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Index / Languages / Afro-Asiatic /
Berber



Dialects
Figures in 1000.
Percent of total Berber speakers.
Kabyle
5,000 31.0%
Tachelhit
3,500 22.0%
Tamazight
3,500 22.0%
Tarifit
2,000 12.0%
Tachawit
1,700 10.0%
Nafusi/Chelha
250 1.5%
Tumzabt
90 0.4%
Tamahaq
65 0.4%
Taznatit
50 0.3%
Siwan
20 0.1%
Ghadames
14 0.1%
Sokna
10 <0.1%
Tagargrent
7 <0.1%
Awjila
6 <0.1%
Chenoua
6 <0.1%
TOTAL *)
16,200
By country
Figures in 1000.
Percent of inhabitants in country.
Morocco
9,000 29.0%
Algeria
6,900 21.0%
Tunisia
30 0.3%
Libya
275 4.5%
Egypt
20 <0.1%

Figures are highly uncertain, and great variance between official figures and those presented by pro-Berber groups make estimates rough.

Moroccan school poster showing the Berber alphabet
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Moroccan school poster showing the Berber alphabet.

Group of languages, of the Afro-Asiatic linguistic family. Berber is spoken in 5 countries across North Africa: Morocco; Algeria; Tunisia; Libya; and Egypt, the speakers are collectively known as Berbers, although the different groups may have differing names for themselves. The differences between the languages can be considerable, due to geographical distances. There are about 15 dialects with 300 sub-dialects.
The largest concentrated group of Berber speakers is found in Kabylia in Algeria, but Morocco is the country with most Berber speakers. Most Berbers have no written language and despite the efforts that have been seen in Algeria, little has been implemented.
Distinctions of Berber dialects follows several schools; there may be more than one name used for one dialect, and different researches may classify according to a name not used by many of just that group.
In Morocco there are three main dialects. Tarifit or Riffan is spoken in the Rifs, but this dialect continues along the Algerian border in eastern Morocco all the way to Figuig. The dialect of the High Atlas and Middle Atlas has many names, like Berber, Amazigh, Zaian or Tamazight. The dialect used in the Anti Atlas and south western oases is called Tachelhit, Soussi, Chelha or Chleuh.
Algeria is home of the largest Berber dialect, Kabyle, but in this vast country there are as many as 8 dialects. Only Tachawit is large, the remaining 6 have between 90,000 and 6,000 speakers.
The Berber language in Tunisia, called Chelha, is currently facing extinction in the remaining few small towns in the southern part of the country (see travel pages on Chenini and Douiret). Parents and especially women (who never leave their village for work), speak or at least understand Chelha, while children learn only Arabic.
In Libya, Berbers of Jabal Nafusa, inland from Tripoli speak a dialect called Nafusi or Mazir which comes so close to Chelha that the two are considered one dialect. In Libya, use of Berber remains strong and vibrant.
In Egypt, Berber is spoken along the coastal zone west of Alexandria, and in the oasis of Siwa.
Berber identity currently is linked to the language: many of the North Africans calling themselves Arabs are more Berber in origin than Arab. In many areas (especially Tunisia), Berber identity is regarded as a negative, principally because many Berber societies are less developed than those in urban settings, where almost all inhabitants see themselves as Arabs. In Algeria, Berber identity is strong and proud, and there are centuries-old tensions between the Berbers, now living in the mountains, and the Arabs who dominate the larger cities.

History
2001: Berber languages become official languages of Algeria.
2004: Algerian president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, makes statements about Algeria only having Arabic as official language.




By Tore Kjeilen