Moroccan Arabic is a unique blend of Tamazight (Berber), Spanish, French, and Standard Arabic. While a lot of Darija’s vocabulary comes from Arabic and Tamazight, there are many words that have entered the language thanks to French, Spanish, and other languages.
Rabat – Some words remain unaltered, while others have been changed to varying degrees.
Additionally, some Arabic words used in Morocco are used in a different context than within Moroccan Standard Arabic (MSA). Although many Moroccans can understand speakers from the Arabian Peninsula, the reverse cannot always be said.
There are some Arabic speakers who argue that Moroccan colloquial Arabic, also called Darija, is not a “true” Arabic dialect, but rather a variant of North African languages.
Making matters more complex, each region also has its own distinct dialect. This is probably why it’s one of the most obscure dialects to learn since it’s the most geographically limiting variety of Arabic. It is also probably the most difficult Arabic dialect to understand.
When I first heard it, Moroccan Arabic sounded like the people are always appalled. It has a characteristic cluster of harsh consonants that once made me think the lives of Moroccans were soap operas. After two years of living with the language, I learned to at least listen for “sdemtini” before making that assumption (“How could you say that to me?”).
Over time, I understood it’s just a very strong language. I think it’s worth learning because it brings me closer to people and the culture that I wouldn’t otherwise get to know.
When I arrived, people taught me the curse words. People I’d just met had me echo profanities, which turns out to be a great way to make friends. My new friends insisted I wasn’t prepared for life in Morocco until I could call someone a sonofa and then tell them to screw off.
These words have turned out to be useless. When my mouth mimics “Khara” (crap), it’s like telling a one-liner. It could make a robber with a knife to my cheek laugh. I can’t intimidate in Arabic and it doesn’t make sense to be so serious in a language I don’t understand. Besides, people don’t say those words to me.
On the streets of Tetouan (near Tangier), they sing at me, “mon amie” or use racial slurs, which none of my new friends had had the courage to teach me. Standing out in the small city has its own joke and the punchline, or whatever people are calling out when they see me, is in Arabic. For this reason, I learned to appreciate the language barrier.
Still, there’s real value in learning individual words. I know about a hundred and fifty. I say what I want by stringing words together: “(Srwall dyali sreer ‒ lioum shems schroona bzef!) My pants too small ‒ today sun very hot! ” It makes friends giggle. I lie to the people selling roses in the street, “(Hedi? Ana feeya assassiya) This? I am allergic.”
There are slang expressions that primarily men use. Men and myself: “deka” for “beverage,” “tcharreyah” for “calm down,” and “la-az” for “hell yeah.”
Then there are times when I make my own expressions. “You are the fish of my love,” (unta l’hout dial hobbi) I told a man. In his near-native English, he told me that was so sweet.
In the break room at work, I explore things like syllabic stress and word choice. Once, my coworker, Mounir, and I got on to the topic of surviving prison in Morocco ‒ talking hypothetically ‒ and he demonstrated how to say “Salam Walaikum” with the right intonation and stress to be taken as a top dog. He puffed up his chest, “Sah-lahmu-Walaykoum,” his torso said. I just laughed. I could never.
Non-verbal communication is still reliable. There is a gesture that looks sort of like a cupped hand while the other hand goes over the heart. It is a kind way of asking, “lebess?” or “are you doing well?” A good answer, if not “humdulilah” is to return the gesture with more assurance.
Because most Moroccans are multilingual, it’s possible to get around on English or French. However, without learning Moroccan Arabic, or at least establishing solid listening comprehension skills, I can see that there’s a side of Morocco I’m missing out on.
It’s the side that includes what the hell anybody’s ever talking about.
For example, I don’t know what the homeless woman on my block, Fatima, is always screaming about and because her distressed voice pulsates in the background of an otherwise quiet neighborhood, I’d like to.
When I am out, I want to know things like, why are those guys laughing? What does the Call to Prayer actually sound like? Did the cashier’s tone imply something rude? Why is that couple yelling and whose side should I be on? If I nod will it be obvious I have no idea what’s happening? How much did he say that soap was? Why are those guys still laughing?
This is the Morocco I don’t yet have access to. Instead of getting serious about Arabic, I just use it as a tool to bring others closer.
With a cheesy smile and sloppy pronunciation, I use my Arabic to jokingly hit on friends, greeting them by enthusiastically saying, “Rzella!” “gorgeous!”