Towards a Unified, Common and Standard Amazigh Language

Towards a Unified, Common and Standard Amazigh Language

For many decades, we witnessed, especially in the Amazighophone circles, rational consciousness raising whose consequences are promoting, normalizing, standardizing and unifying Amazigh language, one of the old languages that has been living for several millennia.

As far as can be traced back in the field of Amazigh studies, the theory of the Amazigh language has always been brought to the fore. The first researchers in this field, A. Basset and his predecessors noticed striking similarities in the fundamental structures of the principle Amazigh dialects. This led them to refer to the Amazigh unified language with no hesitation. Later, the investigations of Amazigh linguists confirmed the observations made in the field and proved the lexical and grammatical convergence of the principal Amazigh dialects. Recent studies on dialectology have confirmed the profound unity of the Amazigh language and at the same time qualified its diversity superficial rather than essential.

The main aim of this article is to examine the possibility of standardizing Amazigh language. The basic motivation for the choice of this issue is that I feel a lot of interesting points have not been discussed yet in relation to Amazigh language, especially on the theoretical level.

What is “Standardisation�?

The concept of standardisation is a necessary and a vital process in any language. It refers to the direct and the deliberate intervention made by a society to produce a standard language, where before there were just dialects (Hudson, 1980: 32). As Sadiqi and Ennaji (1994: 64-70) say,� A language must be codified, by standardizing its phonology, morphology, syntax, spelling and vocabulary�.

What Sadiqi and Ennaji mean is that certain standard rules must be followed so that people can communicate effectively with each other. In addition to this Ferguson says:
« The maximum degree of native literacy is manifested within a speech community when original scientific research is published regularly, while at the top of the standardisation scale we find communities in which there is minimal variation of form in both the spoken and the written language. (Matras and Reeshemius».(1991:104).

Following Ferguson s definition, the main purpose of standardisation is the language unification in a community, affecting written and oral forms.

Some languages are standardized as a result of a deliberate intervention made by a society and its institutions. Euskara-Batua (the Basque language) is one of the most important examples of governmental activity in the domain of language planning and language standardisation. It is proposed by “EUSKALTZAINDIA�, the Basque government, on its part has made every effort to standardize the language (Mahleau, 1991:81).

On the other hand, some languages developed a standard variety by natural means (Trudgill, 1974:50). English, for instance, was standardized because of the political and cultural importance of London. The same thing with French, which was standardized as a result of the dominance of Paris. In both cases, standardisation took place thank to the upper classes living in the capitals (Trudgill, 1994:149-150).

To sum up, standardisation, as Trudgill sates, is “necessary in order to facilitate communication, to provide a uniform form for school (Trudgill, 1974:149-150). Besides, Matrash and Reeshemius say that “standardisation is also useful for the guidance of writers and speakers (Trudgill, 1983:15).

Generally, standardisation is the natural development of a variety of a language in a speech community, or an attempt made by a society to impose a dialect (or some dialects) as a standard language.

The Experience of Standardizing the Basque Language
The Basque country (EUSKAL HARRIA) has a population of three million, including 600000 speakers of the Basque language (EUSKALdUNES). Mahleau (1991:80), says 700,000, but Crystal (1999:34-35) says 590,000 people chiefly in Northern Spain and 580,000 south-west France.

The term�Basque country� refers to all the provinces of “EUSKAL HARRIA�, both in France and Spain. Moreover, the Basque language is considered to be an official language in the “Pais Vasco� in Spain and in the “Pays Basque� in France, extending from Bilbao (Spain) to Bayon (France).

France and Spain, where the Basque language exist, have no concern in advancing or supporting the Basque language. Mahleau (1991:81) explains this and says “some time later, in the 19th century, the national interests of both states prevented them from encouraging regional dialects or languages. Through the public school they promoted the official language, to the exclusion of other languages which were, moreover, forbidden at school�.

The oppression and the marginalisation of the Basque language continued until 1975, when Franco died. The new government granted the three provinces, among which the Basque country, the right to promote the Basque language (Mahleau: 1991:85). The Basque language was marginalized by the dictatorship of Franco in Spain and Jacobinism in France.

The standardisation of the Basque language is a very recent phenomenon (lasagabaster, 2001:8). On November 14, 1982, the parliament of EUSKADI adopted “The Basic Law of the Standardisation of the Basque Language�. Lasagabaster tells us about the objectives of this law “the law introduced a broad of measures aiming at defending and promoting the use of writing and spoken EUSKARA in various domains, including the provision of state services, education, the media,…etc (Mahleau, 1991:86). This law making considered to be the starting point of the language policy relied on three foundations, namely the administration, the media and education.
“EUSKALTZANDIA� proposes the standard form of the Basque language. This means that the language used in official publications, in books and “EUSKAL TELEBISTA� is “EUSKARA BATUA�, the model proposed by the academy.

