Berber languages

ⵜⴰⵎⴰⵣⵉⵖⵜ, ⵜⵎⵣⵗⵜ, Tamaziɣt
Ethnicity Berbers (Imaziɣen)
North Africa, mainly Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, Libya, northern Mali and northern Niger; smaller Berber-speaking populations in Burkina Faso, Egypt, Mauritania and the Spanish city of Melilla.

Berber-speaking Moroccan and Algerian immigrants of about 2 million in: France, Netherlands, Belgium, Spain, Germany, Italy, Canada and the United States
Linguistic classification Afro-Asiatic
  • Berber
Proto-language Proto-Berber
ISO 639-2 / 5 ber
Glottolog berb1260
Map of Berber Languages 2018.png
Berber-speaking populations are dominant in the coloured areas of modern-day North Africa. The other areas of North Africa contain minority Berber-speaking populations.

The Berber languages, also known as the Amazigh languages[1] (Berber name: Tamaziɣt, Tamazight, Thamazight; Neo-Tifinagh: ⵜⴰⵎⴰⵣⵉⵖⵜ, Tuareg Tifinagh: ⵜⵎⵣⵗⵜ, pronounced [tæmæˈzɪɣt], [θæmæˈzɪɣθ]), are a branch of the Afroasiatic language family. They comprise a group of closely related languages spoken by the Berbers, who are indigenous to North Africa.[2] The languages were traditionally written with the ancient Libyco-Berber script, which now exists in the form of Tifinagh.[3]

Berber is spoken by large populations of Morocco, Algeria and Libya, by smaller populations of Tunisia, northern Mali, western and northern Niger, northern Burkina Faso and Mauritania and in the Siwa Oasis of Egypt. Large Berber-speaking migrant communities, today numbering about 4 million, have been living in Western Europe, spanning over three generations, since the 1950s. The number of Berber people is much higher than the number of Berber speakers.

Around 95% of the Berber-speaking population speak one of seven major varieties of Berber, each with at least 2 million speakers. They are, in order of number of speakers: Shilha (Taclḥit), Kabyle (Taqbaylit), Central Atlas Tamazight (Tamaziɣt), Riffian (Tarifit), Shawiya (Tacawit) and Tuareg (Tamaceq/Tamajeq/Tamaheq). The now extinct Guanche language spoken on the Canary Islands by the Guanches, as well as possibly the languages of the ancient C-Group culture in today's southern Egypt and northern Sudan, are believed to have belonged to the Berber branch of the Afroasiatic family.

The Berber languages and dialects have had a written tradition, on and off, for about 2,500 years, although the tradition has been frequently disrupted by cultural shifts and invasions. They were first written in the Libyco-Berber abjad, which is still used today by the Tuareg in the form of Tifinagh. The oldest dated inscription is from the 3rd century BCE. Later, between about 1000 CE and 1500 CE, they were written in the Arabic script, and since the 20th century they have been written 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.[4]

A modernised form of the Tifinagh alphabet, called Neo-Tifinagh, was adopted in Morocco in 2003 for writing Berber, but many Moroccan Berber publications still use the Berber Latin alphabet. Algerians mostly use the Berber Latin alphabet in Berber-language education at public schools, while Tifinagh is mostly used for artistic symbolism. Mali and Niger recognise a Tuareg Berber Latin alphabet customised to the Tuareg phonological system. However, traditional Tifinagh is still used in those countries.

There is a cultural and political movement among speakers of the closely related varieties of Northern Berber to promote and unify them under a written standard language called Tamaziɣt (or Tamazight). The name Tamaziɣt is the current native name of the Berber language in the Moroccan Middle Atlas and Rif regions and the Libyan Zuwarah region. In other Berber-speaking areas, this name was lost. There is historical evidence from medieval Berber manuscripts that all indigenous North Africans from Libya to Morocco have at some point called their language Tamaziɣt.[5][6][7] The name Tamaziɣt is currently being used increasingly by educated Berbers to refer to the written Berber language, and even to Berber as a whole, including Tuareg.

