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French Around the Globe: Madagascar French Language

Image credit: Peregrine Adventures

This week in our French Around the Globe series, we’re going to be heading back to the continent of Africa to take a look at the Madagascar French language. This country in the southwestern Indian Ocean is the fourth largest island country in the world and has two official languages: Malagasy and French.

Unlike Belgium and Senegal, the Madagascar French language is more a de jure official language. This makes the country a fascinating case study for our blog as it’s quite different from countries in which French is still used in daily, popular contexts. Let’s find out a little more.

The Basics of Madagascar

As of 2020 Madagascar had a population of around 27,691,019. The capital is Antananarivo and its currency is the Malagasy Ariary. Their national animals are the zebu and the ringed lemur, and their national flora is the baobab.

As mentioned, Madagascar is found just off the coast of the African continental mainland in the Indian Ocean. While it’s closer to the African coast - just 400km away, separated by the Mozambique Channel - the main cultural and ethnic connections are of Indonesian roots - a country that is 4800km away.

In 1895, France invaded Madagascar and brought the country within French empirical rule. Prior to this, Madagascar had been a kingdom based on alliances. In the mid-twentieth century, various bloody uprisings showed that Madagascar wanted to reclaim their independence from France, which they did in 1960. The country was previously known as the Malagasy Republic, but is officially now the Republic of Madagascar.

Madagascar Malagasy and French Language Speakers

Though the 2007 constitution reaffirmed both French and Malagasy as the official languages, according to Babbel, French is more an official language de jure. In contrast, Malagasy is the official language de facto.

Most of Madagascar’s inhabitants speak Malagasy. Like French or English, Malagasy uses the Latin alphabet and has a wide variety of dialects (around a dozen) across the country, but speakers of each dialect are able to communicate and understand one another. Roughly 18m people speak Malagasy, compared to the 5m on Madagascar who speak French. Of these, only around 120,000 are native French speakers, according to Babbel.

During French colonial rule, French was taught in schools for decades, but their independence in 1960 allowed for a shift. However, because of this, you’re still more likely to find people with a basic understanding of French but, unlike Senegal or Belgium, you’re considerably less likely to find a more specific and unique Madagascar French language tradition. This is because French was used for official purposes and French rule only lasted 65 years.

Once more, this is what makes Madagascar such a fascinating country. While many other ex-colonies of France maintained their French language traditions, Madagascar returned to their own linguistic culture.

Madagascar Dress

Because the country has Austronesia influences combined with French, Arabic, and Bantu, all remastered with Madagascar’s own flair, the culture is incredibly rich. For instance, women in the Betsileo and Merina communities show expert skills in French-style embroidery and sewing, with their own culture’s influence in the fabrics and designs. For instance, a Malagasy traditional item of dress is called the lamba. This is still commonly worn by both men and women, and consists of a length of fabric worn around the shoulders and upper body. These can be in a variety of colours, patterns, and sizes.

Image credit: World Atlas

Arts in Madagascar

Similarly, French and traditional Indonesian and African influences show in their music. According to Britannica, “Western dance and musical instruments have been adapted to Malagasy rhythms. The tube zither, the conch, and the cone drum are of Indonesian origin, while other types of drums and animal horns suggest African influence.” The country’s rural populations have maintained traditional folk music, but Western church hymns have also entered musical cultures and shifted to suit Malagasy musical traditions.

Another distinct aspect of culture in Madagascar is the woodcrafting knowledge of the Zafimaniry. In fact, UNESCO has counted the woodworking of the Zafimaniry on their Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. According to UNESCO, “Practically all wooden surfaces - walls, window frames, posts, beams, stools, chests, tools - display elaborate ornamentation. The Zafimaniry use twenty different endemic species of tree, each adapted to a specific type of construction or decorative function.” They go on to say that, “Although the number of motifs is limited, the creativity of the craftworkers means that no two pieces are identical. These motifs carry rich symbolic significance related to Zafimaniry beliefs and values.”

These wood pieces can be sold in small decorative pieces and everyday objects, as well, which make them gorgeous and unique souvenirs for those visiting. This is a significant aspect of their culture that shows that, despite French influence, many of Madagascar’s traditional skills and artistic pursuits remained.