Writing Berber Languages: a quick summary

Version 2.01

by Lameen Souag

This topic has become quite hot since I wrote the first version of this; in Morocco, Tifinagh has been adopted officially for the first time ever - not long after the first full translation of the meaning of the Quran into Tamazight ever was published - while in Algeria Tamazight has been recognized as a "national language", and even the Libyan Ibadhi diaspora has been working on preserving their language and traditions; Tifinagh has finally, after years of discussion, been included in Unicode, and historical linguists such as Prof. van den Boogert have been uncovering earlier medieval manuscript traditions than were thought possible. But it still suffers from intellectual fragmentation; this is an attempt at an overview...

If you have trouble viewing some of the characters, download and install PakType's free fonts for Arabic (I recommend PakType Tehreer; you have to sign up for the mailing list, though), and Gentium for Latin, and set them up as your browser defaults for best results.




Sometime in the fifth century BC or so (the earliest attested dated inscription is from 138 BC, but the letter forms appear to have developed from early Phoenician rather than the cursive Punic then current, and some archeologists argue for a date as early as 500 BC for the Azib n'Ikkis inscription in Morocco), the Numidians and other early Berber kingdoms developed a script now known as Numidic, or Old Libyan, or Libyco-Berber. This script, like ancient Greek, was clearly based on early Phoenician, which appears to have contributed the characters for b, g, h, z, y, l, n, q, r, sh, and t at least (see the table here); but many innovations were required for sounds not found in Phoenician, and these - as well as the overall style of the script - seem to have been influenced by earlier traditions of geometric rock art and possibly cattle marking. Since this script appears to have been used mainly on stone inscriptions, its forms were geometric for easier carving (like Runic or monumental Latin). Like Phoenician, appropriately for an Afro-Asiatic language, it did not transcribe vowels (not even initial ones); it was usually written top-down or right-to-left, but bottom-to-top is not uncommon. It is attested from innumerable tombstones and a few Numidian governmental inscriptions (mainly in Dougga, then called tbgg, in Tunisia, as with the famous bilingual), from the Canary Islands all the way to Libya, although the letter forms varied to some extent across this vast range, falling into two main groups, eastern and western. This script continued in occasional use up to the late Roman Empire, after which it is not attested anywhere north of the Atlas Mountains. In late times, there were extremely sporadic tombstones in Libyan using the Latin script, as with Neo-Punic. If you speak Arabic, you may be interested in a more detailed examination of it at my site; in French, Monde Berbere offers a lot of information.


Even as it disappeared in the North, however, the Tuareg preserved - and continue to preserve - a simplified variant of it as a living tradition, used for letters or graffiti or occasionally poetry. They call this script Tifinagh, or in some areas Shifinagh, and, despite government decisions in Niger and Mali to replace it with the Latin alphabet, it is still in wide use today. The details of its evolution from Libyan are unknown, but some ancient graffiti from the Sahara which use letters that have not survived in modern Tifinagh allow some degree of historical connection; inscriptions in the same intermediate alphabet (same according to Delgado; undoubtedly Tifinagh in any case) have been found in the Canaries, which may have preserved the tradition independently on Hierro until the arrival of the Spanish. While letter writing is primarily done in Tifinagh, such manuscripts as have survived the colonial era were in Arabic "Ajami" script (see Université Abdou Moumouni, Niamey (Niger) or Saharan Studies Association Nov 2000 for 16th-century examples from Timbuktu); more recently, books have very occasionally been published in Latin or Tifinagh. Efforts have been made to put forward reformed, vocalised (in various ways), left-to-right versions of this script as well, from 19th-century missionaries to the present, but its users seem to have shown little or no interest; indeed, so far it has not even been standardized, and varies significantly from region to region. As the Tuareg are one of the most literate peoples of the area, this script has sporadically been used for noting other normally unwritten West African languages, such as Tagdal Songhai and Fulfulde.) Further details on this script can be seen at this site; fonts are downloadable at Qui resiste. A real-life example, a menu in fact, can be seen here - or even better, a whole book on camel disorders; also, Hanoteau's Grammaire de la Langue Tamashek and Motylinksi's Dictionnaire Touareg (which use this script copiously) is now available from the Bibliothèque Nationale Française. Rather charmingly, one of the few Tuareg printed works in this script is a Tamasheq translation of Le Petit Prince.

