What do you know about Moroccan languages?

I am feeling very excited about my upcoming holiday to Marrakesh. This visit will be my first time in Africa and I have no idea what to expect. In my excitement I began exploring the best things to see and do in Marrakesh. That’s when I realised that my knowledge of Moroccan culture and language was almost non-existent.

A street in Marrakesh
Photo credit: Pixabay

A very very short history

The history of Morocco reveals a great deal about why Darija (Moroccan Arabic) and Tamazight (Berber) are spoken in this country.

Morocco has been ruled by many people over the centuries. Traders from modern day Syria, Lebanon and Israel, known as the Phoenicians, were among the first to rule. The Phoenicians were followed by the Carthaginians. The City State of Carthage, located in modern Tunisia, developed from a Phoenician colony into the capital of the Punic Empire and was a major centre of trade and influence in the Mediterranean during this period.

Indigenous Berbers, believed to have inhabited northwestern Africa from at least 10,000 BCE, took over from the Carthaginians until the Roman Empire annexed the country. The Vandals (East Germanic tribes) supplanted Roman control, followed by the Byzantine Empire, and finally by the Muslims in the early 8th century. The Moroccan state was established 50 years later by the Idrisid dynasty.

Moriscos and Andalusi people (from Muslim Spain) arrived in Morocco between the 15th and 17th centuries. More recently, the country was under French/Spanish military control and Morocco was a French colony before Morocco eventually regained independence in 1956.

What does this history tell us?

Photo credit: Pixabay

This simplified historical account explains two things:

  1. Why Berber, Latin, Punic, French and Spanish languages have all influenced Darija
  2. Why Tamazight is widely spoken in Morocco

Darija language

Let’s first look at Darija. The multiple linguistic influences on Darija can leave Arabic speakers from regions outside of Morocco struggling to understand. Darija contains many Amazigh, French and Spanish words, and some Darija words may be used in a different context to Standard Arabic. For example, the word for winter (الشْتَا) in Standard Arabic means rain in Darija.

To further complicate matters, Darija is formed of multiple pre-Hilalian and Hilalian (Bedouin) dialects. Pre-Hilalian dialects, introduced by the Arabs, are mainly spoken in mountainous areas. In contrast, the Hilalian dialects are spoken in urban areas and have Berber influences.

Pre-Hilalian dialects use slightly different vowel sounds, put more emphasis on consonants, and contain some different vocabulary. Sadly, pre-Hilalian dialects appear to be dying out as a result of urbanisation.

Tamazight languages

Tamazight refers to the most widely spoken Berber languages (Tamazight, Kabyle, Shilha, Riff, Shawiya and Tuareg) in Morocco. Tamazight is less widely spoken than Darija and is restricted mainly to use at home. Gender stratification in villages has helped to preserve the language, since women typically stay at home, are less exposed to Darija or French, and pass Tamazight on to their children. However, the language appears to be on the decline.

The Tifinagh script (first image below) was adopted as the official script of Tamazight in 2003. Tifinagh is believed to be derived from old Berber script (second image below), which is possibly based on Punic script.

I will be sure to learn some Darija and Tamazight phrases before my trip to Marrakesh later this year. But for now, beslama/layàwn!

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