LAWRENCE — Sometimes a single event can render years of scholarly research obsolete. With the fall of the Berlin Wall, for example, Soviet-era Kreminologists slipped out of the lexicon. Tunisia’s Jasmine Revolution did as much for a sociolinguist at the University of Kansas who specializes in political discourse.
Before the revolution began Dec. 17, 2010, Naima Boussofara, KU associate professor of Arabic studies and linguistics, had been exploring the uses of political speech to promote allegiance and to silence dissent in her native Tunisia – where four languages are spoken: modern standard Arabic, Tunisian Arabic, French and English. Her manuscript was ready to send to the publisher.
In less than four weeks, Boussofara set aside her manuscript. The revolution had changed Tunisia’s history, begun to drift across the Arab world and defined a new course in sociolinguistic research for Boussofara.
“I realized that a linguistic revolution also had taken place. I mean the linguistic boundaries were redrawn and linguistic selves and identities were redefined.
“The most salient aspect of the linguistic revolution is the ‘rehabilitation’ of the dialect – Tunisian Arabic – which had been skillfully used by Tunisia’s first president, Habib Bourguiba, and completely erased from political speech by the second president, Zine el Abidine Ben Ali.”
Unified by their speech of defiance and resistance, Tunisians had found one word in one language to shift power from the president to themselves – forcing Ben Ali to leave the country.
Boussofara is rewriting her book to examine “how people who didn’t have a voice before the revolution, in less than 30 days, not only found a common language, but also chose words that had the power to dislodge and delegitimize the authoritarian words and authoritative voice of their president.”
She is exploring how Tunisians were able “to lift the internalized censorships from their muffled voices, resulting in the ‘magical’ emergence of the language of resistance and the act of defiance that succeeded in defying authority and ousting the president and how words became performative utterances.”
Watching television and computer broadcasts from her Lawrence home, Boussofara has continued to follow breaking news in Tunisia almost round the clock since December 2010.
“It was thrilling to watch history unfold,” Boussofara said. “The revolution did not just happen. It had been simmering for some time. Yet it was unexpected.”
The unification of people of varying economic and social classes, all of whom use different languages and the speed at which the crowds found the words and a unified voice, has fascinated her.
She described the banners waved defiantly by the crowds as “shouting derisive slogans in a constellation of languages – modern standard Arabic, Tunisian Arabic, French and English.” The mix demonstrates that Tunisia has become increasingly multilingual.
By Jan. 14, 2011, the slogans had orchestrated Tunisia’s many voices into a chorus, chanting a one-word message to the president “Dégage!,” — the French command for “Get out!”
The same command to “Get Out,” was subsequently reclaimed in the Arabic language as IrHal!” and used as the Arab spring spread to Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Syria, Boussofara added.
She explained that when Ben Ali took office in 1987, he stopped the use of Tunisian Arabic from public political speeches to eradicate the first president’s era from collective memory. Yet in 2011, desperate to save his falling regime, Ben Ali clumsily addressed the crowds in Tunisian Arabic – the dialect he had avoided for 23 years.
Boussofara, who has researched diglossic uses of Arabic in Tunisia, pointed out that classical and the Modern Standard Arabic are used in formal situations and Tunisian Arabic for less formal occasions.
“Tunisia has been reclaimed by the people. Throughout its history Tunisia has been at the crossroads of linguistic ebbs and flows,” Boussofara said.
Banners seen in news reports from Tunisia offer examples of the linguistic crossroads: a “Game Over” banner in English displayed Jan. 14, 2011; a “laique Tunisia” (secular Tunisia) banner, in French and English, on Feb. 19, 2011, demonstration; and an Independence Day banner declaring “Freedom” in English on March 20, 2012.
Boussofara has titled her new book “Two Presidents, One People: A Tapestry of Words and Panoply of Voices.” The book release date will be in 2013. She teaches Arabic and Arab culture in KU’s Department of African and African American Studies. She also directs KU’s Arabic Summer Institute offered in affiliation with Al-Akhawayn University in Ifrane, Morocco.