[Dedicated to the first one to get me hooked on the streamer phenomenon, Pokimane, the retired anti-woke left podcasteress, Leila Mechoui, and my stunning study buddy from discrete math class back in college, Aicha.]
All this investigation of the Spanish Empire has led me to investigate its historical background, namely the Moorish Empire that controlled most of Iberia.
During this, I noticed two very unique things about Moroccan history, which solve a major mystery about Moroccan culture -- namely, the distinctiveness of its dialect of Arabic, which is so different that no other dialect speakers in North Africa or the Arabian Peninsula can understand it, even remotely. See this video where speakers of different dialects try to understand each other, and how much they all get flabbergasted by Moroccan.
Briefly, the Moroccan dialect has eliminated many vowels, so it sounds like an almost endless string of consonants. This process even targeted vowels in stressed syllables -- usually a no-no for vowel reduction -- so that it also caused a major shift in stress. For example, the original Arabic word "BA-lad" (country) saw its stressed vowel disappear, with stress shifted to the formerly 2nd, now only vowel -- "BLED". With so many consonants in a row, they have also syllabified, meaning they're given the same "weight" as a stressed vowel. (This happens somewhat in English, as in "waddle", which is pronounced like "WAD-l", with no vowel in the second syllable, only the "l".)
But don't worry about the specific changes -- the key thing is that, whatever it's due to, Moroccan sounds totally incomprehensible to the speakers of all other Arabic dialects.
The second fact is that Morocco is the only region among Arabic speakers, outside of the Arabian Desert where Arabic and Islam originated, to have spawned a native empire. That is, a large and expanding state, not just a unified state, and not one that was controlled by foreigners. More than that, it was never conquered and absorbed into any other empires of the region, after the initial adoption of the Arabic language and religion of Islam.
Crucially, these processes happened during the same time period, roughly the 7th to 12th centuries. That saw the emergence of the Pre-Hilalian Arabic dialects in the Maghreb, as well as the unification and eventual expansion of a Moroccan state and empire. This is only one case study of a far more general pattern, which I haven't seen covered in historical linguistics, whereby the growth of an empire accompanies a revolutionary rather than merely evolutionary change in the expanding group's language.
The expansion of an empire is powered forward by intense asabiya (large-scale social cohesion, or potential for collective action, borrowing a term from Ibn Khaldun and popularized by Peter Turchin). This follows a period of ethnogenesis -- the creation of a new ethnic identity -- along a meta-ethnic frontier with a very foreign and threatening Other.
The intensity of Moroccan ethnogenesis -- compared to the identities of other Arabic-speaking peoples -- is reflected both in its imperial expansion and in its unique and radical changes to Arabic that render it sui generis among the descendants of Classical Arabic. Both of these processes happened at the same time, in tandem, around the close of the 1st millennium and the early part of the 2nd millennium.
And although its imperial heyday is long gone, and despite not introducing another wave of radical changes to its dialect of Arabic since then, that period of ethnogenesis was strong enough to leave lasting effects right up through the present, such that Moroccans have set themselves apart from every other group of Arabic speakers.
* * *
First, the historical background of the external pressures that forced the people living in what is now Morocco, into developing such an intense sense of Us vs. Them.
Muslims first invaded North Africa, going all the way into Iberia, during the original wave of Arabs out of the Arabian Desert in the 7th and 8th centuries, bringing with them the religion of Islam and the Arabic language. When they invaded Iberia, they may have relied on local Berber soldiers from the Maghreb -- since the far west of the Mediterranean is quite a distance from the Arabian Desert to bring your own people as an army -- but these Berbers were not organized into a highly ethnically conscious collective.
What forces people to cohere into an intense Us is lying on a meta-ethnic frontier with a very foreign and threatening Them. In the case of pre-Muslim Berbers in what is now Morocco, the invaders were Muslim Arabian-based empires from the east, who came along the Mediterranean coastline. Since the coastline is fertile and lowland, this also pit them against the upland Berbers in and around the Atlas Mountain chain.
