The Amazigh or Imazighen (Berber) and the Phoenician Punics
The Phoenician colonies in North Africa started out as peaceful, trading presence among the Amazigh original inhabitants of the region. These colonies, though initially inhabited by Phoenicians from the eastern Mediterranean, became a mix of the two peoples as they intermarried with the local Amazigh.
The Amazigh, as well as the Punic Phoenicians, who survived the Roman subjugation of the region are credited with preserving the Phoenician language up till the time of Saint Augustine in the 5th century. Further, traces of the Phoenician alphabet are evident in the Tamazight (Berber) alphabet called Tifinagh.
The presence of the Berber in North Africa today is a living proof that the "Arab World" is not made up of 325 million Arabs. In fact, pan-Arabism is an unfounded heresy forced down the throats of people conquered and subjugated beginning with the advent of the Arab conquest in the 7th century. The Amazigh, much like the overwhelming majority of the people of this (Arab) "world," belong to a wide variety of ethnic groups that are different in blood, tradition, language, literature, art and history, and should not be lumped together as a single people.
Who and what are the Amazigh (Berber)?
The Amazigh which means "free humans" or "free men" are known to the world as Berbers. In fact, the word Berbers is offensive to these ancient inhabitants of north Africa and the Sahara desert. The name "Berber" is another one of many peccadilloes of the Romans who threw names at people left and right. They, along with the Greeks referred to every people they could not understand with the same unintelligible Berber language whether they were in the East or the West.
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 North Africa/Tamazgha -- Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya -- (= "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 North Africa/Tamazgha -- Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya -- actually consists of native Berber stock. Some 4 million North Africa/Tamazgha -- Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya --ians, 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.
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 North Africa/Tamazgha -- Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya --
- ca 200 - Berbers become Christians
- ca 350 - North Africa/Tamazgha -- Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya -- becomes a hotbed for "heretic" Christian cults in the Christian Roman Empire
- ca 400 - St. Augustine
- 429 - Vandals invade North Africa/Tamazgha -- Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya --
- 533 - Byzantine Empire drives out the Vandals and takes control - religious conflicts between Berber Christian "heretics" and Byzantine church
- 674-700 - Muslim Arabs drive out the Byzantines and conquer North Africa/Tamazgha -- Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya --. 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 North Africa/Tamazgha -- Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya --
- 1492 - Moors driven out of Al-Andalus
- 1900 - French and Spanish colonial aspirations in North Africa/Tamazgha -- Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya --, leading to colonization
- 1956-1963 - Independence for North Africa/Tamazgha -- Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya -- states
Tamazight - a language with 38 consonants1
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. Old Phoenician language is mixed into the the Tamazight and as evident to etymologists.
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.
The name Tifinagh possibly
means 'the Phoenician letters', or possibly from the phrase tifin
negh, which means 'our invention'.
Berber languages such as Tamazight, Tamasheq and Amazigh, which are spoken by
about a million or so people in Morocco, Niger, Mali, Burkina Faso,
Algeria and Libya.
Neo-Tifinagh alphabet as used in Morocco
Sample text in Tamazight
Imdanen, akken ma llan ttlalen d ilelliyen msawan di lḥweṛma d
yizerfan-ghur sen tamsakwit d lâquel u yessefk ad-tili tegmatt gar asen.
All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They
are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another
in a spirit of brotherhood.
(Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights)
for Tuareg and other African languages (en français)