Ghost Languages?

Ghost words are words that have typically never existed in reality, but that get taken into account in reference works or scholarly research and come to have a life of their own until they are noticed and removed. Erroneous citation, spelling or printing mistakes, or misreadings can all be reasons that bring ghost words into existence. Ghost words have plagued linguistic research at various points—imagine publishing an analysis of a strange Latin word, only for a later scholar to point out that the word was originally misspelled in the text edition you were using. Something similar can happen when some source claims that a language is or was spoken in such-and-such place, and later sources adopt that claim as fact, but in reality there never was (or never plausibly was) such a language in such a place!

For example, I recently came across a Wikipedia page for the Zurg language, a Berber language apparently spoken in Kufra, Libya. (Note: this is probably not an inside joke referring to the Zerg). Clicking around the Wikipedia pages for Berber languages, one notices as well that a Tmessa language is classified as part of Eastern Berber, but clicking on it redirects one to the page for the language of Sokna, Libya (a real, though probably recently extinct, language). Strangely enough, most Berberologists have never heard of either Zurg or Tmessa.

These Wikipedia pages are not entirely to blame, as they derive their information from three sources: a 1999 work by Václav Blažek on the reconstruction of numerals (with a chapter on Berber numerals), a 2001 work by Roger Blench in which a subgrouping of Berber languages is proposed, and a 2006 work by Blench & Dendo repeating the 2001 subgrouping of Berber. *Note that all these subgroupings are out of date.*

The first of these, Blažek (1999:157-159) gives a subgrouping of Berber languages drawn largely from the Russian studies of Aikhenvald and Militarev (1987, 1991; which I have not been able to consult) as follows:

“Eastern Berber: Siwa (oasis Siwa in West Egypt), Zurg (oasis Kufra in East Libya), Fezzan (oases Tmessa and El Fodjaha [sic!] in South Libya), Augila (oasis Djalo in North-East Libya), Sokna (North Libya), Ghadames (oasis Ghadames in West Libya)”

It should be noted that the geography is a bit off, and Augila (Awjila) and Djalo (Jālu) are two separate oases in eastern Libya, only the former of which is Berber-speaking. “El Fodjaha”, also misspelled below, refers to El-Fogaha الفقها.

The articles by Blench (2001:86) and Blench & Dendo (2006:12) give the following subgrouping:

“Eastern Berber: Siwa, Awjila, Sokna, Ghadames, Zurg (=Kufra), and Fezzan which consists of Tmessa and Al-Fojaha [sic!]”

The Wikipedia article for “Eastern Berber” adds:

“The “Lingvarium Project” (2005) cites two additional languages: the extinct language of Jaghbub and the still-spoken Berber language of Tmessa, an oasis located in the north of the Murzuq District. [7] Blažek (1999) considers the language spoken in Tmessa as a dialect of Fezzan. [8]”

Note [7] of the Wikipedia article refers to an article in Russian which also names Zurg and Tmessa as Berber languages. Note [8] is the above-cited work by Blažek. As far as I know, there is no Berber language spoken in Jaghbub (an oasis near the Libyan-Egyptian border), except by Siwans who sometimes went there for work (and spoke Siwi, if they used Berber at all when there).

Again, I’ve never heard of either Zurg or Tmessa varieties of Berber. Of course, in the above sources none of the scholars can give any data for either language, because there isn’t any.

Tmessa (تمسّة) is a small town in west-central Libya, in the far east of the Murzuk-Sabha region. Since there are Touareg as well as Tebu in that region, it is possible that Touareg or Tebu speakers live in Tmessa, but such a claim or report has never appeared in a publication, as far as I know. There is no point in assuming so, and even assuming so would make Tmessa Touareg- or Tebu-speaking, which is quite different from it having its own unique variety of Berber. Though the above-mentioned sources do not cite it, the only reference to language in that town was made by the German traveler Gustav Nachtigal in the 1870s, in which he claims that it was Berber-speaking but gives no references or linguistic data (thanks to Maarten Kossmann for having noticed this a few years ago in a guest post on this blog):

“…haben in den vorher aufgeführten Berber-Kolonien Sôqna, Waddân, Temissa Berberdialecte, die dem von Ghadàmes nahe stehen, noch Bürgerrecht neben der arabischen Sprache: doch sind dies streng abgeschlossene Sprachinseln.