As is the case with Tamazight, one of the main problems that confused both linguists and Basque speakers is the differences existing between the varieties which form the Basque language in such a small area (Mahleau, 1991:83), that s why many efforts have been made to prevent the dialects from diverging further from each other, and to make them grow into unity. According to many researchers the dialectal fragmentation was followed by a political fragmentation. Spanish and French areas of the country were totally isolated from each other. In this situation, a common language seems to be a practical necessity, as a way of establishing a shared identity.
Concerning the strategy followed to standardize the Basque language, lasagabaster says that “the Basque experience parallels the actions taken in several south American countries, which adopt the dialectal varieties in oral use and concentrate on the standardisation of the written form of the language�(Gleich,1989:87). Mahleau (1991:87) clarifies the strategy used to standardize the Basque language and says:
«As a rule in the presence of competing forms, the morphological and lexical forms from the “central� dialects were selected: Batua has been carried basically Guipuzcoan – Navarrese – Labourdine dialects, with some slightly archaic characteristics: when the forms used in the extreme dialects were coincident, they were taken to belong to “common Basque� and preferred to the central forms».

What we are interested in, in the above extract, is the fact that the Basque language is standardized by taking into consideration the common features between the main dialects to reach the standard form that would be accepted by all the speakers of the Basque language. As Mahleau (1991:83) says “the difference between the single dialects and ‘Batua (the standard form) were small and the solutions proposed by the academy, relatively uncontroversial�.
To sum up, the standardisation of the Basque language is very recent, and the reason why is the elimination and the exclusion of this language by the dictatorial regime of Franco. But in 1968, an academy was founded to standardise this language by combining the three main dialects to reach the common Basque language.

Towards the Elaboration of a Common Tamazight

The dialectal Fragmentation of Tamazight

One of the main characteristics of Tamazight that has confused Amazigh linguists and Amazigh speakers themselves is the noticeable variety of forms found in the regions were Tamazight is spoken nowadays. But an important fact that has not been emphasized enough is the fact that the common features shared by the Amazigh language varieties are more than the differences. The main reason why Tamazight has been considered to be a group of unrelated dialects is the colonial ideology that is supported by some linguists. In his book on Tamazight André Basset (1952: 1) says that “[Tamazight] is not a language of civilisation, it s a language divided into many dialects�. He adds: “It s a group of local languages, means of expression of very limited social groups, of a few thousands. The result is that this language scatters into many dialects, perhaps 4 or 5 thousands for a few five million of individuals�.

In his thesis on the standard Amazigh language, Chami (2004:8) says that André Basset has changed his attitude towards Tamazight as a language and he provides this quotation:

«C est la remarquable unité de la langue dans l extrême émiettement ethnique et la dispersion géographique. La langue est profondément la même dans sa structure». Quoted in CHAMI (2004:8)
«It is the remarkable unity of “Tamazight” despite the extreme geographical and ethnic dispersion. The language is essentially the same as far as its structure is concerned».

A systematic comparison between the Amazigh language varieties made by many linguists proved that all the dialects share the same structure. They have the same categories.

The standardisation of Amazigh language

Language standardisation is still to be achieved and it remains a new process for countries like Morocco and Algeria, where the mother tongues did not have a literacy tradition, but have only recently obtained the opportunity to get written. In relation to Tamazight, I should mention that so far there does not exist any systematic attempt to standardize it. The main purpose is how to shift from a predominantly oral system to a written one and how to gain a wider acceptance by the speakers and common users. It is well-known that Tamazight is characterized by orality. Orality is the basis of Moroccan culture, transmitted through both Tamazight and Moroccan Arabic (Sadiqi, 2003: 82-83). Then, what is required is urgent standardisation of Tamazight. The importance of standardizing a language is “that a language gets a particular identity when it is fixed and codified in written form� (Ouane, 1991: 3). This is the reason why standardisation of Tamazight becomes a historical necessity. But, the question is how to carry this into effect, especially when the linguistic reality is characterized by dialectal fragmentation. Which forms are more likely to be standardized? Only an intelligent standardisation policy can bring an answer to such a question.

Some Strategies Proposed to Standardize Amazigh Language
Unitarian Standardization

Unitarian standardisation is to select one dialect from the three main dialects which are derived from Amazigh language (Castellanos, 2003: 28). Bounfor is one of those who support this strategy. He insists on choosing a “referential dialect� (Lehbib, 2003: 4) to impose it on Moroccan people by taking economic and political decisions. To make this strategy possible, Bounfor suggests that the “referential dialect� that would be chosen should be supported by using it in administration, schools, mass-media etc. The result of this strategy is a standard language that consists of one dialect. To illustrate his point of view Bounfor gives the example of French language. He says that French was the dialect of “ILE-DE-FRANCE�, and then by taking economic and political decisions, French has become the standard language of the French Republic.

Independent Standardisation

This strategy deals with the dialects deriving from Tamazight as separate languages (Castellanos, 2003: 29). It means that each dialect would be an independent standard language. Tamazight as a case in point would be divided into three main languages. Rachid Raha, an Amazigh anthropologist proposed this strategy. The reason why he adopts this strategy is that Tamazight, through history, faced “a divergence evolution�. As a result, it is so difficult to reach a common standard Tamazight that would be understood by all Imazighen. He illustrates his theory by giving the model of language planning in Spain where four languages co-exist.

