To “accuse of stealing” in Berber and Arabic

What do the following two utterances have in common?

kann-ak          tsarrag                      fi-ya?         كنك تسرّق فيا؟ (Arabic, Benghazi)
part.2SGM     steal.CAUS.2SGM.   in.1SG
“Why are you accusing me of stealing?”

šẹk       dīma         tsukāret                         dgī     شك ديما تسُكارت دْگي (Berber, Sokna)
you      always      steal.CAUS.2SGM.      in.1SG
“You always accuse me of stealing!”

The answer is that they both use the causative form of the word “to steal” to mean not *”to cause to steal” but rather to mean “to accuse of stealing”. We can add to this the Zwara Berber causative verb ysǝxnǝb with the same meaning. In this Arabic dialect, as in many others, the causative is expressed by Form II of the verb, while these Berber varieties use the –s– causative (note that in Zwara the verb happens to be a loan from Arabic).

 “Steal”   “Accuse of stealing”  Place
 yisrig يسرق  īsarrag ايسرّق  Benghazi
 yukȫrr يُكور  ysukāret يسُكارَت  Sokna
 yǝxnǝb يخنب  ysǝxnǝb يسخنب  Zwara

Of course, Classical Arabic سرّق sarraqa already means “to accuse someone of theft, call someone a thief”. This being the case, the Benghazi form is hardly surprising and the Berber forms are likely to be calques of the Arabic. But I do not know to what extent Arabic dialects outside of Libya use a reflex of sarraqa in the same way. Is it more widespread than just Libya? Furthermore, do other Berber varieties also use a causative of “to steal” in the same way? Can readers of this blog find or think of examples besides these in other languages of North Africa?

Works on Ghadames

There are a few works on Ghadames in Arabic, published in Libya, that might turn up interesting leads on its history and language should anyone have the time to delve into them.

One is a grammar of the Berber language of Ghadames in Arabic titled السهل و المسير في تعلم اللغة الامازيغية بلهجة غدامس by Abu Bakr Hārūn. It’s available to order from a UK-based distributor here, though they’re currently sold out due to ‘overwhelming’ demand by Berberologists. There are 484 sayings and prayer formulas accompanying the grammatical remarks.


There are also two catalogues of manuscripts and documents held in Ghadames. The more recent is وثائق غدامس: وثائق تجارية، تاريخية، اجتماعية, published in 1995. It may be ordered online here. It seemingly follows on an older volume (with awesomer cover): فهرس مخطوطات غدامس, published in 1986. Both are by بشير قاسم يوشع. I had a brief flip through both volumes in the library and did not come across any mention of Berber, however, though that may be due to both having been published under the former regime. A more detailed reading might turn up clues.

ghadames-mss1 ghadames-mss2

Here is also a plug for Maarten Kossman’s recent grammatical sketch of Ghadames Berber, the first new monograph on that language in several decades. See the table of contents here.

A map of early 20th-century Awjila


Plan of Awjila from Scarin 1937 (insert between pp. 76 and 77).

Plan of Awjila from Scarin 1937 (insert between pp. 76 and 77).


This map of Awjila comes from a work by the colonial-era Italian “human geographer” Emilio Scarin on the oases of eastern Libya, focusing on Awjila, Jalu, Jaghbub, and Marada. The high density of mosques and tombs of marabouts that Awjila is famous for can clearly be seen.

The term “human geographer” is in quotes because Scarin was evidently a practitioner of the cranium– and lip-thickness–measuring type of fascist racial sciences (just check out his pamphlet “Le oasi del Fezzàn : ricerche ed osservazioni di geografia umana”). Not all of his works were of that type; thankfully the volume from which the above map is taken contains almost nothing of the sort and is full of detailed maps of the oases and plans of vernacular architecture.

Scarin, Emilio. 1937. Le oasi cirenaiche del 29 parallelo. Ricerche ed osservazioni di geografia umana. Firenze.

Recent publications

Two articles by Marijn van Putten, both historical linguistic studies of Libyan Berber varieties, are now published.

“Some notes on the historical consonantism of Awjila” (Folia Orientalia 51, 2014, 257–274) can be accessed at this link. The contents of the entire issue can be viewed here. Hooray for open access!

“Reflexes of the glottal stop in Nefusa and Ghadames” (Wiener Zeitschrift für die Kunde des Morgenlandes 105, 2015, 303–314), is not available online for a while but can be consulted in print format (or for an offprint contact Marijn directly or leave a comment below).

Ghadames story 1: The kitten and the rat

This text comes from Lanfry, J. (1968.) Ghadamès. Etude Linguistique et Ethnographique. Algérie: Fort-National. The texts have been transcribed by Maarten Kossmann, and all the correctons that Lanfry provided in a later publication have been included by him. For those who would like an idea of what Ghadames looks like:

Ghadames. Image by George Steinmetz, National Geographic.