[…besides the Arabic language, Berber dialects, which are close to that of Ghadames, are still current in the Berber colonies of Sôqna, Waddân, and Temissa, but these are closed off language-islands] (Nachtigal 1879:195)”

So if “Tmessa” could be pulled from Nachtigal’s impressionistic report as a real Berber language, why not “Waddan”, which otherwise is never reported as having (or having had) a Berber language? Perhaps Nachtigal had good information that Berber was spoken in “Temissa”. But as probably both documented Berber languages of central Libya (in Sokna and el-Fogaha) have probably become extinct this past century, is it even likely that a Berber language of Tmessa would have survived until now? Doubtful.

Zurg is a locale within the oasis complex of Kufra, itself home to Tebu speakers (and perhaps various languages from Chad spoken by migrants) but not Touareg as far as I know. Interestingly, of all the Wikipedia entries for Kufra, only the English version mentions this locale (“ez-Zurgh”), along with a note pointing to the 1929 edition of the Guida d’Italia del Touring Club: Colonie e Possedimenti—however, no reference to the Zurg language is there. The Guida states that Zurg was inhabited by only a few hundred slaves—if accurate, this also makes it unlikely that a unique Berber language was spoken only in that specific locale within Kufra. Otherwise, I haven’t been able to track down other passages (e.g. in travelers’ accounts such as Rohlfs or Forbes) which may mention a connection between Zurg and Berber.

To see if anything else could be found about these mysterious languages, I turned to an obscure 1937 article by Francesco Beguinot, the most prominent Berberologist of the colonial period. In a chapter entitled “I Linguaggi” in the book Il Sahara Italiano: Fezzàn e Oasi di Gat, Beguinot gives a rough summary of the languages spoken in the Fezzan (I’ve uploaded a PDF for those interested). He concentrates mostly on Touareg and on ancient inscriptions, but has the following to say (pp. 502-503):

Attualmente nella parte orientale e centrale del Fezzán l’arabo domina quasi assolutamente. Parecchi anni fa un berbero di Augila che, come altri suoi confratelli, aveva molto viaggiato e conosceva vari paesi della Cirenaica e della Tripolitania, parlandomi di località ove il linguaggio berbero si era conservato, mi nominò, per il Fezzán, el-Fogaha, Trághen, Tméssa, et-Tuíla, Sébha, ez-Zíghen. Sarà necessario per accertare se almeno parte di tali osservazioni risponda a verità, fare una minuta indagine sui luoghi. Nel breve tempo che ebbi disponibile durante le missione geografico-linguistica dell’aprile-maggio 1934 constatai personalmente che a Sebha e a ez-Zighen non vi sono attualmente gruppi parlanti berbero, ma solo individui sporadici provenienti da altre località; quanto a Traghen, Tmessa e et-Tuila, le informazioni dataemi da indigeni di Sebha furono del tutto negative; mi risultò invece come berberofona el-Fogaha, che sarebbe quindi, stando a tali dati e notizie, la sola località del Fezzan orientale cha abbia conservato il berbero…trovai tuttavia, dopo molte ricerche a ez-Zighen una vecchia donna originaria di quella località, dalla qualie raccolsi un po’ di parole cha (salvo ulteriori accertamenti) mostrerebbero l’appartenenza di quel dialleto al gruppo della Zenatiya, mentre in qualche voce esso coinciderebbe in modo specifico con quello di Socna (per es. amâr uomo; miktâr asino).