It is interesting to note that this script is more widely used by women than men; figures suggest 2/3 of Tuareg women are literate in it, in contrast to 1/3 of men, who are more often literate in the Arabic script, or even in the Arabic language instead, to deal with the outside world. While the educational systems of Niger and Mali (since 1997) include some limited Latin-alphabet native-language programs, which have increased in recent years, in the short term they seem unlikely to reach a scale sufficient to threaten the dominance of Tifinagh on the ground, particularly since most education focuses on French; indeed, some of the literacy programs rather sensibly avoid reinventing the wheel and use Tifinagh!

Islamic Era

Arabic script

After a hiatus in records during the Vandal and Byzantine periods, Berber languages in the North began to be written again as early as 1200 years ago, when the anti-Caliphal Ibadhite sect of Islam established a state in the central Maghreb; a lost work by al-Wighwi (d. 811) which "its author put in the Berber tongue, that the Berbers might transmit it" is mentioned by ad-Darjini, and several chroniclers mention twelve books of religious poetry by Abu Sahl al-Farisi in the 9th century (lost in a medieval war, according to ash-Shammakhi); several other early Ibadhi Berber-language works are alluded to by Muhammed u Madi, but the earliest surviving one seems to be a translation of Mudawanat Ibn Ghanim, now in Italy. Additionally, the Ibadhi history Riwayat ul-Ashyakh (about 1300) contains copious phrases in Berber; and the `Aqidat at-Tawhid, though now preserved only in Arabic,was translated from Berber. Berber writing received a boost further west about a thousand years ago with the Almoravids, whose founding texts - the sermons of Ibn Tumart - had originally been written in Berber; though most of their kingdom's writings have disappeared, surviving works include the 2500-word Berber-Arabic dictionary Kitab ul-Asma كتاب الأسماء compiled by Ibn Tunart (no relation) in 1146, and the frustratingly short "Leiden fragment", a 16-line page from an otherwise lost 14th-century work dealing with ethics in the Berber language, both in a medieval Tachelhit dialect, as well as isolated sentences and plant name lists in other works. Nico van den Boogert argues that these works - unlike most later ones outside the Moroccan Souss - use a fairly standardized orthography, implying a whole Berber educational system; he speculates, surprisingly, that this system was based in Andalusia, where until the Reconquista a substantial Berber-speaking population was found. Looking at the situation, one might have speculated that a Berber literary renaissance was about to emerge; instead, perhaps due to the turmoil coming from the Spanish to the north and the Banu Hilal to the east, the early medieval tradition virtually disappeared, although it left its traces in the later Tachelhit literature.

For the later medieval period, we have sporadic evidence of Berber writing almost everywhere the language was spoken; however, the Moroccan Souss stands out in this regard. There, a fairly large and continuous textual tradition, consisting particularly of religious poetry and translations but also including hadith and dictionaries, is attested starting as early as 1580; the most important author of this tradition was the prolific poet Muhammad Awzal (1680-1749). In the Souss a highly standardized orthography with several new letters was used, contrasting with the more haphazard spellings of other Berber areas. Nico van den Boogert, again, has published some fascinating investigations into these, along with a complete text of Awzal's Bahr ad-Dumu`.

