Algeria is a North African country with more than 42 million inhabitants who speak several different languages.
Officially, Algerians speak Arabic and Berber, but in reality, the real linguistic landscape of Algeria is a little more complicated.
While Modern Standard Arabic is the main official and national language of Algeria, it’s hardly spoken by anyone. In reality, MSA mostly has the role of being the language of newspapers, media, public announcements, education and official statements. It’s a very formal, internationally recognized form of Arabic, very close to Classical Arabic, but while most Algerians understand MSA (to a certain degree) most don’t really speak it.
The everyday languages of Algeria are Derja, a distinctly Algerian form of Arabic, different dialects of Berber, and French. While some Algerians speak all of these languages, the majority only speak Derja, or Derja along with either French or Berber.
In the following, I’ll try going a little more into detail with each of these languages and the variants that exist. Then I’ll take a look at some of the secondary languages spoken in Algeria.
Derja, Algerian Arabic Or Simply “Algerian”
Derja is most often referred to as the Algerian dialect of Arabic. The distinction between what makes a language and what makes a dialect isn’t clear however. These matters often come down to politics.
I would argue, however, that Algerian Derja (Along with Moroccan and Tunisian Derja) is so different from MSA, or the Arabic dialects of Egypt and the Middle East that it could easily be considered a language in its own right.
To further exemplify why the distinction might be politic, consider Maltese, the language spoken in Malta. Linguistically, Maltese could be grouped together with Tunisian, Algerian and Moroccan to form a North African language continuum. Maltese is closely related to these North African languages, Tunisian especially so, but the Maltese people have decided otherwise, and today Maltese is the only official language of the European Union with Semitic and Arabic roots.
Algerian Derja (like Maltese, Moroccan and Tunisian) has Arabic roots, but also show a strong influence from the Berber language which lends it both a lot of vocabulary as well as certain grammatical structures.
Add to this, that Derja has a significant amount of French loan-words in different shapes and forms. The French influence on Derja is undeniable, and while some Algerians consider the people who speak French as especially educated or upper-class (or even to be a supporter of the old colonial power) all Algerians use French words in their daily lives.
In Derja, French is the go-to language for (almost) everything that has to do with technology, science, international affairs, art and so on, but also everyday vocabulary like certain fruits and vegetables, car-parts and vocabulary you might need for going to the doctor’s.
The ironic part of this is, that while many Algerians consider themselves as non-francophone, they all rely on French loan-words daily.
The French loan-words come in different shapes and forms. Some are changed in terms of pronunciation and form, and don’t seem very French when heard in everyday speech, like the word for “nurse” “fermaliyya” which stems from the French word “inférmière”, or the word “chifflour” which is borrowed from the French “chou fleur” or “cauliflower”. Other words like “Levier de vitesse” (the gear tick in a car) is pronounced exactly like it is in French.
And the use of French in the Algerian Derja language actually goes beyond loanwords. It is not uncommon to hear entire phrases spoken in a mix of Derja and French, starting out in one language, switching to the other halfway though and finally finishing in the first language again.
This phenomenon is called code-switching and it’s something that’s common in some multilingual cultures. It’s can be observed in the Philippines as well where Filipinos readily switch between English and Tagalog, but almost unheard of in other bilingual countries like Belgium, Switzerland, Canada, and others.
There appears to be a certain social dynamic in Algeria that works automatically – you don’t use code-switching with everyone. But this happens without the individual speaker thinking much about it, and you’ll often end up switching to a language that you assume that the person you’re speaking to understands.
And for the most part – French IS understood.
The Berber Or Amazigh Language of Algeria
Berber, or Amazigh is the ancestral language of Algeria as well as most of North Africa.
While the Berber language has been written for at least 2500 years with the Tifinagh script, the spoken language is much older.
Linguists theorize that “Proto-Berber”, the linguistic ancestor of the modern Berber languages probably split from its closest cousins in the Afroasiatic language family 10.000 years ago. So while Berber is related to Egyptian languages like Coptic, Semitic languages like Arabic and Hebrew as well as several others, the link between these languages is very faint. (And those who assume that Berber is a dialect of Arabic are completely wrong).
While most of Algeria (and North Africa) used to speak Berber languages, today many regions have lost their ancestral languages and speak instead Derja or Algerian Arabic.
