Directions written in Arabic and Tamazight

To be honest, I hesitated to translate this post from the French blog, as it is about a French speaking magazine. I decided to do it and publish here when I realized this magazine is targeted to English speakers learning French… maybe one of the readers will pass by and find more accurate information?

The end of the year issue focuses on Morocco, with a whole series of articles to help people discover the country.

As the aim is above all to learn and improve French, the articles are not at university level.

I was pleasantly surprised, however, by most of them, especially one on the relations between France and Morocco which does not gloss over difficult subjects (the current cooling of relations between the two countries) and presents the Protectorate as what it was: a colony.

On the other hand, one of them bothered me a lot, because it is full of inaccuracies and approximations that make it false, it is the one about the languages of Morocco. Out of respect for copyright, I will only put some excerpts, “quotes to support the point”…

Literary Arabic and Modern Standard Arabic (fusha)

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The Arabic language existed long before the appearance of Islam in the Arabian Peninsula. This so-called ‘literary’ Arabic is common to all Arabic-speaking countries. Literary Arabic is to the Arabic language what Latin is to French, i.e. a written variety attached to literary culture and sacred texts. It is the prestigious language of educated people. However, for the 30% of the country’s population who are illiterate, it is impossible to understand the king, to read newspapers or to be properly informed. Since the kingdom’s administration operates in literary Arabic, a third of Moroccans encounter difficulties when it comes to administrative or legal procedures.

Yes, but no.

There are two “Arabs”, literary Arabic, which is also the Arabic of the Qur’an, and the so-called “standard Arabic”, fusha in Arabic, MSA in English (for Modern Standard Arabic). Both are common to all Arabic-speaking countries and to many Muslims who have chosen to learn Arabic.

Literary Arabic is much more complex than Standard Arabic. It would effectively be the equivalent of Latin but in relation to modern Italian rather than the modern French used throughout the French-speaking world.

The difference is that it is used daily by jurists, clerics and quite regularly by educated people. It was said, for example, that King Hassan II had a perfect mastery of this literary, “high-end” Arabic.

Nevertheless, in everyday life, in newspapers, administrative forms, on television, it is standard Arabic that is used. It is simpler, a certain number of grammatical rules are somewhat forgotten. To compare with another linguistic area, it is the same style of difference as between the classical corpus of Chinese ideograms (50,000 characters) and the simplified system (5,000 characters).

Language of the Amazigh people


Darija serves as a common language between Arabic-speaking Moroccans and the 30-40% of Berber-speaking Moroccans. They are mainly found in the Rif, Middle Atlas and Souss regions. In Morocco, the Berber language is called the “Amazigh language”. Since the 2011 Constitution, it is also recognised as an official language. Etymologically, this term refers to “people whose language is not understood”, i.e. foreigners considered as “barbarians”. The Amazigh language is used exclusively orally, even though it is written in the Tifinagh alphabet. In practice, Moroccans write either in literary Arabic or in French.

But it was this paragraph in particular that bothered me and finally sent me to my keyboard.

And on a hot topic …

Let’s start with the title: the “Amazigh” language is called Tamazight and it is the language of the Imazighen (plural of Amazigh) who are usually called Berbers in French.

And if you want to use Amazigh as an adjective, you don’t add an e (as you do in French): the feminine is formed with an initial t(a) and a final t (yes, just like Tamazight, isn’t it amazing?)

Etymologically, it is the word “Berber” that is attached to the Greek “Barbarians” (i.e. all those who did not speak Greek).

Amazigh, on the other hand, means “free man”.

Secondly, in Morocco there is not “one Amazigh language” but three: Tarifit (in the north, the language of the Rifans), Tamazight, the language of the tribes of the Central Atlas, and Tachelhit, the language of the Chleus, effectively in the Souss. Tamazight is the word used to designate “Berber” without specifying a dialect.

Thirdly, it’s a detail, but I don’t understand where the percentages come from. There are many more Moroccans of Berber origin (between 70 and 80% according to estimates) and many fewer Berber speakers (at best 25%).