Elsewhere, while not as strongly as in the Sous, Berber writing continued. In Kabylie, the early nationalist and religious leader Cheikh Mokrane (about 1870) wrote extensively in this script; it was also used for some correspondence, and in the colonial period extensive collections of poetry and fables used it, such as Poésie Populaire de la Kabylie de Jurjura; in addition, especially near Bejaia, there existed translations of the traditional Arabic textbooks of the zaouias, from religious poetry to mathematics (see EDB.) In Libya, the Ibadhis of Jabal Nafusa (as probably in the Mzab and Djerba) continued to write in Berber, as most notably attested by the handwritten geographical work Ighasra d Ibriden di Drar n Infusen of Brahim u Sliman Ashemmakhi in 1899, now being republished by Tawalt; they also mention a manuscript in the Ghat dialect from the same period. Apparently it was also used occasionally for a few poems in Middle Atlas Tamazight and in Tarifit; however, the American anthropologist Carleton Coon noted (in 1931!) that most of the Berber books in Morocco even as far north as the Rif were in Tachelhit. Knappert alludes to Zenaga writing, which, in light of Mauritania's extensive zaouia system, would seem probable on the face of it; however, I have only come across it in French linguistic works. Throughout this period, the zaouia network - providing a modicum of education to anyone interested, which most children took advantage of at least briefly - kept a limited degree of literacy up throughout North Africa, as it still does in parts of West Africa.

In modern times, the Arabic script has fallen into near-complete disuse in Algeria - even Mzabi works use Latin - but - particularly in a modernized orthography proposed by Muhammad Chafik - is still much used in Morocco and Libya, especially for Tashelhit, despite competition from Neo-Tifinagh; in Morocco, several books in recent decades have used it, including some fiction, a dictionary, and most notably the recent first full translation of the Quran into Berber, published 2003, a powerful influence in itself. Even in Algeria it was officially adopted for pedagogical purposes in 1996, although that project was abandoned soon after.

On the Internet, the Arabic script has as far as I know been used extensively by only two Berber language webpages: Tarifit Project and Tawalt. This is not surprising in retrospect; most North African computers tend to be equipped with French operating systems, and, while no language other than English has a really significant online presence, French has far more webpages and software than Arabic.

Just for completeness' sake, it should also be added that Jewish Berbers occasionally wrote Berber in Hebrew characters; see Judeo-Berber.

Latin script

Under French colonialism, missionaries and army linguists were naturally frustrated with having to learn the Arabic alphabet, and with the expense of printing the vowel signs necessary for a pedagogical work, so they invented Latin transcription systems for Berber and dialectal Arabic (an particularly phonologically uninformed early example can be seen in this Kabyle Bible translation). While 1400 years' worth of literature stood in the way of their occasional attempts to impose this system on speakers of North African Arabic, the much smaller body of Berber literature allowed the idea of Latinisation to take hold among some of the small minority fortunate enough to get an education under the French, particularly in Algeria; the plummeting of literacy rates under the occupation also helped. Since independence, and particularly since the establishment of a standard transcription for Kabylie in 1970, Latinisation has been strongly promoted by Berber (particularly Kabyle) intelligentsia - most of whom, having been educated in French, are more familiar with the Latin script than any other - as well as being very popular with the emigrant community in France; additionally, it fits very well with the specific character of the Kabyle Berberist movement, much of which is pro-Western to an almost Atatürk-esque extent. As a result, such literature as has been published in Kabyle since, and to a lesser extent most other northern Berber dialects apart from Tachelhit and Nafusi, has mostly been published in the Latin script; these include several poems, short stories, dictionaries, grammars, and a few plays. (It is also used for song titles on cassettes, I notice, for instance by Ait Menguellet...) In Algeria, the government body in charge of the matter - the Haut Commision pour l'Amazighité - appears to have settled on Latin after a period of vacillation; if so, Latin will likely take hold irreversibly in the coming years as Berber is introduced to the classroom.

Almost all Berber webpages use some idiosyncratic, typable variety of this transcription; a handful, such as the HCA-sponsored Aghlan, actually take advantage of Unicode's capabilities and use the official version. Recently (2004) a Latin alphabet Berber computer package has come out; this will make typing this a little easier... I have released a keyboard as well.


In the late sixties, it occurred to certain Berber revivalists that having a unique script would be good for public relations, allowing them to claim to have revived an ancient tradition and avoiding the unpatriotism of the Roman alphabet as well as the traditionalism of the Arabic alphabet. So the Academie Berbere (later renamed Agraw Imazighen) in Paris, a group of expatriate Kabyle activists, put forward a proposal in 1967 taking letter forms indiscriminately from Tifinagh and Libyan, with vowel letters and letters for spirants added, written left to right. (For a small amount of historical background on this movement see I Masiri.) This orthography, with minor variations, has been widely adopted by activists in Kabylie, parts of Morocco, and apparently even Libya; in Algeria, both the main Berberist parties, the FFS and RCD, use it in their posters, and many street signs (cf. Tilmatine as well as my own observations) are written in it, as are a couple of periodicals. How many people can actually read it is another matter, and would be interesting to research.

