Berber languages are scattered in North Africa, bounded by the Atlantic Ocean and the Nile (West-East), and the Mediterranean and the Sahel zone (North-South). They belong to the Afroasiatic phylum.
I am currently doing fieldwork on two Berber languages spoken in Algeria, one well-known but insufficiently analyzed (Kabyle, code KAB in the map below), the other endangered and undescribed (Tarighit, code TJO).
My fieldwork has been conducted, for about twenty years, in the Algerian region of Kabylie (KAB on the map above). Most of my recordings have been made in the village of Aït Ikhlef and the town of Azazga.
Fieldwork is essential to my experience as a linguist, and in no way incompatible with a high degree of abstraction in the final analysis of the language. I have never considered description and theory to be antagonistic, on the contrary. The challenge (and the pleasure) lies in continually weaving the links between empirical data and theoretical modelling.
More precisely, here is why fieldwork is so important to me: it makes me aware of all the shortcuts I am making when I generalize and come up with theoretical constructs that are often far removed from language use. It makes me sensitive to context, gender, the process of speech production, etc. It is a way to stay in touch with evolutions in the language linked to evolutions in society.
By working on data that I collected myself, I can take into account various factors when I analyse utterances, pragmatically, prosodically or semantically. I am fully aware of what it is to be a speaker of a language with a very recent written tradition, a situation that has non-negligible effects on acceptability judgments, for instance.
Fieldwork also makes me aware of the problem of variation: from one village to the other, on a lexical and grammatical level, formulations vary. And recording one’s own data, and discussing formulations with other speakers is extremely precious in that respect.
And last but not least, it is a great pleasure to visit regularly all the persons, family and friends, who have, each in their own way, participated in my research.
I would like to thank all the people who have helped me, and particularly the following persons:
Zouina, Yamina-Zahra, and Cherifa Mettouchi, as well as Tounsia Rabia, for their active participation in my recordings and their hospitality. And also, Wardia Mettouchi, Akli, Ferroudja, Ahmed-Lahlou Makhlouf, Hdjila, Malika, Ounissa, Messaad, Fayrouz, Arezki, Hnia, Ahmed and Farid Mettouchi, among others. Many thanks also to Nna Hadja Wardia Mettouchi, and to my great-aunt Taos, who participated in my earlier recordings. May they rest in peace.
The Belkassi family: Belkacem Belkassi, Jeggiga Saïri-Belkassi, Nouara, Zahra, Naïma and Malika Belkassi, Wardia Khelafi-Belkassi, Nassima Seghouane-Belkassi. Many thanks also to Jeggiga Khelaf-Khelafi for her poetry, and to Hadja Taos Haddad-Khelafi.
The Zaïdat family: Mohand and Jocelyne Zaïdat, Nadia and Ramdane Kerkache, Samir and Zahia Zaïdat.
Boualem Rabia, for his invaluable collection of proverbs and sayings, and his knowledge of poetry.
Many thanks also to Mrs Sahnoun, and to Saïd Sadi for accepting to be recorded many years ago.
My thanks also to Omar Belkacem, Dahmane Bentaha, Arezki Boudif, Boumediene Hanou, Ahcène Saïri, and Chérifa Zerraf for the help provided in technical and material fields.
Of course, none of this research would have been possible without Colette and Mahmoud Mettouchi, my dear parents. My father Mahmoud died in September 2016, but his memory is forever alive, and his strength and moral qualities a constant inspiration.
A website dedicated to the inhabitants of the village of At Ixlef (Aït Ikhelef) is currently under construction. It is entitled ‘Taddart n At Ixlef’ and contains materials initially recorded for research purposes, that will be available in a framework and format that will enhance their cultural import.
For a long time, the endangerment of Berber languages was downplayed, for various reasons : linguists, following the tradition of colonial studies, and focussing on morphological similarities, tended to consider Berber as one language with several « dialects », inside which hundreds of local varieties (« parlers ») showed micro-variations. Berber activists on the other hand, in the aim of creating a pan-Berber political movement, ignored the differences between those languages, and focussed instead on creating a unified Berber language whose destiny was to be written, and to supplant Arabic as an official or national language.
Fortunately, gradually, the realization that Berber was actually a language family, and quite a diverse one, started to make its way in academia, and in society. My experience with actual speakers in Kabylie, Touggourt, Southern Morocco, and in the Tuareg area, made me aware, very early on, of the diversity within Berber. Working on corpora, I was also very sensitive to the archival process, the need to document languages, and the general question of endangerment.
This is why I decided in 2011 to start putting out feelers in regions of Algeria where communities of speakers had been declared endangered by Ethnologue and UNESCO. It happened that I got a response from the region of Touggourt, and through intermediary contacts, I was able to meet several speakers of Tarighit in 2012. My first and second field trips (2012 and 2013) were devoted to the collection of natural spoken data in various villages of the oasis. In 2016 and 2018, I invited my main consultant and friend, Mr Lahsen Hamada, to come to France in order to work on the grammar of the language. The work is still in progress, but it is now possible, for the first time, to see video recordings of Tarighit speakers online :
- Le Cavalier / The Horseman (M. Ghattas, Beldet Amor (Touggourt, Algérie))
- La Palmeraie / The Palm Grove (A. Boukhallat, Beldet Amor (Touggourt, Algérie))
- La Préparation du thé / Tea Time (A. Boukhallat, Beldet Amor (Touggourt, Algérie))
- Outils et ustensiles / Tools and Utensils (A. Boukhallat, Beldet Amor (Touggourt, Algérie))
I would like to thank all the people who have helped me, from speakers to organizers of meetings, and collaborators, and in particular Lahsen Hamada and Amine Boukhallat.
All the people who have participated in this work are and will be acknowledged in my publications, when they wish their names to be publicly given.