Linguist and Professor Amina Mettouchi: Endangered Berber Languages

Professor Amina Mettouchi, who holds the Berber Linguistics chair at Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes, grew up in Azazga, Kabylia until the age of 11 where she left Algeria for France and continued her studies there. She found herself specializing in Berber linguistics, but the path there wasn’t always linear. She started off with math and physics in efforts to become a businesswoman or engineer to please her parent’s wishes, but her true love was for the humanities, so once she graduated from high school she started studying subjects like literature, philosophy, and history. She explains, “My interests then gradually focused on linguistics, and when I started preparing for a Ph.D., my supervisor suggested I work on Berber. I hadn’t thought it was possible at the time, although there were a few doctoral theses on Berber, and some teaching going on. I embraced this opportunity as a way to reconnect with my roots in a way that also allowed me to work on the intricate and mindblowing complexities of the human mind thanks to linguistics. And I haven’t stopped since.

Professor Mettouchi continues, “I keep marveling at the genius of languages in general, and Berber languages in particular. Studying linguistics is an extraordinary window onto the mind, and seeing how one species, humankind, developed so many systems in order to communicate similar emotions and facts is extremely exciting, because it shows how one organ, the brain, which is the same for all humans, can develop its potentialities in so many different ways. And the challenge lies in explaining both the variation and the common features underlying that variation. Hence the multiple theoretical frameworks and approaches.”

“Diversity is really something precious. As you know, many languages are currently dying.” According to Pr. Mettouchi, linguists estimate that of the seven thousand or so languages still spoken today, only 10% to 50% will make it to 2100. She says with each language that dies (one every two weeks on average), “It is a system expressing some perhaps unique potentialities of the human mind that disappears. Not only that, but when a language dies, many precious related things disappear, unique cultures, stories, songs, unique knowledge about nature and the environment, and also, unique feelings of identity, and connection with ancestors, and ancestral land. This is why, while continuing my work on Kabyle, I have decided to dedicate a significant part of my time documenting, and fostering the documentation of endangered Berber languages. The task is huge, and cannot be undertaken by just a few linguists. The whole population has to take part in the documentation and preservation of their languages, with linguists acting as consultants and experts on methods and tools. This is why I have started going online, first with the pages on endangered Berber languages on my professional website, then with the Facebook Page Endangered Berber Languages and the Twitter account Langues Berberes en Danger. My aim is first to raise awareness concerning the need to document the Berber languages that are the most threatened, and then to provide methodological help to language activists willing to undertake that mission for their language. My purpose is also to disseminate oral documents where one can hear and see people speaking threatened Berber languages.” Pr. Mettouchi adds that “Unfortunately, such videos are extremely rare,” and the way they are uploaded (without keywords or name of the language or the region in the title for example), “makes it very difficult to trace them online.”

Linguistic terminology

Pr. Mettouchi makes things more transparent by explaining certain terminology, “Aspect is a category that is close to tense, but does not reflect the distinction between past and future.” In Kabyle for instance, the same form (e.g. tturarent) can mean “they were singing and dancing festively” (in the past) or “they are singing and dancing festively” now. The interpretation depends on context. “Mood has to do with the speaker’s viewpoint on the situation, whether it is actual, potential, wished for etc. Reference is the way nouns, with or without determiners, demonstratives etc., represent the entities we are talking about, as specific, or generic, as close to the speaker, or to the interlocutor, as known to interlocutors, already mentioned, etc.” Information structure is the way information about events or situations, and their participants is conveyed through e.g. changes in syntactic constructions, very often in word order. “And prosody is the study of the melody of the voice, of accent, pauses and such phenomena that are typical of speech. All the aspects of language I am interested in revolve around meaning, and the relationship of form to meaning.

Pr. Mettouchi also makes a comment on the word dialect, “It has many meanings and can be used either scientifically or in a derogatory way, implying that the language does not have a status. This is why I try to avoid using it and use language or varieties instead.”

Berber or Amazigh?

“Berber is the term used in the scientific literature on those languages, internationally. Amazigh is fine too as a scientific term but involves a more political perspective. I personally use both, depending on the medium used, and the topic broached.”

Pr. Mettouchi clears up a misconception, “Even if there was, at some point in history, one mother-language from which all current Berber varieties come from, it is not true that Berber or Amazigh is one language nowadays. This is obvious to anyone speaking Kabyle for instance, and engaging in a conversation with a Tamashek speaker. If they don’t switch to Arabic, there will be a long period of adjustment before they understand each other. Berber is a language family, like Romance or Germanic, and the diversity within the family is comparable. No one says that French, Italian, Romanian, Catalan, etc are one language although everyone agrees they all come from Latin. This is not only a question of scientific truth, but it is also a trap for Berber languages, to talk about Amazigh as one language because then individual languages die in silence since as long as some speakers of major varieties still speak those varieties, one believes that “the language” is alive and does not involve themselves in documentation and preservation. This is what has happened in the last decades, and it is time we reverse the trend and celebrate and document the beautiful diversity of Berber languages. This does not prevent political positions from advocating a united Tamazgha. One can be united as a people, sharing common ancestors and one language family, but speaking various languages within that family, and asking full recognition of all of them.”