The different Berbers are written

Here, we are no longer in the details. The Moroccan tifinagh, that of the IRCAM, is used on signs and in a number of administrative documents. It is also written in all school books for learning Tamazight, which is compulsory in Moroccan state schools (but not in the AEFE, the French speaking schools network, where the author of the article teaches).

Many Amazigh authors write in their language, either in Tifinagh or, more simply, in a transcription in the Latin alphabet with some characters added. This language is alive, written and used to communicate.

(If you want to see a transcription in Latin characters, you can for example google the lyrics of Idir’s Vava Inouva. It’s Kabyle, but it’s the same).

Finally, before the arrival of Europeans in Morocco, Tamazight was written. There are literary texts, stories, where it is used, but transcribed with Arabic characters. The very first dictionaries and grammars of Berber, from the 19th century, write it in Arabic.

As Linguisticae demonstrates so well, one can – more or less easily – write any language in any alphabet.

In practice, Moroccans write a lot in Darija

Clearly, to say that in practice, Moroccans write either in literary Arabic or in French is a gross oversimplification.

Arabisation has been carried out to the detriment of Darija, which is not supposed to be written in Arabic abjad, at any rate. This is a political posture above all, which clashes with reality: you only have to remember the “mini scandal” when a school book included the word “baghrir” (or msemem, I don’t remember), which is typically Moroccan, but which does not belong to standard Arabic. An Arabic word that everyone pronounces every day.

A transcription system has been developed, based on Latin characters to which numbers are added to symbolise sounds that do not exist in French. And this transcription is used on a daily basis, in text messages, on Facebook…

Moroccans write much less in French than in Arabic or Darija

Mastering French well enough to write it fluently and spontaneously is the work of a small elite, barely larger than that of Moroccans who have studied in foreign schools (because there is, despite everything, a world outside the OSUI-AEFE).

On the other hand, in the middle class, employees, shopkeepers, and SME managers, writing in Arabic is much more common than writing in French. Two Moroccans who speak Arabic will not spontaneously communicate in French, let alone in writing, unless they are totally obliged to do so…

Or else they practice a strange mixture, a kind of creolisation or pidgin that makes the purists howl, but which works

A post on Facebook, mixing French and Arabic in a non official transcription

The definition of ‘bled’, a vocabulary nitty gritty detail


The ‘bled’, in North Africa, refers to the interior of the land. It is also a more generic term for a grouping of inhabitants or cultivated land in a region or village, but also the region of origin for emigrants living in France. In colloquial French, the word “bled” is used as a synonym for “patelin” and often refers to an isolated and unattractive place.

This is the French definition, used in many dictionaries.

Normal, since “bled” is a French word. The Moroccan word is “bilad” which is spelled بلد and simply means “country” (this is the word used in the Wikipedia entry, as you can see by viewing the Arabic version of the English page). The “i” is pronounced rather faintly, hence the transformation by the French settlers.

In North Africa, and therefore in Morocco, it is a word that has multiple meanings, as in any language. When a Moroccan speaks of Morocco, it is “his country” in the broadest sense, not just his “region” of origin.

Logo Kounouz BiladiFor a long time (2003-2015) there was a campaign to facilitate domestic tourism called “Kounouz Biladi” (The treasures of the country), whose logo used the Latin alphabet for those Arabic words!

Of course, “his bled” is also his region. As in France, we used to say “mon pays” to refer to someone from the same place as you.

Going back to the bled can simply mean going back to your family (for example for Eid), unless you are going to a big city. It can also mean regressing, when you come back to your village after having failed in the city.

The “blédard” is a countryman, someone who is a bit rough. For the MREs, it is also someone who still lives in the country. Girls do not want to marry a “blédard”.

Finally, “beldi” is an adjective used to describe what is natural, “organic” (or considered as such), craft, home-made… it corresponds to the notion of local product.

Admittedly, I’m nitpicking…

In any case, there are quite a few other articles in this issue, an interview with Tahar Ben Jelloun and another with Leïla Slimani, which are worthwhile reading.