In 2001, Berber became a constitutional national language of Algeria, and in 2011 Berber became a constitutionally official language of Morocco. In 2016, Berber became a constitutionally official language of Algeria alongside Arabic.[8]


A video of Shilha language, one of the Berber languages, spoken by a man from Ait Melloul.
An interview in Central Atlas Tamazight language as spoken by a professor from France.

The term Berber has been used in Europe since at least the 17th century and is still used today. It was borrowed from Latin barbari. The Latin word is also found in the Arabic designation for these populations, البربر (al-Barbar); see Names of the Berber people.

Etymologically, the Berber root M-Z-Ɣ ⵎ-ⵣ-ⵖ (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 "barbarian", 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, Tamajaq, 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 Berber populations of Algeria called their language Taznatit (Zenati) or Shelha, while the Kabyles called theirs Taqbaylit, and the inhabitants of the Siwa Oasis called their language Siwi. In Tunisia, the local Amazigh language is usually referred to as Shelha, a term which has been observed in Morocco as well.[9]

One group, the Linguasphere Observatory, has attempted to introduce the neologism "Tamazic languages" to refer to the Berber languages.[10]


Berber is a branch of the Afroasiatic language family.[11] 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 of the Indo-European family. In contrast, the split of the group from the other Afroasiatic sub-phyla is much earlier, and is therefore sometimes associated with the local Mesolithic Capsian culture.[12] A number of extinct populations are believed to have spoken Afroasiatic languages of the Berber branch. According to Peter Behrens and Marianne Bechaus-Gerst, linguistic evidence suggests that the peoples of the C-Group culture in present-day southern Egypt and northern Sudan spoke Berber languages.[13][14] 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.[13]

Roger Blench has suggested that Proto-Berber speakers had spread from the Nile River valley to North Africa 4,000-5,000 years ago due to the spread of pastoralism, and experienced intense language leveling about 2,000 years ago.[15] Hence, although Berber had split off from Afroasiatic several thousand years ago, Proto-Berber itself can only be reconstructed to a period as late as 200 A.D. Blench noted that Berber is considerably different from other Afroasiatic branches, but modern-day Berber languages display low internal diversity. The presence of Punic borrowings in Proto-Berber points to the diversification of modern Berber language varieties subsequent to the fall of Carthage in 146 B.C.; only Zenaga lacks Punic loanwords.[15] Additionally, Latin loanwords in Proto-Berber point to the breakup of Proto-Berber between 1 and 200 A.D. During this time period, Roman innovations including the ox-plough, camel, and orchard management were adopted by Berber communities along the limes, or borders of the Roman Empire, as evidenced by the frequency of Latin loanwords from this period in these semantic domains.[15] This resulted in a new trading culture involving the use of a lingua franca which became Proto-Berber.[15]


Ancient Libyco-Berber inscriptions in Zagora, Morocco

Various orthographies have been used to transcribe the Berber languages. In antiquity, the Libyco-Berber script (Tifinagh) was utilised to write the Numidian language, also called Old Libyan. Early uses of the script have been found on rock art and in various sepulchres. Among these are the 1,500-year-old monumental tomb of the Tuareg matriarch Tin Hinan, where vestiges of a Tifinagh inscription have been found on one of its walls.[16]

Following the spread of Islam, some Berber scholars also utilised the Arabic script.[17] There are now three writing systems in use for Berber languages: Tifinagh, the Arabic script, and the Berber Latin alphabet.[18]


After independence, all the Maghreb countries to varying degrees pursued a policy of Arabisation, 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 was addressed in both countries by affording the language official status and introducing it in some schools.

