Berber Village

Berbers are part of the great Afro-Asiatic family of peoples, who are divided among some 240 language groups, spread across the northern third of Africa, from Morocco and Mauritania on the Atlantic seaboard to Egypt, Ethiopia, Eritrea and Somalia on the east coast. In addition, languages of the Semitic branch (including Hebrew and Arabic) are spoken in many countries of the Middle East.

There are approximately 175 million speakers of Afro-Asiatic languages, and of those, some 12,000,000 speak an estimated two or three hundred Berber dialects, in about a dozen North African countries: Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, and Chad. The Guanches, Berber natives of the Canary Islands, have lost their language and identity after centuries of Spanish oppression.

Ancient Berber disappeared after the 3rd century AD, first supplanted by the Roman alphabet, and then later by the Arabic alphabet brought by Islam. But by some strange miracle, it is preserved, and still used today mainly by women in Tuareg society. The modern form is called Tifinagh, which scholars believe to mean “Phoenician/Punic letters”. Tifinagh is not used widely for literature or history, but instead for recreation.


Human beings first left Africa in a great migration to the Middle East and beyond, some 100,000 years ago. In the Fertile Crescent, perhaps some 35,000 to 10,000 years ago, a common “Nostratic” or “Eurasiatic” language began to break up into dialects. While the dialects of the northwest (Anatolia) evolved into the Indo-European languages (of which English is a direct descendant), those of the southwest in Syria and Israel developed into the Afro-Asiatic family of languages.

According to genetic data on the Berbers, who appear to be the “purest” or at least most primitive of these Afro-Asiatic speakers, the separation took place around 15,000 years ago. From its Middle-Eastern base, Afro-Asiatic then spread into Africa, across the Mediterranean littoral and up the Nile valley.

The Berber language is closely related to Semitic and Ancient Egyptian. Berber and Egyptian were once lumped together as “Hamitic” languages (a term now out of date, but still found occasionally). Many Berber tribes call themselves Imazighen; the language is Tamazight.  The word Tamazight is equivalent, phonetically, to Tolosati, a tribe who inhabited southern France in pre-Roman times and who lent their tribal name to the Roman city called Tolosa (modern French Toulouse). The name Imazighen literally means “free men,” and so is equivalent to the European term “Franks.”

Between 12000 and 10000 BC, Berber-speakers had reached Tunisia where they established the so-called “Dabba Culture”. After their arrival from the east, North Africa unquestionably became the domain of the Berbers, and it even seems likely that by this time a single “Eurafrican” language was spoken in Iberia, France, North Africa, and parts of Italy. This ancient Berber speech deeply affected those non-Berber tribes who settled among Berbers in Western Europe. Many Berber words survive, especially in Spanish and Catalan. Although it is difficult to recover ancient Berber words which have been mangled first in Punic and later in Latin, one can recognize common words like mata, Spanish for a pile or heap, which is derived from the Berber matta.