Sunday, June 8, 2008

Language in Morocco

Language in Morocco

Linguistically, Morocco is a diverse country. French is the language of the universities and government. Children learn French early on in school and are more and more saturated with the language as they advance in school. Moroccan Arabic (Darija) is the most widely spoken language. It is the most common language on television and a conversation between two Moroccans is most likely to take place in Arabic. Then there are three official Berber dialects, Tashelheit, Tamazight, and Tarafit. The Berber dialects are mostly spoken in rural areas: Tashelheit in the South, Tamazight in the Atlas Mountains, and Tarafit in the Northern Rif region. Finally, there are even a few places where Spanish is the dominant language. This linguistic diversity is the result of colonization and recolonization by the French, Spanish, and Arabs, of the Amazigh people.
That’s the simplest way to explain the linguistic breakdown of the country, but it misses a large part of the story. In practice, there aren’t such rigid boundaries of language as most people speak at least two of the languages. Furthermore, when someone is speaking, in French for example, they are not going to stick to French. Both Arabic and Tamazight words might be thrown in at any time. I had meetings with Ministry of Health people in the provincial capital (Khenifra), which were conducted in French. But the ministry people used lots of Arabic words. The other day, I went to a neighboring douar (community) and met with a guy who invited me in for tea. I told him numerous times that I didn’t speak Arabic (only Tamazight), but he peppered his speech with Arabic words, nonetheless. And he used French whenever he could recall a French word (although that was surely for my benefit and atypical).
The thing is, even when someone isn’t throwing in Arabic for the heck of it, Tamazight is full of words from other languages (mostly French and Arabic). “Tomobile” is the word for car. “Lbosta” is the word for post office (a derivative of the French word). “Jacketa” is jacket. “Lsac” is the word for a backpack. The Berber languages aren’t particularly complex, so we often use an Arabic word for more sophisticated or academic topics. For example, they use the Arabic words for economy, nation, politics, and many, many others.
(Warning: huge generalization coming). When people speak in Morocco, they just use the first word that pops into their mind, regardless of the language. Since different regions tend to know different languages, there are huge distinctions in language between places. But rather than being boundaries, there are linguistic gradations (is that the right word? I’m losing my English). Language is fluid in Morocco.
This is especially the case with the Berber dialects. The breakdown of the language into the three dialects (Tashelheit, Tamazight, and Tarafit) is marginally helpful for understanding the differences, but it fails to capture what’s really going on. If you can imagine the South of rural Morocco being one Berber linguistic extreme and the North as the other extreme, there is sort of a gradual change from the Southern dialect all the way up through the mountains until you finally get to a different language in the North. (People here tell me they can understand Tarafit (the Northern dialect), but that they can’t speak it.)
One other important aspect of language in Morocco is the status implications that it carries. French is obviously the language of the educated and elite. The nurses in my health clinic will often switch to French when they are talking to each other and patients are around so that the patients will not understand. Most anyone who has been to school through sixth grade can speak Arabic, even if it’s not their first language. But there are some people (especially women) who haven’t been to school and don’t speak any Arabic. On the other end of the status spectrum, are the Berber dialects. My nurses, from and educated in cities, don’t speak Tamazight very well (we speak to one another in French) and possibly disdain its use. When officials were in from out of town because of a pending visit from the king, people in my village spoke to them in Arabic (even though both parties spoke Tamazight).
However, people here also take a lot of pride in speaking Tamazight: it’s their history and their culture, which has survived constant invasions. I’ve said this before, but when I meet new people and talk to them in Tamazight, their faces light up. They say, “you speak Tamazight, do you know Arabic?” They can’t believe that I would know Tamazight, but not Arabic. There are some words and phrases that highlight the difference between Tamazight and Arabic. One example is “Bu-Itran” (literally, owner of the stars…which by the way, I prefer) as opposed to the most common Arabic word for God: “rbbi.” If I use these historically Amazigh words instead of the more frequently used Arabic ones, people here are amazed. They say, “He knows. He knows Tamazight. He is good and respectful.” When I was first assigned to Tamazight as opposed to Arabic, I was disappointed because it’s not practical outside of Morocco. But now I’m very happy to have it because it is an instant way to win trust and friendship in the communities that I live and work in. I can’t say this enough: people here love it that I speak Tamazight.

It’s been two weeks since I swore in and came to live in my site. People here are getting used to me being around and ask where I was if I’m missing for a day. I spend a good amount of my time just hanging out in the center of town where people sit around when there’s nothing to do. My language is improving, but I still don’t understand a lot of what is going on, especially when people are talking to one another, and not to me. Fortunately, I found a tutor in Tounfite (my souq, or market town). I’ll be going in there once or twice a week to get tutored, check email and mail, and hang out. There are two other volunteers there, a married couple, and they are generous to me and I like them a lot, which is fortunate since I’ll be spending a lot of the next year (when they finish PC) with them.
I have been trying to meet people in other douars (communities) as well. Basically what I do is hike along the road for a while until I come to a clump of houses. Then I walk around, greeting everyone I see, hoping to get invited in for tea or food. I kind of feel like a charity case, but my method hasn’t failed me yet. I’m meeting people and establishing contacts in other communities. I feel like this work is especially important because these other douars that I’m visiting are poorer and have greater need than my douar, which is a little more centrally located. One of the people that I met said to me, “help us, we are very poor.” It’s hard to hear that because there are no big changes with Peace Corps. I think the most important and effective thing I can communicate to the people in my commune is “wash your hands after you use the bathroom and before you eat.” But that’s not really what a guy who eats bread for three meals a day wants to hear when he asks for help.
On Monday, I’m going to try and give my first health lesson. There are currently two doctors from out of town (Meknes) who are here for three weeks to do check-ups with the children in school (ages 7-11). This means that there are a bunch of kids in the health clinic, playing around in the waiting room. My plan is to get groups of three children to come into an adjoining room and give them a quick hand-washing lesson. It’s a really simple lesson to do, so I think it’s a good one for me to start with. My big concern is that their behavior won’t change if no one else in their house is washing their hands either (which is the case). Nonetheless, it’s exciting to try to do real work and it will be a good learning experience for me.
One other thing is that last week, for the first time ever, Morocco moved its clocks forward in a daylight savings sort of thing. The only thing is that no one in my community (and I’m assuming many other rural communities) understands or follows it. The school, health clinic, and government building all follow the new time, but no one else does. They all know that the change has happened, but there’s no reason for them to do it. I changed the clock in my house, hoping to have my family be the trendsetters in the village. But their daily schedule is just like it was before the change – it follows the sun, not the clock. And now, whenever my mom says a time, she says the old time, followed by the word for old. For example, she’ll say, “the transport is coming at seven tomorrow – the old seven.” Then she always laughs because she thinks it’s hilarious I changed the clock.

Finally, happy 20th birthday to Franny! Not a teenager anymore; you’re so old! Miss you and everyone else.


Franny said...

thanks for the birthday comment dunc. miss you!!

Anonymous said...

I guess Morocco people know to speak English?