Language, ideology and belonging, the Algerian paradigm V

This post is part of the series I started some time ago; and the idea is, as usual, to lay down some points to trigger a discussion in the comments section. I’ll also add a poll at the end of the post in order to have our readers’ opinion, including those who do not comment 🙂

The topic this time is Algerian dardja (or Algerian Arabic) and how we should regard it. To be more accurate, the question that is asked is “should we or not make dardja an official language in Algeria?


If you look at Wiki’s definitions for language and dialect, you’d be confused as one of the definitions says a language is any human tool used for communication, and a dialect is a variety of a language. As I am not a linguist I’ll just ignore these definitions and concentrate on what, in my opinion, makes dialects different from languages.

A dialect is indeed a variety of a language. And since a language may have many varieties, it is broader than dialects.

Also, one expects people speaking different dialects of the same language to understand each other. This is the case if you consider someone from Oran, Algiers, Djelfa, Bechar, Rabat or Tunis. But I must admit I understand the Egyptians and Syrians only because I had watched some of their movies when I was young. And because I never watched anything from the Gulf I find it very hard to understand those guys from Kuwait and what not. And note that this doesn’t go both ways, I mean Egyptians and Syrians do not understand us Algerians… illa man rahima Rabbouk.

So this point is not always valid especially if you consider Danish and Swedish which are called languages even though their speakers do understand each other most of the time.

I read somewhere that a dialect is an unwritten language, then Tamazight would be a dialect, which I obviously disagree with 🙂 And I guess it is possible to write most of the Arab dialects without big difficulty. And Cantonese, which is considered a dialect next to Mandarin Chinese, can be written too.

I think Max Weinreich was right when he wrote that a language was often a dialect with an army and a navy.

The protagonists

I remember an article I read in the late 80s. It was written by Sheikh Mohamed El Ghazali and its objective was to defend the Arabic fos’ha against those who wanted to replace it by the Egyptian dialect. I don’t remember the article well but I can recall that he referred to those guys as the enemies of Arabic and Islam. He considered those plans dangerous as they aimed at dividing the Arab World and keeping the Arab civilisation in the low position it held (and still holds).
Baaziz Benomar wrote in his book about Ben Badis and Ibrahimi that the former had always used Classical Arabic with his pupils because he wanted them to evolve from using the dardja to using a real language. And we can feel that the author of this book thinks a language is more prestigious than a dialect, an opinion shared by many around the world.
It’s like my Arabic language teacher during high-school years. He never spoke to us in dardja, and after the high-school years we were all able to speak, joke and be serious while using the fos’ha, effortlessly. Unfortunately this is all gone now and I am glad that I can still read and write in Arabic…

So this group is against the use of dardja as it threatens the fos’ha but also the unity of the Arab World. It may even prevent us from understanding Quran (and Islam) correctly – I know what you think. Some do think it’s a way to further increase the French language domination in Algeria.

If you have read my previous posts of this series you’d know that I like opposing the arabophone and francophone intellectuals. It is not just me as they do really oppose on the ground and this will keep on until the next generation when we will have no intellectuals at all…

So the second group, those who want to broaden the use of Algeria’s dardja, are the francophones. Just read El Watan (this newspaper is my reference on what Algeria’s francophone intellectual think 🙂 ) and you’ll see that it’s the defended option whenever this topic is mentioned. Promoting Algerian dardja is like promoting our difference with the other Arab countries. It is like saying hidjab and niqab are not Algerian and women should wear Al hayek and la3djar – I said I know what you think. In these times of the so-called Arabic Spring, this stance could make the consensus as we are told we’re different and Algeria shouldn’t go through the same uprisings 🙂

Anyway, since I said intellectuals will soon be extinct in Algeria, it is useful to look at what average Mo thinks. And here we find out that there are some for and some against but there doesn’t seem to be any ideological background behind their opinions.

Dardja and French

You may have heard of one of those WikiLeaks cables where Algerians were referred to as trilingual illiterates. I won’t go through the discussion of whether it’s true or false. Suffice to say that it’s neither…

What is true is that Algerian dardja has been “invaded” by French. I mentioned this point here when I talked about Kabyle, but the case of Algerian dardja is no better. Today some words, including prepositions and conjunctions, are always said in French. “Parce que” or rather “paske” can be heard even on Algerian TV A3 which is, as I said here, more an Arab channel than an Algerian one.

In his famous book, Bencheneb wrote that only a few Turkish words made it into Algerian dardja, and even less expressions. French has definitely had a bigger impact, especially in the recent years, perhaps an effect of globalization. This is true for the coastal and bigger cities but is less valid when you head to the South.
I do like our dardja and like to use it but I hate the fact I feel it’s just broken French when I hear it.

What then?

