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Etymological Exploration: The Indigenous Language of North Africa, Tamazight

posted on: Oct 4, 2023

File:Berber flag.svg
Berber flag. Credit: Wiki Commons

By: Maryem Bouatlaoui / Arab America Contributing Writer

Tamazight Language 

Tamazight derives from the Afroasiatic language family, indigenous to the North African region. Over 14 million people in Morocco and nearly 7 million people in Algeria natively speak Tamazight, as do minor populations in Libya, Tunisia, northern Mali, western and northern Niger, northern Burkina Faso and Mauritania.

Tamazight consists of a Libyco-Berber script. Following the spread of Islam, some Berber scholars also utilized the Arabic script. The Berber Latin alphabet was developed following the introduction of the Latin script in the nineteenth century by the West. There are now three writing systems in use for Berber languages: Tifinagh, the Arabic script, and the Berber Latin alphabet, with the Latin alphabet being the most widely used today.

The Imazighen

The Imazighen, commonly referred to as Berbers, were the first group to have settled in the North African region 20,000 years ago. Despite the fact that their historical presence in Morocco predates Arab and European colonialism, the Imazighen have been systematically discriminated against for centuries.

Institutionalizing Tamazight

The Kingdom of Morocco has erected the Institut Royale de la Culture Amazighe (IRCAM) to codify the language and pursue the standardization of Tamazight. IRCAM has succeeded in implementing Tamazight in public primary and secondary education.

Many are not in favor of the institutionalization of the Tamazight language because they argue that the Imazighen only accounts for a minority of the Moroccan population, however, that is not the case. The Imazighen group accounts for 45% of the Moroccan population, and nearly 14 million people in Morocco speak Tamazight, roughly 28% of the population. Those who refer to the Imazighen as a minority are most likely referring to the urban Moroccan population in which the Imazighen community is significantly underrepresented.

Berber or Tamazight?

The term “Berber” has dissolved due to its controversial origins. The etymological similarity between “barbary” and “Berber” is not a coincidence as the term was first used to indicate a lack of civilization. According to historians, the term “barbary” was initially used by the Greeks to refer to any non-Greek population who spoke an unknown language. The term “barbary” derives from the onomatopoeia of not understanding the foreign indigenous languages that sounded like “bar bar bar.” 

Due to this demeaning attribution, the Imazighen community prefers to refer to its language as Tamazight. Imazighen translates to “the free people,” and Tamazight translates to “the language of the free people.” Campaigns to stop the use of the term “Berber” in discourse have not only been spearheaded by socio-cultural organizations such as The Decolonial Atlas but also by academics and researchers. Dris Soulaimani published “Writing and Rewriting Amazigh/Berber Identity: Orthographies and Language Ideologies” in 2016.

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