Instead of a word-by-word gloss, this time we’ve only given the translation. A complete vocabulary can be found after the break.

yo̱t te̱žărt tǝlla takaṭṭuss d oḇǝǧǧan. ǧărrădăn, ǧărrădăn. aḇǝnnǝḇǝn rŏwwăḥăn. ikk asǝf sa.
One time there was a kitten and a rat. They played and played. In the evening they went home. Every day (it went) like that.

yo̱t te̱žărt, tǝnna-yas ma-yis n takaṭṭuss-e i yălle-s: – din twe̱das?
One time, the mother of this kitten said to her daughter: Where did you go?

tǝnna-yas: – gărrădǝɛ năšš d oḇǝǧǧan.
(The kitten) said: I was playing with rat.

tǝnna-yas: – iše wăl t-id-tăbbe̱t?
(The mother) said to her: Why have you not caught her?

tǝnna-yas: – azakka t-id-ăbbăɛ.
(The kitten) said: Tomorrow I will catch him.

oḇǝǧǧan-e tǝnna-yas ma̱-yis: – din twe̱das?
As for that rat, his mother said to him: Where did you go?

inna-ya̱s: – gărrădăɛ năšš ǝt takaṭṭuss.
(The rat) said to her: I was playing with kitten.

tǝnna-yas: – ak tǝkṣe̱dǝt šǝk-tǝšš?
(His mother) said to him: Are you not afraid that she’ll eat you?

inna-ya̱s: – azakka ak tiwiɛas [tiweɛas? JL]
(The rat) said to her: Tomorrow I won’t go to her.

takaṭṭus-e, eḇăḍ ǝnnăs imda ak tănădde̱m… ǝṣṣala, tǝkkăr-d zik, tǝzzăl i daž n oḇǝǧǧan-e, tǝnna-yas-ǝn: – oḇǝǧǧan, oḇǝǧǧan, wiǧǧǝz, ǝn_nǝǧrăd!
The cat, the whole night goes by and (lit. ‘her night ends’) she did not sleep… In the morning, she wakes up early and runs to the house of the rat. There she says to him: Rat, Rat! come down, so that we can play!

inna-yaz-d oḇǝǧǧan-e: – ke am-tăssǝlmăd ma-yim tăssǝlmăd-i-t imma!
And rat said to her: What your mother has taught you, my mother has taught me it!

yăbul-az-d esm-i yărwăl.
He pissed in her ear and fled.

tǝqqa tulless, wăl tǝqqe rrăḥmăt ǝn Răbbi!
The story is over, (but) the compassion of God is not!

Read more of this post

Intra-Berber borrowing in Yefren

At a recent conference, I met the Libyan activist Maziɣ Buzexxar, who was kind enough to answer some of my questions about Yefren Berber.  As we have already seen for “hand“, words that end up as CuC monosyllables in Yefren (and elsewhere in Zenati) regularly correspond to uCeC in Nefusi (and Ghadamsi).  One such word is “straw”: lum in Yefren (as in Siwa) vs. ulem in Jadu (and alim in Kabyle).  Thus, in Yefren, “a pile of straw” is aguday n lum.Milky_Way_Night_Sky_Black_Rock_Desert_Nevada

Throughout the Middle East and North Africa, the Milky Way is referred to as “the Road of Straw” or “Road of the Straw-bearers“, with the scattered stars conceived of as straws fallen from the load being carried, rather than, as in Greek tradition, as milk.  Yefren is no exception.  But in Yefren, according to Maziɣ, the Milky Way is called: abrid n ulem (which he understood, with no difficulty, as meaning “road of straw”).

If the facts are correct – obviously confirmation with more Yefrenis would be better – then the explanation is obvious: Yefren borrowed its term for the Milky Way as a whole from the Nefusi communities to its west, while keeping their original word for “straw”.  Intra-Berber borrowing – borrowing of words from one Berber language into another – must have been an important phenomenon historically, but it is often made invisible by the sound correspondences being trivial.  In this case, the Nefusi vowel shift makes it unusually conspicuous.  More such cases should be sought.

“Meat” and “drink” in Libyan Berber

The previously mentioned Facebook group has been continuing its activity – particular credit should go to Sami Halasa and Faycel Marir, for asking many dialectologically interesting questions.  Two recent ones seem interesting enough to share, and illustrate slightly different isogloss patterns – as usual, the Jebel Nefusa minus Yefren+Al-Qalaa and Wazzin stands out, but this time it shows significant internal divisions too, in a different place each time.

Meat“: aksum in dark green, aysum in green, usəm in yellowish-green, isan in white.


Aksum/aysum is pretty well universal in Berber along the Mediterranean – showing the usual Nefusi vowel shift in usəm – while isan is more associated with Tuareg.  It’s possible that isan is related to aksum/aysum/usəm: in Ghadames, it appears that isan is actually the irregularly formed plural of aksəm.  If so, however, I don’t understand the relationship well: was -um a singulative? or perhaps just -w, with -un-w > -um?

Also interesting is “he drinks“: isəss in green, itəssu/isəssu in yellowish green, yəssaw in white:


Of these, isəss, as the most irregular form, is presumably original (cf. Kossmann 2008); the other two have been partially regularised to fit better with more common conjugations.  The Nalut form looks exactly like Siwi, but that may be coincidence.  Sokna shows a combination of both innovations: itəssaw.


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