The Mezzofanti Guild Language Learning Made Simple

How Different Is Moroccan Arabic To The Other Dialects, Really?



A while ago I mentioned my plan to drastically improve my Moroccan Arabic.

Regular readers of this blog know that my background for the last 12 or so years has been in Egyptian Arabic (and to a lesser extent Levantine and Iraqi).

But Moroccan has always been a challenge of mine.

Spending a lot of time in the Gulf this past year especially, I’ve met a LOT of Moroccans and Tunisians living there for work and interacting with them has taught me heaps about the differences and various strategies for communicating.

Usually this would entail me speaking Egyptian and them replying to me in their dialect or a slightly ‘Egyptianized’ version of their dialect to make it easier.

Therefore I saw a real need to start spending some serious time focusing on Maghrebi Arabic (Moroccan, Algerian and Tunisian mainly) to get it up to a more competent level since a lot of the work I do these days requires me to speak with people from these places.

Honestly I have no desire to speak Moroccan Arabic.

What’s important to me however are my listening comprehension skills – to understand what I hear.

Since Moroccans can generally understand Egyptian Arabic because of the media, my main priority has simply been to make sure that I can understand them when they answer me.

Note: While I usually recommend this resource and this for learning Arabic online, I’ve found that ArabicPod101 is the most comprehensive tool for Moroccan specifically.

 

The common argument – Moroccan Arabic is like another language!

Ask anybody with even a rudimentary knowledge of Arabic about Moroccan and they’ll tell you it’s like a totally different language.

Even native Arabic speakers from the Middle East and Egypt can seriously struggle to understand a speaker from North West Africa.

This is probably why it’s one of the least desirable dialects to learn since it’s the most geographically limiting variety of Arabic.

Because of this, many argue that it shouldn’t even be classified as a dialect.

The easiest way to understand this argument is to compare it to Portuguese and Spanish which are very similar and yet two completely different languages.

I’m personally undecided as to how I’d classify it.

In this post, I’ll share with you just a few observations I’ve made about Moroccan from the perspective of someone with over a decade learning other dialects (Egyptian, Levantine and Iraqi).

I’m definitely no expert on Moroccan but some of the observations I’ve made here may help you if you’re in a similar situation or considering which dialect to learn.

 

1. Moroccan pronunciation takes getting used to

When I first sat down to start listening carefully to Moroccan material I was disheartened.

It just sounded like a totally foreign language.

I could recognize a few words and expressions here and there but they were lost in a sea of gibberish that I couldn’t understand. Here and there a French word would jump out at me too but none of this was enough for me to decipher what was being said.

Some of the letters (in particular the strange gutturals!) just didn’t sound familiar either.

But here’s what I started to realize:

Like every dialect variation of Arabic, there are significant vowel shifts that make a very common Arabic word totally unrecognizable at first sound.

As a simple example, take the word for ‘dog’ (كلب).

Across dialects, you’ll hear this pronounced ‘kalb’, ‘kelb’, ‘kilb’ or even ‘keleb’.

It’s the same word though if you look at the consonants – the only difference is that it’s undergone vowel changes over time in different places.

When you hear this spoken in a sentence at normal speed surrounded by other words, it can be very hard to hear if you’re not used to that particular vowel change.

Since Egyptian is my forté, when I meet a Levantine or Iraqi speaker I’ll usually have to make a mental adjustment at first to prepare myself for the many words they’ll use which have slightly different vowel sounds but the same consonants.

This is no different to English either.

Consider the way British and American people say the word ‘banana’:

US:

UK:

 

They’re the same consonants but the vowel change makes it sound like a very different word to a learner of English.

The issue with Moroccan does get a little more tricky than this though in my opinion.

This is because of the odd consonant clusters you get due to short vowels actually dropping out of words altogether.

So a word like ‘balad’ (بلد) for example which sounds very much the same in most dialects sounds a bit like ‘bled’ in Moroccan. The short vowel in the first syllable essentially disappears which means that in the context of a full sentence it sounds like a very different word.

Personal pronouns like ‘enta’ and ‘enti’ become ‘nta’ and ‘nti’.

The number nine (tisa3) becomes tsa3.

Even the definite article ‘al/il’ sounds more like ‘le-‘ because the initial short vowel drops (though this could also be influenced by the French definite article).

You encounter these vowel changes and deletions everywhere in Moroccan Arabic.

