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Moroccan Dialects and Spelling of English Transliterations

Marinated olives in bowls on wooden surface. The foremost bowl is in focus while two other bowls are shown in the background.
Zaytoon, zeitoun and zitoun (olives) are examples of how transliterations from Arabic to English can vary in spelling. Photo: lenka | bigstockphoto.com

Transliterations from Moroccan Arabic (Darija) to English, French and other Latin languages can vary widely. Phonetic spellings even differ within Morocco,

The majority of Moroccans speak a local dialect referred to as Darija or Moroccan Arabic. However, there are three different Berber languages or dialects which are also spoken: Tachelhit or Chleuh (Souss region), Tarifit (Rif Mountains) and Tamazight (central Atlas).

Darija is a medley of Arabic (itself with some Turkish and Persian influence), Tachelhit and also French and Spanish (due to the previous invasions as well as waves of migrants during the Spanish conquest. In some parts of Morocco such as the Sahara, people from a nomadic background use words and accents that I also heard in some of the Gulf countries while living there. Eastern Morocco and Western Algeria seem to have fed each others’ dialects; this is also obvious in the accent.

Unlike Classical Arabic, which is both written and spoken, Moroccan Arabic is only spoken. There are regional differences in both pronunciation and vocabulary due to historical interactions and the dynamics of each geographical location. As example, a single Moroccan dish may have different names, so we try hard to list the different names we come across while writing articles and recipes.

Transliterating Moroccan Arabic to English can be very challenging at many levels. There are a few reasons for that.

First of all, we try to transliterate words according to the pronunciation common in Darija. This is straightforward when writing a Darija word with Classical Arabic script; no matter who wrote the transliteration, the word will look relatively the same when written in Arabic. However, there are different options when transliterating Darija to Latin languages. So we might end up with a word preceded by del, bel, bl, or b’ (ghrieba bel louz,  del louz, d’louz) depending on preposition used, or with the vowel “a” turning to “e” and vice-versa (bastila, bastilla, bestila, besteeya, pastilla).

In other instances, phonetic spellings will differ among the Latin languages. Moroccans—myself included—usually write transliterations with a French phonic system in mind, considering that French is the second official language in Morocco after Classical Arabic. However, an American might mispronounce a French phonetic spelling of a Moroccan word. As example oua or oue at the beginning of a French word is the equivalent of a w in English; ch in French is the same as sh in English. Adding to that is the fact that some Arabic letters and their equivalent sounds don’t exist in the Latin alphabet.

This leads to different transliterations of the same Moroccan word; ouarda vs. warda (rose) or ouarka vs. warqa (a paper-thin pastry); barkouk vs. barqoq (prunes) and chiba vs. sheba (a medicinal herb known as wormwood).

A Note About Translations

Marrakech in French becomes Marrakesh in English, and that brings to mind the topic of translation. Maroc in French becomes Morocco in English while in Arabic it’s simply Al Maghrib. While I know that the French Maroc came from Marrakech, I can’t tell where Morocco came from—but that’s another story.

Some words have literally been mistranslated. A common one is the national Moroccan sweet called kaab l’ghzal, which in Arabic means gazelle’s ankles and not gazelle’s horns as it has become known.

Spelling Differences of Transliterations to English

Aside from the French language influence, you’ll encounter other significant spelling differences among transliterations of Darija to English. This becomes evident when browsing various websites or when looking through different guidebooks on Morocco or Moroccan Arabic language books. Sometimes new characters are introduced to represent Arabic sounds which don’t exist in English. No matter the spelling style used, all of the transliteration variations are intended to help a non-Arabic speaker pronounce words in Darija as accurately as possible.

If all of this seems confusing to you, don’t worry. You can be sure that the transliterations we’ve used do not impact the authenticity of the recipes or their results. And if you are not Moroccan and you try hard to pronounce a word in Darija, Moroccans always find it cute and appreciate the fact that you have even tried. You might even get an extra warm welcome because of that.

Nada Kiffa

Nada Kiffa is partner and Editor at Taste of Maroc. A native of Casablanca with strong Fassi roots, she writes extensively on Moroccan and international cuisine at Fleur d'Oranger, Masala & Co.

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