Algerians study (in) classical Arabic but one must agree that they do not master the language. Most of them are unable to speak it fluently, and while they could read it (newspapers and books), many are unable to write it properly without making huge efforts. It is even more serious when the older generation is considered. These neither read nor speak Arabic; many of them do not even understand it when it is used on Algerian television.

Algerian television (meaning the political Pouvoir) seems to have made some concessions as you can hear the dardja now in some programs. It is widely used on the newly created El Djazairia TV and a bit less on Ennahar TV and Echourouk TV. Some newspapers (sports ones) seem to use it too but the biggest dailies do still write in Modern Standard Arabic. So we are still far away from Tunisian Nessma TV (which scarcely uses classical Arabic). Some years ago a Moroccan magazine (Nichane) was created and was written in dardja; it seems it has disappeared in 2010. Egyptian and Lebanese TV channels do use their dialects most of the time, even when presenting the news for some, but one doesn’t necessarily feel it as these dialects have less non-Arab words in them.

So if one wants Algerian dardja to become a language, without speaking of making it official, there is prior work to do. It must first get rid of all the unnecessary French words in it.

Also, it must have more vocabulary so that it could be used effectively. I am one who doesn’t mix too much French when speaking in dardja. But when a discussion becomes sharper, I usually switch to French (this time keeping the prepositions in Arabic) or English. Having dardja used on TV and in the newspapers would help. Usage in state administrations, such as justice courts, would be a must too. I prefer our ministers to speak in dardja rather than French, but again this seems to be a generation issue which will disappear along with the Tab Jnanhoum.
And what about art?! Songs are already in dardja for most of them. Algerian theatre is a leading vector of using dardja even if it’s what they call the third language, a cleaner dardja which has been invented to make the plays understandable by both Algerians and other Arabs. Perhaps this third language is the solution. Remains literature…

A last question is which dardja to use? Tamazight has been made official but we still speak our Tamazight dialects: I speak Kabyle, others Chaoui, Chenoui, Mzabi, Targui, etc. If dardja becomes a language then only one of the dialects would be promoted and the rest would become varieties of the “new” language, i.e. remain dialects. So which of the dialect of Algiers, Oran, Constantine, Djelfa, Setif, Annaba, Jijel, etc. would be used and what to do to make the disqualified ones disappear?

My Opinion

I just said that I do like Algerian dardja, more that of Centre/Eastern Algeria than that of the West or the South 🙂 so I am not among those who call for its suppression. But I don’t think it must become a language. Classical Arabic is such a wonderful language and I believe the media, intellectual and arts’ role is to help the people improve their skills (including the language) rather than lowering the standard by using dardja. This of course means Classical Arabic, or rather Modern Standard Arabic, must be used on a wider range. It must be better taught in schools and people need to be capable of using it naturally. We are staying in the middle of the way, Classical Arabic is like a foreign language as only a few use it fluently, and dardja is too “shabby” to be considered a language.

However, there are three words, typically Algerian, which I would love to have introduced into Classical Arabic. “Balak”, which was mentioned in the first video above, and “madabik” and “3afssa”. 🙂

I cannot end this long post without mentioning Algerian Lamine Souag, the author of the excellent Jabal Al-Lughat blog, and his new blog on the origins of Algerian dardja.
And as promised, here is the poll so let us know what you think.


13 thoughts on “Language, ideology and belonging, the Algerian paradigm V

  1. Dear MnarviDZ,
    You know all too well the situation of diglossia (dichotomy fissHa vr Darja) is the same all over the Arab world. What you watch on Arab TV is totally different from what is spoken on the streets of Riyadh, Doha, Dubai. I’ve lived here in the Gulf countries for 15 years. Yet I sometimes have to resort to English to make myself understood.

    • Abdellatif,

      I actually do not watch Arab TV, my souvenirs of Arab stuff go back to when I was young and watched some Arab series on ENTV, so I am not sure I get your point. Can you tell us more on what the differences between Arab TVs and the “Arab street” are?
      Also, do you resort to English because people do not understand you? Do you use our darjda or did you switch to some Middle-eastern accent?

  2. Every country has some form of colloquial language or a dialect based on the official language (some countries don’t have a recognized official language). For example, Ebonics is an African American vernacular form of English, a dialect different from standard American English. It is spoken throughout the south and heavily African-American in cities/neighborhoods, yet you would never hear Obama or African-American leaders speak it in an official capacity. Irish Dialect, very popular in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Boston, and so forth, yet no politician from those areas/states/cities would use it. And so southern/Appalachia English, which is spoken in Virginia, West Virginia, North and South Carolina, Tennessee, Kentucky, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas, Oklahoma and so forth is not also spoken in an official capacity in an official sitting. Jimmy Carter or Bill Clinton never gave a state of the union address or spoke to the American people in their original dialect.

