Berbers in Libya

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According to Simon Denyer, "Libyan rebels seize western border crossing, as fighting in mountains intensifies", WaPo 4/21/2011:

Berbers have long faced suspicion and discrimination under the government of Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi, and many towns and villages took part in the uprising against his rule in mid-February. In recent days, the government has made a renewed bid to reclaim the Nafusa Mountains, which begin around 60 miles south of Tripoli and stretch westward to the Tunisian border, from rebel rule. […]

Gaddafi called Berbers, also known as Amazigh, a “product of colonialism” who were created by the West to divide Libya. The Berber language was not recognized or taught in schools, and it was forbidden in Libya to give children Berber names.

The policy was relaxed in 2007, but a U.S. embassy cable released by Wikileaks said this relaxation was limited, and quoted Gaddafi as telling community leaders: “You can call yourselves whatever you want inside your homes — Berbers, Children of Satan, whatever — but you are only Libyans when you leave your homes.”

An earlier discussion by Lameen Souag, "Linguistic diversity in Libya", Jabal al-Lughat 3/9/2011:

A very large majority of Libyans have Arabic as their mother tongue – in fact, Western Libya was described by the colonial anthropologist Evans-Pritchard as the most Arab place on earth outside Arabia itself. However, the country also has a noteworthy Berber-speaking minority (about 5%, if you dare to trust Ethnologue; it's not as though anyone's ever counted them in the past several decades.) Most speakers are concentrated in the northwest, where they (traditionally, for once) call themselves Imazighen: the port of Zuwara, along with many towns of the Nafusa mountains, such as Yefren and Nalut. All of that region – Arabic-speaking towns as well as Berber-speaking ones – is currently reported to be free of Qaddafi; language, thankfully, does not appear to be acting as a dividing factor there. […]

[F]or decades, Libya has been practically terra incognita for descriptive linguistic research: even work on its Arabic dialects has been scarce, let alone on politically sensitive minority languages. When (inshallah) the Libyans establish a stable and free state, it would be well worth documenting its linguistic diversity, both for better interpreting North African history and for informing Libyan educational policy.

For those who don't already know, I should explain that before the Phoenician colonizations three thousand years ago or so, before the Greek colonies, or the Romans after them, or the Vandals in the 5th century A.D., or the Arab invasions of the 7th century A.D., or the Ottomans in the 16th century, or the French and Italian colonizations in the 19th and 20th centuries, the dominant indigenous languages of North Africa were members of the Berber family.

The term Berber is commonly used, though as often with such terms, it originates from outsiders' not-especially-respectful description. According to the OED, the term is

ultimately < Arabic Barbar, Berber, applied by the Arab geographers from ancient times to the original inhabitants of N. Africa, west and south of Egypt. According to some Arab lexicographers, of Arabic origin, < Arabic barbara ‘to talk noisily and confusedly’ (which is not derived < Greek βάρβαρος); according to others, a foreign word, African, Egyptian, or perhaps < Greek. The actual relations (if any) of the Arabic and Greek words cannot be settled; but in European languages Barbaria, Barbarie, Barbary, have from the first been treated as identical with Latin barbaria, Byzantine Greek βαρβαρία land of barbarians

Ethnologue distinguishes 25 modern Berber languages. The Berber family is a branch of Afro-Asiatic, whose sibling language families include Chadic, Cushitic, Omotic, Egyptian, and Semitic. Significant fractions of the population of some other North African countries are Berber-language speakers. Thus the Wikipedia article on Berber languages says that

In 1952, André Basset ("La langue berbère", Handbook of African Languages, Part I, Oxford) estimated that a "small majority" of Morocco's population spoke Berber. The 1960 census estimated that 34% of Moroccans spoke Berber, including bi-, tri-, and quadrilinguals. In 2000, Karl Prasse cited "more than half" in an interview conducted by Brahim Karada at According to the Ethnologue (by deduction from its Moroccan Arabic figures), the Berber-speaking population should be estimated at 35% or around 10.5 million speakers. […]

A survey included in the official Moroccan census of 2004 and published by several Moroccan newspapers gave the following figures: 34% of people in rural regions spoke a Berber language and 21% in urban zones did, the national average would be 28.4% or 8.52 million. It is possible, however, that the survey asked for the language "used in daily life" which would result of course in figures clearly lower than those of native speakers, as the language is not recognized for official purposes and many Berbers who live in an Arabic-speaking environment cannot use it in daily life; also the use of Berber in public was frowned upon until the 1990s and might affect the result of the survey.

