An insatiable appetite for ancient and modern tongues

Alternative Name: Tamazight ('language' in Berber), Amazigh.

Overview and Classification. Berber is a language (or a group of closely related languages) indigenous of North Africa which originally was present in the entire Maghreb and Sahel regions of the continent. Due to the spread of Islam in the area and the concomitant preponderance of Arabic, Berber has become now a minority language. On its own, Berber constitutes one of the six branches of the Afro-Asiatic phylum.

Distribution. Berber is spoken mainly in four countries: Morocco, Algeria, Niger, and Mali. Some Berbers live in Mauritania, Tunisia (Djerba), Libya, Egypt (Siwa Oasis) and northern Burkina Faso. There is also a large Berber expatriate community in France.

Speakers. Berber speakers number more than 18 million in the following countries:








Burkina Faso












Status. In Algeria and Morocco, until recently, a negative attitude towards Berber has prevailed. Before 1990, the language was excluded there from education and official use, though now it is taught in some middle schools and universities. In 2011, Berber became an official language in Morocco, alongside Arabic. It is a national (but not official) language in Niger, Mali, and Algeria (since 2002).

Varieties. There are six major Berber dialects, which are considered independent languages by some scholars: Kabyle and Chaouia (Shawia) in northern Algeria; Rif (Tarifit), Central Tamazight and Tashelhit (Shilha) in Morocco, and Tamasheq (Tuareg) in the Sahel (southern Algeria, western Niger, eastern Mali and northern Burkina Faso). In Algeria, Kabyle predominates in the Kabylia region and Chaouia (Shawia) in the Aures region. In Morocco, the three main dialects, Rif, Central Tamazight and Tashelhit, are spoken in the north, center and south of the country, respectively.

Oldest Documents. The earliest Berber documents are two bilingual inscriptions, written in Tifinagh (a consonantal script), found at Dugga, in Tunisia, that date back to 200 BCE. Other Berber pre-Islamic inscriptions have been found in Algeria and Morocco as well.


  1. Phonology

  2. Vowels

  3. -Most Berber languages have just three vowels: a, i, u. A fourth vowel is the neutral schwa (ə) whose phonological status is debated, some consider it phonemic but others don't. Some dialects, like Tuareg and those of Libya and Tunisia, have the additional vowels æ, e, o. Tuareg distinguishes vowel length which is, probably, an innovation.

  1. Consonants. Berber has borrowed a number of consonantal sounds from foreign languages, starting with Arabic, but also from European languages like French and Spanish.

  1. -Pharyngeal and uvular sounds are borrowed from Arabic.

  1. -Dental or interdental emphatic consonant phonemes (glottalized or pharyngealized) are present in most Berber dialects. Some come from Proto-Berber and some are borrowed from Arabic.

  1. -There is an opposition between lax and tense consonants which, sometimes, is manifested in a difference in length (lax consonants are always short, and tense are long). It can also be expressed by a contrast between lax voiced-tense voiceless, lax fricative-tense affricate, lax glide-tense plosive, etc.

  1. -In northern dialects, consonants tend to spirantization, a process by which voiced stops become fricatives, sometimes with a change in the place of articulation.

  1. -In some dialects the glides [w] and [j] are confused with the vowels u and i, respectively.

We show below the 33 consonants of Tashelhit:

dental phar. = dental pharyngealized; pal. = palatal; phar. = pharyngeal; glot. = glottal

Script. The Tifinagh alphabet, a descendant of the ancient Berber script, is used for private writings in several Berber dialects. For public purposes, the Arabic script is used instead. Kabyle is usually written in a modified Latin alphabet of 34 letters. In Mali and Niger other versions of the Latin alphabet are current.

  Nowadays, Tifinagh is read from left to right and has 33 letters. Here, we show the Tifinagh used in Morocco with its transliteration underneath and corresponding symbols of the International Phonetic Alphabet in the last line:

  1. Morphology

  1. Nominal

  2. case: nouns are free (unmarked) or annexed (marked). The annexed state is taken by nouns when they follow a preposition or a numeral. It may also express a genitival relation, being applied to the possessor while the possessed remains in the free state. Some dialects have lost this opposition.

