Primacy of Berber language within the Afro-asiatic family


This is a short essay to argue for the antiquity and primacy of Berber language within the afro-asiatic family and to refute the erroneous claims of certain semitistic and crypto-semitistic linguists (Brockelmaim, Cohen et al) who tried hard to semiticize Berber by implicitely suggesting to us that Berber is a quasi-Semitic language hence strengthening the false claims of the traditional enemies of Tamazight: the arabo-islamists who consider Tamazight as a mere constellation of related dialects derived from an old archaic form of Arabic.

semitic /a’in/ is rendered here as /a’/ in both semitic and Berber terms
semitic /h’a/ is rendered here as /h’/ in both semitic and Berber terms
emphatics are noted by an apostrophe/’/ in both semitic and Berber terms
semitic /kha/ is written as /x/ in both semitic and berber terms.
/ch/ or /sh/ is written as /ch/ or /sh/ in semitic and as /c/ in Berber.

Berber or Tamazight, the native language of North Africa, is under siege, at present, from two main camps: the camp of what i call the tribal-ethno-centrists who undermine its unity and talking of Berber languages instead of one language, Tamazight. They are mainly kabylian autonomist militants (and also some chawi militants as well), under the influence of some anglo-saxon amateur uninformed Berbericists, and fueled by blind narrow petty tribalo-nationalism. I am a supporter of MAK and wholeheartedly for the self-determination of Kabylia and other Amazigh regions but i also deplore any attempt to undermine the unity of our language which is self-evident. The other more serious danger to Tamazight comes from its traditional enemies: the Arab-islamists who -while they finally recognized Tamazight as national language in Algeria and as official language in Morocco- keep maintaining that Tamazight is descended from Arabic (Berbers came from Arabia according to them) and that it should be written in Arabic characters and enriched (or rather impoverished, a more correct term), with Arabic vocabulary. this way, they are hoping, it will eventually dissolve into Arabic and finally wither and die. Few years back an Arab-islamist Qaddafist pseudo-linguist named Othmane Saadi wrote a book in Arabic entitled: Dictionary of the Arabic Roots of Amazigh(Berber) Words(Tripoli: Academy of Arabic Language 2007).

The fact that this man – who falsely claims to be a proud Berber chawi- is the head of the Algerian official body for the defense of Arabic language and that his book was published in Tripoli says more than enough about his ideological motives to undermine Berber language in favor of the language of his masters, Qaddafi et co.
moreover, it could be just the opposite that is true: Arabic vocabulary may have derived from that of Berber.

There are many factors which suggest the antiquity and primacy of Berber, although here i confine myself to just two:
-The fact that Berber has much more affinities with the much older languages of the Afro-Asiatic family such as Egyptian and Akkadian than with the relatively younger ones such as Arabic.
-The fact that many tri-consonantal roots in Arabic and other Semitic languages seem to have derived from Berber mono-consonantal and bi-consonantal roots.

Berber – Akkadian- Egyptian affinities:

Akkadian and Egyptian are considered as the oldest (albeit now dead) Afro-Asiatic languages that survived to the present day in the archaeological forms of cuneiform and hieroglyphic inscriptions respectively. One of the main obvious similarities between Berber, Akkadian and old Egyptian is to be found in their pronouns.

– personal pronouns:

With Arabic there is no apparent similarity at all but with Akkadian and Egyptian we have two similar pronouns(the first persons):
1st person.

