Tamazight (Berber) Language Profile
University of Ottawa
The Tamazight language and the Amazigh people
Tamazight or Amazigh language1, also
referred to as Berber in western literature, is the language spoken by
Amazigh people, the indigenous of Tamazgha (North Africa plus Mali,
Niger and the Canary Islands). Before the arrival of the Arabs in that
region, which started around the mid-seventh century, Tamazight was
spoken all over the area stretching from the Siwa Oasis in western
Egypt, extending westward to the Canary Islands through Libya, Tunisia,
Algeria and Morocco and from the northern coast of the Mediterranean
Sea extending southward to Mauritania, Mali and Niger.
the African branch of the Afro-Asian language family, also referred to
as Hamito-Semitic in the literature, along with ancient Egyptian and
other African languages such as the ones called Cuchitic and Chadic
languages, as opposed to the oriental or Semitic branch constituted of
semitic languages. Ancient Egyptian is somehow disputed between these
two branches (see Vergote, 1970). The question as to whether these
languages started in Africa or the Middle East along with the Semitic
languages is still controversial and goes beyond the field of
linguistics since it involves archaeology, as well as pre-history and
paleontology. Although the oriental hypothesis had long prevailed,
recent research has brought to new evidence favoring the African
alternative hypothesis (Hachid, 2000). It is too early even today to
take any hypothesis for granted as more research has to be done in this
field. Given the similarities, the possibility that the substrata of
these languages are African with an important eastern influence from
Semitic languages is the most plausible, although a western influence
of Semitic languages from the African branch, namely Egyptian, is not
to be excluded.2
is difficult to put
forward any number evaluating the Tamazight-speaking population because
no census taking this question into consideration has ever been made in
any country in North Africa since decolonization. Tamazight is still
spoken today in all the aforementioned countries, with the exception of
the Canary Islands, where a cultural movement claiming the revival of
Tamazight is growing. Besides Tamazgha, one has to mention the Amazigh
Diaspora in Europe and North America, where the Amazigh community is
Tamazigh is spoken are not continuous. Rather, they constitute more or
less large islands distant from one another, interrupted by large
arabized zones. As a result, Tamazight has survived mostly in somehow
naturally ‘protected' areas. The zones where it is spoken today are
either desertic or mountainous while most of the plain zones were
arabized. The lack of contact between these areas has led to an
important dialectalization process. However, the nature of the
dialectical variation is more phonological and lexical than syntactic
varieties spoken in central Morocco, which has always been referred to
as Tamazight, and those spoken by the Tuareg populations, referred to
as Tamachaq or Tamajaq3, most
other dialects were renamed, locally referred to by names the Arab
tribes gave to those areas and their inhabitants when they arrived
are three important Tamazight-speaking areas in Morocco. The variety
spoken in the Riffian mountainous area (including Ayt Werrayghel, Beni
Zennasen, El Hoceima, etc.) is referred to as Tarifit. This variety
also includes the form spoken in Melilla and Ceuta, two enclaves
located in the Riffian area, which belong to Spain. Heading south, we
come across another important Tamazight-speaking area in central
Morocco, stretching all along the mountainous Middle Atlas zone.
Further south and west is the domain of another variety, referred to as
Tachelhit, occupying the Anti-Atlas mountain area and the plains from
Sous, stretching from Agadir down to Ifni on the western coast, going
as far east as the Draa. The High Atlas mountains somehow represent an
intermediate area between the domains of central Moroccan Tamazight and
Tamazight-speaking zones in Algeria are less homogenous than in
Morocco. Starting from the north, Kabylia represents one of the most
important areas where the language is still in use. This is also the
area where linguistic and cultural awareness has highly developed among
the population. The Kabylia region contains four full administrative
departments, Tizi-Ouzou, Bgayet (or Bejaia), Bouira and Boumerdes,
although there are some parts in the two latter departments affected by
the arabization process. Kabylian Tamazight is also in use in another
department, Setif, which borders Bgayet, and more precisely in At
Wartilen, Bougaa and the surrounding areas. It is also spoken in the
Chenoua region, from Cherchel to Tipasa, located in another department
(Tipasa) and, as one heads south, in Haraoua, Metmata and Bel Halima,
situated west of Algiers.
area where the Tamazight language is spoken and which we come across as
we are heading southwest from Kabylia is another mountainous region,
bordering Tunisia, called Aures (Batna and Khenchla). The variety
spoken there is locally referred to as ‘Tachawit'.
