Discover Tamazight, the language family of North Africa's ancestors

By Google Arts & Culture

Prof. Dr. Mena B. Lafkioui

Tamazight is the native language family of North Africa, also called Tamazgha by the Imazighen, its native inhabitants. Most of today's North African population is descended from the Imazighen. 

Mauritania, Mali, Morocco and Algeria (1579) by Stefano BonsignoriPalazzo Vecchio Museum

Tamazgha stretched in antiquity from the Canary Islands to Egypt, and from the Mediterranean to the Sahel, and was split - especially under Roman rule - into three main regions, Mauritania (western part), Numidia (centre) and Libya (eastern part). 

Tamazight consists of some forty languages ​​and their local varieties. Together, these form a branch of the overarching Afro-Asiatic language family, like the Germanic or Romance language family belongs to Indo-European. Mutual intelligibility is possible between nearby languages ​​or languages ​​of the same type. Otherwise, education or long-term contact is needed to understand and speak the different languages ​​well.

Arrival of Tuareg Wedding Guests (1996) by Carol Beckwith & Angela FisherAfrican Ceremonies

Tamazight has ancient language forms that are grouped under the heading of Numidian or Libyan, dating back to the 5th-10th century BC. From these forms the special script Tifinagh was derived, which is used by the Tuaregs in more recent versions to this day.

For several decades, Tifinagh has also been used in the Northern regions of Tamazgha, mainly in Morocco since the introduction of Tamazight in official education in 2003.

An Encampment in the Atlas Mountains (ca. 1865) by Eugène Fromentin (French, 1820-1876)The Walters Art Museum

Tamazight is the broad term for any Amazigh language. For example, it stands for the language of the Tuaregs of the Ahaggar in southern Algeria, where the local variant Tamahaq is used, and for the language of the Kabyles of northern Algeria, who today use the newer name, Taqbaylit or Kabyle.

Aerial Views Of N. Africa Terrain (1943-03) by Margaret Bourke-WhiteLIFE Photo Collection

The distribution of the Amazigh languages across North Africa has the form of a continuum, which means that they are not always easily distinguishable from each other. One language variety passes into another without well-defined boundaries.

There are about forty million Amazigh speakers, six million of whom live in the diaspora. The largest number of Amazigh speakers are in Morocco. The estimates here vary between thirty and seventy percent of the total population, regardless of their linguistic competences.

Woman's head shawl (ta'jira) (1990/1997)British Museum

Tamazight is widely known for its oral culture, with its diverse and sophisticated literary language forms and genres, such as the poetic genres of izli, asefru, and amarg. Traditionally, oral Tamazight literature is highly regarded. 

Veiled Berber Bride (1991) by Carol Beckwith & Angela FisherAfrican Ceremonies

Certain literary genres are only used for important sociocultural rituals and ceremonies, such as for wedding ceremonies. The oral word has always had more prestige than the written word among the Imazighen. Today, Tamazight oral culture is mainly propagated through popular and commercial music. 

By Dmitri KesselLIFE Photo Collection

 Its ceremonial dimension is receding more and more into the background. This shift is taking place under globalization pressure, where written word and image are currently paramount.

Woman's headcloth ("taritat or tarredat") (late 19th century)Dallas Museum of Art

What is less well known is that the Imazighen also have a millennia old and highly developed writing culture. This tradition has three types, depending on the writing system on which it is based, namely the endogenous Libyan and the resulting Tifinagh writing system, the Arabic alphabet, and the Latin alphabet. 

The tradition based on the Libyan script is the oldest and goes back (at least) to the 5th-10th century BCE, according to available sources, such as that of Azib n'Ikkis in the High Atlas in southern Morocco. There is still an unimaginable treasure of ancient manuscripts and archaeological material waiting to be discovered and studied before time and man erases it.

Credits: Story

Prof. Dr. Mena B. Lafkioui.
Full Professor - Chair Amazigh Linguistics
Directeur d'études/Directeur de recherche 

École des hautes études en sciences sociales/CNRS-LIER-FYT

Credits: All media
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