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Berber languages

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North Africa (mainly Morocco and Algeria; smaller communities in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Mauritania, Niger Western Sahara and Mali) and also in France, Belgium, Spain, United States and Canada
Linguistic classification: Afro-Asiatic
  • Berber
Eastern Berber group
Northern Berber group
Tamasheq group
ISO 639-2 / 5: ber
Location of Berber varieties in Northern Africa

Location of Berber varieties in Northern Africa.

         Tashelhiyt          Central Morocco Tamazight
         Tarifit          Chenoua
         Kabyle          Chaouia
         Tamasheq          Saharan Berber

The Berber languages (Berber: Tamazight in Tifinagh.svg, Tamazight) are a group of closely related languages mainly spoken in Morocco, Algeria, Niger, Mali and Libya. A relatively 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 speakers of the closely related northern Berber languages to unite them into a single standard Tamazight.

Among the Berber languages / Tamazight are Central Morocco Tamazight, Tarifit or Riffi (northern Morocco), Kabyle (Algeria) and Tashelhiyt (central Morocco). Tamazight has been a written language, on and off, for over 2000 years, although the 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 has often been 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 quasi-official in Algeria and official in Mali and Niger; however, both Tifinagh and Arabic are still widely used in Mali and Niger, while Tifinagh and Latin scripts are increasingly being 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 this policy the use of Amazigh / Berber languages has been suppressed or even banned. This state of affairs has been contested by Berbers in Morocco and Algeria — especially Kabylie — and is now being addressed in both countries by introducing Berber language in some schools and by recognizing Berber as a " national language" in Algeria, though not 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 has been used in Europe since at least the 17th century, and is still used today. It was borrowed from the Arabic designation for these populations, البربر, el-Barbar. The latter might have been derived from the Arabic or Persian words "barbakh"/"barbar" and "khanah", a house or guard on the wall. Despite the phonetic resemblance, the term has probably nothing to do with the Latin barbarus, which was used by the Romans to refer to non-Roman tribes of the Roman Empire (see Barbarian). Although the Berbers obviously fell under that definition, Romans usually called them under more specific names, such as " Numidians" or " Mauri". The Egyptians referred to them as Rebu (= Libu), or Meshwesh, the ancient Greeks as " Libyans", the Byzantines as " Mazikes".

As far as languages are concerned, the term Tamazight has recently gained ground over Berber, particularly to refer to Northern Berber languages, just like "Amazigh" is used to refer to a native Berber speaker. In Western languages Tamazight can also (somewhat misleadingly) be used specifically to refer to the Central Morocco Tamazight dialect, 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. In Tunisia, the local Berber languages are usually referred to as "Shelha". "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), along with such languages as Hausa, Hebrew, Arabic, and Maltese.


The exact population of Berber speakers is hard to ascertain, since most North African 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)
    • Central Morocco 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 Central Morocco Tamazight (spoken in the Central and eastern Atlas area) or Tachelhit.
Mohamed 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 14 million, more than 45%. Most of these are accounted for by two dialects:
    • Kabyle: 6 million (2007), or 20% of the population - or "up to" 5 million (1998), which would be more like 20% and they live especially in Algiers, Bejaia, Tizi -Ouzou, Setif and Boumerdes.
    • Chaouia: 2 million (2007), thus 18% of the population and they live in Batna, Khenchela, Sétif, Souk Ahras, Oum-El-Bouaghi, Tebessa
    • Tuareg almost 1 million they live in south of Algeria
  • 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" (But which Tunisians call "Shelha") 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. However the Ethnologue is very inaccurate here appearing to miss the largest group of Tamasheq in Burkina in the province of Oudalan. The Tamasheq speaking population of Burkina is nearer to 100,000 (2005), with around 70,000 Tamasheq speakers in the province of Oudalan, the rest mainly in Seno, Soum, Yagha, Yatenga and Kadiogo provinces. About 10% of Burkina Tamasheq speak a version of the Tawallamat dialect.
  • Nigeria: The Ethnologue notes the presence of "few" Tuareg, speaking Tawallamat Tamajaq.
  • France: The Ethnologue lists 537,000 speakers for Kabyle, 150,000 for Central Morocco Tamazight, and no figures for Tachelhit and Tarifit. For the rest of Europe, it has no figures.
  • Spain: 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.


Nouns in Berber languages / Tamazight vary in gender (masculine vs feminine), in number (singular vs plural) and in state (free state vs construct state). In the case of the masculine, nouns generally begin with one of the three vowels of Berber, a, u or i (in standardised orthography, /e/ represents a schwa /ə/ inserted for reasons of pronunciation):

afus "hand"
argaz "man"
udem "face"
ul "heart"
ixf "head"
iles "tongue"

While the masculine is unmarked, the feminine (also used to form diminutives and singulatives, like an ear of wheat) is marked with the circumfix t...t. Feminine plural takes a prefix t... :

afus → tafust
udem → tudemt
ixf → tixft
ifassn → tifetussin

Berber languages / Tamazight have two types of number: singular and plural, of which only the latter is marked. Plural has three forms according to the type of nouns. The first, "regular" type is known as the "external plural"; it consists in changing the initial vowel of the noun, and adding a suffix -n:

afus → ifasen "hands"
argaz → irgazen "men"
ixf → ixfawen "heads"
ul → ulawen "hearts"

The second form of the plural is known as the "broken plural". It involves only a change in the vowels of the word:

adrar → idurar "mountain"
agadir → igudar "wall"
abaγus → ibuγas "monkey"

The third type of plural is a mixed form: it combines a change of vowels with the suffix -n:

izi → izan "fly"
azur → izuran "root"
iziker → izakaren "rope"

Berber languages also have two types of states or 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 free state, the latter construct state. The construct state of the noun derives from the free state through one of the following rules: The first involves a vowel alternation, whereby the vowel a becomes u :

argaz → urgaz
amγar → umγar
adrar → udrar

The second involves the loss of the initial vowel, in the case of some feminine nouns:

tamγart → temγart "old women"
tamdint → temdint "town"
tarbat → terbat "girl"

The third involves the addition of a semi-vowel (w or y) word-initially:

asif → wasif "river"
adu → wadu "wind"
iles → yiles "tongue"
uccen → wuccen "wolf"

Finally, some nouns do not change for free state:

taddart → taddart "village"
tuccent → tuccent "female wolf"

The following table gives the forms for the noun amγar "old man":

masculine feminine
default agent default agent
singular amγar umγar tamγart tmγart
plural imγaren yimγaren timγarin tmγarin


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 Central Morocco 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
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