Languages of the Maghreb

By Stacey
Jun 28, 2013 · 3 min

The Maghreb is a large area of northwest Africa that is host to a special version of Arabic as well as the Berber Languages.

Plus, as a legal translation professional let me tell you it makes things a lot easier if stuff has names. What’s fascinating is as you go through life you discover more and more names – things you never imagined had a name not only do, but old, venerable names that have been in use for centuries. Such is the case with The Maghreb – a region of northwest Africa that has been known by this collective name for hundreds of years, but which I just learned about.

The Maghreb

The area known as The Maghreb has had shifting borders over the years; at one point when the people from the area were known as Moors it spread north into Spain. Today The Maghreb consists of the countries of Algeria, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco and Tunisia, as defined by an official economic union joined by these countries in 1989 – though the union is defunct today due to the conflicts between these countries, especially that between Morocco and Algeria over the territory of Western Sahara, today the largest non-self-governing territory in the world.

Languages in The Maghreb

The Maghreb is a goldmine of language information for a free translation pro. The word itself comes from the old Arabic word maghrib, meaning “west,” reflecting the fact that this area was the Westernmost area conquered by the Arabs as of the 7th century. Arabic is the dominant language of the region, though the version of Arabic spoken throughout the Maghreb is quite different from that spoken elsewhere in the world. The people refer to Maghrebi Arabic as derija or darija, which literally means “dialect” in Arabic!

Maghrebi Arabic is mainly a spoken language. When it comes to writing things down in The Maghreb, standard Arabic is generally used. Maghrebi Arabic has been heavily influenced by other languages, most notably French, which had vast colonial holdings in the area at one time, and Spanish, which is the closet European country to the area and was once partially conquered by Arab forces from the area known at the time as Moors.

Maghrebi Arabic itself has many subdivisions and varieties, including Algerian Arabic, Moroccan Arabic, Tunisian Arabic, Libyan Arabic, Jebli Arabic, Jijel Arabic, Hassaniya Arabic, and Saharan Arabic, among others.

Additionally, the area is home to a large population of Berbers, and the Berber language lives on in good health, spoken by over 15 million people worldwide, most concentrated in the Maghreb. Berber is, in fact, an official language of Morocco, reflecting that country’s large Berber population.

While many of the Arab governments in the area often pretend their populations are Arab-only, the Berbers persist as a vital and active cultural and economic force in the Maghreb.

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