The 2011 constitution of Morocco makes "Amazigh" an official language alongside Arabic. Morocco is a country with several competing linguistically different languages, including French, Modern Standard Arabic, Moroccan Arabic and Amazigh. As the higher status of Modern Standard Arabic grew, so did the relation between the male population and the language, as well as the female population and the lower status language Amazigh. Women became the main carriers of the Amazigh language as the lower-status language in the country.[19] On 17 June 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.[20] On 30 April 2012 Fatima Chahou, alias Tabaamrant, member of the Moroccan House of Representatives and former singer, became the first person to ask questions and discuss the minister's answer in Tamazight inside the Parliament of Morocco.[citation needed]

Algeria recognized Berber as a "national language" in 2002,[21] though not as an official one. However, on 7 February 2016 the Algerian parliament recognised Berber languages as having official status along with Arabic.[22][23]

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,[24][25] it does not have official status in Libya as in Morocco and Algeria. As areas of Libya south and west of Tripoli such as the Nafusa Mountains were taken from the control of Gaddafi government forces in early summer 2011, Berber workshops and exhibitions sprang up to share and spread the Tamazight culture and language.[26]

In Mali and Niger, there are a few schools that teach partially in Tuareg languages.


Although the sound system of the different Berber languages displays basic similarities, the reconstruction of the Proto-Berber sound inventory is made difficult by sound changes that are hard to retrace and a severely bewildering diversity of allophones.

One characteristic of the Berber languages, as well as of other Afroasiatic languages, is the presence of pharyngealized consonants. The existence of phonemic gemination, accompanied by fortis articulation, is typically Afroasiatic, too. However, some caution is advised in making such parallels, with the influence of Arabic on Berber languages. As such, the phonemes //, /ħ/ and /ʕ/, three typically Afroasiatic consonants, were borrowed from Arabic and can't be reconstructed for Proto-Berber.

Most consonant phonemes could also occur as geminates, and the place and manner of articulation of the geminate allophone partially diverged. For example, ‘’qq’’ was the geminated version of γ.

The following consonant phonemes are postulated for Proto-Berber by Maarten Kossmann (in Kossmann's transcription):[27]



Alveolar Palatal Velar Glottal
plain plain emph.
Nasals m n
Stops voiceless t c k ʔ
voiced b d ɟ ɡ
Fricatives voiceless f s š
voiced β z ž? ɣ
Approximants w l j w
Vibrants?[28] r

Most northern Berber languages have the four vowels a, i, u and ə, but the last one has partially sub-phonemic status, since it is predictable based on the syllable structure in certain languages. Vowel length and stress are generally not phonemic. Tuareg and Ghadames, however, have both the long vowels a, i, u, e, o and the short vowels ə and ă (also transcribed as ä/æ). For Proto-Berber, the short vowels /a/, /i/, /u/ and the long vowels /aa/, /ii/, /uu/, /ee/ are reconstructed, whereas /oo/ probably was not in the protolanguage.[29]

Concerning syllable structures, Tuareg permits almost only V, VC, CV, CVC, but many northern dialects may have more complex consonant clusters as well. The accent is so far under-researched, as the only detailed analysis is the one offered by Heath 2005 for Tuareg.[30][31]


The morphology of Berber is fusional, which is reflected especially in the frequent use of apophony. The base is the root, which consists of a sequence of mostly three, less frequently one, two or four consonants. It contains exclusively lexical information, whereas grammatical information is provided to a significant degree by their vocalisation.

Nominal morphology

The Berber noun distinguishes a masculine and a feminine grammatical gender and the grammatical numbers singular and plural. Similarly to the case system of other languages, the Berber noun has two so-called statuses: Status absolutus and Status annexus. These are sometimes also called 'accusative case' (or 'absolutive case') and 'nominative case' respectively.[32] Number, gender and status are marked in most nouns by prefixes, which have the following forms in Kabyle:

  Masculine Feminine
Singular Plural Singular Plural
Status absolutus a- i- ta- ti-
Status annexus - - - -

Status absolutus is used as a citation form and extracted topic, as well as a direct object, somewhat similarly to the absolutive case of other languages. Status annexus is used as the subject of a verbal clause and as the object of a preposition (for more information see the section on syntax). This type of system is sometimes also referred to as a marked nominative system.[32] It is present in most Berber languages, although some peripheral varieties (Eastern Berber, Western Berber, some Zenati languages) have recently lost the nominative and thereby the status distinction.[33] Attributive relations between noun phrases are expressed with the preposition ‘’n’’ (Kabyle:) afus n wə-rgaz “the hand of the man “. N is often used with personal pronouns as well: akal-n-sən “your land“.

