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E.g., 06/28/2020

A Once and Future Alphabet - Part Two

By: Tim Brookes


12 December 2019

It’s hard to know exactly how many people today speak one or more of the Amazigh family of languages, but the publishing company Editions Amazigh estimates 17 million in Morocco, 10 million in Algeria, 4 million in the Mali/Burkina Faso/Niger region, perhaps half a million in Libya, tens of thousands each in Tunisia, Mauritania, and Egypt, and several million scattered overseas, especially in France and Spain.

What is clear, though, is that very few can read and write in Tifinagh. To focus on Morocco again, until very recently all formal education and all official communications have used the Latin and Arabic scripts, and again until recently, to write a Tifinagh symbol on a wall, say, might be interpreted as a political, even a subversive act.

Yet one of the pivotal steps in the Amazigh revival was the creation, with government funding, in 2001 of the Institut Royal de la Culture Amazigh  (IRCAM) in Rabat, the capital. Ten years before Amazigh became an official language in Morocco, IRCAM was tasked with researching and promoting Amazigh language and culture in seven areas:  linguistics, didactics, translation, arts and literature, computer sciences, history and the environment, and sociology and anthropology.

Let’s put this in a global context. I know individuals who, in order to revive their traditional scripts, have handwritten books and newspapers because there were no fonts. I know groups that are teaching and learning their scripts through small chat groups, and communities that are learning about and passing on their history and cultural inheritance by creating Facebook groups. To them, an organization such as IRCAM, no matter how limited its funding, would be a godsend.

So how is the process of script revival going in Morocco? My impressions are bound to be limited, and I welcome feedback and conversation in response to this article, but here are some general observations.

One of the potential instruments in script revival is signage—as the city of Tahlequah, Oklahoma, home to the headquarters of the Cherokee Nation, recognized when it decided to put up street signs in both English and the Cherokee syllabary. Public signage makes a hitherto invisible and unacknowledged subculture visible and officially acknowledged.

In Morocco, signage shows Tifinagh’s paradoxical in-revival status. The old script appears only in new condition, recently added to the entrances of schools, and on government buildings. The Mohammed V International Airport has added Tifinagh in brave and bright new neon; railway station signs are still only in French and Arabic, just as the approaching-the-station public-address announcements on the train have also not added an Amazigh-language version. And ironically this means that out in the Berber villages, Tifinagh is seen less than in the cities.

Elsewhere in modern-day Tamazhga more signage is appearing. Agadez, the largest city in central Niger, added signage in Tifinagh in 2016. In the past few months, the city of Agadir in Morocco and the town of Nalut district in Libya announced plans to officially include Tifinagh to street signs, and in the near future will add signage for city and town names, tourist destinations, and historic and natural sites.

On the other hand, when Morocco unveiled its new digital ID card, the type did not include the Amazigh language or the Tifinagh script, sparking anger among some in the Amazigh community.

Speaking of digital: in some script-revival cases, technology is an obstacle, either because the revivalists lack the resources to digitize their script or because font designers don’t find it commercially viable to develop materials for such small markets.

Tifinagh is in better shape. As its letters do not vary and typically do not use ligatures, Tifinagh has been a digital-friendly script. IRCAM has made fonts and keyboard software available as free downloads

Google has included Tifinagh in its Noto Sans suite.

The IRCAM website offers Amazigh language lessons, font and keyboard software downloads, an e-dictionary, a library, a bookshop, and a range of other resources that would be the envy of many of the individuals and small groups working on script revival elsewhere.

As a result, widespread communication in Tifinagh is relatively straightforward. The Amazigh World News relays word of the struggle and growth of Amazigh culture and Amazigh rights to the global community both digitally and in print.  A wide range of Amazigh use social media; on Twitter, for example, @Yirza3 posts poems in Tifinagh with a translation in French. A group of young Amazigh activists has created an Wikipedia Incubator in Amazighe/Tifinagh.

The same group worked on translating Facebook into Amazigh/Tifinagh.

As is often the case, the stumbling-block is not technology but a lack of material and a shortage of teachers.

Throughout Amazigh history, so little has been written in Tifinagh that potential learners have almost nothing to read and thus little reason to learn it. (A notable exception is Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s classic The Little Prince, which was recently published in a Tifinagh edition.) When I was in Morocco I asked an antique book dealer to try to track down books published before 1990 in Tifinagh, and he was unable to come up with a single one. IRCAM is starting to produce primers and classroom books, but the opportunities for international publishers and translation companies seem to be considerable.

Progress is also held back (as it is in the case of, for example, the revitalization of Native American languages) by the shortage of fluent speakers who are also willing to teach, and capable of teaching well. Those in the global languages industry know only too well the depressing statistics illustrating the decline in school-based language learning, and the shortage of high-quality language teachers. And it’s another well-known phenomenon that the best teachers, like the best doctors, rarely gravitate toward impoverished rural areas. So in Morocco I found the paradoxical situation that Amazigh classes are more likely to be taught in the major cities, with their more cosmopolitan populations, than in the mountain villages whose populations are almost entirely Amazigh.

“There is a new law for generalizing [the] Amazigh language in [our] educational system,” explained Abdellah Bouzandag, a researcher in sociolinguistics and teaching/didactics at IRCAM, “but this needs more teachers and a [bigger] budget. The new law states that the ministry of education should generalize Amazigh in education in 5-10 years,” a process that began in 2003. He is working on a schoolbook for teachers of adults.

Still, it’s an undeniable start. And the factor that gives it more energy and more of a sense of possibilities than, for example, a small language community in northeastern India trying to reclaim its ancestral language and script, is the collective memory of the Maghreb, and its counterpart, the dream of uniting the greater Tamazhga.

Time and again, as I traveled around Morocco, Amazigh people told me Once all this was ours. Not just the desert, not just the High Atlas, not just Morocco, but this entire scimitar-shaped swath of land from the Egyptian border, sweeping across North Africa and curving down the coast of Mauretania and into the interior of Niger.

This is a factor in script revival, not only in Morocco but in cultures all around the world, that may be just as important as the correspondence between the letters and the sounds they are to represent, just as important as inclusion in the Unicode standard—this sense that their writing system is part of, and stands for, something important they once were, and might be again.

Today, Amazigh activists such as Rachid Raha, the first President of the Amazigh World Assembly, are talking once again of the advantages of a revived Tamazhga, a North African economic union modeled to some extent on the European Union on the far side of the Mediterranean.

Tifinagh may be the once and future alphabet.

(all photos credit: Tim Brookes)

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