Do Moroccans Speak Arabic?

After my Fulbright grant ended last July I traveled to America to visit family and friends for about two months before returning to Morocco to study Arabic. Of all the people I saw, I looked forward the most to reuniting with my undergraduate advisor, a professor in the Religious Studies department at Rice. For three years, he was my guru, especially in Arabic. He guided me through Classical Arabic, its broken plurals, irregular masdars, ma / min constructions, and instilled in me a great appreciation for the language in its most intricate forms.

We met one night in Houston for dinner, and he made me defend my choice to stay in Morocco to him. He did so with the best intention. He had encouraged me to go abroad and stay abroad, emphasizing the importance of 'real world' experience and language skills for any Arabic / Middle East scholar. So I was surprised when, after explaining to him my decision to stay in Morocco, that he told me, "Matt, if you want to get serious about Arabic, you need to leave Morocco and go somewhere else."

Feelings like his are common in the United States, among students and teachers of Arabic, and in the Arab world.

In the introduction to her book Arabic Sociolinguistics, Dr. Reem Bassiouney of Georgetown University offers this anecdote of meeting a young Moroccan woman in London:
"I came across a young Moroccan woman working in the Foreign Office. She was a second-generation Moroccan, and I was happy to discover that her parents were keen on teaching her 'Arabic' and that she spoke 'Arabic' fluently. And indeed she did - except that she spoke Moroccan Arabic. We decided to meet for lunch, and she started complaining to me in Moroccan Arabic about her Moroccan husband, who did not understand her. Apart from knowing the general topic of discussion, I did not understand much of what she said, nor did she understand much of Egyptian Colloquial Arabic (ECA), nor even my attempts at speaking Modern Standard Arabic (MSA). We basically, after five minutes, reached a deadlock. It was clear that we both had to switch to English to understand each other. It was also clear that the Moroccan woman was exposed to neither ECA nor MSA. She was fluent only in Moroccan Arabic. Had the woman been exposed to ECA or any other dialect and not specifically MSA via the media, TV and satellite channels, our communication would have been much easier. The dialects are sometimes mutually unintelligible, and while educate speakers have developed sets of strategies across dialect boundaries that include various resources from MSA, someone who knows only a dialect of spoken Arabic will be likely not to understand an educated speaker of another dialect or be able to make herself or himself understood, especially if one of the speakers comes from North Africa and the other does not. Speakers of ECA have an advantage, but only if their interlocutor has watched a lot of television in a country that broadcasts programmes from Egypt. Thus, after this incident I could understand the fear that Arabs have of losing their grip on MSA and thus losing their concept of the nation."
It's clear from this that Dr. Bassiouney, an Egyptian, shares my advisor's views: North Africa is not the center of the Arab World and that North Africans are not concerned with learning Arabic (at least not as much as Egyptians, ostensibly). Dr. Bassiouney goes farther to insinuate that Moroccans and their Maghrebi brethren neglect their bonds to 'the Arab nation.'

I shared this anecdote with a Moroccan friend today and she was rightfully shocked. "Who does she think she is?" she said before mockingly explaining how all Moroccans girls know Egyptian Colloquial Arabic because they are in love with Egyptian singer Tamer Hosny. And she's right, many Moroccans do understand Egyptian Arabic, and even speak it. Of course those who are abroad and grow up in the West have a poorer understanding of Arabic, not living in Arab countries. Which is why using a second-generation Moroccan immigrant as a representative of all Moroccans and their command of Arabic is a startling oversight.

Dr. Bassiouney's views are at best highly problematic generalizations based on terrible evidence. But what she, and my professor, believe reflects the reality of Arabic and the Arab World.

Arabic is unique in its diglossia. This term refers to the fact that Arabs speak multiple 'Arabics', usually a 'high' variety, or the Modern Standard Arabic referred to above, and a 'low' variety, i.e. the colloquial Arabic dialects.

In other words, the Arabic that is printed in books is different from the Arabic that people grow up speaking, or their mother tongues. And this difference is much different from the stylistic and lexical differences we find between written and spoken English. Generally, the Arabic dialects and Standard Arabic are mutually unintelligible.