So what I’ve found is that consonant clusters caused by dropped short vowels make it very tricky to hear what’s being said the first time round. But when I listen a few times or see it in a transcript I usually (though not always) get an ‘aha!’ moment.

The challenge is training your ears to listen carefully for the familiar consonants.

 

2. Moroccan Arabic grammar and syntax have basic differences to other dialects but nothing major

Moroccan is quite different to other dialects but it’s still Arabic.

The general structure/syntax and majority of terms are the same and once you get your head around some of the basic differences, you can move ahead easier.

Here are just a few simple realizations that helped me begin to move from Egyptian to Moroccan:

The typical verb conjugations depending on gender, number and person are the same as the other dialects with one notable exception that I’ve seen.

First person singular verbs begin with a n- (ن).

So ‘I write’ is ‘ana niktib’ (unlike other dialects where it’s prefixed with an aleph: ‘ana aktib’).

Of course, this means it’s a little confusing for third person plural (we) which in every other dialect has the same n- prefix.

In Moroccan it’s: n+verb+u.

So it’s the same prefix but it includes a plural suffix as well to differentiate.

The other challenge as mentioned above are the vowel differences with verbs which make them harder to hear and pronounce coming from a different dialect, and the occasional different vocabulary.

This is something I’m still training my ear for.

The present tense prefix is k- rather than b- and this attaches to verbs that conjugate just like the other dialects (e.g. ‘You (m) write’ = ‘nta k-tiktib’.

Future tense is indicated by a prefixed gh- (غ) or as a standalone particle before the verb: ghadi (غادي).

For example: ‘I will go’ is ‘ghadi nimshi‘ (غادي نمشي).

Finally, negation works mostly the same way as in Egyptian where the verb is circumfixed with a negative prefix and suffix (ma+verb+sh(i)).

This works much the same way as the French negation with ne+verb+pas (and probably originated from it).

 

3. Accepting the Berber, French and Spanish influence in Moroccan Arabic

One thing you’ll hear often about Moroccan Arabic is that it’s heavily influenced by French, Berber and Spanish.

In fact, if you listen to a Moroccan, Algerian or Tunisian speaker you’ll almost certainly hear many French words and phrases, as well as a whole lot of unfamiliar terms and expressions that are not found in (or rarely heard in) other dialects (including antiquated Arabic expressions).

To give you an example, I was just listening to this street interview today and I noticed the woman used a sentence/expression that’s half French and half Arabic:

 

She said:

“C’est dommage 3ala al-maghrib.”

‘C’est dommage…’ (French: It’s a pity/shame…)

‘3ala al-maghrib.’ (Arabic: on Morocco)

In this particular instance, I don’t think it’s necessarily codeswitching (where a bilingual person injects words and expressions from their other language).

But rather I think this is an example where French has become such a part of the language and culture that Moroccan Arabic has absorbed it as its own, the same way English has with so many French words and expressions.

Either way, you can hear the French influence clearly.

Spanish has had a big impact on Moroccan Arabic too.

This is because of its proximity to Spain and the Moorish occupation of Portugal and Spain for so long.

My Spanish is awful admittedly but two examples I know of are the word for kitchen (cocina in Spanish and kuzina (كوزينة) in Moroccan), and week which is usbu3 (اسبع) in Arabic but semana (سيمانا) in Moroccan.

Egyptian and Levantine are also quite heavily influenced by European languages but I’d say that anyone with a background in French or Spanish might find it an easier transition moving into Moroccan first.

I also know very little about the Berber languages but I do know that Moroccan Arabic is littered with borrowings from Berber.

The most well-known of these is the word for ‘how much’ – in every other Arabic dialect it’s kam (كم) whereas in Moroccan Arabic/Berber it’s sha7al (شحال).

So to ask a Moroccan how old they are, you’d say ‘sha7al fi 3omrak?’ (lit. how many in your life?).

This is similar pattern to the Arabic expression ‘3andak kam sena?’ (lit. you have how many years?).

You’ll also find a lot of unique terms to North West Africa such as wakha (واخا) for ‘OK’, daaba (دابا) for ‘now’ and jooj for the number 2.

At the end of the day, I suggest not being put off by the different vocabulary and borrowings but just learn them gradually as you come across them.

Of course, French and Spanish might give you a leg up but they may also be detrimental since you’ll be tempted to use them with Moroccans when you get stuck.

