Girish Mahajan (Editor)

Berber languages

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Ethnicity:  Berbers (Imaziɣen)
Proto-language:  Proto-Berber
Linguistic classification:  Afro-AsiaticBerber
ISO 639-2 / 5:  ber
Berber languages

Geographicdistribution:  North Africa, mainly Morocco, Algeria, Libya, northern Mali and northern Niger; smaller Berber-speaking populations in Tunisia, Burkina Faso, Egypt and Mauritania.Berber-speaking Moroccan and Algerian immigrants of about 2 million in: France, Netherlands, Belgium, Spain, Germany, Italy, Canada and USA.
Subdivisions:  ? Guanche? East NumidianWesternEasternNorthernTuareg

The Berber language or Amazigh languages (Berber name: ⵜⴰⵎⴰⵣⵉⵖⵜ, Tamaziɣt, Tamazight, pronounced [tæmæˈzɪɣt] or [θæmæˈzɪɣθ]) are a family of similar and closely related languages and dialects indigenous to North Africa.


Berber is spoken by large populations in Algeria and Morocco, and by smaller populations in Libya, Tunisia, northern Mali, western and northern Niger, northern Burkina Faso, Mauritania, and in the Siwa Oasis of Egypt. Large Berber-speaking migrant communities have been living in Western Europe since the 1950s. In 2001, Berber became a constitutional national language of Algeria, and in 2011 Berber became a constitutionally official language of Morocco, and in 2016 Berber became a constitutionally official language of Algeria, after years of persecution.

Berber constitutes a branch of the Afroasiatic language family, and has been attested since ancient times. The number of Berbers is much higher than the number of Berber speakers. The bulk of the populations of the Maghreb countries are considered to have Berber ancestors. In Algeria, for example, a majority of the population consists of Arabized Berbers.

There is a movement among speakers of the closely related varieties of Northern Berber to unite them under a standard language. The name Tamazight, originally the self-name in the Atlas and the Rif regions, is being increasingly used for this Standardized Berber, and even for Berber as a whole, including Tuareg-Berber.

Around 90 percent of the Berber-speaking population speak one of six major varieties of Berber, each with at least two million speakers. They are, in the order of demographic weight: Tashelhit (Tacelḥit), Kabyle (Taqbaylit), Atlas Tamazight (Tamaziɣt), Riffian (Tamaziɣt/Tarifit), Shawi (Tacawit) and Tuareg (Tamahaq/Tamaceq). Additionally, the extinct Guanche language spoken on the Canary Islands by the Guanches as well as the languages of the ancient C-Group Culture in present-day southern Egypt and northern Sudan are believed to have belonged to the Berber branch of the Afro-Asiatic family.

The Berber languages and dialects have had a written tradition, on and off, for over 2,200 years, although the tradition has been frequently disrupted by invasions. They were first written in the Tifinagh alphabet, still used by the Tuareg. The oldest dated inscription is from about 200 BCE. Later, between about 1000 CE and 1500 CE, they were written in the Arabic script, and since the 20th century in the Berber Latin alphabet, especially among the Kabyle and Riffian communities of Morocco and Algeria. The Berber Latin alphabet was also used by most European and Berber linguists during the 19th and 20th centuries.

A modernized form of the Tifinagh alphabet was made official in Morocco in 2003. Algerians mostly use the Neo-Tifinagh or Berber Arabic alphabet, with the Berber Latin alphabet being taught at schools. Mali and Niger recognize a Tuareg Berber Latin alphabet customized to the Tuareg phonological system. However, traditional Tifinagh is still used in those countries. Tifinagh, Berber-Arabic and Berber-Latin alphabets are being increasingly used in Morocco and Algeria.


The term Berber has been used in Europe since at least the 17th century, and is still used today. It was borrowed from either the Arabic designation for these populations, البربر, al-Barbar, see names of the Berber people; or from the Roman and Greek denominations of the Berber people "Barbaricae".

Etymologically, the Berber root Mazigh (singular noun Amazigh, feminine Tamazight) means "free man", "noble man", or "defender". The feminine Tamazight traditionally referred specifically to the Riffian and Central Atlas Tamazight languages. Many Berber linguists prefer to consider the term "Tamazight" as a pure Berber word to be used only in Berber text; while using the European word "Berber/ Berbero/ Berbère" in European texts to follow the traditions of European writings about the Berbers. European languages distinguish between the words "Berber" and "barbaric", while Arabic has the same word "al-barbari" for both meanings.

