faithful or near enough faithful carrier of sound is not enough to make an appropriate frame for Tamazights.

HCA members did not consider that though, their main concern was the flow to the eye, what looks less painful to the eye (such as: dashes are ugly and interrupt reading) and so they naturally incline towards using the Latin script and will recommend that Latin is adopted as the script for Tamazight (this further poses the question of how will morphemes be detached and who will decide, or who has already decided and on what grounds).

This Latin-preference will make for a future recommendation, biased in so far as most HCA members and representatives are francophiles and are used to seeing and reading Latin letters. The same members are also Arabic script-haters (a script stigmatised because the language is associated to a violent political decision (Arabisation) and has been since equated to a nameless religious and practicing devil with a beard). This recommendation will thus lead to the Tifinagh script being abandoned or at best neglected, while it is ironically Tamazight's native original script, a Tamazight they say they want to save together with the cultural heritage it comes with. 

Should we really choose what script to use when we have one already?

Tifinagh is a consonantal alphabet, its shape was simplified and vowels were added to make up what is called Neo-Tifinagh. Neo-Tifinagh is taught in first year Tamazight (in Kabylie at least) then abandonned from the second year for a Latin script reworked, while out in the streets Neo-Tifinagh is used in administration as far as public signs (road and building) are concerned. 

The reasons advanced by HCA members for not using Tifinagh are that :

1) it is a difficult script to learn. But there are 27 signs in Neo-Tifinagh. Tamazight is like Arabic in that a phoneme corresponds to a grapheme. While in the French alphabet there are 26 letters, with a large combination of letters that will result in a different sound because of a wider phonemic/phonetic variety. What you hear is not what you write basically. So on that basis, what is indeed hardest?

2) it is antiquated and looks weird. But Tifinagh is not dead! It is still used by the Touareg and its use was not interrupted in 2,200 or so millennia. Are the Touareg consulted about this Latin favoritism?

3) the world won't read us... apparently. By the world, of course France is meant. But the world already doesn't give a hoot about us, and why should we care first about them. What is this obsession with an audience that is always 'elsewhere', far away, and not in front of us, simply us.

I am not in favour of using the Arabic script on a technical consideration. In Arabic, certain letters do not connect and this does not suit word morphology. For example, waw doesn't connect, the writing of a Tamazight word containing waw in its middle will appear truncated. Add to this the fact that some letters also need to be fiddled with to obtain a suitable number of graphemes and you end up with soup. I am in favour of using Tifinagh, and of producing in Tifinagh because it is natural and already there.   

3) Making Tamazight obligatory

One of the HCA's demand is and will continue to be making Tamazight tuition at primary and secondary school obligatory.  

This claim is dumbfounding in two ways:

- Firstly, the immediate problem isn't with the teaching of Tamazight, for which there is no corpus to teach from incidentally. The problem for children and later young adults is to speak one language at home and in the street with friends (and this applies to Derja also) while they are forced to read in another language (French) and forced to compose in another language (Arabic). What should be demanded, and was demanded at some stage, is harmony. Harmony between speech, thoughts and production. The only way to keep a language alive is to keep it in the public sphere, to expose it to daily dealings as well as scholarly ones and thereby enrich it. As far as school is concerned, a language should be optional on the curriculum, not an obligation, some kids like languages, some prefer maths, this is the kind of respect we should aim for. This obsession with obligation tastes like dictatorship.

- Secondly, take away choice and make a topic obligatory and you've found the best way of killing off any interest in and pursuit of that subject. This will ensure that very few students, who are already few as it is, will pursue higher studies in Tamazight at university, ie. scholarship will die and so will private, individual participation to the Tamazight question.

Way to go.

We are at a sensitive stage in the way we move forward with regard to education in Algeria, and with regard to sorting out this pluri-language situation in the country. We are also at a crucial stage as regards to deciding how to move forward with Tamazight.

When those who ask for an Academy, a central body that will control decisions on language (more mimetism with dictatorship and France) and at the same time put forward all the wrong questions, they are making sure we are heading, not for the wall, but the cliff. And there won't be a come back from beyond that jump into thin air. We will become just that, thin air.

* Le Haut Commissariat à l'Amazighité 

I was present to the first day of this conference, and I must add that in all this malarchey, panelists' presentations and discussions were very interesting and enriching. It is the fundamental questions that were side stepped as an excellent panelist from Oran pointed out.


Lameen Souag الأمين سواق said...

None of this discourse will make any sense unless the economic dimension is taken into account (recall Gellner). The existing bureaucracy creates lots of jobs for fluent speakers of French and, to a lesser extent, Standard Arabic, but only a tiny handful of jobs for fluent speakers of "modernised" Tamazight. Obligatory Tamazight teaching would mean a much larger number of new jobs for Tamazight graduates. Officialisation, if it means anything at all, would mean requiring the State to provide certain services in Tamazight – ie more jobs. Moreover, the resentment of all those students who had done well in Tamazight at school then not found a job would in turn strengthen the lobbying position of those demanding more official use of Tamazight, just like what happened with Arabic in the 1980s.

To anyone growing up in the English-speaking world, it seems natural and obvious that people should be able to live their lives more or less monolingually, studying and working in the language they speak at home. To someone growing up in Algeria, that's barely even conceivable, and it's certainly not on any significant movement's agenda.

Nadia Ghanem said...

Hello Lameen!

Yes indeed, the very important question of economics isn't addressed.

Do you think that a formal, official multi-lingual situation in Algeria isn't possible?

Lameen Souag الأمين سواق said...

A formal, official multi-lingual situation in Algeria is not only possible but very probable. But any such politically possible scenario will increase diglossia, not decrease it, and will do nothing to address the problem that a lot of the government still operates in French.

Nadia Ghanem said...

Am not sure that it will increase diglossia as much as officially stabilise it, as it were. This diglossic situation could be so positive if it was dealt with.