Where Is the Berber Language Spoken?

Traditional Berber village in the Atlas Mountains.
Traditional Berber village in the Atlas Mountains.

Also known as the Amazigh or simply Berber, the Berber language refers to a branch of the Afroasiatic language group. The language consists of a number of related dialects that are spoken by a group of people known as the Berbers who are native to the northern part of Africa. Initially, the language was written in an old Libyco-Berber script, which is the present day script of Tifinagh. Based on the native location of the Berber people, it is not surprising that this language is mostly spoken in North Africa in countries such as Morocco, Libya, and Algeria. Other countries where it is popular include Tunisia, Burkina Faso, Niger, Mali, Mauritania, and Egypt. Some of the major varieties of the language (which account for 90% of the speakers of the Berber languages) include Shilha, Kabyle, Central Atlas Tamazight, Riffian, Shawiya, and Tuareg. Each of these languages has at least two million speakers globally.

Status of the Berber Language

Most of the countries in the Maghreb region were under the colonization of the French. After gaining their independence, most countries sough to get rid of all the traces of the French in all aspects, including the language, and embrace Arab culture fully. To this effect, these countries also discouraged the use of the Berber language. In some countries, the discouragement was an outright ban while others simply suppressed its use. Naturally, the Berber people in Algeria and Morocco came out in opposition to this move.

Eventually, in 2011, Morocco caved to the pressure and amended the constitution to recognize Amazigh as an official language of the nation together with Arabic. In the constitution, the variety of the language that is recognized is Tamazight. The Parliament of Morocco first used the language on April 30, 2012.

Algeria adopted Berber as a national language earlier than Morocco in 2002. However, the recognition was not made official until February 7, 2016, after the Algerian parliament approved of the motion. Together with Arabic, Berber has official status in Algeria.

Some countries like Libya use the language widely but it has not been granted official status as is the case with Morocco and Algeria. In Niger and Mali, Tuareg languages are taught in class by a few schools.

Number of Speakers

The exact number of speakers for this language is unknown because most North African nations do not keep track of this information while conducting censuses. Therefore, any figures are mostly estimates and most likely not up to date. In Morocco, estimates place the number of speakers at about 7.5 million people. Of these speakers, most of them speak Shilha (8 million speakers), Central Atlas Tamazight (4-5 million), and Riffian (3 million).

In Algeria, data suggests that Kabyle is the most popular variety with about 2.5 million speakers. Shawiya and Shenwa varieties have about 2 million and 56,300 speakers respectively. Algeria also has about 25,000 speakers for the Tuareg variety.

In other countries, estimates indicate that the numbers are low. Perhaps the most notable of these other countries is Libya, which has about 162,000 speakers (about 3% of the population) of Berber. The two most popular varieties in Libya are Nafusi (184,000 speakers) and Tahaggart (17,000 speakers).


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