 

For Moroccan Arabic, I recommend ArabicPod101 (video and podcast lessons that are mostly focused on the Moroccan dialect).

We’re currently working with some Moroccans to expand our content for that dialect at TalkInArabic.com as well.

For a good book, Abdellah Chekayri’s Introduction to Moroccan Arabic and Culture is the best I’ve seen personally.

 

Are you experienced with Moroccan Arabic? What would you recommend?

Comments

House Rules: I love comments and feedback (positive and negative) but I have my limits. You're in my home here so act accordingly. No advertising. Links will be automatically flagged for moderation.

Got something to share?

  1. Thank you for this article, Donovan. 🙂 I’m currently learning German and Spanish and plan to learn Arabic and French next. I’ve been trying to decide which Arabic dialect to pick. Currently, I’m down to three options: Egyptian, Levantine and Moroccan – for different reasons. This article cleared up some things. Thanks. 🙂

    1. Good to hear!

      All the best with your decision 🙂

    2. Hi Donovan
      what you should know is that many languages in middle east and North Africa called Arabic, comparing darija or Moroccan Arabic with Egypt Arabic is much different than comparing Spanish and Portuguese.

    3. Hello, I should learn Modern Standard Arabic (al-Fusha) first. Then learn the dialects.

  2. Thank you for your article and for your efforts to make the Moroccan Arabic more easy for the arabic speaking,but I want you to know that the North African Arabic is not the same in Algeria Tunisia and Morocco for eg: when you explained about e.g. ‘You (m) write’ = ‘nta k-tiktib’. in Algeria and Tunisia is not the same ‘You (m) write’ = ‘nta -tiktib’.or nti tektbi (female) the K is used only in Morocco and the west of Algeria like Tlemcen & Ghazawat
    Since the arabic people of the Middle East and Egypt are not making an effort to watch the Maghreb Media they will never understand us expect if they will try to spend a few times to analyse word by word like what did you do in this article.
    Thank you again

    1. Thanks for your encouragement and sharing some of the differences between those dialects. 🙂

  3. Hi, Donovan! I’ve lived in Morocco for a total of 9 months now and just wanted to say that Moroccans use a completely different word for the number nine (tisa3) – they say ts3oud تسعود!
    🙂 Good luck with your Darija endeavors, I know myself that it’s very tricky!

    1. I totally agree with you about the number nine (I am moroccan 😉 )

    2. I’m Moroccan too, we use both, it depends on which part of Morocco you are in

    3. As a Moroccan,I have never heard ’tisa3″ as number 9.
      I use myself ‘ts3oud’ and I have heard also ‘ts3a’, but NOT ’tisa3′

  4. Great article. I’m not currently learning Arabic, but I think I’d like to learn some in the future. In the past, though, I’ve always gotten tripped up/scared off by the dialects and the status of MSA. It was really helpful that you pointed out some common differences between dialects in general- it doesn’t seem so intimidating! Thanks!

  5. Your are right, it’s mainly pronunciation which trips levantine speakers up. My dad comes from Syrian and spent several years in Algeria teaching at university, and he told me that he couldn’t get a word on the day he arrived. Until he realised that words are basically crushed together and and french phrases are added every now and then. Also he noted that there is a huge amount of old fus7a is still used, it’s just considered as “low frequency” language in the levantine countries. He started to love the dialect and can even actively recall it to a certain extent 40 years later!

  6. Hello I noticed the u said the word for 9 tisa3 changes to tsa3 but it actually changes to ts3od
    And anta and anty changes to
    Ntayya and ntinna
    Hope I helped

    1. Yes this how I say ntina intaya and I also say fuqash instead imta.

    2. Hello!

      I just wanted to react to this comment by saying that even IN Morocco, dialects change drastically from a region to another. I’m from Casablanca and we say “nta” and “ntiya” but the closer you get to the north and the rif, where my maternal family is mainly from, it switches to “ntina” and “ntaya” as well with tons of other words that even Moroccans talking to each other can’t understand eg: 3ayla for little girl instead of bniyta 🙂

  7. Hi, I’m Moroccan and i know the struggle , but you have some words that we don’t say it the way to did write it like ” ts3a ” number 9 , but we say ” ts3oud ” and also there is no Arabic country that speak the typical Arabic ” the one that Quran has been written with ” , every country add some unique words to their language and yes i know we are very far from speaking Arabic because Moroccan are not 100% Arabs . btw great article and wish you the best on your future 🙂

  8. Thanks for a great article. I’m currently living in the UAE and considering a move to Morocco and was wondering whether it would be more useful to learn French or Arabic. Now I’m leaning toward French, because I can see the Arabic I would learn here wouldn’t quite translate to the Arabic I would need in Morocco. This was very informative.

