Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Berber Identity: Then and Now

by Erik Lubben

Afroasiatic Languages
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Here is an interesting case of language activism that comes to us from Salem Shaker, professor and specialist of Berber at INALCO, Institut National des Languages et Civilisations Orientales, France, in his article "Berber, a 'Long-Forgotten' Language of France." Hopeless to see all efforts of language revitalization go to waste, Berber language activist move to France in the second half of the 20th century and establish many centers of Berber language and culture centers in Paris and other parts of the country. This leads to the curious fact since the end of the French-Algerian war, 1962, “the majority of the production in or regarding the Berber language was carried out in France.” (Shaker 5). Grammars, dictionaries, scholarly publications… Paris becomes the center of corpus planning for Berber, an Afro-asiatic language with many distinct dialects spoken in North Africa.

Even though these Berber language centers appear in much of France and large Berber-speaking migrant communities have been living in France since the 1950s, the Berber language is not widely accepted as a language “of” France, as defined by Bernard Cerquiglini’s famous report on the many regional and minority Languages of France. This is due, in part, to the public perception of immigrants from North Africa. They are oftentimes seen as ‘migrant workers’ rather than legitimate ‘immigrants.’ Many view them as only being a temporary that will not have any permanent part in a future France. And so their language and culture are not important enough in the long term to spend any amount of time or effort on. The government cannot often take this stance, as they have already granted citizenship to a huge amount of these ‘migrant workers.’ However, even though the government often readily accepts them as citizens, it requires (albeit in a subtle way) that they eliminate any visible or audible traces of their ‘external origin.’ (Shaker 9)

Berber Language Activists
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The idea of Berber identity, like Basque identity, is directly tied to the language that one speaks. The rest of the culture comes after, but to truly access it you must first speak the language. Because of this principle, Berber identity has been under attack since nomadic Arab populations arrived in the 11th century. Later, more aggressive Arab invaders would arrive to lay claim to many regions of Berber speaking North Africa. Along with their culture, they brought their language and enforced it upon much of the population. As Chaker states, “In the Maghrib, the dominating (and official) Arab-Islamist ideology is globally hostile to the Berber language, the mere existence of which was perceived as a danger to national unity. The linguistic and cultural policy implemented after independence was that of Arabization, aiming to eradicate at the same time the French language … and Berber, the language of a “bothersome” minority.” (Shaker 3).

The past few decades in the Maghrib have seen the softening of government attitudes towards Berber languages. After independence, Niger and Mali made Tuareg a “national language.” Algeria and Morocco have unofficially given ground to many domestic language activists by allowing Berber languages to be taught in schools, as well as establishing language departments in several universities. According to Shaker, however, these acts are more or less symbolic, and “remain marginal and without a real effect on the linguistic and cultural policies or on the predominant sociolinguistic trends.” (Shaker 3). Interestingly enough, both countries refuse to recognize the Berber population as ethnolinguistic minorities. This prevents them from being protected, even if symbolically, by many “international judicial texts regarding the rights of minority linguistic and cultural groups.” (Shaker 3). The language and effect of these policies ring familiar to anyone that has studied language policy. And, perhaps, it is no coincidence that they sound like the policies of the French since they were both former colonies of the nation.
Algerian sign in Arabic, Kabyle (written in Tifinagh), and French
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Berber speakers from the Maghrib were the first immigrants to arrive in France in the first waves post-
WWII, as well as the first waves after decolonization efforts began. Efforts to accurately track the number of Berber speakers have been incredibly difficult for various reasons. In particular is the fact that immigrants are never asked what their native language is. This leads to a homogenization of the immigrants arriving from a certain country, and harms language policy efforts. These efforts are extremely important in the modern era because there are an estimated 1,500,000 Berber speakers in France, of which a clear majority have citizenship. (Shaker 5).

Broeder, Peter, and Guus Extra. Language, Ethnicity, and Education: Case Studies on Immigrant Minority Groups and Immigrant Minority Languages. Clevedon, UK: Multilingual Matters, 1999. Ebsco. Web.

Chaker, Salem. Berber, a "Long-Forgotten" Language of France. INALCO, n.d. Web.

The author of this blog entry is Erik Lubben, junior at the University of Illinois. He is majoring in Linguistics, with a minor in Teaching English as a Second Language. Erik is planning on teaching English abroad before seeking a Masters in teaching. He currently studies Russian, Arabic, and various writing systems. He wrote this text in the seminar LING 418, Language and Minorities in Europe.


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