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The unstoppable advance of Berber

Berber languages have long been banned from public life in North Africa, but the situation has changed drastically. Linguistic research is generating new insights on the distant past and on present-day Dutch Moroccans. This is the finding of Maarten Kossmann, the only professor of Berber Studies in the Netherlands. Inaugural lecture 13 November.

In his inaugural lecture Kossmann highlights a spectacular change that has taken place. Berber, which can be divided into a range of different Berber languages and into the indigenous language Tamazight, was banned from public life almost thirty years ago. Kossmann was then working in Morocco on his doctoral research. Anyone writing in Berber script risked imprisonment and at university the language was hidden away in lectures on Arabic or French. 'That situation has changed completely,' he has discovered.

Berber script prominent in the public arena

Both in Morocco and in Algeria Berber is now an official language and Berber script is prominently visible in the public arena. A large number of universities currently offer Berber Studie, and Algerian universities currently have no fewer than 900 first-year students of Berber Studies. This rise is due to a movement that started among Algerian intellectuals in France and that since then has been inspiring Berbers throughout North Africa. 

Signs in Algeria: in Arabic, Berber and French. According to a conservative estimate, there are curently more than 20 million speakers of Berber in the world. Photo: Vermundo/Wikipedia

Converting to Islam

Kossmann explains how the Arabic conquests from the 7th century onwards caused Berber to become a minority language. Before the time of the Romans, almost everyone in North Africa spoke Berber or a related language. Little was known about this early period, but linguistics research is now generating more insights into this history: from agriculture to the conversion of the Berbers to Islam. 

Creations in Berber

There are even Berber variants for the Arabic words describing the five daily prayers. Kossmann: ‘They are not a loan translation but are completely Berber creations. The broad spread of these terms indicates an early mission to convert local people that used Berber as the working language and that did not aim at a rapid Arabisation of the new believers.' Wolof, for example, the most widely spoken language in Senegal, comprises a large number of basic Islamic terms that are not based on Arabic, but that come from Berber, including the names of the prayers.

Mixture of Dutch-Berber-Arabic

Kossmann also conducts research on the language use of present-day Moroccan Dutch people. There are some 400,000 Moroccan Dutch people and the majority of them speak Berber. He analysed the conversations on Moroccan-Dutch internet forums and the mixing of Moroccan words in Dutch. Surprisingly enough, young people with a Moroccan-Arab background also mix  Berber words with Dutch and Berber speakers do the same with Arabic words. This means that all three languages are sometimes used in the same sentence: Dutch for the main message, Arab at the start and Berber at the end. 'These kinds of mixtures of Arabic and Berber would be unthinkable in Morocco and they constitute a unique creation by Dutch Moroccans.' 

Doing justice to the diversity of the Moroccan community

Kossmann hopes to contribute to a more nuanced image of the Moroccan community in the Netherlands. 'The public discourse seems to be blind to the rich diversity of this particular community. It seems to me that one of the tasks of a professor of Berber is to do justice to this diversity.' 

Since 2016 Leiden University has also had an expertise centre in Rabat: the Netherlands Institute in Morocco (NIMAR). NIMAR provides teaching, facilitates research and makes an active contribution to Dutch knowledge of  Moroccan languges, cultures and society.'