Draft law paves way for Amazigh language academy

Algeria has approved a draft law paving the way for the creation of an Amazigh language academy dedicated to the teaching and promotion of research on Tamazight, as well as its standardisation.

"This is a historic decision and breakthrough which completes the Tamazight rehabilitation process, opening up considerable prospects for work in multiple fields for the promotion and development of the language,” Secretary of the High Commission for Amazigh, Si El Hachemi, was quoted as saying.

The draft law, presented by the minister of higher education and scientific research, on the creation of the Algerian Academy for Tamazight Language was adopted at a 5 June meeting of the Algerian Council of Ministers, chaired by Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, according to a communiqué of the council.

Amazigh is the main language used by the Amazigh people, formerly known as Berbers, who live in the Kabylie region of Algeria, which includes several provinces east of the capital along with other regions across the country, especially the Aures (south of Constantine).

Amazighs are the indigenous inhabitants of North African countries including Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Mauritania, and Northern Mali, Northern Niger, and part of western Egypt, according to the historical records of the region.

While there are no reliable statistics, the Amazigh-speaking populations are unlikely to constitute as much as a third of Algeria's 42 million people; 20-25% would be more plausible, according to Lameen Souag, a researcher at LACITO – a laboratory of the French National Center for Scientific Research.

The Amazigh language became the second official language of Algeria after Modern Standard Arabic, in accordance with a constitutional amendment effected in early 2016.


The new draft law defines the missions, composition, organisation and the functioning of the Algerian Academy for Tamazight Language (AATL) envisaged by Article 4 of the Constitution, amended in 2016, according to the Council of Ministers. The academy will have a council, president, bureau and specialised commissions along with about 50 experts with proven skills in the field of language science.

The academy will be responsible for creating a standard form of the language that will guarantee mutual understanding among all the Amazigh communities and facilitate its use as an official language at all levels. This will also involve the codification of the language through the development of grammar books and dictionaries.

"The academy will also have to address the issue of the script to be adopted when it comes to writing the Tamazight language," according to Yamina El Kirat El Allame, international adviser and consultant in the field of higher education and vice dean for research and cooperation at the faculty of letters and human sciences of Mohammed V University of Rabat, Morocco.

"Given the non-official status of Tamazight in Algeria, the language is being written in different scripts, namely, Arabic, Latin and Tifinagh. Indeed, the officialisation of the language will require the adoption of one unique script," El Allame said.

The academy will have to draw on experts in the fields of linguistics and language policy, pedagogy and didactics, anthropology, history and computer science as well as experts in the Amazigh language, El Allame said.

Cultural value

El Allame said the AATL will help to change attitudes towards the Amazigh language, culture and identity and contribute to their visibility at national and international levels, particularly if the language is introduced to schools. The latter would also motivate universities to invest in research programmes.

Currently, several Algerian universities including Tizi-Ouzou, Bejaia and Bouira have Amazigh language and culture departments which offers courses in Tamazight literature, according to the Temehu website.

Hana Saada, a researcher at the Higher Arab Institute for Translation, an Algiers-based academic body of the Arab League of states, told University World News that the value of the Tamazight language was not limited to communication. “It can contribute to the development of knowledge and provide added value to research in all fields as well as enhance group identity and solidarity."

"Besides, the standardisation of Tamazight and the formulation of a referential dictionary, AATL may help to convey life experiences, traditions, culture, tips and literature," Saada said.

"This would play a crucial role in the formation and development of new concepts and perspectives that may further boost collective learning and collaboration as diversity means new visions and ideas.”

Observers have also commented on the political motivations behind the move. Algerian author Azraj Umar wrote in the Al-Arab newspaper as follows: "The Algerian regime is betting on the Amazigh language for political purposes and not as a cultural issue of relevance to the processes of building national identity away from the pretensions of power struggles."

Political motivations

Asked whether establishing AATL was a sincere educational project for promoting teaching and research programmes at universities and educational institutions in Algeria or simply a political tactic to get more votes in the 2019 presidential election, Souag told University World News: "That's a false dichotomy."

"Politically, it's more than a short-term tactic for the next 2019 presidential elections. It's just the latest stage in a long-term effort by the government to present itself as the legitimate guardian of the Amazigh identity, and thus to coopt one long-standing rallying point of its opponents,” he said.

However, Souag cautiously welcomed the academy, saying it would help to promote research with practical applications in education. "Once its membership has been announced, its prospects will become clearer,” he said.

"The principal problem AATL will face is the question of how to reconcile the desire for a single national standard Amazigh, suitable for use by a highly centralised government, with the reality of the substantial linguistic differences between the Amazigh varieties of different regions and the Constitution's explicit endorsement of this diversity," Souag said.

El Allame suggested that for AATL to succeed it should try to establish as an independent institution “with no political agenda”.

"There is a lot to learn from the experience of the Morocco-based Royal Institute of the Amazigh Culture which is an academic institute devoted to the safeguarding and promotion of the Amazigh culture and languages," El Allame said.