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Mutual Intelligibility of Classical and Moroccan Arabic


Amid a flux of languages around the world, there is one common characteristic; that is communication. While there is an ever-increasing need for people to interact, language has become an integral part of facilitating the same through sign, speech, or written form. As such, Arabic is one of the unrivaled languages that exists in two forms and has remained valuable to more than three hundred million people globally (Abdulaziz, 2014).

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Furthermore, it does not only exist in spoken form or dialect, but also it exists in written form called the Modern Standard Arabic or MSA. Further, it is regulated and standardized, as the official language used in schools and offices. On the other hand, the regional dialects that are mainly used in daily communication in different parts of the region are not fully incorporated in MSA. However, although Arabs use a common language, sometimes communication is hindered due to personal experiences and the environment where one has been brought up. This paper looks at the mutual intelligibility of classical Arabic and Moroccan Arabic.

The Arabic Language and Its Origin

Although the word Arab is synonymous with nomads in the Arabian Peninsula whose ancestry land was in Yemen, the language originated from Jordan and Lebanon (a region called The Levant), and Saudi Arabia, 2000 years ago. Besides, it started from the Semitic group of Akkadi and Phoenician languages that are extinct as a result of its rapid spread in the region. In addition, languages like Hebrew, Aramaic, and Amharic have the same origin (Ibrahim, 2016).

There were two main causes for the spread of the language in the region. First, the migration of nomads from the Arabian Peninsula to new territories led to intermarriages with the natives in the new lands and, thereby, introducing the new language. Second, the religious warfare pioneered by Jihadists through the Islamic Conquests during the 7th century led to its expansion to the eastern part of China, Northern Africa, and the Iberian Peninsula (Ibrahim, 2016). As a result of migration and the encounter with new people, the Bedouins learned new words and, in the process, replaced their original words with the new ones; thus, dialect continuum.

This is the changing of a language as a result of various and numerous encounters from one place to another. It differs from place to place due to geographical differences; hence, resulting in slight differences in neighboring places. Conversely, research has shown that across vast regions, the dialects differ greatly (Bassiouney, 2017). While discussing dialects as a result of migrations, new experiences, and environments, Bassiouney says, “it is problematic for a book to claim that economic development encourages language development which results in a new identity” (p.481).

He further argues that, although he has doubts on how to overcome the damage done by colonialists, he agrees that language is important as it is a form of identity for the local people. This is essential because it identifies or places a person in a particular region. For instance, Maghreb forms the most divided dialect spoken over a large area that spans from the Arabian Peninsula to Libya and Morocco.

Differences between Classical and Dialectal Arabic

While some argue that language is unvarying and monolithic, there are profound variations due to the environment, social register, and common geographical language or local dialect. Classic Arabic is a version of the modern language in the Arab world known as MSA, standardized for easy communication, and it is taught in schools. It is the official language for more than 22 Arab countries (Abraham, 2016, p. 30). It consists of 5 varieties that are spoken from north Africa to the Middle East in Iraq.

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The regional dialects are the basic language used in daily activities but are not regulated or conformed to specific rules and are neither in the traditional nor in official communication (Zaidan & Callison-Burch, 2014). Arabic spoken in Libya and Tunisia borrows many words from Spanish, Italian, and French, sometimes called the Maghreb. However, it differs from one country to another since many words have been changed while retaining a few of them.

There are many examples of varieties of Arab dialects across countries in Northern Africa. For instance, speakers of Arabic in the Maghreb in Morocco call their dialect Derija, while those in western Sahara Mauritania speak in Hassaniya Arabic. In addition, due to cinema and media, Egypt Arabic is widely understood by many Arabs, but the Egyptians can understand dialects from Libya and Tunisia because they are neighbors.

Conversely, due to proximity, speakers of Levantine Arabic found in Lebanon, Palestine, Jordan, and Syria have intelligible variations of their language. This is because of their homogeneity in addition to the many Lebanese migrants who left their country for the neighboring states (Ibrahim, 2016). On the other hand, those in Iraq speak Mesopotamia Arabic, which is Aramaic but has two varieties. The first category is Gelet Mesopotamia Arabic and is spoken in Iran, while the second is Qeltu Mesopotamia, which is spoken in parts of the Arabian Peninsula.

Another variety is spoken in Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Oman, and the UAE all understand each other. Further, it has been noted that the spoken form of the Moroccan dialect is cumbersome for Levantine speakers to understand (Zaidan & Callison-Burch, 2014). Consequently, these dialects are considered dissimilar languages standing on their own. However, there is various distinct contrast when looking at the regional dialects and MSA.

There are some instances where they are not feasible in written structure, especially short vowels in text form. These are omitted or included depending on the length of the text. Nevertheless, there are many feasible features, and they include morphology in MSA that is richer as compared to the dialect, which has long dimensions as mood and case. For example, MSA has both single and plural, while the dialects lack those features, especially the dual form. Further, MSA has masculinity and femininity in its form, whereas almost all dialects lack that feature.

