Morocco and the Berber Language

The City of Fez in Morocco. © Sharon Lundahl.

As our friends know, we love Morocco and go there a lot.

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The King of Morocco. © AECreations@flickr

We believe that one of the main reasons for the country’s peace and prosperity is their young king, Muhammad VI, who took over when his father died almost two decades ago.  Photos of this “Justin Trudeau” of kings, as one Moroccan described him, are seen everywhere in Morocco.  He is usually in very informal poses in casual clothes…playing with his kids, drinking a latte, or even taking selfies with his subjects.

Early on, the King pondered how NOT to let Morocco fall into the chaos of the Arab spring that affected so many other countries.  One source of potential discontent was the second-class citizen status of Morocco’s indigenous people, the Berbers.

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Berber Friends. © Sharon Lundahl.

The Berbers, who make up around half of the population, are the Indo-European-origin people who were in the country when the Arabs–with their new religion of Islam–swept into Morocco.  The Berbers accepted Islam and the Arabic language, but continued to the present to speak their own language among themselves.

Berber culture and history was not prized as a significant part of Morocco’s heritage.  Although there has been considerable intermarriage between Arabs and Berbers, the latter remained a significant underclass.  They are among the poorest of the country’s citizens.

Shopping in Marrakech. ©. Sharon Lundahl

The young king was the first authority figure in Moroccan history to ask the question “Why should being proud of being Berber make you any less patriotic a Moroccan?  Shouldn’t we encourage Berber pride?”  As he was king, after listening to squabbling advisors debate the question, he could simply say, “Make it so!”

In 2011 laws were initiated to encourage the teaching of Berber culture and history in the schools. Most significantly, they made the Berber language co-equal with Arabic as a national language.  A timeframe was set for this huge project with a deadline of 2025 for everything to be in place.

The big problem that arose was that the Berber language was a spoken language with no written form in recent centuries.

It was easy enough to pick which of the several dialects of the spoken language to choose as the official language….but what about an alphabet with which to write it?

The Berber language in schoolbooks. © Fred Lundahl.

Scholars had to go back a number of centuries to find a phonetic pictograph alphabet that had once been used by the Berbers to write their language.  Interestingly, the alphabet reads from left to right like European languages, not from right to left like Arabic.

The next problem was how to get people to use the new written language.  The government decreed that ALL government signs, billboards, highway markings and such, which were previously written in Arabic and French, should also be written in Berber.

Not only do we now see official signs in Berber, but there are even elementary school textbooks, teaching Berber to Arabic-speaking children.   Berber-language TV children’s programs are being developed along the lines of Sesame Street.

Arabic, Berber and French Languages on Sign. © Fred Lundahl.

But what about the adults?  Some Moroccans complained to us that adding yet another language for kids to learn in school would be confusing for them and make less time for other things, such as science, math and tech.

A Berber Village. © Sharon Lundahl.

The Berbers we met, however, were very proud of their language.  One driver proudly pointed to a highway toll booth sign in Arabic, French and Berber and said, “That is MY language!”  When asked if he could read the Berber script, he said, “Of course not. I read the Arabic to see what it says.”  Then he added, “My kids WILL be able to read their language!”

The encouragement of Berber pride, however, has not been without its side effects.  Recent protests against government corruption and elitism have been seen as largely Berber-led efforts.  The new blue, green and yellow striped Berber flag is seen as often as the red and green Moroccan flag at rallies.  The. The King, however, seems to believe if you finally give a people their voice, then you shouldn’t be surprised when they use it.  He regularly orders the release of many of those arrested in the protests.

Sharon in Berber Flag Hat. © Fred Lundahl.

Interestingly, the one group that hasn’t embraced the Berber wave is the souvenir sellers.  Their Berber-language products are few and far between.  Our prize this trip was a single Berber flag baseball cap nestled among dozens of American and European sports team baseball caps.

Essaouira, City on the Moroccan Coast. © Sharon Lundahl

8 Responses to “Morocco and the Berber Language”

  1. Christopher "HatDoc" Hull

    Nice explanation about the Berbers! Thanks for sending out the photos and script. I was saddened by the news of the ballcaps. I call the ball cap “the cancer of hats” for when some get into an ethnic area, the people prefer the cap over their own ethnic hat. This causes their ethnic hats to be set aside and forgotten. The ball cap changes the look of the people. Sad because ball caps are all the same just in different colors. At least they recaptured their language!!

    Reply
  2. inger briggs

    As always, very informative. I learned more things about Marocco in this one post than I did in school.

    Reply
  3. Walter Dill

    Thanks for the story. I grew up in a small town in the middle of the Mojave desert in California, Barstow. Our junior high team name was Berbers. Our high school mascot was the Riffians. Keep up the good work and write your next blog about the Riffians.

    Reply
  4. Cindy Welch

    I always look forward to your trip reports — so interesting, educational, and beautiful!
    Several years ago we spent a day in the walled city of Tetuan in Morocco, and enjoyed seeing the view of the Berber Mountains from the top floor. Well, that and buying rugs and other souveniers! So many memories!!

    Reply
  5. Inger seiffert

    Enjoy your store; carpets and jewelry. Have visited Morocco and fell in love with the people and places. Attended a cooking school in Marrakech

    Reply

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