Although most Westerners presume Moroccans simply speak Arabic, the situation on the ground is definitely more complicated. Morocco's indigenous Berbers had already been speaking their native tongue -- nowadays collectively called Amazight -- for thousands of years before the Islamic-fueled Arab invaders of the 8th century imposed the language of their holy Koran on the region. Over time this became known as Classical Arabic. Its relation to the spoken varieties of today can be compared with that of Latin to the modern Romance languages. It is still taught in most Arabic schools and has changed little since the days of Mohammed. Classical Arabic, however, is not used in the everyday lives of Arabic speakers. Modern Standard Arabic, or MSA, evolved from Classical Arabic into the lingua franca of the Arabic world, and is the official language of many nations, including Morocco. There are no native speakers of MSA, and it is rarely the mother tongue of most Arabic-speaking people. The vast majority of educated Arabs learn it in school, while others without formal schooling in MSA can understand it with varying degrees of proficiency. In Morocco, MSA is mainly used in formal situations (religious sermons, news broadcasts, government literature, and speeches) but rarely in conversation.

Moroccans, Arab and Berber, generally converse in what is called Moroccan Arabic, sometimes referred to as Darija. Moroccan Arabic contains fewer vowel sounds, sounds more guttural, appears to be spoken twice as quickly as MSA, and is at times very similar in pronunciation to Amazight. Influences from Morocco's most recent occupiers, the French and Spanish, are audible in many words, resulting in a distinctly local dialect that (other than for some Algerians and Tunisians) is difficult to understand for other Arabic-speaking people.

For the non-Moroccan, both French and Moroccan Arabic will be useful when traveling in the country. While Moroccan Arabic is the language of everyday conversation between Moroccans, most Moroccans instantly revert to French -- or a confusing combination of both -- when conversing with a Westerner. In the more heavily touristed areas (and in most regions covered in this guide), English has become more prevalent, and I am constantly amazed at the ease with which many Moroccans have picked up English. My advice is to at least learn a few Moroccan Arabic words and phrases such as "thank you." As surprising as it may sound, very few travelers attempt this, even though the respect and extra assistance that this will garner may very well be the difference between getting a bargain or being ripped off, and being shown the way out of a medina or being ignored.

Most of the sounds in Moroccan Arabic are similar to English and correspond to the Roman letters used to represent them here. Notable exceptions are:

  • "Ai" is pronounced as eye.
  • "Ei" is pronounced as the ai in "bait."
  • "Gh" is a sound made in the back of the throat, similar to the rolling "r" sound in French and Spanish.
  • "Kh" comes from even deeper in the throat and is a similar sound to the "ch" in the Scottish "loch."
  • "Ou" is pronounced as w.
  • "Ow" is pronounced as the ow in "cow."
  • "R" is pronounced with a rolling tongue.
  • "S" should always be pronounced as in "say" and not as the middle "s" in season.
  • "Zh" is pronounced as the s in "pleasure."

Other peculiarities for non-Arabic speaking people are:

  • The glottal stop ('); a sound like that made when pronouncing "uh-oh."
  • The letters ä, ï, ö, ü are stressed vowels and should be spoken as a longer sound than is normal in English. For example, ä is pronounced as the a in "father," ï as the ee in "bee," ö as the oa in "coat," and ü as the oo in "boot."
  • With double consonants, the stressed consonant should also be emphasized, as in the "z" in "bezzef."

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.