Darija “is the term used by speakers of Maghreb Arabic to name the varieties they speak” (it’s also called darja); Lucy Melbourne, an American professor and creative writer who teaches English and American literature at Mohammed V University in Rabat, has an interesting discussion of it in the Morocco Times:

Darija, what the participants at the Salon du Livre clearly recognized as the real deal, is the spoken vernacular Arabic of Morocco and, aside from a few songs, has rarely been written down. Hence it is a kind of fluid, oral medium in which people swim in common but never see themselves in the fixed reflection of individual reading.
Animated by the rhythms of Morocco’s hypnotic storytellers and stinging with the barbs of village gossip, Darija reaches deep into the Moroccan soul, shaping its psyche and its often irreverent wit.
The written language, on the other hand, is in its turn rarely spoken: the sinuous curves dotted and dashed of classical Arabic are reserved for the print media—and the Koran.
When spoken, classical Arabic, like most languages cut off from their umbilical in sound, is pontificated as sermon or filtered through the sterilized, hot potato equivalent of a BBC announcer anxious to disguise his class origins.
In short, Moroccans are linguistic schizophrenics: if literate—and only 51% are—they must leap a thousand times a day the chasm between body and mind, between the organic timbre and gestures of their mother tongue and the patriarchal reverberations of a silently echoing script.

She describes the attempts of some Moroccans to write books in dialect, and the opposition evoked (reminiscent of the language controversy in Greece, which saw riots break out over a vernacular translation of the Gospels). A fascinating read, and I thank Liosliath for bringing it to my attention.

Incidentally, I learned about darja from Lameen Souag, whose Grammar of Algerian Darja is no longer available at its former Geocities site. Lameen says, “I hope to reestablish my website sometime soon – can anyone recommend a good free/very cheap website hosting service other than Geocities?” Anyone who can help him out will be doing a service both for linguistics and for me: I need to update my links!


  1. Until Lameen finds a new host, his grammar is still available via the Wayback Machine. Well, most of it, at least — I see certain pages (such as “Verbs” and “Interjections and particles”) have not been cached. Also, the image files are missing.

  2. avant tout je m’excuse de ne pouvoir m’exprimer en anglais, mes capacités sont assez limitées, mais je ne peut m’empecher d’apporter un commentaire à cet article.
    la darija est tres specifique au maroc. c’est à la base un melange entre l’arabe et des differents dialectes amazighs (creole), qui a subi une grande influence du français, de l’espaniole et recement de l’anglais.
    il n’y a pas une seule darija, de grandes differences existent entre les regions et les villes. toutefois, à cause des medias et de la mobilité des populations, les differences tendent à disparaitre au profit d’une darija générique, que l’on apelle parfois darija blanche.
    d’autre part, le script arabe est incappable de transcrir fidèlement la richesse phonetique de la darija. une sollution fut inventée par les internautes et qui consiste à combiner lettres romaines et chiffres. cet usage est aujourd’hui largement repondu sur le net, mais seulement pour le chat ou sur les furums.
    on a donc la preuve que l’on peut aboutir à une darija generique et parfaitement transcrite.
    les problemes qui s’opposent à son utilisation sont plus d’ordre culturel et politique que pratique.
    meme si la darija est tres loin de l’arabe moderne et des dialectes du moyen orient, la rendant d’ailleur incomprehensible audelà de l’algerie, l’identification de la darija à larabe reste tres forte. or l’arabe est une langue sacrée, langue du coran, et c’est aussi le lien pricipale qui relie le maroc au “monde arabe”. l’emergence d’une darija forte et independante est perçu comme renier cette arabité, dans un pays qui se definie comme étant arabe.
    la darija est aussi tres ouverte sur les autres langues, français, espagnole et anglais, et a une facultée s’absober et de marocaniser tres facilement de nouveux mots. cette dynamique occidentalisation qui va en augmentant fait craindre aux detracteurs de la darija que celle ci ne reflete plus les valeurs traditionneles, d’où l’attachement à l’arabe.
    le paradoxe de l’identité marocaine est refleté par la darija en toutes ces formes et s’oppose, à mon avis, à tout developpement de la darija comme langue de communication ecrite et de savoire.

