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BY 4.0 license Open Access Published by De Gruyter Mouton November 8, 2022

The Jebli speech between the media and the city: exploring linguistic stereotypes on a rural accent in Northern Morocco

  • Montserrat Benítez Fernández ORCID logo EMAIL logo and Jairo Guerrero ORCID logo


The symbolic values that speakers attribute to certain linguistic features constitute an important sociolinguistic topic which, barring a few seminal works, has not drawn much attention from scholars working on Maghrebi Arabic, and more specifically, Moroccan varieties. The present paper aims to deepen our understanding of metalinguistic representations of Jebli, a sedentary rural variety of Moroccan Arabic, within the speech communities of Larache and Ouezzane, two urban centres lying on the southern periphery of the Jbala region of Northern Morocco. We first analysed several samples of performed speech taken from an online Moroccan comedy sketch series entitled Jebli & Beldi, which includes a character epitomizing the Jebli accent, in order to identify those salient linguistic features that are perceived as being typically Jebli. As these phonetic and morphosyntactic traits are consciously selected in performed speech, it may be assumed that they make up a linguistic stereotype. We then asked a group of informants in the cities of Larache and Ouezzane to describe what they regarded as the typical features of Jebli speech and also their attitudes towards these features. The results of our study show that the features informants named partly coincided with our own sketch-based selection, and their attitudes towards these features were generally negative. These features did not appear in the speech of most informants, suggesting either their absence in their dialect or a deliberate avoidance strategy on their part. A small number in fact used these features but denied doing so, suggesting that the features are socially stigmatized. We argue that the symbolic values ascribed to some typical Jebli features may trigger their avoidance, which in turn may generate linguistic variation and even lead to linguistic change.

1 Introduction

This study centres on the symbolic values assigned to certain phonetic and morphosyntactic features of Jebli (lit. ‘from/of the mountain’), a variety of Moroccan Arabic which inhabitants of nearby urban communities, specifically the cities of Larache and Ouezzane,[1] associate with rural communities of the western Rif.[2] However, while the two groups (urban and rural) speak a somewhat different variety of Moroccan Arabic, some of the urbanites are rural migrants themselves. Because of its association with rural communities, Jebli speech is stigmatized by speakers throughout Morocco.

Our analysis consists of two parts. First, we will identify the linguistic features which are used to characterize Jebli speech in a series of comedy sketches (Jebli & Beldi) whose humour is based on the stereotypical contrast of the speech and behaviour of Beldi-speakers[3] with those of Jebli-speakers. Second, we will analyse the language use and the metalinguistic comments of various speakers from the urban areas of Larache and Ouezzane regarding the features of Jebli on which the comic stereotyping of the performances is based. Thus, our twofold aim is to determine which features of Jebli speech are stereotyped, and then define what they index in the urban milieu. Finally, in light of the negative stereotyping and stigma associated with Jebli, we will analyse the effects these indexations of Jebli speech have on the actual speech of the urban informants. In other words, we will explore whether negative indexation induces a certain degree of attrition in the use of stereotyped linguistic features on the part of urban-dwelling Jebli-speakers, or generates a kind of linguistic insecurity in them.

1.1 Theoretical framework

Two key theoretical concepts underlie our analysis, namely salience and stereotype. In linking them together, we follow the model of Hachimi (2018), who tries to understand the role of salience in linguistic change or maintenance.

The concept of salience was first set out by the founding scholars of variationist sociolinguistics, most notably Labov (1972) and Trudgill (1984). Basing herself on these authors, Hachimi (2018: 63–64) defines salience as “the prominence or the degree of availability to speakers’ awareness that a linguistic form has in relation to other forms”. She argues “for a socioevaluative interpretation of salience, framing the latter as susceptibility to what Silverstein calls ‘indexical order’ (2003: 193), that is, the multiple presupposing and entailing semiotic associations between linguistic forms and social meanings”.

Rácz (2013) makes a distinction between cognitive salience, which pertains to a segment that “has a large surprisal value when compared to an array of language input” (2013: 37), and social salience, which arises when a particular variable, in addition to being especially prominent, unexpected or surprising in the normal scale of variation, provokes certain attitudes or cultural stereotypes (2013: 2). Rácz argues that sociolinguistic salience can be interpreted in one of two ways: as a label that is applicable to variables that carry social indexation, a concept akin to that of ‘markedness’; or as something resulting from external sources, namely the dynamics arising among speakers and the basic cognitive skills of the individual. If salience is rooted in speaker dynamics, “any linguistic variable could theoretically be chosen by the community to mark social indexation” (Rácz 2013: 30), a framing which is consistent with that proposed by Labov (1972). However, only those forms which entail a particular indexation, social meaning or identity, as afforded by the social dynamics of the context, may be socially salient. If the notion of awareness which appears in the first definition is also taken into consideration, the greater the awareness of the salient feature, the more likely it will become a stereotype.

