Morocco: The Complexities of Language

This post is part of our special coverage Languages and the Internet.

Charlotte is an anthropologist who, for the past year and a half, has been conducting field work in Morocco. Her research is focused on (in her own words) “how the complexity of Moroccan society’s multilingualism plays out in daily life.” Morocco is indeed a vastly multilingual country: Moroccans speak darija, the local dialect of Arabic, interspersed with French and Standard Arabic (Fus'ha). In the North and parts of the South, some people still speak Spanish, a relic of Spain's colonial flirtations with the land. Others speak Tamazight, Tashelheit, or Chleuh, Amazigh dialects oft-maligned by Morocco's Arabizing forces. And English, too, is on the rise, taught in every public school across the country.

Recently, Charlotte blogged about a forthcoming essay she has written on her initial experiences with darija. In the essay, she recalls an episode during which she was practicing darija words on flash cards, when her host-sister stepped in:

“See? There should be a long alif here in between the lam and the qaf,”[3] she corrected. “Like this.” She took the pen and added the alif’s long vertical stroke to the word on the card. I was confused, having just been taught how to spell the word in question that very afternoon. But Manal moved on to card number two. Again, she detected a spelling mistake, and added another missing alif. I looked on, slightly bewildered.

This continued with a few more cards. With each added alif, Manal sighed more deeply, and my bewilderment grew larger. Finally she turned to me. Incredulously, she demanded, “This is what they’re teaching you??”

Then suddenly it dawned on me: she must have assumed I was learning Fusha, or Modern Standard Arabic, rather than the Moroccan dialect. “Oh, wait!” I cried out eagerly, relieved to have identified the source of confusion. “These words are not Fusha, they’re Darija,” I explained, hoping that this clarified the situation.

But she simply looked at me, silently. The knot in her eyebrows showed no signs of disappearing. Then finally she exclaimed, with a mix of surprise and disgust, “You’re learning Darija? Why? Darija is bad, it’s no good!”

Charlotte then goes on to explain the differences between Standard Arabic (Fus'ha) and the Moroccan dialect:

In fact, the differences between Fusha and the Moroccan dialect are many. Fusha, or Modern Standard Arabic, is the contemporary version of Qur’anic Arabic. It is the lingua franca of the Arab world, but native language to none. As is true for all Arabophone countries, the language of daily communication in Morocco is a dialect – a form of Arabic weathered by the test of time, foreign influence, and the transformative process of linguistic evolution. Moroccans refer to their particular dialect as ‘Darija’, and its most noticeable departure from Fusha (aside from the addition of French and Berber loan words) is arguably its pronunciation. To the untrained (and even to the beginning student’s) ear, it often sounds as though speakers of Moroccan dialect have eliminated all vowels from their words – which would explain Manal’s diagnosis of a deplorable lack of alifs in my spelling.

In another post, Charlotte illustrates Moroccans’ tricky relationship with France and the French language by describing a patient at a Moroccan mental institution in which she has been conducting research:

To Nadia, Moroccan culture is the source of her illness. Her depression was born of suffocation; a case of asphyxiation by the insurmountable baric pressure of cultural mores and taboos. She spent a few years in France, and remembers it as a place of lightness and air, without a care in the world to weigh her down. The thick, winter blanket of sadness did not descend upon her until she returned to her native land, 15 years ago. I thus begin to wonder if her preference for speaking French might simply be driven by the need to breathe. Perhaps that speaking Arabic – a language indelibly linked to and thus bound by Moroccan standards of (expressive) propriety – feels to her like breathing air deprived of oxygen. Might French then be her escape hatch, a seam in the tightly spun fabric of moral codes? A helium balloon that lifts her high beyond the reach of Moroccan gender expectations?

Regardless of her feelings about Arabic, however, Nadia also speaks French, quite simply, because that is how she was trained. After an education at Morocco’s French schools, a medical degree, and a life lived in Morocco’s elite social circles, it is no surprise that Nadia is more easily able to express herself in French than Arabic.

This post is part of our special coverage Languages and the Internet.

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