  9. I’ve heard that some Lebanese people find it easier to switch to French to communicate with Tunisians, Algerians, and Moroccans

  10. Labes, bghit nsulak shi haja. Wash nta katfqr MSA (Modern Standard Arabic) shi lugha haqiqa? Makaynshi shi nas li hudru biha, ghir sahafiin, siasiin, wa al malik.

    Hi, I’d like to ask you something. do you think that MSA is a true language? There are no people who speak it except reporters, politicians and the king.

    The first paragraph is an attempt to ask you a question in phonetic Moroccan Arabic.

  11. Hello, I’m Moroccan & found this page very informative for people looking to learn our strange but amazing language. And I say language because I truly believe our dialect has strayed away from middle East dialects. Kind of like The Maltese language. Also the main reason you find the weird pronunciations & vowel sounds is because Moroccan darija has been shaped to the way it sounds by the Berber people. When they were introduced to arabic the Berber languages were still widely spoken as first language before many stopped speaking the native language after generations. Through those generations the it was basically Berber speakers speaking arabic with the Berber accents. Even today about half of the population speaks Berber still. Moroccan darija is basically the format of the Berber languages with mainly arabic, but also french & Spanish words.

  12. we say in the cities (tes3ood) – in the countryside (tes3a)

    we say (nta) (nti) or but not often (ntaya) (ntiya)

    (ntina) is uses only in the north region

    we don’t say (bled) – we say (blaad) and it comes not from the word in classical arabic balad (بلد) – it comes from bilaad (بلاد) which is also a classical arabic word

    you have said that there is lot of word which come from berber – this is totally incorrect – the word that you have given are not berber – they are arabic words – to say this word is not arabic you must not only study egyptians dialect – you must study the classical arabic – i can give you lot of arabic words which you have never heard

    there are lot of words from french in arabic moroccan – but all these words have no equivalent in arabic – like tomobil (automobile) – assayyara was invented lately – in english you find words from french – like garage – because it has no equivalent in english

    there are a very few words in moroccan arabic

    moroccan arabic is the closest dialect to the original arabic :

    while some mashariqa change j to g or y – we pronounce j as it is in classical arabic

    while some of them change ق to hamza – we pronounce ق as it is in classical arabic or in some word we use g which is a badawi sound

    while some of them change ث – ذ – ظ to س – ز – ز – we change them only to ت – د – ض this means that we stayed close to the original sounds

    i have seen lot of egypian films – lot of egyptian, libanese, syrian and jordanian series – if i haven’t i wouldn’t be able to understand their dialects

    for exemple, only by watching films i have learned that tarabiza means table even if the word is not arabic

    the way of thinking of the masheqi people is illogic – and the mashreqi people are very lazy – they want to understand without doing any effort

    1. الله يعطيك الصحة!
      I don’t think moroccan is any further from fosha than egyptian or Lebanese are. People are just more used to hearing the latter. There are endless examples of words in levantine and egyptian that come from turkish or other roots (tarabeeza is a good example).

      Note to author of article:
      Yes there are a nunber of french words that have become part of the moroccan dialect (e.g. coufitir instead of the Arabic murabba to say jam) but what many non moroccans (as well as some richer moroccans don’t realise) is that many moroccans do NOT speak much french at all. A moroccan could just as easily say say “khsara” instead of “c’est dommage” used in the video… as moroccans we change how much french we use depending on our audience. Unfortunately this also means it is very easy to guess what social “class” a moroccan person belongs to depending on how often and how well french is introduced in a sentence….

  13. The beauty of the Moroccan Darija has no limits,please let’s not forget about the Hebrew existence in Darija that sadly so many of us are not willing to mention it besides the Jewish glory in our beloved kingdom.

    1. Can you share some examples of Hebrew influence in Darija?

  14. What do you mean that so man of us are unwilling to mention the influence of Hebrew on darija? Silversmiths in the Atlasare willing to talk about the influence of Jews on their trade, esp. the work in filigree. I’ve had several conversations in silver shops about the history of that trade, always beginning with Jewish silversmiths.