Thus, the concept of stereotype is linked to the notion of salience. Silverstein (1998: 127) defines stereotypes as “beliefs about denotata of a word or expression that are not derived from strictly linguistically mapped sense categories but that, notwithstanding, give descriptive backing to uses of the term. Stereotypes are associable with words and expressions as these are used by specific, historically located groups of users in the division of linguistic labor”. In this regard, Hachimi (2018: 64) affirms that “an indicator (a first-order index) differs from a marker (second-order index) or a stereotype (third-order index) based on their degree of ideological transparency”.

Labov (1972) proposes three criteria to identify stereotypes: besides being associated with a particular dialect or sociolect, a stereotype must generate a high degree of awareness among speakers and it must also be the object of overt commentary. The speaker’s “awareness” plays a significant role here, since sociolinguistic variables may be categorized as either indicators, markers or stereotypes, depending on the level of awareness that speakers have of that particular feature. In other words, certain linguistic features may pass completely unperceived by speakers even though they index social stratification (indicators), while other features are laden with attitudes or prejudices and can signal stylistic variation (markers). Among the latter, “variables which have an especially high level of awareness associated with them are called stereotypes” (Trudgill 1984: 10). Trudgill (1984) notes that stigmatization, involvement in linguistic change, phonetic distance, and phonological contrast are all factors which can intensify speakers’ awareness of a specific feature and cause them to modify their pronunciation under certain circumstances, reflecting a sort of ‘linguistic insecurity’. According to Labov (1972: 117), such linguistic insecurity is illustrated “by the very wide range of stylistic variation used by lower-middle-class speakers; by their great fluctuation within a given stylistic context; by their conscious striving for correctness; and by their strongly negative attitudes towards their native speech pattern”.

Bennis (2001a, 2001b, 2002, 2003 frames linguistic insecurity in the Moroccan context as a quest for linguistic legitimacy. His research focuses on epilinguistic speech and attitudes toward the different languages – Berber, Arabic and French – present in the Beni Mellal area of Central Morocco. Linguistic insecurity, i.e. the fact that speakers affirm not to use features while they actually do[4] – such as the use of the second person feminine imperfective verb form when addressing a man, e.g.: aži tgəlsi ‘come sit down’ (instead of the masculine form aži tgləs (cf. Bennis 2003: 355) – leads to the emergence of various linguistic strategies, ranging from the avoidance or rejection of stigmatized forms to linguistic accommodation or even the ascription of a positive value to stigmatized forms. Such strategies for dealing with linguistic stigma can be encountered in other Arabic-speaking communities such as that of Upper Egypt.[5]

1.2 Literature review

Extensive research has been carried out on linguistic variation and change in many parts of the Maghreb. However, we will limit ourselves here to noting a few key works centred on linguistic stereotyping and stigmatization which, even though they focus on varieties outside Morocco, are relevant to the case under study. Walters (1989: 297) conducts a study on three phonological variables in the Tunisian context. He demonstrates that one of the variants of the variable /ɛ:/ is regarded as a stereotype and, therefore, avoided by young and better educated people. Thus, the variable is found to be a marker of age, class, sex and provenance, and is on its way to becoming a marker of style. Gibson (1998: 107, 258) reports that the non-monophthongized reflex of the Old Arabic short diphthong *ay is generally associated by Tunisian speakers with the dialect of Sfax, a coastal city whose dwellers are the subject of mainly negative stereotypes (arrogance), but also positive ones (efficiency). In his study of the Arabic variety spoken in Tlemcen, Algeria, Dendane (2013) describes how male speakers accommodate their speech when interacting with people from other locations. Accordingly, focussing on */q/, he concludes that Tlemceni males avoid the glottal stop [ʔ] variant, adopting instead the velar [g] characteristic of rural speech, whereas Tlemceni females tend to be linguistically more conservative and maintain the [ʔ] in all communicative situations.

Even more pertinent – because of our focus on linguistic representation in vernacular varieties in Morocco – are the various studies on linguistic variation and change triggered by stereotyping and stigmatization. In her series of studies analysing the linguistic practises of Casablancan speakers who are originally from or have a family background in Hachimi (2007, 2011, 2012, 2018), Berrechid and Tafilalt (Hachimi 2018), Hachimi discusses the social meanings that have led to variation and/or accommodation of different phonological and morphological features. Similarly, Falchetta (2019b) examines how the sociolinguistic status of three variable features have changed in an urban Moroccan Arabic variety, namely the alternation between [g] and [q], affrication of /t/ and alternation between the verbs /dwa/ and /hdərˁ/.

Two other studies centre on variation in the realisation of */q/. While Moumine (1995) looks at variation between [q] and [g] in Casablanca and finds that “variability in linguistic behaviour is also socioculturally constrained”, Vicente (2021) explores the variants [Ɂ] and [q] of the variable /q/ in Tetouan, concluding that the value of this trait varies according to social group, with the elderly regarding it as a prestige form and the younger generations stigmatizing it. Also in connection with stigmatization, Messaoudi (1999) reports that the stigmatization attached to [ǧ], which is characteristic of Jebli speech, tends to be stronger among educated speakers. Finally, Barontini and Ziamari (2009) explore the different motivations underlying the use of features characteristic of ‘male’ speech by women of different ages in Meknes.

