ALGIERS — Last year marked a milestone for the millions of Algerian speakers of Amazigh, the Berber language, when it was given official status equal to Arabic in the country’s new constitution. The momentous decision came after years of activism by ethnic Berbers fighting for their native tongue’s recognition. But according to Algiers-based daily El Watan, the new legal status has led to little change on the ground.
Amazigh is spoken by around a quarter of Algeria’s 40 million people. Despite its new official status, it is not mandatory in public schools, nor is it used in national government. The Algerian Ministry of Education claims that Amazigh is taught in 23 of the country’s 48 provinces, but El Watan reports that very few schools offer instruction in the language outside of the majority-Berber region of Kabylia. In higher education, universities await the establishment of dedicated Amazigh departments.
There are no national Berber-language newspapers, and few television channels air programming in Amazigh. Arabic retains its importance as the language of Islam, Algeria’s primary religion, and several imams in Berber-majority regions have reportedly preached that the spread of Amazigh is forbidden.
The state seeks to reduce the risk that young Berbers will radicalize around the question of Amazigh.
"There needs to be a political decision to enforce the teaching of Amazigh," says Si El Hachemi Assad, head of the High Commission on Amazigh, the official state-recognized institution that promotes the language.
Berber activists see the hand of Algeria’s authoritarian state, known locally as le pouvoir ("the power"), behind the lackluster implementation of Amazigh’s official status. "The officialization of Amazigh is nothing but a method to divert and neutralize Berber elites," says journalist and linguist Yacine Temlali. "The state seeks to reduce the risk that young Berbers will radicalize around the question of Amazigh."
A major issue facing the widespread adoption of Amazigh is the debate over the correct script to write it in. Though traditionally written in the Berber Tifinagh script, most Algerians instead use the Arabic or Latin alphabets — Kabyles almost exclusively use Latin, but Arabic is popular elsewhere. In a country where speakers can’t even agree on the correct alphabet to use, giving Amazigh its proper place is a story that is still to be written.