[Currently Arabic dominates the eastern and central parts of the Fezzan almost entirely. Several years ago, a there was a Berber from Awjila who, like others from his community, had traveled a lot and was familiar with many locales in Cyrenaica and Tripolitania, and told me of some locations where the Berber language had been conserved. He named for me, in the Fezzan, el-Fogaha, Traghen, Tmessa, et-Tuila, Sebha, and ez-Zighen. It will be necessary to ascertain whether some of these observations correspond to reality and to make a detailed survey of the places. In the short time available to me during the geographic-linguistic mission of April-May 1934, I could personally confirm that there are no Berber-speaking groups in Sebha or ez-Zighen but only sporadically individuals from other places. As for Traghen, Tmessa, and et-Tuila the information given to me by natives of Sebha was entirely negative; the only remaining Berberophone (place) would be el-Fogaha, according to this information, the only location in the eastern Fezzan to have conserved Berber … I found, however, after much searching in ez-Zighen, an old woman originally from there, from whom I could gather a few words (unless further investigation) would show the membership of that dialect to the Zenatic group, indeed in some ways it would coincide with that of Sokna (e.g. amār man, miktār donkey). —Translation AB]

Regarding the woman in Zighen who Beguinot mentions, I think it would be a little much to assume an entire language on that basis—perhaps the words were Berber loans into the local Arabic dialect or perhaps the woman had learned them from visiting Berber speakers or was of Sokni descent. There are multiple possibilities. Beguinot also seems to shut down the possibility of Berber in Tmessa in the 1930s at least—nevertheless, if we don’t know anything about a language other than that it exists, how can we group it?

But anyways, I don’t think that most scholars have seen this piece, buried in an obscure and hard-to-find colonial volume as it is. In his other writings, Beguinot doesn’t seem to mention anything about these essentially random places where Berber may or may not have been or was spoken—but we have no data and no firsthand reports. It doesn’t look like Beguinot is the origin of Zurg or Tmessa. The problem may originate in the classifications of Aikhenvald which precede those of Blažek and Blench, but I haven’t been able to check those works. However, if Aikhenvald had any real data, it would have appeared in other studies of Berber languages. And it hasn’t.

To conclude, these handful of scholarly and internet sources seem to be the only places where the languages of Zurg and Tmessa existed. It is frustrating that some scholars simply accept them as being real without bothering to check where they have been mentioned or even if there is any data for them. So until further, firsthand, information can be found (which I think is unlikely), Zurg and Tmessa are simply ghost languages.


  • Aikhenvald, Aleksandra. 1987. Strukturno-tipologiceskaja klassifikacija berberskix jazykov. Sintaksis. Kratkaja istorija klassifikacij berberskix jazykov. Rezul’taty strukturno­tipologičeskoj klassifikacii berberskix jazykov. Moskva: Nauka.
  • Aikhenvald, Aleksandra & Militarev, Aleksandr. 1991. Livijsko-guančskie jazyki. In: Jazyki Azii i Afriki IV.2. Moscow, pp. 148-267.
  • Beguinot, Francesco. 1937. “I Linguaggi” In Sahara Italiano: Fezzan e Oasi di Gat. Roma: Societa Italiana Arti Grafiche Editrice.
  • Blažek, Václav. 1999. Numerals – Etymological Analyses of Numeral Systems and their Implications. Masarykova Univerzita v Brné.
  • Blench, Roger. 2001. “Types of language spread and their archeological correlates: the examples of Berber.” Origini 23, pp. 169–189.
  • Blench, Roger & Mallam Dendo. 2006. The Afro-Asiatic Languages. Unpublished Draft.
  • Nachtigal, Gustav. Sahara and Sudan, I Fezzan and Tibesti. Translated from the original German with and Introduction and Notes, by Allan G.B. Fisher and Humphrey J. Fisher. London, C. Hurst & Company (1974), p. 178. Original title Sahara und Sudan I, Berlin: Weidmannsche Buchhandlung (1879), p. 195.

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