Tamazight varieties are spoken in many other linguistic islands
scattered in different areas such as the south Oranian region, called
the Mountains of the Ksours, close to the Algero-Moroccan borders (Ain
Ssefra, Figuig, Bechar, etc.) and Algerian Sahara (Mzab, Tougourt,
Gourara and Touat and Tidikelt). Further south is the land of the
Tuareg, a desert area which stretches into Mali and Niger.
of the Tuareg: The
Tuareg are among the few Amazigh people to have kept using the name
Tamazight, which as we said earlier is the original name of the
language, although it is sometimes phonologically altered to Tamachaq,
Tamajaq or Tamahaq depending on the area. Accordingly, the people refer
to themselves as Imuhagh
/ Imuchagh / Imujagh, meaning ‘Amazigh people' or as Kel
Tmajaq / Tmachaq / Tmajaqmeaning the people belonging to
(speaking) the Tamazight language.
the areas where
the Tuareg people live are the Hoggar and Tasili n Ajjer (in Algeria),
and in the mountainous zones of Ayir (in Mali) and Ifoghas (in Niger).
The land of the Tuareg also includes an important part in southern
Libya, the zone stretching from Ghat to the vicinity of the Fezzan
region, as well as some smaller zones in Mauritania and Senegal.
are three more
distinct zones where Tamazight is spoken in Libya besides that within
the land of the Tuareg. Starting from the west, the zone called
Ghadames, close to the southern Tunisian borders, is almost the
continuation of the Ghat, yet with a different dialectical variety. The
other zones in Libya include Nalout and Yefren in the Nefousa mountain
area in the north, close to the southern border of Tunisia; Zouara on
the north litoral; Sokna, and El Fokaha and Awdjila in the east.
Tamazight is spoken in at least six villages located in the Ksours
region, such as in Ghoumarassen, a village located about 300 km from
Tunis, stretching south to Majora, Sened, Matmata, Zrawa, Taoujout,
Tamezret, Chenini, Douirat and Foum Tatawin, as well as in the island
Tunisian government has always adopted strategies that end up forcing
the inhabitants to leave these areas. As a result, Arabic-speaking
investors take over the most touristic places, while the Amazigh move
to already arabized areas.
Oasis of Siwa is the only zone where Tamazight is spoken in Egypt. The
contact between Egyptians and the Amazigh people goes as far back to
antiquity as before 950 B.C. By that date, after the Pharaoh
Psousenness II had died, an Amazigh4 called
Sheshonq I became the Pharaoh of Egypt and ruled from (945-924 B.C.).
Sheshonq I, the founder of the 22nd dynasty established his capital
city in Bubastis. His dynasty lasted 191 years before it came to an end
shortly after the death of Sheshonq V (767-730). By that time, the
Amazigh dynasty had many difficulties and Osorkon IV's rule, son of
Sheshonq V who succeeded, was restricted to his home city Tanis and the
dynasty's capital Bubastis. Three millenniums later, the Amazigh
presence in Egypt is still maintained by the small Oasis of Siwa where
the most eastern variety of the Tamazight language is still in use.
A politically hostile environment
all the above
mentioned countries, the Tamazight language is facing an extremely
politically hostile environment. Mali and Niger are the only countries
where the local varieties are recognized as ‘national' and the
governments have tentatively accepted to cooperate with UNESCO agencies
to implement their programs of illiteracy elimination programs and help
settle the nomadic population. However, the Nigerian and Malian
governments have always remained hostile to any further political
concession and recognition. Things are even worse in North African
countries (Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, Libya and Egypt) and Mauritania
where the language and human rights of the Amazigh are even denied. The
arabo-nationalist regimes have always made it clear that no other
identity, language and culture other than Arab would be given any
official recognition. A policy of Arabization has been whose main
objective is to erase Tamazight language, identity and culture. Despite
the superficial ‘softening' of this policy in Algeria and Morocco by
accepting Tamazight to be introduced in some universities, the Amazigh
population is convinced that the objectives and the opinion of the
arabo-islamist regimes have not changed at all.
have the same chances of survival in all the above-mentioned countries,
not because of the nature of the regimes, all of them being equally
hostile to the Tamazight language, culture and identity, but because of
their numbers. While the Tamazight-speaking population is relatively
high in Morocco, Algeria, Mali, Niger and Libya, it is much less so in
Tunisia and Egypt, where the regimes are just waiting for its
extinction. In all these areas, Tamazight has miraculously survived
orally in an extremely hostile political environment. Not until very
recently did the Amazigh activists start to provide it a written
status. The hope is, however, permitted everywhere since the identity
and cultural awareness has grown to its utmost point.
