French / Malagasy diglossia: Why?

Earlier this year I had the opportunity go to Madagascar. Though I was on business I thoroughly enjoyed my time there. I found a few things in the Malagasy society that simply unnerved me a bit. I felt quite uncomfortable with the diglossia that existed in the country, seemingly with no reason.

Madagascar is a country with a common language throughout: Malagasy. Malagasy is the only Malayo-Polynesian language in Africa. It is a Barito River language from Southeastern Borneo. Malagasy had their own version of an Arabic script alphabet since the 15th century, with written literature co-inciding, at a time when the vast majority of languages in and around Africa had no alphabet. Depending upon who’s figures you use there are up to 20,000,000 speakers in Madagascar, Comoros and Mayotte and up to nineteen dialects in Madagascar (inclusive of two major dialects - Merina in the East and Sakalava in the West). The dialects are, however, mutually intelligible.

Enter the French…

The French began their encroachment into Madagascar in 1883 with an invasion in the northern part of the island. By 1896 they had fully annexed the entire country. The French were in control until January of 1960, when Madagascar regained full independence through a peaceful struggle.

So the French have been gone for fifty-one years but their ghost still lives on through the diglossia they created.

Of course, I was a foreigner and so in the hotel where I stayed the staff of course would speak both French and English. But when hanging around and watching locals communicate, which I do wherever I am, I was shocked by how much local Malagasy people speak to one another in French, totally disregarding their mother tongue. I noticed this almost wherever I went. I also noted that this was when the position that the person was working in required a bit of education. Let’s say it is a “white collar thing”. 

I don’t think it is healthy for any nation to do this. 

For a short time recently Madagascar had three official languages: Malagasy, French and English.  Now the Malagasy are back to two official languages. It is beyond me why the people should accept this state of linguistic confusion. I could very well understand why this might happen in Nigeria, a relatively large country with a huge population and hundreds of tribes with their own languages in addition to three major ethnic groups. English gives them all a way to communicate without favoring one of the groups above the other. (Esperanto might do a better job due to the fact that it never was a colonial language - but that is another story…). But in Madagascar there is only one native language and it is being put into a position of low prestige. This is culturally damaging to the nation and to their language. There is no better sign of this than the fact that if you want to get a newspaper in Antananarivo you are much more likely to find a French one (more of them are printed) than a Malagasy one.

It is understandable that a nation like Madagascar should require their school children to learn both French and English. If they want to trade with Brazil, Japan or Sweden can they use Malagasy? Of course not. And it is admirable that people who work in government bureaucracies be required French, and in some cases English as well. This is a benefit to the country. But raising the colonial language to the level of the national language uncovers a deep inferiority complex. The government of Madagascar believes that French should be a national language. I suppose they all speak it and I would also think that if this is the case, the government might not be so egalitarian.