The vernacular varieties spoken in Larache and Ouezzane, however, have attracted relatively little scholarly attention. Concerning Larache, the last century saw the publication of three short story collections in the Larachi vernacular (Alarcón y Santón 1913; Klingenheben 1927; Marchand 1905) and the stories contained in the first of these have been dialectologically analysed (Moscoso García 2003b). More recently, Guerrero (2015) described the current synchronic situation of this variety. As for the Ouezzane vernacular, most studies in this area are either only partial or reflect ongoing research, such as Jaouhari’s (1986) master’s thesis focussing on the verbal system, Khoukh’s (1993) undergraduate thesis describing the main particularities of the variety spoken in Ouezzane and its hinterland, Ech-Charfi’s (2016) analysis of the notion of urbanization by comparing the Ouezzane and Tangiers varieties and El Khomssi’s (2017) preliminary study of the speech of a weekly market seller living in the countryside and working in the city. More recently, in her doctoral dissertation, El Khomssi (2020) describes the linguistic particularities and social representations of two tribes from the Ouezzane province, the Rhouna and the Beni Messara [sic]. Her informants were either living in the tribes’ original rural locations or had migrated to the large urban centres outside the Ouezzane province. Finally, in a series of articles, Benítez Fernández (2016, 2019, 2022) analyzes variation related to age, gender and rural versus urban speech styles in the Ouezzani vernacular. As can be seen, most of these studies are descriptive analyses of the diatopic variation. Ech-Charfi, El Khomsi and Benítez Fernández have a more sociolinguistic approach, but none of them has pointed out the issues of stigmatization and linguistic insecurity so far.

2 Methodology

As noted above, we will compare the stereotyped features of Jebli speech, as they are satirized in short comedy sketches, with urban speakers’ actual linguistic practises in light of their own metalinguistic awareness. To this end, we will use two corpora, one consisting of samples of performed speech taken from the comedy sketches, and the other consisting of spontaneous speech.[6]

In our attempt to identify the most salient features of the Jebli accent, we decided to apply the methodology proposed in Trudgill (1984: 12). Writing about the features of American English pronunciation that seemed most salient to speakers of British, Trudgill pointed out that such features “are precisely those which are reproduced during imitation”. Since the performed speech in media products such as online sketches is usually script-based and thus made up in advance (Bassiouney 2018; Falchetta 2019a: 460), in any comic parody of speech styles, imitation must play a key role. Thus, it must be assumed that the scriptwriter of such media products deliberately selects those linguistic variants that are associated with a given accent for the sake of portraying characters to the audience in a certain manner.

With the aim of bringing out stereotypical traits attributed to the Jebli accent, we carried out a linguistic analysis of five episodes of the online comedy sketch series Jebli & Beldi, in which actors imitate the accents and social behaviours associated with well-known stereotypes in the collective Moroccan imaginary, the Jebli (‘mountain-dweller’) and the Beldi (‘town-dweller’).[7] The fact that these sketches are available on YouTube ensures that they can be accessed by a wide audience, and their popularity can be confirmed by the number of views they have received. They are set in the city of Tetouan and sponsored by local Tetouani businesses, with some scenes being filmed on the sponsors’ premises. Details of the five videos are provided in Table 1 below.

Table 1:

Details of the five online videos analysed.

Link Title Date of publication Duration Number of views
Video 1 الجبلي والبلدي في عرض جديد بمدينة تطوان (باب التوت) 03/09/2018 06:43 327,442
Video 2 في اكبر تخفيضات بمناسبة الدخول المدرسي JEBLI&BELDI جديد 03/09/2018 13:40 649,236
Video 3 سكيتش اشهاري جديد لثنائي الكوميديا الجبلي والبلدي – معشبة الشمال بتطوان 22/02/2019 04:57 320,367
Video 4 JEBLI&BELDI الجبلي والبلدي في سكيتش إشهاري جديد لوكالة الأسفار SAVATRAVEL 04/02/2020 11:00 119,742
Video 5 سلسلة الجبلي و البلدي _ الحلقة الرابعة | EP4 – Jabli et Elbaldi 12/06/2019 05:07 97,506

In these videos, the speech of each character displays very particular diatopic and diastratic features, making it easily identifiable as either Jebli or Beldi. However, the stereotyping is based not only on speech style but also attire and behaviours, as well as level of education and social sophistication in general. Thus, the Jebli character usually wears a gandūra (a light tunic) or a qaššāba (a sleeveless woollen tunic), both traditional garments associated with inhabitants of the Jbala countryside. Furthermore, the Jebli character is depicted as a semi-literate man who struggles with simple maths and gets lost easily in the city. His link with the countryside is often brought to the fore in his manifestations of pride in his Jebli identity and wistful references to life in his family’s tšaṛ (‘village’), which he compares favourably with the city lifestyle. Further stereotypical attributes are his prominent male chauvinism, stinginess and mistrust of other people.