Like dialects in other languages, the Arabic dialects differ based on geography. The greater the distance between two dialects, the greater the difference. Jordanian Arabic is similar to Shami, spoken in neighboring Palestine and Lebanon. The Arabic spoken in Qatar, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates is so similar that its referred to collectively as khalijiyya خليجية, or Gulf Arabic. Naturally, Moroccan dialect, which developed thousands of miles from Jordan, the Gulf and Egypt, is significantly different. And it is true, as Dr. Bassiouney observes, that Moroccan dialect, or darija, is incomprehensible to most Jordanians, Khalijis and Egyptians.

But this incomprehensibility is relative, not absolute. Reading Dr. Bassiouney's anecdote makes one think that somehow Moroccans speak inferior Arabic, that their dialect is somehow 'less Arab' than Egyptian, thereby leading to the two women's inability to communicate. The notion that Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria and even Libya, are 'less Arab' than Middle Eastern states is popularly held, though utterly unfounded.

What measure are we to use to determine the 'Arabness' of one of Arabic's dialects? Moroccan Arabic speakers identify as 'Arab' so as Egyptians do, so how are they less Arab? Many blame the influence of French and Berber on darija's lexicon and grammar. But no dialect is immune of such foreign influences. Where you find French glosses in Moroccan Arabic, you can find English ones in Egyptian. Even Standard Arabic is a repository of French and English words written with Arabic letters.

I would argue that darija is no farther from Standard Arabic than any other dialect, and maybe closer than Egyptian dialect. Lexically speaking, Moroccan Arabic makes use of some uncommon, deeply Classical Arabic words. For example the verb بغى , which means 'to want' and 'to like' in Moroccan darija, appears in Classical texts, but only rarely in Modern Standard Arabic, and not in Egyptian dialect. Additionally, many Moroccans, particularly Fessis, use Standard Arabic pronunciation, notably pronouncing their ق qafs and ج jims appropriately. Egyptians pronounce these letters much differently, or not at all, resulting in great dissonance with Standard Arabic.

Claims comparing the 'Arabness' of one dialect to another are dangerous. Not only are they philosophically and factually flawed, they also reak of a sort of nationalist thought that borders on racism. The truth is that all Arab nations have participated in creating greater Arab culture, and all of their contributions, regardless of geography, are valuable.

What bothers me the most is how attitudes like Dr. Bassiouney's and even my undergraduate advisor's go against this truth, choosing to elevate certain Arab nations over others. Yes, Egypt and its dialect are prominent in the region because of their role in popular Arab culture (Egypt is referred to as the Hollywood of the Middle East). But just because Morocco lacks that cultural presence, or the natural resources that Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States possess, doesn't mean it is 'less Arab'. Certainly, its dialect is less common, but no less authentic and no less valuable. 


  1. Matt,

    Nice article. My sense is that Moroccan Arabic does not just differ in terms of lexicon and pronunciation, but with respect to rhythm. This is most evident in talking with Marakshis, but undeniable with Moroccans more broadly. They de-emphasize the first syllable of every word and put a hard accent on the second, while using sekuns in place of short vowels. When one constructs a sentence that way, the effect is to totally change the rhythm of the entire sentence. Throw in some different voice inflections, vocab, some French and a touch of Berber languages, and you have something that is totally incomprehensible to the rest of the Arab world.

    Andrew Mandelbaum

    1. I concur: One may take Tamazight away from (large proportions of) Maghreb peoples, while forcing Arabic upon them. However, one shall never take the Moors & (North-)Africa away from such Arabic speakers.

      –> The Arab remembers of Baghdad's pre-mongols magnificence, while the berber rather reminisces of pre-Reconquista Granada...
      –> More fundamentally, the Orient sings along the violin, while Africa dances to the drum...

    2. After reading the article I would have to say that there are some letters that are not in the Moroccan alphabet. I don't thin when learning Arabic as I am currently. I have traveled to Morocc Arabic makes speaking very limited. Once you travel Arabic is not being able to communicate with someone from the Middle East or the Levant area which makes it useless in a sense. The person that wrote this articthe culture of Morocco and I understand you defending your choice. But let's be honest if you really want to learn Arabic well, Morocco is not the place to learn it. I have found that if I didn't know a word in Arabic I could easily switch and speak half Arabic and half French and they would understand me very well. You can speak English in Egypt and if not you have to speak Arabic, which helps the thriving Arabic learner to actually learn the word that they are trying to say.Considering if the person decides to live in Morocco and become fluent in it, you will do well. But once you live Morocco you will have to resort to another common language with the person being spoken to. It's not to say the Moroccan people are "less" Arab no not at all. Moroccan Arabic is not more closer to Classical Arabic if this were the case, Jordanians, Saudi Arabian would be able to understand them and this is not the case.

