Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, JANUARY/FEBRUARY 1995, Page 31b

Maghreb Mirror

Berber: Linguistic "Substratum" of North African Arabic

By Professor Ernest N. McCarus

The term "Berber" is applied to the various languages or dialects spoken by the Berbers, who are found in North Africa from the Canary Islands in the Atlantic to the Western Desert of Egypt, and from the Mediterranean coast south across the Sahara to Mali and Togo.

Berbers are most numerous in Morocco, where they probably constitute half of the population. Moving east, they form decreasing proportions of the populations of the Arab states from Algeria, Tunisia and Libya to Egypt, where they are found primarily in the Siwa Oasis. They are an ancient people, their language being related to the language of ancient Libya, "Libico-Berber."

Most Berber men today are bilingual, speaking both their own Berber language as well as the official language of their country, usually Arabic or French or both, whereas in many instances Berber women know only Berber. Berber is a branch of the Afro-Asiatic (formerly "Hamito-Semitic") family of languages, which includes Semitic (Arabic, Hebrew, Akkadian, etc.), hieroglyphic Egyptian and Coptic, the Cushitic languages of the Nile valley, and the Chadic languages (Hausa).

Berber generally is not written today, although the Tuareg use a script called Tifinag. It stems from an ancient Lybic script that had 37 geometrical signs written from right to left.

The principal Berber languages or dialects are Shluh, Tamazight and Riff in Morocco; Kabyle and Shawia in Algeria; and Tuareg in North Africa and across the Sahara into Mali, Togo, Niger and other sub-Saharan nations.

Following the seventh century Islamic conquest of North Africa, the Berbers came under the political domination of the Arabs. After the conversion to Islam of the Berbers, their language came to be greatly influenced by the Arabic language. In general, religious, administrative and scientific terminology in Berber has been borrowed from Arabic. During the past century, with the French conquest of parts of North Africa, the French language also has had considerable influence on Berber vocabulary.

In its turn, Berber, as the substratum language, also has exerted great influence on the Arabic dialects of North Africa, affecting in particular their phonology and making spoken Arabic in North Africa quite distinctive from the Arabic dialects of the Middle East.


Dr. Ernest N. McCarus is professor of Arabic and Kurdish linguistics at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

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