Berber languages

2007 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: Languages

North Africa (mainly Morocco and Algeria; small communities in populations in Libya and Egypt)

The Berber languages (or Tamazight) are a group of closely related languages mainly spoken in Morocco and Algeria. A very sparse population extends into the whole Sahara and the northern part of the Sahel. They belong to the Afro-Asiatic languages phylum. There is a strong movement among Berbers to unify the closely related northern Berber languages into a single standard, Tamazight.

Among the Berber languages are Tarifit or Riffi (northern Morocco), Kabyle (Algeria) and Tachelhit (central Morocco). Tamazight has been a written language, on and off, for almost 3000 years; however, this tradition has been frequently disrupted by various invasions. It was first written in the Tifinagh alphabet, still used by the Tuareg; the oldest dated inscription is from about 200 BC. Later between about 1000 AD and 1500 AD, it was written in the Arabic alphabet (particularly by the Shilha of Morocco); since the 20th century, it is often written in the Latin alphabet, especially among the Kabyle. A variant of the Tifinagh alphabet was recently made official in Morocco, while the Latin alphabet is official in Algeria, Mali, and Niger; however, both Tifinagh and Arabic are still widely used in Mali and Niger, while Latin and Arabic are still widely used in Morocco.

After independence, all the Maghreb countries to varying degrees pursued a policy of "Arabization", aimed primarily at displacing French from its colonial position as the dominant language of education and literacy, but under which teaching, and use in certain highly public spheres, of both Berber languages and Maghrebi Arabic dialect have been suppressed as well. This state of affairs was protested by Berbers in Morocco and Algeria - especially Kabylie - and is now being addressed in both countries by introducing Berber language education and by recognizing Berber as a "national language", though not necessarily an official one. No such measures have been taken in the other Maghreb countries, whose Berber populations are much smaller. In Mali and Niger, there are a few schools that teach partially in Tamasheq.


The term "Berber" is thought to come from the ancient Greek barbaros, (see " barbarian" ). The word "Barbarian" comes into English from Medieval Latin barbarinus, from Latin barbaria, from Latin barbarus, from the ancient Greek word βάρβαρος (barbaros) which meant a non-Greek, someone whose (first) language was not Greek.

Nonetheless, it is used in Western languages by many Berber writers, such as the Kabyle Professor Salem Chaker of INALCO in Paris, Werner Vycichl, and Maarten Kossmann and Harry Stroomer of Leiden University.

The term Tamazight is often substituted, particularly to refer to Northern Berber languages; in Western languages, this term can also (somewhat misleadingly) be used specifically to refer to the language of the Middle Atlas mountains in Morocco, closely related to Tashelhiyt. Etymologically, it means "language of the free" or "of the noblemen." Traditionally, the term "tamazight" (in various forms: "thamazighth", "tamasheq", "tamajeq", "tamahaq") was used by many Berber groups to refer to the language they spoke, including the Middle Atlas, the Rif, Sened in Tunisia, and the Tuareg. However, other terms were used by other groups; for instance, many parts of western Algeria called their language "taznatit" or Zenati, while the Kabyles called theirs "thaqvaylith", the inhabitants of Siwa "tasiwit", and the Zenaga "Tuddhungiya" . Around the turn of the century, it was reported that the Zenata of the Rif called their language "Zenatia" specifically to distinguish it from the "Tamazight" spoken by the rest of the Rif.

One group, the Linguasphere Observatory, has attempted to introduce the neologism "Tamazic languages" to refer to the Berber languages.


Tamazight is a member of the Afro-Asiatic language family (formerly called Hamito-Semitic). Traditional genealogists of tribes claiming Arab origin often claimed that Berbers were Arabs that immigrated from Yemen. Some of them considered Tamazight to derive from Arabic. This view, however, is rejected by linguists, who regard Semitic and Berber as two separate branches of Afro-Asiatic.


The exact population of Berber speakers is hard to ascertain, since most Maghreb countries do not record language data in their censuses. The Ethnologue provides a useful academic starting point; however, its bibliographic references are inadequate, and it rates its own accuracy at only B-C for the area. Early colonial censuses may provide better documented figures for some countries; however, these are also very much out of date.