      So your reason for loving Moroccan Arabic is a choice because of a love to live and work there. But it doesn't make your argument more sound. Egypt has 90+ million people, their language is in television, music, news and that is why it's more understood. Even in the Middle East and the Levant. Yes, like all languages there will be varying words but the concept of a conversation is not completely lost. I don't think it's a nationalists idea or racist view, its just proof that Moroccan Arabic is a big hodgepodge of languages mainly French, in the North of Morocco Spanish, but also Tamazight as was expressed. It's like a creole of a language. While learning Arabic in a higher learning institute I had a teacher from Morocco and he fumbled and was confused with teaching Grammar of MSA. While learning MSA you choose to learn Shaami or Egyptian dialect but my Moroccan teacher could only teach MSA because he was not familiar with either dialect and could not expound upon either which left the students feeling inadequate in learning. No one speaks MSA so you have to revert to a Colloquial variant but you can't learn it if your teacher is not familiar with either. He often referred to Arabic speaking students from the Middle East or Egypt if his grammar was correct or if they used other words.

      There was a young man who was from Egypt who spoke English very well and Arabic and a young lady from Lebanon in my class. I found that my teacher would dismiss asking the young man which words they used and would only ask the young lady from Lebanon. For me I felt he was very biased and racists as you previously mentioned.

      There was also another young lady who was Jordanian and he didn't like her and his disdain for her was quite obvious. But when we had Arab Cultural day, he always wanted to instill the Moroccan Culture on the class, and I had to remind him that Arab Culture and Language is not only about Morocco but other Arab speaking cultures.

      I have a lot of friends from Morocco, and I was going to study abroad there to learn Arabic and I realized I would rather go to Egypt or the UAE to learn Arabic than Morocco. I thought I would have problems in Morocco but considering I can speak French it made it easy for me to mix the two and that didn't help my Arabic any. Everything in Grocery stores was not in Arabic either much of the labels were in French. I would have to agree with the two professors if you want to be serious about speaking Arabic Morocco is not the place to learn it.

  2. Arabic teacher MoroccoSeptember 25, 2013 at 5:48 PM

    Thank you Matt,you hit the naile on the head

  3. I would highly recommend looking at the research of Atiqa Hachimi from the University of Toronto. She recently published an excellent article on exactly this subject: "The Maghreb-Mashreq language ideology
    and the politics of identity
    in a globalized Arab world" in: Journal of Sociolinguistics 17/3, 2013: 269–296. Here's the abstract:

    To date, most scholarship on Arabic language ideologies has focused on the
    contentious relationship between Standard Arabic and the spoken
    vernaculars. This paper, in contrast, draws attention to the hierarchies
    among the regional varieties of vernacular Arabic. Specifically, it makes
    visible the workings of what it calls the ‘Maghreb-Mashreq language
    ideology’: the hierarchical relationship between Mashreqi (Middle Eastern)
    and Maghrebi (North African) vernacular Arabic varieties. The paper
    explores, in particular, the de/authentication of linguistic Arabness through
    a detailed analysis of a transnational pan-Arab reality/talent TV show.
    Drawing on clips of situated interactions from this series, which have been
    uploaded to YouTube and commented upon by viewers, the paper argues
    that the new media is a critical site for reworking longstanding language
    ideologies and the politics of identity in the Arabic-speaking world.

    As for Andrew's comments, which echo the standard ideologies, I don't see why speakers should have more difficulty with vowel deletion in open syllables than they do with bukara or qahawa syndrome, with the articulation of /q/ as [ɣ] or the complex word-accents of Egyptian Arabic. It's not a matter of some magical measure of mutual comprehensibility - it's a matter of what speakers are exposed to, and to a large degree, how much speakers are willing to try to overcome barriers to communication, which itself is related to their ideologies about language.