Tamazight morphophology, syntax and phonology
In the present section we are going to provide some data
regarding the lexicon, word order and phonetics of Tamazight.
III.1. Phonetics: Tamazight
has 41 basic sounds, 3 vowels and 38 consonants.
Vowels: except from the Tuareg varieties which have developed some
extra long and short vowels, Tamazight has only three (3) which are: i,
Schwa: noted as e but is
not considered as a vowel.
Besides these vowels, almost all varieties have introduced the neutral
vowel called schwa ə.
Consonants: the 36
consonants in use in tamazight are classified as follows:
||b d m t k g q ğ (for ʤ), č (for ʧ)
ḅ ḍ ṭ ḍ ṣ ẓ ṛ (pharangealized
or ‘emphatic' consonants)
s z ε x γ h (for a
laryngeal) , ḥ (pharyngeal
kw gw qw γw
||y, w (their
status being between that of a vowel and that of a consonant)
||are noted by doubling the
corresponding sound, dd
tt gg kk qq but
are not listed in the alphabet.
2. Lexicon: the
lexicon constitutes one of the important domains of dialectic
variations among Tamazight dialects. Besides the basic Amazigh lexicon,
there are a lot of loans from Arabic, French and Latin. In the Nigerian
and Malian Tuareg varieties one can find loans from Haussa and Bambara
respectively. Loan words are morphologically integrated in the
Tamazight word structure.
Germanic languages such as English, Tamazight is not a concatenative
language. That is, the morphemes conveying grammatical information such
as tense, gender, number and person, etc. do not constitute autonomous
affixes. Such elements rather appear as amalgamated phonemes, vowels
more often, within words.
are constituted with a consonantal root and thematic vowels. The
consonantal root conveys the semantics (meaning) while the thematic
vowels convey grammatical information. For instance, a root such as MγR
conveys the meaning of aging, growing old, being elder, etc. It's
combination with other elements will give the following derivations
among many others:
|amγar: elder (among the
|ad yimγur: he will
|meqqer 5: he
has(or is) a grown up,
elder (among the youth).
morphology makes a distinction between feminine and masculine.
masculine form corresponds to the neutral form of the word. This
neutral form is interpreted as masculine6 by default, namely as opposed to the
feminine form is indicated by a double t—t affix (the prefix t- and the
suffix -t ).
The feminine equivalent of the word amγar above
there are some words whose feminine form contains only the prefix t—
such as tarwa (progenitors), tasa (liver).
singular and plural forms are used in Tamazight for both masculine and
feminine. There are two ways of forming the plural, the regular and the
irregular. The former is obtained by alternating the initial vowel of
the word and by adding the suffix -n (-in for
feminine) to the singular form. The latter is obtained by altering two
vowels, the initial one and an other situated within the word. These
two ways are exemplified below:
III.7. Word order: Tamazight
is a basically Verb-Subject-Object language [see (a) below]. The SVO
order is possible but it is not the basic order [see (b)]. Because of
its rich inflexion, the subject may morphologically absent [see (c)].
Drank the boy water (for the boy drank water)
The boy drank water
Drank water (for the boy drank water)
has different series of pronouns. All the pronominal paradigms contain
ten (10) different pronouns as given in the following table8:
-aγ (anaγ )
Dialectic variation: besides
vocabulary differences which should be seen as originally reflecting
lexical richness, the most important criterion of dialectic variation
is phonological. The different varieties of Tamazight may be classified
into three different groups: plosive, fricative and affricate dialects.
The latter refers to the dialects that have kept the original plosive
sounds as plosives (mainly Tachelhit or Tuareg varieties) while they
have evolved into fricatives (Kabylian, central Moroccan Tamazight and
Tachawit among many others) or even affricates (mainly those referred
to as Zenete in the literature among of which Tumzabt and Mauritanian
varieties) in the two latter.11 The
group that is characterized as affricate has phonologically gone a lot
further. Some varieties such as Tarifit are difficult to classify as
they have already moved from the fricative status but not enough to
consider them as affricate. These differences do not reflect country
boundaries but are older and prior to the constitution of the present
different States. In Algeria for instance, all these three varieties
coexist. These differences reflect the classification of inhabitant
groups very often referred to as the Masmouda, Sanhadja and Zenete in
The alphabets in use
different alphabets have unequally been used in Tamazight: Tifinagh,
Latin and Arabic.
the Amazigh script system: Tamazight
language has never been promoted officially. Neither by the Amazigh
kings (Massinissa, Juba, etc.) at the time they were ruling Tamazgha,
nor intellectually by the numerous Amazigh philosophers such as St.