The Academie Berbere script is extremely unsatisfying to a linguist, failing to represent several marginally phonemic emphatic contrasts, and unnecessarily representing the environmentally conditioned spirants; it is also a hodgepodge of forms taken from Tifinagh, Libyan, or even South Arabian and Iberian. For this reason, a few new proposals have been made, of which the most influential is probably Chaker's (who wants to introduce the Latin alphabet anyway). However, these seem to have fallen flat; after thirty years, the Academie Berbere's version is fairly entrenched.

Very recently - towards the end of 2003 - the Moroccan government decided to make a variant of this script official, and teach it in schools; unless this decision is reversed under political pressure, as in Algeria - which seems unlikely, given the more moderate nature both of the Moroccan Berberist movement and of the opposition to them - this seems likely to ensure the orthography's future. The precise orthography to be used is detailed on Adrar.nl; it is another variant on the Académie Berbère theme. Already the first textbooks have been printed... It will be interesting to follow future developments.

This script is very commonly promoted on the Web, and virtually every Berber page, irrespective of what language it may be in or what orthography it supports, seems to feel compelled to include at least a logo in it, if not a table of the letters; however, only one web page, Ayt Umazigh (now disappeared!) used it exclusively, and only one other, Amazellaw N'Tilit, uses a variant of it extensively (in its dictionary.) When Tifinagh makes it into Unicode, it may become practical to write in it online; but for the moment, it's simply too much effort for most.

Orthographic specifics:


Note in general that, until this century, most Maghrebi manuscripts Arabic or Berber used the Maghrebi style, in which fa has one dot below ڢ, and qaf one above ڧ, while shadda ـّ is sometimes a small v instead of the familiar sign, and hamza could show up next to the bearer as well as on it (ءا rather than أ.)

In the early medieval western orthography, according to Prof. van den Boogert, the vowels a, i, u are represented by the corresponding Arabic long vowels ا، ي، و, while the schwa e is represented by the fat'ha ـَ, and rounding (labiovelarization) by d.amma ـُ; at the beginning of a word, an alif hamza أ (إ) or (strangely) alif madd آ is used to carry the long vowels, while a simple alif ا is used for the short vowels. Occasionally, a at the end of a word is written with alif maqsura ى or ha ه, but usually it is written as you would expect with alif ا; similarly, word-final waw is sometimes followed by a silent alif ا. For consonants, emphatic d. is written with t.a ط, emphatic z. with s.ad ص or in some sources zayn ز, g with jim ج or (depending on the period) kaf ك or qaf ق, and French j with jim ج or (again depending on the period) shin ش. Other consonants are written as in Arabic. I retype a few here:

تونين ان وجليد، تيسنت ان وصرو، امان يسيدان، وار الاغ، تَالُقِّيتْ، يَدُّخْتَنْ

The early medieval Ibadhis used a very similar system; I quote from Muhammad u Madi:

أوِينْغَنْ ابو عُمرو النَمِيلِي يَفْتَا العِزنّكْ وَيْلاَلْ إِيَوْطا أفْتَانتَسْ ترجلينْ

The traditional Tachelhit orthography is the most consistent of the Berber systems. In it, the vowels a, i, u are indicated by the appropriate Arabic short vowels ـَ ـِ ـُ; the language has no schwa e, so where other Berber languages have this, they wrote sukun ـْ. Alif hamza أ was used at the beginning of words as a vowel bearer. g is written as kaf with three dots underneath ڮ, emphatic z. as s.ad with three dots underneath ڞ, and emphatic d. with d.ad ض. Rounding (labiovelarization) could be indicated with d.amma ـُ, but in such a case could not be distinguished from u. I have pictures of two examples, one from Sidi Hammo's poetry, and one from a poem about Christian-Muslim wars; I have attempted to retype from the former:

