Lost in Translation?: Language and Dialects in Morocco

“If you have your mouth, you’ll never be lost.” – Moroccan Proverb

Colorful dry paints for sale in Chefchaouen

Colorful dry paints for sale in Chefchaouen

In Morocco, people rarely consult maps, ask for addresses, or pay attention to street names. Instead, many Moroccans will hop in their car to visit a friend in another city, and upon entering the city, they’ll roll down their window and ask shopkeepers and neighbors who they see on the street, “Do you know where so-and-so lives?” Usually, eventually, this works.

Wood-carved statues in Chefchaouen

Wood-carved statues in Chefchaouen

This is but one example of how Morocco’s predominantly oral culture plays out in day-to-day life. Whenever we take a taxi to school, instead of using street names, we talk to the driver about the biggest landmarks that it’s close to (between the mosque and the McDonalds in Agdal). Neighborhood news spreads by word of mouth faster than imaginable, and waiters never write down orders (even if they will likely forget).

A white cat spotted in the blue city

A white cat spotted in the blue city

In addition to its deep-rooted oral culture, Morocco also has incredible linguistic diversity. This past week we traveled to Chefchaouen, a city in Northwest Morocco just inland of Tangier, known for its buildings in many shades of blue. Traveling to the North, we found that pronunciation and common words and phrases were different from what we had been accustomed to in Rabat. This diversity in the dialect can be seen even between cities relatively close to each other — for example my professor from Rabat says that slang in Casablanca is completely different, and parts of it could even be considered rude to use in Rabat.

A newspaper printed in Arabic and Tamazight

A newspaper printed in Arabic and Tamazight

French, Modern Standard Arabic, Moroccan Arabic, and Tamazight (spoken by the Amazigh community, known as ‘Berber’ in colonial times) can all be found in the major cities as a result of Morocco’s rich historical past. Amazigh people make up roughly half of the population of Morocco, and three major dialects are spoken within the Amazigh community. When Arabs came to Morocco in the 8th century they brought Islam and Modern Standard Arabic (in which the Qur’an is written) with them. French is still used in the educational system and in commerce in Morocco due to the French protectorate that began in 1912.

The edge of the mountains surrounding Chefchaouen

The edge of the mountains surrounding Chefchaouen

Though I had studied Modern Standard Arabic at my home university in the U.S., it’s been a fun challenge to learn Darijah, the Arabic dialect, which is strictly spoken and strictly Moroccan (most Arabs from other countries find it difficult to understand). Darijah includes Arabized words borrowed from French, Spanish and English, and is full of unique phrases that I’ve come to use constantly here, and will likely have trouble parting with.

Children sitting on their front step

Children sitting on their front step

One of the most important phrases is “enshah allah,” which translates to “God willing” and is used when talking about anything in the future — whether it is something that will hopefully happen (like a coffee date with your friend or success on you test) or just a way to politely avoid making a firm plan (maybe it will happen, but only if God wills it!). A uniquely Moroccan phrase used commonly in Darijah is “b’Saha wah raha,” which means “with health and comfort,” and is said on many different occasions, including whenever anyone serves food or tea, after a haircut, after buying something, after going on a run or working out, or even after taking a shower.

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1 Comment

Filed under Area & Arabic Language Studies, Katie Lamb, Morocco, Rabat

One response to “Lost in Translation?: Language and Dialects in Morocco

  1. I have learned so much about Morocco from this blog! Thanks!

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