"Few census figures are available; all countries (Algeria and Morocco included) do not count Berber languages. The 1972 Niger census reported Tuareg, with other languages, at 127,000 speakers. Population shifts in location and number, effects of urbanization and education in other languages, etc., make estimates difficult. In 1952 A. Basset (LLB.4) estimated the number of Berberophones at 5,500,000. Between 1968 and 1978 estimates ranged from eight to thirteen million (as reported by Galand, LELB 56, pp. 107, 123-25); Voegelin and Voegelin (1977, p. 297) call eight million a conservative estimate. In 1980, S. Chaker estimated that the Berberophone populations of Kabylie and the three Moroccan groups numbered more than one million each; and that in Algeria, 3,650,000, or one out of five Algerians, speak a Berber language (Chaker 1984, pp. 8-9)."
  • Morocco: In 1952, André Basset ("La langue berbère", Handbook of African Languages, Part I, Oxford) estimated that a "small majority" of Morocco's population spoke Berber. The 1960 census estimated that 34% of Moroccans spoke Berber, including bi-, tri-, and quadrilinguals. In 2000, Karl Prasse cited "more than half" in an interview conducted by Brahim Karada at According to the Ethnologue (by deduction from its Moroccan Arabic figures), the Berber-speaking population is estimated at 35% (1991 and 1995). However, the figures it gives for individual languages only add up to 7.5 million, or about 28%. Most of these are accounted for by three dialects:
    • Tarifit: 1.5 million (1991)
    • Tachelhit: 3 million (1998)
    • Atlas Tamazight: 3 million (1998)
This nomenclature is common in linguistic publications, but is significantly complicated by local usage: thus Tachelhit is sub-divided into Tachelhit of the Dra valley, Tasusit (the language of the Souss) and several other (mountain)-dialects. Moreover, linguistic boundaries are blurred, such that certain dialects cannot accurately be described as either Atlas Tamazight (spoken in the Central and eastern Atlas area) or Tachelhit.
Mohammad Chafik claims 80% of Moroccans are Berbers. It is not clear, however, whether he means "speakers of Berber languages" or "people of Berber descent".
  • Algeria: In 1906, the total population speaking Berber languages in Algeria (excluding the thinly populated Sahara) was estimated at 1,305,730 out of 4,447,149, ie 29%. (Doutté & Gautier, Enquête sur la dispersion de la langue berbère en Algérie, faite par l'ordre de M. le Governor Général, Alger 1913.) The 1911 census, however, found 1,084,702 speakers out of 4,740,526, ie 23%; Doutté & Gautier suggest that this was the result of a serious undercounting of Chaouia in areas of widespread bilingualism. A trend was noted for Berber groups surrounded by Arabic (as in Blida) to adopt Arabic, while Arabic speakers surrounded by Berber (as in Sikh ou Meddour near Tizi-Ouzou) tended to adopt Berber. In 1952, André Basset estimated that about a third of Algeria's population spoke Berber. The Algerian census of 1966 found 2,297,997 out of 12,096,347 Algerians, or 19%, to speak "Berber." In 1980, Salem Chaker estimated that "in Algeria, 3,650,000, or one out of five Algerians, speak a Berber language" (Chaker 1984, pp. 8-9). According to the Ethnologue, more recent estimates include (by deduction from its Algerian Arabic figures) 17% (1991) and 29% (Hunter 1996). The actual figures it gives for Berber languages, however, only add up to about 4 million, under 15%. Most of these are accounted for by two dialects:
    • Kabyle: 2.5 million (1995), or 8% of the population - or "up to" 6 million (1998), which would be more like 20%.
    • Chaouia: 1.4 million (1993), thus 5% of the population.
  • Tunisia: Basset (1952) estimated about 1%, as did Penchoen (1968). According to the Ethnologue, there are only 26,000 speakers (1998) of a Berber language it calls "Djerbi" in Tunisia, all in the south around Djerba and Matmata. The more northerly enclave of Sened apparently no longer speaks Berber. This would make 0.3% of the population.
  • Libya: According to the Ethnologue (by deduction from its combined Libyan Arabic and Egyptian Arabic figures) the non-Arabic-speaking population, most of which would be Berber, is estimated at 4% (1991, 1996). However, the individual language figures it gives add up to 162,000, ie about 3%. This is mostly accounted for by languages:
    • Nafusi in Zuwarah and Jabal Nafusa: 141,000 (1998).
    • Tahaggart Tamahaq of Ghat: 17,000 (Johnstone 1993).
  • Egypt: The oasis of Siwa near the Libyan border speaks a Berber language; according to the Ethnologue, there are 5,000 speakers there (1995). Its population in 1907 was 3884 (according to the 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica); the claimed lack of increase seems surprising.
  • Mauritania: According to the Ethnologue, only 200-300 speakers of Zenaga remain (1998). It also mentions Tamasheq, but does not provide a population figure for it. Most non-Arabic speakers in Mauritania speak Niger-Congo languages.
  • Mali: The Ethnologue counts 440,000 Tuareg (1991) speaking:
Tamasheq: 250,000
Tamajaq: 190,000
  • Niger: The Ethnologue counts 720,000 Tuareg (1998) speaking:
Tawallamat Tamajaq: 450,000
Tayart Tamajeq: 250,000
Tahaggart Tamahaq: 20,000
  • Burkina Faso: The Ethnologue counts 20,000 - 30,000 Tuareg ( SIL 1991), speaking Kidal Tamasheq.
  • Nigeria: The Ethnologue notes the presence of "few" Tuareg, speaking Tawallamat Tamajaq.
  • France: The Ethnologue lists 537,000 speakers for Kabyle, 150,000 for Middle Atlas Tamazight, and no figures for Tachelhit and Tarifit. For the rest of Europe, it has no figures.
  • Ceuta and Melilla: A majority of Melilla's 80,000 inhabitants, and a minority of Ceuta's inhabitants, speak Berber .
  • Israel: A few thousand elderly Moroccan-born Israelis use Judeo-Berber dialects.