Pr. Mettouchi was invited to speak at a conference organized by CNRPAH in Tamanrasset, Algeria on the 12th and 13th of January on safeguarding methods of endangered Berber languages. She says, “It went very well, and the proceedings are currently being written, for a publication in 2019 hopefully.” Pr. Mettouchi is involved in and outside the Maghreb, in regards to her presence in the former, she does her fieldwork in Kabylia and in the region of Touggourt (Ouargla) in Algeria. She says she tries to participate in conferences there as often as she can and cites her attendance at WOCAL (World Congress of African Linguistics) in Rabat, Morocco in August 2018. She has just been invited as a plenary speaker to talk about the documentation of endangered Berber languages in Fez, in October 2019, for a locally organized international conference (LaPac2019). She expresses, “I would like to travel more across Tamazgha to talk about those matters, but I also have to do my research, which involves long hours of study and data analysis, my fieldwork, my teaching, and dissemination at general conferences throughout the world, which also inspire and enrich my ideas and projects for Berber. Lack of time, and my deep desire to reach more people, not only at conferences or in universities, have led me to use social media more intensely, and I intend to continue in that direction, and bring as much as I can in terms of information, methods and tools to local speakers and activists through that medium. Empowerment of speakers and the development of local initiatives is my ultimate goal.”

What can the average person do?

“There are many things one can do. The most urgent is to collect recordings from threatened Berber languages, make audio and video recordings of elders telling stories, evoking memories, remembering ancient traditions, songs, poems, proverbs, riddles etc. Isolated words are not sufficient. One doesn’t speak by aligning words like beads on a string, we need natural discourse, wherever it is still possible to record it.”

She continues, “One crucial thing also is that speaking a language to talk about modern realities in our Western lives is good, but doing only that leaves unseen the whole iceberg, which is the wealth of traditional knowledge that characterizes indigenous cultures,” regarding the environment, medicinal plants, philosophies or worldviews, history etc., “that we do not use on an everyday basis to go shopping or talk about our feelings or our jobs. All this knowledge and the vocabulary that goes with it must be preserved if we want to be able to benefit from that wisdom accumulated through thousands of years.”

For Pr. Mettouchi, the importance of writing is overrated. “It is good to be able to write one’s language, but putting all one’s energies into that, thinking that it is the only way a language can exist and prosper is an illusion, especially in a world that is now more and more digital, and involves images and sounds, more and more. Therefore, I think people should engage more in oral transmission. For instance, whenever it is possible, create kindergartens where children, especially those whose parents do not speak the language anymore, can learn it in a natural way. Not in a Westernized way, with picture books, but naturally, with elders, playing traditional games, including verbal games such as riddles, and listening to folktales, practicing traditional activities etc. Elders should be involved as main teachers for children under the age of 7. After that, children can and will learn how to read in write, in as many alphabets and writing systems as they want, including the various Amazigh scripts. But before reading and writing the language, one needs to speak it and to learn all the wisdom and the values that it conveys, not only through everyday language but also through riddles, folktales, poetry. I think that it is urgent that all over Tamazgha, activists, especially women, create oral tradition kindergartens, where elders, especially women, can pass on the wealth of knowledge they have to young children, in the way transmission used to get done in the old days, through practice. Learning to weave, to make pottery, to cook, to plow, to grow vegetables or palm-trees, to make a fire in the desert, to gather wild herbs, for boys and girls alike, is a wonderful experience through which they can learn their culture and their language together. People often talk about de-colonizing, minds, and cultures, but too often, they don’t realize that the way to decolonization is also through responsible concrete actions like those. They are easy to implement, even in diaspora contexts at a smaller scale, but they are only possible if we think about it in a radically new way, by empowering women, especially older women who still are skilled in traditional activities and language, and by being confident in the value and importance of oral transmission.”

How can we spark interest in some arabophones who may believe the preservation of Berber languages does not concern them?

“I think this is due to several factors among which wrong assumptions about multilingualism, exclusive rather than inclusive attitudes concerning language and a vision of language as a currency in a capitalistic world, which is totally outdated.” Pr. Mettouchi says this is true for both Arabic speakers and Berber speakers for different reasons and stresses the importance of multilingualism which “is the natural situation for human communities all over the planet and has been for thousands of years. All studies on bilingualism or multilingualism in the last decades have proved that speaking several languages is better for everything, from health to wealth, than being monolingual. You get less Alzheimer’s, you live longer, you get more IQ points, you expand your problem-solving skills etc. by being multilingual. Children can learn and speak several languages, it is easy for them, and it is good for them. Your daughter can speak Darija, a Rif Berber variety, Standard Arabic, French, English, and Chinese, all of them, and even if she is not particularly gifted. The idea that for instance, an Arabic speaker must, for her children, choose between learning English and learning Rif Berber is beside the point. Learning several languages before the age of ten is no problem at all if you don’t enforce writing on the children too early.”

Pr. Mettouchi’s favorite project and final remarks

“I have a soft spot in my heart for the first international project I coordinated, CorpAfroAs, because it was very innovative at the time, and there were several young Ph.D. researchers involved, whose input was crucial, and whose energy carried the project onwards. We still work together, they are now academics, and I feel proud of having participated somehow in their lives and careers. But the most exciting endeavor for me is the one I am developing right now, this large-scale project on the documentation of the diversity of Berber languages, which interacts with other
more academic interests of mine. I love the way it is grounded in the everyday life of
speakers in the upper half of Africa and in the diaspora. I love the fact that it empowers
speakers themselves, and especially women, who play a crucial role in language transmission, and should be more visible and represented in language activism. I love the fact that my academic work might make a difference in the lives of children who are in danger of never having the opportunity to speak their ancestors’ language, and who will perhaps be given back that opportunity because everyone will feel responsible for that, and act in that direction.”


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