In order to compare performed stereotyped language features with current use and metalinguistic judgements, we elaborated another corpus by means of audio-recorded interviews carried out as part of fieldwork in Larache (October 2009–September 2012) and Ouezzane (2014–2018). Interviews in Larache involved a total of 38 male and female informants with different educational levels, aged between 17 and 83. Fieldwork in Ouezzane involved 16 male and female informants with different educational levels, aged between 18 and 70. These recordings allowed us to analyse both the informants’ use of these features and their metalinguistic judgements on them.

3 Analysis of the performed speech corpus

As noted, we used the corpus made up of these five sketches to identify the most salient linguistic features signalling that one of the characters is Jebli. We presume that continuous use of typical features of Jebli speech in the sketches is intended to produce a comical effect because of their association with negative traits such as rudeness or lack of education. As a result, we identified a total of 10 features (5 phonetic and 5 morphosyntactic) characterizing the speech of the Jebli speaker.

3.1 Phonetics

Dental stops /t/ and /d/ may undergo spirantization when in intervocalic or postvocalic position, as exemplified in (1).

qqītu > [qqīṯu] ‘you did’, tḥəllu > [ṯḥəllu] ‘you open’, flīsāti > [flīsāṯi] ‘my money’, tʕaššīt > [tʕaššīṯ] ‘I had dinner’, tlātīn > [ṯlāṯīn] ‘30’, bəllāti > [bəllāṯi] ‘slowly’ dəḥšəm > [ḏəḥšəm] ‘you feel ashamed’, wāḥəd > [wāḥəḏ] ‘one’, ʕawd > [ʕawḏ] ‘wooden stick’, nūḍ > [nūḏ̣] ‘Get up!’.

The spirantization of dental stops /t/, /d/, /ḍ/, the bilabial /b/, the velar stop /k/ and to a lesser extent the uvular /q/ is a common feature in most varieties of Jebli Arabic.[8]

Another interesting phonetic feature found in our corpus is the unconditioned devoicing of the pharyngealized voiced dental stop /ḍ/ (2). However, it is worth mentioning that this sound change occurs sporadically and does not affect all lexical items displaying an etymological or non-etymological pharyngealized /ḍ/ (3).

ḍahri [ṭahri] ‘my back’, faxḍa [faxṭa] ‘thigh’, ʕuḍmīn [ʕuṭmīn] ‘bones’, mūḍaʕ [mūṭaʕ] ‘place’, nḍaḥku [nṭaḥku] ‘we laugh’, bayḍāt [bayṭāt] ‘eggs’.
llāh yəṛḥəm l-wālīdīn ma tḍiyyʕu lī-š l-musalsal ‘Please don’t make me miss the TV series!’, mḍaxxam ‘great’.

Pharyngealized /ḍ/ may devoice to /ṭ/ in most, but not all, Jebli dialects.[9] This phonetic phenomenon also occurs in the speech of the inhabitants of Tangiers and Tetouan, two Northern Moroccan urban centres whose dialects have been strongly influenced by the Jebli varieties spoken in their surroundings.

As is often the case in several Northern Moroccan varieties, Old Arabic */ǧ/ is realised as a voiced palato-alveolar affricate [ǧ] when geminate or in the vicinity of /r/ (4). This affricate realization has been seen by some scholars as an allophone of fricative /ž/, the main reflex of */ǧ/ in Moroccan Arabic. Nevertheless, its unconditioned occurrence in a number of Jebli dialects suggests that affricate /ǧ/ is a phoneme rather than an allophone of /ž/ (Messaoudi 1996: 173).

fīh ǧ-ǧūʕ ‘He is hungry’, xallīna nətfəṛṛǧu ‘Let us watch the TV!’, ǧ-ǧīrān ‘the neighbours’, hāḏūk ma dǧībūm lī-ši ‘These ones, don’t bring them to me!’.

Voiceless affricate /č/ occurs instead of voiceless fricative /š/ in the verbs šāf ‘to see, to look’ and šədd ‘to catch, to take’ (5). Such instances of affricated /š/ are generally explained as resulting from a reanalysis of the cluster as a single element č in forms with the t- prefix (e.g. tšədd ‘you take’), a pattern which is then generalized to all forms in the stem (Heath 2002: 139).

šūf → [čūf] ‘Look!’, šəddu li t-tilīkumānd → [čəddu li t-tilīkumānd] ‘They’ve taken the remote control from me’.

A further phonetic feature in our corpus is the general treatment of voiced bilabials /m/ and /b/ as “sun letters”, i.e. as sounds that trigger the assimilation of the definite article l- (6). This trait has been reported for several Jebli varieties.[10]

l-mḍṛāṣa [m-mḍṛāṣa] ‘the school’, l-mwāʕən [m-mwāʕən] ‘tableware’, dīk l-bāb [dīk b-bāb] ‘that door’, hād l-bayṣar [hād b-bayṣar] ‘this fava bean soup’, fṭaṛ bə-dīk l-bayṭa [b-bayṭa] u mša fḥālu l-mḍṛāṣa ‘He had that egg for breakfast and went to school’.

