Speak Darja (Algerian colloquial), not Fusha (Arabic)

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This little clip, of sociolinguistic as well as non-linguistic interest, has gone viral in the Algerian online world (via Twitter):


"Le meilleur algérien de l'année watch"

Source:  "'I don't speak Arabic, this is in our Darja'", by Lameen Souag, in Jabal al-Lughat, Climbing the Mountain of Languages (3/12/19)

The reporter, from Sky News Arabia*, is smoothly unrolling premature platitudes in Standard Arabic – الجزائريون يهنّئون بعضهم بما تحقّق إلى حدّ الآن يقولون "the Algerians are congratulating each other on what has been achieved up to now, saying…" when a somewhat inebriated-looking man pops into the frame (despite his companion's best efforts to stop him) and starts trying to address the camera. She very reasonably pushes him back off camera, then thinks better of it and decides to turn the intrusion into an impromptu vox pop. He says, making absolutely no effort at all to adjust his dialect towards any sort of externally imposed norm (the only word he takes from Standard Arabic is مُقتَنِعين "satisfied", presumably quoting the reporter):

{Romanization by Joseph Lowry, with the following proviso:

I am not good at Algerian dialect at all, so the vowels are conjectural and some of the words are unknown to me (pīu, e.g.), so my transliteration is provisional}

mā kāsh minhā, mā nāsh muqtani‘īn vā ‘ītīk bāh taghayyar naḥḥāw pīu wa-‘āwadū dārū
pīu wāḥid ūkhar yatanaḥḥaw (probably more like yitnaḥḥaw) vā‘

ماكاش منها، ماناش مُقتَنِعين ڨاعيتيك باه تغيّر نحّاو پيو وعاودوا داروا پيو واحد أوخر، يتنحّاو ڨاع!

That's baloney, we're not satisfied at all. To change, they took away a pawn and put on a different pawn again – they should all get taken away!

Knowing that her largely Middle Eastern target audience (not to mention her bosses) won't be able to understand this – especially not the French loanword pion, pawn – she tells him, in colloquial Algerian Arabic, to speak "عرْبيّة" (Arabic). He dismisses this with the classic line:

mā na‘rafsh ‘arabiyya hādhī hiya al-darrāja tā‘nā

مانعرفش عربية، هاذي هي الدّارجة تاعنا

I don't know Arabic, this is our Darja* [colloquial].


With 27 million native speakers and 2 million L2 speakers, Algerian Arabic (known as Darja or Dziria in Algeria), is a language derived from a variety of the Arabic language spoken in northern Algeria. It belongs to the Maghrebi Arabic language continuum and as such it is partially mutually intelligible with Tunisian and MoroccanSource

With 21 million speakers, Moroccan Darija (الدارجة [ddæɾiʒæ]) is a member of the Maghrebi Arabic language continuum.  It is mutually intelligible with Algerian Arabic language and to a lesser extent with Tunisian Arabic language.  Source

With over 11 million speakers, Tunisian Arabic, or Tunisian, is a set of dialects of Maghrebi Arabic spoken in Tunisia. It is known by Tunisians: its 11 million speakers as Tounsi [ˈtuːnsi] (تونسي) "Tunisian" or Derja "everyday language" to distinguish it from Modern Standard Arabic, the official language of Tunisia.  As part of a dialect continuum, Tunisian merges into Algerian Arabic and Libyan ArabicSource}

{From Roger Allen:

"Darija" is the term mostly used across the Arabic-speaking regions to describe the colloquial form of Arabic, although in Egypt the favored term is "`aammiyyah."}

{Romanization, translation, and comments by Devin Stewart, who knows Algerian, but points out that this is a rough transliteration:

ma-kaa[n]sh minha mannaash muqtaniʿiin gaaʿiyytek
[We're having] nothing of it. We are not convinced at all.

baah [=baash] tighayyar naḥḥāw piyuu [French pion = pawn] wi-ʿaawdu daaru piyuu wāḥid aakhor.
In order to change, they removed a pawn and then again made another one a pawn.

yitnaḥḥāw gāʿ
They should be removed totally.

ma-niʿraf-sh ʿarbiyya haadi d-dārija taʿ-na
I don't know Arabic, this is our colloquial.