Berber =nkk . Akkadian=anaku . Egyptian=ink (Coptic: anok)

Berber =nkkni . Akkadian= nuni . Egyptian= anoni

– object pronouns:

with Arabic the third persons(Arabic hu/hi, ha , hum, hunn) are totally different whereas with Akkadian and Egyptian , apart from the second singular feminine person, all other pronouns are similar:

1st person.
Berber = -y . Akkadian= -y . Egyptian= -y

2nd person
masc. Berber =-k . Akkadian= -k . Egyptian= -k
fem. Berber =-m . Akkadian= -k . Egyptian= -k’

3rd person
masc. Berber =-s . Akkadian= -s . Egyptian= -f
fem. Berber =-s . Akkadian= -s . Egyptian= -s

1st person.
Berber =-ngh . Akkadian= -ni . Egyptian= -n

2nd person
masc. Berber =-kn/wn . Akkadian= -kun . Egyptian= -k’n
fem. Berber =-knt . Akkadian= -kin . Egyptian= -k’n

3rd person
masc. Berber =-sn . Akkadian= -sun . Egyptian= -sn
fem. Berber =-snt . Akkadian = -sn . Egyptian= -sn

Mono-consonantal , bi-consonantal and tri-consonantal:

Despite my deep respect, gratitude and admiration for the berber linguist Professor Salem Chaker i find his ‘crypt-semitistic’ claims that many Berber mono-consonantals and bi-consonantals(mono-literals and biliterals) are derived though long overuse from tri-consonantal (triliterals) to be totally unfounded [see “Les bases de l’apparentement chamito-sémitique du berbère : un faisceau d’indices convergents”, par Salem Chaker -Etudes et documents berbères, 7, 1990 : 28-57.].

His main argument was that many mono-consonantals, bi-consonantals in some varieties of Tamazight (northern group ) have bi-consonanatal/tri-consonantal forms in other more conservative varieties(southern group:Touareg and Chleuh). But these latter varieties are only conservative in the sense of being less influenced by foreign lexical borrowings and not in their intra-linguistic evolution. When we look at the examples that he puts forward we realize instantly that the supposed tri-consonantal roots are hardly tri-consonantal at all because neither the pharyngeal hissing /h/(/h/ siflant) nor semi-vowels /w/ and /y/ can be qualified as full consonants in Berber. these are the main letters we find in the examples he gives us . /h/ is more a semi-consonant than a full consonant (in some languages like French it is actually totally silent!!!) and /w/ and /y/ are interchangeable between themselves and between them and the long vowels(a,y,i) and hence considered as semi-vowels.

He did mention though few real consonants such as /n/ in Touareg /nkr/ (a tri-consonantal form of the northern /kkr/=to leave, to get up) which was probably a mere ‘nasalization’ that occurs also in Semitic where,for instance, the proto-Semitic pronoun /ata/ ”you” is ‘nasalized’ as /anta/ in Arabic. He also cited the /f/ in /fk/(a bi-consonantal form of the Zenete mono-consonantal root /ac/ or /uc/ =to give). He failed to mention the /k/ in /ukc/, also a bi-consonantal form of the Zenete /ac/ in use in some parts of Kabylia. It is more plausible that /uc/ gave rise to /fk/ and /ukc/ than the other way around, for the sense of direction of lexical derivation goes from one to many and not from many to one. He did not give us any valid proof that these tri-consonantals were the original forms. In fact the opposite seems to make more sense: these bi-consonantal and tri-consonantal roots are more likely to be derived from earlier primeval mono-consonantals. This being said i would not rule out the possibility that certain tri-consonantals did not contract into bi-consonantal or mono-consonantal. It is just that the general evolutionary trend of Afro-Asiatic lexicon-morphology seems to be a bottom-up process (from mono-consonantal to bi-consonantal to tri-consonantal to quadri-consonantal)

That is, first the mono-consonantals appeared and where there was a need for more roots biconsonantals and then tri-consonantals were introduced by adding a new letter to the bi-consonantal or mono-consonantal in order to create a new root whose semantics is not far from that of the primary fundamental root from which it derives.

A relevant banal analogy is the binary machine code: when they started with two digit numbers they could get only about four numbers(00 01 10 11) but as they added more digits they got more numbers.

In other words, in proto-Afro-Asiatic the mono-consonantals and bi-consonantals must have been predominant and through the process of ”triconsonantalization” the tri-consonantals eventually became more numerous in its descendants, apart from Berber which still retains a considerable number of bi-consonantals and mono-consonantals, which suggests that Berber may be the only living afro-asiatic language that is the closest to proto-afro-asiatic.

