Darija – Moroccan Arabic

We’re in the middle of attempting to learn darija.   We’re lucky that this is with Peace Corps (though this blog is in no way affiliated with the Peace Corps), as the organization seems to offer pretty good language training (feel free to correct me if you’ve experienced otherwise).  We had a teacher, or more accurately an LCF (Language and Culture Facilitator), that was responsible for us and our Darija learning during the initial training period.  Ours in particular was a spunky young lady from the south of Morocco.  Each day we attended morning and afternoon classes at her apartment, totaling approximately 8 hours/day.



One difficult part of Darija is that it contains letters and sounds that do not exist in English. We were and are still mostly unfamiliar with Arabic script, so transcription is used. There are many different ways to transcribe the different sounds and the way I spell certain words isn’t necessarily how someone else would.

  • there is a sound that is kind of like the “ch” in Bach, but more from the throat (or like yech!).  I was taught to write this as an x. Other systems may use a kh.  

  • There is a “k”, like we have in English, but then there’s also a “q”.  The q is pronounced much like the k, but from the back of the throat.  

  • There are two different h’s. The one we use in English is “h”.  The other is “H”, and is like the little h, except that it is pronounced as a “deep raspy whisper”.  Notice that one is little h and the other is big H. Capitalization matters a lot in transcription.  I emphasize this point, as the difference between h and H can mean the difference between saying air or the f-word. I’ve been repeatedly told to never try to say air because of this.

  • There’s ġ. This is supposedly the same sound as the x, above, except it is voiced. It’s quite a French sound. It’s one of the harder ones for me and is sometimes transcribed as ghr. Imagine something that sounds like ghr, but very throaty.

  • There’s Ԑ. In Arabic script it’s written ع. When only simple text is available, it’s often written as 3. To me it sounds like “eh”, but more from the throat and almost French sounding. 

  • There’s an š.  It’s the letter shin (pronounced sheen) and sounds like sh.

  • There are also other sounds unfamiliar to most English speakers, but I feel like it may already have gotten confusing enough.  I’ll leave it at this for now.

 

At the beginning, we learned basic things that we might’ve needed in everyday life; greetings, yes and no, my name is, numbers, etc…  Looking back on the first two pages of notes in my dftar (notebook – or copybook to Moroccans) a few words jump out at me.  The words for repeat and listen, because our LCF was constantly telling us, “listen!” (SmԐ) and then, “repeat!” (Ԑwd).

 

As I said, we learned numbers:

  1. waHd

  2. juj

  3. tlata

  4. rbԐa

  5. xmsa

  6. stta

  7. sbԐa

  8. tmnya

  9. tsԐud

  10. ԐSra

 

After the first few days we pushed on into words and phrases that we’d likely need for living with a host family. Here are two of many:

  • Bġit nšrb lma – I want to drink water

  • Fin lbit lma, Ԑafak? – where is the bathroom, please?

 

Onwards we went through vocabulary until the fateful day when we arrived at verb conjugation.  I thought it might not be too difficult until we got into irregular present tense. There are at least 7 different ways to conjugate, depending on whether a verb is regular or irregular… and what type of irregular it is.  To make it more difficult, there are no infinitive verb forms. Instead the past “he” form is used when an infinitive is needed. There are also a lot of words that have multiple meanings or that are close to another word with a completely different meaning.  

  • For example, the word “sal” means two different things based on how it’s conjugated: Kaysil – it leaks     or    Kaysal – he owes

  • the verb Rdd?  It means to return an item, to answer, or to vomit.

  • Ԑam – to swim/he swam     or    Ԑam – year (or more than 10 years)

  • štH – to dance/he danced or staH – roof or štta – rain or stta – 6

 

Also, my pronounciation is still terrible, so communicating in Darija can be tough (or sometimes near impossible).

 

Last reason (for now) why language in Morocco is difficult… It’s arabic, but it’s Moroccan Arabic.  There aren’t a whole lot of resources around for translating English into Darija, since it’s not the same as standard Arabic. But, in Morocco, there’s also standard Arabic!! Standard Arabic is taught in schools, though I’m not sure when or which ones.  Many people mistakenly think that we are learning standard Arabic; we aren’t…yet? Oh, also one more language!  French is taught in schools here.  We don’t speak French. Not at all.  Often I think I’m not understanding Darija, only to realize that someone is speaking to me in French.  Wait, did I just say one more language?  I was wrong, there are also Berber languages spoken in Morocco: tamazight and tashelhight (I apologize for likely misspelling those)


There are good Darija days, bad Darija days, and I suppose neutral also.  On good days I have positive interactions where I mostly understand what is said, or at least the general meaning.  On bad days I feel like I continually misunderstand everything or worse, I simply don’t comprehend any of the words spoken to me.  Needless to say, bad days aren’t always fun.  Fortunately, though, my wife and I are in this together.  Often (but not even close to always) she will be having a good day when I’m having a bad, so one of us might have some hope of understanding what’s going on around us. Two heads are way better than one!

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