by Lameen Souag
Berber is a family of closely related languages indigenous to North Africa, touching the Mediterranean and Atlantic to the north and west, and spoken as far east as Siwa in Egypt and as far south as northern Burkina Faso (with emigrant groups even further afield.). The term “Tamazight”, the traditional autonym of a number of Berber languages, is increasingly used as an alternative. The largest Berber languages by population are, from west to east: Tashelhiyt/Shilha (south Morocco); Middle Atlas Tamazight (central Morocco); Tarifit/Rifi (north Morocco); Taqbaylit/Kabyle (northeast Algeria); Tashawit/Chaouia (northeast Algeria).
While these are spoken across reasonably large, densely populated, continuous
areas, many varieties are restricted to a handful of villages (eg Ghomara in north Morocco) or a single oasis (eg Siwa in Egypt), often with little contact with other Berber speakers. The mutual intelligibility of Berber varieties varies substantially, making a division into languages difficult in practice; the whole family could be seen as consisting of two more or less broken up dialect continua, one in the North and one in the South, with a few more divergent outliers around the edges.
Almost every Berber language is surrounded by colloquial Maghreb Arabic speakers
on all sides, and is spoken in a state whose official language is Modern Standard Arabic, and in which the ex-colonial language (usually French) remains significant in official domains. The languages of the Tuareg (a sparse, partly nomadic population spread across a vast expanse of the Sahara) have come under much less Arabic influence than others; along with Zenaga (the nearly extinct Berber language of Mauritania), they have also been influenced by sub-Saharan African languages.
Berber is a subgroup of Afro-Asiatic; as such, it is distantly related to Arabic (and other Semitic languages of the Middle East), Egyptian, Somali (and other Cushitic or Omotic languages of East Africa), and Hausa (and other Chadic languages of West Africa.) It was already spoken in North Africa before the Roman conquest, as the Tifinagh inscriptions of the Numidian kings attest.
In the 7th century, the Arab Umayyad Empire conquered most of North Africa. While
the area resumed independence within a century or so, the results of this conquest were lasting; most northern Berbers converted to Islam, and Arabic became an important part of city life, widely used in government and trade. In the 11th century, large Arab tribes (in particular the Banu Hilal) immigrated en masse from Arabia via Egypt, leading to the collapse of state authority in much of North Africa and to the presence of large rural Arabic-speaking groups. This seems to have been a turning point in the Arabization of North Africa; with
Arabic both useful on a local scale and prestigious on a broader scale, many Berber groups gradually shifted to Arabic. Some have done so within living memory; for example, the village of Sened in Tunisia was still largely Berber-speaking at the beginning of the 20th century, but is now entirely Arabic-speaking. The long-standing influence of Arabic is reflected in most Berber languages' tendency to use Arabic numbers.
from The Typology of Number Borrowing in Berber
by Lameen Souag
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histoire : de la Berbérie au Maghreb arabe
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