3.2 Verbal morphology

In Moroccan Arabic, verbal predication is negated by means of the discontinuous marker ma___-š. The second element is an enclitic which always surfaces as –ši in the speech of the Jebli character in the Jebli & Beldi comedy sketches (7). This pattern is consistent with the available data on Jebli Arabic.[11]

hāda ma ywəssəx-ši lə-ḥwāyəž ‘This one doesn’t get his clothes dirty’, ma ʕqəltī-ši? ‘Don’t you remember?’, ma məḥtāǧ-ši tfətḥu ‘I don’t need you to open it’.

Another morphological feature which might be ascribed to Jebli Arabic and which we have found in the corpus is the lack of paradigm reconstruction in the imperfective plural forms of defective verbs[12] (8).

āš ġa-yəšru nna ‘What are they going to buy for us?’, nəmšu? ‘Shall we go?’.

Like many other Arabic dialects, Moroccan Arabic makes use of certain particles which precede the imperfective in order to express temporal and aspectual nuances. These so-called “imperfective auxiliary particles” are either ka- or ta- in most Moroccan varieties.[13] In our corpus, though ka- predominates, we found a few instances of la-[14] (9), a variant which may be regarded as typically Jebli as it has not been recorded outside the Jbala region.

āna la -nəstənna Farīda tqūl dīk l-kəlma d-əs-sərr ‘I’m waiting for Farīda to say that password’, hūma mnīn la -yṭəlʕu n-ʕəndna n-əṭ-ṭabīʕa w- la -yəbdāw yṭayybu f-əṭ-ṭwāžən w-ləqhāwi w-āṯāy ḥna nṭaḥku ʕlīhum? ‘When they come to us, to the countryside, and start cooking tagines and brewing coffee and tea, do we laugh at them?’, ka-nqăddəm lək bni Ḥməd ‘I introduce you to my son Ḥməd’, hāydāk ka-ttəktəb təsʕūd w-xamsīn? ‘Is this the way we write fifty-nine?’, āš ka-təqqi ntīna w-ždāḏa? ‘What are you doing with the hen?’.

On the basis of its alternation with ka-, as well as its meagre presence in the corpus, it could be argued that la- is slowly losing ground to the more prestigious ka-, which prevails in the “mainstream dialects of Moroccan Arabic”.

3.3 Nominal morphology

Another typical Jebli feature which has also spread among most urban varieties in northwestern Morocco and which is widely attested in our corpus is the use of the 2nd person singular gender-independent pronoun ntīna ‘you’ (10), as opposed to the 2nd person singular masculine nta and feminine nti variants which predominate in mainstream Moroccan Arabic varieties. Although the lack of gender distinction in 2nd person singular pronouns is common to many pre-Hilali varieties throughout the Maghreb, the form ntīna (with a final -na) might be seen as typically Jebli as it also occurs in the genetically related village dialects of the Msīrda and the Trāra in northwestern Algeria.[15]

ā fəyn ā si Primmeṛo? la bās? kīf ntīna? ‘What’s up, Mr. Primmero? Are you OK? How are you?’, dāba ntīna kull ma tdəbbəṛ ʕašṛa dṛāhəm la-tži n-ʕəndi nṣəṛṛəf lək d-dṛāhəm ‘[Do you think] you [can] come to me whenever you get 10 dirhams so I’ll change them for you?’, fəyn ntīna? ‘Where are you?’.

An odd morphological feature of several Northern Moroccan dialects is the 2nd person and 3rd feminine singular imperfective prefix d-.[16] In the Jebli & Beldi corpus analysed here, the Jebli character alternates the use of this prefix with the most common variant t- (11).

ma ḏəḥšəm-ši? ‘Don’t you feel ashamed?’, ntūma lli ka-tbīʕu dīk lə-ḥwāyəž bə-təsʕūd u xamsīn d-əd-dirham? ‘Are you the ones who sell those clothes for 59 dirhams?’, āš ka-ḏaʕṛəf taʕməl? ‘What are you good at?’, ntūma lli dʕaṛfu hāḏ š-ši ‘It’s you who know all this’, hiyya ġa tšūf l-ḥāla dyālək ‘She’s going to look into your situation’.

As has been shown above, most of the features that depict the speech of the Jebli character in the series of sketches under study are actually attested in Jebli dialects, a fact that may suggest speakers perceive them as typically Jebli, in their stereotypical portrayal of Jeblis. The conscious choice of these features when writing the sketch script indicates that they are perceived as salient. This fact may allow us to regard them as markers.

4 Analysis of the natural speech sample

Having identified the most salient phonetic and morphosyntactic features of Jebli speech as depicted in the video sketches, we sought first to determine which of these features city-dwellers would label as typically Jebli. We did this by asking them, in the course of the interview, about certain linguistic features that we had found in the community – whether produced by them or not – and let them identify as Jebli or otherwise. We also noted their metalinguistic musings on the issue, that is, the attitudes they expressed regarding the features they had singled out.