This strategy is refused by all the militants of the Amazigh cause because the Spanish linguistic reality is different from ours. Besides, many linguists agreed on the existence of fundamental structural similarities between the dialects of Amazigh language (see Basset, A., Galand, L, Chaker, S, etc).

Compositional Standardisation

This strategy aims at reaching a standard form/language by combining the main three dialects (Castillanos, 2003: 29). For example, the Basque language (Euskara Batua) is standardized by combining the three major dialects, namely, Biskayan, Guipuzcon and Labourdin (Mahleau, 1991: 8). This strategy is adopted by the majority of linguists in Morocco.

The Convenient Strategy to Standardize Amazigh Language

Before dealing with the convenient strategy to standardize Amazigh language, I should mention that any attempt to promote Tamazight will fail if there are no legislative decisions, such as the constitutionalization of Tamazight as an official and national language; According to Iazzi (2005: 4), Tamazight in Morocco is still neglected and marginalized by political decisions. So, the standardisation of Tamazight cannot be achieved if there are no juridical decisions to protect it. Independent institutions and agencies must be established to spread the standard form and try to obtain the acceptance from the population.

To standardize Amazigh language there are some principles. The main principle is that Tamazight should be unified. As I have mentioned, we should not select between dialects, but give equal chance of promotion to all of the existing dialects. It means that no single dialect will be excluded from the field of investigation. The main point that we have to keep in mind is that each dialect is a medium of communication, and then any attempt to standardize Tamazight should not eliminate any one. To illustrate this, here s a quotation included in the book entitled “the standardisation of national languages�:

«When searching for the best contemporary or historical variety to standardize one should bear in mind that none of the world s major standard languages is based mostly or entirely on one of its constituent (historical) dialects. It is well known that, Standard English, German, or Italian, for example, has grown gradually through a process of amalgamation of features from several different dialects». (Buffalo, 1991: 46).

The convenient strategy to standardize Tamazight is to distinguish between the major regional dialects and the sub-dialects, namely, Northern Tamazight, Central Tamazight and Southern Tamazight. Each of these dialects consists of many sub-dialects. For example, within the geographical area of Tarifit, there are: Taznassnit, Tafigiguit, Tawayighetch (Ennaji, 2004: 8). The following diagram (quoted in Ennaji, 2003, 9) clarifies how to reach a standard form of Tamazight, and what is the relationship between major and sub-dialects:

As Ennaji says (2004: 3) “the choice of a special Amazigh dialect rather than another for standardisation can cause a problem for the native speakers of other dialects and they will not be happy for seeing their dialect excluded from the domain of writing�. Then what should be done is to compare the existing dialects, list the frequent lexical items in the main three dialects and include it in an official dictionary of Tamazight. Besides, the standardisation of Tamazight should follow these stages:

>> A systematic comparative study for the regional and local dialects.
>> Listing the common vocabulary between Amazigh dialects.
>> Borrowing from other dialects if an Amazigh term is absent in a given dialect.
>> The normalisation of the Amazigh lexicon.
This strategy aims at reducing the divergences that regional dialects are facing; the objective is to compare them in a progressive manner to arrive at the standard form (see Chami, 2004: 8).
The competencies given by the policy makers to language specialists were to contribute to elaborate the major orientations of a language policy aiming at:
>> supported by local dialects.
>> Establishing a systematic plan of making the employees literate in Amazigh language.
>> Making proposals on the use of Tamazight in education, mass-media…
>> Getting familiar with the researches, investigations and achievements in neighbouring countries such as Algeria.

The goals behind what I have stated above were translated into these major objectives:

>> The creation of basic linguistic tools for Tamazight by equipping them with officially recognized transcription and orthographic rules (TIFINAGH), basic dictionaries, literacy methods.
>> The promotion of the written usage of Tamazight.
>> The building up of a corpus of publication for Tamazight.
>> Replacing the Arabic, French, Spanish words by their equivalents in Tamazight. For example, Hassan Tidrin gives the equivalents of some words, such as:

>> Giving importance to semantic neologism, which means that new functions should be given to already existing Amazigh words. For example, the word tiddukla / tiddukla which means friendship, is used by many people in the sense of “association�.
As I have mentioned, these principles and objectives aims at unifying and standardizing Amazigh language by dealing with all the dialects and the sub-dialects. This strategy gave fruitful results. The Basque language (Euskara Batua) is standardized by following this strategy.

Overall, in this article we have examined an interesting issue, which is the possibility of standardizing Amazigh language.

In the first, we have dealt with the theoretical framework of this study. We have defined the concept of “standardisation� . Besides, we have given an example of a successful experience of language standardisation, namely, the Basque language. The second is devoted to the analyses of different strategies proposed to standardize Amazigh language.

To sum, the most important force in standardizing Amazigh language is its actual use in writing, especially in creative writing. Besides, taking political and judicial decisions, such as the constitutionalization of Amazigh language as a national and official language.


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By Sabri El Hammaoui

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