An Elephant in the Room, or Un Fiil dans the bayt

It’s the end of August, the rentrée approaches, and I am halfway though my four-year term as Director of the British Council in Morocco. I’m beginning the new academic year with a new blog, in which I shall try to find interesting things to say about Morocco, the Middle East, the books and journals that cross my desk – and, as it fits into the picture, about the British Council and its work here. My interest, like that of the British Council, is in cultural relations – the business of how people of different cultures and backgrounds work together creatively, effectively, and for their mutual benefit. This blog isn’t an official publication, though I trust it will reflect well on the British Council: all opinions that I express will be my own, personal and unofficial. I shall welcome comment, and shall try to respond to it.

I spent the summer outside Morocco, and one of my holiday books was Fouad Laroui’s Le drame linguistique marocain – the linguistic drama of Morocco. It’s a contentious book, and raises some big questions, not just for Morocco but for the wider Arabic-speaking world. Laroui writes about the way in which Morocco’s complex, knotty language heritage holds the country back – and how on a larger scale the same is true of the Arab world as a whole. After two years here, it’s an argument I’m becoming used to: the languages that Moroccans grow up with in the home (darija, Tamazight, Rifi and Tashilhit); the new language they start to learn in primary school – classical Arabic (or fusHa); and the European languages on to which they move in school, above all French, followed by Spanish and – last, though perhaps not least – English. Many argue that this breathless progression leaves Moroccans linguistically disadvantaged, with several languages learned imperfectly. More than one university professor has said to me that his students from public schools very often arrive at university unable to function effectively in either French or Arabic.

And then one must add the social functions of language in defining and defending Morocco’s elite. A recent study (Moha Hajar, La mission française vs la mission de l’ecole marocaineshows that of all the students who have graduated from the lycées of the Mission Française since Independence in 1956, well over 50% have come from 200 families. And this post-independence period has of course seen the language of education in the public schools changed from French to Arabic. Access to study abroad, and all that follows it, is notably easier – to put it at its mildest – with fluent and sophisticated French, and a lycée education. In this sense at least, French is the language of a self-defining elite.

But Laroui’s book goes well beyond this fragmented linguistic heritage, to home in upon one particular, overwhelming, problem – the problem of the two Arabics. This is a question that resonates across the Arab world, or should. It cuts (for this purpose) through questions of European and Amazigh languages, and asks: how big is the price that young Moroccans pay for maintaining that their dialectal darija is in some sense the same language as their written Arabic? Thirty-five years ago when I first tried to learn Arabic in Cairo, I remember being puzzled by the fact that my textbook was printed in roman type. “Oh, you can’t write ‘amiya in Arabic script,” I was told. And there remains in many minds the conviction that the dialect of the street is not a ‘worthy’ language – not a language that can be written in with dignity and seriousness.

On the other hand there’s also the assumption that the darija in which many, perhaps most, Moroccans grow up is just a form of Arabic, and that what they learn at primary school is simply to read and write their own language. But this seems not to be the case in reality, even for darija-speakers. A linguist explained to me recently that darija has all the characteristics necessary for technical definition as a separate language from Arabic. He went on to describe the damage done to young learners by learning to read in a language that is not their mother tongue: speakers of darija and of the three Amazigh dialects are learning a script that records not their own languages, but quite another. They are not learning to relate the entirely new signs they see on paper to sounds and words they already know – but to signs and words they are also, perhaps with difficulty, learning in parallel with leaning to read.

And this is at the heart of Laroui’s critique. He sees the problem of diglossia (“a relatively stable language situation in which, in addition to the primary dialects of the language there is a very divergent, highly codified (often grammatically more complex) superposed variety, the vehicle of a large and respected body of written literature, either of an earlier period or in another speech community, which is learned largely by formal education and is used for most written and formal spoken purposes but is not used by any section of the community for ordinary conversation” – Charles Ferguson) as central to the problems of education, literacy and human development in Morocco – and elsewhere in the Arab World where the same phenomenon is replicated.

I quote another passage, from Wikipedia, which seems notably relevant. “In many diglossic areas there is controversy and polarization of opinions of native speakers regarding the relationship between the two dialects and their respective statuses. In cases where the high dialect is objectively not intelligible to those exposed only to the vernacular, some people insist that the two dialects are nevertheless a common language. The pioneering scholar of diglossia, Charles Ferguson, observed that native speakers proficient in the high prestige dialect will commonly try to avoid using the vernacular dialect with foreigners, and may even deny its existence, even though the vernacular is the only socially appropriate one for them themselves to use when speaking to their relatives and friends.” Or as the Algerian linguist Abdou Eliman put it, “Un biliguisme constructif repose toujours sur la langue maternelle.”

Laroui remarks that no one speaks fusHa at home (and he reminds his readers of the ridicule attracted by a former Minister who claimed to do so). He cites the sacred role and nature of Arabic, and its pole position in the ideology of pan-Arab nationalism as being the biggest obstacles faced by darija in becoming a national language alongside Tamazight. Until it does, he believes, Morocco will be a non-reading nation, a nation ill-at-ease with its own tongue, and he quotes Abdellatif Laabi as writing in 1966 that “to speak of the language of expression of the Arab people is to deny diglossia,” and that this denial has created “cultural monsters, a category of aphasic men.”

Finally, in a case study, Laroui draws a parallel with Greece, where the spoken dhimotiki and the archaizing, largely written, katharevousa (which many Greeks could scarcely, if at all, understand) coexisted uneasily for 150 years of culture wars after the Greek War of Independence. Only in 1976 was katharevousa finally banned from schools and dhimotiki made the official language of Greece, and all Greeks soon spoke and read the same language.

While it isn’t for me to have a prescriptive view on this complex and emotional issue, what I find fascinating is that the argument doesn’t seem really to be happening very publicly. Reading Fouad Laroui’s book, I kept finding myself nodding and thinking “Yes, of course,” and “that makes obvious sense,” and wondering why it hadn’t occurred to me before that Arabic diglossia might be at the root of some at least of the region’s educational, literacy and human development problems. I tried the discussion over the summer on a veteran diplomat who speaks several Arabic dialects and reads fusHa, and he said: “The moment you think about it, it’s obvious, but I’ve spent a long career not noticing.”


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