Because the cities of Larache and Ouezzane are situated respectively to the west and south of the Rif Mountains in Northern Morocco, that is, in the southwestern periphery of the Jbala region, their inhabitants are quite familiar with the Jebli accent. Both cities experienced considerable growth during the second half of the twentieth century, in large part due to immigration from the mountain villages of their respective hinterlands, particularly from communities such as Xmīs s-Sāḥǝl, Tlāta d-er-Rīsāna, Laʕwāmṛa and Bǝni Garfaṭ in the case of Larache, and Mqrīsāt and Brikša in the case of Ouezzane.

Our informants identified three such features, two of them phonetic and one morphosyntactic, which they considered to be characteristically Jebli, as described in detail below.

4.1 Phonetics

The voiced postalveolar fricative /ž/ belongs to the repertoire of most Moroccan varieties. However, alongside this form in our corpus of recordings from Larache and Ouezzane we encountered on rare occasions another variant, the voiced postalveolar affricate /ǧ/, which is characteristic of Jebli varieties.[17] These rare instances were produced by informants with marked Jbala origins, as documented by Guerrero (2015: 47) and Benítez Fernández (2022) in their respective studies. It is worth noting that the affricate variant was explicitly stigmatized by Larachi informants, who perceived it as being “too rural” and as betraying a Jebli accent.

A further distinguishing phonetic trait involved the realisation of */q/ as a voiceless uvular stop. Beside this realization, two others characterizing different varieties in Morocco could be also found in our corpus. For instance, the voiced velar plosive [g] identifies some Bedouin dialects, and the glottal stop [Ɂ] characterizes some sedentary varieties – both in the old centres (medinas) of cities like Tetouan or Fez and in several Jbala villages.[18] The [q] is the most generalized variant all over Northern Morocco and our corpus was not exceptional in this regard. The voiced velar plosive [g] was restricted to certain lexical items and was used by younger informants with a high level of education who had experienced mobility. As for the glottal stop, this trait could be found, particularly in Ouezzane, either among men of different ages who had only basic education and worked as craftsmen, or among women who exhibited a marked Jebli style, not only in their speech, but also in their attire.

With regard to informants’ attitudes to this feature, it became clear that the glottal stop [Ɂ] variant is overtly censured by the Ouezzani population, with some of our informants regarding it as characterizing the speech of “country folk” (n-nās dyāl l-bādya).[19] This is a very interesting finding in that [Ɂ] has been shown to hold a positive value within the speech communities of some Northern Moroccan old medinas such as that of Tetouan. Conversely, the fact that Ouezzanis seem to link [Ɂ] to a rural background could be due to its occurrence in several Jebli dialects. This association with “ruralness” is reinforced by the findings reported in El Khomssi (2017, 2020.[20]

4.2 Nominal morphology

The only salient morphological feature regarded as Jebli in our spontaneous speech corpus was the use of the 2nd person singular gender-neutral pronoun ntīna ‘you’. Guerrero (2018) has identified this pronoun as a hallmark of Jebli Arabic, though it is also attested in some Northern Moroccan urban varieties (mainly Tangiers and Tetouan), probably owing to considerable rural-to-urban migration within this region. As far as Ouezzane is concerned, while the use of ntīna seems to have been a very common feature in the past (Khoukh 1993),[21] data elicited by Benítez Fernández (2014–2018) suggest that this variant is slowly losing ground to other forms with gender distinction, given that it only obtains in the speech of informants with the lower prestige Jebli background. As regards Larache, speakers could be separated into two groups according to the presence or absence of gender distinction in the 2nd person singular pronoun they used. One group comprised those speakers who used gender-neutral ntīna, while the other was made up of those speakers who distinguished masculine nta-ntāya from feminine nti∼ntīna∼ntiyya. Interestingly enough, the use of gender-neutral ntīna was disapproved of by some of our informants, who perceived it to be a feminine form, and hence inappropriate for talking to a male interlocutor. They argued that a man addressed as ntīna might take offence because his manhood was being called into question. Surprisingly, some of these same informants denied using ntīna for both genders in their own speech, yet the audio recordings clearly disproved this. This denial would seem to be a clear-cut case of linguistic insecurity, as already pointed out in Bennis (2001a, 2001b, 2002, 2003. The indexing of the ntīna variant as “effeminate” has already been reported in works on Moroccan varieties since it has already led to attrition in the use of the pronoun for both masculine and feminine among various heritage communities living in Casablanca, and even the reconfiguration of the verbal paradigm (Hachimi 2012, 2018). It is very conceivable that the same attrition process is underway in the dialects of Larache and Ouezzane, especially bearing in mind the fact that the masculine nta (you) and feminine nti (you) variants are not ideologically marked.

