Transcribing Spoken Dialects: Sharidan Russell on Language Ideologies in Morocco

I often think back to the famous saying that a language is a dialect with an army and a navy.

Sharidan Russell is a Rabat-based researcher who studies language ideologies. After graduating with a BA in Arabic and Middle East Studies from Dartmouth College, she was named a Fulbright fellow to Morocco, where she conducted research on transition of Darija, the dialect of Arabic spoken in the Maghreb, into a written language. Keenly interested in the ways new writing practices evolve, Russell’s work draws on sociolinguistics and the field of linguistic anthropology as she seeks to understand changing social practices through the lens of literature.

Hodna Nuernberg (HN): Morocco, where you have been conducting your research, has a very rich linguistic landscape. Could you please describe how Morocco’s languages interact and describe the role of Darija specifically?

Sharidan Russell (SR): Morocco has both official languages and what I refer to as “de facto official languages”. After its independence in 1956, Morocco began the process of Arabization by re-introducing Arabic as the language of government and education. By Arabic, Modern Standard Arabic (MSA)—or Fusha—was meant. Today, MSA is the kingdom’s official language, but French, which is not in the constitution, functions as a de facto official language. There are very high standards for “fluency” in France and there are many ideologies around the continued use of French. In 2011, Tamazight—the name of a family of languages spoken by the Amazigh, or indigenous peoples of the Maghreb—became an official language in the constitution. Morocco is also home to a range of dialects, which are—or have been—largely unwritten. Darija is the most widely spoken of these dialects and it varies from region to region. Darija is also a de facto official language, in a sense, because it is so widely used for communication at a variety of levels, though it has no official status. Hassaniya, which is spoken in the south, is another dialect that is so different from Darija as to be mutually unintelligible. Hassaniya is recognized in the constitution—not as an official language, but as an important aspect of Morocco’s culture and diversity. Darija is the only of these that is not mentioned.

My research looks at the concept of language ideology against the backdrop of Morocco’s linguistic context. A language ideology refers to the thoughts and feelings we all carry about the languages we speak (or do not speak). For example, we sometimes see a stereotype in the U.S. about people who speak with a southern accent as being less educated. While stereotypes like this aren’t necessarily true, for research like mine it is important to understand where these ideologies come from and how they reflect other parts of the culture.

In Morocco, the ideologies people have around language tend to be very emotional because they are so closely tied to ideas of identity. French ties Morocco to Europe and is seen as a scientific language. Many Moroccans also see French as essential to being able to compete on a global level. English is gaining in status, but is far from unseating French as the language of business and education.

MSA is, of course, tied to religion as the language of the Quran and is seen as an integral part of Muslim identity. It also played a crucial role in the process of building an Arab identity in Morocco—the Pan-Arabist movement of the 1950s and 1960s enforced Standard Arabic as part of a unified identity that also included shared history and culture. And for many people, the identity and future of Morocco is seen very much as tied to being part of the wider Arab World.

More recently, there has been some tension between Tamazight and Arabic as Morocco’s indigenous peoples have begun to advocate for their identity and gain greater visibility. The Pan-Arabist ideology served to erase a lot of the diversity in the region, so the increased visibility and presence of Tamazight has important symbolism in Morocco.

As for Darija, it is subject to dueling ideologies. On the one hand, Darija is becoming a written language; however, it is difficult to talk about Darija only as a literary language because people immediately think of the political, social, and educational implications of this transition. When we begin to speak about Darija as a language and not just a dialect, it can be perceived as threatening to Arabic. A common Moroccan language ideology is that Darija is a low, ungrammatical form of Arabic.

Advocates of a written Darija argue that it is, along with Tamazight, a mother tongue of most Moroccans, a lingua franca across the kingdom, and a middle ground for speakers of Tamazight and speakers of Fusha. Furthermore, this idea of a Moroccan mother tongue has allowed some advocates of Darija to partner with Amazigh activists.

HN: While conducting your research, you have had the opportunity to speak with Moroccans from all across the country. How do they understand Darija’s transition to a written language and its increasing presence in advertising, on social media, and in literature?

SR: If you bring this subject up with a group of Moroccan people, they will likely disagree and there will be much debate. They worry about it a lot and many feel as though their identities are hanging in the balance. With all the debates around education, people struggle to know what the right answer for them is.

