The potential of Moroccan Darija

Linguistics as a prism to perceive Moroccan Darija differently.

Ait Oumghar Elghali
8 min readApr 18, 2020



Language is an idiosyncratic feature that distinguishes human beings from other creatures. It is the most influential means people use to communicate with each other in different settings.

There are roughly 6.500 spoken languages around the world. Various languages and varieties are spoken in different societies and communities around the globe. Accordingly, some varieties are regarded as ‘high varieties’ and labeled as ‘standard languages’. They are meant to full fill formal purposes in a country, such as government documents, legal proceedings, police reports, business contracts, and that sort of thing. Conversely, other varieties and sub-varieties belonging to the same ‘official language’ are considered as ‘low non-standard varieties’. Such varieties are used by the majority of the population to act and perform in different daily life situations. Normally, the non-standards varieties have no written forms; they are mostly spoken since they full fill communicative purposes among the members of a society on a daily basis. In this regard, non-standards varieties — being perceived as ‘low varieties’ — are mostly judged as well as misinterpreted.

People, although being pertained to the same society, regard such varieties as ‘incorrect, less logical, and thus stigmatized. For these reasons, the situation of non-standard varieties has become typically stereotyped. That is to say, people perceive the concerned varieties as linguistically incompetent to be ‘official languages’. This stereotype is undergirded by different fallacies, such as the following: first of all, non-standards varieties don’t have written forms; they are only spoken by laymen in real-life situations at the street, in the markets…etc. Besides, these varieties have no grammar rules, or they are not rule-governed at all. Last but not least, such varieties are not recommended in official settings, on TV, in official documents, or at school because they lack the adequacy of linguistic competence.

In the light of the fallacies aforementioned above, this study aims at rectifying the misinterpretation of non-standard varieties by shedding light on the potential of Moroccan Darija — the most commonly spoken non-standard variety in Morocco — to become an ‘official language’. Taking this into consideration, this attempt will practically approach the Moroccan Darija in terms of language properties, linguistic background, and language judgments. Each aspect of this attempt will be underpinned by different examples from both Moroccan Darija and English for the sake of elaboration and emphasis.

1. Properties of language in Moroccan Darija

1.1 What is language?

A preliminary step to prepare the ground for discussion is defining the term language. In reality, it is important to point out that there is no single definition that completely explains the phenomenon of language satisfactorily. Nevertheless, numerous linguists have attempted to define language at least in terms of some features such as being vocal, systematic and social.

In his outstanding book titled Cours De Linguistique Générale 1916, the Swiss linguist Ferdinand De Saussure — one of the most prominent linguists in history who founded and contributed to Structural Linguistics — defined language as ‘an arbitrary system of signs constituted of the signifier and signified’. To put it in another way, the relationship between a sign (the object/thing), a signifier (word, image), and a signified (the mental concept) is random. Equally significant, Bloch and Trager in 1942 described language as ‘a system of arbitrary vocal sounds by means of a social group cooperates’. An additional feature that is mentioned in the two linguists’ definition is the communicative function of language socially speaking. Language is socially bound; it is a pure social practice between members of a society or a community that is governed by social rules. Each social group owns a specific rule-governed way of communication.

1.2 Features/ Properties of language by Hockett

Both definitions documented above address two essential features — arbitrariness and the social/cultural aspect — that pertain to any natural language on earth. These two features in addition to other properties were defined by the American linguist Charles F. Hockett as ‘Design features of language’ in the 1960s. Since the aim of this study is to prove the linguistic competence of Moroccan Darija, some of these language properties are selected to approach Darija in terms of Arbitrariness, Displacement, Productivity, Discreteness, and Duality.

1.2.1 Arbitrariness

Language is arbitrary in the sense that there is no inherent natural relation between form and meaning. If form and meaning are linked to each other, then there would have been only one single language spoken in the whole world. In English, for instance, there is no reason why a male adult is called a man, un homme in French, or ein Mann in German. The choice of words selected to refer to a certain entity or object is absolutely random. Simply, the same goes for Moroccan Darija. People need to realize that non-standard varieties enjoy the same properties as ‘official languages’ do. To give an illustration, the following diagram will demonstrate how Moroccan Darija — a non-standard variety, just to keep it in mind — abides by the property of arbitrariness.

As the diagram shows, there is no logical relationship between the signifier /‘Sa.rut/ (key) and the mental concept as well as the meanings associated with it. Obviously, the same goes for the rest of the words (at least concrete words) in Moroccan Darija.

