8 Things you should know about the languages of Morocco

June 21, 2015 |

By Sarah-Claire Jordan

morocco_map_history4_318px_01A lot of you may not know very much about Morocco (or perhaps you do, in which case you should skip this part), a country in North Africa that has a very interesting mix of cultures. You can find it right across the Strait of Gibraltar from Spain, so you can imagine the influence Spain has on Morocco and vice versa. In our culture, it’s best known as the country that the movie Casablanca takes place in, and the country every exchange student studying in Spain takes at least one weekend trip to.

If you never get beyond the initial perception of Morocco as “that place where Casablanca was filmed”, then you’re missing out on a lot of interesting things. For starters, there is a variety of languages spoken in Morocco, not just Arabic and French. Here I have eight different things you should know about the languages of Morocco.

1. Morocco has two official languages

Some people will say that there is only one official or national language of Morocco, and it is Modern Standard Arabic, but others will tell you that Berber is also an official Moroccan language. In formal situations you will find people using Modern Standard Arabic, as well as any written documents. Most schools are taught in this dialect of Arabic as well.

Berber, on the other hand, is not exactly a language spoken in Morocco as it is a type of language spoken. The original inhabitants of what is now Morocco spoke different Berber languages, so you can imagine how important it is to Moroccan culture. Most people in Morocco are at least bilingual, which means they speak Modern Standard Arabic and usually either a Berber language or Moroccan Arabic.

2. Most people speak Darija, or Moroccan Arabic

Though the language used for official business and the government is Modern Standard Arabic, the most commonly spoken language among the people of Morocco is Moroccan Arabic, also known as Darija. It is a dialect of Arabic that is unique to Morocco, with some things borrowed from the Berber languages spoken there as well as French and Spanish.

Moroccan Arabic is the dialect you will hear the most in daily life, though it can also be heard on Moroccan tv stations, in movies, and even in some advertisements. That doesn’t make it as official as Modern Standard Arabic, however. You won’t find anyone writing in Darija, as it is essentially a spoken dialect of Arabic without a writing system even. Some have gotten around that to write poetry and other literature in Darija, but literature is generally reserved for Modern Standard Arabic.

3. Morocco is a country where diglossia occurs

The fact that there are two different dialects of Arabic used in Morocco, one for formal situations and another for everyday conversation, shows the diglossia that you can find in Morocco. Diglossia refers to what occurs when a community uses two different languages (or two dialects of the same language). One language or dialect is always used for formall purposes, while the other is reserved for informal uses. The language used for formal and official purposes is called the “high” language or dialect, while the informal one is referred to as “low”.

In the case of Morocco, the high dialect is Modern Standard Arabic, and the low dialect is Moroccan Arabic. School is taught in Modern Standard Arabic, but most of the time anything that needs to be better explained is done so in Moroccan Arabic, as students sometimes can’t quite grasp something in the high dialect.

4. French serves as one of two “prestige” languages

Modern Standard Arabic may be the go-to language for formal situations in Morocco, but years under French rule left a lasting impression that cannot be denied. In 1912, French was introduced as the language of the government, educational institutions, and more. Modern Standard Arabic was even eclipsed a bit by this change, and went to being used only in traditional and religious settings.

Today, French is still used for many official and government purposes. It sort of acts as the common language for those in the business and government sectors. It is seen as the language of science, technology, and more, while Modern Standard Arabic is regarded as the more traditional official language. Most Moroccans feel that it is necessary to speak a European language in order to maintain contact with the rest of the world and keep up in terms of technology and science.

5. Berber is the indigenous language of Morocco

Berber refers to a group of languages as well as dialects that is native to North Africa. Most speakers can be found in either Algeria or Morocco, though there are pockets of speakers in other North African countries. Berber dialects were the original languages spoken in Morocco before even Arabic was introduced, and its influence can be seen even in the Moroccan Arabic commonly spoken at home and in the streets.

Berber can also be heard spoken among families and on the street, depending on where you are in Morocco. The dialect will vary as well from region to region, and there are at least three dialects that are widely spoken in the country. Most Moroccans consider any Berber dialect to be inferior to Arabic and French, and so it rarely gets used outside of Berber-speaking communities and is never used for documenting anything in writing.

6. You can find many Spanish speakers in the north

Given that Morocco is only a hop, skip, and a jump away from the southern tip of Spain, it makes sense that, at least in the north, you would be able to find people who spoke the language. Add to that the fact that Spain controlled a bit of Moroccan territory from 1912 to 1958, and it’s a bit of a no-brainer that some Moroccans picked up some Spanish along the way. On top of that, there is a lot of tourism between the two countries, mostly Spanish tourists visiting Morocco because of the exchange rate and the fact that Spain has a stronger economy.

If you go to parts of Morocco that used to be controlled by Spain, you will find that people will even watch television in Spanish and interact with their communities in the language. It has become the vernacular language of those areas, with a dialect of Arabic or possibly French spoken as well for business and official purposes.

7. English is becoming more and more popular

Just like most other countries in the world, Morocco sees English as an important language in terms of international relations and keeping up with the rest of the modern world. Though French and Spanish are much more popular still as second languages, English is becoming the new hot language for young Moroccans to learn. In fact, the state recognized this and in 2002 pushed through a reform stating that English will be taught in public schools starting in the fourth year.

This probably isn’t that surprising to you, considering English has a tendency to be the lingua franca in a lot of other countries. However, the interesting thing is that Morocco is much closer to Spain and France and the rest of the Arabic speaking world than to any country with English as the national language. Tourism could be a factor for English becoming more popular, but the main reason is probably just to keep up with the rest of the world.

8. Practically everyone in Morocco is at least bilingual

As you probably gathered from the rest of this list, Morocco is home to speakers of a variety of languages. There are at least a few dialects of Arabic that are widely spoken, plus French. Then you have the Berber languages, of which there are at least three that are commonly spoken in Morocco. On top of that, you have some Spanish and English, which is gaining popularity among younger Moroccans.

Since the official language is Modern Standard Arabic, and most government and official business is carried out in French, all Moroccans have to know either one or the other. In their own homes, however, they may speak Moroccan Arabic, a Berber dialect, or perhaps Spanish. Soon, even more people will also speak English, making them trilingual. The variety of languages spoken in Morocco has a lot to do with its location, but it is still quite impressive.

As this list has hopefully demonstrated to you, Morocco is not just another Arabic speaking country. Yes, it is part of that group of nations, but thanks to its history with France and Spain, many people also speak either French or Spanish. Of course, you also have to remember the languages in the Berber family that were spoken long before any Arabic speaking settler arrived in the area. When you add in the fact that English is growing ever more popular there, you have at least five different languages spoken in the country, in the same country where everyone is at least bilingual. That is quite impressive from a linguistic standpoint, if I do say so myself.

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Category: Foreign Language

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