Why did only the Berbers near the Atlas Mountains cohere into an intense Us, unlike their cousins in the rest of the Maghreb, which is today part of Tunisia, Algeria, Libya, and parts of Egypt? First, the former had a lot of mountain people, not only lowland coastal people (both regions have desert people as well). So that makes coastal invaders stand out as more foreign in Morocco.
But perhaps more importantly, the Atlas Berbers faced an additional axis in their meta-ethnic frontier -- the Arab Muslim empire in Iberia to their north, right across the Strait of Gibraltar. That became a mighty center of power during the Caliphate of Cordoba -- it was not some wimpy outpost, nor was it fragmented. The Berbers of Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, and further east were "only" pressured from the east, and they could escape somewhat to the west, ending up in Morocco. The Atlas Berbers were pressured from the east, but also from the north, and they had nowhere to escape to westward (the Atlantic Ocean). Fleeing into the Sahara Desert to the south is not a long-term viable solution either for any of the Berbers who did not already live there -- too different for either the mountain people or the coastal plains people.
For the Berbers east of the Atlas to feel a secondary front of pressure from the Arab Muslim empires, the Umayyads would have had to control southern France, southern Italy, Sicily, Sardinia, etc., and bear down on Tunisia and Algeria. Or perhaps Umayyad control over the Balkans, bearing down on Libya and Egypt. But none of that happened, so those Berbers felt only a fraction of the pressure felt by the Berbers right below Iberia. As a result, they developed a looser and weaker sense of being in an Us vs. Them war with the Arab invaders.
* * *
The cohesion of the Atlas Berbers did not happen overnight. They did have enough asabiya to break away from the Arab Umayyad Caliphate, during the Berber Revolt (circa 740), but that did not result in a single strong expanding state of their own. Rather, they fragmented into several smaller states, after their united front against the invading Arabs had achieved its goal of local independence in northwestern Africa.
The Idrisid Dynasty (roughly, the 9th and 10th centuries) managed to unify a decent amount of what is now Morocco, although it was not expanding outside the Atlas Berber region just yet. Its founder was an Arab, but he married the daughter of a Berber ruler, and his descendants who continued the dynasty were therefore heavily Berber as well. Not to mention the bulk of the army was still Berber. At the same time, this began the gradual process of Arabization -- it's just that, unlike other Berber regions, it would take on a unique and distinctly new Moroccan character, rather than simply becoming Arabized.
During the late stage of the Idrisid era, the hypothetical threat of being pinched between both Iberian and further-east African invaders became very real. Both the Caliphate of Cordoba and the Fatimid Caliphate (based in Egypt, although founded by Berbers) were waging a proxy war in Morocco. And the local Berber rulers (from the Zenata tribes) were not a strong entity unto themselves, but switched sides between the two would-be imperial overlords from Iberia and Egypt.
However, the intensity of these external pressures eventually led to the formation of a native Moroccan empire by the middle of the 11th C., which not only unified all of present-day Morocco but extended further south into the western Sahara, spread eastward to the other Maghrebi groups of the Mediterranean coastline, and seized control of the Muslim part of Iberia. The first dynasty to do so was the Almoravids, who were then taken over by the Almohads.
This expansionary phase of the empire lasted a good 200 years, into the middle of the 13th C., after which it entered a declining and collapsing phase, during the Marinid era. They still controlled Morocco, but lost control of Algeria and Tunisia, and their territory in Iberia not only shrunk in size during the Christian Reconquista, but broke off into a separate polity altogether (the Emirate of Granada). During the following Wattasid era (late 15th to mid-16th centuries), the core territory in Morocco contracted even further, with much of their southwestern lands becoming semi-autonomous vassal states, and the key Atlantic ports and area around Gibraltar coming under Iberian control (during their Age of Exploration).
By this point, Moroccan ethnogenesis was complete. The Saadi and Alaouite eras that followed did not launch new expansions, nor did they fundamentally change the language and culture again. They managed to unify Morocco, expel the Iberians (mostly), beat back the Ottoman Empire, and resist colonization by other European empires. Coming under a protectorate of empires on their death-bed, during the early 20th C., is not colonization or being on the losing side of imperialism. Other than there being a vogue for the French language, the French empire did not influence Morocco. (And even that influence may have been indirect, through the use of French among the educated of the nearby Ottoman lands after the Tanzimat reforms of the 19th C. to modernize the empire.)
