Why learn Tachelhit? Why learn any Berber language?
Arabic may have the better claim to the time and energy involved in learning a language. No matter which Arabic dialect you learn, you get a grasp of one of the most important and widely understood non-Indo-European languages in the world. In terms of literature, media, and global recognition, there’s no comparison between Arabic and the humble Berber language continuum. But as someone mainly interested in North Africa, I chose Berber over Moroccan Arabic (Darija) for the following reasons:
- I speak French, which is a great lingua franca throughout all of North Africa; so I don’t really need Arabic
- Berbers themselves tend to use their Berber language at home, and Darija or French in affairs of business, travel, or education. Most of my interactions with Berbers take place in their homes and villages. Therefore it makes sense to learn the language most appropriate to that context.
- I like to tread lightly when I travel. Maybe this is a stretch, but I believe that when we think about ‘sustainable tourism’ we should think about language. While the Berber languages are strong today, they face an uncertain future. With every tourist who passes through a Berber community expecting to be understood in French or Arabic, that sends a message — however small — to the children of that community, reinforcing the idea that Arabic and French are the languages of power and of success. It’s one more small blow to the Berber languages which have taken on the character of quaintness, backwardness, and femininity (it has fallen upon women to remain in the villages to uphold traditional ways of life while men leave for the Arabic-speaking cities for jobs and education). Greet villagers in the Atlas Mountains with some knowledge of Berber and you’re paying a complement to their identity and sovereignty.
A problem for anyone who wants to learn to speak Tachelhit, the southern dialect of Moroccan Berber, is that there aren’t many resources out there. Perhaps you’ve come across this textbook, published by the Peace Corps, which makes a decent phrasebook for travel if you print it out and carry it with you. It’s fruity with phrases you can use to put a smile on people’s faces, such as Wanna yran tammnt is br i tiqqrs t n tizzwa – ‘One who wants honey must tolerate bee stings.’ But the structure is a headache and it’s meant to be used as a companion to language classes.
If you speak French and would prefer a book that isn’t written in Comic Sans, there’s this book. It was published in the 1970s, but the structure and content is excellent. You can also buy it on Amazon.fr (the audio CD it comes with is extremely disappointing).
I intend to combine the best of both these books and publish the results here in a structured and enjoyable format for beginning learners. Each lesson shall be augmented with whatever else I can think of adding, such as audio files and Quizlet flashcards. I’ve been working damn hard on these.
Full disclosure: I do not speak Tachelhit. I’m starting this project so I can teach myself as I go. Neither am I any hot shakes at French, so I can’t guarantee that my translation of the French textbook will be free of mistakes. I hope nonetheless to develop this little project of mine into a valuable resource, whatever its flaws.
This project is my small contribution toward the preservation of this beautiful language spoken by a charming people.
Note on transliteration:
I have slightly tweaked the transliterations used in the textbooks, which differ from each other to start with. But if you’re familiar with Arabic phonology, my methods shouldn’t be confusing.
Tachelhit is full of seemingly unpronounceable strings of consonants (like mnchkk) — but they sound exactly how they look. Just pronounce these words slowly and you’ll probably get it right.
Capital letters and double letters are emphatic. Really give ’em some oomph. For example, The word brrk, meaning ‘welcome’, though basically one syllable, should take at least a count of ‘one-Mississippi’ to say, with an emphatic rolled R. You should feel like you’re burning some calories when you pronounce an emphatic syllable, else you’re probably not saying it right.
I transcribe the Arabic letter غ as a simple gh. The textbooks do it differently, but we English speakers are used to reading gh as a gutteral noise (like the r in Paris, but stronger), and it’s easier for me to type.
ع is transcribed as 3, just like Moroccan teenagers do on the internet. However, I don’t transcribe ح, or ḥā (which is a voiceless epiglottal trill if you didn’t know), with the numeral 7 like most people do. Instead I write it as a capital H. Capital = emphatic. Easy.
The textbooks don’t like to use ‘ch’ and ‘sh’, but I do — so when you see ‘ch’ or ‘sh’ in these lessons, pronounce them as you normally would.
x is the glottal ‘ch’ sound like in the German ‘ach’