The indigenous non-arab population of North Africa, and their language.

The Berbers (calling themselves Amazigh - "free humans" or "free men" in the Berber language) have inhabited Africa north of the Sahara desert since ancient Egyptian times. The name "Berber" originates with the Romans, who followed the Greek custom of designating speakers of unintelligible languages as "barbarians". The majority of the Moors in medieval "Arabic" Spain were actually Berbers, who had adopted the Arabic Moslem culture and Arabic as their written language.

Even today the Berbers are ethnically - but far from politically - the dominant part of the populations of Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Mauritania. Isolated Berber-speaking groups are found all over North Africa, from the Atlantic in the west to Egypt in the east. A colorful nomadic Berber tribe, the Tuaregs, whose male warriors wear blue dresses and indigo-colored veils, still roam the Sahara desert.

Moslem yes, Arab no

It may come as a surprise to hear that the North African Moslem countries Morocco and Algeria are, in an ethnic sense, not Arab nations at all, but Berber nations, speaking a completely different language than Arabic. Politically the Arab minority has dominated these countries for centuries, and has - without much success, though - attempted to eradicate the Berber language. This also holds true of the present leaderships in independent Morocco and Algeria, who up to now have tried to establish an Arab identity for their countries. In recent years the Maghrib (= "land of the setting sun" in Arabic, i.e. the western part of North Africa) has experienced an awakening of Berber consciousness. Berber protests have had limited success, but they have at least led to the introduction of formal teaching of Berber in some Moroccan and Algerian schools and universities. The strong Berber desire to establish a national Berber identity appears to be accelerating. In 2001 and 2002 several Berber demonstrations have been held in Morocco and Algeria, calling for official acceptance of Berber identity and state-funded education in the Berber language.

Blood and perception

In terms of "blood", Berbers probably represent as many as 80% of the population in Morocco and Algeria, more than 60% in Tunisia and Libya and 2% in Egypt, altogether some 50 million people. A proper Berber census has never been taken and the above figures are uncertain. Centuries of cultural "Arabization" has persuaded many Berbers, particularly in the cities, to adopt the Arabic language. The number of people perceiving themselves as Berbers is hence much lower, about half of the figure given above. However, the influx of "proper" Arabs from the East into the Berber area, in connection with the Muslim conquest in the 8th century, is estimated at only 200 000. It is thus quite probable that the population of the Maghrib actually consists of native Berber stock. Some 4 million Maghribians, half of whom perceive themselves as Berbers, now live in Europe, mainly in France.

The Berber language is known as "Berber" to Europeans and as "Shilha" to Arabs, while the Berbers themselves call their language Tamazight (the "gh" in the words Tamazight and Amazigh is pronounced as a sharp "r"). The language has a large number of dialects, due to the wide geographical separation of different Berber-speaking groups.

No unified history

The Berbers have never experienced a unified political identity, which makes a review of the "history of the Berbers" somewhat problematic. There have been many strong Berber-led and Berber-populated kingdoms and cultures - often warring among themselves - existing in parallel in various regions of North Africa and Spain, but never a unified "Berber empire". Nor have these cultures used any written Berber language - there are almost no written records in Berber, except for short inscriptions on a few monuments and buildings. Instead, the Berbers have tended to assimilate the culture and adopt the written language of their conquerors - initially Phoenician, Greek and Latin, later Arabic - while continuing to speak spoken Berber among themselves.

The issue is further clouded by the fact that present-day Berber activists, in the absence of proper historical records, tend to make exaggerated claims. Many famous historical figures are made out to be Berbers without much hard historical evidence - for instance two Egyptian Pharaonic dynasties are claimed to be Berber. That St. Augustine and Tertullian were Berbers, seems on the other hand to be established facts.

A chronology of some historical events in the Berber area:

  • ca 3000 BC - first Egyptian references to the people who are now called Berber
  • ca 1100 BC - Phoenicians establish trade centers
  • ca 800 BC - Carthage is founded
  • 146 BC - Romans destroy Carthage and establish the province Mauritania Tingitana (the origin of the word Moor) in Maghrib
  • 70 BC - Jewish immigrants arrive after their failed revolt against the Romans
  • ca 200 - Berbers become Christians
  • ca 350 - Maghrib becomes a hotbed for "heretic" Christian cults in the Christian Roman Empire
  • ca 400 - St. Augustine
  • 429 - Vandals invade Maghrib
  • 533 - Byzantine Empire drives out the Vandals and takes control - religious conflicts between Berber Christian "heretics" and Byzantine church
  • 674-700 - Moslem Arabs drive out the Byzantines and conquer Maghrib. Conversion to Islam begins
  • 711-713 - Spain conquered by Moslem Arabs and Berbers. Al-Andalus established in Spain
  • 1085-1258 - Berber Almoravid and Almohad dynasties rule Al-Andalus and Maghrib
  • 1492 - Moors driven out of Al-Andalus
  • 1900 - French and Spanish colonial aspirations in Maghrib, leading to colonization
  • 1956-1963 - Independence for Maghrib states

Tamazight - a language with 38 consonants

The Berber language, Tamazight, belongs to the African branch of the Afro-Asian language family, along with ancient Egyptian. There are various names for the different Berber dialects (which are different enough to be called languages by some), but Tamazight is seen as the root language.

Tamazight has only 3 vowels - a, i, u. This parsimony, vowel-wise, is amply compensated by a generous number of consonants - 38 consonants in all. To be able to write all 38 with Latin letters, diacritical marks and letter-pairs (like for example gh, pronounced as one variant of r), are used. Even the $-sign has to be called upon to help symbolize one of the 38 consonants. Learning to correctly pronounce this multitude of consonants, with their sometimes minute differences of pronounciational nuance, is no easy task for a casual European student of Tamazight. English, in comparison, has 21 consonant letters in its alphabet, but reportedly 24 consonant sounds (if you include sounds like voiced and unvoiced "th", "sh", voiced "s", etc.)

In European languages the grammatical information of a word (tense, gender, number, etc) is most often given by "concatenation", i.e. by adding an appropriate word ending to the word: one table, two tables, happen, happened, etc. But that is not how the Berbers do it. The grammatical information in Tamazight is instead conveyed via several changes in the word, e.g. of the vowels in the word, or sometimes by simultaneously adding something to the front as well as to the end of a word. Plural of am$ar (= male elder) becomes im$arn (= male elders), while one corresponding female elder is tam$art and several female elders is tim$arin. (I am not able to explain how the consonant symbol "$" is pronounced, but it reportedly belongs to the class of "fricatives").

The word order is VERB - SUBJECT - OBJECT. "The boy drank water" is thus expressed as "Drank the boy water".

As I mentioned earlier, the Berber language has not been written - until fairly recently - except as short inscriptions on monuments. The Berber alphabet that was used for this task in antiquity is called Tifinagh and consists of a number of strange-looking phonetic symbols. It is probably derived from the Phoenician alphabet and has only symbols for consonants. Some Berber activists have tried to augment the consonant symbols with vowel symbols. This modern form of Tifinagh is sometimes heroically used to write Berber, most often only by the activists themselves. Most people who are literate in Berber use the Latin letter system for writing Tamazight.