[tāʿ is like bitāʿ in Egyptian]}

{Romanization and comment by Nouha Benabdessalem, who speaks Tunisian:

I will try to romanize this for you, although there are few sounds which cannot be romanized.

So it says:
'Makash menna, manash moktan'in gai'teek bah taghayer, nahew pion (French for 'pawn') aa'wdoo derou pion wahed ekher, yetnahew ga'aa".

'manaarefch arabiya, hedhi hiya darja ta'na'.}

…[I]t's still worth thinking about why this little video has struck such a chord. Part of the answer, I think, is that it resonates so perfectly with a whole set of stereotypes about Darja vs. Fusha [Standard Arabic]. Fusha is for parroting the official line; Darja is for telling it like it is. Fusha is for fluent, well-planned speech; Darja is off-the-cuff and from the heart. Fusha is for upwardly mobile women; Darja, for working-class men. None of these are truths about the world, obviously – you can be every bit as dishonest or premeditated in Darja as in Fusha (ask s'hab el kachir:), and fluent Fusha is no guarantee you won't find yourself hefting bricks for a living. But they are perceptions that emerge naturally from the regimented, restricted contexts in which Fusha is learned and required. If these stereotypes remind you of Glasgow or the East End, that's no coincidence; they emerge naturally in the context of urban diglossia.

The parallels between Sinitic and Arabic diglossia are striking.  Are they due to sociopolitical ideology?  Similarities in certain aspects of the writing systems?

The topolectal situation in the Arabic world is as complicated as it is the Sinitic world, the difference being that you can actually write down the topolects / dialects / darja in Arabic script if you want to, whereas there are many morphemes in Sinitic topolects — including Pekingese — that it's impossible to write in morphosyllabic Sinographs (Chinese characters).

Selected readings

[h.t. Matt Anderson]


  1. Tom Dawkes said,

    March 16, 2019 @ 9:14 am

    [tāʿ is like bitāʿ in Egyptian] — The Maltese equivalent of this is tagħ, often reduced to ta‘.

  2. souiri said,

    March 16, 2019 @ 9:35 am

    yes, the equivalent is "dyal-" in Moroccan Darija. Interestingly, this one little word makes it infinitely easier to speak dialect than Standard Arabic for foreign learners.

  3. Michael M said,

    March 16, 2019 @ 9:37 am

    Darija is used only in Western North Africa, everywhere else 'āmmiyah is used for the colloquial variant. And once you apply the changed pronunciation rules, many of the darija words are also used in fusha – ākhar, wāhid, taghayyur and 'āwad are all fusha words, and I'm pretty sur naḥḥaw is too (it's in the Wehr dictionary but I don't remember hearing it).

    There are a lot of differences in pronunciation, morphology and common words tend to be different, but once you learn to apply certain syntax/phonology rules for each dialect it becomes relatively easy to switch between them, and since it's the most common words that are most divergent, the gulf between fusha and aamiyah can be overstated. (For reference, I speak Jordanian Arabic quite well and my fusha is terrible).

  4. Victor Mair said,

    March 16, 2019 @ 9:43 am

    Translation by Mbarek Sryfi:

    That’s BS, I am not convinced at all. They replaced a pawn with another. They should all get out!

    I don’t know Arabic, this is our Darija (spoken Arabic).

  5. Antonio L. Banderas said,

    March 16, 2019 @ 10:15 am

    there are many morphemes in Sinitic topolects — including Pekingese — that it's impossible
    to write in morphosyllabi Sinographs

    Is that sentence grammatical with introductory it?
    I'd have written …(that are) impossible to write…
    or …(that it's) impossible to write ….with.

  6. Orin K Hargraves said,

    March 16, 2019 @ 11:33 am

    This is a great clip and I'm glad that it's gone viral. Three cheers for dialectal pride. I lived in Morocco for three years and became reasonably conversant in (their) Darija. In those days, early 1980s, there was considerable stigma attached to dialectal speech, and even as our excellent Peace Corps instructors were teaching it to us, they constantly reminded us that it wasn't real Arabic, that it was just a shadow of the classical language, that it wasn't written, that it was much adulterated by loans from other languages, that no one used it for official purposes. So I like this young guy's assertion that he's speaking his (perfectly expressive) language and he doesn't have a problem with it.