The feminine can be additionally marked by a suffix ’t: Shilha a-ɣyul “donkey“ – ta-ɣyul-t “she-donkey“. Plural forms have additional possibilities of expression. Besides the suffix -ăn/-ən (Kabyle a-rgaz “man“ – i-rgaz-ən “men“), apophony plays a role as well. The last vowel of a word is changed to a, the first one sometimes to u (Kabyle a-ɣɣul “donkey“ (singular) – i-ɣɣal “donkey“ (Plural)).[34]

Pronominal morphology

The personal pronouns of Berber can be divided into two main groups: free forms and clitics, the latter being further classified according to their syntactic function. The following example forms are taken from Tahaggart, a dialect of Tuareg. Especially the plural of the absolutive pronouns can be very different in the other languages:[35]

  Absolutive Direct object Indirect object possessive/prepositional
1 năkk, năkkunan -i -i -i
2 m. kay, kayunan -kay -ak -(i)k
2 f. kəm, kəmunan -kăm -am -(i)m
3 m. ənta -t -as -(i)s
3 f. əntat -tăt -as -(i)s
Plural 1 m. năkkăniḍ -anăɣ -anăɣ -(i)năɣ
1 f. năkkănătiḍ -anăɣ -anăɣ -(i)năɣ
2 m. kawaniḍ -kawăn -awăn -(i)wăn
2 f. kămăntiḍ -kămăt -akmăt -(i)kmăt
3 m. əntəniḍ -tăn -asăn -(i)săn
3 f. əntənətiḍ -tănăt -asnăt -(i)snăt

Absolutive pronouns are used emphatically and occur especially clause-initially. The object pronouns appear as clitics in verbal complexes (see below). Besides objects (e.g. Kabyle: iuɣa-t "he brought him"), they can express the subjects of existential predicates (Kabyle: hat-t "he is here") and of some predicative adjectives like 'be good' and 'be bad' (Kabyle: d ir-it wəɣru-agi, "this bread is bad").[36] This, along with the use of nouns in the absolutive status in the same constructions (Tamazight: hak argaz "here is the man"),[36] has been described by some linguists as an element of Split-S alignment and is found in all Berber languages except for the isolated Eastern Berber.[37] The “prepositional“ pronouns are suffixed to prepositions as their objects: ɣur-i “with me“. They can occur with certain restrictions as suffixed possessive pronouns, for example Tuareg ma-s “his/her mother“, Kabyle aḫḫam-is “his/her house“. However, they are mostly connected – just like nouns – by means of the preposition n, cf. Kabyle akal-n-sən “their land“.

Verbal morphology

From the verbal root, which consists mostly of two or three consonants, different stems can be derived, on the one hand, for the purposes of conjugation, and on the other for derivation. Most Berber languages have four stems, which express different aspects:

In different dialects of Tuareg, there are more stems, whose number varies between the dialects. The following two stems are present in all forms of Tuareg:

  • resultative perfect (expresses the results of a past action)
  • negative intensive aorist (negated form of the intensive aorist)

The stems are formed mostly by apophony only, as shown by the following examples from Shawiya:[39]

Aorist Perfect (affirmative) Perfect (negative) Intensive aorist Meaning
əkrəz əkrəz əkriz kərrəz “work“
gəʿmər gəʿmər gəʿmər tt-gəʿmar “be big“
əffəɣ əffəɣ əffiɣ t-əffəɣ “go out“
agəm ugəm ugim tt-agəm “draw (water)“
əns nsi/-a nsi tt-nus “spend the night“
bni/-a bni/-a bni/-a bənni/-a “build“
ili lli/-a lli tt-ili “be“

In certain verbs, vowel alternation occurs within the same aspect: ufi-ɣ “I found“ beside y-ufa “he found“. Apart from that, the Berber languages have a system of verbal derivation inherited from the Proto-Afroasiatic, mostly operating with affixes (examples from Tuareg):[40]