Some other Berber writers, especially in Morocco, prefer to refer to Berber with "Amazigh" when writing about it in French or English.

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 Riffians, the Sened in Tunisia, and the Tuareg. However, other terms were used by other groups; for instance, some parts of Algeria called their language "Taznatit" (Zenati) or 'Shelha', while the Kabyles called theirs "Taqbaylit", the inhabitants of Siwa "Siwi". In Tunisia, the local Amazigh language is usually referred to as "Shelha", a term which has been observed in Morocco as well.

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


Berber is a member of the Afroasiatic language family.

Since modern Berber languages are relatively homogeneous, the date of the Proto-Berber language from which the modern group is derived was probably comparatively recent, comparable to the age of the Germanic or Romance subfamilies. In contrast, the split of the group from the other Afro-Asiatic sub-phyla is much earlier, and is sometimes associated with the Mesolithic Capsian culture.


There are a number of different scripts with which Berber languages may be written.


After independence, all the Maghreb countries to varying degrees pursued a policy of Arabization, aimed partly at displacing French from its colonial position as the dominant language of education and literacy. Under this policy the use of the Amazigh / Berber languages was 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 the Berber language in some schools and by recognizing Berber as a "national language" in Algeria, though not as an official one. The 2011 constitution of Morocco makes "Amazigh" an official language alongside Arabic. Worthy to note, Morocco is a country with several competing linguistically different languages including French, literary and Moroccan Arabic and Amazigh. As the higher status of Literary Arabic grew, so did the corresponding relation between the male population and the language, and women and the lower status language Amazigh. Women became the main carriers of the Amazigh language as the lower-status language in the country. In Mali and Niger, there are a few schools that teach partially in Tuareg languages.

Although regional councils in Libya's Nafusa Mountains affiliated with the National Transitional Council reportedly use the Berber language of Nafusi and have called for it to be granted co-official status with Arabic in a prospective new constitution, Algeria and Morocco are the only countries where Tamazight is an official language.

As areas of Libya south and west of Tripoli such as the Nafusa Mountains were liberated from the control of forces loyal to Colonel Gaddafi in early summer 2011, Berber workshops and exhibitions sprang up to share and spread the Tamazight culture and language.

On June 17, 2011, King Mohammed VI announced in a speech of new constitutional reform that "Tamazight" became an official language of Morocco alongside Arabic and will be used in all the administrations in the future.

On April 30, 2012, Fatima Chahou, alias Tabaamrant, member of Morocco House of Representatives and famous former singer became the first one to ask questions and discuss the minister's answer in Tamazight inside the Parliament of Morocco.

On February 7, 2016, the Algerian parliament recognised Berber languages as having official status along with Arabic.


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 very 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, André 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 2006, Salem Chaker estimated that the Berberophone populations of Kabylie and the three Moroccan groups numbered more than one million each; and that in Algeria, 9,650,000, 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 claimed that 34 percent of Moroccans spoke Berber, including bi-, tri-, and quadrilinguals. In 2000, Karl Prasse cited "more than a third" in an interview conducted by Brahim Karada at According to the Ethnologue (by deduction from its Moroccan Arabic figures), the Berber-speaking population should be estimated at 35 percent or around 10.5 million speakers. However, the figures it gives for individual languages only add up to 7.5 million, divided into three languages:
  • Rif Tamazight in North Morocco: 1.5 million speakers (1991) (INALCO estimates the number at 3 million)
  • Tashelhit: 3 million (1998) (INALCO estimates the number at 8 million)
  • Atlas Tamazight: 3 million (1998) (INALCO estimates the number at 4–5 million)
  • A 2007 estimate was 7.5 million speakers of Amazigh languages in Morocco
  • A survey included in the official Moroccan census of 2004 and published by several Moroccan newspapers gave the following figures: 34 percent of people in rural regions spoke a Berber language and 21 percent in urban zones did, the national average would be 28.4 percent or 8.52 million. It is possible, however, that the survey asked for the language "used in daily life" which would result of course in figures clearly lower than those of native speakers, as the language is not recognized for official purposes and many Berbers who live in an Arabic-speaking environment cannot use it in daily life; also the use of Berber in public was frowned upon until the 1990s and might affect the result of the survey.

    Adding up the population (according to the official census of 2004) of the Berber-speaking regions as shown on a 1973 map of the CIA results in at least 10 million speakers, not counting the numerous Berber population which lives outside these regions in the bigger cities.

