Moroccan Debates

I was chatting to a guy working in a Moroccan ministry the other day over lunch, and we ended up spending about an hour talking about language (as often seems to happen with me). The whole situation in many Arab-speaking countries is not something to which I had given much thought in the past, but it’s certainly noteworthy.

You may already know, or you may not, that there is a ‘classical’, old Arabic, the Arabic of the Koran, which is still used today in writing and for official purposes, whilst the Arabic spoken everyday by the population differs from region to region. What people speak are essentially dialects, they have never had a written form, and although they are often mutually comprehensible, the further away you go, the less likely you are to understand another Arab speaker.

So someone from Morocco has little trouble chatting with an Algerian, but far more problems communicating with a Palestinian. Of course they can revert to the classical form to understand each other, but from what I gather this feel weird to them, overly formal, and often badly adapted for every-day conversation. It is the language of Presidential speeches and university exams rather than of commerce and play.

So what I asked my Moroccan acquaintance was when this classical Arabic was taught to children, and it turns out that they basically start learning it as a sort of foreign language as soon as they start primary school. It’s not a language they would hear at home or in the street, but it’s nevertheless the language in which they will have to sit all their oral exams, the one they will have to use for formal occasions and when filling in admin (unless it’s in French, often still the administrative language in this part of the world).

It’s not so different from the local dialect known as Darija, but it’s still not the same. I started thinking how this seemed like a strange linguistic situation to be in until I remembered that a vast proportion of the American population find themselves in exactly the same situation. The African-American dialect has rhythms, vocab, syntax, and grammer all of its own. It is spoken at home and in the street by millions of people but it has never had a written form, and for official purposes, African-Americans will “switch” to SAE (Standard American English). We’re not so different after all.

But interestingly, Darija is slowly gaining ground in Morocco. A few magazines are being published in it, which basically means reinventing a writing system to match the needs of the dialect. I’ve been told it takes some getting used to. In the media and advertising it is already widely used. And now in politics too, the idea that the spoken Arabic should be used more widely in the public sphere is becoming a divisive issue. One of the problems here would be defining which spoken Arabic to use since the dialects differ from town to town. Using classical Arabic avoids the problem of discrimination.

As always, however, the youth is paying little attention to these endless debates and creating a form of communication all of their own. Already they use a mix of French and Arabic in speech, and this particular style has now developped into a written form used for virtual communication. More and more it’s also being taken up by advertisers aiming their products at the youth market. Since teens often use the latin alphabet to phonetically spell out words in Arabic (makes it quicker to text I imagine), they have also started substituting numbers for sounds which only exist in Arabic, as these mimic the letters of the Arab alphabet.  Some gutteral sounds are now represented in text chat by the numbers 7 and 9, which when laid down on their side look a little like the Arabic letters used for those sounds.

I do love the inventiveness and creativity of the young, but if you’re interested in the heated politics behind it all, you can read more about it here on Aljezeera. In any case it’s a linguistic developement worth keeping an eye on in the coming years.


Linguistic Family Tree

Because I love art as much as I love languages, discovering the work of artists who take language as their subject is almost always a pleasure. This week a beautiful linguistic family tree cought my eye from a graphic artist who has an online comic called Stand Still Stay Silent. It’s a representation of the Indo-European and Uralic family tree. I can’t entirely vouch for the accurancy of the whole thing but the bits I know best look pretty good.

linguistic family tree


Languages of the world

I came across the Endonym Map project this week which is a basically a world map with the names of countries shown in their national language. One of the difficulties here, and something which the creators address, is precisely how to define the national language of a given country. When there are multiple official languages, then you have to rely on sometime-fuzzy statistics about the numbers of speakers of each language. In places like Africa this can be particularly confusing, and if you’re interested in the ins and outs of it GeoCurrent published an article on African endonyms in response to the project.

african endonyms

A big part of the map is shown in alphabets I can’t understant (perhaps a phonetic or direct translation of the country name would have been more useful?), so what really cought my attention was the accompanying table where you can clearly see how much European languages (mainly English, French and Spanish) dominate. It’s striking to see the residual effects of colonialism present to such an extent around the world. As the authors point out: “The most common official or national language in the world is English, with 86 countries or territories. These jurisdictions represent roughly one-third the number of total countries and approximately 30% of the planet’s land area.”

