Is the Algerian Language an Arabic Dialect? (Is Algerian a Language?)

avatarMille Larsen
10 mins read

Most of the people I have talked to think about Arabic and French as the two languages spoken in Algeria. This common misconception is due to the political confusion about the languages in Algeria. I have also written an article about the most common languages in Algeria which gives an insight into the linguistic reality of the country.

Dardja, as Algerians refer to their main mother tongue, is considered by Algerians and foreigners alike as an Arabic dialect (and not a separate language). But what is the argument behind Dardja not being a language of its own?

The question deserves to be asked because Arabs from the middle-east do not actually understand Dardja and they consider “North African Arabic” as the most difficult “Arabic dialect”. 

While Algerians do consider their daily spoken language as a form of Arabic, they are very surprised when they meet Arabic speakers and discover that they cannot communicate with them in Algerian Arabic, so they will try to adapt to their accents or even switch to academic Arabic. 

Algerians are very talented linguistically; they have the ability to learn new languages and to imitate accents very well. This isn't the case for most nationalities. We’ll dig deeper into this topic!

So why don’t Middle Easterners understand North Africans? To answer this question, you have to look at the structure of Dardja, because, remember that both Middle Easterners and North Africans consider it as merely an Arabic dialect. 

Algerian Dardja is an oral language. Because of this, it is not recognized as an official language, nor as a national language despite being the most widely spoken language in Algeria.

Algerians don’t have an awareness about their own language because, as is often the case with oral mother tongues, you speak it naturally without analyzing it.

Dardja, just as any language, is an anthropological result of centuries and millennia of history of colonization, cultural influences, trade exchanges, migrations,  different political agendas, and more!

There is obviously no language that is 100% pure of any “external” influences, be it at least loan words, but there are definitely languages that are more homogenous than others.

The fact of the matter is, that studies and linguistic research about Dardja are nearly non-existent. There are only a few dictionaries and grammar books about Dardja on the market.

It would seem that the awareness of the Algerian language is very limited among scholars, which is very curious, given the fact that the language is growing as the number of speakers rise but also the very abundant cultural tradition. Algerians not only speak Dardja as a mother tongue in their daily lives, but they also use it in all forms of art, music, poetry, stories, jokes, movies, series, proverbs, and so on, despite not being regulated as an official written language.

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What Is The Difference Between A Language And A Dialect?

A language is a tool of oral and written communication. It's a system of communication using vocabulary in a structured and conventional way. A language has generally has several dialects, especially if it is spread around a large geographic area.

A dialect, on the other hand, is a part of a main language which, itself, has many dialects. It might have different accents but a dialect doesn’t, in itself, have dialects. It is true that the boundaries between what is considered a language and what is considered a dialect could look very thin.

A good example of that is Italian and Spanish. Both languages are mutually intelligible but couldn't you consider them to be two different dialects of Latin? Technically, yes, but populations and governments have made a different choice according to their respective histories, which is why today they’re definitely considered separate languages, not dialects of Latin.

An even more blatant example is that of Swedish, Danish and Norwegian, and even Danish and Faroese! They are literally the same language with only minor variations in vocabulary and pronunciation. While there is a significant difference when it comes to accents and intonations, all those Scandinavian languages come from an extinct language called Old Norse. 

This linguistic proximity makes sense because Scandinavian populations are natives of the same region, and they have a common culture, history, ethnicity, and generally share a lot of roots.

Then why is Dardja is not considered as a language of its own but rather an Arabic vernacular despite it having its own grammatical rules, vocabulary, pronunciation, structure, and different accents? 

It is essential to keep in mind that most young Algerians can understand Academic Arabic and different Arabic accents just fine. Arabs, however, do not understand Dardja and they cannot pronounce it correctly. 

You might wonder why that is? Well, it is simply because Algerians have had a long exposure to the Arabic culture, whether it’s Egyptian cinema, Lebanese music, or Saudi, Qatari, and Emirati religious preaches more recently. All those languages also might be closer to one another than to Algerian Dardja.

Algerians are also very curious and open-minded to foreign cultures. The Arabs, on the other hand, do not have the same exposure to Algerian culture so they have little knowledge about it. It could also be a lack of interest because the Algerian culture is very different and specific. Also, Algerian culture is, however, very rich, diverse, and it has had a huge impact internationally whether it’s on music, literature, intellectuals, history, and more.

What Is The Structure of Dardja Anyways?

I am not going through the grammatical details in this article, but I will give an overview of the Algerian language using examples of common phrases. 