    Mohamed Chafik claims 80 percent of Moroccans are Berbers. It is not clear, however, whether he means "speakers of Berber languages" or "people of Berber descent".

    The division of Moroccan Berber languages in three groups, as used by The Ethnologue is common in linguistic publications, but is significantly complicated by local usage: thus Shilha is subdivided into Shilha of the Dra valley, Tasusit (the language of the Souss) and several other (mountain)-languages. Moreover, linguistic boundaries are blurred, such that certain languages cannot accurately be described as either Central Morocco Tamazight (spoken in the Central and eastern Atlas area) or Shilha.

  • 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, i.e. 29 percent.(Doutté & Gautier, Enquête sur la dispersion de la langue berbère en Algérie, faite par l'ordre de M. le Gouverneur Général, Alger 1913.) The 1911 census, however, found 1,084,702 speakers out of 4,740,526, i.e. 23 percent; Doutté & Gautier suggest that this was the result of a serious undercounting of Shawiya 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. According to historian Charles-Robert Ageron in 1886, Algeria had around 1,2 million of Berber speakers and 1,1 million of Arab speakers. The Algerian census of 1966 found 2,297,997 out of 12,096,347 Algerians, or 19 percent, 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 14 percent (corresponding to the total figures it gives for each Berber language added together, 4 million) and (by deduction from its Algerian Arabic figures) 29 percent (Hunter 1996). Most of these are accounted for by three languages (percentages based on historical population data from appropriate dates):
  • Kabyle: 2,540,000 = 9 percent (Ethnologue, 1995) – 6,000,000 = 20 percent (Ethnologue, 1998). Total for all countries (Ethnologue): 3,126,000. (Needless to say, the latter two figures, though cited by the same source, are mutually contradictory.) Mainly in Algiers, Bejaia, Tizi-Ouzou, Bouira, Setif and Boumerdes.
  • Shawiya: ~ 2 million as of 2005, equivalent to 8.5 percent of the population. Mainly in Batna, Khenchela, Sétif, Souk Ahras, Oum-El-Bouaghi, Tebessa.
  • Shenwa, in the Dahra region, more precisely Jebel Chenoua in Algeria, just west of Algiers in the wilayas of Tipasa, the Chlef and Ain Defla. It is estimated at 56,300 speakers. Two main languages: Beni Menacer, west and south of Mount Chenoua area, in Mount Chenoua area, 55,250 speakers.
  • A fourth group, despite a very small population, accounts for most of the land area where Berber is spoken:
  • Tuareg 25,000 in Algeria (Ethnologue, 1987), mainly in the Ahaggar mountains of the Sahara. Most Tuareg live in Mali and Niger (see below).
  • Other Berber languages spoken in Algeria include: the Tamazight of Blida, the languages of the Beni Snouss and Beni Bousaid villages in the wilaya of Tlemcen, the Matmata Berber spoken in the Ouarsenis region, the Mozabite language spoken in the wilaya of Mzab region, the language of the Ouargla oasis.

  • Tunisia: Basset (1952) estimated about 1 percent, 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 percent 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 percent (1991, 1996). However, the individual language figures it gives add up to 162,000, i.e. about 3 percent. This is mostly accounted for by the languages:
  • Nafusi in Jabal Nafusa and Zuwara Berber in Zuwara in Tripolitania region: 184,000.
  • Tahaggart Tuareg 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 3,884 (according to the 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica).
  • 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:
  • Niger: The Ethnologue counts 720,000 Tuareg (1998) speaking:
  • Burkina Faso: The Ethnologue counts 20,000–30,000 Tuareg (SIL 1991), speaking Kel 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 percent of Burkina Tamasheq speak a version of the Tawallamat language.
  • Nigeria: The Ethnologue notes the presence of "few" Tuareg, speaking Tawallamat Tamajaq.
  • France: The Ethnologue lists 860,000 speakers for Riffian and 537,000 speakers for Kabyle, 150,000 for Central Morocco Tamazight, and no figures for Shilha. For the rest of Europe, it has no figures.
  • Spain: Tamazight is spoken amongst Melilla's 80,000 inhabitants but there has been no census as to the percentage of its speakers. A minority of Ceuta's inhabitants speak Berber.
  • Israel: Around two thousand mostly elderly Moroccan-born Israelis of Berber Jewish descent use Judeo-Berber languages (as opposed to Moroccan Jews who trace descent from Spanish-speaking Sephardi Jews expelled from Spain, or Arabic-speaking Moroccan Jews).
  • Thus, the total number of speakers of Berber languages in the Maghreb proper appears to lie anywhere between 16 and 25 million, depending on which estimate is accepted; if we take Basset's estimate, it could be as high as 30 million. The vast majority are concentrated in Morocco and Algeria. The Tuareg of the Sahel add another million or so.