  3. Interesting… I wonder how the book will fare on the market, and what orthography he used? (An Arabic one, I see from http://p214.ezboard.com/fmondeberberefrm12.showMessage?topicID=194.topic.) The article itself is a little over the top – while Europe’s shift to the vernacular was significant, it seems rather a stretch to claim it “release[d] the flood gates of the Renaissance”, though such a claim would be very interesting to try to defend. BTW, thanks for the tip! I was about to try GooglePages, but it seems they don’t have any way of forming subdirectories, which could get old fast.
    Junoon: Darja is not a creole, and a creole is not a mixed language (both these terms have technical meanings, despite being commonly misused.) What Darja is is a descendant of Arabic, with significant Berber influence (mainly on the phonology, to a lesser extent on the lexicon) and more recently French influence (almost exclusively lexical.) Arabic-based creoles do exist, though – Nubi (in Uganda and Kenya) is the best-known example.
    Arabic script is arguably better suited to transcribing Darja than it is to transcribing classical Arabic (due to the almost complete predictability of short vowels – see http://www.unice.fr/dsl/tobweb/scan/Kaye90_MorArabic.zip for a theoretical account), and is far more easily adaptable to the language than Latin script is. The only important phonemes for which no widely known Arabic letters exist are emphatic Z and un-emphatic r, whereas none of the emphatics or pharyngeals can be written in Latin without resorting to non-ASCII characters unfamiliar to most speakers or to awkward workarounds such as the “numeric” system Junoon mentions.

  4. Actually, wasn’t Italy the last of the major Romance language areas to develop a national written literature? This because it was closer to Vulgar Latin, so that speakers of the national “dialect” could still convince themselves that it was a matter of spoken and written registers. Plus it was probably easier to understand. In any case, wasn’t Dante more than a century after major works in French, Spanish, and Catalan? And he’s famous for writing in both Latin and Italian.
    In Europe, the situation seems to have been one of finally realizing that they weren’t speaking and writing Latin any more. While they were never identical, the written and spoken forms did advance together. On the other hand, as I understand it, Western scholars at least do not believe that even Classical Arabic was close to what people spoke at the time. Already there was significant diglossia.
    I believe that Versteegh observes that modern attempts at writing in dialect, such as Egyptian plays, are really still MSA with what he terms couleur locale. Elalamy’s work must be a more radical departure.

  5. The situation of Classical Arabic in the first few Islamic centuries is rather clear from the comments of grammarians of the time: the Bedouin spoke Classical Arabic (by definition – at that time, the grammarians’ test of whether an expression was correct or not was basically whether or not a Bedouin, or an old poem, could be found that used it), while the cities spoke a rather less Classical dialect without case-endings and with many lexical changes. Even now, if you look at Najdi Arabic (say) you will be amazed by how much close to Classical it is than most dialects, despite the loss of case endings and a certain amount of lexical drift.
    I’ve actually always wondered whether Europe’s shift to vernacular literatures wasn’t inspired by the example of Andalusi Arabic – the one medieval Arabic dialect in which a significant amount of poetry, at least, was written – seeing as Andalusi poetry did apparently inspire the troubadour tradition.

  6. bulbul says:

    Thank you very much for the post and the comments. You, gentlemen, ROCK!
    I’ve actually always wondered whether Europe’s shift to vernacular literatures wasn’t inspired by the example of Andalusi Arabic
    Interesting theory, but I very much doubt that. There were significant attempts to write in vernacular even in parts of Europe largely untouched by the troubadour tradition, especially Slavic countries. The first rise of the vernacular is generally associated with the rise of merchant cities in the 12th century when knowledge became a commodity. The second rise of the vernacular came with the reformation and Bible translations of the 16th century, somewhat foreshadowed by the Hussite movement in 15th century Bohemia. By the way, did you know that it was Jan Hus who came up with the idea of using diacritic marks to write down long vowels and specific Slavic consonants?
    As for the diglossia in the first centuries of Hijra, there are some people who are a bit skeptical about the traditional notions of Bedouin supremacy in all things language, e.g. Joshua Blau and Simon Hopkins. And I am generally very suspicious every time some Arabic speaker says that his or her dialect is the closest to al-fusha :o)
    From what you say, Lameen, I conclude that you consider Darja a dialect of Arabic. From what I have seen in your grammar, I agree. But why the different name? Also, creole and mixed language are not the only possibilities. There is also a thing called partial restructuring (which is essentially a fancy term for partial creolization, see John Holm’s “Languages in Contact”, Cambridge University Press, 2005). I suspect this is what happened to Maltese as a result of contact with Sicilian and Italian and it may very well be the case with Darija. I would be really surprised to find out there were no contact varieties resulting from the contact between Arabic and Berber.

