Hassānīya Arabic

Written by Annette van der Merwe

Hassānīya Arabic is the official language of Mauritania and is also spoken by the Sahrawi people to the north of Mauritania. Hassānīya is a variety of Maghrebi Arabic. It originally came to West Africa by ways the Ben Ḥassān Bedouin tribes of North Africa who expanded their influence into West Africa during the 15th to 17th century. Since the late 1980s Arabic has been the primary language of instruction in schools throughout the country, slowly replacing French

This language has also almost completely replaced the Berber languages originally spoken in this region. Yet it still retains a significant amount of Amazigh vocabulary. Amazigh refers to the Berber language family, some of which date back 2 500 years. The rest of its vocabulary as well as its grammatical structure remains Arabic. 

As far as Arabic dialects go, Hassānīya is more distinctly differently than most other Maghrebi Arabic dialects because of its geographical exposure to Zenaga-Berber and Wolof. Zenega-Berber is a now almost extinct language spoken by a few hundred people in the north of Senegal (on the south west border of Mauritania). Wolof is the native language of the Wolof people of Senegal.

Even this brief overview demonstrates how language is never stagnant. It changes and adapts and serve the people of geo-cultural landscape in the same ways that a river would flow and find a way to connect people.


Ḥassāniyya shows an exceptional unity, with a few exceptions. Genuine Ḥassāniyya speakers, as well as unilingual or, more often, bilingual people speaking a variety that differs from the standard dialect, can be found at the Moroccan, Malian, and probably Algerian borders. The dialects of these speakers are so different that they are virtually incomprehensible to the uninformed Ḥassāniyya speaker.

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