The Language of North Africa

The Language of North Africa

By: Nuunja

Kenyan scholar Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o has written extensively about the ‘language question’ in African literature, most prominently in his book Decolonizing the Mind where he famously rejected English as a medium for his writing.  In fact, there has been a great deal of scholarship regarding the use of indigenous vs. foreign languages in Africa.  However, it has almost exclusively focused on European colonial languages, either ignoring Arabic as a colonial language or even considering it ‘indigenous’, as in the case of Ngũgĩ!  Ngũgĩ goes as far as to say that “Arabic is now an African language unless we want to write off all the indigenous populations of North Africa, Egypt, Sudan as not being Africans.” (Decolonizing the Mind, 30).  This statement is particularly strange as it belies a complete ignorance of North Africa, where the indigenous people, Imazighen, are not Arab and do speak an African language, Tamazight, rather than Arabic.  The Arabic language did not arrive in North Africa until the Arab invasions of the 7th century C.E., when violent conquest brought Islam and Arabic.

Ali Mazrui also lauds the “linguistic nationalism” of “Arabic-speaking Africa,” washing over the violence with which Arab nationalism is imposed on indigenous North Africans.  Mazrui goes on to say that it is inappropriate to refer to ‘Francophone Africa’ or ‘Lusophone Africa,’ yet he inappropriately labels North Africa (Tamazgha) as “Arabic-speaking,” ascribing the colonial language as the – presumably ‘indigenous’ – language of the people.

Why limit our rejection of colonial languages, if we are to do so, to only European languages?  Arabic has been used in at least as destructive and anti-African a manner as French, English, or any other European language in Africa.  Just as Ngũgĩ describes the schism created by language policies in a colonial school, an Amazigh writer does the same:

You are not even able to speak Arabic, he told us… ‘You are savages. How will I ever manage to civilize you when I have to start from scratch?’…I was already considering how I was going to tell my parents who were unable to understand the teacher’s language. Should my parents see me suddenly deny the patrimony of my ancestors and my mother tongue? It would be far better to disappear along with that language. (Almasude, originally Oussaid 1989).

These discriminatory policies and practices continue today, at the expense of an indigenous African language.  Despite this, Arabic is granted the status of “African” even while it acts as a colonial language, imposed by those who identify as “Arabs,” and as foreigners.  Within scholarship about African languages, as well as African Studies in general, people seem to have forgotten that European colonialism is not the only form of colonialism to affect the continent.

When North African countries gained “independence” from European control, Arabization policies were implemented to create a false unity of the supposed “Arab” people of North Africa.  These policies continue today, with the most recent example being the ban on Tamazight in the Moroccan Parliament after Fatima Tabaamrant, an Amazigh MP, asked a question in her native language.  Amazigh parents who want to register their children with indigenous names are frequently rejected, a policy which has been criticized by human rights organizations. Children are often still physically beaten for speaking their mother tongue in school, as is the case in many African countries where only colonial languages may be spoken in school.  Once again it does not make sense to reject European colonial languages but not a non-European colonial language which is equally destructive.

Given the colonial nature of Arabic in North Africa, and its forceful imposition on the indigenous people, there are significant reasons that Africans ought to reject the use of Arabic in favor of the indigenous language of North Africa: Tamazight.  When we do this, we support the survival of African languages in opposition to the policies of former or current colonial powers.

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6 Responses to The Language of North Africa

  1. Amazing article ! This is something that African scholars should think about before only demonizing European languages and not seeing the threat Arab-centrism poses to the Tamazight language and culture.

  2. Your comment about children being beaten for speaking their mother tongue language reminds me of one of my sisters. She came back from school and proudly declared to our mother: “mommy the teacher said I couldn’t speak Sesotho, but I just looked at her and continued to speak Sesotho in my heart”! Of course, it was all said in Sesotho and indeed with a lot of spunk 😉

  3. I really agree with you! In examining our colonial history and heritage, we should not forget that European culture is not the only legacy that we have..Arabic culture has also infiltrated our community in a way that it is sometimes diffcicult to dissociate what is local or what is imported. Throughout the continent, there is still this general perception that north africa is arabic; which is obviously not true!

  4. I think the writer missed a number of important points.

    First, Arabic is the native and only language for millions of people in Egypt, North Sudan, Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco and Mauritania. Of course, there are significant minorities in North Sudan, Algeria, Morocco and Mauritania that speak other languages, but even these can speak Arabic as a second language. In fact, Arabic is the language with the highest number of speakers in Africa!

    Second, Arabic spread in North Africa through migration, rather than invasion. Even though the Arabs reached North Africa in the 7th century, Arabic began to really take root in North Africa only in the 11th century when Banu Hilal, Banu Sulaym and other Arab tribes immigrated to the region and settled it in large numbers. In contrast, with the exception of South Africa, there have been no significant European settlements in Africa. That’s why it is very difficult for Africans to learn colonial languages like English, French or Portuguese without schooling.

    Third, you say that “there are significant reasons that Africans ought to reject the use of Arabic in favor of the indigenous language of North Africa: Tamazight.” Since Arabic speakers in Libya, Tunisia and Algeria constitute the majority, then your suggestion basically says that the majority need to give up their language and learn the minority’s language. Do you think this is wise? Or even feasible?

    Hence, unless you consider Egypt, North Sudan, Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco and Mauritania as non-African countries, it is impossible to say that Arabic in Africa is a colonial language.

    • Much of what you write is incorrect or illogical. I will focus on just a few examples.

      A. That Arabic is the first language of some people who happen to be born in North Africa does not mean it is not a colonial language. Afrikaans, for example, is the first language of most Boers. Boers were and are colonizers, and they happen to be born in Africa. Just being born on the African continent does not necessarily make one or one’s culture Indigenous, sorry.

      B. The prevalence of Arabic is irrelevant to whether it is a colonial language. That lots of people speak a colonial language does not mean it is not a colonial language. For example, English-speakers outnumber the speakers of Aboriginal languages in Australia; that does not mean English is not a colonial language.

      C. The majority of Moroccans (for example) speak Tamazight as their first language, which the government obscures through the nature of its census. And no, not all Imazighen (nor all non-Arabic-speaking people in North Africa) also speak Arabic. That’s just a fantasy.

      D. That some Indigenous people speak a colonial language does not make it an Indigenous language.

      E. Arabic was introduced to and spread throughout North Africa through invasion and imposition, whether it was conquest or colonialism (the ‘migration’ and ‘settling’ you reference), making it a colonial language. Its status was and is now maintained through the brutal and colonial repression of Indigenous peoples and their languages (just a fraction of which the author mentions), making it a colonial language, and which you conveniently fail to mention.

      F. The author said that Africans need to reject Arabic. Sorry, Arabs are no more African the French; they are non-Indigenous occupiers. They should assist in decolonization or leave. You might not think that’s reasonable, but it really doesn’t matter what colonizers or their collaborators think is reasonable.

    • @Idriss
      I am of Kabyle origin from Algeria and consequently belong to the Amazigh people of North Africa. I consider Arabs as colonizers as much as the French and other invaders of North Africa, They are not different than the french colons, they are just worst!
      And by the way, they never immigrated to North Africa as you claim, they INVADED North Africa and have been occupying it since the 7th century.

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