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 *β (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 *β. Ghadamès is a fascinating language for historical linguists as it also shows some traces of the long lost Proto-Berber consonant *ʔ. 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.