Tuesday, October 04, 2016

Moroccan Dialects Face Extinction

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) has compiled a list of endangered languages in the world. The data collected shows that in Morocco there are eight threatened languages, including two considered "extinct"

The common denominator of these languages is thatthey only exist in remote territories and that the linguistic decline is most severe in regions where Amazigh (Berber) languages are dominant. The languages ​​inherited from the Jewish community or Spanish are increasingly rare.

United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) regularly publish a list of endangered languages and provides a classification system to show just how 'in trouble' the language is:

Vulnerable - most children speak the language, but often restricted to certain domains (e.g., home)
Definitely endangered - children no longer learn the language as a 'mother tongue' in the home
Severely endangered - language is spoken by grandparents and older generations; while the parent generation may understand it, they do not speak it to children or among themselves
Critically endangered - the youngest speakers are grandparents and older, and they speak the language partially and infrequently
Extinct - there are no speakers left.

There remains a gap between law and practice in the use of the Amazigh Language

Berber Figuig and Southern Oran, in the far-eastern area of  Morocco, remains the preserve of the Zénètes, language. The Zénètes are Amazigh people nestled in the coast from Tangier to Tripoli. At present between 20 and 30,000 people still speak this dialect, says Unesco. These populations are confined in seven oasis: Did Wadday, At-Amar, At-Lamiz, At-Sliman, At-Anaj, At-Addi and Iznayen. According to the terminology used by the UN is "vulnerable"; most children can speak the language, but often restricted to certain areas such as home.

The father of the famous traveller, Ibn Battuta, was a speaker of the Zénètes language. According to the Algerian researcher Rachid Bellil, the word Zenetes was Arabised and its meaning is Iggen or ijjen which means 'one' in Amazigh.

Worse off than their Amazigh peers around Figuig are the populations of Beni Snassen in the mountainous chain in the far north-eastern Morocco, who also face the loss of their language. This is where the tribe Aït Iznassen has long built its stronghold in territories of strategic importance.

Unfortunately, no census has ever included this variable of the mother tongue, says Unesco, but estimate some 25,000 people continue to speak the Tamazight dialect of this region. It is especially in the small towns that dot the Oriental as the tongue is still spoken - Aklim, Madagh, Aghbal, Tafoughalt, Chouihiyya Sidi Bouhouriyya and Fezouane. However, this Tamazight dialect of Beni Snassen is "endangered" as children no longer learn the language as their mother tongue at home.

Moroccan Judeo-Arabic, classified as "severely endangered" is "spoken by grandparents; while the parent generation may understand it, they do not talk to each other or with children "  Estimates say only 5000 speakers remain,  mainly concentrated in the region of Fez.

Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella I of Castile caused the spread of Judeo-Spanish

Judeo-Spanish is derived from old Castilian and Hebrew and is now spoken by "a number" (in fact, no data on the speakers of the dialect is available according to UNESCO).  Speakers are mainly Sephardic Jews of Western Europe and North Africa. Besides Algeria, it can be found in Melilla and Sebta. Judeo-Spanish originally spread around the Mediterranean after the expulsion of Jews from Spain by a decree signed in 1492 by the Catholic Isabella of Castile and Ferdinand II of Aragon.

Sanhaja of srayr is a language related to several dialects - Zenaga, chleuh and Kabyle - and is still spoken in northern Morocco, west of the Rif. Recent research showed some vitality, although it is classified as "critically endangered"; the youngest speakers are grandparents and their ancestors, and they speak the language partially and infrequently.

The data on Ghomara, named after the eponymous ethnic northern Moroccans of Berber origin, between the rivers Oued Laou and Ouringa, north of Chefchaouen, Tetouan south and east of the Rif, is more critical.  The people of Kasba Tadla, about thirty kilometres from Beni Mellal, know little of their local Tamazight dialect. UNESCO says the number of speakers is so small (1,637 people) that is is listed as having "no more speakers ".

Judeo-Berber has vanished. This language, once deployed in rural areas of the upper Atlas and Middle Atlas, did not survive the exodus of Moroccan Jews in the 1950s.

According to writer Ahmed Assid, an Amazigh specialist, the disappearance of some Amazigh dialects is mainly due to the rural exodus, the restricted nature of certain communities and their abandonment by the state.

"The rural exodus has contributed to language decline" - Ahmed Assid

"The Arabisation policy which began with  independence, has had a negative effect on the Moroccan linguistic landscape. These languages have been neglected by the state because they were not taught. Neither have they been the subject of any academic work," says Ahmed Assid.

"Migration to urban centres has emptied the countryside of its inhabitants,and caused the gradual disappearance of the language from one generation to the next. Coming to a larger urban centre an Amazigh speaker is obliged to borrow from other languages, especially Darija. He goes on to adopted the dominant language, the language of the administration - French and Arabic - favouring those that will guarantee his children a place in society and social privileges " .

Yet the state now seems to want to catch up. In 1994, King Hassan II came out in favour of teaching Tamazight in schools, partly due to a larger political opening and partly in response to the pressure of Amazigh-rights activists. In 2003, his son, now King Mohamed VI, put the initiative into practice. In the new constitution he helped create in 2011, Tamazight was recognised as one of Morocco’s official languages. Tamazight writing now adorns the facades of most public buildings.

But “there isn’t a real language policy yet,” says Abdeslem Khalafi, a researcher at the Royal Institute for Amazigh Culture (Institut Royale de la Culture Amazigh du Maroc, IRCAM). “There’s hesitation. Mentalities aren’t ready to integrate Tamazight and give it a chance. There’s a change in discourse, but not yet in practice.”

The recognition of Tamazight as an official language alongside Arabic in the 2011 Constitution is already a foundation stone. "The government talks about the rational management of culture and heritage, including diversity of language and culture that has marked our country. This is a fundamental thing," says Ahmed Assid.  However, he denounces the procrastination of the government, "which has dragged its feet for five years" over the draft law establishing the Amazigh language and its of integration in education and various priority sectors of public life.

Despite the recognition of Tamazight as an official language in Morocco in 2011, only 12% of Moroccan children learn the language in school. While an estimated 35-40% of Moroccans speak various varieties of Tamazight, teachers, students and professionals face difficulties in using the language in workplaces, universities and schools. The wide gap between law and the practical, daily use of Tamazight, has a huge impact on Amazigh cultural heritage

Hopefully, Morocco can save some of its previous linguistic diversity.


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