Languages of Tunisia

Languages of Tunisia
Official languages Literary Arabic
National languages Tunisian Arabic
Minority languages Berber languages
Main foreign languages French, English, Italian, Turkish
Sign languages Tunisian Sign Language

Tunisia is one of the most linguistically homogeneous of the Maghreb states.[1] This is because almost the entire population now speaks Tunisian Arabic (also called Derja) as a first language. Most inhabitants are also literate in Literary Arabic, which is the country's official language, as well as in French. Berber languages are the original mother tongue of the indigenous population of Tunisia.

Tunisian Arabic

The Tunisian Derja (تونسي) is considered a variety of Arabic – or more accurately a set of dialects[2]

Tunisian is built upon a significant Berber, Latin (African Romance)[3][4] and Neo-Punic[5][6] substratum, while its vocabulary is mostly derived from a morphological corruption of Arabic, French, Turkish, Italian and the languages of Spain.[7] Multilingualism within Tunisia and in the Tunisian diaspora makes it common for Tunisians to code-switch, mixing Tunisian with French, English or other languages in daily speech.[8]

Moreover, Tunisian is closely related to the Maltese language,[9] that descended from Tunisian and Siculo-Arabic.[10][11]

Berber languages

Berber languages (called "shelha" by Arabic-speakers) are mainly spoken in the villages of the south, including Chenini, Douiret, Matmata and Tamezrett. They are also spoken in some hamlets on the island of Djerba, mainly Guellala, Iquallalen, Ajim, Sedouikech, Azdyuch and Ouirsighen.


During the French protectorate of Tunisia, French was introduced in public institutions, most notably the education system, which became a strong vehicle for dissemination of the language. From independence, the country gradually became arabized even though the public administration and education remained bilingual.[12] Meanwhile, knowledge of French and other European languages (such as English and Italian) is enhanced by Tunisia's proximity to Europe and by media and tourism.

The 1990s marked a turning point for the Arabization process. Science classes up to the end of middle school were Arabized in order to facilitate access to higher education and promote the Arabic language in society.[12] Since October 1999, private establishments have been obliged to give Arabic characters twice the size of Latin characters.[12] This rule is not always followed, however. At the same time, the public administration is required to communicate in Arabic only. In this context, the use of French seems to be in decline despite the increased number of graduates in the educational system, which leads to the fact that a good knowledge of French remains an important social marker.[12] This is because French is widely used in the business community, intellectual domains and the spheres of natural science and medicine. Because of this, one can even consider the language to have become gentrified.[12]

According to recent estimates provided by the Tunisian government to the Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie, the number of French speakers in the country is estimated at 6.36 million people, or 63.6% of the population.[13]

See also


  1. (in French) Aménagement linguistique en Tunisie (Université de Laval) Archived 2009-06-02 at the Wayback Machine.
  2. « Travaux de phonologie. Parlers de Djemmal, Gabès, Mahdia (Tunisie) et Tréviso (Italie) », Cahiers du CERES, Tunis, 1969
  3. (in French) Tilmatine Mohand, Substrat et convergences: Le berbére et l'arabe nord-africain (1999), in Estudios de dialectologia norteafricana y andalusi 4, pp 99–119
  4. (in Spanish) Corriente, F. (1992). Árabe andalusí y lenguas romances. Fundación MAPFRE.
  5. Elimam, Abdou (1998). ' 'Le maghribi, langue trois fois millénaire. ELIMAM, Abdou (Éd. ANEP, Algiers 1997), Insaniyat. pp. 129–130.
  6. A. Leddy-Cecere, Thomas (2010). Contact, Restructuring, and Decreolization:The Case of Tunisian Arabic (PDF). Linguistic Data Consortium, Department of Asian and Middle Eastern Languages and Literatures. pp. 10–12–50–77.
  7. Zribi, I., Boujelbane, R., Masmoudi, A., Ellouze, M., Belguith, L., & Habash, N. (2014). A Conventional Orthography for Tunisian Arabic. In Proceedings of the Language Resources and Evaluation Conference (LREC), Reykjavik, Iceland.
  8. Daoud, Mohamed (2001). "The Language Situation in Tunisia". Current Issues in Language Planning. 2: 1–52. doi:10.1080/14664200108668018.
  9. Borg and Azzopardi-Alexander Maltese (1997:xiii) "The immediate source for the Arabic vernacular spoken in Malta was Muslim Sicily, but its ultimate origin appears to have been Tunisia. In fact, Maltese displays some areal traits typical of Maghrebi Arabic although during the past 800 years of independent evolution it has drifted apart from Tunisian Arabic".
  10. Borg, Albert J.; Azzopardi-Alexander, Marie (1997). Maltese. Routledge. ISBN 0-415-02243-6.
  11. "The Language in Tunisia, Tunisia |". Retrieved 2017-07-31.
  12. 1 2 3 4 5 Samy Ghorbal, «Le français a-t-il encore un avenir ? », Jeune Afrique, 27 avril 2008, pp. 77-78
  13. (in French) "Christian Valantin (sous la dir. de), La Francophonie dans le monde. 2006-2007, éd. Nathan, Paris, 2007, p. 16" (PDF). (5.58 MB)

Further reading

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