    The Dardja is a dialect based mostly on Berber, Arabic and French (the mixture depends on the region). It’s the colloquial language of the street, of the every day man/woman, and there is nothing new or unique about that. In every country, you will find a colloquial language (and several dialects as well) that is spoken by the regular folks. Moreover, the Djardja has changed a little. When i was there this summer, i noticed that the young folks speak a dardja that is heavily based on classical Arabic. So, it has evolved, which is normal. But in all these countries where you have dialects and colloquial languages, they are not usually the official or unofficial language of the state or the bureaucracy.

    • laseptiemmewilaya,

      I agree on all this. Perhaps the issue with Algeria is then more with the fact classical Arabic is not something people are able to use. I don’t know how things are in the US but I believe those people you mention are able, to a big extent, to speak English.

      In Algeria, people considered Bouteflika a genius just because he’s able to utter a few consecutive sentences in Classical Arabic with close to no mistakes. That is to tell how our other politicians are… And the situation is roughly the same with any other category.

      As to dardja being closer to Arabic, a friend of mine whose parents are Arabic teachers, told me once something with the word “djarida”. I didn’t understand it, not because I don’t know the word but because I didn’t expect it as everyone uses journal or jornane 🙂

  3. The darja sounds pretty complicated to be promoted to an actual language. You seem to have missed the fact that in order for a language to sustain, it must be written, and thus needs a solid unambiguous grammar. Most of the linguistic constructs in the Algerian Darja (s) are some ‘phonetic’ derivations from other foreign languages, they do not keep any grammatical bounds.

    You may say that I can get the word “stylo” and use it as a noun in the Darja by applying the rules of Arabic plural to it! Seems too complicated already for any new coming learners, and worse for those who would dare make some grammatical rules for it.

    That’s why, in my opinion, Darja is not going anywhere; and while its use in daily life is perfectly ok, more focus must be redirected towards teaching/learning traditional Arabic.

    • martani,

      I mentioned in the post that I believed all Arab dialects can be written. I write in Algerian dardja using latin alphabet without any problem, and I guess the new generation does the same with the Arabic alphabet 🙂
      Of course, as I said above, Algerian dardja must get rid of many French vocabulary. Also as you rightly point out having a grammar is mandatory.

      I like your conclusion and this is what I just said to laspetiemewilaya. Algerians are definitely weak when it comes to Arabic. But would a bigger focus on teaching it (in school) be enough to improve this? Do we not need to use it more often in places where it is barred by dardja?

  4. A language (etiher having the statue of language or dialect) is a tool of communication. As for any tool, the users, depending on their context, choose the one that is easier to handle and goes as quickly as possible to its aim : transmitting messages understandable by the listeners, finding informations or learning. Given this basic reality, no one can impose by a the political decision how to communicate. Languages have always evolved.For example, nobody decided to add french, turkish or italian words to darja, the history, the circumstances, did. The same holds for how french verbs are being used the arab way nowadays in darja. One can regret it but has to deal with it as a fact. A fact that tells us that given their social and cultural context and their school, algerians find that it is the easiest way of communicating with each other.
    In my opinion, as you point out, the complications arose when the subject became an idelogical issue. In Algeria, the language issue draws the frontiers between the two big trends of the society: the “modernist” speaking french and promoting french and for the national identity darja or kabyle as a national language to ban the arabic and any reference to our middle eastern relationships and the “traditionalist” promoting the exlusivity of arabic language and working politically through repressive laws for the ban of the french language froms schools and public area because, as they say it is the language of the colonizer. Neither of them has a real and decisive impact of how the algerians communicate because ideologies have never deeply shaped the societies in any domain and especially in this one.
    Let the languages live and die carried by the collective usage.

    • Let the languages live and die carried by the collective usage.

      This is the right summary for your comment. I sometimes think the same but it doesn’t last long. I know that in France (looks like France is the reference for me too!) radio and TV channels have to broadcast n% of their programs in French. This includes songs for example. The same goes for the subsidies the state gives to French art works (cinema and theatre for e.g.)
      This is not having the politicians force the people to use or listen to stuff in French but it is a way to support the French language (and culture) in the global competition.
      Obviously this wouldn’t work if these works in French are not of a relatively good quality.

      I wouldn’t like to see Arabic or Kabyle disappear in Algeria in a sort of “normal” evolution of the language. I find it really sad for e.g. when some Kabyles do not transmit the language to their children. I believe it’s our duty to “help” our language survive while “carried by the collective usage”, as you said.
      Current situation showed us that the method the Algerian government followed was not the right one…

  5. Thanks for the link 🙂

    The Francophone and Arabophone positions you talk about both happen to go conveniently with material interests. If we broaden the use of Darja while keeping French as the working language of most of the bureaucracy, then the consequences are simple: Francophones’ skills would remain economically valuable, and Arabophones’ skills would be devalued. If we want to use Fusha more than Darja, then we’d need to employ a whole lot of new and better Arabic teachers, so Arabophones’ skills would become more valuable, and Francophones could be stigmatised even when they’re not speaking French.

