Think local. Act global. Learn more about the Peace Corps


8/11/09 Word of the Day: "Berber"

You can't read this blog without encountering the word "Berber". A lot. I call my village Berberville, talk about my Berber neighbors, my Berber dialect, and my life as a Berber girl.

But some people would have you believe that "Berber" is an insulting word, a condescending, diminishing, cruel, derogatory, and offensive term.

I hear this more often from city folk who have a Berber grandma somewhere in a mountain village than from anyone I actually encounter in daily life.

They'll point out that Amazigh - Free People - is the term that these mountain folk use to refer to themselves. Put another way, amazigh is the Berber word for Berber. ;)

The etymology of "Berber" dates back a long, long way, and isn't crystal clear. Scholars have a chicken-and-egg discussion going as to its relationship to "barbarian" and "Barbary Pirate". The words are undoubtedly related, but which came first is hotly debated.

An alternate theory for the origin of the word "Berber" is "Barba Rossa", the most famous of these pirates, the red-bearded master of the seas. Some argue that his red hair illustrates his descent from those original navigational geniuses, the Phoenicians. There are definitely plenty of red-headed Amazighn around still today, though they're a minority.

What is clear is that several hundred years ago, sea-farers from the countries of the Maghreb - Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia - wreaked havoc on Atlantic trade. Most European sea powers found it easier to buy them off than defeat them at sea. (There's a whole side tangent about the origins of American naval power and Jefferson's arguments with Washington and Adams and the creation of our navy and even the drafting of the Constitution - and yes, there really is an important and story here - but I'll save that for another time.)

So whether Europeans called the Amazighn "Berbers" because they found them to be barbarous, or whether the word "Berber" already existed for these red-bearded sons of the Phoenicians, the fact remains that Europeans used the term to refer to folks they weren't happy with.

Hence all the negative associations.

But language is complicated, and words evolve over time. I have no problem with calling the Lakota peoples by their own name for themselves instead of the French-designated Sioux (which apparently meant "smelly", I've heard??), but if I'm talking to folks who go blank-eyed at the name Lakota, I'll switch back to the more familiar expression. When I'm discussing something I learned about African-American history, I'll probably switch off between that seven-syllable mouthful and the one-syllable "Black".

But we're talking about the Free Peoples of my mountains. Who are referred to as les berberes in French, l-shlua in Arabic, and Amazighn in Tamazight. So what should I call them when speaking English?

If I believed that "Berber" were offensive, I'd stop using it. But I don't. To draw from an example my readers will relate to, it's equivalent to "Black", not the n-bomb. It's descriptive, not derogatory. In my opinion, words become offensive when they're used to offend. When they become weapons, barbed [[hey, wonder if that's etymologically relevant?]] to cause pain.

I couldn't imagine referring to my friends, neighbors, and family with anything but love and respect. OK, and sometimes frustration or impatience, but never with an intent to harm, let alone wound.

So I'll keep using the innocuous-to-me-and-to-all-the-Amazighn-I-know "Berber", mixing it up with "Amazighn" as it seems appropriate, and will trust that y'all are giving me the benefit of the doubt.


One other thing, for the grammar hounds out there - because Tamazight is fraught with conjugations, Amazighn gets its own trip through the wringer. That form is the masculine plural, and refers to "them" - the collective. A group of females would be "Tamazightn", and a single man is an "Amazigh" or single female "Tamazight". And if you think that the feminine singular bears a striking similarity to the name of the language, you're right. Because Tam (as I usually call it) is a contraction of awal Tamazight - the language of the Free People - and since awal, language, is a feminine singular noun, the modifying adjective is conjugated in the feminine singular form. Because Amazigh is both a noun and an adjective - didn't I mention that before? Ah, fun with Tam. ;)


  1. Loved this! I'm putting together a Squidoo lense on the Kabyles of Algeria...just in homage to my inlaws really nothing ground breakingly informative...but I really like your discussion of the term it's so interesting that nobody ever uses the term berber amonst the Kabyles in Algeria...and I've only ever heard someone use it if they're trying to explain Amazigh and the distinction from North African Arab.s Anyway, hope you're ok with me including a link to this blog on the squidoo page (give me a shout if not).

  2. Lovely blog so happy to have found it :) Both of my parents are Amazigh but I live in France so it's always a pleasure to know how life is like in Morocco :) There is an issue, a problem that I have noticed in my fellows with both parents (or one) from Morocco (but they grew up in a western country) : they behave like they know everything about Amazigh culture, when they don't know much (and don't speak the language). I am kinda suspicious of them and feel like they want to appear "exotic" in front of their western friends. Personally I know I don't know much and don't really want to show off, I am really glad I've found a blog like yours, thanks for your perspective :)


Think local. Act global. Learn more about the Peace Corps