Language: Tamazight

Transcribing Spoken Dialects: Sharidan Russell on Language Ideologies in Morocco

I often think back to the famous saying that a language is a dialect with an army and a navy.

Sharidan Russell is a Rabat-based researcher who studies language ideologies. After graduating with a BA in Arabic and Middle East Studies from Dartmouth College, she was named a Fulbright fellow to Morocco, where she conducted research on transition of Darija, the dialect of Arabic spoken in the Maghreb, into a written language. Keenly interested in the ways new writing practices evolve, Russell’s work draws on sociolinguistics and the field of linguistic anthropology as she seeks to understand changing social practices through the lens of literature.

Hodna Nuernberg (HN): Morocco, where you have been conducting your research, has a very rich linguistic landscape. Could you please describe how Morocco’s languages interact and describe the role of Darija specifically?

Sharidan Russell (SR): Morocco has both official languages and what I refer to as “de facto official languages”. After its independence in 1956, Morocco began the process of Arabization by re-introducing Arabic as the language of government and education. By Arabic, Modern Standard Arabic (MSA)—or Fusha—was meant. Today, MSA is the kingdom’s official language, but French, which is not in the constitution, functions as a de facto official language. There are very high standards for “fluency” in France and there are many ideologies around the continued use of French. In 2011, Tamazight—the name of a family of languages spoken by the Amazigh, or indigenous peoples of the Maghreb—became an official language in the constitution. Morocco is also home to a range of dialects, which are—or have been—largely unwritten. Darija is the most widely spoken of these dialects and it varies from region to region. Darija is also a de facto official language, in a sense, because it is so widely used for communication at a variety of levels, though it has no official status. Hassaniya, which is spoken in the south, is another dialect that is so different from Darija as to be mutually unintelligible. Hassaniya is recognized in the constitution—not as an official language, but as an important aspect of Morocco’s culture and diversity. Darija is the only of these that is not mentioned.

My research looks at the concept of language ideology against the backdrop of Morocco’s linguistic context. A language ideology refers to the thoughts and feelings we all carry about the languages we speak (or do not speak). For example, we sometimes see a stereotype in the U.S. about people who speak with a southern accent as being less educated. While stereotypes like this aren’t necessarily true, for research like mine it is important to understand where these ideologies come from and how they reflect other parts of the culture.

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Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

This week, the global literary world was busy with prizes, language politics, and festivals.

Join us on a journey around the world from Hungary to Morocco and Brazil to find out more about the latest festivals, prizes, and news in world literature. Come back to our blog next week for other news and pieces about world literature. 

Diána Vonnák, Editor-at-Large, reporting from Hungary

One of the highlights of the Hungarian literary scene, Margó Festival and Bookfair took place between 18-21 October. The festival happens twice each year, and while the summer edition focuses on contemporary writers in general, autumn is dedicated to emerging new voices and to literary translation.

The Margó Award is a relatively new initiative that helps to launch a young prose writers’ career each year, awarded to the best debut novel or short story collection of the year. Previous winners include Benedek Totth, whose debut novel Dead Heat (Holtverseny) will be published in English by Biblioasis in 2019 and Mátyás Szöllősi, whose new novel Péter Simon is out now. Short stories of this years’ winner, Anna Mécs peek into young women’s lives as they navigate the chores of adult life. Mécs writes in a voice that merges accuracy with much-needed lightness and acerbic humour.

The audience could meet authors in dozens of readings and roundtable discussions during these densely packed four days. Man Booker winner László Krasznahorkai’s new novel, Aprómunka egy palotáért follows librarian Hermann Melvill’s wanderings in New York into his labyrinth inner world, delivered in Krasznahorkai’s signature, meandering sentences, while György Dragomán’s Rendszerújra collects his politically themed short stories that grapple with oppressive systems, be they political or technological.

Many eagerly awaited new works were discussed from the emerging new generation as well: Boldizsár Fehér debuted with a satirical utopia of social experiment, and a new novel by Péter Gerőcs follows a portrait photographer’s quest against forgetting, Sándor Neszlár published a volume of experimental prose that pairs every kilometre he ran with a sentence, while Ilka Papp-Zakor‘s new collection sketches out a surreal Budapest with zoo-animals on the run. Two documentary films rounded the experience, portraits of Nádas and Krasznahorkai.

As the festival is over, celebrations give way to anxiety over the ongoing culture wars of the Orbán government, that switched to a higher gear in the past months, dismissing the director of Petőfi Literary Museum, and airing plans about a potential centralisation of literary publishing. Meanwhile, many writers protested against a new law that criminalises rough sleeping. Politics and literary production are increasingly different to disentangle, but events like the Margó Festival are strong testimonies of resilience.

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Translating le multilinguisme

Translation is never a horizontal movement; there is always an uneven power dynamic between two languages.

Mektoub. Taleb. Mesquin. Cheb. Bezef. Each of these French words is also Arabic, albeit represented in French orthography. Through long proximity by colonization and immigration, Arabic influence has bled—at some moments more overtly than others—into the French language, and Azouz Begag’s 1986 autobiographical novel Le gone du Chaâba engages with this reality in each word choice and every line of dialogue.

The son of an Algerian migrant worker who settled permanently in France in 1949, not long before the brutal war for independence began, Begag employs a remarkable mixture of French, spoken Arabic, and Lyonnais slang to illustrate the linguistic realities of his community—something that poses problems for a translator who wants to retain its linguistic flavor without rendering the text totally opaque. Written in the eighties, the book and its projet linguistique is perhaps even more relevant at a time when so many Westerners think the Arabic phrase “Allahu akbar” is exclusively synonymous with terrorism.

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In Conversation: Rita Stirn

My book seeks to understand how women manage to become musicians in Morocco.

Rita Stirn is a translator, author, and musician who lives in Rabat, Morocco. Her book, Les musiciennes du Maroc: Portraits choisis (Morocco’s Women in Music: Selected Portraits) was published by Marsam in late 2017. Asymptote’s Editor-at-large Hodna Nuernberg spoke with Stirn about her new publication, Moroccan music, and language politics in the region.

Hodna Nuernberg (HN): How did you decide to write a book on Morocco’s women musicians? And how did being a woman musician yourself shape your approach to researching and writing the book?

Rita Stirn (RS): I’ve always been interested in the silences of history concerning women in art and music. When I started listening to the blues as a teenager, I realized music was a man’s world. Sure, there were plenty of female singers, but very few instrumentalists; I wanted to learn about hidden talents—the women in music who weren’t getting much recognition.

I came to Morocco in 2011. I paid a lot of attention to what was going on here musically. Whenever there was a celebration out on the streets—a marriage, for example—there were inevitably women playing music. So, I’d talk to them. They’d say, “Yeah, sure, people know us,” but none of them were online anywhere. They got all their gigs by word of mouth, and little by little, I began to find out about more and more women musicians.

Around the same time, I was looking though archives for photographs of women in music. All the images were of men. There was no focus whatsoever on women’s talents or the tradition of women instrumentalists, and that’s when the book project started to take shape in my head.

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