Prof Chaker dismissed unreasonably this opposite view posited by many researchers in the field (Botterweck 1952;Diakonoff 1965, 1988; Vycichl 1983; Vogt 1988). A titre d’example i cite here K. Luke who, in his The nature of The Semtic Root, concludes:”the Semitic root was originally bi-consonantal…” and he gave the example of how different secondary tri-consonantal roots with similar meanings are derived from one primary bi-consonantal root:

From bi-consonantal /par/ ”to break” we have the tri-consonantals /paras/, /paraq/, /parar/ with very close meanings of ‘to break, to separate”(the Berber equivalent is /fru/= ”to open, to resolve” from which we have /frn/ ”to separate, to weed off, to select”)

Zuckerman also noticed the same phenomenon in Hebrew as illustrated in the following similar examples:

from /g-zz/ ‘shear’, we have /g-z-m/ ‘prune’ and /g-z-r/ ‘cut’,
from /p-r-‘/ “arch, bend”), we have /p-r-z/ ‘divide a city’, /p-r-ţ/ ‘give change’
from /q-p/ “bend, arch, lean towards” we have /q-p-ħ/ and /q-p-h/,
and some roots are constructed using the Berber instrumental/causitive particle /s/ (rendered as /sh/ in hebrew ) as in the case of /sh-q-p/ “look out/through” from /q-p-‘/ ‘pay a debt’.”
or sh-ţ-p ‘wash, rinse, make wet’, from ţ-p ‘wet’, or sh-l-k ‘cast off, throw down, cause to go’, from l-k ‘go’
(see .Zuckermann, Ghil’ad 2003, ‘‘Language Contact and Lexical Enrichment in Israeli Hebrew’’) and many of the mono-consonantals and bi-consonantals which are still in daily use in different varieties of Tamazight seem to be the origins of many bi-consonantals and tri-consonantals in Arabic and other Afro-Asiatic languages(a process identical to the one just given by Luke and and Zuckermann regarding Hebrew):

Example 1:
– Berber primary biconsonanatal root:/rgh/ or /rq/ [(/q/ is an arabized phonetic variant of /gh/ in Berber ] ”to burn, to light, shine”.
– Arabic secondary triconsonnatal roots: /h’rq/ ‘to burn”, /brq/ ”lightening”, /chrq/ ” to shine like a sun”, /trq/ ”to appear like a star, to visit during the night’, /mrq/ ”to make hot soup (with fire)”. /ghrq/ ”to drown, lit.arch. to be burnt by salty sea water”, /zrq/ ”shining blue”
Example 2:
– Berber primary biconsonantal root :/nb/ ”to rise/grow/produce from ground, to develop into higher stage ), hence the berber noun /anubi/ ” someone who is developed/grown into an adolescent”
– Arabic derived secondary triconsonantal roots: /nbt/ ”to grow/produce (a plant) from ground” , /nbch/ ”to dig up ground” , /nba’/ ”to spring up(spring water) from ground” , /nbgh/ ”to rise/develop into an expert ” , /nbl/ ”to rise/develop into a noble person ”, /nbr/ ” to rise/produce a sound from striking a string”, /nbh’/ ”to bay(a dog), to rise /produce a sound from the stomach”, /nbd/ ” to rise/produce alcohol from fermented fruit ”, /nba/ ” to develop/produce prophetic powers” etc..

All these Arabic roots in these two examples contain the Berber parent roots of /rq/ and /nb/ respectively and carry some of their primeval meanings. It is just intuitive common sense that when one needs to build up more roots from the existing primary fundamental root one would just add different letters to it.