For example, back in September, there was a polemic related to some Moroccan textbooks. A few words from Darija were included in a textbook used at public schools across the country—words like baghrir or briwate, which are local foods—and people were very upset about it. It got a lot of press coverage and was widely mediatized. Initially, I wondered why the inclusion of just a couple words was seen as such a big deal, but I changed my mind when I saw a video of a mother asking why the school was wasting her kids’ time by teaching them something they already knew—and that surely wasn’t being taught in private schools. The educational system in Morocco is, of course, intimately tied to issues of economic inequalities.

During my research, people often asked what the added benefit of writing in Darija would be, particularly as literature in Darija would not be accessible outside of Morocco. But advocates argue that in the case of education, many studies have shown that people learn better when taught in their mother tongue. Darija, though, is not considered a language, so this adds extra complexity to the idea of a mother tongue. Moroccans do recognize that Darija and Modern Standard Arabic are different, but they tend to identify MSA as their mother tongue, despite the fact that it is a primarily written language that is rarely spoken informally.

HN: For many people, the assertion that Darija is a language in its own right is highly charged. What motivates people to claim that Darija is or is not a language in and of itself?

SR: Is Darija a language? I play two sides: as a researcher, I believe it is very important to leave that question open when talking to Moroccans. I find it is more interesting to know what they think and why. But as a scholar who studies Darija, I often think back to the famous saying that a language is a dialect with an army and a navy. In the context of nationalism, it is often the government that decides what is a language or not, but an academic definition of language is based on people’s ability to express themselves and the existence of a grammar. People often claim that Darija has no grammar, but it does—it is just not a standard grammar.

Darija speakers find ways to express themselves whatever the topic. This is often accomplished through the use of mixed registers: Modern Standard Arabic, Tamazight, French, and Spanish all mix together to make Darija. It is almost like a secret code for Moroccans. There is word borrowing and even sentence structure borrowing in Darija, but advocates of Darija would say that all languages make use of borrowing.

Before the project of making national languages, there were spectrums of languages and dialects all across the globe. And, in a way, the Middle East and North Africa are still functioning with such spectrums. Seeing language in this way can also call into question the concept of diglossia, which was posited by Charles Ferguson in the late 1950s. According to Ferguson, in many speech communities, high and low varieties of the same language exist. Arabic is often seen as the central example of diglossia with MSA contrasting with the dialects. However, as Dr. Kristen Brustad has argued, it is important to see diglossia as an ideology that came into force during the Arabic literary renaissance in the late 1800s and early 1900s. The corpus of Arabic literature goes much farther back, but in its encounter with modernity during the Nahda, building up a corpus based on unity became important. During this period, a lot of work was done to modernize and spread the language, which has had a huge effect on how Arabs see Arabic. But before the 1800s, a lot of literature made use of middle registers of Arabic or dialects. There has been a lot of fluidity in the language that the ideology of diglossia tends to erase.

HN: How is Darija emerging as a written language? When did this process begin and how are you seeing its manifestations?

SR: In the 1990s and early 2000s, written Darija started with magazines. Nishane, a magazine written entirely in Darija, was published by TelQuel, a French-language weekly magazine. Khabar Biladna was started by a group of Moroccans and the former director of the American Legation. As such, it was generally the educated (and often, French-speaking) Moroccan elite who supported the cause. They were the ones who had access to research about mother tongues—and they were sincere supporters of Darija, but there was a socioeconomic rift between these early supporters and the forty or so percent of the population who still didn’t have access to reading or education and those who were very engaged with and closely connected to Islam.

By the early 2000s, a dichotomy had been established between this elite advocating for Darija and the non-elites pushing against it and finding connection to their identities in terms of Modern Standard Arabic (even if many of them never had a chance to formally study the language). However, the increased presence of social media and texting has opened up writing as a means of expression for people who may not have written much before. For a long time, literature was seen as being for the elite, but there are now many more forms that a wider swath of Moroccans can access. Even if ideologically people push against written Darija, they engage with it every day.

One very important field for written Darija is advertising. Along with social media and texting, it’s the most accessible and most publicly visible venue for writing in Darija. These fields also introduce a secondary tension: the choice between using Arabizi, which is based on an extended Latin script, or Arabic script. Both are widely used in advertising.

