The language of the Republic is French, as it has been enshrined in the Constitution since 1992. The situation could not seem more classic to us, but we forget that the majority of countries in the world do not have an official language, or have several coexisting like in Canada or Belgium. A monolingualism which does not prevent “a very changing linguistic landscape, characterized by its extraordinary variety”.
Our 72 regional languages thus persist as best they can, and the so-called non-territorial languages also coexist: these two aspects form what we have called since 1999 the “languages of France”. Top of the list? Dialectal Arabic. Its three to four million speakers make it the second most spoken language in the country after French. And this, respectively ahead of Creoles and Berber, Alsatian, Occitan, Breton, Langues d’oïl, Frankish, Corsican and Basque.
A first in history
It is because dialectal Arabic is not the official language of any country, unlike literal Arabic from which it must be distinguished, that it is a “language of France”. What do we mean by that? “It’s a somewhat arbitrary notion, without legal status.” Its political meaning is simple: “The language of the Republic is a welcoming language”. The “languages of France” include regional languages, but also seven “non-territorial languages”: dialectal Arabic, Berber, Yiddish, Romani, Western Armenian, Judeo-Spanish, and then the language of signs.
These are, as the Ministry of Culture website indicates, “minority languages spoken by French citizens on the territory of the Republic, for long enough to be part of the national cultural heritage”. Exit therefore the languages resulting from too recent immigration. The second criterion is important. These languages should not be official languages of any country.
This would seem to be a first in history, at the intersection of the decline of regional languages, globalization and migration. Dialectal Arabic brings together more speakers than those of all regional languages combined. Moreover, the figures for the number of Arabic speakers in France “are difficult to evaluate precisely and therefore to temper.” “The problem is that we base ourselves on the mother tongue, but a Frenchman of Algerian origin can tell you that Arabic is his mother tongue even though he does not speak a word of it.”
Dialectal Arabic, mainly oral, is not codified and is very fluid. It includes a diversity of dialects whose respective speakers do not necessarily understand each other. Thus, “the distance between the dialects of the Arabian Peninsula and those of Morocco would be equivalent to that separating Portuguese from Romanian”. In France, dialectal Arabic is mainly practiced in its North African form. Sometimes also in its Lebanese, Egyptian, Syrian forms… And even in its dominant form, “we cannot say that there is a single Arab from the Maghreb”. In the same way, “it seems hard to argue that there is a French variety of Arabic”.