  7. Hasnaa said,

    March 16, 2019 @ 12:35 pm


    Thanks for this piece, the video definitely needed discussing. I think the assumption and starting point that we are Arabs is flawed. Your analysis, does not take into account the French colonisation (cultural rape) of Algeria, the Kabil (berber) movement and how Algerians fought hard to claim an identity that is theirs and not Arab.

    I am not sure, had the reporter been a man whether this moment turned the same way (yes, yes throwing in some critical theory there). Nonetheless, what remains insulting is a woman/somebody reporting on Algerian events demanding that she/he be addressed in Arabic. This is like an American reporting on events in Paris demanding to be addressed in English. I am sure he would have responded differently had she asked him in French.

    Another historical wound in Algeria that comes to mind is the civil war in the 90s (by the way, civil war ended by Boutaflika's election in 1998) with ideologies coming from the middle east (islamists etc…). Many, Algerians blame the Arab culture/religion for that and think of indigenous berbers (and the French) as more peaceful and truthful to the land and its people.

    In my view the reason it went viral is because it precisely speaks for the identity crisis that Algeria, and to some extent Morocco too, have faced once the French left, the oppressive arabization movement that followed, and the boldness with which Kabil berbers re-claimed their language empowering everyone else to do the same in the region including Darija speakers. It's about feeling empowered.

    Thanks for reading.

  8. cliff arroyo said,

    March 16, 2019 @ 12:57 pm

    In my experience Arabic speakers will pay unlimited lip service to the glories of fusha but also go out of their way to not actually speak it.
    How much people can understand across dialect boundaries is not very settled and there seems to be a lot of individual variation mostly based on exposure.

  9. Victor Mair said,

    March 16, 2019 @ 7:07 pm

    From Nouha Ben Abdessalem:

    This is article is quite interesting. Darija in North African countries has become much more important than 'Fosha', especially in the late 10 years; as Northern African identity has been questioned. Interestingly, North Africans (bilingual) namely Tunisians, Algerians and Moroccans can understand and can fluently speak other dialects. However, people from other Arab countries struggle to understand ours.

  10. George said,

    March 17, 2019 @ 12:24 pm

    @Nouha Ben Abdessalem (via Victor Mair)

    While much of the 'struggle' you refer to is clearly real and understandable, I do sometimes wonder how much of it is about deciding not to make an effort to understand? I'm reminded of how French TV frequently subtitles québecois, which I – a non-native if fluent speaker of standard French – have no difficulty in understanding (and I know that québecois is less different from standard French than Algerian is from, say, Lebanese). Sure, Maghrebis probably consume more cultural products from further East than vice versa (even if that became less the case from the late '80s onward with the rise of raï than it had been before) but attitude matters a lot. I'm Irish. When I go to the US I adapt to US English. I say 'elevator' and 'sidewalk' and ask for the 'check' in a restaurant. When Americans come here they say 'elevator' and 'sidewalk' and ask for the 'check' in a restaurant. There is absolutely no reason for the adaptation to be more of a struggle in one direction than in the other and yet that is the impression one would have…

  11. Lameen said,

    March 17, 2019 @ 5:17 pm

    Glad you found this interesting. My phonemic transcription would be:

    ماكاش منها، ماناش مُقتَنِعين ڨاعيتيك باه تغيّر نحّاو پيو وعاودوا داروا پيو واحد أوخر، يتنحّاو ڨاع!
    makaš mənha, manaš muqtaniʕin gaʕitik. bah tɣəyyəṛ nəħħaw piõ u ʕawdu daru piõ waħəd uxəṛ, yətnəħħaw gaʕ!

    مانعرفش عربية، هاذي هي الدّارجة تاعنا
    ma nəʕṛəfš ʕəṛbiyya, haði hiyya ddarja taʕna.

    I'd have trouble thinking of any similarities between the writing systems of Arabic and Chinese; do you have any in mind?

    Hasnaa's comment above is typical of one political perspective, but doesn't give the rest of the picture. Some Algerians, especially in Kabylie, might well be insulted by "somebody reporting on Algerian events demanding that she/he be addressed in Arabic" for the reasons Hasnaa gives. Most Algerians, however, would be insulted by it for the opposite reason that it presupposes that what they're speaking in their daily lives is not Arabic enough to be fit for international broadcasting, imposing on them a standard that is not demanded of Egyptians or Levantines who feel perfectly free to speak their own colloquials on such channels.