In contrast, colloquial dialect is complicated to cipher when compared to their counterpart, thus allows for pronouns to serve as indirect objects in addition to circumfix negation (Zaidan & Callison-Burch, 2014). Similarly, MSA’s case system is complex, while the dialects have less or no grammatical case. Another feature is the existing data sources for these languages where speakers are likely to speak in local dialects instead of MSA, which is dominant in dialectal content in addition to being the official and formal mode of communication. There is very little literature that can be availed in local dialects across these regions. There are a few printed local dialects in poetry and folklores, but all other voluminous prints are in MSA, which dominates in search engines and databases for linguistics.

There is a challenge to balance between languages, especially in the speech section where dialectal data is readily available in the form of television programs and phone conversations, but they are rare and scarce to find. Commenting on the abundance of MSA, Zaidan and Callison-Burch (2014) assert that the availability of data has aided research on the calculation methods used in Arabic with one variant. For instance, the translation machine for Arabic to English in MSA is perfect, whereas the one for dialect produces incomprehensible materials.

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In contrast, in written communication, both languages are used extensively. This is because these two are self-driven since it is from the will of the people who are communicating. It is up to the user to choose the language that they seem fit. AS a result, dialectal Arabic is more used in forums, blogs, reader commentary, making it a viable resource for data harvesting for linguistic computation; thus, creating a large database that can be utilized for statistical.

The Language Continuum in Arabic Multiglossia

Classic Arabic has been in existence since time immemorial, and as a result, different regions have developed their dialects to counter it or conform to their need. Referring to the early definition given, Badawi and Elgibali (1996) assert that there are many dialects in Arabic used by the people sharing the same language within a speech community. The community’s local dialect or vernacular “L” is denoted with low variety while the second lect is “H” or high, which is specifically used in formal education but not in ordinary conversations by non-native speakers mostly. He calls it a state of diglossia and further suggests that the situation has changed and it should be called “Multiglossia.”

This is a linguistic state whereby different dialects or language varieties coexist in society and are used where applicable depending on the purpose and the surrounding (Badawi & Elgibali, 1996). Therefore, there is freedom as the varieties are in a continuum enabling writers and speakers to use them interchangeably. Notwithstanding, the multiglossic continuum model shows how speakers shift depending on the inherent situation resulting from various variables.

In line with this, he points out an experiment he had with Egyptians, where he wanted to regulate the various variables to get a common unified grammar applicable across all Arabic variables. This was an important step in the education system since it could help in the teaching of Arabic worldwide, becoming an international language. He pays tribute to Professor Badawi by congratulating him on the monumental work on the importance of studying the language in its cultural and social context. Studying the Egyptian media on oral language usage, Badawi pointed out 5 positive levels in the use of Egyptian Arabic in a sociolinguistic nature, unlike Blanc, whose early work had dwelled on the grammatical framework (Badawi & Elgibali, 1996). Further to that, through the continuum model, he found out that there was a correlation of a continuous homogeneity or transition between the dialects and MSA, and the model comes in hand to document the success.

Conversely, there is a correlation between dialects and identity, as highlighted by studies. According to Bassiouney (2017), the use of dialect reflects on demographic and social factors as well as intentional performance identity. In a world that has become a global village, both identity construction and dialect performance are interrelated; thus, changing our fixed mindset on the composition and usage of dialects (Rouchdy, 2002). Therefore, due to the prominence of intersectional dynamism, there is a need to promote the study of sociolinguistics and dialects. In addition, various studies have been done to compare the syntax in Arabic across many countries.

In a comparative study of dialects from Morocco, Egypt, Kuwait, and Syria, research has outlined how individuation plays an integral part in the noun phrase. Further, it discusses the synthetic and analytic possessions and demonstratives (Brustad, 2000). The comparisons between Arabic and English words in sentences bridge the gap and make the understanding of dialects within the countries easy.

Code-Switching in Moroccan Daily Life

A recent personal experience revealed that mutual intelligibility is not only applicable between Classical Arabic and local dialect, but also among people within the Moroccan Arabic dialect. As such, for communication between the two speakers of the same dialect to take place smoothly, they must have a common understanding of the language they are using. Besides, communication between Classical Arabic and Moroccan Arabic cannot take place comfortably if the two speakers have different learning environments. For instance, if the Moroccan dialect speaker has no formal exposure to Classical Arabic, communication will not take place effectively between the two conversationalists.