Augustine, Tertullien, or Apulée to mention but a few whose
contribution to the western civilization is erroneously considered as
Greek or Roman. Until very recently and with minor exceptions, Amazigh
authors had always written in foreign languages but not in their own.
Nevertheless, Tamazight did possess its own system of writing called
Tifinagh, which is still in use even today among the Tuaregs. However,
its use was restricted to tribute inscriptions on memorial stones or
epitaph stones or epitaphs. The name Tifinagh is itself close to the
way the feminine plural form of the word Phoenician is pronounced in
Tamazight. However, this is not taken as proof that the script system
itself derived from the Phoenician. Specialists refer to the old
version of Tifinagh as Libyc or Libyan to
distinguish them from the Tifinagh in use, for instance, among the
Tuareg. The ancient inscriptions found all across North Africa,
including the Canary Islands12, clearly
show that we are dealing with two distinct varieties of old Tifinagh.
It is agreed that the North African eastern variety of Tifinagh had
come under Phoenician influence, but not its western variety. This led
some specialists to conclude that the western variety must have existed
prior to the arrival of the Phoenicians in North Africa (Février,
1959). So far, the earliest attested inscription to have been dated
goes back to 138 B.C. and was found in Thugga (today's Dougga, in
Tunisia). The inscription is a tribute to the Amazigh king Missibsa.
The system did not take vowel sounds into consideration; therefore only
consonants were represented.
Writing Tamazight today: there
has been many attempts to adapt the Tifinagh characters to modern
usage, namely by introducing new symbols in order to take vowel sounds
into consideration. Although the use of Tifinagh may be considered
relatively widespread among Amazigh activists in North Africa, the bulk
of the existing literature is written in a Latin script system. The
latter has been widely adopted in scientific, literary, schools and
university circles, both in North Africa and in Europe. It is also the
system that was officially adopted in Mali and Niger and more recently
by the HCA13 (High
Agency for Amazighity), an official and state sponsored institution in
Algeria. Besides Tifinagh, attempts were made to write the Tamazight
language in Arabic characters. However, the use of the latter was
mostly restricted to Muslim religious circles.
1. ^ We
use the form Tamazight, feminine singular, to refer to the language as
a noun and the form Amazigh, singular rather neutral than masculine, as
2. ^ For a
very recent view of this question, see M. Hachid (2000).
3. ^ The
same name as Tamazight with the difference that the sounds /z/ and /gh/
have become /ch/ or /j/, and the sounds /gh/ + /t/ has become /q/.
4. ^ Referred
to as the Lebou in the ancient Egyptian literature. The word Lebou is
only a variant of Libyan, another name under which the eastern Amazigh
(today's Libyans) were designated.
5. ^ The
velar sound qq here of
the gemination of the velar γ.
6. ^ A
default masculine as the morphology of the word does not, however,
contain any morpheme marker referring to the masculine. See Achab
(2001) for details.
7. ^ Some
kind of wooden support used for weaving.
8. ^ The
abbreviations read as follow: s for
singular, m for
for feminine, p for
9. ^ Independent
pronouns act as subjects.
10. ^ As
complement of verbs, nouns or prepositions.
11. ^ These
terms are technically used here. Plosives are sounds such as /t/ in the
way it is pronounced in the English word 'teacher,' for instance. If it
is spirantized, the sound evolves to a fricative, i.e. pronounced /th/
as in the English word 'theater'. The corresponding affricate sound is
the way the 'ch' is pronounced in the English word 'church.'
12. ^ More
than 1120 were discovered, but not all deciphered. See Chabot (1940)
and Février (1956).
13. ^ Haut
Commissariat à l'Amazighité.
K., 2001, ‘Changement morphosyntaxique en berbère', Cahiers
Linguistiques d'Ottawa, 29, Mai, 2001
Chabot, J.B., 1940. - Recueil
des inscriptions libyques, Imprimerie Nationale, Paris.
Février J. G. , 1956. - Que savons-nous du libyque ? Revue
Africaine, 100, pp. 263-273
Février J. G. (1959), - Histoire
de l'écriture, Paris.
Hachid, M., 2000, Les
Premiers Berbères, Aix-en-Provence: Ina-yas/Edisud.
Vergote, J., 1970, ‘Egyptian' in Hodge, C. T., 1970 (ed.), Afroasiatic:
a survey, The Hague/Paris: Mouton.
Written for the Department of
International languages, Ottawa-Carleton School Borad, Ontario Ministry
is copyrighted ©2001. The article may not be reprinted, partly or in
its entirety, without written permission from the author.