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Moroccan Culture Series

Bilingual Taxi Sign

Officially Morocco is a bilingual country, but the linguistic reality is rather complicated. The official languages are Arabic and French, but Arabic is what "the man in the street" speaks and French is taught in school, so the latter is more common in government and business and among upper-class Moroccans. In addition, there are three main dialects of Berber spoken all over the country (although at the moment I have no way of telling any of them from Arabic). In the north of Morocco, Spanish is widely spoken, while in the bigger cities like Casablanca, English is very common.


Nearly everyone I've talked to in Casablanca speaks French, although the level of fluency and the Arabic influence vary with the level of education achieved. The French spoken here seems to be a dialect, but it's very interesting, because the more educated the person is, the more French s/he sounds. Less-educated Moroccans speak the dialect, which tends to be weighed down with a fairly thick Arabic accent, while more educated Moroccans speak something approaching Parisian French. I've met a few people with whom I simply could not communicate in French, nor they with me. They couldn't understand the vocabulary and constructions that I used, while I simply could not hear the words under their accent.

Some characteristics of Moroccan French: R's are usually rolled, like Spanish and Provençal R's, rather than apical (pronounced in the throat) like Parisian R's. (In fact, my Arabic teacher told me that the Arabic letter [ra], which sounds just like a Spanish R, is pronounced "comme le R français.") Vowels are often "dipthonged"; for example chère is pronounced [shayre].

Vouvoiement is very uncommon, even with more than one person. Virtually everyone uses tu no matter whether they are talking to a friend or someone they just met. I think the main reason for this is that vous for one person doesn't really exist in Moroccan Arabic. The exception to this is very highly educated and/or upper-class Moroccans, who tend to have a better all-around grasp of the French language. Store owners, my dance teacher, and the owner of the gym I go to all tutoient me. When I respond by force of habit with vous, they may use it once or twice, but they always fall back into tutoiement. Civil servants, my Arabic teacher, and other teachers/administrators usually use vous. There is definitely a correlation between quality of French and the frequency of the word vous: the better the person speaks French, the more likely they are to vouvoient me.

Typical new street sign next to old sign with French name

French classes are available everywhere in Casablanca. In addition to l'Institut français, which offers all levels of French plus a number of specialized classes like business and medical French, there are language schools all over the city that offer French classes. Arabic classes are much harder to find (see Arabic section).

There is some work afoot to lessen the French influence. A few years ago, the street names were "Arabicized" - they were officially changed from the names of famous French writers, politicians, and the like, to the names of famous Moroccans. Some of the streets are still known by the old name, so it can be a chore to look at a map or ask for directions. In our Casablancan map book, the streets on the map are labeled with the old names, and there is a chart in the book of the old names and their new equivalents. Even with that, it is very confusing.

Arabic and English in Morocco

Index to Moroccan Culture Series


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