These two examples alone would convince any skeptic that a group of secondary tri-consonantal roots would not give birth to a fundamental primary mono-consonantal or bi-consonantal. it is rather the other way around:the secondary comes from the primary and multiplicity springs forth from unity.
Here are some other tri-consonantal and bi-consonantal Arabic roots that seem to have derived from Berber mono-consonantal and bi-consonantal primary roots(the original consonants are in CAPITAL LETTERS):

Arabic biconsonantal from Berber monoconsonantal

Arabic /a’La/ ”to be higher” from Berber /aLi/ ”to mount, to be higher”
Arabic /fiL/ ” elephant” from Berber /iLu/ ” elephant , god, the whole”
Arabic /Lbb/qLb/ ”heart, core, essence” from Berber /uL/ ”heart, core, essence”
Arabic /fM/ from Berber /iMi/ ”mouth”
Arabic /a’iN/ from Berber /aNu/ ”spring well”
Arabic /Kull/ from Berber /aK/ ”all”
Arabic triconsonantal from Berber monoconsonantal:
Arabic /a’qL/ ”brain, mind” , /aLLah/ ”god” from Berber /aL/ ”brain, mind, source”
Arabic /aXd/Xd/ from Berber /aGH/aX/
Arabic /wSl/ ”to come , to arrive”and /rSl/ ”to send back” from Berber aS ”to come , to arrive”
Arabic triconsonantal from Berber biconsonantal:
Arabic /LbS/ ”tongue” from Berber /LS/ ”to wear”
Arabic /LSan/ ”tongue” from Berber /iLS/ ”tongue”
Arabic /FxD/ ”thigh” from Berber /FuD/ ”knee”

Recent discoveries in the field of Berber lexicometry reveals that most roots of the Berber semantic primevals are monoconsonantal or biconsonantal ( these roots are also used to form the magico-mystical vocabulary): /ini/, /ili/, /as/, /ali/, /agh/, /awi/, /ddu/, /af/, /li/, /uc/ etc…

And from this primordial paleo-berber core lexicon that the rest of the Berber and the afro-asiatic vocabulary seems to have been derived.
And if the foregoing is not convincing enough i add this passage by Abdelaziz ALLATI from his [TOPONYMIE ET RECONSTRUCTIQN LINGUISTIQUE EN AFRIQUE DU NORD ET AUX ILES CANARIES – LANGUES ET LINGUISTIQUE; n° 25, 1999: 9-53] :

”…. l’abondance des racines monolitères et bilitères qui apparaissent surtout dans le lexique de base des parlers berbères modernes. ….. Selon plusieurs chercheurs (Prasse 1969, 1972; Chaker1984, 1995), ces racines résulteraient de l’usure phonétique qui aurait réduit les racines trilitères qui caractériseraient le berbère ancien dont le système des racines et des schèmes se serait dégradé actuellement (Chaker 1995: 221-225). Le berbère serait ainsi conforme au trilitarisme originaire du sémitique, préconisé et défendu par le sémitiste Brockelmaim (1910) et ses adeptes dont M. Cohen (1947). ’ .Outre les problèmes que pose l’application de ce modèle morphologique au berbère, dont notamment la dérivation des racines monolitères et bilitères du berbère moderne des anciennes racines trilitères, il ne faut pas oublier que le trilitarisme originaire du sémitique et des langues chamito-sémitiques ou afro-asiatiques est loin de faire l’unanimité des chercheurs. Se fondant essentiellement sur le sémitique et sur la prédominance des racines trilitères dans les états actuels de la plupart des langues appartenant aux différentes branches de cette famille, le trilitarisme est loin de rendre compte du problème crucial que pose l’évolution de la structure de la racine chamito-sémitique ou afro-asiatique.Le bilitarisme est, à bien des égards, une caractéristique originaire des langues chamito-sémitiques ou afro-asiatiques, alors que le trilitarisme des langues sémitiques est une innovation, une systématisation postérieure (Botterweck 1952;Diakonoff 1965, 1988; Vycichl 1983; Vogt 1988). À partir d’un stade primeval où prédomine le bilitarisme, s’est donc développé,par plusieurs processus dont l’étoffement, le trilitarisme qui prédomine dans les stades connus du sémitique et dans les autres branches de la famille chamito-sémitique ou afro-asiatique.Plusieurs éléments dont la proportion importante de racines bilitères et quadrilitères qu’on relève dans ces langues laissent supposer que celles-ci ont été affectées, à des degrés divers et à des périodes différentes, par cette évolution qui y a atteint des stades différents dont le plus avancé est illustré par le sémitique. Celui-cien présente ainsi non la forme originaire qui s’est dégradée dans les autres langues de cette famille, mais la phase finale et la plus structurée. Les racines monolitères et bilitères, sémitiques et chamito-sémitiques ou afro-asiatiques ne sont donc pas des formes réduites des racines trilitères originaires, mais des vestiges de formes anciennes qui appartiennent à des structures morphologiques très différentes de celles qui sont dominantes dans les états actuels de ces langues et les stades antérieurs connus de certaines d’entre elles. Le fait d’étendre cette domination jusqu’à l’état primeval de ces langues provient essentiellement de la difficulté de percevoir, à) partir des données disponibles, les caractéristiques des structures plus anciennes et d’en dériver celles qui les ont remplacées. La complexité des faits ne justifie cependant pas leur simplification au point de faire d’un trait dominant d’une étape historique de ces langues une de leurs caractéristiques originelles.Présentant un trait dominant du lexique fondamental des parlers berbères modernes et des bases toponymiques anciennes de l’Afrique du Nord et des Îles Canaries,’le bilitarisme est sans doute un trait originaire du berbère dont la structure morphologique ancienne est agglutinante. ”


