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.

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!

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“Hand” in NW Libyan/S Tunisian Berber

“Hand”, probably to be reconstructed as *a-fuʔs, is one of the best-conserved words across Berber – I don’t think I’ve come across any variety that has replaced it, much less borrowed it.  Its phonetic form, however, varies significantly, and nowhere more than along the Libyan-Tunisian borderlands.  Recently, a Facebook group for Libyan Amazigh asked its readers how they say “hand”; the results give a pretty good picture of variation across northwestern Libya, which can easily be filled out from published sources for the Tunisian side of the border (notably Gabsi 2003).  I’ve mapped the results below, using the following system:

  • white: ufəs
  • green: afus / əfus (it’s impossible to distinguish the two without better-transcribed data)
  • blue: fus

The most widespread forms across Berber are Zenati fus (eg Rif, Chaoui, Chenoua, Siwi…) and non-Zenati afus (eg Shilha, Kabyle, Awjila…), although in this region the latter comes with a twist not seen elsewhere: at least in Djerba and Zuwara, the a-/ə- disappears if a suffix is added, eg Djerba afus “hand” > fus-iw “my hand” (Brugnatelli 1998:120). The form ufəs is far more restricted: the only region it has been reported in, apart from Nefusa, is Ghadames, a couple of hundred kilometres to the southwest.  And, as the map below shows, even within this region it seems to be limited to a well-defined core area.  The differences between Yefren+Al-Qalaa and the rest of Nefusa are easily explained by the presence of a relatively populous Arabophone region in between, around Zintan (and even a cursory look at the same Facebook group suggests that Berber speakers in this region aren’t getting along too well with people from Zintan.)  For Wazzin, comparison with Douiret suggests that it might represent a continuation of the dialect that used to be spoken in the extreme south of Tunisia.  Yet on this point, even close neighbours like Cheninni and Douiret differ, suggesting a more complex history than one might have expected…

"Hand" in Berber varieties near the Libyan-Tunisian border

“Hand” in Berber varieties near the Libyan-Tunisian border

Welcome to the Oriental Berber blog

This blog is aimed at studying and exploring the many details of  “oriental” Berber languages.

We use the word “oriental” in a particular sense here. Firstly, we indicate that our scope is the Berber languages of the eastern part of North Africa (mostly Libya, but also parts of Tunisia and Egypt). This is a strictly geographic grouping; we do not claim, nor is there necessarily, a straightforward genetic relationship between the different Berber languages of these countries. Secondly, it is also the case that these languages have on the whole received only marginal attention from researchers, and in some cases are scarcely documented. We thus want to highlight their differences from other, more well-studied varieties of Berber (such as those of western North Africa). Thirdly and poignantly, we also want to point out that, for much of the last century, the only scholarship on these languages was that of colonial Italian, British, or French researchers or travelers. To a certain extent those academic traditions shaped the final form of their studies, and hence the documentation that is today available. Fortunately, some of the languages here have become the subject of recent – and very good – scholarship; part of our goal is to continue this trend.

The position of all of these varieties is somewhat precarious, spoken as they are by geographically scattered minorities, and the smaller ones are seriously threatened: in particular, Awjili is endangered, and El-Fogaha and Sokni may already be extinct.  While recent political changes in Libya have opened up new opportunities for the use of Berber in the public sphere, particularly in the northwest, the long-term effects remain to be seen.

This blog will focus on several aspects on the study of the “oriental” Berber languages. A large part of the content of the blog, initially, will consist of the (re)translation of texts, provided with more extensive grammatical analysis, and sometimes, retranscription based on a more phonemic approach than the common transcription methods used by the Italian scholars who have dominated the field.

Other posts will include notes on linguistic history, discussions regarding interesting grammatical features, phonemic analysis, and so forth, and notes about these languages’ interactions with the surrounding (dominant) Arabic dialects.

Through this, we attempt to get, and give, as complete an overview of the knowledge there is to be gained from studying these fascinating languages with the documentation that currently exists. Through this blog, we also hope to bring them to the attention of a wider scholarship, and to encourage further research in the field.

Research on these Berber varieties is particularly timely, for the important reason that, especially in Libya, they are now coming to be used increasingly in the media. Prior to this year, there was essentially no media – written or audio – in Berber in Libya; it was suppressed by the regime. We also take an interest in this, and from time to time will post and comment on Berber media. There is no doubt that some interesting sociolinguistic and inter-dialectal phenomenon are going on.

We will finish off with a short overview of some of the languages to be discussed on this blog:

  • Aujila Berber (Aujili) is spoken in the oasis of Aujila, Libya. From a historical point of view, it is a fascinating language, as it is one of the few that retains Proto-Berber (as v). Other languages that have retained this consonant are the Tuareg languages (as h) and Ghadamès (as β). Syntactically and morphologically Aujila is an interesting language, as it has lost much of the typically Berber features such as ‘state’, clitic fronting and has quite a different verbal system from other Berber languages.
  • The only Berber language that is spoken in Egypt is Siwa Berber (Siwi), in the oasis of Siwa in the western desert. Like Aujila, it has undergone intensive restructuring of the grammatical system, and fascinatingly, seems to share several of these grammatical features with Aujila.
  • Ghadamès, an oasis in western  Libya on the border with Tunisia, is the home of Ghadamès Berber (Ghadamsi), the other Libyan language that retains the Proto-Berber Ghadamès is a fascinating language for historical linguists as it also shows some traces of the long lost Proto-Berber consonant . Patterns in the oriental Berber languages are the lack of ‘state’ marking, and a radically different verbal system than the more familiar Berber languages of western North-Africa. The verbal system of Ghadamès may just be the most exotic reconfiguration of all the languages of this region.
  • North of Ghadamès, still in western Libya, we find the Nefusa Berber (Nefusi) languages spoken around the Nefusa mountains, in the cities of Nalut, Jadu, Kabaw, and Yefren (to name a few). These languages have received quite substantial academic attention, from the perspective of oriental Berber. Nevertheless, further research, especially into its linguistic history, will be well worth it.
  • High up north on the coast of Libya, we find Zuara, where the Zuara Berber language is spoken. This language has received quite considerable attention due to the recent publication of Mitchell’s work, edited by Harry Stroomer and Stanley Oomen (Mitchell et al. 2009). The Zuara language is not generally considered to be part of the Eastern Berber languages, and is sooner associated with the Northern Berber languages, similar to Tunisian Berber. Nevertheless, this language could use more attention, and maybe in the future of this blog we will focus on it.
  • Sokna Berber (Sokni) was (or is still) spoken in the oasis of Sokna in west-central Libya. Our only record of Sokni comes from 1924, when only a few dozen people were reported to still speak the language. Though distinct from Fogaha Berber, there is some historical relationship between the two.
  • El-Fogaha Berber, traditionally considered to be the same language as Sokna Berber, seems to be lexically quite divergent. A more in-depth study of this language, will definitely give a clearer indication of the underlying relations between these two languages.