    Of course, it’s ridiculously short-sighted for Arabophones to attack Darja: it’s thanks to Darja that most of us still consider Arabic our mother tongue in the first place. French is a much clearer threat to the position of Fusha, as well as to the Arabic vocabulary of Darja. Every other Arabic-speaking country has its own non-Fusha dialect, whether they call it Darja or 3ammiyya; why shouldn’t Algeria? It would make more sense, and be much easier, to work on bringing Darja closer to Fusha (and maybe even vice versa sometimes). It’s bizarre that many educated Algerians find it easier to speak French, a foreign language totally unrelated to their mother tongue, than Fusha, which is much more like Darja; a sensible lover of Fusha would work on taking advantage of their similarities, not exaggerating their differences.

    As for grammar, every language and every dialect has a grammar; the grammarian’s job is to discover the rules by seeing what people say and don’t say, not to create the rules. You would need to pick a standard one, though, if you wanted to make it official.

    • Welcome aboard Lameen and thanks for commenting.

      You made an interesting point. Ideology is indeed not always the real motive and material benefits can often be found behind it. And it is also a matter of holding the power.
      Reminds me of this article of Elkhabar.

      رفض عبد الحميد تمار تبادل مراسيم نقل المسؤولية في وزارة الاستشراف مع الوزير ”الحمسي” الجديد، الدكتور بشير مصيطفى، وأبدى تمار امتعاضا شديدا من هذا الأمر. وحسب بعض الذين حضروا الجلسة، فقد انتقد تمار تعيين ”معرّب” على رأس الوزارة، وقال لمقرّبيه بالحرف الواحد ”من المؤسف لكم ولوزارة التخطيط، فماذا يمكن أن يفعل هذا المعرّب؟”. وفعلا، بدا تمار ممتعضا جدا على شاشة التلفزيون في نشرة الثامنة، وهو يسلم ”المشعل” لكاتب الدولة الجديد، مصيطفى.

  6. Ì think both classical Arabic and dardja are poor media to convey complex concepts, perhaps I should add ‘modern’ before ‘concepts’. This is a real limitations which leads to both these languages, if I may call the dardja so, being constantly ‘contaminated’ with foreign words which carry these concepts. Perhaps the issue here is that there is a huge intellectual work which is simply missing and has been for decades. As others have said, the way we approach Arabic is just wrong because it is imbibed with ideological considerations. Some are justified, it being the language of our sacred book, but this is a double ended sword as this is also what led to obsessive efforts to keep the language as ‘pure’ as possible lest to loose the ‘original’ ‘sacred’ language. Of course, this is not the only factor, some intellectuals are also to blame for taking the easier route and transliterating modern concepts using Arabic letters rather than proposing new authentic Arabic words to convey these concepts. I think French is undergoing the same threat here from English onslaught.

    Why is this important? Because as Qatkhal pointed out, regardless of everything, a language is a medium for communication. If it fails in this purpose it will be quickly replaced for practical reasons by other more performing languages. Take universities for example, why is it that in Algeria and in all Arab countries, students are ‘forced’ to switch to foreign languages to study most courses? Forced in the sense that if they do not use a foreign language, they will be handicapped because most reference books are in foreign languages.

    So I think the most sustainable way to encourage people to use a language in their daily life is to make it useful, or rather more useful than easily available alternatives. In our context, this is very challenging as, like you predict, our intellectual pool is rapidally shrinking and the ones we have are torn by silly ideological wars or simply incapable of doing the foundation work that the likes of the Renaissance intellectuals and the Muslim scientists and philosophers who brought back Greek heritage from the world of darkness managed to do brilliantly and effectively.

    • Do they not say “لغة الشعر والدين” as if Arabic, because it is Arabic, cannot convey other concepts. I said once that I was surprised by the books one can find in Persian and how these deal with any topic, including the scientific ones which seem to be impossible for Arabic. The same goes for Chinese despite its lack of an alphabet and its poor grammar (this might be an advantage).

      Making the language useful is indeed what we need but do not expect much from le haut commissariat de la langue arabe…

  7. I wanted to vote, but I didn’t like the “obligatory” must I would use “may”, to talk about the Derja, for me, it is the corrupted form of the MSA or CA which is also the mother tongue of all Algerians depending on the geographical location (rural, urban) of course.
    this phenomenon i.e. the use of a mixture of Darja and French and even of MSA (Bilingualism with diglossia) is prevalent in Algeria along with Code Switching and borrowings and this is what maybe makes the sociolinguistic situation of Algeria so complicated.

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