Add Spanish, French and Arabic to the mix and you cover 2/3 of the world’s national languages. This, remember, in a world where, by latest accounts, there are a total of 7,106 languages spoken. Of these, only around 300 are Indo-European (the branch that French, Spanish and English fall into). As for how we identify what a language is, and where we get this final (contested) count from, the Linguistic Society of America has a nice little introduction to the topic if you’re interested.

Another map I found this week seemed more encouraging vis-a-vis linguistic diversity. It was published by a site called and aimed to show the second most spoken native language in every country (rather than 2nd language learned). There are some noteworthy, migration-driven examples like Polish in the UK or Mandarin in Australia, but the non-European languages also get their chance to stand out in Africa – at least the sub-Saharan part:


If maps and statistics are your thing, then you should go and feast your eyes on which tracks the world’s living languages with charts and fun sections like their Language of the Day. Today, sticking with the African theme, it’s Ikwere from Nigeria.

Class and terminology

I was always pretty confused growing up in Scotland as to what exactly people meant by ‘tea’ or ‘supper’, whether there was any difference when it came to ‘dinner’ and at what time exactly you were supposed to have ‘lunch’. I had put all this bemusement behind me until I stumbled upon a class-based explanation in Kate Fox’s book ‘Watching the English’.

It turns out, you see, that I must have had friends and acquaintances from quite a variety of social backgrounds to have come across all of these linguistic variations. ‘Tea’, when it is the evening meal taken at around 6.30pm, is very much an affair of working class origin, especially when referred to as ‘my tea’ or ‘your tea’. To everyone else ‘tea’ is what you have around 4pm, and is it, well, typically tea, accompanied with some light snack – scones, biscuits, small sandwiches, that kind of thing. The working classes tend to refer to this particular snack-time as ‘afternoon tea’, distinguishing it from the evening ‘tea’.

Referring to your evening meal as ‘dinner’, and having it around 7pm designates you as lower-middle or middle-middle class. Apparently it was only in my house that this meal was often called ‘lunch’, a leftover appropriation of a term from a whole nother culture. For everybody else in the UK, ‘lunch’ is eaten at midday, only the working classes would call this meal ‘dinner’ and refer to the evening ‘dinner’ as ‘tea’.

Stil following me?

Then there’s the ‘dinner’ of the upper-middle and upper-classes, which is still an evening meal but a rather more formal affair typically taking place much later in the evening with guests and fancy silverware. The more informal, daily family meals would in this case be referred to as ‘supper’, and eaten a little later than the middle-class ‘dinner’, around 7.30pm.

But the tea/dinner/supper variation is of course not the only British class indicator. When it comes to speech, it could take a whole book to go into the details of pronunciation across class and region, but the thing I always find more interesting is vocabulary. Did you know for example (and I had no idea), that certain words are veritable taboos amongs the upper classes and immediately designate one as a pleb?

So for example, when you can’t quite hear what the other person said, if you retort with ‘pardon?’, this assuredly puts a lower-class stamp on your person, regardless of how you might be dressed or how well you may have perfected your posh accent. If you say ‘sorry?’, you are probably middle class, and ‘what?’ designated you as a member of the gentry. Then again, if you hear ‘wha’?’ with the swallowed ‘t’ you’re probably dealing with a less-than-polite member of the working class. All a bit complicated, isn’t it?

There’s also saying ‘toilet’ (lower class if you don’t pronounce the ‘t’, probably lower-middle if you do) instead of ‘loo’ or ‘lavatory’, the more ‘proper’ form. The middle-middles will have a whole variety of other terms as well – ladies, powder room, facilities, privy etc. You will also be looked down upon if you say ‘serviette’ instead of ‘napkin’, ‘settee’ instead of ‘sofa’ and ‘lounge’ istead of ‘sitting room’ or ‘drawing room’.

And I wasn’t even aware that I was navigating such a sea of class-based terminology. Of coures this all comes from ‘Watching the English’, and I’m sure the Scots have a whole set of regional additions to these rules for which I should probably keep an ear out next time I cross the border.