  15. Moroccan darija is very old and includes very old arabic words which are not in the MSA vocabulary, which has been launched by Lebanese so closer to their dialect. French or spanish are very limited in the moroccan darija. When a moroccan adds french words then it is pure showing off, if you speak with average people you won’t find so many western words.
    Now be aware that moroccan darija is very old and this was spoken in the streets of Granada 500 years ago (ka + verb, N+first person, word “derb”..) so it is like a reminder of Al-Andalus, never forget that.

  16. levantine people are not willing to learn morrocan also because it’s so aggressive to the ear. the most beautiful arabic dialect is Syrian /lebanese… and Spanish and Portuguese are much more closer to one another than morrocan and. lebanese… would be more like between French and Romanian

  17. كى داير؟
    واش راك؟
    شنوه أحوالك
    It’s “How are you?” in the Maghrebi dialects
    Great article
    I’m an Egyptian and I told myself “How can I be an arab and still don’t understand the Maghrebi dialects?”
    So I started learning them and I was tickled by this article so I’ll take about Moroccan Arabic (the subject of the article)
    Here are my thoughts about it/them

    *The Maghrebi dialects are still dialects of Arabic at least in their written form
    Because they have the same rules as the other dialects
    their difficulty(difference) comes from the strange pronunciation

    *The Maghreb people like most of arabs(Egyptians and Levantines) are not pure arabs
    I mean that they had a language(Berber language in this case and still spoken in some areas) before Arabic and that language affected their pronunciation
    Its like a french man speaks English with a french accent
    For example If you listened to someone speaking Moroccan Arabic(and you don’t know it)
    and another speaking Berber language you’d say that they speak the same language beacause of the same accent

    *They drop the a in the definite article al- beacause the letter alif called al-hmza الهمزة in this case
    and they generally omit al-hamza because when they first spoke Arabic as their language
    they learned to recite the Quran in a certain way which has this feature
    يقرؤن القرآن برواية ورش عن نافع التى فيها يتم حذف الهمزة
    For example ra’y رأى (opinion) >> راى ray or Rai and Al-Amin الأمين (a male name) >> لامين Lamine and Abou shousha(a male name) >> boushousha

    *I think you should study in depth the written form and develop the listening skills using songs and their lyrics which helped me so much
    By the way,I think you should write a post about using songs in learning languages

  18. I found a great YouTube Channel for learning Moroccan Arabic, just look for Painless Arabic on YouTube. The prof is really funny and the structure of his lessons is pretty interesting.

  19. Hi, my first language is English and I’m literate and pretty fluent in French. I might be moving to Morocco for my husband’s job, and I’m wondering if it would be helpful just to get started at home teaching myself arabic script. My thinking is that sometimes if the pronunciations are difficult, and French isn’t working, I could write down the name of something I’m looking for and the arabic script would help? I enjoy learning alphabets and scripts but I don’t want to make things even more confusing. Does knowing how to write MSA help at all in Morocco?

    1. Yes, it will help. French will get you through most situations, but it doesn’t hurt to be able to be able to read some Arabic.

  20. Very interesting article. I am fluent in Moroccan Arabic since I live here since 2006 and I’m trying to improve my ability to better communicate into a more standard Arabic version. I started with Moroccan Arabic and while traveling in other Arab nations I found that knowing darija does help me a lot even though languages are so far from each other, but, the basics of conversations and main words are pretty much the same after I learn a bit of the classic route of the language. Thanks for sharing man. Greetings from south Morocco.

  21. Interesting article. As a student of Arabic whose forte is Moroccan Arabic, I have to say that I don’t feel that is really farther from fusHa than other dialects; it just diverges from it in different ways than the other dialects. Actually, I find that Moroccan has a lot of influences from older Classical Arabic that we don’t see in other dialects. For example, a Moroccan professor told me that the word bzaf بزاف, which in Moroccan means “a lot”, comes from the old world بالجزاف ، which means wholesale. I do agree that the influences from other languages can take some getting used too, but it’s important to realize that not everyone speaks with these influences — a lot of the time it depends on things like social class, etc. One last comment — many Moroccans I have spoken to dislike the term “Berber”, since it comes from a designation that meant barbarian/someone who can’t be understood, and prefer to have the languages called Amazigh/ tamazight.

Love languages?
JOIN THE GUILD:

Or click here for my Essential Language Learning Tools.

AS SEEN IN:

BBC