Language and Literature
Berber languages constitute together one branch of the Afro–Asiatic (or Hamito–Semitic) language family, whose other four branches are Semitic, Egyptian, Cushitic, and Chadic. Berber languages show a high degree of homogeneity in their grammar, somewhat less in their phonology. The differences that one notes between them are fewer and less considerable than those within the Semitic, Cushitic, or Chadic branches (Egyptian is manifested as essentially homogeneous at any historical moment). In a number of important respects, Berber bears a closer resemblance to Semitic languages than to the other branches: (1) the sound system employs contrasts of consonant "length" and pharyngealization (emphatics); (2) there are three basic vowels a, i, u with an archaic contrast of short versus long vowels found in the important set of Tuareg languages; (3) the morphological system is highly complex, characterized by a prevalence of tri-radical roots (less than Semitic, however), and considerable use of both consonant length and intraradical vowel alternation to express grammatical categories such as verb aspect and noun number; (4) the verbal system is based on a fundamental contrast of perfective versus imperfective aspect, with tense being secondary; (5) word order is predominantly V(erb) S(ubject) O(bject), though SVO is very frequent in main clauses.
Some noteworthy features peculiar to Berber include the following: (1) as reflected in the wordsamazigh, tamazight (cf. supra), as well as many place names on maps, masculine nouns begin with a vowel and feminine nouns begin with t + vowel and most often end in t as well (the vowel is a in 80% of nouns); (2) a special form of the noun (the annexed or construct form), characterized by an alteration of the vowel of the first syllable (amazigh > umazigh, tamazight >tmazight), is used for the subject noun after its verb, after prepositions, and as the second element in a noun-complement construction; (3) the subject markers of finite verb forms are both prefixed and suffixed to the stem (with the prefix elements being clearly identifiable with those of the Semitic prefix conjugation); (4) pronominal objects of the verb basically go immediately after the verb but must precede it in a number of conditions (essentially those of subordination); (5) particles can be used with the verb to "orient" the verbal action: d = "toward speaker" and n = "away from speaker."
Berber languages are generally only spoken, seldom written. Among the Tuareg, however, there subsists an alphabet, the tifinagh, which descends from the Libyan alphabet that is found in ancient inscriptions throughout much of North Africa (but principally present-day Tunisia and eastern Algeria). This alphabet, which like Arabic is essentially consonantal, can be written right to left or left to right, occasionally vertically. Among the Tuareg, it is used primarily for short inscriptions on rocks and for brief messages but does not seem to be employed for the recording of stories, documents, or history, those uses for which writing is basic in our Western cultures. Some efforts have been made by advocates of Berber cultural affirmation, to adapt thetifinagh to such functions and to broaden its use to other Berber-speaking groups, as in Kabylia and in Morocco. These efforts have had only very limited success and those publications (several in Algeria and in Morocco) written in the Berber language generally use the Latin-based transcription system employed by the French.
Berber literature is then essentially oral. It includes many traditional stories—tales of animals, marvelous tales with ogres and monsters, tales of kings and princesses (à la Thousand and One Nights ), hagiographic legends, and myriad other stories that hand down the moral and ethical base of Berber society. As for poetry, among the Berbers it goes with music and is—unlike the tales and stories—constantly regenerated around a wide spectrum of subjects. There are extremely traditional forms, such as the often bantering repartee in the context of celebra-tory line dances in Morocco. There are more lyrical forms, songs of the heart and its joys and pains. There are the elaborate and often quite lengthy commentaries by troubador-like itinerant singers who hold forth, often quite bitingly, on all subjects, including the political scene. And, of course, one cannot fail to mention Berber popular music, which constitutes the richest and most fertile field of Berber literary expression today.
Of the languages with which Berber has shared North Africa at different times and places—among them Phoenician, Latin, Germanic (German and English), Turkish, Italian, Spanish, and French—none has had the profound effect that the Arabic dialects have had. Most Berber languages have a high percentage of borrowing from Arabic, as well as from other languages (these often indirectly through Arabic, however). Least influenced are the Tuareg languages; most influenced, those that are near urban centers and from whose areas there has traditionally been much temporary emigration for work.
Berber languages survive because children learn their first language from their mothers and it continues to be the language of the home, of the private world, long after they become adults and the men become bilingual. Berber women continue, in most areas, to have little education and little contact with the Arabic-speaking world around them, so their children will doubtless continue to learn and to perpetuate Berber languages. The movements to preserve Berber culture, most developed in Kabylia and somewhat in Morocco, will also doubtless have a conservative effect. Where Berber is spoken only in a village or two surrounded by Arabic speakers, it is disappearing. In the larger Berber-speaking regions, however, it is quite resistant, and the numbers of speakers are growing at nearly the same rate as that at which the population increases.
In postindependence North Africa, Berber languages and cultures have been neglected and even repressed by the agencies of the central governments. This seems to have been caused by a perceived need to discourage cultural differences in the building of the nation-state—cultural differences that, it was felt, had been exploited by the French colonial regimes to divide the colonized and impose their authority. On occasion, the reaction to this repression has been violent, as in 1980 in Kabylia. Not surprisingly, political movements have grown up around the issues of cultural expression and autonomy. In both Algeria and Morocco, there exist official political parties made up essentially of Berbers, with Berber cultural preservation as one of their highest priorities.