As I mentioned previously, the Algerian Dardja is, like any language, a result of the country’s history and anthropological context. Dardja clearly has Tamazight roots (Tamazight, also known as Berber, being the original native language of Algeria.) 

Dardja has an accent and a pronunciation closer to that of Tamazight than it has to Arabic. It has also kept an extensive amount of Tamazight vocabulary and it shares the Tamazight Grammar rules. 

On top of the obvious Tamazight origin which is the prior native language of all Algerians, the number of native speakers has declined progressively as new colonizers have arrived in the country, but it is still the native language of millions of Algerians (and other also North Africans). 

There is a heavy influence of Arabic and French in the Algerian language as well. Algerians have borrowed loan words from both languages to which they have applied their own grammatical rules and they pronounce them according to their natural anthropological and linguistic evolution. (I’ll give you some examples of that in a second.)

You can also find many words that seemingly have Spanish and Italian origins, but in reality, these have to be studied by linguists in order to correctly determine their origin of those words, because the regions that speak those languages have always have been influenced by North Africa as well. (Especially the Iberic Peninsula).

So what does Dardja look like? Here are some examples of the Algerian language with their translation:

Each color refers to the same word in the different translations. I have started with the direct translation to highlight the word order in Dardja in comparison to English and Arabic.

  1. Lhadra nta3 Dzayer mashi wa3ra bezzaf = The language of Algeria is not difficult very = The Algerian language is not very difficult.

Let’s translate this to Arabic: Loughat Al Djaza’ir layssa sa3ba djiddan.

We can clearly see that in Algerian, we use an entirely different vocabulary even if the word “wa3ra” = “difficult” is an Arabic loan word.

  1. Rani ntam drahem besh neshri tomobil jdida = I am saving money to buy car new = I am saving money to buy a new car

Let’s see how it looks like in Arabic: Inni uwaffir al mal li kay ashtari sayara jadida

Note that the Algerian word “neshri” (I buy) comes from the Arabic "ashtari" and “jdida” (new) comes from the Arabic word “jadida” and “tomobil” comes from the French word “Automobile” (car). 

You can see here that word order is not the same and that the vocabulary is a mix of words with different origins. Add to that, that we sometimes use Arabic and French words in a different way than they would have been used in Arabic and French because they have developed a different meaning in Dardja. The words, sometimes, are simply modified according to our own pronunciation and grammar rules.

  1. Rani 3iyen, ma9dertch ga3 nconcentri = I am tired, I can’t at all focus = I’m tired, I can’t focus at all.

In Arabic, it would be: Inni mout3ab, la astati3 attarkiz 3ala al itla9.

These are but a few examples to give you an idea about how different Derdja actually looks and sounds. The examples are in typical Algerian as it's spoken in Algiers, but there are as many dialects and accents as regions in Algeria!

Of course, I can’t cover all of them here as this topic requires several articles and very extensive knowledge, but for a few more examples, go see this list of Algerian phrases along with audio recordings.

Where Can You Listen To Algerian? (Some Examples of Algerian)/ Learn Algerian Through Music

I personally think that the best way to learn a language is through art, and especially music. Subtitled movies are also are a great source and you get to learn about the culture as well.

That's why I have selected a list of songs for you in Dardja. These are of very popular artists that you might know of:

So, Is Dardja a Separate Language or an Arabic Dialect?

After reviewing the arguments about Dardja and showing you a small comparison, it is very difficult for me to provide a final answer. 

This oral language, or dialect if you consider it so, is not at all studied, researched, or compared. It is really up to linguists with the help of anthropologists and maybe historians to classify Dardja after a thorough academic examination. 

The reality today is, that whether you are an Algerian or not, there are people who consider Dardja to be an Arabic dialect which is a bit reductive and lazy.  Others, again, consider it a language on its own that they think needs recognition because it is their language.

I have already discussed in another article how language in Algeria can be exploited by political agendas, so it’s a delicate subject, but it’s a subject that has to be addressed because history has already shown us what happens to oral languages if they stay oral: They tend to easily transform, get dominated by other languages that are written and politically supported even if the number of speakers is fewer than the oral language to finally fade away. 

One thing that is sure is that Dardja is growing as the number of speakers grows and I, personally, think that it’s just a matter of time until this language will have the recognition that it truly deserves.

If you want to know more about Algerian Dardja or learn it, here is an interesting book about the Algerian main language (which is very similar to its neighboring countries):

Conversational Arabic Quick and Easy: Algerian Dialect