Formation class Base word
Aorist Positive perfect Intensive aorist Meaning
Causative with s- əlməd “understand“ s-əlməd əss-əlmăd s-almad ”inform“
passive with t- ərməs “take“ ətt-ărmăs ətt-ərmăs t-ermas ”be taken“
middle with m- ədəd “bite“ ămm-ădăd əmm-ədăd t-am-ădad ”be bitten“
reciprocal with nm- əɣər “call“ ənm-əɣər ănm-ăɣra t-inm-əɣri ”call each other“

The conjugation of the verb takes place principally via personal prefixes, partly supplemented by suffixes. The personal affixes are identical for all verb stems - the aspects are distinguished exclusively by the verb stem. The conjugation of the aorist stem of əkkəs “remove“ in Tuareg is as follows:[41]

  Singular Plural
1. əkkəs-ăɣ n-əkkəs
2. m. t-əkkəs-ăd t-əkkəs-ăm
2. f. t-əkkəs-ăd t-əkkəs-măt
3. m. əkkəs əkkəs-ăn
3. f. t-əkkəs əkkəs-năt

In Kabyle and Tuareg, the perfect of verbs that express a quality is conjugated with suffixes:

“be big“[42]
“be black“[43]
Singular 1. məqqr-əɣ kăwal-ăɣ
2. məqqr-əḍ kăwal-ăd
3. m. məqqər kăwal
3. f. məqqr-ət
Plural 1. məqqr-it no form
2. m. kăwal-ăm
2. f. kăwal-măt
3. m. kăwal-ăn
3. f. kăwal-năt

By means of pre- or postverbal clitics, more temporal or modal differences can be expressed (examples from Shilha):[44]

  • Present with ar: ur-ar-yaf non-present-he finds “he doesn’t find“
  • Perfect with əlli: ríɣ-əlli “I wanted“

The imperative corresponds in singular to the verbal stem of the aorist and therefore functions as the citation form of the verb: əkkəs “remove“ (Tuareg). Besides, an imperative of the intensive stem can be formed. In the plural, the imperative contains an affix, which agrees with the gender of the addressee: əkkəs-ăt “remove“ (masculine), əkkəs-măt “remove“ (feminine). Active participles can be formed from several aspect stems and partly inflect in number and gender. This is mostly achieved as the conjugational form of the corresponding of the third person is provided with suffixes; in Tuareg, additional apophonic markers occur. The participles are used in relative clauses, whose subject is identical to the external antecedent: Kabyle ikšəm wərgaz “the man has entered“ (normal verb clause) > argaz ikšəm-ən “the man that has entered“ (relative clause).

Deverbal nouns can be formed by the superimposition of a series vowel on the consonant root, as shown by the following examples from Tuareg:

  • əddăh “pound“ – t-idhăw-t “pounding“
  • əggəš “enter“ – ugəš “entering“
  • sarad “wash“ − asirəd “washing“
  • ibhaw “be grey“ − abhaw “grey“
  • durhən “to desire“ − derhan “a desire“

Prefixes can also participate in the formation of deverbal nouns. The prefix am-, em- occurs very often with that function:

  • em-ăsăww “drinker; source“ – əsəw “to drink“
  • am-idi “friend“ – idaw “accompany“
  • em-ăls “clothing“ − əls “wear (clothing)“


Modern northern Berber languages use mostly numerals borrowed from Arabic, whereas the originally Berber forms are being replaced. In Shilha, they are as follows:[45]

“one“ yan
“two“ sin
“three“ kraḍ
“four“ kuẓ
“five“ semmus
“six“ sḍis
“seven“ sa
“eight“ tam
“nine“ tẓza
“ten“ mraw

They agree in gender with their antecedent; the feminine forms are derived with the suffix -t: ya-t “one (fem.)“, sn-at “two (fem.)“, smmus-t “five (fem.)“. There are deviations from that system in different Berber languages; the most important one is the system based on the numeral “five“ of e.g. Nafusi: ufəs “hand; five“, ufəs d sən “a hand and two“ = “seven“, okkos n ifəssən “four hands“ = “twenty“.[46]