    And incidentally, I thought about picking up Bassiouney's book, read that passage and put it right back down again. ya3.

    1. Thank you for this recommendation and your comment!

    2. Thank you so much Mr.Matt for your article. I felt happy when I read your article because of your objectivity. You're right about the complex of superiority that some Arabs who live in the Middle East have towards the Arabs who live in Maghreb. They think that the colloquial Arabic which is spoken in some areas in the Maghreb is not Arabic. It's true that the Maghreb dialects contain some linguistic items which are borrowed mainly from French language and other languages; but this fact doesn't make these dialects completely different from Classical Arabic. I dare say 85% up to 90% of words which are in Moroccan, Algerian, Tunisian dialects are pure Arabic words, however there are some changes at the phonological, morphological, and lexical levels which is a natural result that any language might face. I don't imagine that the English people nowadays speak the same language Shakespeare was speaking. The problem is that a lot of people don't make the difference between MSA (Modern Standard Arabic) and Arabic vernaculars. Most of common people in the Arabic world think that the dialect they are speaking is the closest one to Classical Arabic if not it is identical to it. Arabs from different countries when they talk to each other they speak their own dialects, if something goes wrong during the process of communication there will be, perhaps, an accusation to the other person of being ((Non- Arab)). Normally, when two Arabs from different Arabic countries come into contact should speak in MSA rather than dialects. Since MSA is the variety that is used in schools, Mass Media, religious sermons, and so on. By the way MSA is the same whether it is spoken by an Egyptian, Moroccan, American, or an Israeli. It's the same, what's different perhaps is the accent. Another fact is that some Arabic varieties like Egyptian dialect is understood by most of the Arabs; not because Egyptian dialect is identical 100% to MSA; nonetheless, because Egypt has had the leading role in cinema, journalism,..etc. in the Arabic world. Even Egyptian dialect contains many words that are not Arabic such as: /Talabiza/ which means /table/, /balakona/ which means balcony (a borrowed word), /wliya/ which means woman(in some parts of Egypt) and a lot of other examples. Dare I say that Egyptians aren't Arabs????????? that's why I think someone who wants to learn Arabic as a second language should know the differences between MSA (the language of literature, journalism,..) that he is studying at university and the other Arabic dialects which are spoken by common people.As a result, it's good for a non-native speaker of Arabic to have an idea/ or to master an Arabic dialect let's say the dialect which is spoken the Arabic country where he wants to live, exactly, the same way in China( Putong hua, which is the language that is used in academic places and spoken by educated people, and Fangyan which means dialects). As a speaker of Putong hua普通话 I find it useless when I speak to a grandma which speaks only Fangyan 方言。Mutual incomprehensibility is the natural outcome, and gestures language will be the effective solution in most of the cases. But, does this make me believe that the grandma I speak to is not Chinese?????

    3. Very true; as a Mauritanian by origin, my dialect is one of the Maghreb group, and we have words or phrases which are not common in the rest of the Maghreb. I have found that we have a considerable vocabulary of Yemeni and (especially) Umani origin, from the Batinah region of the latter land. This I only learned recently (especially terms referring to agriculture. Many of the Arabs of the Mashriq have vocabulary adopted from Turkish and even Persian. The unfortunate fact is that nowhere is Classical or MSA the everyday medium of the Arabs. Ideally, in the future, as education becomes more widespread and pervasive, we can once again be blessed with Classical (or at least MSA!) and the language academies can focus on producing truly Arabic words for modern concepts and technology, at which point we should see the dialects approach their (long-overdue) demise!

    4. Sidi el-Shinquiti, I agree that it is unfortunate that Classical Arabic or MSA are not a widespread medium, but should it ever really be a daily medium? I argue no in the same way that the high English of Milton or Done (much less than Elizabethan Shakespeare, or the English of the King James Bible) should not be the daily medium of English speakers.

      Why should the dialects demise? Classical, fusha, is a high standard, but I do not believe that it was ever truly the general and daily ordinary spoken language of all of the Arabs. It was the high language of the Arabs, but in their day to day business all of the Arabs always spoke in dialects. Banu Harb had theirs, the Quraysh had theirs, Tamim had theirs, Himyar had theirs - and it was ancient and much different, and so on and so forth.