  7. I just wanted to echo MMcM and say that this is a fascinating discussion — and very useful for me personally. Thanks!

  8. I am by no means qualified to judge myself, but I do not think that I am entirely wrong in saying that there is still a general disagreement between native grammarians and Western scholars as to the state of Classical Arabic as a vernacular in the Jahiliyyah. Did the Bedouins speak this language, or was a special poetic register chosen for the Revelation? There is scant evidence, but possibly more than none, of incorrect case endings early on. I also suppose that the sides are at least a little colored by cultural tradition / religious sensibilities and Indo-European philology / Orientalism (in Said’s sense), respectively. Or maybe I am oversimplifying the split along these lines. I am keen to hear what those who know more than just a few books in European languages think.
    Again, on the firmer (to me) ground of Europe, the transition of the written language was more like the last step than the first. For example, the Synod of Tours, in 813 (i.e. while Charlemagne was alive and seven centuries before Luther) allowed the clergy to address the congregation in the vernacular. (ut easdem Homilias quisque aperte transferre studeat in Rusticam Romanam Linguam, aut Theosticam, quo facilius cuncti possint intelligere quae dicuntur.) So the analogy may be part of the problem, rather than part of the solution.

  9. : “I am generally very suspicious every time some Arabic speaker says that his or her dialect is the closest to al-fusha :o)”
    Me too – it’s usually blatantly wrong. I used to believe all Arabic dialects were more or less equally far from CA – but, since reading Ingham’s grammar of Najdi Arabic, I’ve been forced to admit that at least one really is far closer than the others. They even still have tanwiin!
    : “why the different name?”
    daarija is just another classical word for “colloquial”, like `aammiyya. The older (archaic, at this point) Darja name for Darja was actually, believe it or not, barbriyya (at least in central Algeria.)
    : “I would be really surprised to find out there were no contact varieties resulting from the contact between Arabic and Berber.”
    Well, that is a matter of degree, of course – but certainly some Darja dialects are way more strongly influenced by Berber than others (the Jijel dialect, or the Jebli ones in Morocco, for example.) I imagine a pidgin might well have been used in the first couple of centuries AH, but I’m not aware of any direct evidence for one.

  10. Versteegh (http://arabworld.nitle.org/texts.php?module_id=1&reading_id=36) gives a handy overview of the issue of classical Arabic in the early Islamic period. My own opinion (which I think the chapter supports) is that the grammarians were telling the truth: the eastern Bedouins at least did speak what we would call classical Arabic, i`raab and all, although there was significant variation in lexical and syntactic details from tribe to tribe, while the town-dwellers (at least outside Arabia) spoke something rather less classical-like. No doubt the poetic register differed somewhat from the conversational one, but that is more or less the definition of poetry.

  11. bulbul says:

    daarija is just another classical word for “colloquial”, like `aammiyya.
    Oh I see. Thank you for the explanation.
    The older (archaic, at this point) Darja name for Darja was actually, believe it or not, barbriyya
    I’ve heard of that one, but I was under the impression it was, again, some sort of pidgin/creole. Some (like Corre) even suggested a connection with the original Lingua Franca. Do you happen to have any more info on this?
    No doubt the poetic register differed somewhat from the conversational one
    Couldn’t agree more. I remember a discussion in last edition of Blau’s “Emergence” where Blau quotes M. Zwettler who argues that the ancient Arabic poetry basically invented the اعراب, because the metre required a short vowel at the end of the word. Needless to say, Blau debunks this thoroughly.
    I agree with you, Lameen, and everybody else, that the Old Arabic language type as evidenced in the poetry, Qur’an and al-fusha in general really was at one point an honest-to-God living language.

  12. My knowledge of the term barbriyya is basically word-of-mouth; it’s what some of my older relatives call Darja, and I understand it was once more widely used. I’ve heard it used especially with regard to particularly dialectal (or even regional) expressions. I’ve never heard of it referring to any kind of pidgin or creole or whatnot; can you tell me more about these suggestions you allude to?

  13. bulbul says:

    Lameen: I have heard the term in connection with Corre’s attempt to reconstruct the vocabulary of the original Lingua Franca, though I am not so sure whether it came from Corre himself or someone commenting on him.

  14. Can anyone provide information on the numeric representation of darija? (I’ve come a cross the consonant ‘ain represented as 3, though the people using it were lebanese).

  15. The following website might help you, but remember that transliteration varies widely from user to user (though what you mentioned about 3 and ayn is pretty much across the board).

  16. Shukran!

  17. hello everybody im zakaria its so cool what you did in here .but i wanna some help if one of you have the course of the 4 semester about cocial context i want it for the exam so u have my msn .and see u soon .good luck

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