5 Discussion

Our comparison of a performed speech sample with a spontaneous one provides us with an insight into the way linguistic stereotypes about the Jebli are imagined and acted out. In fact, it appears that speakers in Larache and Ouezzane have only a fuzzy notion of what constitutes a Jebli accent. Though our analysis of the Jebli speech parodied in the comedy sketches allowed us to identify ten features (five phonetic and five morphosyntactic) that distinguished Jebli from urban speech, the set of features that our informants could name as being characteristic of a Jebli speech was limited to two phonetic variants ([ǧ], [ʔ]) and a pronoun (ntīna). Furthermore, not all informants identified the same features, and Larachis in general did not necessarily identify the same features as Ouezzanis, and vice versa, which could hint at a subjective construction of the linguistic stereotype at the individual and/or community level. Supporting this assumption is the fact that only two of these features ([ǧ] and ntīna) are stereotyped in both the performed speech and the natural speech samples. But this lack of homogeneity in the stereotyping of Jebli language practises as performed in an online product and expressed in metalinguistic discourse can also be explained by recalling that social meaning is locally constructed. For instance, as noted above, the use of the 2nd person singular pronoun ntīna or the devoicing of pharyngealized /ḍ/ is not common to all Jebli varieties. In fact, these particular features seem to be geographically confined to the northernmost part of Jbala,[22] that is, the vicinity of the two biggest cities in the area Tangiers and Tetouan (perhaps unsurprisingly, given that the sketches are set in Tetouan). This suggests that perhaps Northern Jbala varieties are more often stereotyped than southern ones. This would not be surprising given that Moroccans from other regions are more likely to be familiar with the speech of the Jebli population living in well-connected and economically developed areas along the Tangiers-Tetouan axis than with the varieties spoken in the more remote southern parts of Jbala. Thus, a feature such as ntīna may be perceived as pertaining to “Jebli” speech in Larache but will not elicit commentary in Ouezzane, where the feature is quite rare, or Tetouan, where the trait will likewise go unnoticed because it is the only attested form (Singer 1958: 246). By the same token the glottal stop realization [ʔ] of */q/ is associated with Jebli speech in Ouezzane but not in Larache, where this feature is rare. As pointed out by Eckert (2000: 35), social meanings vary depending on the social group that constructs them. For instance, as we have noted, prestige is attached to the glottal stop [Ɂ] by elderly speakers in the medinas of Fez and Tetouan, especially for those informants coming from a Tetouani old-stock background (Vicente 2021). Conversely, as shown by both Hachimi (2012) and Vicente (2021), the same variant is highly stigmatized and associated with arrogance and/or with outdated traditions by Tetouani or Casablancan youngsters, or even with rurality (Benítez Fernández 2022) since, as shown above, this glottal realization is also attested in some rural areas of Northern Morocco.

Furthermore, whether in the media or in speakers’ perceptions, all these stereotyped variants together with other social practises (attire, religious rituals, etc.) participate in the construction of a cultural stereotype that stigmatizes the Jebli community as being illiterate, boorish, ignorant and unsophisticated. Our informants, who are in fact city dwellers and who themselves used Jebli-marked features, reported feeling anxious and embarrassed about their own speech style, or denied using them altogether, despite the recorded evidence strongly suggesting experiences of linguistic insecurity. This may come from the speaker’s perception that his/her dialect is inferior to other more prestigious varieties, and reflects a concern to avoid all the negative social values attached to that dialect as well as any social discrimination that may result. Thus, at the price of denying the Jebli elements of their own identity, in an attempt to prevent other members in the community of speakers from mocking them, these speakers acknowledge the greater social prestige of the locally predominant urban variety by appropriating the language attitudes that prevail, even if they have failed to completely accommodate linguistically. City-dwellers – at least those who participated in our study – see Jebli features as icons of ruralness, illiteracy and, ultimately, underdevelopment, attributes which are in fact not inherent (Gal and Irvine 1995: 973). In the same vein, Hachimi (2018: 85) showed that these negative meanings encourage the abandonment of such traits because of the overt social stigma they bear. Using such stereotyped traits, or conversely avoiding them – or claiming to avoid them – are all ideological stances that a speaker can adopt to show him/herself or others where he/she wishes to position him/herself in society, a kind of reaffirmation of “being Jebli”/“not being Jebli” or “being urban”/“not being urban”.

Once the stereotype has been consolidated and become widespread within a given community, it brings about stigmatizing discourses which may encourage speakers to dissimulate and eventually abandon the salient stigmatized features that identify them: in other words, discourses that induce linguistic insecurity. This could be the case of the variants highlighted in our analysis ([ǧ], [Ɂ] and ntīna), which seem to be undergoing a process of attrition in these urban speech communities. Previous research on Arabic vernaculars have already shown this tendency taking place elsewhere. For instance, Gibson (2002) describes the attrition of Bedouin variants in Tunisian Arabic; Hachimi (2011) and Vicente (2021) demonstrate the dwindling use of the approximant alveolar [ɹ] and the glottal stop [Ɂ] among Fessis in Casablanca and youngsters in Tetouan; and Benítez Fernández (2022) documents the loss of the voiceless dental fricative [t] in Ouezzane. The rejection by speakers of their own linguistic practises because of the negative indexing associated with certain variants may trigger a certain “tension” within those speakers (Silverstein 1985), which can be resolved through the loss of some traits and, eventually, leads to linguistic shift. In our data, the gradual loss of traits such as the realizations [t], [ǧ], [č], and gender-neutral ntīna in these urban speech communities could be taken as evidence of such a shift.