We have demonstrated that Berber is very old and archaic comparing to other living Afro-Asiatic languages such as Arabic by examining some grammatical affinities between Berber and other old Afro-Asiatic languages such as Accadian and Ancient Egyptian and also by highlighting the Berber origins of many Arabic and other Semitic lexical roots. This is not a new discovery, for as early as the ninteenth century, western Berberologists such as Hodgson have noticed the undenaible great age, antiquity, unity and primitive lexical conservatism of Berber despite being continously a persecuted oral language with many varieties scattered over large disparate areas through north africa and sub-sahara.

by Z. Aziza

1. Egyptian has many biradical and perhaps monoradical roots, in contrast to the Semitic preference for triradical roots.1. [7] Egyptian probably is more archaic in this regard, whereas Semitic likely underwent later regularizations converting roots into the triradical pattern.1. [7]

2. Although Egyptian is the oldest Afroasiatic language documented in written form, its morphological repertoire is greatly different from that of the rest of the Afroasiatic in general and Semitic in particular.2. [8] This suggests that either Egyptian had already undergone radical changes from Proto-Afroasiatic before being recorded, that the Afroasiatic phylum has as of yet been studied with an excessively semito-centric approach, or that Afroasiatic is a typological rather than genetic grouping of languages.2. [8]
a 1. b 1. Loprieno (1995:52)


  • Interesting take on a controversial topic. I am missing the archeological evidence though.

    Last year, the oldest human remains of Homo sapiens were discovered in Morocco rendering the argument that humanity descended from East Africa mute. Having said that, how could a language born in the land that fathered modern humans be a descendent of more recent groups be that Semites (such as Arabs and Hebrews) or others. That is an argument I simply find absurd and ignorant.

    While I applaud your zeal and passionate defence of Thmazight, I quite disagree with the premise of being one language. Riffian, for instance, has more differences with the rest of Berber languages than any other variation whether in terms of vocabulary, phonetics, syntax or any linguist measure you would normally use to study a language.

    Trying to find similarities between some extinct language and live ones is quite a challenge especially that the current reality does not support the existence of one unified Berber language but rather a group of languages in the same fashion that Dutch, German and English all belong to the Germanic language family or Spanish, French and Italian to the Romance one.

    Still, interesting to see different takes on the subject. Thank you!

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