Verbal clause

Clauses whose predicate is a finite verb form usually have the word order Verb – SubjectObject (VSO):[47]

(1) fki-ɣ lflus i-urgaz
  I gave money to-man
(status annexus)
  “I gave the money to the man.“
(2) ad-i-ddu urgaz ɣr-suq
  he will go the man to-market
  “The man will go to the market.“

All constituents besides the predicate can be placed in the beginning of the sentence as topics; in such cases, they are represented in the sentence through resumptive pronouns. In thematised position, nouns are in status absolutus and personal pronouns are in the absolutive form:

(3) argaz fki-ɣ-as lflus
  Man I gave him money
  “To the man, I gave the money.“

Before or after the conjugated verb, a chain of several clitics can occur. The following morphemes can occur in it:

  • Negation particle wăr, wər, ur (depending on the language)
  • different aspectual or modal particles such as ad, a (depending on the language)
  • Object pronouns in the order indirect object pronounsdirect object pronouns
  • Distance morphemes

The directional morphemes d and n represent a special feature of Berber. Whereas d expresses proximity or direction towards the speaker (ventive), n stands for distance or movement away from the speaker.

Examples of verbal complexes from Tuareg:[48]

(4) i-nn asnăt
  Verb Indirect object
  he told them (fem.)
  “he told them“
(5) ad as ănn-ăɣ
  Future marker Indirect object Verb
  (Futur) to him I say
  “I will tell him“
(6) osa hi dd
  Verb Indirect object Distance morpheme
  he came to me hither
  “he came to me“
(7) wăr hi tt i-ŋɣa
  Negation Indirect object Direct object Verb
  not to me him he killed
  “he didn’t kill him for me “

Nominal sentence

Noun and prepositional phrases can form the predicate of a clause in the Berber languages, e.g. (Tamazight) ism-ns Muha “his name is Muha“, (Kabyle) ɣur-i lbhaim “with me is livestock“ = “I have livestock“. In certain dialects, however, the use of the copula d is obligatory: Kabyle ntta d aqbaili. “He is a Kabyle“. In nominal sentences, the subject, too, is in status absolutus.


Above all in the area of basic lexicon, the Berber languages are very similar. However, especially the household-related vocabulary in sedentary tribes is different from the one found in nomadic ones: whereas Tahaggart has only two or three designations for species of palm tree, other languages may have as many as 200 similar words.[49] In contrast, Tahaggart has a rich vocabulary for the description of camels.[50] Above all the northern Berber languages have replaced a great part of the inherited vocabulary with Arabic loans. On the one hand, the words and expressions connected to Islam were borrowed, e.g. Shilha bismillah “in the name of Allah“ < Classical Arabic bi-smi-llāhi, Tuareg ta-mejjīda “mosque“ (Arabic masjid); on the other, Berber adopted cultural concepts such as Kabyle ssuq “market“ from Arabic as-sūq, tamdint “town“ < Arabisch madīna. Even expressions such as the Arabic greeting as-salāmu ʿalaikum “Peace be upon you!“ were adopted (Tuareg salāmu ɣlīkum).[51] The Berber languages often have original Berber designations besides the Arabic loans; for instance, both the inherited word ataram and the loan lɣərb (Arabic al-ġarb) coexist in Kabyle. In more recent times, European languages have also had some influence on Berber, so that words such as “internet“ were adopted in it (Kabyle intərnət[52]).