  12. Robert L Greene said,

    March 19, 2019 @ 10:24 am

    How you lump and split "Arabics" will never not annoy somebody. I got barked at yesterday for joking that Pete Buttigieg "cheated" by saying he speaks both Maltese and Arabic. For Maltese, that Maltese is not Arabic is a given. But saying Iraqi colloquial isn't "Arabic" might be fighting words. And my takeaway from this is that North Africa is a bit in the middle; speakers there not sure if they want to be considered obviously Arabic-speakers or what. That sound about right? Lameen?

  13. Lameen said,

    March 19, 2019 @ 5:11 pm

    That sounds about right: you can offend an Algerian by considering them non-Arab or by considering them Arab, and the same goes for Darja.

  14. Victor Mair said,

    March 19, 2019 @ 5:24 pm

    From John Mullan:

    My friends who speak a variety of Maghrebi Darija–Moroccans–have basically no ability in Classical Arabic. They speak French (and English, of course) as a language of culture and learning. Is there any parallel here in the Sinosphere? Maybe when Japanese, Korean, and Vietnamese bureaucrats/scholars had to learn Classical Chinese?

  15. A. Z. Foreman said,

    March 23, 2019 @ 8:10 pm

    "The parallels between Sinitic and Arabic diglossia are striking. Are they due to sociopolitical ideology? Similarities in certain aspects of the writing systems?"

    No, there is no shared aspect of the writing systems that would promote diglossia. One is an abjad (more or less, but that's a quibble for another time) and the other is a logosyllabary. One is segmented syllabically, and the other was used by people who developed an entire grammarian tradition without even needing a word for syllable. The most you can say is that they both leave out a certain amount of phonological information, requiring the reader to bring to bear their own knowledge of the language to fill in the gaps, but I don't really see how that would lend itself to diglossia. If anything the underspecification of the Arabic script allows it to be repurposed for vernacular Arabic far more easily than it would otherwise be. (Thn thrs th fct tht u cn wrt n Nglsh ths wy 2 nd stll b ntllgbl.)

    No, the sociopolitical circumstances are not especially similar. As far as I know, Imperial China was never a collection of 22 modern nation-states with modern mass politics where modern ethno-nationalist discourses about language and nation circulated. Nor has it been an article of faith for anybody that Classical Chinese was the language of God's revelation to humanity.

    No, the parallels between pre-modern Chinese and Arabic diglossia really aren't that striking. In fact, what's striking is how unalike they are. I think virtually any other case of diglossia on earth would matches that of Arabic much better than the situation of pre-modern literary Chinese.

    You can give a university lecture, or TV presentation, in Literary Arabic. People do it every day. You can even converse in it — foreigners are notorious for doing so today, and many people have done so for exigent reasons for over a thousand years. I'm not aware of anybody actually speaking classical Chinese for oral comprehension. The closest thing I think you get is people reciting, or chanting things in it (sometimes ex tempore). If I'm not mistaken, it is your own position is that Classical Chinese was never used as a spoken medium of oral communication. There is no parallel in the Arab or broader Muslim world to Chang Kai Shek having to resort to written 筆談 in order to communicate with lettered Japanese. Prescriptively correct "standard pronunciation" of Literary Arabic varies relatively little throughout the Arab world, and great emphasis is placed on proper pronunciation — including various prosodic practices — when reciting sacred texts. Literary Arabic, when read or spoken aloud by anyone in the Arab world, is readily intelligible to anyone else who knows Literary Arabic. If this was ever true of Literary Chinese, it must have stopped being the case quite early. Long before the bulk of what we know of as "Chinese history" took place.

    If anything, I think a much better parallel would I think be the modern promotion of Standard Mandarin as the only proper medium of public discourse.

  16. Eidolon said,

    March 25, 2019 @ 5:19 pm

    Responding to the above, numerous attempts were made throughout Chinese history to standardize and promulgate the "proper" pronunciation of Literary Chinese, such as by the publication of pronunciation manuals like the Qieyun. But they were never, to my knowledge, consistently successful, though in every dynasty, a koine did develop – mostly based on the pronunciation of the capital – that was used as a lingua franca by the government and literate classes. This was not, however, Literary Chinese, but a vernacular that mixed in Literary Chinese.

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