According to Bruce Maddy-Weitzman,  "Ethno-politics and Globalisation in North Africa: The Berber Culture Movement", The Journal of North African Studies Vol. 11, No. 1, March 2006:

Contemporary processes of globalisation have stimulated and reinforced a specific Berber/Amazigh ethno-political identity. Overall, the Berberist discourse is profoundly sympathetic to Western liberal-humanist values, and strongly condemnatory of the predominant monocultural order based on Islam and Arabism. To be sure, globalisation’s homogenising effects are seen as a threat to indigenous peoples’ cultural identities, Berbers included. But, overall, modern Berber imagining is bound up with a secular, Western-modern vision of the future. Berber/Amazigh culturalists seek to accommodate larger outside forces while placing an explicit emphasis on the collective ‘self’, thus posing a challenge to the existing order in the Maghrib.

Maddy-Weitzman points to "the Moroccan Amazigh intellectual Mohammed Chafik, first head of the recently founded, officially sanctioned Royal Institute for Amazigh Culture (IRCAM)".

‘In my part of the world,’ he declared, there is an urgent need to imbue culture with a humanism, modernism and universalism that rejects excess. This is because unitarianism and fundamentalism have demonstrated their destructive power throughout history to the extent that the threat of ethnic cleansing and religious conflict is still all too present.'

Chafik’s universalist vision was dedicated to ‘achieving peace amongst different ethnic groups along with a real understanding between religious faiths’, beginning with the Amazigh people, whose ‘vibrant culture’ could, like all cultures, contribute something unique to the totality of human experience. Seeking to deflect criticism from the Islamists while placing the Amazigh movement firmly within the humanist fold, Chafik emphasised that because it [the Amazigh movement] does not claim to be the depository of the sacred, it is not opposed to evolution. In its way, it is humanist because it remembers a distant past when it was well represented in the concert of Mediterranean cultures by figures such as Terence (Afer) [Carthage-born Roman playwright, c. 190– 160 BC], Juba (Juba II) [Roman client king of Mauritenia, 25– 23 B C], and Apuleius (Afulay) [second-century AD philosopher and rhetorician in Roman North Africa]. In short, Amazigh culture can enter and benefit from the worlds of politics, economics, society and justice without the risk of any real prejudice to religious faith.

The 79-year-old Chafik (b. 1926) was the principal author of the ‘Berber Manifesto’, an extraordinary document signed by hundreds of Moroccan Berber intellectuals. The manifesto laid out an interpretation of Moroccan history radically at odds with the standard, official version, and a set of concrete demands for placing Morocco’s Amazighity at the centre of the country’s collective identity. It posited the Amazigh’s traditional political cultural traditions of dialogue and consultation in opposition to the despotism imported from the early Islamic empires of the East, the Umayyads and Abassaids (but not from the Prophet Muhammad, the manifesto stressed, or his immediate successors, the four ‘Rightly Guided’ Caliphs, a period considered by believers as Islam’s most perfect moment in time).

Terence and Apuleius are less politico-religiously charged ancestors than Augustine, who was apparently also ethnically Berber.

An English translation of the Amazigh Manifesto is available here.


  1. Emad said,

    April 23, 2011 @ 9:36 am

    Singing in amazigh

  2. Emad said,

    April 23, 2011 @ 9:38 am

    The above video is of libyan fighters singing in amazigh

  3. Hermann Burchard said,

    April 23, 2011 @ 12:12 pm

    Terence and Apuleius are less politico-religiously charged ancestors than Augustine, who was apparently also ethnically Berber.

    Saint Augustine, in his famous De civitate Dei, City of God, describes Rome in a way that suggests a longstanding Berber or Punic allegiance.

  4. GeorgeW said,

    April 23, 2011 @ 2:00 pm

    The word 'barbur-im' occurs in the Hebrew Scriptures (1 Kings 4:23) which has been translated as 'fatted geese.'

    It would not take a huge metaphorical leap to go from geese > "talk noisily and confusedly."

  5. [links] Link salad lays a colored egg | said,

    April 24, 2011 @ 9:39 am

    […] Berbers in Libya — Language, culture and minorities in Gadaffi's Libya. […]

  6. Rick said,

    April 24, 2011 @ 12:40 pm

    If Arabic 'barbara' is unrelated to Greek 'barbaros,' it is an interesting coincidence.

