Say what? Algeria’s patois infuriates, delights
By Lamine Chikhi
ALGIERS (Reuters) – As an Arabic speaker, Syrian
businessman Ziad Karam thought he’d feel at home in Algeria.
How wrong he turned out to be. “I need language training to
understand my Algerian brothers!” Karam, 42, told Reuters.
“It’s so complex, the sound so unusual, that I’ve decided
to use an interpreter during my stays in Algeria.”
Unlike neighbors in Morocco and Tunisia, Algerians speak a
dense patois, a mixture of Arabic, Berber, French and sometimes
Turkish, that most Arabs cannot fathom.
This fact of Algerian life, long familiar to Algeria’s
Maghreb neighbors, is being discovered anew by the latest
influx of expatriates, some of them Arabs from the Levant and
the Gulf, drawn here as the country opens to foreign
Almost five decades after independence from France in 1962
and following a decade-long Islamist insurgency, Algerians
employ an everyday speaking style as mixed as their identity
The linguistic jigsaw puzzle reflects the many
civilizations that have occupied the North African country —
Phoenicians, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Turks and French.
“When other Arabs listen to someone mixing Arabic, Berber
and French, they say he’s Algerian. It’s become our trademark!”
President Abdelaziz Bouteflika said in a recent speech.
Bouteflika, in sympathy with traditionalists, says he would
like Algerians to speak better Arabic.
Understanding Algerian speech is not easy. In a single
sentence, the subject might be in Arabic, the verb in French,
the complement in Berber or Turkish.
Let’s try this:A car hit Mohamed, who was taken to
hospital. In Algerian patois: Mohamed darbattou tonobile,
dattou direct el sbitar.
In this example, the verb is in Algerian dialect, the word
car is in a kind of French, sbitar is Turkish, and the
intonation is taken from the Berber Kabyle language.
The result may infuriate foreigners. But to many Algerians
it’s just normal — and certainly nothing to apologize for.
“So what? This is the way we speak in Algeria. I don’t see
why our president is mad at it, I don’t feel ashamed of my
language,” university teacher Farid Fareh told Reuters.
“It’s an open country — open to cultures and languages.”
In the past, this openness was imposed by outsiders.
For 300 years from the early 16th century, Algeria was part
of the Ottoman empire under a regency that had Algiers as its
capital. Turkish was the language of government.
During this period, the modern Algerian state began to
emerge as a distinct territory between Tunisia and Morocco.
Spain occupied the western town of Oran between 1509 and
1790, leaving traces of Spanish in the dialect of that city.
Algeria came under French occupation from 1830 to 1962, a
period in which many Algerians lost their lands and much of
their culture to colonists. French became the official
Eager to remove the vestiges of colonialism after a brutal
independence war, Algeria made Arabic the country’s official
language and promoted it over French in schools.
As a result, while many elderly Algerians speak excellent
French, many younger people lack the same fluency.
The status of French, which is still the language of
business, remains an uneasy topic between both governments.
Unlike Morocco and Tunisia, Algeria is not a member of the
Francophonie organization, the body which promotes the learning
of French around the world.
Then, there is Kabyle, a language used in the Berber
Kabylie region east of Algiers. Berbers, who make up a fifth of
the country’s 33 million people, have long waged a tumultuous
campaigned for greater rights including recognition of Kabyle.
The last big crisis began when a schoolboy in Kabylie died
in police custody in 2001. The death led to clashes with police
in which 126 protesters were killed and thousands were injured.
The government recognizes Kabyle but it is not an official
national language in which government business can be done.
For many Algerians, struggling to make ends meet, the
country’s linguistic diversity is the least of their problems.
“One hundred and thirty years of French occupation, 30
years of Sovietism, 13 years of terrorism and Algeria is still
alive! It’s a miracle, so I don’t care whether the language is
pure or not,” Farid Fareh, the teacher, said.
Increasingly, language is a reflection of age, not region,
in a country where 70 percent of the population is under 30.
Listen to Mohamed Anis, a 25-year-old dressed in Levis,
Ray-Ban sunglasses and a Che Guevara T-shirt, explain his
approach to life:
“Hna Kaoum El Rapid, lazam tbougi bach takoul el rougi” or
“We belong to a speedy generation, you have to move fast if you
want to live decently.”
To most people over 60, he’s talking gobbledygook.
“This is not a language. This is nothing but noisy sounds,”
said Khelifa Cheraiti, a 65-year-old retired Arabic teacher.
But Nacer Jabi, a sociologist, believes Algeria’s mixed
language is not a problem.
“Algeria’s youth doesn’t have any problem of communication.
Those who have a problem belong to the generation over 60. We
have a clash of generations, not a clash of languages,” he