The Linguistic Landscape of the Kingdom of Morocco
Which languages are represented in Morocco, and in what distribution?
The written language of Morocco is Modern Standard Arabic, which is used in official settings. However, the language you are likely to hear spoken in daily life is Moroccan Arabic (Darija), and it is common for many Moroccans speak at least two languages. Second and third languages include French and Berber languages, though Spanish and English are also represented. Arabic is the only officially-recognized national language in Morocco, unlike in countries like Algeria, where Tamazight (a Berber language, and also an umbrella term referring to the Berber languages collectively) is deemed a national language alongside Arabic.
The indigenous languages of Morocco are the Amazigh (Berber) languages, which are a branch of the Afro-Asiatic language family and exist in three main groups:
- Central Morocco Tamazight
There are approximately 3 million each who speak Tamazight and Tachelhit, and 1.5 million Tarifit speakers. However, accurate numbers are difficult to report as Moroccan censuses do not collect language information. The indigenous Berbers (s. Amazigh; pl. Imazighen) are composed of three main groups: the Masmoudas in the Rif, High Atlas and Anti-Atlas regions, the Sanhajas in the south, the Tafilalt oasis regions, the Middle Atlas and Rif mountains, and the Zenatas in the east and Middle Atlas near Meknes.
The French language also plays a significant role in Morocco, as the main form of communication for the business and government sectors. It is also taught in many schools, though Modern Standard Arabic is often the language of instruction. Like many other African nations, Morocco is a member of the International Organization of the Francophonie, meaning French has been established as a notable part of Morocco’s culture and heritage.
When were foreign languages introduced?
Arabic was introduced in Morocco by the Arab peoples who arrived beginning in 681 AD and led by Uqba Ibn Nafi of the Umayyad Caliphate (“Timeline of History: Morocco”). The Arabs greatly influenced culture through the introduction of Islam and the Arabic language.
The Berber population was coverted to Islam but maintain their native languages, though many do speak the local dialect of Arabic as well. French was introduced to Morocco during the period of colonization in the first half of the 20th century. Spanish was introduced to the nation around the same time, when Morocco was a protectorate of Spain.
How does geography influence the distribution of languages?
Berber languages are more commonly spoken in rural areas. According to Bladi.net, 57% of Berberophones reside in rural areas but this is not the majority of the rural population as most of Morocco’s rural population speaks only Darija. Geography and physical barriers have maintained distinct identities among the scattered Berber tribes, and thus led to the development of 26 different dialects of the Berber languages – not all of these are mututally intelligible (Lauermann 2009).
There are also regional differences in the dialect of Darija, itself separate from the Arabic spoken in other countries such as Egypt. Darija mixes influences from the indigenous Berber languages as well as from French and Spanish. There are other dialects of spoken Arabic as well, including Hassaniya in some parts of the Southern Sahara and small pockets of Judeo-Moroccan Arabic.
With Morocco’s proximity to both Western Europe and the rest of North Africa, French is an important language for conducting international business. English is also common in metropolitan areas with an international presence, such as Casablanca.
What challenges do indigenous language-speakers face and how has the Moroccan government handled language issues thus far?
There is a disparity in government because Morocco is home to the largest concentration of the Berber population and Berber speakers make up about half of the total population of the country (Kaplan 1982), but these indigenous languages are only starting to be used in formal, institutional settings.
Arabization is perceived as a threat to preserving the rich culture interweaved into the fabric of indigenous language. Kaplan writes that response to the Arabization of the Moroccan education system post-independence has brought together disparate groups in a movement for Amazigh nationalism. Marginalization of these tribal groups in the broader culture has forged a nationalistic identity leading to the struggle for increased minority representation. These indigenous peoples are coming together in an integrated way to demand dedicated services for speakers of their language through recognition in schools, in government, and in the media.
Some of these victories include the recognition of Tamazight as a national language, the founding of schools taught in the Tamazight language, and in 2001, the creation of the Royal Institute of Amazigh Culture (IRCAM) by King Mohammed VI (Lauermann 2009). IRCAM exists to serve the culture and languages of the Imazighen by supporting their incorporation into the frameworks of education and national identity. In 2003, Tamazight was introduced in elementary school classrooms of Morocco. The indigenous Tamazight language was not initially a written language, but King Mohammed VI made “Tifinagh” the official script to use for teaching Tamazight in schools. This comes out of a debate between using the Tifinagh, Arabic, and Latin-based scripts to represent Tamazight (Larbi 2003). At the beginning of 2010, Tamazight Channel came on-air, bringing Amazigh culture to television for the first time in a predominantly Arabic-speaking media scene.
“…in Agadir, where Berbers are comparatively affluent and powerful, every day is a struggle, according to Amouzay. Like much of Morocco, Agadir has a huge gap between the poor and the wealthy. Islamists usually blame this inequality on Western influences and capitalism, while Amazigh activists often blame the Arab community and Islamist sway.” – Anouar Hamama for Magharebia, 2010
What does the future hold for the linguistic landscape of Morocco?
The Kingdom of Morocco has an increasingly outward focus in its economic and political spheres and accordingly, a strong understanding of the role of foreign language proficiency in its external relations. Continuing on its post-independence path of urbanization and the expansion of the transportation sector, Morocco will become more networked through links with neighboring – as well as overseas – countries. Increased bilingualism and multilingualism for its population is likely as Morocco makes more strides to participate in international trade; however, the institutional linguistic focus will probably remain on the “global languages” including English and French. Amazigh activism will continue to strive towards rights of their language in the realms of government, law, and the public eye.
Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia and Western Sahara. Map. SIL International, 2009.
Hamama, Anouar. “Amazigh rights issue pits Moroccan Berbers against Islamists.” Magharebia 26 February 2010. Web. May 20. 2010.
Kaplan, Robert D. “In Morocco a Berber Face Hides Beneath an Arab Mask.” The New York Times 6 June. 1982, late city final edition: 22.
Larbi, Hsen. “Which Script for Tamazight, Whose Choice Is It?” The Amazigh Voice 2003, 12.2: 3.
Lauermann, John. “Amazigh Nationalism in the Maghreb.” The Geographical Bulletin 50.1 (2009): 37-56.
“Moins d’un Marocain sur trois parle le berbère.” Bladi.net. 20 July 2006. Web. May 19. 2010.
“Royal Institute of the Amazigh Culture.” English Blog by Morocco Channel. Web. May 20. 2010.
“The Amazigh language within Morocco’s language policy.” Mercator. Dossier 14. May 19. 2010.
“Timeline of History: Morocco.” [Included in course reading packet without attributed source.]