Maghrebi Arabic is a distinct dialect of Standard Arabic that is difficult for other Arab speakers to understand.
Now, certainly, Arabic in all of its forms shares a lot of DNA, but it also has significant dialects and regional differences and one shouldn’t be surprised to discover that the Standard Arabic they learned in school is only partially useful when travelling to areas that ostensibly and officially speak Arabic.
Case in point: The countries of The Maghreb, an area of Northwest Africa that today includes Libya, Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, and Mauritania. While these countries all officially speak Arabic, even native speakers of Arabic from other areas of the world might have some difficulty there.
Natives of The Maghreb refer to their version of Arabic as darija, which literally means “dialect” in Standard Arabic. The region’s name comes from the Arabic word maghrib, which means “west,” reflecting the fact that it was the westernmost area conquered by the Arabs in the invasions of the 6th and 7th centuries that saw Islam spread in a flash around half of the world, but the region and the language has been in a state of constant change for centuries, and Maghrebi Arabic reflects this by being very different from Standard Arabic. In fact, an Arabic speaker from the area east of Egypt would have a lot of difficulty understanding a Maghrebi Arabic speaker.
Indigenous and Colonial
The differences are the result of constant contact between the indigenous Berber people and their languages and the arrival of European powers in the last few centuries.
Berbers have lived in the area since the beginning of civilisation, and Maghrebi Arabic has borrowed man words and even some grammatical quirks from the Berber languages over the years. Berbers continue to be a discrete and active ethnic group within The Maghreb, and their languages continue to influence Maghrebi Arabic today.
The European powers, most notably France, Spain, and Italy, began colonising Northwest Africa in the 19th century, culminating in what is known today as “The Scramble for Africa” as these imperial powers raced to seize as much territory as possible. As a result, Maghrebi Arabic has also borrowed a large amount of vocabulary and even whole idiom from these languages, particularly French, which maintained a significant influence and control over the region until the middle of the 20th century.
The end result is a distinct and sometimes not mutually intelligible version of Arabic that some argue is already well on its way to being a distinct language of its own. After all, when someone from Kuwait who speaks flawless Standard Arabic cannot understand a word being spoken in Libya, it’s easy to start arguing that despite forensic similarities these are now two separate languages.
Image courtesy cs.jhu.edu