Western Sahara is a region in northwestern Africa that is currently under dispute. The Polisario Front, a political party, has claimed independence for a small area of the region, which is officially recognized by many countries as the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic. The official languages of this country are Spanish and Arabic. Spanish, left over from the Spanish colonial era, belongs to the Ibero-Romance subgroup of the Indo-European language family and is written in the Latin alphabet. Standard Arabic belongs to the Central Semitic subgroup of the Afro-Asiatic language family and is written in the Arabic alphabet. In Moroccan controlled areas, Arabic and Berber are considered official languages.

Estimates of the population of Western Sahara vary. It is largely believed that around 30,000 individuals live in the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, while the entire Western Sahara population has as many as 584,000 people living here. Although Spanish and Standard Arabic are the official languages of the Polisario Front, the political group in control of some small regions of Western Sahara, they are not the most widely spoken languages in the area. In fact, linguists believe that only around 287,000 individuals (assuming a population size of 584,000) speak Standard Arabic. In the Moroccan controlled areas, which is the majority of Western Sahara, Moroccan Arabic is more widely spoken and understood.

Because Moroccan Arabic is one of the most widely spoken languages in the urban settlements of Western Sahara, being familiar with some of its phrases is recommended for anyone planning a trip here. Some of the words spoken in this Arabic dialect have been borrowed from or influenced by French, Spanish, and Berber. Some polite phrases include: “please” (‘afak), “thank you” (shukran), “excuse me” (smeh leeya), and “sorry” (aasif). Other important expressions include: “good morning” (sbah ikheer), “have a nice meal” (besseha), “yes” (iyyeh), and “no” (lla).

A number of other languages may be heard throughout the Western Sahara region. Hassaniya Arabic, a dialect of Maghrebi Arabic, is sometimes considered the national language of this area. It is the native language of many of the residents here, as well as those individuals from here who are currently living in the Algerian refugee camps. Hassaniya Arabic has been influenced by French, Spanish, and Zenaga (a Berber language). Its pronunciation may differ depending on the region or country where it is spoken. Linguists report that in Western Sahara, speakers of Hassaniya Arabic may practice code-switching, which is the ability to fluently switch between languages in mid-conversation. The other languages used by these speakers while code-switching are Spanish and Standard Arabic.

This page was last modified on May 1st, 2018

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