* * *
Without going through the whole rest of the Arabic-speaking world, I'll simply note that none of it managed to stay outside of foreign control after the initial Arabian Muslim conquests, aside from the Arabian Desert nomads themselves. And none of them launched a native empire of their own, again except for the Arabian Desert nomads (who began expanding in the late 1700s, to eventually become modern Saudi Arabia).
Most recently and extensively, the non-Moroccan Arabic-speakers (except the Arabian nomads) were all invaded and occupied by the Ottomans -- who spoke Turkic languages, and before that, Indo-European languages in the Greek branch. Anatolia was never Saharo-Arabian in language.
Looking just at the other countries of North Africa, before the Ottomans they were absorbed into foreign empires under the Mamluk Sultanate (whose ruling military castes were Turkic and Northwest Caucasian by ethnicity), the Ayyubid Dynasty (relying on those same Mamluk generals, but also headed by leaders of Kurdish or Turkic ethnicity), and the Fatimid Caliphate (ruled by Berbers, who were foreign invaders within Egypt, although not so much outsiders in the rest of North Africa).
All of these empires were centered in Egypt, which makes an excellent strategic base for an empire -- it is fed by crops grown in the fertile Nile area, has trading ports in the Mediterranean, and is protected by deserts on several sides (crucially the Sinai, against invasion from Eurasia). However, a native Egyptian empire has not existed since the end of the 2nd millennium BC, during the New Kingdom of Egypt.
Since then, their history with empire is being ruled over by various foreign ethnic groups. Before the Arabs, it was the Byzantines, before them it was the Romans, before them it was the Greeks, before them it was the Persians, before them it was the Neo-Assyrians, before them it was the Kushites, and before them the Sea Peoples brought about the Bronze Age Collapse of the New Kingdom...
Fittingly, Egypt is the most cosmopolitan region within the Arabic-speaking world today. The works of its culture industry are consumed widely throughout the Arabic-speaking world, and as a result the Egyptian dialect is understood by many speakers of other dialects. This is even easier since the Egyptian dialect does not sound like a totally foreign language to those other dialects' speakers -- in stark contrast to the Moroccan "dialect", which sounds like it comes from Mars.
Overall, Egyptians accepted Arabization far more than other places distant from the Arab homeland of the Arabian Desert. After all, it was just another foreign culture to adapt to after they were conquered by foreigners, a pattern they had been familiar with going back to the 1st millennium BC. Egyptians identify much more strongly as Arabs than do their North African neighbors, especially the Moroccans.
Crucially, this is not because the Egyptian culture that preceded Arabization was already highly similar to Arab culture, as though the changes were minimal and no big deal. Egypt was heavily Christianized when the Arabs invaded -- just like the rest of North Africa, where Christianity was spread during the late Roman and especially the Byzantine eras. So the religion of Islam was quite a radical break. Their subsistence mode was large-scale sedentary agriculture, not nomadic pastoralism, so this was another aspect of the invaders' foreign-ness.
And their language, Coptic, did not belong to the Semitic branch of the Saharo-Arabian family -- it belonged to the Egyptian branch, which was just as independent from Semitic as the Berber branch was. Just because all of them are Saharo-Arabian means little -- imagine telling Romans that the invading Gauls are just friendly "fellow Indo-European speakers", despite speaking a language from the Celtic rather than Italic branch of the family.
This shows that the highly distinctive nature of Moroccan Arabic cannot be explained by a local substrate (Berber) that is notably different from the new language (Semitic), albeit from the same big language family (Saharo-Arabian). If that were true, then Egyptian Arabic should also sound like a totally foreign language to other Arabic speakers, since its original population did not speak a Semitic language but an Egyptian language.