    Nouns in the Berber languages vary in gender (masculine versus feminine), in number (singular versus plural) and in state (free state versus 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):

    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...:

    Berber languages 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:

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

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

    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:

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

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

    Finally, some nouns do not change for free state:

    The following table gives the forms for the noun amghar "old man / leader":


    Berber pronouns show gender distinction in the second- and third-persons, but in verbal agreement markers, the distinction is lost in the second-person.


    There is so little data available on Guanche that any classification is necessarily uncertain; however, it is almost universally acknowledged as Afro-Asiatic on the basis of the surviving glosses, and widely suspected to be Berber. 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.

    A listing of the other Berber languages is complicated by their closeness; there is little distinction between language and dialect. The primary difficulty of subclassification, however, lies in the eastern Berber languages, where there is little agreement. Otherwise there is consensus on the outlines of the family:

  • Eastern Berber languages (scope debated)
  • Northern Berber
  • Zenati (incl. Riff, Shawiya)
  • Kabyle
  • Atlas (incl. Shilha, Tamazight)
  • Tuareg
  • Western Berber languages (Zenaga)
  • The various classifications differ primarily in what they consider to be Eastern Berber, and in how many varieties they recognize as distinct languages.

    Kossmann (1999)

    Maarten Kossmann (1999) describes Berber as two dialect continua,

  • Northern Berber and
  • Tuareg,
  • plus 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 and their non-Zenati neighbors; and in the east, he recognizes a division between Ghadamès and Awjila on the one hand and Sokna (Fuqaha, Libya), Siwa, and Djebel Nefusa on the other. The implied tree is:

  • Nafusi–Siwi (including Sokna)
  • Ghadamès–Awjila
  • Northern Berber
  • Zenati
  • Kabyle and Atlas
  • Tuareg
  • Zenaga
  • Ethnologue

    The Ethnologue, mostly following Aikhenvald and Militarev (1991), treats the eastern varieties differently:

  • Guanche
  • Eastern Berber
  • Siwa
  • Eastern Berber ("Awjila–Sokna")
  • Northern Berber (including Nafusi and Ghadames within Zenati)
  • Tuareg
  • Zenaga
  • Blench (2006)

    Blench (ms, 2006) has the following classification:

  • Guanche†
  • East Numidian † [= Old Libyan]
  • Berber
  • and within Berber,

  • Eastern Berber languages
  • Siwa
  • Awjila
  • Sokna
  • Ghadames
  • Northern Berber (including Nafusi within Zenati)
  • Tuareg
  • Zenaga
  • Influence on other languages

    The Berber languages have influenced Maghrebi Arabic languages, such as Moroccan, Algerian and Tunisian Arabic. Their influence is also seen in some languages in West Africa. F. W. H. Migeod pointed to strong resemblances between Berber and Hausa in such words and phrases as these: Berber: obanis; Hausa obansa (his father); Berber: a bat; Hausa ya bata (he was lost); Berber: eghare; Hausa ya kirra (he called). In addition he notes that the genitive in both languages is formed with n = "of".

    Extinct languages

    A number of extinct populations are believed to have spoken Afro-Asiatic languages of the Berber branch. According to Peter Behrens (1981) and Marianne Bechaus-Gerst (2000), linguistic evidence suggests that the peoples of the C-Group Culture in present-day southern Egypt and northern Sudan spoke Berber languages. The Nilo-Saharan Nobiin language today contains a number of key pastoralism related loanwords that are of Berber origin, including the terms for sheep and water/Nile. This in turn suggests that the C-Group population — which, along with the Kerma Culture, inhabited the Nile Valley immediately before the arrival of the first Nubian speakers — spoke Afro-Asiatic languages.

    Additionally, historiolinguistics indicate that the Guanche language, which was spoken on the Canary Islands by the ancient Guanches, likely belonged to the Berber branch of the Afro-Asiatic family.

    Examples of basic Berber words

    The Berber letter "c" is pronounced [ʃ] (like the English "sh").

    The Berber letter "x" is pronounced [χ] (like the Spanish "j" or the German "ch").

    The Berber letter "ɣ" is pronounced [ʁ] (like the French or German "r").


    Berber languages Wikipedia