Deciphering Moroccan Arabic, 1911 – 2011

TALIM Arabic of Morocco "Shnoo the Hell is Going on H'naa?" – the subtitle to Aaron Sakulich's book Moroccan Arabic (Collaborative Media International) – probably captures the bewilderment of many a foreign student of darija or Moroccan colloquial Arabic.

For modern day students trying to fathom how to transition from what they learn in Modern Standard or classical Arabic to the reality of the streets of Morocco, take heart.  This effort has been going on for at least 100 years.

Budgett Meakin, prolific turn of the 19th-20th century author (The Moorish Empire, The Moors, Life in Morocco, etc.) and former contributor to the Tangier Gazette, used to cater to "travellers and settlers" with his The Arabic of Morocco, cheap at 5 shillings or 8.5 pesetas (advert above from the Tangier Gazette).

Nowadays, American students of Arabic get both Modern Standard and Moroccan darija through the Critical Language Scholarship (CLS) program, a US State Department summer intensive course administered in Tangier through CAORC, AIMS, and TALIM.

TALIM lends its space for CLS orientation and occasional lectures, thereby continuing a tradition at the Legation – teaching Arabic.  Of course, we have our women's literacy program, which is going into its 13th year, teaching medina women the rudiments of Arabic reading and writing.

In its first reincarnation after ceasing (in 1961) to be the US Consulate General in Tangier, the Legation housed the Foreign Service Institute North African Arabic language program (FSI at the time had its principal Arabic school in Lebanon).  Several graduates of the first FSI Tangier class went on to become American Ambassadors in the Middle East and North Africa.

In the 70s, the Legation became the Peace Corps Morocco training center, again teaching Arabic, mostly darija, to several cohorts of volunteers.  Many of those same PCVs went on to careers in academia and government, and continue to use their Arabic language skills in their professional lives – some of them are on the boards of institutions which sponsor TALIM.

In the years before it became US practice to teach its diplomats Arabic, the Tangier American Legation employed a dragoman or interpreter.  At least one of them, Moses Pariente in the 1850s, became the Acting Consul during periods between American Consuls.  So I guess we can say that there's always been a premium on knowledge of Arabic here at the Legation.

Gerald Loftus

1 thought on “Deciphering Moroccan Arabic, 1911 – 2011”

  1. li 3ndu lisan maytlifsh (Who has the tongue/language won’t get lost).
    Meakin’s was an early transliteration system. His “An introduction to the Arabic of Morocco” is available as a free Google Book.
    Moroccan youth now express themselves on the Net in “Atansiyya” using a mixture of letters and numbers.
    For more on today’s darija (Moroccan colloquial Arabic), see
    Arabic: Communicating in a Language not Everyone Understands. Morocco Board News Service. Thursday, July 01 2010.

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