For example, consider the aspirated consonants that were spoken in the Demotic and Coptic stages of Egyptian (in the Nile Delta region, from 650 BC up through the Arab conquest). They could have persisted into Egyptian Arabic, making it sound strange to speakers of other Semitic languages or Arabic dialects, which never had aspirated consonants. But they did not, and it does not sound strange to outsiders.
Why did Egyptians not develop such intense asabiya as the Atlas Berbers did? Because although they were quite different from the Arab Muslim invaders, they did not lie along a meta-ethnic frontier for very long, and only in one dimension (from the east). They were rapidly incorporated into the Arab empires, and then the Berber Fatimid empire, and then the Eurasian Mamluk and Ottoman empires. The differences between Us and Them have to fester for decades, even a century or so, before they bring the Us side together so intensely that we both re-define our ethnic identity as a new people, different from who we used to be, and expand militarily at the expense of our neighbors.
Moroccans *did* have sufficient time for these differences to fester, since they were much farther away from the Arab origin in Arabia, and they had the nearby Atlas Mountains and foothills to hide in, while the Arabs were ruling from the lowland coastline. They also felt the secondary front of pressure from the north in Iberia. All the Egyptians had to protect themselves was the Sinai Desert, which is nothing compared to the Arabian Desert, and so was no problem for the Arabs to cruise right through. And they were sitting ducks, depending on the sedentary agricultural farmland around the Nile River. Nowhere to run to.
This explains why the Egyptians have been more able and eager to adapt to foreigners, and appeal to them internationally (within the Arabic-speaking world, at least), whereas the Moroccans have remained more fiercely independent, both militarily and culturally. Not that Moroccans feel the need to sneer down their noses at other off-shoots of Arabic -- they simply feel no need to make themselves intelligible to speakers of other dialects, and are content to only be understood by their own (comparatively) cohesive in-group.
* * *
On a final note, what about the other Maghrebi dialects -- at least, those other Pre-Hilalian dialects that emerged around the same time as the Moroccan dialects? Without going into it too much, they are between the case of Moroccan and Egyptian, but closer to Moroccan. They are not very intelligible to other Arabic speakers, albeit less severely.
And the reason is clear: they were intermediate between Morocco and Egypt regarding imperial history. They spawned no native empires of their own, but they were occupied by foreigners for less time than Egypt was. Not all of those Egyptian-based empires spanned all the way over to Algeria, let alone for their entire history. And sometimes the foreigners had a difficult time conquering them, and were content to let them administer themselves with only indirect input from the foreigners -- such as Algeria, which was conquered late in the Ottomans' history, and was largely under local control after conquest, compared to places closer to the imperial core, like the Balkans or the Levant.
As a result, other Maghrebi people have a fairly non-Arab identity, emphasizing their Berber roots, and not conforming to other dialects of Arabic in order to be broadly understood. They are just not quite as extreme as the Moroccan case. Tunisians and Algerians may desire somewhat to be understood by the rest of the Arabic-speaking world, but accept their not-so-intelligible status -- whereas Moroccans are blissfully unmoved by the appeal of being understood halfway across the world, and relish in their linguistic independence and isolation.
Proud and secure ethnicities feel like there is no other people who they need to be accepted by -- love us or leave us, we don't mind either way, because we have one another, the greatest group by far in the whole world. Insecure groups have a chip on their shoulder about not fitting in with out-groups, and may become eager to get rid of that feeling by endearing themselves to those others.
See this related post on the evolution of regional dialects within the growth of an empire, where the standard dialect reflects whoever was on the meta-ethnic frontier, whereas non-standard dialects reflect who was further removed from the front lines of the meta-ethnic conflict. E.g., Western dialects being standard in the American Empire, reflecting the frontier with the Indians and Mexicans and the Japanese, while East Coast dialects -- whether Northern or Southern -- are highly non-standard.
The same applies within the Maghreb -- since the Atlas Berbers were on the meta-ethnic frontier the longest and strongest, their variety of Maghrebi Arabic defines the standard for the entire region, whereas Tunisian, Algerian, and Libyan dialects are treated as peripheral members of the region.