Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Country Profile: The Languages of Mauritania

Last week we looked at the linguistic diversity of Moldova, and the week before our focus was on Bosnia and Herzegovina. This week, we'll be moving from Europe to Africa, with a look at the languages of Mauritania.

The Official Language

The sole official language of Mauritania is Modern Standard Arabic, the standard literary form of Arabic used all over the world. In terms of spoken language, most Mauritanians use Hassaniyya Arabic, a variety that is also used in Algeria, Morocco, Mali, and other areas of northwestern Africa. However, Mauritania has more native speakers of Hassaniyya Arabic than any other country, with over 3 million Mauritanians using the language.

While it doesn't have official status, French is also an extremely important language in Mauritania. Since the country was under French colonial rule until 1960, the French language gained importance in society. It is still widely used throughout the country, with about 5,000 native speakers and around 700,000 non-native speakers, plus many more Mauritanians who have some understanding of the language.

The Richat Structure, a fascinating geological feature in the
Sahara desert in Mauritania that can be viewed from space.
Recognized National Languages

Mauritania's constitution also recognizes four national languages: Arabic, Pulaar, Soninke, and Wolof. The three final languages all belong to the Niger-Congo language family. Pulaar is the most used of the three, with over 230,000 native speakers. It is followed by Soninke, which is the native language of about 180,000 Mauritanians. Last but not least, there's Wolof, which is used by approximately 15,000 Mauritanians.

Other Languages

Finally, there's Zenaga, a Berber language used in both Mauritania and neighboring Senegal. While it was once one of the most important languages in the country, it has slowly been replaced by Hassaniyya Arabic. Today, there are only thought to be around 200 remaining native speakers.