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Berber languages "threatened in Morocco, Algeria"

Berbers in their traditional warrior outfits

© Wikipedia commons
afrol News, 31 March
- A new report about the world's most threatened languages especially highlights the languages of the indigenous Berber people in Morocco and Algeria. Despite constituting around 50 percent of the population, their languages have been discriminated against and ignored.

The Germany-based Society for Threatened Peoples (GfbV) in a 111-page report about threatened languages all around the world - which comes together with teaching materials to save such languages - has a special focus on Berber languages, or Tamazight as it is locally known.

The Berbers are considered North Africa's indigenous population. There is proof they inhabited the region in Phoenician times. The Berbers remained the dominant population group in North Africa long after the Arab conquer of the region.

In Morocco, it is estimated that around 50 percent of the population is Berber, although authorities allow no registration of ethnicity and claim numbers are far lower. In Algeria, between 25 and 30 percent of the population considers itself Berber.

Despite this long history and populous strength, Berber languages still are considered to be threatened in Algeria and Morocco. The reason for this is purely political, as the two countries consider themselves Arab and flatly deny the existence of a larger Berber population. Especially in Morocco, people have been fined and even detained for speaking Berber in public.

According to the GfbV report, at least six Berber languages are spoken in Algeria. Especially in the Kabylia area, where local groups have taken up arms, popular involvement has been great to defend the Kabylia Berber language and culture. There are an estimated 5 million Kabylia Berber speakers in Algeria and some 6 million living abroad, and this is one of the few Berber languages somewhat able to defend its survival through mere numbers.

Kabylian protest movements in 2002 led to the legal introduction of Berber as "a national language" by Algerian authorities. But this had little practical consequences as it was not accepted as an official language. There is no education in written and spoken Berber in Algerian schools and official documents are only accepted in Arabic.

And the 2002 guarantees to respect Kabylian Berber language have since been eroded. Attempts to organise Berber language congresses and meetings have been met with police brutality in 2008 and 2009, GfbV reports. In January this year, the celebration of the Berber New Year was "brutally stopped by police" in Tizi Ouzou, the capital of the Kabylia Berbers.

Other Berber languages in Algeria, including Chaouia and Chenoua, are less organised than the Kabylia Berber. They are thus stronger subjected to government's arabisation policy. "Thus far, the Algerian leadership is not prepared to give up its arabisation policy and accept Berber as a language sidelined to Arabic," the GfbV report concludes.

Morocco suppressing "majority language"
The GfbV in its report holds that a majority - up to 60 percent - of Moroccans indeed are Berbers and that most of these still have knowledge of one of the country's three Berber languages. In the High and Middle Atlas Mountains, Tamazight Berber is the majority language; in the northern Rif Mountains, most speak Tarifit Berber; while parts of the High Atlas are dominated by Tachelhit Berber language.

Arabisation in Morocco had been particularly tough during the rule of late King Hassan II, according to the report. Millions of Berbers, especially in mixed population areas, were forced to give up their language. Fines and even detentions were commonplace if Berber was spoken i public, and the King's secret police was active all over the country.

Only in 1994, King Hassan II in a public speech reluctantly admitted the existence of Berber, however insisting to call the three languages for Moroccan "dialects".

With the death of Hassan II in 1999, current King Mohammed VI eased repression of Berbers and Berber languages. In 2001, the new King in a public speech in the Rif Mountains recognised the existence of "a Berber identity" of the region's people and opened up for nurturing Berber language and culture and a possibility of teaching Berber in public schools.

In 2002, King Mohammed VI decreed the establishment of the Institut Royal de la Culture Amazighe, IRCAM (the Royal Institute of Berber Culture), which was to further Berber language and culture. But the Institute "has no decision-making powers and is principally used as a figurehead for the alleged goodwill of the palace in Morocco," the GfbV report concludes.

Berber associations in Morocco are disappointed over the slow progress in accepting their minority - or is it majority? - rights. A 2004 census claimed that only 8.4 million out of a total Moroccan population of 31.5 million regularly spoke Berber languages. These low figures were "unrealistic", according to Berber associations.

Also the use of Berber in public schools is a slow process. While the teaching of Berber was first announced in 1994, only a 2003 "pilot project" allowed for the first small-scale use of Berber in a few lower grade Moroccan schools. Currently, only 317 schools teach Berber language in the kingdom, but plans exist to make Berber lessons obligatory nation-wide by 2013.

While the first TV programmes in Berber language were launched in January 2010 and Berber teaching soon may become universal, Berber activists still hold government is working against them. The Moroccan constitution still holds Arabic as the one and only official language in the kingdom, and King Mohammed VI has rejected a call to amend the constitution.

An attempt by the council of the northern Moroccan town of Nador to place street signs in Berber language was rejected by the Rabat Ministry of the Interior, which ordered their removal. Berbers are still denied giving their children traditional Berber names. Protest marches demanding Berber cultural rights are met with police brutality and human rights defenders have been imprisoned as late as in 2009 for speaking about the difficult situation of Berbers in Morocco.

"Morocco is still far away from being a democratic state that understands the rights of languages and opinion as a natural thing," the GfbV report concludes. "As the palace only is only willing to make small concessions on the language issue to maintain calm among the population, the Berber languages remain endangered."

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