يَنْ زِكْ صْبَحْ اَرْسْمُقْلْن غْلَوْضِينْ
كِّنْدِسْنْ لْوُحُشْ اڞْلْمضْ مْكَنْ دِفِّشْ
اِكْدِ سْنْ وَيَّضْ مْنِدْ اضْفْرْتِدْ وَيَّضْ
لْقُوْتْ نِڞْنْكَضْ دْوِشِّنْ ارْدْ اِفْكْدْ لْوُحُشْ

In Kabyle manuscripts, the system used was less unified, and certainly less well-designed; however, its main characteristics are fairly consistent. The vowels a, i, u could be written short or long, depending on whether they were stressed; schwa e was written with fat'ha ـَ, and rounding (labiovelarization) could be indicated by d.amma ـُ. Alif hamza أ was used at the beginning of words as a vowel bearer, sometimes even for the schwa e, which is certainly non-phonemic in that position. g was written as qaf with three dots above ڨ, a method widely used in Algeria and Tunisia, or as simple kaf ك. or ; emphatic dh. was written indifferently as d.aad ض or dh.aa ظ, and emphatic z. not distinguished from normal z. The affricates tch and dj were not distinguished from the fricatives sh and j respectively, becoming ش and ج; the common Kabyle sound ts was written phonemically, as تّ (which it still is in most Berber languages.) The partially phonemic spirants were indicated for th ث and dh ذ, but v, k, and g were written like their non-spirant counterparts ب ك ڨ. Many examples of it can be seen in Poésie Populaire de la Kabylie de Jurjura, from which I quote:

أَيَكَلِّيذْ اَلنَّضَرْ
أتْرَغْدْ أبَابْ ألُّوفَ
أَدْعَغْكِيدْ سَنْبِي اَلطَّهَرْ
ذَكْرَ لَيْهَدْرَنْ يَشْفَ
أَكْرَذَ أَرُوثْ ذِمْحَرَّرْ
عَثْفَغْ سِجَهَنَّمَ

In Jabal Nafusa - and doubtless many other places - a similar rough system was sometimes used. From a letter from 1881, reproduced on Tawalt:

باب يوي كربوش خالي يڨوا اسلان * نتش تاوي السيف تمل باركت باركت* ما موا ورتباش وارده وارده *
I have samples of many other dialects transcribed in Arabic - for instance, Zenaga, Sened, Ghadames, Chenoua, Ksour - but only brief phrases or stories written at the behest of French linguists; they are thus less relevant to the history of Berber orthographies. However, they suggest a broader writing tradition, and thus could merit further investigation. I quote one example of these, a Chenoua nursery rhyme:

شداح شداح بو عمران
اك سيغغ الحب ترومان

For Tuareg, Arabic is still widely used; in Burkina Faso, it is reported to be more common than the use of Tifinagh. Short vowels are written with fatha or kasra; o is not distinguished from u, nor é from i. The long vowels may be represented by Arabic long vowels or short vowels, depending on the writer. The additional characters kaf with three dots ڭ for g and jim with three dots چ for palatalized g are used; French j is written with simple jim ج, while emphatic z is indicated by ظ.

In recent years, Professor Chafik has popularized a new, rather well-designed Arabic orthography, which he used in publishing a dictionary; this was also used in the recent translation of the Quran, and in the two Arabic-using Berber-language websites Tarifit Project (now defunct) and Tawalt. In it, the vowels a, i, u are consistently written long ا ي و (any resulting ambiguity can be resolved by using sukuun ـْ, as illustrated below); at the beginning of words, they are written with hamza أ ئ ؤ. The schwa e is in general ignored. g is the familiar Middle Eastern kaaf with a line گ; emphatic d. is simply d.aad ض; emphatic z. is the Middle Eastern three-dotted zayn ژ. tch and dj are represented as consonant clusters تش and دج. In the Tarifit Project site, spirantisation is marked for th ث and dh ذ; neither Prof. Chafik nor Tawalt are dealing with dialects in which it occurs, so it is hard to say whether this is a general practice. Here is Surat al-Ikhlas retyped:

سـ وسّاغ نـ ربّي أمالاّيْ أمسمولّو
ئنّا ربّي ئـ ومازان نس: ئني الله (جلا جلاله) نتّا كا يگان يان، ور يلّي مات يرْواسن
نتّا كاد يزّان ف كرا يْلان، ور سار رات يليح
ور يورو يان، ؤلا يورت يان
ور يلّي مقارد كرا نـ يان ت يرْواسن، ؤلا يگا يـ اس انگو.

There exists at least one Kabyle reform proposal (Belaid) for Arabic transcription as well, adding a variety of diacritics (mostly , as in Kurdish) to distinguish affricates and velarised consonants and so forth; but I don't think this is known even as much as, say, Chaker's Neo-Neo-Tifinagh.

If you are acquainted with a traditional Berber orthography or manuscript, feel free to email me!


For the Latin script, various efforts have been made over the years. I would prefer to skip entirely over the chaotic French-based transcriptions of the colonial era, but since they are similar to the basis for the transcription of placenames and personal names into French, and much has been written by colonial linguists in them, they are worth noting; their main features are: u and w expressed as ou, schwa e as e, and y as ï or just i; 3ayn ع expressed with a circumflex over the vowel (usually over a, so â), or more rarely as an apostrophe '; sh expressed as ch; gh as r' or gh; spirants might be unmarked or marked by an apostrophe (d, d'), and two of them could also be written th and v; emphatics (and Ha ح) might be unmarked, marked by an apostrophe, or marked by a dot underneath, and in the case of d. ض written simply dh; Sad ص was usually written ç; tch and dj written thus; kh خ as kh; q ق as k' or q. I quote an example in Tachelhit:

Marra zeg is ar oukan ittazal h'ina idhehak'
Marra zeg is ir'illa r'elh'ezen içh'an arallan
Iddoun ar r'illi r'in illa khazin ouin n niran
Iafen khazin nit iggi n ian lekersi.

Another system, used by Mouloud Feraoun in Les Poèmes de Si Mohand (1960), is worthy of note insofar as it has influenced some recent attempts to design easily typable transcriptions. Its vowels are as above; for consonants, it indicates emphasis by doubling (tt, dd, zz, but q for ق), and uses c for spirant k, gg for spirant g, v for spirant b, h for Ha ح but hh for ha ه, kh and gh for خ and غ, and of course ch and ç for sh ش and Sad ص. As a result of his particular choice of digraphs, his notation is completely unable to represent gemination (shadda ـّ), and, indicating as it does all the spirants, is even worse suited to any dialect but Kabyle. I quote an example stanza:

Thikhelta ad hhedjigh asfrou
Oua lahh addilhhou
Addinaddi ddeg louddiath.

In recent years, the INALCO system has emerged as the orthography of choice for Latin-alphabet Berber printed works; its practical disadvantages (in terms of using at least ten characters available neither on the average keyboard nor in the average printer's shop) are to some extent compensated for by its carefully designed precision and phonemic representation. This, it seems, is the system embraced by the Algerian HCA. On that subject, Latest on Amazigh notation, by Inalco in Paris, should be much more than sufficient; a shorter summary is available from Encodage Berbère UTF-8. To summarize: sh = c, gh غ = ɣ (gamma), 3ayn ع = ɛ (epsilon), French j = j, tch = č (or in some versions ç) and dj = ğ (or in some versions j̧), and the short schwa vowel is written e, as in French; emphatic consonants (including r.) and Ha ح are shown with a dot underneath (eg ṭ), gemination by doubling, and velarisation (w) by ° after the letter (or in some standards w after the letter). Where more phonetic transcription is required, ts = t cedilla (ţ), dz = z cedilla (z̧), and spirants are shown by underlining (eg b); but these last distinctions are not intended for normal usage, and they argue that the spirants of some dialects (notably Kabyle) are not in general phonemic. I quote a brief excerpt from Aghlan:

Wi yifen necci d-wul-ikʷ *** iwḍeγ arja-kʷ, d arǧaz
Yedwel-d ul-enneγ d iggen *** si neqda afečči n ičras
Γi cemmi lliγ ad edseγ *** awen tsiwayt, sell-as
Iwalen-es ifen-am ureγ *** ifen-am azref d-wečmas

The advent of the Internet has brought the practical disadvantages of this orthography into sharp relief; as a result, many sites use their own standards. However, it would be premature to list these until they attain a greater permanence. One of the least elegant solutions can been seen at Isegh; two adaptations of the INALCO standard, one involving substitution of ' for underdot and the other substition of a circumflex over the adjacent vowel, can be seen at Monde Berbère and again Monde Berbère.

The Tuareg varieties use a different (though similar) orthography established by the Malian government with the aid of Karl Prasse. They have a substantially larger vowel system, and therefore add schwa (ə) to write schwa, ă for short a, and use e and o for long é and o. Extra-long vowels, found in stative forms, are written with a circumflex. The emphatics are written with hooked letters in Burkina Faso, but with the usual underdots elsewhere. j represents palatalized g rather than, as in the north, French j; French j is represented by ž. Similarly, sh is written š.


Neo-Tifinagh has seen a substantial amount of variation since the sixties; some of these variations can be seen on the Web as used for Kabyle, Tashelhit, more Tashelhit, Tamazight proper, Tarifit, and Libyan Berber, as well as Guanche-Tamazight (invented for Canarian nationalists loosely based on the toponymic remnants of Guanche), and even Chaker's version; a good comparative table can be seen on Bizari. It is always written left to right, with full vowels, as if in transcription of the Latin orthography. Free fonts for it can be downloaded at RifWeb, among other sites. Variations that should be noted are:

However, the situation seems to be becoming clearer; in Morocco, of course, we can assume the new IRCAM orthography will become standard, and the old Académie Berbère version seems to be well-entrenched in Kabylie if only for logos and posters. For Libya or the Canaries, I have no idea; but it is interesting to note that Tawalt has begun using Tifinagh for some purposes.

The consonant z looks very photogenic, so it has been adopted as an unofficial symbol of the Tamazight movement. Obviously inspired by neo-pagan attitudes to runes or ogham, some enthusiasts have made up mystical values for about ten Tifinagh letters as well, and attempted to give them suitable mythical pedigrees; see Kabyle.com.

For comparison - and for those on whose browsers the Unicode selections were lost - the following is the same Kabylie text rendered in Arabic, Neo-Tifinagh, and Latin script (each with the orthography best known in Kabylie), taken from Fi 'lmas'alati 'l'amaazighiyyati في المسألة الأمازيغية, by Prof. Salah Belaid.

Encoding issues

Most versions of all three of the scripts being commonly used to write Berber contain non-standard characters that stop them from using any of the older codepages (although frankly it is shocking that none of the Arabic standard codepages contains gaaf); only the Chafik orthography is partially immune to this problem. However, as this document demonstrates, Unicode already supports all the Arabic and Latin transcriptions, as long as you have the right fonts (eg PakType's free fonts, Gentium, Arial Unicode MS, Code2000, many of which are available free); and increasingly, new computers come with Unicode support and extensive fonts as standard. It has finally included Unicode recently, after lengthy discussion.

An equally serious practical issue is that not one of the standard orthographies is simultaneously phonemically adequate and typable on a "normal" (that is, French or Arabic) keyboard; however, the appropriate response to that is to design new keyboard layouts, for instance using the free Microsoft Keyboard Layout Editor for Windows or Yudit or the like for Linux. In fact, that is exactly what I have now done; see Tamazight Keyboards. In the meantime, a variety of idiosyncratic Latin transcriptions compatible with normal keyboards are being used on several websites (eg Tamazgha, but no two are alike); what Tifinagh there is on the net appears as images or uses proprietary fonts. For Arabic, the one site to have embraced it wholeheartedly, Tawalt, provides input tools to make it easier (an example can be seen at EMELD if you log in.)