      The dialects are the people's speech, their tongue, it is not necessary nor desirable to force them to give up the tongues of their mothers which have existed not fur hundreds of years, but likely thousands.

      What I do think is needed, and where I agree with you, is that education should be more widespread and as a non-Arab I hope that the Arabs re-seize the richness and power of Classical Arabic in describing their world. That MSA be a language of mathematics, engineering, science, arts, literature, and serious thought . But there is a beauty in darija, a beauty in all of the dialects of the Arabic world. And this beauty would be lost if the dialects die. Just like something was lost in the 19th century when European governments, in nationalistic anxiety, stamped out many of Europe's native dialects and imposed formal artificial standardized forms of French, Spanish, and Italian.

  4. Let us also remember that Lebanese is full of French words, Syrian has Turkish, etc. Simply put, all the dialects have foreign imports and some innovations (eg, "weynuh?" in Syrian-Lebanese for "where is he?", "shnu da?" (what is this" in Egyptian); "chitab" in Gulf states (for "kitab"), "bi-ool" in Syria/Lebanon for "he says", etc., etc. TIME will solve this problem, as the Arab Nation moves toward re-unification. Dialectal differences will still survive, but will be of far lesser degree! el-Shinqiti

  5. Right, Moroccan Arabic is probably no further diverged from Fusha than is Egyptian or any other a3meya. But focusing on divergence/closeness to fusha in determining if something is "Arabic" fundamentally misses the point (unless your point is religious or political). It's a question of how you define what comprises the word "language". Do you need mutual intelligibility in order to call two things one language? If you believe this is true, it seems absolutely obvious that neither Moroccan nor Egyptian can be called "Arabic"; they are simply "Moroccan" and "Egyptian", two languages in their own respects, with their own bodies of music, film, art. This does no disservice to either language, it just calls a spade a spade.

  6. As Arabic language is wifely spoken in the middle east, there is a need in those countries for the Arabic translators. Learning Arabic language is a very difficult task if you don't have the determination to do so.You can learn from various books as they have material for you to learn Arabic or you can join any learning center where you get courses on how to learn Arabic.

  7. Great article, but as a Moroccan born and raised outside of Morocco like the girl you mentioned, I can surely tell you that the only thing keeping Moroccans tied to the "Arab World" is the media. You remove Arab media from Moroccans and you find no Moroccan will be able to communicate with anyone east of Tunisia. Similar to the girl to mentioned, I find it impossible to understand/ speak with Arabs. Yes one can make an argument that Moroccan Darija is just as far removed as Egyptian arabic, but that just makes a point that both should be considered as "Moroccan " or "Egyptian". The only reason egyptians can be understood so well is because of their popular media. If it wasn't for that it would be the same as Moroccan In terms of middle eastern Arabs being able to understand. I am a firm believer that Moroccan Darija should be considered it's own language. If the romance languages are all considered their own languages why can't Moroccan or Egyptian be too? Think about it. Portuguese and Spanish both derive from Latin, but through time and distance they've slightly changed. Even then Spanish and Portuguese are more similar than Moroccan to any other dialect of arabic. Similar to how Portuguese or Spanish having a Latin base in vocabulary but have change and evolved over time, Moroccan and Egyptian have a classical arabic base that has changed and evolved over time.

  8. There are few things more annoying then when I hear people babble on about how complex and different the Arabic dialects are from each other, the thing is though that not the case. if you really wanted to dived Arabic into groups of mutual intelligibility, there is eastern and western Arabic. the eastern dialects are all pretty much mutually intelligible and the same goes for the western ones. this myth of the Arabic dialects are so different from each other and that the only way that a Syrian understands a Lebanese is from watching their shows. lol Beirut is literally 70 miles from Damascus, they literally speak the same dialect but you'll have people try to swear up and down to you that its different, its literally like trying to tell someone that Canadian speak Arabic extremely differently from Americans. these two or three examples that people love to use to show how different dialects really are are not going to hinder anybodies mutual intelligibility. the truth is that for the most part the Arabic that an Egyptian speaks and the one that an emirate speaks is the same. yes they use different words and phrases sometimes and may have different grammar, but its doesn't take a rocket scientist or a soap drama binge watcher to decipher what another Arab from a different country that literally borders their is trying to say. its not that complicated people.


Post a Comment