Surprisingly, one salient phonetic feature of Jebli speech, spirantization, was not explicitly identified as such by our informants. In a country where the overwhelming majority of Arabic varieties lack interdental fricatives one would expect such a phonetic realization to stand out for most Moroccans.[23] However, as Hachimi (2018: 83–84) points out, “the linguistic and sociolinguistic criteria that are believed to give rise to salience do not seem to be reliable predictors” – an observation as applicable to her data as to our own.

6 Conclusions

In this paper, we have sought to identify linguistic stereotypes associated with the so-called Jebli variety of Moroccan Arabic. In order to do so, we conducted a linguistic analysis of two different speech samples: five episodes of an online sketch series, whose comic intent centres around a character epitomizing a Jebli accent and behaviours, and a corpus of interview-elicited spontaneous speech gathered during fieldwork in the cities of Larache and Ouezzane. We then looked for overlap between the salient features of Jebli that we identified in the comedy sketches and the features that our informants described as being stereotypically Jebli.

Our analysis of the performed speech sample yielded five phonetic features and five morphosyntactic elements that we believe were intended to stereotypically distinguish the Jebli character from the Beldi speakers in the sketches. This set of features seems to have been selected to depict Jebli speech in broad brushstrokes, in the sense that they do not always accurately reflect the variation that has been reported for the Jbala region.

As regards the natural speech sample, our informants from Larache and Ouezzane identified three features that in their view distinguished Jebli speech: the realisation of */ǧ/ as [ǧ] and of */q/ as the glottal stop reflex [ʔ] and the use of gender-neutral ntīna. The first and last of these were clearly part of the Jebli stereotype repertory exploited by the online comedians in the sketch series under study. By contrast, interestingly enough, the utterance of */q/ as a glottal stop [Ɂ] was not found in our performed speech sample, even though such a phonetic feature has been reported for a number of Jebli dialects. This may be because it is a variant that still holds social prestige among certain social groups in the medinas of northern cities such as Tetouan or Fez.

The final area of inquiry we pursued in this study concerned the attitudes of our informants towards the features they regarded as Jebli, and how those attitudes interacted with their own use of those features. Judging from their metalinguistic reflections, it is clear that for these informants the three traits they pinpointed as Jebli formed part of the construction of a negative cliché about the Jebli people, associated with the rudeness, backwardness or ignorance linked to ruralness, but also in one instance with an inappropriate attribution of femininity (as pointed out previously regarding the ntīna pronoun).[24] The severe social stigma associated with this feature has become firmly rooted in Moroccan society, parallelling a similar phenomenon reported in Upper Egypt (Bassiouney 2018; Miller 2005).

The findings of our analysis also hint that certain changes are underway in the language structure of the speech communities of Larache and Ouezzane, with certain variants probably being abandoned gradually in favour of others available in the mainstream varieties of Moroccan Arabic. This is the case, for instance, of the glottal reflex [Ɂ] of /q/ and the imperfective auxiliary particle la-. However, examination of this question will require further research involving the collection of diachronic data or a comparison of language use across age groups.

To conclude, this study sheds light on how linguistic features can be used in scripted performances to construct stereotypes about particular language varieties, in this case Jebli Moroccan Arabic. Furthermore, it also shows that members of a speech community do not simply conform to or reject the parameters defining stereotypes, their behaviours and attitudes being often conditioned by their own particular experiences and identities. Finally, our findings are a reminder that linguistic variation and change may be induced also by stereotypes, since, as has been shown, the social representation of linguistic traits plays an important role in those processes.

Corresponding author: Montserrat Benítez Fernández, Escuela de Estudios arabes, CSIC, C/Cuesta del Chapiz, 22, Granada, 18010, Spain, E-mail:

This paper has been written under the auspices of the Spanish research project “Variación diastrática en las variedades habladas del árabe vernáculo de Marruecos (FFI2017-87533-P)”, which was financed by Ministerio de Ciencia, Innovación y Universidades, Agencia Estatal de Investigación and European Fund for Regional Development.

Funding source: AEI/FEDER, UE

Award Identifier / Grant number: FFI2017-87533-P


We are grateful to Atiqa Hachimi and Jacopo Falchetta for reading an earlier draft of this paper and making valuable comments that improved its quality. We also want to express our gratitude to the two anonymous reviewers for their insightful comments and corrections. Any remaining errors are, of course, our own.

  1. Research funding: This work was supported by AEI/FEDER, UE (FFI2017-87533-P).


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Received: 2022-02-01
Accepted: 2022-05-16
Published Online: 2022-11-08
Published in Print: 2022-11-25

© 2022 the author(s), published by De Gruyter, Berlin/Boston

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