Among the remaining Algerian Berber languages (or dialects) are Kabyle (Taqbaylit), Mzabi (Tumzabt), Chaouiya (Tachawit), Chenoua, Tamahaq and several others.
While many Berber languages exist, the most common in Algeria today are probably Kabyle, which is spoken in the coastal mountainous region og Kabylie, Mzabi, a dialect centered around the city of Ghardaïa and Tamhaq, the Berber language of the Touareg people of the Algerian Sahara dessert.
While these dialects are all quite distinct, they remain mutually intelligible among each others, as well as with the Berber languages of the neighboring countries.
The Berber language has recently gained the status of “official language” in Algeria. Why this status change hasn’t happened before comes down to internal struggles in Algeria concerning the country’s national identity.
There’s a heated debate in the country concerning ethnicity and thereby language. Many Algerians consider themselves Arabs today, and by some, the Berber languages as well as the Berber identity is seen as a conflicting narrative in this regard. Because of this, there seems to be a growing divide between Algerians who speak either the one or the other language.
To listen to an example of the Berber language, go see the short dialogues that I had translated and recorded in the Kabyle dialect.
French In Algeria – A Native Language Or A Second Language?
The status of French in Algeria is a little particular.
French used to be the language of the colonial force in Algeria, and to this day, Algerians have mixed feelings about the French language as well as French culture and history.
Despite of this, Algeria is heavily influenced by both France and the French tongue.
Most countries in the world focus primarily on English as the first foreign language taught in school. In Algeria, it’s the French language that has this status.
As a foreigner going to Algeria, you immediately get the impression that the contact to the outside world in Algeria goes through the French language, and that most internationally related topics reflect a certain French-speaking perspective in stead of being influenced by American media. Some might argue that this is two sides of the same coin.
While Algeria is beginning to focus more on teaching the English language in schools, French remains the first foreign language spoken in the country. The fact that more than 30% of the Algerian population speaks French fluently makes it the second largest French-speaking country in the world.
And in the same way that Derja and Berber languages play a strong role in defining an individual’s identity and background, so does the French language.
French is often seen in Algeria as the language of the cultural elite, whereas the political elite speaks MSA and the bulk of the people speak Derja. While French has the status of being an intellectual language, it is also the language of secularism and a language that represents Europe.
This view of the French language is, however, mostly based on a lack of understanding.
J’écris en français pour dire aux français que je ne suis pas français….la langue française a été et reste un butin de guerre.Kateb Yacine, (Algerian author)
The Algerian author Kateb Yacine famously said that the French language were the “spoils of war” that Algeria got when it gained its independence from France in 1962.
Speaking French doesn’t mean that you’re affiliated with the old colonial powers, but rather that Algeria has appropriated the French language and made it Algerian.
Modern Standard Arabic Or “Langue Mickey”
The formal, solemn and academic language of Modern Standard Arabic is, in Algeria, the language of Mickey Mouse.
But cartoons for kids isn’t the only media that uses MSA in Algeria. MSA is equally the language of education, news, public announcements, the law and anything remotely formal.
This means that MSA is a language that most Algerians understand (to a certain degree), but they don’t speak it. Trying to communicate in MSA in the streets of Algiers would be the equivalent of striking up a conversation in downtown Manhattan while speaking Shakespearean English. It would seem weird.
Despite this fact, MSA is also the language of education, even in primary school, and as mentioned, it’s the language that Mickey Mouse, Dora The Explorer and Spiderman speak in Algeria. While children usually get “somehow” intimate with MSA from watching cartoons, learning math, history and science in the language is often another story.
While recently, there’s been a push for teaching primary school students in Derja rather than MSA, formal Arabic remains an important language in Algeria.
The English Language In Algeria
Finally, there’s the English language in Algeria.
As mentioned earlier, French is the foreign language of choice in Algeria, but recently, English has received a little more attention, and the country has started focusing a little more on teaching English in schools. Some even speak of a radical shift from one foreign language to the other, which has received some criticism.
The fact of the matter is, however, that Algeria has very few English speakers for the time being. With a strong educational initiative, this might gradually change in the future, but for now, you won’t get far in Algeria speaking only English, and the importance of French won’t dwindle anytime soon.