    Has any study been made of how people of various languages register unintelligible speech? I've heard more than once – but it may be apocryphal – that people on stage say 'rhubarb' to create the impression of random conversation in the background, and the English word 'jabber' seems to have some connotation of unintelligible speech.

  7. Rodger C said,

    April 25, 2011 @ 7:18 am

    There are two unrelated languages in Mexico called Popoluca and Sierra Popoloca. The word is Nahuatl for "unintelligible speech." "Cherokee" means the same thing in Muskhogean.

  8. Michael said,

    April 25, 2011 @ 1:01 pm

    Rick — modern Hebrew uses the same root (brbr) to indicate jabbering.

  9. Atmir Ilias said,

    April 26, 2011 @ 12:00 am

    The albanian concept for /logorrhea/ is the phrase “flet bërbër” (speak /bërbër/) .The explanation, however, is due to the distortion of words, to not give the exact meaning, given in the wrong way as a stutter, or a small child. The Albanian has an another phrase: “flet belber si foshnjat " (speaking as a baby). In both cases, “flet bërbër” and “Belbër”, the phrases mean: to talk in a way that is difficult to understand, and it is incomprehensible even to an Albanian. Repeating some particular sounds more than necessary maybe was the cause of the notion-meaning “bërbër”, and it is undoubtedly related with /jabber/ .

  10. John F said,

    April 26, 2011 @ 10:05 am

    @Roger C Interesting. On first glance, to me at least, "Popoloca" looks like it might be derived from "mad people", but having done a cursory search it looks like the Nahuatl came up with it independently of Latin influence. It is nicely onomatopoeic, anyway.

  11. ohwilleke said,

    April 28, 2011 @ 2:47 pm

    A few observations about the population genetics of the situation:

    1. The Afro-Asiatic language family is not the product of demic expansion. The population genetics of Berbers, of Arabs (and Jews), of Chadic language speakers, and of Cushitic language speakers, for example, are all quite distinct from each other, even though this big sub-families of Afro-Asiatic languages do seem to have some population genetic signatures. There is not a common genetic thread that links these linguistic populations as there appears to be in the case of narrow Altaic language speakers, Uralic language family speakers, Austronesian language speakers, Austroasiatic language speakers, Nilo-Saharan language speakers, Bantu language speakers, and Indo-European language speakers, for example. Thus, the alternative hypothesis that Afro-Asiatic languages are a result of cultural diffusion of language without much gene exchange is well supported and atypical of most language families still spoken today. The lack of much genetic continuity is one of the reasons that coming up with a family tree relationship for the major subfamilies of the Afro-Asiatic languages remains so confounded with almost every conceivable arrangement having been advanced by someone. (FWIW, my money would be on Coptic as the most basal branch with the others radiating out from it, as the Egyptian civilization seems to have been the dominant one in the region at about the right time but I wouldn't want to bet more than nickles and dimes on that proposition.)

    2. There are two main places you see clear population genetic signatures found in Berber populations elsewhere. One is in the Saami of Northern Scandinavia. The other is in the Iberians (within whom there is a clinal pattern of similarity on a generally East-West axis). There appears to have been gene flow across the Strait of Gibralter deep into the pre-historic era, probably in multiple events, and it isn't always easy to determine its direction. While it is clear that the Berberesque population genetic signatures made their way from Iberia North to the Saami, probably in the pre-Neolithic area (which in this part of Europe would be sometime prior to about 5000 BCE) after which outsider population flows left no trace in the populations of the Atlantic coast between the two populations, it isn't as clear to what extent an Iberian-Berber link flow from Iberia to North Africa, and to which extent it flows from North Africa-Iberia. Some look North to South, some look South to North, and some are hard to determine.

    3. Ancient DNA from 12,000 years ago in North Africa suggests that there is strong population genetic continuity between the hunter-gatherer populations of North Africa before domesticated animals and plants were available and modern Berber populations. The Berber ethnicity is probably considerably older than the Berber language family. Notably, the ancient DNA that shows continuity with modern Berber populations precedes the "wet Sahara" period that is plausibly a period of ethnogenesis for some other African ethnicities (e.g. Nilo-Saharan and Chadic).

    4. While Berber populations has a notable minority sub-Saharan ancestry component, overall Berber's are closer to SW Asia and Europe than to sub-Saharan Africans in population genetics. There are also credible estimates from historical documents that suggest that much of the current sub-Saharan admixture in Berber populations is a result of slave trading with Africa in the last couple thousand years. Berbers of 4,000 years ago would have been considerably more distinct on a population genetic basis from West Africans than they are today.

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