Several languages are spoken in Morocco. On the one hand, the national languages which include the Berber Amazighe language and its dialects and dialectal Arabic; on the other hand, foreign languages, of which French and Spanish are the most common. Many urban Moroccans are totally bilingual.
Amazighe, the Berber language
Amazighe is the oldest existing language in the Maghreb and the arrival of the Amazighes in Morocco dates back to the Neolithic Era. Historians have yet to agree on their origins. They are felt to be either natives, to have originated from the northern shores of the Mediterranean or to be from the south of the Arabian peninsula. Archaeological documents from ancient Egypt reveal that Amazighe script existed at least 5 000 years ago.
Nowadays, Amazighe is spoken mainly in rural areas but also in towns, following the rural exodus of the 1970s. The Berber language, which is entirely oral, can be divided into three dialects: Tarifit in the north-east; Tamazight in the Middle Atlas; and Tachelhit, in the southern part of the High Atlas and the south-west. Although grammatical and lexical differences can be found in these dialects, analogies nonetheless exist between them: they use neither articles nor relative pronouns.
In towns, where the inhabitants have little or no contact with their roots, the Berber language is gradually dying out. Its decline is also due to its exclusion from the education system, the administration and the media, where Arabic and foreign languages prevail. A number of actions are currently underway to attempt to revive Amazighe, particularly in the literary and scientific fields. Novelists and poets have written works in Berber. Symposiums and festivals are also regularly organised by associations and given coverage in the press.
The Arabic language arrived in Morocco in waves: the arrival of Oqba Ben Nafi’s troops in the 7C, the establishment of new centres of learning in the 9C, the invasion of the Hilalian and Maaquilian tribes in the 12C and 13C and finally, in the 14C, the influx of Andalucians fleeing the Christian Reconquista.
Dialectal Arabic comprises five Arabic dialects. The urban dialect (Mdini), based on Andalucian, is heard mainly in the old towns of Fès, Rabat, Salé and Tetouan. The mountain dialect (Jebli) is used in the north-west and is based on Amazighe. The Bedouin dialect (Rubi) is common among the inhabitants of the Atlantic plains (Gharb, Chaouia, Doukkala, etc) and also in the lower plains such as Haouz around Marrakech, Tadla and the Sous. Finally, the Hassan dialect (Ribi) is used in some of the Saharan regions. Dialectal Arabic can be heard in the home or on the street. It can only be written phonetically. It is the mother-tongue of Arab speakers and education and popular culture are based around it. It is spoken throughout Morocco and constitutes a bond between a variety of communities, despite further sub-divisions into other dialects. Communication with other Arab countries takes place in classic Arabic. English, French or Spanish are used with other foreign nations.
Classical Arabic is the language of the Koran and is used in religious, political, administrative, legal and cultural circles. Academic and journalistic fields, as well as most of the educated or intellectual classes, also use classical Arabic. The Arabic language is rich and complex and its use in the holy book grants it an almost incantatory dimension. Arabic not only differs from its Latin counterparts in that it is written from right to left, but the words are also formed differently. For example, the English words “studies”, “school” and “lessons” although all possessed of a common symbolism – teaching – are nonetheless all distinct words. By contrast, in Arabic they have a common root, “drs”: hence “studies” is dirassa, “school” madrasah and “lessons” dars. It is estimated that there are some 20 000 roots, each of which produces by derivation (ichtiqâq) more than 100 words.
In 1912 under the Protectorate, French was proclaimed the official language of the colonial institutions and is still today commonly used all over Morocco, particularly in government and educational circles. It symbolises modernity and openness to the West. It is also the language most often used by businessmen abroad, except in Arab countries where negotiations are carried out in classical Arabic. French is on the curriculum in state schools, and in French and bilingual establishments most lessons take place in French. Entertainment (eg cinemas) and cultural (eg museums) establishments use both French and classical Arabic. This is also the case in the media, where television and radio news programmes are broadcast twice, once in Arabic and once in French.
In the 15C, the Andalucians were the first Spaniards to reach Morocco. In 1885, settlers established themselves in the southern provinces and then in the northern regions in 1912. The return of Ifni and the Saharan provinces when Morocco retrieved its independence, marked the end of the dominance of the Spanish language, which is now only spoken in the former occupied zones in the north and the Western Sahara.
Should Morocco’s educational, administrative, business and cultural institutions still be using the French language? Since independence, this issue has preoccupied large numbers of politicians and Arabisation has become one of Morocco’s priorities. The government has set up the Centre for Arabic Studies and Research (IERA) with the task of modernising the Arab language in both technical and scientific domains. In reality, however, this evolution has not undermined the use of French in Morocco.