Role of language in culture

There is a strong, yet complex, relationship between language and culture. They interweave in a beautiful way, especially in Morocco. One can even argue that language cannot exist without culture, and vice versa. Therefore, for fellow travelers, learning few phrases of the local language before visiting or travelling to a new country is a wise choice for the following reasons

  • Your trip will go easier as you navigate and interact with local shops, restaurants, coffee shops, and bazaars smoothly using the most common local words
  • You will enjoy your trip more as you will get to experience the host culture on a deeper level
  • Using few common phrases shows respect to the people of the culture you are visiting and opens new doors to hidden cultural aspects

How culture affects language in Morocco

The strong association between language and culture is exceptionally evident in North African and Middle Eastern cultures. In Morocco, culture is so ingrained in the language in a unique way. Yet, there are multiple factors that influence the formal language, Modern Standard Arabic, based on the location and the history of the area.

Vegetable vendor in the Souq
Standard Moroccan Souq/Market

souq outdoors

  • Spanish Influence

While the official language is Arabic, you would see that the influence of the Spanish culture is extremely evident in Northern Morocco due to the history and location of these Moroccan cities—beautiful Tangier, authentic Tetouan, the blue city of Chefchaouen, etc. Consequently, the residents of these areas use a substantial amount of Spanish words in their dialect.

  • French Influence

    indoor souq
    Indoor part of the Souq

Same applies to the big cities—Casablanca, Rabat, Salé, etc.—but with the French culture and language. Morocco was under the French rule for many years. In fact, French was the official language of the government since 1912 and continued to be until the Arabization of Moroccan government in the early 1960s. Today, you can still use French in business and government sectors. Residents of the bigger cities incorporate a significant portion of French into their dialect, as it is considered the prestigious language.

  • Amazighen Influence

The most cultural and linguistical influence in Morocco comes from Amazighen or Berber languages. While considered inferior to Arabic and French, and never used in documentation and writing, Berber dialects have an undeniable effect on Moroccan culture and dialect. Berber dialects were the original languages spoken in North Africa long before Arabic was introduced.


Language of Morocco

The most commonly spoken language among the locals in Morocco is Moroccan Arabic, also known as Darija. It is a very unique dialect of Arabic due to the French, Spanish, and Berber influences. Darija is what you will hear the most in daily interactions, and sometimes Moroccan TV stations, movies, and even advertisements. However, it is not a written dialect. There were several attempts to write in Darija in the last 10 years, and some people started writing poetry in Moroccan Arabic; but typically, literature is reserved for Modern Standard Arabic. Here are the most commonly used Darija words to help you for your next trip to Morocco

Spices sold in the Souq
  1. Shukran” or شكراً = Thank You

    This is by far the word you will use the most. It is the casual way to thank someone. You may use it at restaurants, shops, taxis, and about everywhere else. Shukran is not exclusive to Moroccan Arabic; you can use it with any Arabic speaker and anywhere in the Middle East.

  2. “Laa” or لا = No

    You would want to remember this word when visiting Morocco, or any touristic destination for that matter. It is common that shops and restaurants will try to sell you their services and products. The word “Laa” is your way to politely decline. You can also combine two words “Laa Shukran” to say “no, thank you” if you are up to it.

  3. “Besseha” or بالصحة = Cheers = Bon Appetit

    The main use of this word is before you start eating or drinking. While English uses two different words, Cheers versus Bon Appetit, Moroccan Arabic uses the same word for both. This word is also often used by the host, or sometimes the owner of a restaurant, when you express your fondness of their food or complement their cooking skills, they will respond saying “Besseha” usually with a big smile.

  4. “Mezyan” or مزيان = Good = Great

    You can use the word “Mezyan” in multiple contexts. To say your food was good, the tour was great, or even to say the little child is cute, you would use this phrase. It is typically a compliment, so you can expect the response to be Thank you or “Shukran”, unless you describing food or drink, in that case the response would be “Besseha”.

  5. “Yallah” or يله = Let’s Go

    You will hear this word often when you go on a tour or follow a guide through the Medina (the old city). This is a common word and sometimes used twice for emphasis, Yallah Yallah, but it does not intend nor imply rushing, just some extra excitement.

  6. “Atay” or أتاي = Tea

    If you are a tea enthusiast, you probably heard of Moroccan Mint Tea. If you are not a tea person, we highly recommend that you try it; you will probably change your mind. This is one of the signature drinks in the country. It is a huge part of the culture, and served in various ways based on the part of the country. For example, the south of Morocco, like Agadir and Marrakech, serves stronger tea with many spices and herbs, but the north, like Tangier and Tetouan, serves the tea lighter with extra mint.

  7. “Qahwa” or قهوة = Coffee 

    Arabic Coffee, also known as Turkish Coffee, is a fantastic experience in itself, especially when you have it in North Africa or the Middle East. It is typically served in a small cup, not because they are cheap, but because it is very strong; it is not a recommended drink at night if you want to have a good night of sleep. If the Arabic Coffee is not your preference, you can always order “Noss Noss”, which mean coffee with milk, at any coffee shop, to which the word “Qahwa” could also refer.

  8. “Assalamu-Alikum” or السلام عليكم = Hello , literally means Peace Be Upon You

    One of the most common phrases in the Arab World. You might have heard it in a Hollywood movie or from a Muslim friend. The phrase originates from the Islamic religious greeting but deeply engrained in the culture of Morocco. This is typically the first thing you say once you walk into a place.

  9. “Wakha” or وخا = OK

    The pronunciation of this word needs special attention from English speakers. It includes a sound that is fairly foreign which is an aspirated K, written as KH in the word “Wakha”. It is not hard, just new. For ease of pronunciation, try to say K followed by an H; that would generate a very close sound. This word is used as a confirmation word which could mean OK or even as an equivalent to the word “Yes”.

  10. “Safi” or صافي = Enough = That’s good

    One of the tricky words in Darija, Moroccan Arabic. It could simply mean enough. You could say “Safi” to a waiter at a restaurant when they are pouring water in your glass, that would mean enough; it is a signal for them to stop. However, the word is much deeper than that which shows the richness of the Arabic language. The word can be said to a crying child as a way of consoling him/her, but you can also use it to stop a pushy shop owner trying to sell you some souvenirs.

In conclusion, it is vital to utilize some local phrases when you travel. It would help you have a fuller and deeper experience of the culture and the people. Language influences the way people think; it is not merely a way of communication. In fact, you can learn more about the values, beliefs, assumptions, attitudes, and behavioral conventions of a culture when you encounter its language. You would know more about the hospitality of Morocco after learning words like Besseha, Safi, and Mezyan. In the same way, you would realize the significance of Atay, Moroccan Tea, when you learn the history and the various methods to make it. The culture of Morocco is extremely rich. Therefore, learning about the culture from diverse sources like language, history, traditions, and cuisine will make your experience richer, deeper, and more memorable.


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