Likewise, if the Classical Arabic speaker has been in a confined environment and not in contact with Moroccan Arabic, communication between the two will be problematic since the listener cannot understand the speaker regardless of their education level. They can only communicate through code-switching to some formal classical Arabic applicable to both of them. This involves changing from a given dialect or language to another with regards to the surrounding or setting of that conversation to suit the purpose of communication (Badawi & Elgibali, 1996). From personal experience, two recent incidents exhibited the aforementioned fact.

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In the first incident, the student visited the local market, and while he was inquiring about the prices in Moroccan Arabic, he received various surprised and confused glances from the traders where none understood what he was asking, even though he kept saying, “how much; what is the price; and, how much money?”, without any success. Later he went home to inquire how people ask for the prices of commodities, and he was told “Besh Haal,” a language that is not relevant both in Classical Arabic or any dialect in the Arabic language.

According to him, the only way other speakers navigate in such incidents is by using Egyptian Arabic that has been made popular due to their cinematography (Zaidan & Callison-Burch, 2014). Besides, his communication with the mother-in-law is limited due to the disparity in their language. She has limited formal education while he has acquired classical Arabic or Fusha.

Consequently, he needs the wife to translate when communicating with the mother-in-law; they engage in common prayer statements since the meaningful conversation is impossible and cannot last more than some minutes. In contrast, his sister-in-law, who was exposed to Arabic in school, emphasizes to him unused vowels and words in conversations (Hiwaar). Her talk makes him feel like he is attending a school recital; thus, he requests her to mix her Daarijah in her conversations to make it real. In line with this, while addressing the Arabic language analysis, Bassiouney and Katz (2012) conclude that rigorous computation of the language is important in meeting sociocultural goals. Besides, it fulfills the objectives of the Arabic community in processing the information. As such, there is a need to understand the general rules to make the communication process easy.

Similarly, by differentiating between morphology and phonology, the author explains why colloquial and fusha are new dialects used in communication interchangeably. However, one of them has been used for a long time and is dominant as compared to the other (Rouchdy, 2002). Fusha has a long history and is used widely, but the emergence of other new dialects register is as a result of the sociopolitical situation in the Middle East that has led to the conflicts of Lebanon versus Arab ideas. While these conflicts have resulted in the migration of the Lebanese to many Arab territories equally, they have led to linguistic rivalry and tension in the region.

However, it resulted in language or linguistic variety as viewed and expressed among many Arabic channels. Moreover, it has been noted that code-switching among fluent Arabic and English speakers of the first two generations have become a common feature among the group of bilinguals (Rouchdy, 2002). These people are found in many parts of the Arab world, especially in towns and cosmopolitan areas. They are different when compared to the first generation or even those who are fond of Arabic.

Furthermore, they have developed an opposite matrix language from the past generation; thus, creating an alternate dialect. While the early generations separate Arabic and English, the bilingual group borrows from both sides; hence, the beginning of a new Matrix language changes where there is the borrowing of lexical materials from both generations. Consequently, there is a miscommunication between the bilinguals and Classic Arabic or Moroccan Arabic speakers.

Notwithstanding, much literature has been written on the Moroccan Arabic or the multi-lingual found in the country through personal encounters, just like the aforementioned experience by the student. Writing on her experience in Morocco, Madison (2014) says that while life is busy in the streets and cafes, she can hear a mix of dialects as people are communicating in the suitable dialect at the specific place. According to her, it is the epitome of code-switching (Madison, 2014).

For example, in the late afternoon, she observes a TV station program in Fusha Arabic, the café menu written in French, and the patrons who converse in Colloquial Moroccan Arabic, Darija, and Tamazight languages. She says, “If you ask the café-goers about this phenomenon, your question might elicit a shrug” (Madison, 2014, para.2). She expounds that code-switching among Moroccans is the order of the day (Madison, 2014). Various MSA or Fusha users, Darija and French language users find themselves at the center of the flux where there is an influence of France, the U.S, and the Arabian Peninsula.

Although Morocco is seen as a culturally rich country, the aftermath effects of colonialization and migrations have ingrained in its way of life. The French occupation saw them introducing a protectorate with a written language, which became the hallmark of its linguistic nightmare. For instance, the majority of Moroccan kids before school speak Darija or Tamazight at home, but when they begin learning, they start using MSA. The situation continues to be complicated as they progress in education and go to college, where another language is introduced to them as the mode of instruction – French (Madison, 2014).

Further, English prominence in the entertainment world and arts continue to make it uncommon. In contrast, even though the country has been independent since 1956, France’s influence can be seen and felt everywhere in Morocco. For instance, in all buildings, there are writings and posters, adverts on highway billboards, and cultural events written in French and Arabic. In line with this, code-switching has become universal, especially among Moroccan bilinguals. French is the main language used in colleges and universities, making the young people who have been to the institution of higher learning able to communicate using it.

In addition, English has become the international language and is seen as a prerequisite for excellence in France. Conversely, in the northern part of the country, people speak Spanish (Wei, 2005). This has resulted in the availability of many languages for the youths to use. They can choose either of them for communication, depending on where they are and the person they want to converse with.