The exact population of Berber speakers is hard to ascertain, since most North African countries do not record language data in their censuses. 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). [53]
Percentage of Berber speakers in Morocco at the 2004 census [54]
Map of Berber-speaking areas in Morocco
  • 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 quadrilingual people.[citation needed] In 2000, Karl Prasse cited "more than a third" in an interview conducted by Brahim Karada at[citation needed] A 2007 estimate put the number of Amazigh speakers in Morocco at 7.5 million.[55] According to Ethnologue (by deduction from its Moroccan Arabic figures), the Berber-speaking population should be estimated at 35 percent or around 10.5 million speakers.[56] However, the figures it gives for individual languages only add up to 7.5 million, divided into three languages:

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.[60] It is possible, however, that the survey asked for the language "used in daily life",[61] which would result in figures lower than those of native speakers, as the language is not recognised for official purposes and many Berbers who live in a Darija-Arabic-speaking area cannot use Berber as a working language in some work environments like schools and administration; also, the use of Berber as a communication language in government institutions was usually frowned upon or even ridiculed as "peasant speech" until recent times which may have affected the results 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 from the CIA results in at least 10 million speakers, not counting the numerous Berber population which lives outside these regions in the bigger cities.[citation needed][citation needed]Moroccan linguist Mohamed Chafik claims[weasel words] that 80 percent of Moroccans are Berbers.[citation needed] It is not clear, however, whether he means "speakers of Berber languages" or "people of Berber descent".[citation needed]

The division of Moroccan Berber languages into three groups, as used by Ethnologue, is common in linguistic publications, but is significantly complicated by the presence of local differences: Shilha is subdivided into Shilha of the Draa River 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 region) was estimated at 1,305,730 out of 4,447,149, i.e. 29 percent.
    Kabyle and Shawiya languages in the central-eastern part of Algeria
    (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 the city of Blida) to adopt Arabic, while Arabic speakers surrounded by Berber (as in Sikh ou Meddour near the city of 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 Berber speakers and 1.1 million 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 Ethnologue,[62] 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):[63]
Shenwa language in the central-western part of Algeria
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 Hoggar 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 Boussaid villages in the province of Tlemcen, the Matmata Berber spoken in the Ouarsenis region, the Mozabite language spoken in the region of the province of Mzab and the language of the Ouargla oasis.

  • Tunisia: Basset (1952) estimated about 1 percent, as did Penchoen (1968). According to 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 no longer speaks Berber. This would make 0.3 percent of the population.[citation needed] Chenini is also one of the rare remaining berber-speaking villages in Tunisia.[65]
  • Libya: According to 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:
  • Egypt: The oasis of Siwa near the Libyan border speaks a Berber language; according to Ethnologue, there are 5,000 speakers there (1995). Its population in 1907 was 3,884 (according to the 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica).
  • Mauritania: According to Ethnologue, only 200 to 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: Ethnologue counts 440,000 Tuareg (1991) speaking:
Tamasheq: 250,000
Tamajaq: 190,000
  • Niger: Ethnologue counts 720,000 Tuareg (1998) speaking:
Tawallamat Tamajaq: 450,000
Tayart Tamajeq: 250,000
Tamahaq: 20,000
  • Burkina Faso: Ethnologue counts 20,000 to 30,000 Tuareg (SIL International 1991), speaking Kel Tamasheq. However 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.[citation needed]
  • Nigeria: Ethnologue notes the presence of a "few" Tuareg, speaking Tawallamat Tamajaq.
  • France: Ethnologue lists 860,000 speakers for Riffian and 537,000 speakers for Kabyle and 400,000 for Shilha[67] and 150,000 for Central Morocco Tamazight . 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.[68]
  • 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 adds another million or so to the total.


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:

The various classifications differ primarily in what they consider to be Eastern Berber, and in how many varieties they recognise as distinct languages.

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.

Kossmann (1999)

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

plus a few peripheral languages, spoken in isolated pockets largely surrounded by Arabic, that fall outside these continua, namely

Within Northern Berber, however, he recognises a break in the continuum between Zenati and their non-Zenati neighbours; and in the east, he recognises 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:


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

Blench (2006)

Blench (ms, 2006) has the following classification:[69]

and within Berber,

Influence on other languages

The Berber languages have influenced Maghrebi Arabic languages, such as Moroccan, Algerian, Libyan 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".[70]

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.[13][14] 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.[13]

Additionally, historical linguistics 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.[71]

See also