Oral poetry, zajal, is also increasingly being written down and sold in books. And although Nishane and Khabar Biladna no longer publish, there is an online magazine,, that publishes news and analysis in Darija (they use Arabic script).

In my research, I am particularly interested in literature. I have been working with three Moroccan authors who have published books written completely in Darija. Youssef Amine Elalamy is a professor of English and a prolific French-language writer who wrote a book of vignettes in Darija. Elalamy is a big proponent of using Darija as a language of education, and he says that he wrote [Tqarqib Ennab] as an experiment. He wanted to see if it was possible to use Darija as a literary language. He told me he sat down one day and began writing (with pencil and paper because he didn’t have an Arabic keyboard), and was immediately brought back to childhood, when he would play with toys and invent characters and voices for them—in Darija, of course. So, he found that by writing in Darija, the characters he created in his vignettes came to him very naturally.

Mourad Alami has written a travel narrative (a very common genre in Arabic literature) in Darija. In it, a Moroccan man goes to Germany and narrates his East-West encounter. Alami explicitly writes with the political purpose of proving it can and should be done. He has also translated many Western classics into Darija in order to further the process of vernacularization of Arabic, which he sees as parallel to the process of vernacularizing Latin undertaken, notably, by Martin Luther.

Driss Mesnaoui is a retired high school teacher who has been writing novels in Darija since the early 1980s. He focuses on Moroccan history, and the period immediately preceding colonization in particular. Mesnaoui, one of the founders of the Moroccan Association for Popular Poetry, is famous for his own poetry and has a very beautiful style. But all three of these writers have proved that literary expression in Darija is possible.

Unfortunately, none of these works are easy to find and because they are not very accessible, not a lot of people are reading them.

HN: Who is the intended audience for this literature?

SR: Each writer’s project differs, but they are all essentially writing for Moroccans. Elalamy presented his book at high schools—he read excerpts and brought copies to sell—and he told me that it was the first time in his life he’d seen Moroccans run to get their hands on a book. It was also his best-selling title. His book, though, got significant press coverage because he is already an established (French-language) writer.

Mesnaoui, on the other hand, does not sell his books. He’ll give a copy away to anyone who asks, but you have to ask. He has taken a very principled stance on access to cultural products, but also, he doesn’t want to make a big stir or be seen as forcing something on people, especially given the highly politicized nature of the debate around Darija’s status.

HN: What has been the response locally to these authors’ work?

SR: When you approach the debate from a political angle, people tend to get very upset by the rhetoric, but I often wonder if the people getting so upset have actually read the material. Often when I bring up the discussion of literary Darija, the debate turns to politics: education and the economy and what the ‘right’ language is to communicate these. I started to wonder if the discussion would be different if more people had access to and read the novels I’m studying.

Last month, I gave a lecture on my research at The Olive Writers, a Casablanca-based youth writing program, and hosted a panel at the Moroccan-American Commission for Educational and Cultural Exchange in Rabat. Going into those events, I was thinking about the fact that there is a corpus of research into Darija being created by Western scholars who meet with Moroccan authors and then publish their research in English. I wondered if having access to the actual literature in Darija might change the conversation—typically, the debate on Darija in Morocco focuses on its use in education and its visible manifestations in advertisements and on social media.

I hope more people here will read these books. More art and more expression can only add value—people often see Darija as a threat and fear it will take something from them, but it can only add to Morocco’s linguistic diversity and its rich literary traditions.

Sharidan Russell is a Fulbright Scholar based in Rabat Morocco. Her research focuses on the social implications of Moroccan Arabic’s transition to a written language with a special focus on Moroccan language ideologies and the intersection of language and literature in Morocco. Russell graduated from Dartmouth College in 2018 with a BA in Arabic language and literature and Middle Eastern studies. Her honor’s thesis was “Humor in Palestinian Literature: Representation and Resistance”. In the future, Russell hopes to pursue a PhD in Arabic literature and continue building relationships and mutual understanding between the United States and the MENA region. 

Hodna Bentali Gharsallah Nuernberg holds an MA in Francophone World studies and an MFA in literary translation, both from the University of Iowa. Her translations from the French and the Arabic have appeared in AnomalyAsymptoteQLRSTwo Lines, and elsewhere. Nuernberg lives in Morocco, where she serves as an Editor-at-Large for Asymptote and works as a translator for film and TV.


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