However, adding to the sentiment, Madison argues that the French are slowly becoming less influential. She reiterates that in March 2014, the minister of education announced that the country was making English one of their official languages due to its popularity in scientific research (Madison, 2014). While Morocco had two official languages, Tamazight and MSA, English was elevated to be official as well. Besides, although the lack of language cohesion is likely to polarize the communities, its multilingualism is a symbol of diversity.

Functions of Code-Switching Between Tamazight and Arabic

Research has shown that codeswitching and language variation are a form of communication for sociolinguistics. Besides, they are used as a channel for situation marking, solidarity, face management, group membership, identity negotiation, and discursive salience, among other functions. Consequently, through the analysis, the implication of the variation of Arabic and Tamazight with regards to the Myers-Scotton model is analyzed (Myers, 1993 as cited in Abdulaziz, 2014, p.21).

Moreover, the Arab world, especially North Africa, and to some extent, some countries in the Middle East have experienced significant changes in the last ten years. The changes have had a negative impact both on the political and sociolinguistic nature of the people. Further, since the Arab spring started, many countries have realized turmoil and devastation in its wake. As such, Libya has not been left behind as the 2011 revolt against Gaddafi led to many changes, including the reevaluation of the government policy on language.

The regimes had outlawed the use of Tamazight, Tamahaq, and Berber languages in Libya except for the use of only Arabic as the official language. Therefore, when the uprising started in February 2011, Tamazight and Berber languages emerged in the public domain in Libya. This was through newspapers, TV, radio, the internet, and street graffiti (Abdulaziz, 2014). In addition to the emergence of these languages, the Tamazight started broadcasts using their language.

Background of Libya

Libya is an Arab-speaking country found in North Africa, neighboring Egypt in the east, Niger and Chad in the South, Sudan in the southeast, and Tunisia and Algeria in the west. It is among the Maghrib countries that are home to Berber speakers who reside there presently. The ethnolinguistic groups in this country are; Arabs, Berbers who consist of Tuareg and Amazigh sub-tribes, the Ghadamses, and the Tebou. The Berbers and Arabs make up 97% of the total population, while other indigenous groups consist of 3 percent of the population (Abdulaziz, 2014). While Arabs are the most dominant tribe, the other tribes are found in Egypt, Sudan, and Tunisia.

Therefore, by concentrating on the Tuaregs and Amazigh, their characteristics are the same across all the above-mentioned countries, especially Egypt. Besides, the Berbers who form one of the largest groups in north Africa after the Arabs consist of two groups, the Tuareg and Amazigh, who are found in Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt, Burkina Faso, Niger, Mali, and Chad. On the other hand, the Tuareg are known to be Muslims and traditional nomads who reside in towns that were surrounded by oasis.

Functions of Language Alteration

Although there are various functions of alterations, it was important to understand the nature of the interlocutors of Amazigh and Arabic in code-switching on TV announcements in Libya using the Myers-Scott Matrix Model. In addition, data that was analyzed in a duration lasting to about 25 minutes of airplay between an analyst, the announcer, participants’ interviews, and news reports. All the speakers come from the western region of Libya, which consists of Arabs and Tamazight speakers.

In addition, all the people speak Libyan and Tamazight interchangeably during the interview (Abdulaziz, 2014). The analysis of 25 minutes of airplay revealed words like xali meaning maternal uncle, not a typical Libya dialect. However, it is a language from the western region meant for an older person as a form of respect. Among the Amazigh, Tuareg, and Arabs, they use ʕammi meaning paternal uncle.

In addition, by classifying into language varieties, groups are defined and assigned short forms or initials of their names. For example, a word like MSA standards for Modern Standard Arabic, the main language spoken across Northern Africa. Conversely, the Arabic language has two varieties or diglossia, meant for the upper group (fusha) and for the lower group or colloquial (Abdulaziz, 2014). International variations relate to social class, location, gender, and religion. On the other hand, the Tamazight language is found in the northern part of Libya and divided into many dialects. It has both feminine and masculine nouns that are differentiated with ‘Meghan’ for female, which has t-t at both ends while ‘tamghart’ is for male, respectively.


To conclude, the mutual intelligibility of Classical Arabic and Moroccan Arabic remains a challenge for the foreseeable future. To the detriment of many, Morocco is in a multilingualism dilemma with more than 2 official languages in addition to the local dialects. The use of MSA, Darija, French, and English as elevated languages in an official capacity makes it hard for ease intelligibility amongst the aforementioned lingo and many other sidelined dialects. However, this is a source of diversity as the people have a variety of languages to use and learn other cultures. Lastly, while the world has become a global village, there is a need for more sociolinguistic research to enable people to understand the functions of language in society.


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