  1. gender: masculine (unmarked) and feminine (marked, usually with the suffix t).

  1. number: singular, plural. The plural is formed by adding a suffix and/or by changing the vowel pattern of the word (broken plural).

  1. articles: there are no articles in Berber.

  1. pronouns: personal pronouns can be independent or suffixed to nouns and prepositions. Independent pronouns are used only for emphasis. Tashelhit has masculine and feminine forms for every person except the 1st singular (it is similar in this respect to other Afro-Asiatic languages though the latter don’t usually mark gender in the 1st plural).

  1. Verbal. The verb is composed by a tense marker prefix followed by a bi- or triconsonantal root, in which the quality of the vowel marks the aspect; finally a personal pronoun suffix is added to indicate, person, number and gender. There are special negative forms.

  1. person and number: 1s, 2s, 3sm, 3sf; 1p, 2pm, 2pf, 3pm, 3pf. The Berber verb distinguishes, three persons (1st, 2nd, 3rd), two numbers (singular, plural), and two genders (masculine, feminine) which are specified by a personal affix.

  1. aspect: aorist, perfective, imperfective. The aorist and perfective aspects are marked by a vowel change in the root; the imperfective by adding the prefix te between the tense marker and the root. The aorist aspect expresses a simple or neutral action, the perfective a completed action, the imperfective an ongoing or unfinished action.

  1. tense: present, past, future. Berber tense is not completely separable from aspect. In fact, each is the result of the combination between a tense and an aspect marker. Berber has three tense markers which are ad (future), da (future non-finite) and la (present).

  2. The past tense is expressed with the perfective stem to which no tense marker is added (ø marking). The present is formed by attaching the tense marker prefix la to the imperfective stem. The future is formed by attaching the tense marker prefixes da or ad to the aorist stem. Complex tenses are formed with the aid of the verb 'to be'.

  1. moodimperative, indicative.

  1. voice: active, middle.

  1. derived conjugations: causative, reciprocal and passive (rare).

  1. Syntax

Verb-Subject-Object is the most common order in Berber but many sentences have no explicit subject. Verbs are the centre of the predicate. When there is no verb, nouns, adjectives and pronouns can function as predicates. In Berber languages the possessor follows the possessed, and modifiers and relative clauses follow the head noun. Prepositions are used.

Lexicon. Berber loanwords come mainly from Arabic and Hausa.

Basic Vocabulary. In many Berber dialects the words for the numbers, from three onwards, are taken from Arabic. The indigenous system is best preserved in Tamasheq (the first word is the masculine form, the second is the feminine one):

one: iyan / iyāt

two: esshin/ esnatat

three: kerad/ kradat

four: ekkoz/ ekkozat

five: semmos/ semmosat

six: sæḍis/ sæḍisat

seven: essa / essayat

eight: ettam/ ettamat

nine: teẓa/ teẓaya

ten: meraw/ merawat

  1. © 2013 Alejandro Gutman and Beatriz Avanzati                                                                               

Further Reading

  1. -La Langue Berbère. A. Basset. International African Institute (1969).

  2. -A Reference Grammar of Tamazight (Middle Atlas Berber). E. T. Abdel-Masish. University of Michigan Press (1991).

  3. -Grammaire du Berbère. F. Sadiqi. L'Harmattan (2000).

  4. -'Berber Phonology'. M. G. Kossmann & Harry L. Stroomer. In Phonologies of Asia and Africa, vol 1, 461-475. A. S. Kaye (ed). Eisenbrauns (1997).

  5. -'Berber'. S. Chaker & A. Mettouchi. In Concise Encyclopedia of Languages of the World, 152-158. Keith Brown & Sarah Ogilvie (eds). Elsevier (2009).

  6. -The Berbers. The Peoples of Africa. M. Brett & E. Fentress. Blackwell (1997).

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