Archival Ethnography in the Customary Courts: Legal and Linguistic Pluralism under French Protectorate

Katherine E. Hoffman*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


This article examines the multiple languages and legal codes used in the Berber customary courts (tribunaux coutumiers) established by the French Protectorate of Morocco and serving rural Berber communities for two decades, from around 1930 to 1956. It examines the ways in which both French and North African scribes and officers encoded court proceedings primarily in French, as per policy, but used transliterated Tashelḥit Berber terms for uniquely Berber legal institutions, concepts, and deed types, as well as items of material culture. This examination of the use and effects of the entextualization of otherwise oral Berber language and law into writing, focusing on five customary courts of the eastern Anti-Atlas Mountains, suggests that the widespread practice of using Berber in Protectorate documents both reflected oral interactions in the courts and furthered French Native Policy goals. The latter primarily encouraged the promulgation of Berber custom over Islamic law, and framed custom as distinct from Islamic law despite evidence of a more fluid legal pluralism long in place. Nonetheless, the result was a set of legal registers that were incomprehensible to French officials other than those familiar with Tashelḥit Berber language and Berber customary legal concepts.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)77-93
Number of pages17
Issue number2
StatePublished - 2020


  • Customary Law
  • Islamic law
  • Language
  • Morocco
  • Protectorate
  • Tashelḥit

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Social Sciences
  • Archaeology


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