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Linguistics expert Tayeb Bacouche discusses the value of dialect

By Jamel Arfaoui for Magharebia in Tunis -- 20/07/2007

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Dr. Tayeb Bacouche, linguistics expert and director of the Arab Institute for Human Rights, warned against demeaning and eradicating colloquial Arabic dialects, arguing that such action could lead to social and cultural crisis. Bacouche currently heads a group of Tunisian researchers working to complete the Linguistic Atlas of Tunisia.

Magharebia: Is it possible that common [amiyya] dialects play a role in forming the identities of Maghreb peoples?

Tayeb Bacouche: First of all, I prefer not to use the expression ‘common dialect’ because it contains a derogatory and elitist connotation. Instead, I prefer to use the expression ‘colloquial [darija] dialect’ because it carries an objective meaning. As for the role of colloquial dialects in forming North African peoples’ identities, it is necessary to recognize that, in general, dialects are a part of cultural identity. It not correct to treat them as a rejection of, corruption of, or contradiction with classical [fusha] Arabic because a denial of this dimension is a denial of a part of identity; dialects are a vehicle for many expressions of popular culture and the genius of the people, manifested through customs, traditions, popular representations, etc.

Magharebia: Do you agree with those who see North African identity as completely subsumed by Arab and Islamic identity?

Bacouche: Identity is not something that is rigid, stiff, or fixed; therefore it is improper to think of North African identity as being completely enclosed by Arab and Islamic identity because this would not include, for example, the Amazigh identity. In discussing North African identity, we must take into account all the languages and various dialects, in addition to the religious dimension and French linguistic and cultural influence – even Spanish people at the tip of Morocco. Identity, therefore, is an open construct, constantly moving and developing, and thus necessarily multi-dimensional.

For this reason, we find arguments that demean the dialects and praise only classical Arabic. In opposition, we find people who advocate the use of colloquial dialects instead of classical Arabic, and these people present arguments based on a historical events model to support their positions. They cite the example of the Romance languages branching-out from Latin during the period between the Middle Ages and the modern age. Indeed, it was during the European Renaissance that these dialects developed into the official national languages of French, Spanish and Italian.

Magharebia: So which of these sides do you agree with?

Bacouche: I believe both arguments contain exaggerations that lead to error. The relationship today between Arabic and classical Arabic does not resemble the relationship between Latin and the Romance dialects. Indeed, the circumstances surrounding this development do not resemble the circumstances of Arabic today. Personally, I believe that what happened to Latin will probably not happen to Arabic. Arabic and its dialects have a relation based on balance and integration. Latin, on the other hand, became a dead language, leaving behind languages that evolved from it. Classical Arabic today, however, is the official language of the entire Arab world, and therefore has had a different historical path, therefore it is not possible to compare what is happening to Arabic today with what happened to Latin or to what is happening to day to Greek and Hebrew. Arabic and its dialects' situation is unique.

As for the Maghreb region, there have been attempts to promote Arabization at the expense of the Tamazight language, and to impose Arab identity over others by suppressing Tamazight aspects of identity. In my opinion, this was a strategic mistake, which that became apparent in Algeria especially. However, in recent years we have seen a gradual retreat and correction of this error through the recognition of Amazigh identity and by giving its dialects an official place in education, culture and the media. This has progressed even further in Morocco, where daily news programs and publications are presented in three Berber dialects.

Magharebia: Some people associate dialects with backwardness. Is this accurate?

Bacouche: I do not agree with that statement because, as I said before, dialects are a part of cultural identity. For this reason, we began our activities in Tunisia a few years ago, which continue under the auspices of the Linguistic Atlas of Tunisia project – something we hope will expand to encompass all of the Maghreb, then the whole Arab region. We believe that colloquial dialects are important because they play a crucial role in shaping the identities of Maghreb peoples. If we approach the issue from a standpoint of development or sophistication, and fail to see the whole issue with all of its component parts without exception or exclusion, we run the risk of losing basic aspects of identity. If this loss were associated with reckless measures, it would cause crises and division, and become an agent of social and political tension.

Magharebia: There are some who view the mainstreaming and encouraging of dialects as dangerous to the language of the Qur'an, which threatens Islam. Do you agree with this conclusion?

Bacouche: This premise goes to extremes the same way as those who call for colloquial to take the place of classical Arabic. The two today complement and enrich each other in a remarkably objective way. In fact, the two get nearer to each other every day but never unite – exhibiting the typical flow of all living languages. The interest in describing and cataloguing colloquial Arabic serves and enriches classical Arabic. This process, however, does not expose the language of the Qur'an to any danger because its holiness protects it from decline. Also, the classical Arabic used today in literature and the media differs from that of the Qur'an in notation and structure. Nevertheless, it is an extension of classic Arabic that, in the framework of linguistic flow, has led us into the colloquial Arabic the public uses naturally for everyday life.

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  1. Anonymous thumb

    hedi 2010-5-5

    I am not shocked by the article, but what Mr Habib makes of this article is very strange (not to say ridiculous). His is an analysis that follows the conspiracy-theory outline, which has caused much damage to us and is now as widespread among the illiterate as it is among the so-called “cultivated” part of the population. This theory demonises everything and makes everyone out to be maliciously motivated. Clearly there's no proof for this. It sees the Devil in everything and tries to catch him in the most commendable actions. Its only failing is that it renders you blind. But let us move on and post a question that is, in my opinion, essential: Is not the multiplicity of languages actually a flaw? It's the origin of the poverty of the cultural and creative landscape in Tunisia, which makes – contrary to what this article states – Tunisians fail to master a single language among themselves and causes all the devastation that can come with such a situation. Under such conditions, isn't it better to master a single language, whatever it may be, than to flounder like our youth currently do, unable to express themselves properly in any language?


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    Lwahranya 2009-11-30

    This is very interesting, but I am rather in favour of opening media and literature to our Arabic dialect, also called “Maghribi”, because it is a trait of the union between the Algerians and the people of the Maghreb in general. In Malta, this is the national and official language! Moreover, it is supported by a literature that dates at least four centuries back. Just listen to the words of the songs that we call here “Andalusian” (because I am Algerian), and that you call “maalouf”, I think.


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    جمال الدين 2008-11-2

    Peace, mercy and blessings of God be upon you. What are the bases on which you found this language Atlas? To what extent will this work succeed in the future?


  4. Anonymous thumb

    Habib 2008-9-19

    this article has a hiden agenda !! and that is to distance Tunisian from their identity which is cememted in its Arabic culture and promote amazigh french or english instead and in the process destroy the connnection between Tunisian and Islam and to promote a corrupt form of Arabic language which is limited and poor in expressing any thought elegantly or eloquently i'm tunisian my self and i detest the tunisian dialect i prefer to hear classical arabic rather than the mishmash or different words by the way Magharebia's tv and radio and web sites are financed by the CIA !! Think about that for a moment and wonder why??!!


  5. Anonymous thumb

    paradou 2007-7-23

    I would be grateful to anyone who could give me some information and enlighten me on the Tanger novelist Mohammed Choukri. -Thank you in advance


  6. Anonymous thumb

    Naas Mlah 2007-7-21

    I fairly enjoyed reading this article. I felt I learned about the Linguistic Atlas of Tunisia project, the interview questions were well thought out and there was clear depth in the answers. Thank you for a job well done. I am pleased that Dr Tayeb of the Arab Institute for Human Rights 1) acknowledged that it is a mistake to undermine pre-Islamic history/culture of North Africa, as it ignores a fundamental part that is shaping the identities of the region. 2) clarified that identity is a multi-dimensional entity. 3) argued that our language is an evolving.