article: Purity and Contamination: Language Ideologies in French Colonial Native Policy in Morocco

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Fri Jun 27 00:29:06 UTC 2008

published in: Comparative Studies in Society and History (2008),
50:724-752 Cambridge University Press


Research Article

Purity and Contamination: Language Ideologies in French Colonial
Native Policy in Morocco

Katherine E. Hoffmana1

a1 Northwestern University

Among French scholars and administrators during the French
Protectorate of Morocco (1912–1956), especially prior to World War II,
there was both a great belief in, and widespread suspicion of, a
group's language as a reliable indicator of its ethnicity. Legend
among the Ida ou Zeddout Berber people of southwestern Morocco holds
that Captain Ropars, who ran the French Protectorate's Anti-Atlas
mountain military post in Igherm from 1949–1954, not only spoke the
Tashelhit Berber language, but also ordered the local men to do so
under threat of imprisonment. "You're Ishelhin (Tashelhit speakers),"
he allegedly told people in this collective memory as recounted to me.
"You should speak Tashelhit, not Arabic." The widespread eighteenth-
and nineteenth- century idea of Volkgeist ('soul of the folk') that
Ropars evoked has become commonplace today. A group's language is
often considered to function as what Herder called the "treasury of
the thought of an entire people" and "the mirror of its history, its
deeds, joys and sorrows" (in Bauman and Briggs 2003: 169–70; see also
Lorcin 1999: 44), and even what Abbey Condillac earlier called the
"genius of each people" (Steedly 1996: 447). Captain Ropars followed
Samuel Johnson's claim that identifying languages was the same as
identifying "nations," and, as Irvine and Gal paraphrase, "a logical
first step in comparing, understanding, and ordering [nations']
relations to each other and to Europeans" (2000: 50). Yet, other
French Protectorate administrators and scholars saw the link between
language and primordial ethnicity as false, since histories of
language use may be obscured or simply uninterrogated by a group's


Acknowledgments: The ethnographic fieldwork in southwestern Morocco
that led to the questions explored in this article was carried out
from 1996–1999 and supported by the Social Science Research Council,
the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research, and the
Fulbright Institute of International Education. Subsequent archival
research at the Centre des Archives Diplomatiques, Nantes (CADN), and
the Service Historique de l'Armée de Terre (SHAT) in Vincennes, and
writing time to conceive the broader project to which this article
contributes, were generously funded by the National Endowment for the
Humanities, the Camargo Foundation, the Institute for the Humanities
at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and research grants from
Northwestern University. I am grateful to Anne-Sophie Cras at CADN for
helping to locate source materials. For citations or insights on
various iterations of this article, I want to thank Jillian Cavanaugh,
Robert Launay, Aurélien Mauxion, William Murphy, Geoffrey Porter,
Kathleen Riley, Rebecca Shereikis, Paul Silverstein, and two
meticulous, anonymous CSSH reviewers. Any errors in fact or
interpretation remain my sole responsibility.

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