Thus, judging by the not necessarily reliable Ethnologue, the total number of speakers of Berber languages in the Maghreb proper appears to lie anywhere between 14 and 20 million, depending on which estimate is accepted; if we take Basset's estimate, it could be as high as 25 million. The vast majority are concentrated in Morocco and Algeria. The Tuareg of the Sahel add another million or so.


The Berber languages have two cases of the noun, organized ergatively: one is unmarked, while the other serves for the subject of a transitive verb and the object of a preposition, among other contexts. The former is often called état libre, the latter état d'annexion or état construit. Berber nouns also have two genders, masculine (unmarked) and feminine (marked with reflexes of the prefix t-). These are illustrated (in Latin transcription) for the noun amghar "old man, sheikh":

masculine feminine
default agent default agent
singular amghar umghar tamghart temghart
plural imgharen imgharen timgharin temgharin


Modern Berber Languages
Modern Berber Languages

Subclassification of the Berber languages is made difficult by their mutual closeness; Maarten Kossmann (1999) describes it as two dialect continua, Northern Berber and Tuareg, and a few peripheral languages, spoken in isolated pockets largely surrounded by Arabic, that fall outside these continua, namely Zenaga and the Libyan and Egyptian varieties. Within Northern Berber, however, he recognizes a break in the continuum between Zenati languages and their non-Zenati neighbors; and in the east, he recognizes a division between Ghadames and Awjila on the one hand and El-Foqaha, Siwa, and Djebel Nefusa on the other. The implied tree is:

  • Nefusa-Siwa languages
  • Ghadames-Awjila languages
  • Northern Berber languages
    • Zenati languages (including Tarifit)
    • Kabyle language
    • Moroccan Atlas languages (including Tashelhiyt and Tamazight)
  • Tuareg languages
  • Zenaga language

There is so little data available on Guanche that any classification is necessarily uncertain; however, it is almost universally acknowledged as Berber on the basis of the surviving glosses. Much the same can be said of the language, sometimes called " Numidian", used in the Libyan or Libyco-Berber inscriptions around the turn of the Common Era, whose alphabet is the ancestor of Tifinagh.

The Ethnologue, mostly following Aikhenvald and Militarev (1991), subdivides it somewhat differently:

  • Guanche
  • Eastern Berber languages
    • Siwa
    • Awjila-Sokna languages
  • Northern Berber languages
    • Zenati languages
    • Kabyle language
    • Chenoua language
    • Moroccan Atlas languages
  • Tamasheq languages
    • Northern Tamasheq languages
    • Southern Tamasheq languages
  • Zenaga language

Retrieved from ""