Practical usage

In actual usage, it is certain that every Berber born after the beginning of universal free education, and quite a few born under the French who went to traditional zawiyas, can read the Arabic orthography; it uses no unusual letters (except perhaps the Tachelhit emphatic z), and is quite intuitive to anyone who can read Arabic. The Arabic script also supports a significant body of literature, although little of it is - apart from the recent religious publications - is easily available in bookshops, or indeed in print. The Latin transcription, by contrast, is highly counterintuitive even to someone who has learned French (itself among the least rationally spelled languages on this planet), and requires ten unfamiliar new letters. However, it does have a comparatively large body of literature written in it this century, which, although difficult to find, is at least more often in print than works written in the Arabic script. It now also has both the weight of the Algerian government and the support of most Kabyle activist groups behind it. The Neo-Tifinagh alphabet attracts a more intense ideological commitment than the Latin alphabet, and is correspondingly widely known and used among activists and politicians, not to mention graffitists; besides, it looks quite cool, which always helps publicity. Only a couple of magazine articles and manifestos are available in it, and only since 2003 have any books at all has been published in it; however, with the backing of the Moroccan government and of a substantial portion of Moroccan Berber activists, this looks set to change fast.

Personal opinion: My conclusion when I first wrote this article in 2000 was that "Although Arabic would in my opinion be the most sensible choice - not only is it the most widely known script, but it has been the vehicle of over a thousand years of genuine living Berber culture, whereas Neo-Tifinagh is artificial, folkloric kitsch, more suitable for travel brochures and logos than daily use - I would predict that Neo-Tifinagh will probably emerge as the Berber script of choice as a compromise, because, to proponents of Latin or Arabic, it is perceived as better than Arabic or Latin respectively; Latin is seen as too unpatriotic, and Arabic is seen as associated with government policies." I feel half-vindicated in this conclusion by Morocco's recent (2003) decision to teach Berber in Neo-Tifinagh at school; however, the Kabyle movement in Algeria is considerably more pro-Latin, and, although one can never be sure when the politics is over, Latin does seem to have won for the moment in Algeria. In Libya, of course, any government recognition of Berber is a long way off; according to Gaddafi, the Berbers - and indeed the American Indians - are actually Arabs and speak dialects of Arabic! In Tunisia and Mauritania, the Berber-speaking population is too small for the question to arise.

It should be noted that the tough choices facing Berber writers are not unique - compare Mandinka (spoken in Senegal and Gambia), where at least half the population are literate in the Arabic script (according to a World Bank report and the Ethnologue), while the governments insist on using a Latin orthography known by less than 10% of the population, and a significant minority use the more 'native' N'ko script invented in the fifties. It just goes to show the sort of mess you get into if you have intellectuals attempting to plan scripts in accordance with broader philosophical fads; although in some ways it is rather appropriate that traditionalists (or indeed reactionaries), believers in 'progress' (aka the mentally colonized), and romantics (directly copying their ideology from European folk-nationalist movements of the 1800's) should all write different scripts, frankly they're unlikely enought to listen to each other already. Isn't it bad enough that the three sides normally write in different languages?

Acknowledgements and more links

For a more detailed history of old Libyan and Tifinagh (in French), see Monde Berbere. I acknowledge my debt for information to all the sites linked to from here, as well as the excellent Fi 'lmas'alati 'l'amaazighiyyati, by Prof. Belaid, and, to a much lesser extent, L'Amazigh: écrire le berbère, a book by Ferrah putting forward his own idiosyncratic alphabet along with a fair dose of racist ravings but also a few photos of Libyan inscriptions. I also benefited greatly from Prof. Nico van der Boogert's works - particular note should be made of the best book on the Tashelhit literary tradition, The Berber Literary Tradition of the Sous - and from some articles by Muhammad u Madi; and it would be churlish not to note the extremely useful materials provided by the BNF and Cambridge University Library. I also thank Manie Lombard for sending information on Tuareg.

Version 2 © 2004. Disclaimer for the very easily offended: The term 'Berber' is completely neutral in normal English usage; I use it instead of 'Amazigh' only because very few English speakers know the latter term. 1