1.2.2 Displacement

Displacement property refers to the idea that languages have the ability to overcome the limitations of space and time. Languages allow users to talk about things and events other than those occurring in the here and now. In English, displacement is accomplished through auxiliary verbs, such as will, was, were, and had. Here are a few examples in English:

1. ‘‘I was at the party last Saturday, weren’t you there too?’’ (Going back to the past while speaking in the present time)

2. ‘‘I think Joshua will win his boxing match against Fury.’’ (Predicting the future before it even takes place).

Equally important, Moroccan Darija has got the same ability that any official language, namely English does have. The following example demonstrates how displacement is achieved in Darija.

«الرواية لي كــانقرا دابا كــتفكرني فواحد الصديق سافر لأوكرانيا و ضييع الباسبور ديالو. »

‘‘The novel I’m reading now reminds me of a friend who traveled to Ukraine and lost his passport’’.

The prefix ‘ك’ in the verb ‘كانقرا’ (I read) indicates the present tense when the speaker is talking about an event that took place in the past (losing the passport in Canada). The verb ‘سافر’ actually refers to the 3rd masculine singular form of the past tense of the verb to travel.

1.2.3 Productivity

Linguistically speaking, the productivity of language refers to open-endedness or creativity. Language enables its users to create novel expressions and utterances, which neither the speaker not the hearer might ever have heard before. The process of producing numerous linguistic signs involves the use of elements, such as phonemes, and even syntax to generate unlimited combinations of expressions. Among the ways in which creativity in language is reflected in the use of suffixes. Humans can create different utterances just through prefixes and suffixes of the same word. The following examples will exhibit how open-endedness is possible, not only in English but also in Darija.

As the example in English language shows, suffixes in languages can enable the users to generate more words and expressions.

Moroccan Darija: Among the aspect where productivity appears in Moroccan Darija is ordinal numbers and verbs conjugation.

Suffixation is just a single aspect of language productivity that enables language users to create different forms. There is a lot to say in this respect but the discussion will be saved for the Syntax section where the study will tackle some syntactic aspects of Moroccan Darija in detail.

1.2.4 Discreteness

Discreteness refers to the uniqueness of the sounds used in human languages. Every language uses a set of different sounds. Each of these sounds is different from the rest. Sounds can be repeated, or combined with each other to form a new meaning. In English, the sounds /t/, /s/, and /p/ examples of discrete sounds. For instance, the words /pit/ and /sit/ don’t mean the same things. The word /tip/ means neither /sip/ nor /pip/. The three sounds /p/ /t/ and /s/ make a clear distinction between the meanings of the words mentioned. Moroccan Darija also enjoys discrete sounds that create clear differences between words. Let’s look at the following examples:

The sounds (/š/- ش) in the word {/šmʕa/-شمعة/ Candle} and (/ṣ/- ص) in the word {/ṣmʕa/- صمعة/ Tour} are discrete sounds that differentiate the meanings of the two given words. Similarly, the discrete sounds (/q/-ق) and (/g/-ڭ‎) contrast meaning in the words {/qrʕa/-قرعة/ Bottle} and {/grʕa/- ڭرعة/Zucchini/ Pumpkin}

1.2.5 Duality

Last but not least, the property of duality in language can be defined as meaning that “language is organized into two layers’’. Aitchison (1976). The first layer is a primary level that consists only of linguistics units while the second layer is a secondary level comprised of linguistics elements. In English, such linguistics elements can refer to English consonants, such as (/p/, /t/, /d/, /m/…etc) and also vowels like (a, i, o…). These elements are meaningless by themselves. They can become meaningful only when they are combined into sequences (word/unit level), such as /p.i.e/ in Pie, or /m.a.d/ in Mad. Automatically, it goes without saying that Moroccan Darija is layered into two levels. Consonants, such as (š/ ش- ʕ/ع- m/م) and vowels- ḥarakāt like (‘fatha’ a / ‘kasra’ i / ‘Damma’ u) are also isolated linguistic elements that are themselves meaningless. When they function within a sequence, they make sense. For instance, (ش -š/) in the word « شمعة/ Candle » and (ʕ/ع) in the word «صمعة/ Tour». All in all, the analysis along with the examples underpinning the aspect of duality in Moroccan Darija reveals that language is organized into levels and layers, which respectively, cooperate to enable the speaker to form meaningful linguistics units.

In a nutshell, the first section of this attempt tried to cover the most prominent language properties vis-à-vis the Moroccan Darija. The data and examples included in the discussion attempted to prove that Darija undergoes the same exact rules and properties that other natural languages are abided by. The coming sections will endeavor to analyze different linguistics aspects of Moroccan Darija to demonstrate that the latter is linguistically competent like the rest of any natural language in the world.



Ait Oumghar Elghali

Do not seek to master the language. Do not fight the language or it will defeat you. If you devote yourself to the language, you will be rewarded.